Monday, July 25, 2011

MY OLD SCHOOL

Change the name, and any Baby Boomer would recognize my old grade school, Crawford Village Elementary. It was one of those flat-roofed, single-story jobs with parallel rows of classroom wings, all linked together by covered outdoor halls edged with pipe columns. At the main entrance was a barren, concrete-paved quadrangle with a flagpole; beyond was an auditorium known--as it was in all such schools--as the Multi-Purpose Room. Inside it were ranks of long lunch tables that folded neatly into the walls, a wardrobe filled with Traffic Patrol uniforms, and an elevated stage. In this vast, asphalt-tiled room, redolent with the smell of countless cafeteria lunches, we were gathered to watch the Bell Labs epic “Our Mr. Sun” at least once a year.   

Thousands of schools just like Crawford Village were built across America from the late Forties through the mid-Sixties to handle the postwar baby boom. Known as “finger plan” schools because of their parallel rows of classrooms, their design was pioneered by the noted architect Ernest Kump (1912-1999). Kump’s first finger plan design, Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, was enormously influential, and served as a prototype for public schools of all levels well into the Sixties.  

Kump’s basic finger plan scheme could be easily adjusted to a variety of sites--a fact that delighted architects scrambling to keep up with the era’s boom in school-building. As it happened, I eventually served my internship with Reynolds & Chamberlain, one of the four associated firms that designed Crawford Village and dozens of California schools like it during the 1950s. One of the principals used to joke that when he received another school commission, he’d simply take out the same old drawings and change the name of the school on the title sheet.  Although it wasn’t quite that simple, there was more than a passing resemblance among these designs.

Typical of finger plan schools, the classrooms at Crawford Village had a whole wall of windows facing north and a high clearstory that peeked over the hallway roof on the south. The entirety of the room’s artificial light came from six curious ceiling lamps with Saturn-like rings surrounding a silvered bulb. The ceilings and the upper part of the walls were covered in perforated acoustical tile whose holes made a challenging target for pencil-stub projectiles.  

Only in retrospect have I come to appreciate the ingenuity of these schools, whose ubiquitous traits grew out of the need to accomodate a rising flood of schoolkids as quickly and efficiently as possible. The buildings were built on inexpensive concrete slab foundations, with wood-framed walls rendered in stucco; their outdoor corridors obviated walls altogether. The width of those long, narrow “fingers” of classrooms was quite simply determined by the distance a 2x12 roof joist could span.  

Hot water pipes for radiant heating were embedded in the floor slabs, avoiding attics full of ductwork, while still keeping students toasty in winter. The tall walls of north-facing glass gave diffuse daylighting, while those peculiar lamps served to bounce light onto the ceiling, from whence it was evenly reflected to the desktops.  

Today, with the Baby Boom just a fading playground echo, large numbers of the old finger plan schools have been closed, demolished, or converted to other uses. In a sign of the times, Crawford Village Elementary has become a retraining school for adults.  Although the paint scheme has changed and the classrooms are now jammed with computers, somehow I suspect these new students still feel right at home, waiting for that clock up in the corner to tick oh-so-loudly to the school day’s end.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

Not to lord it over computer geeks, but us architects were programming since long before Wozniac, Univac, Eniac, and even Babbage. Of course, we’ve been doing it with buildings, not computers: “Programming” is  architectspeak for the process of determining and organizing a project’s requirements. There’s no high-tech gear necessary—a pencil, paper, and some careful thought about your lifestyle is all it takes.  

Why should someone pondering a new home or an addition bother with programming? Because, in a sense, the architectural program is the blueprint for the blueprints. Without it, you’ll be floundering in a million possibilities, with no starting point and nothing to guide your design.

Ergo, some programming basics:

•  First, determine what kind of rooms you need. Make an honest analysis of the way you actually live, without allowing architectural fads or one-upmanship to color your thinking. For instance, if you’re not in the habit of hanging around in your bedroom a lot, it would be a colossal waste to have the sort of gigantic master suite found in most new homes these days. If you’ll actually use the space, fine; otherwise, forget it. 

•  Next, decide how big each room should be. Don’t pull sizes out of the air; instead, measure some similar rooms you’re already familiar with, and then adjust their size up or down to suit your needs. Always allow a little extra for errors, oversights, and just plain generosity--especially in kitchens, bathrooms, and staircases, whose space requirements are chronically underestimated by amateur planners. 

On the other hand, don’t make rooms pointlessly oversized; huge spaces can be just as awkward and difficult to furnish as small ones, and they’re more expensive to boot.  

•  Finally, assign a hierarchy of importance to the rooms on your program, so that when you run into the inevitable planning conflicts, you’ll know which room has the better claim to space, views, sunlight, or your budget dollars.  

Customarily, the largest rooms--living room, family room, master bedroom--get top billing. The kitchen, bathrooms, and secondary bedrooms are usually on the next tier, with the laundry, closets, and the garage bringing up the rear. However, your lifestyle may demand adjustments in these rankings. If you’re mad about cooking, for example, the kitchen should rightly go to the top of the list. 

The only fairly inviolable rankings in this hierarchy pertain to solar orientation. In general, living areas that are occupied throughout the day should face south or nearly so. The kitchen can face east, south, or west, depending on when you use it most, although if it tends to serve as your family’s main gathering place, a southern exposure is probably best. A breakfast room should ideally face east for morning sun, and a dining room west for afternoon light.   

Bedrooms should face either east, for those who like being awakened by direct sun, or west for those who don’t. North-facing bedrooms, and in fact any north-facing living area, will generally be gloomy, cold, and uninviting. Hence, the north side of the houseis best reserved for the garage--if street access allows it--and for storage, mechanical, and other rooms that aren’t inhabited.

Simple, no?  End program. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

At some time or other, you’ve probably wondered why architects take on those strange, pompous-sounding triple names, right?  You know: Edward Durell Stone, Royal Barry Wills, William Wilson Wurster, Edward Larrabee Barnes.  I don’t think architects adopt three-part names to sound pompous;  I think they do it because their first and last names alone would seem too short or too dull.  I mean, how memorable is Edward Barnes without the Larrabee? 

Of course, the most famous triple name was that of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose family, due to some strange consequence of being Welsh, did more than their share of triple-name-juggling.  Wright received part of his mother’s maiden name, Lloyd Jones--why only part, I don’t know--as well as the last name of his father, William Russell Cary Wright.  After that, things got shorter, but not any clearer:  Wright’s eldest son, also an architect, was just plain Lloyd Wright.  Get it?  Neither do I.   

Triple-whammies aren’t the most curious names in architecture, however.  There’ve also been a whole plethora of repeating monikers, from the famous Greene & Greene (the Craftsman kings) to Rapp & Rapp (the brilliant movie-palace-meisters) or Keck & Keck (postwar Chicago Modernists).  Other nepotistic firms, like San Francisco’s Reid Brothers, simply called a spade a spade.

Then there are those serendipitous couplets that seem unnaturally abundant among architects.  For example, the firm of Reed & Stem, whose name sounds like a snack for pandas, helped bring us New York’s Grand Central Station, while Oakland’s Fox Theater harks from the chronocentric office of Weeks & Day.  San Francisco’s City Hall, of course, was whipped up by the scrumptious partnership of Bakewell & Brown. 

There have also been a few, well, unfortunately-named architects, from the English landscape designer Henry Hoare, to Boston’s Gothic Revival master Ralph Adams Cram.  Still, the grand prize must certainly go to that unlucky 18th-century French architect, Eustache Saint-Fart.

Some architects packed so much horsepower they only needed one name:  Imhotep, Calicrates, Michelangelo.  At least one, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, didn’t find his real name arty enough, and so invented his own: Le Corbusier.

For a while during the Seventies, there seemed to be a lawyerly belief among architects that the more partners you had in your firm’s name, the better.  Hence, venerable offices that started with one name--say, Walter Ratcliff--grew into impossible clunkers like Ratcliff, Slama, and Cadwalader.  My former employers, the relatively mellifluous Reynolds & Chamberlain, briefly transformed themselves into the utterly unmanageable Reynolds, Chamberlain, Leaf, Ruano, Mowry.  No wonder business slowed down.   Then again, some architects, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, didn’t have any partners at all, and still had five names.

After the laws forbidding architects from advertising were eased in the Seventies, firm names seemed to get more image-savvy.  You began to hear more hip names like Ace Architects and SITE, or else touchy-feely ones ending in Group, Collective, Collaborative, or Partners.    

Personally, as an architect whose name is rythmically mundane yet impossible to spell, I sometimes yearn for a handle with a little more firepower--something punchy and staccato, like I. M. Pei. I mean, bang-bang-bang--if I had a name like that, maybe I’d be designing skyscrapers too, instead of sitting here writing this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

SAY WHAT?

In Hana, Hawaii a while back, there was a design competition in which architects were supposed to design a treehouse. Sounds like fun, right? Can’t turn that into some heavy-handed philosophical thing, right?

Wrong.

While many of the ideas were fascinating, the sponsor made the mistake of also asking the architects to write about their designs. With their usual aplomb, many managed to turn this endearing concept into another leaden opportunity to proselytize.  

My favorite quote came from an architect who wrote: “A treehouse is neither a tree nor a house. It establishes a symbiotic relationship between the tree and a house.  Our intervention is interwoven within the tree. Its movement allows this relationship to fluctuate, blurring the edges.” 

Bad enough that we have to tolerate the sort of palaver found in both trade and popular magazines about architecture. Now architects themselves seem convinced that, in order to appear sophisticated, they too have to express themselves in gauzy riddles.  

That’s a shame, for one of the marks of a great architect is the ability to explain an  idea with clarity and simplicity--a skill that goes back centuries.    

The brilliant Sir Christopher Wren was charged with rebuilding London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666. From the outset, Wren found his work being  tampered with by the meddlesome old men who formed the church’s board of commissioners. When construction reached the tops of the walls, he saw to his dismay that the board had once again interceded, substituting a rather fussy parapet with balusters for the plain one he’d designed. Wren coolly responded to this affront by observing: “Ladies think nothing well without an edging.” 

Frank Lloyd Wright, for all his 19th-century-style purple prose, could also express himself with both immediacy and wit. In his autobiography, he described the Queen Anne-style houses he’d found in Chicago shortly after his arrival in the 1880s:

“All had the murderous corner-tower...either rectangular across the corner, round, or octagonal, eventuating in candle-snuffer roofs, turnip domes or corkscrew spires. I walked along miles of this expensive mummery, trying to get into the thinking processes of the builders.  Failed to get hold of any thinking they had done at all.”

In the 1960s, architect Edward Durell Stone spoke along similar lines, although in this case, he was renouncing his own Modernist heritage: “Style has been overemphasized:  There are books devoted to architecture that do not show plans explaining the basic conception...architecture is not millinery. Fashions pass by, buildings remain to become grim reminders of transient enthusiasms.”

In a prescient sentence I wish I’d written, he concluded: “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity. It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Stone made that statement almost forty years ago. If only more of today’s architects could see that clearly and speak that plainly. Instead, even with a subject as endearingly simple as a treehouse, we get cryptic psychobabble references to “fluctuating symbiotic relationships”, “interwoven interventions”, and movements “blurring the edges.” 

Blurring indeed.