Monday, April 29, 2013


One bright morning almost a half century ago, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gibbs, led us all out into the play yard. There, chalk in hand, she marked the edge of a shadow being cast by a nearby roof. “The sun,” she carefully intoned in kiddyspeak, “looks like it’s standing still, but it’s actually moving all the time.” 

After absorbing this statement without much effect, we filed back into the classroom again to play, forgetting all about the little mark until Mrs. Gibbs marched us back out a few hours later. This time we were all astonished to see that the shadow was now far away from the chalk mark. How about that--the sun really did move!

No doubt kindergarten teachers across the country go through a similar exercise year in and year out, but alas, for many designers, the lesson doesn’t seem to sink in too well. 

To cite a notorious example, the architects of one of San Francisco’s tallest buildings, 555 California Street, saw fit to place a grand outdoor plaza on the north side of their 52-story tower, yielding a supposed public space that’s shadowy and forbidding for most of the day. Now, if high-powered architects (in this case, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons) can make such a colossal planning blunder, imagine how easily lesser talents can bobble the assignment.

As crucial as good solar orientation is to the livability of indoor rooms, it’s absolutely indispensable to the “rooms” you create outside. An interior room that, for whatever reason, is not blessed by sunshine can at least be given the illusion of natural comfort by  being  heated. An outdoor space has no such recourse. If it’s not warm and inviting by nature, it simply won’t get used, no matter how elaborate its design.

Although this seems like common sense, hardly a day goes by that I don’t see projects new and old being outfitted with artfully designed patios, terraces, decks, or balconies placed on the shadowed north side of buildings.
Spend what you will on flawless workmanship and amenities like benches, hot tubs, or barbecues--it’ll all be utterly wasted unless the outdoor room you’re creating gets sunshine in every season and at every daylight hour that you plan to use it. 

Therefore, before you worry about fancy paving material, pergolas, and what have you, take a solar survey of your property. Which side of the house is sunniest? Is there room to put the outdoor space there? If not, is there a runner-up area that has sun at most of the times you’ll use it? How about access from inside? Your outdoor room should directly adjoin the house, because if it’s stuck out in some sunny but far-flung corner of the yard, no one will go there. 

All this applies equally well to places with hot climates. You can always reduce strong sun with shading or deciduous planting, but you can’t bring in sun where there isn’t any. Your outdoor space should be usable in winter as well as in summer, in the morning and evening as well as at midday. Remember, old Mr. Sun only looks like he’s standing still.
Oh, and Mrs. Gibbs--I know it’s been forty-eight years, but thank you.

Monday, April 22, 2013


How often have you told someone, “I  wish I hadn’t thrown out that old such-and-such, because now it’s a collector’s item. I could probably get big bucks for it.”
True, if you could put every trendy thing you’ve ever bought into a time capsule for fifty years, you’d have a pretty handsome retirement fund. No matter how cheesy a thing seems in retrospect, it eventually rises again. Just look at the current renaissance of pink plastic flamingos and Plymouth Valiants.

One of the interesting things about fashion trends is that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and the bigger they are when they come back. In the mid-1950s, for example, cars with tail fins were the absolute pinnacle of style. Within a few years, finned cars were so ubiquitous that people got sick and tired of them, and they became an embarrassment instead of a fashion statement.  Today, of course, these same cars are valuable collectors items, and the more outlandish, the better. 

The same applies to architectural styles and domestic decorating trends. During the Sixties, for instance, no fashionable living room was complete without an ultra-square, ultra-uncomfortable sofa flanked by clunky table lamps with shades as big as garbage cans. Along with these went a sleek wooden cabinet combining a lousy radio, a lousy turntable, and four lousy speakers--an apparatus known as a “hi-fi”, for those of you weaned on iPods. By the Seventies, though, all of these swingin’ accessories were migrating to landfills by the millions.

This same holds true for every fashion cycle: Pretty much anything that’s coveted in one era will be despised in the next . We tend to think that our own time--that is, the present--has some kind of special immunity to bad taste, but that’s simply not true. What we find to be unassailably tasteful today will be hated kitsch soon enough. So, you Arts and Crafts aficionados--watch out.

Curiously, the same mysterious forces that create and then destroy fashions also invariably bring them back again, whether we like it or not. Hence, some of today’s hippest folks are outfitting Mid-Century Modern living rooms filled with just the sort of junk I was denigrating earlier. This means it won’t be long before my own particular nightmare comes true, and those incomparably clumsy, ugly and gross furniture designs of the 1970s start showing up in hipster magazines.

The fact that everything--even the stuff we hate--comes around again might suggest that we pack all our discards in Cosmoline and wait around for fifty years. Some of us might actually do this if we had the room. For the most part, though, we just learn to let go of things and assume that somebody, somewhere will keep a few examples.

Knowing this may help prepare you for the moment, fifty years from now, when you hobble into an antique shop and find that that crummy Ikea desk you took to the dump now sells for five thousand dollars.

Monday, April 15, 2013


As Berkeley goes, so--eventually--goes the nation. As frightening as this may sound to some, it’s a fact borne out by history. Opposing the Vietnam War, spearheading ecological concerns, mandating energy efficient buildings, banning smoking in public places, demanding equal access for the disabled--these causes were all dismissed as “Berkeley radical thinking” in their time. Today, they’ve all long since been integrated into mainstream America. While some might still quibble with one or another aspect of these ideals, in retrospect, most of us would now regard them as honorable and thoroughly American. 

Today there’s another revolution brewing in Berkeley, albeit a much quieter one. No matter where you look, the streets of this small university town are teeming with hybrid vehicles--most of them made by Toyota, with a lesser number from Honda (and very few, I’d point out, made by that blundering straggler, General Motors). 

If Berkeley proves as prescient in this “radical” trend as it has in prior ones, the environmental implications are vast. For one, it signals the beginning of the end for conventional internal-combustion powered vehicles--and many years sooner than auto industry analysts and other in-the-box thinkers would have us believe. Then again, these are the same folks who saw nothing shortsighted about GM cashing in on SUVs while leaving their advanced vehicles program to molder. 

What’s the big deal about hybrids, which, after all, still burn gasoline? It’s this: Conventional cars have huge engines sized to meet peak power demands which typical drivers use perhaps one percent of the time. Hybrids, on the other hand, use a small, high-efficiency gasoline engine to generate electricity onboard. This in turn powers an even more efficient electric motor that moves the car. The gasoline engine provides power for  average cruising, not for peak demand. When extra power is needed, as in climbing a grade or passing, it’s provided  by the batteries or by the gasoline engine, as appropriate. 

Hybrids also have a regenerative braking system that transforms braking energy into electricity instead of wasting it in heat as a normal car does.  The small size and steady running speed of the hybrid’s engine, the regenerative braking system, and other features let hybrids achieve about twice the mileage of conventional cars, while producing a fraction of the pollution. These advantages will only become more pronounced as the cars are refined over time. 

While hybrids have many of the same shortcomings as conventional cars--an inherently inefficient internal combustion engine that burns gasoline and spews pollution, and a relatively friction-laden drive train--they nevertheless represent a huge advance over the clumsy mechanical-drive cars most of us still own, providing an important stepping stone to true zero-emissions vehicles.   

The only bad news is that the American auto industry will likely be at the tail end of this revolution, watching foreign competitors write the conventional car’s epitaph. This is largely thanks to the monumental stupidity, shortsightedness and greed of General Motors executives who, prior to getting such a pasting by the Great Recession, preferred to wallow in the lucrative SUV trough while foreign competitors did their homework. Maybe those GM folks should’ve gotten out of their swanky boardrooms now and then, and taken a drive around Berkeley.

Monday, April 8, 2013


The names of architectural styles are often invoked, but seldom used precisely. Even people who should know better conflate styles, whether intentionally or not. In real estate listings, for instance, nondescript old piles are routinely elevated to Victorians, Bungalows, or whatever else happens to be selling. Architects aren’t immune from such stylistic confusion, either: Many of us bandy about terms like Tudor, Elizabethan and Half-Timbered, or Mission, Mediterranean and Moorish without really knowing how they differ.

Still, you’ll never find more stylistic muddlement in one place than you will browsing vintage items listed on eBay. Casual descriptions from lay sellers are understandable, but the many others who represent themselves as antique or collectibles dealers really ought to know what they’re offering. Granted, the idea is to cram as many key words into these listings as possible so that they’ll show up under various search categories--but many examples go well beyond the pale. Here, for instance, are some actual listings for vintage lighting fixtures being auctioned on eBay:

• “1920s Victorian Fixture.” By definition, the term Victorian refers to things dating from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901), making this object pretty much of an impossibility. What the seller meant, I suppose, was that the lamp was ornate, and perhaps he or she should have just said so.

• “Vintage Victorian Art Deco Lighting Fixture.” Here’s another time-warped descriptions. The Paris exhibition from which Art Deco took its name didn’t even take place until 1925, nor did the style get much traction in the U.S. until the early 1930s. This, you’ll recall, was long after poor old Victoria had joined the choir invisible. Perhaps the seller could have classified his lamp based on this simple test: Victorian objects typically have lots of floral and/or classical motifs more or less jumbled together. Art Deco objects, on the other hand, have stark geometric decoration in shallow relief. 

• “Circa 1920 Art Deco Ceiling Lamp.”  Once again, time runs miraculously backward. 

• “Art Deco Nouveau Ceiling Lamp.” If this description were accurate, it would be a  lamp worth seeing, since these two styles are just about diametrically opposed. The earlier style, Art Nouveau, spanned roughly the years 1890 to 1905. It made lavish use of sinuous plant motifs such as meandering vines and leaves, with hardly a straight line to be found. Art Deco, as we’ve just noted, caught on a generation later, and was uncompromisingly geometric.

• If you think the foregoing descriptions run the gamut, how about this one: “Art Deco Medieval Tudor Porch Lamp.” Let’s see--the Middle Ages, the early English renaissance, and the eye-popping modernism of Art Deco all in one lighting fixture. It turns out that the actual imagery on the lamp--a ring of three fretwork panels depicting speeding chariots, each separated by a flaming-torch motif--was Roman. I can say this with confidence, because the lamp is now hanging in my office.

• Lastly, amid all this stylistic hooey, here’s an accidentally accurate listing: “Rare 1910s Victorian Deco Pendant Fixture”. Yup--that’s a rare one, all right. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

VAN DER VOLE: The Forgotten Modernist

The death of architect Ruud van der Vole at 109 last week was met with resounding silence. Though his contemporaries Mies, Le Corbusier, and Gropius have earned prominent places in the architectural pantheon, Van der Vole, a Modernist of equal conviction, has been largely ignored. His seminal publications of the 1920s and 30s are long out of print, and astonishingly, he has no biographer. The following is an admittedly belated attempt to acknowledge his great contribution to Modernism.

Ruud van der Veer der van der Vole was born in Dåg, Holland in 1904, one of nine children born to a wealthy family in the cough-drop manufacturing business.  He attended a private school until age 13, when he was expelled after the headmaster declared him “a doodling imbecile.”  

His influential parents quickly found him a position at the nearby Dåg Works For Belt-Driven Machines. Although clumsy with tools, van der Vole found a niche in preparing catalog illustrations of the firm’s machinery. Eventually the work of drawing blueprints for plant expansions fell to him as well. His Boring Machine Annex of 1920, designed in conjunction with the plant’s painter when he was just sixteen, reveals the germ of what was to become his early style: White plaster, white-painted concrete, white window sash, and in a brilliant, unifying stroke, white-painted glass to diffuse the low winter sun.

Van der Vole completed several subsequent designs for the Dåg Works. The Sand Bin of 1921, the Worker’s Commodes of 1922, and the Flywheel Foundry of 1924 all refined the grammar of the Boring Machine Annex. Further commissions seemed assured when disaster struck: Financially overtaxed by its expansions, the Dåg Works closed.   

Van der Vole returned to work in his family’s cough-drop factory, and it was there he met Laçzlo Turnep’, a Hungarian immigrant employed as a stirring-boy. Turnep’, later to found the school of painting known as De Schreck, or The Shock, introduced van der Vole to the works of Mondriaan and van Doesburg. 

In his own work, Turnep’ sought to further simplify Mondriaan’s ideas by limiting himself to one dimension rather than two.  Intrigued, van der Vole attempted to integrate this concept into his early designs. The use of one-dimensional form in architecture remained elusive, however, and van der Vole was never able to produce a truly one-dimensional design to his satisfaction.  

In 1925, a large addition to his family’s thriving cough-drop works provided van der Vole a welcome opportunity to return to architecture. The building consisted of a single enormous bay containing retorts in which cough-drop syrup was prepared.  Particularly evocative was its brutal concrete facade, which carried a bas-relief cough drop beneath the stark inscription HÅKBONBONFABRIK.       

During the mid twenties van der Vole began writing for the French art review LeCucu. Widely read by the avant-garde, it brought him numerous commissions and a forum in which to experiment. Intrigued by Le Corbusier’s technique of elevating his buildings on piers or pilotis, van der Vole expanded upon the concept in a series of houses for wealthy French clients. At LeSpideur, a villa near Charleroi (1927), he placed the house atop pilotis nearly twice as tall as the house itself.  

The same year, in his Cottage for Msr. Bufaleaux outside Paris, the pilotis were similarly tall and were carried through the roof an additional 3 meters. Van der Vole’s use of the Modernist device reached its highest expression in the Villa Logjam of 1928, where the pilotis stood entirely independent and the house was built elsewhere.

Never content to repeat himself, van der Vole began postulating a concept he termed gegenverstand, loosely translated “against reason”, which rejected the use of building forms based upon architectural evolution. He elaborated upon these ideas in his 1925 German-published manifesto Das Uberschreitendes Gewaltungsvertrieb mit Ungeheuere Einwohnergesellschaftsmeinungen (“What I Think About Houses”).      

His finest residential commission of this period is the Villa Soleis-Beaucoup of 1929, outside Nimes, known locally as the Burning-Glass House. Here he ingeniously designed the windows and shading in such a way as to admit the summer sun and exclude the winter sun. Of the Villa he wrote:  

“We must make every effort to break away from the tyranny of established knowledge. If an architecture is to be truly modern, it cannot, by its very definition, be composed of evolutionary forms. We must begin with fundamentally new and radical forms, and invent knowledge to explain them.”

Van der Vole turned to public housing in 1930 with the Frickenschnecken Complex, a bold concept for the renewal of a venerable district of Rotterdam. Under his plan, the old neighborhood was cleared and its rubble cleverly utilized to fill an adjacent portion of the harbor. In the center of this new area was constructed a single enormous ten story tower which housed the entire population of the former district. Of the Frickenschnecken Complex van der Vole wrote,

“You may ask me, what is the secret of this place? It is plentiful light and fresh air. At Frickenschnecken, the willy-nilly disposition of houses, the shadows, the trees, the narrow lanes, have all been swept away and replaced by light and air. Everywhere is light and air—air and light. Abundant light, and fresh, plentiful air.”

Although his master plan called for virtually all of Rotterdam’s housing to be replaced along the lines of the Frickenschnecken scheme, rising political tensions prevented its implementation. The prototype building was regrettably destroyed by its occupants. 

In 1935, van der Vole returned to Dåg and renewed his collaboration with Turnep’, now the leading exponent of De Schreck.  There, inspired by Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus school at Dessau, they founded their own atelier under the name Dåghaus. At its peak, the Dåghaus was home to nearly five artists, architects, and craftsmen. Van der Vole became a beloved mentor to this talented group, who referred to him simply as “Vole.”  In 1937 a disastrous cooking fire financially crippled the Dåghaus, however, and two years later the onset of war dispersed the remaining collaborator.  

Disheartened, van der Vole moved to Paris in 1939, where he hoped to wait out the war. When Nazi occupation seemed imminent, he fled to London. Within two months of his arrival, his apartment was heavily damaged by a deranged chambermaid. He moved again, this time to Edinburgh, where he remained until the war’s end. He then returned to London and offered his services to the British government. He was eventually assigned to develop a new master plan for the city of Leeds.   

“This dreadful town, now but a vulgar stain on the face of Britain, will soon become a showcase for the triumph and order of Modernism,” he wrote of Leeds in 1947.  “Once again, democracy is free to impose itself.”          

After much consideration, van der Vole concluded that all of Leeds should be demolished. He proposed a sleek new city divided into quadrants: One industrial; one residential, another industrial; and the last, also industrial.  At the axis of the quadrants was to be a massive, diagonally-placed tower which could be rented out for monthly parking. Parliament enthusiastically approved the plan in 1949, but the considerable funds necessary to implement it did not materialize.  Thus the proposal for Leeds was shelved. It became van der Vole’s most painful defeat.

In 1958 Van der Vole, at 54 already an elder statesman of Modernism, was invited by the Dutch chocolate industry to design the first true skyscraper in Holland, the Kakao Turm. Though small by U.S. standards, its five stories would tower over the Amsterdam skyline. Faced with a building somewhat wider than it was tall, he wrestled with the difficult problem of emphasizing its verticality. His solution remains a cunningly  Modernist detail: Applied vertically to the glass facade, continuous from street to roof, is a hierarchy of extruded copper strips of various widths. 

“The largest strips represent the fundamental aspect of the building: Structure,” wrote van der Vole in 1961.  “Between these, subordinate strips further represent structure, yet on a finer scale. Finally, ribbon-thin strips represent structure on the very finest scale. Copper symbolizes the vats in which chocolate is conched.”

Van der Vole’s activity declined markedly following completion of the Kakao Turm.  His last major commission, and his only work in the United States, was the campus for the Nebraska School of Architecture (1965-77), designed when he was well into his sixties. Located thirty miles east of Omaha, the complex is a Modernist tour-de-force. The entire campus is contained within a single huge reflecting pool and is reached by a causeway. The low buildings hover lightly above this pool, supported on delicate, stylized bronze stalks of wheat. At the exact center of the complex, also within the pool, stands a water tower whose single leg is sheathed in bronze grillwork.  Van der Vole wrote in 1969:

 “Water here symbolizes architecture—for both cover vast portions of the earth.  And water symbolizes Nebraska. Without water, nothing could survive in Nebraska.  And so, in equating water with architecture, and water with Nebraska, we have equated Nebraska with architecture.”

By the time the Nebraska campus was completed, no further U.S. commissions were forthcoming for van der Vole.  He retired to his native Holland at the age of seventy-seven, where for the next twenty years he continued to write and take on occasional small commissions.  

Appropriately, his final work was completed in Dåg for his family’s  cough-drop factory. It is the main entrance to the Håkbonbonfabrik:  A stylized Greek pediment supported at each end by three huge cough-drops, stacked edgewise and painted to resemble various flavors.  At first glance, it appears to contradict all that van der Vole believed; and yet it carries his personal stamp of integrity.  Two days before his death, he wrote in his journal:
“And so, I believe, I have brought my philosophy to its ultimate conclusion. Though in the cause of architecture we rationalize and ponder and write and agonize and reconsider and debate, and endlessly ask of ourselves, What does this mean? the end, it means only that which we believe it to mean.” 

Ruud van der Vole, the forgotten Modernist, was buried last week in Dåg, Holland, within a stone’s throw of the house where he was born.