Monday, March 23, 2020

CORONAVIRUS—And The Things We Fear

Author's Note: In this unhappy climate of coronavirus-induced fear, I thought I would reprint an old piece I wrote way back in the halcyon summer days of 2015. I hope it will be a reminder that sometimes, the things we fear are not the things we ought to fear. While the current pandemic should rightly be taken seriously—and it does seem to be—we can also find some reassurance in our old and inarguable friends, the laws of mathematics. They generally give us the story straight and unembellished.

A while back, I was invited to attend one of those neighborhood earthquake-preparedness meetings we have out here in the shaky state of California. I listened with interest as the homeowner who hosted the event described, with evident trepidation, her biggest earthquake fear: that the shaking would cause a power line to fall into the street in front of her home. What should she do in that event, and how could she escape?

Never mind the falling power lines—
watch that pottery on the top shelf.

Now, this lady happened to be an artist—a sculptor in clay—and during this anxiety-fueld discussion over power lines, she was seated directly in front of a tall, spindly hutch completely laden from top to bottom with heavy pottery she’d made, including a huge platter that was precariously balanced on the very top. I pointed out to her that she was much more likely to get beaned by her own artwork than to be harmed by a fallen power line, a remark she took with both great surprise and a touch of resentment.

I mention this to point out how distorted our perception of life’s risks can be. While this lady worried over an infinitesimally unlikely event, she was quite oblivious to the much more immediate earthquake danger of being clobbered by her own falling pottery. 

Worried about carbon monoxide?
Maybe you shouldn't be. You're two hundred
times more likely to croak behind the wheel.
Human nature being what it is, we often seem to fear esoteric risks far more than mundane ones. For example, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from gas appliances has been widely publicized in recent years, yet none other than the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (<>) reports that there are typically about 170 cases of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning in domestic settings each year. By comparison, 32,719 people died in traffic accidents during 2013, an increased risk factor of almost two hundred times.   

Actually, driving provides an excellent yardstick for judging relative risk in general, since we do it so casually in the context of daily life. We worry more about burning a candle at home than we do about taking a spin to the local 7-Eleven—yet once again, the average American is ten times more likely to die in an auto accident than in a house fire. Likewise, while many people are nervous around electricity, statistically you’re about fifty times more likely to meet your doom in a car than you are to get zapped around the house.

Your car should scare you a lot more than this does.
You're fifty times more likely to
meet your doom driving than getting zapped.
For better or worse, government-mandated bans on environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead, which are often accompanied by public relations and media campaigns that emphasize danger without providing any sense of relative risk, further conflate big risks with modest ones. Indeed, manufacturers of safety goods trade heavily on such disproportionate fears, and may even amplify the perceived danger, the better to sell hazardous material test kits and the like.

The foregoing doesn’t even take into account perceived domestic risks that border on the irrational, such as phobias of microwave ovens and electromagnetic fields from power lines. Which brings us back to that lady with the pottery: She may as well relax no matter where she’s sitting, because even here in risk-prone California, her chances of being permanantly retired by an earthquake are a fairly manageable one in two million.

What, me worry?

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


Frank Lloyd Wright: Did he start the
fashion for triple-barreled architect names?
(Image: Mike Siegel, The Seattle Times)
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, 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.   

Oakland's fabulous Fox Theater,
a product of Weeks & Day (1928)
Triple-whammies aren’t the most curious names in architecture, however.  There have also been a whole plethora of repeating monikers, from the famous Greene & Greene (the Craftsman kings) to Rapp & Rapp (the brilliant movie-palace-meisters) to Keck & Keck (postwar Chicago Modernists) to House & House (venerable San Francisco-based green building specialists). Other nepotistic firms, like San Francisco’s Reid Brothers, simply called a spade a spade.

Henry Hoare: Why art thou all giggling?
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.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:
Five names is better than three.
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.

The late architect I. M. Pei at age 100:
Bang bang bang—I wish I had a
a moniker like that.
(Image: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine)
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 rythymically 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.

Monday, March 2, 2020


A treehouse hotel in Hana: It's one thing
to have architects design them,
but quite another to let them write about it.
In Hana, Hawaii some years 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?


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.” 

St. Pauls Cathedral, and the fussy balustrade
insisted on by the "ladies" on St. Paul's
Board of Commissioners.
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.” 

A typical Chicago Queen Anne of the 1880s: Frank Lloyd Wright
was no fan of "the murderous corner tower" or much else, for that matter..
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.”

Edward Durell Stone's US Embassy in Delhi, c. 1960:
Sixty years on, its "permanence, formality, and dignity"
confirm that Stone practiced what he preached.
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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

DECKS: Use Them To Create Rooms Outside

A change of level used to create a pair of "outdoor rooms"
rather than a single vast expanse of decking. Plus,
steps make a great place for people to sit and hang out.
It’s been well over half a century since magazines such as Sunset popularized the, like, very California concept of the redwood deck. Although decks were originally used to create outdoor living space on sloping sites, they’ve become a default standard for flat sites as well. From the jutting, rakish decks of the 1950s, to the blobby contours of the ‘70s, to the Craftsman-style motifs popular today, decks have provided countless homeowners with a creative yet manageably-scaled do-it-yourself project. 

Should you design or build your own deck? If  your needs are straightforward and you’re reasonably handy, why not? In these trying financial times, adding a deck is a simple and cost-effective way to increase your home’s living area as well as its resale value. And as do-it-yourself projects go, it can be lots of fun. Here are some tips: 

A lovely use of decking to create a pattern. Mind you,
this also requires more complicated framing underneath.
•  Since a deck is really an outdoor extension of your home’s floor plan, it should be laid out just as carefully.  First, make sure you provide generous access to the deck from the major living areas. If necessary, add a sliding door or a pair of French doors, depending on your budget and the style of your home. Determine the most likely use of the various deck areas or “rooms”, and then give each their own identity using level changes, screens, planters, or overhead structures.

•  Be creative with decking patterns. Judging by what’s out there, you’d think using 2x6 decking was one of the Ten Commandments. It isn’t, so consider 2x2 or 2x4 decking instead, or experiment with combinations of different sizes--one of the most pleasing patterns uses alternating 2x6s and 2x2s.  

Generally, the deck planks are run in the long direction of the deck to save labor.  However, on a very long, narrow deck it may better to lay the decking perpendicular to the long direction to give an illusion of added width. Changes in direction can also be pleasing, but be careful that the pattern doesn’t become too busy. Level changes provide the most logical place to change the decking direction.

You simply can't have too wide a set of steps in a deck design.
But even if space is super tight, don't make steps less than
six feet wide.
•  Redwood decking offers beauty, workability, and resistance to decay, but a dwindling redwood supply and rising prices have made alternatives such as Trex more popular. Tropical hardwoods such as Ipe are another alternative if you prefer the look of genuine wood. After the decking is installed, you can simply let it weather naturally, or you can stain it or apply a transparent water-repellent finish, thought the latter will probably require renewal every one to three years. Painting is a definite no-no; the finish won’t hold up to foot traffic, and wood decking will rot more quickly since it can’t “breathe”.

•  Don’t scrimp on the steps. Even the most stunning deck will be ruined by a steep, miserly 3-foot-wide stair.  The large scale of the outdoors demands generous proportions, so make deck steps at least six feet wide, and even wider if possible. Make the risers no higher than 6 1/2”, and the treads at least 10 1/2” deep. In addition to looking more substantial, broad, gentle stairs also provide an inviting place to sit.

Beautifully lattice rail that would go well with a traditional,
cottage-y home style. Note how cleverly the designer has
adapted the original lower proportions to comply with
the modern building code height requirements.
•  Make sure the deck railing matches the style of your home. If there’s an existing porch rail someplace, use it as a protoype, but beware: current building codes specify  that a 4” sphere should not be able to pass through the railing. If the existing design doesn’t meet this requirement, you may be able to satisfy your building department by adding 4x6 welded wire to the inside of the railing.  

•  Lastly, if you’d like planters or screens to add privacy or to create smaller areas, spend a few moments to integrate them into the design. Build planters of the same type of lumber, and try to echo motifs such as baluster spacing and the like. It’s little details like these that can turn a ho-hum wooden platform into a genuine outdoor living space. 

Monday, February 3, 2020


Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses:, which were aimed at
middle-income families, but largely remained in the domain
of the wealthy.
Amid the present and growing crises of homelessness, architects are scrambling to come up with a practical solution for housing that's decent and yet doesn't cost a fortune. Alas, if there’s one building type that today's architects are ill-equipped to design, it's affordable housing. Aside from getting in a few years of honest-to-goodness construction experience—which is rare in the profession—very little in an architect’s training enables him to understand what makes for an affordable, easily-constructed building.  

The iconic end of Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe
housing complex, which expoused the Modernist
ideals of "machines for living in". But even
the poor, it turned out, didn't want to live in a machine.
While many factors outside an architect’s control interfere with the production of housing for ordinary incomes--including obsolete zoning ordinances, burdensome and costly building code requirements, anxious lenders, and developers who naturally prefer the fat profit margin of upscale markets--the architect’s share of the problem is rooted in an educational system that encourages unique solutions when obvious ones might do better.  

Many brilliant architects have taken a crack at producing affordable housing over the years. Not the least of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1937 erected the first of his “Usonian” houses—an attempt to deliver his highly personal brand of architecture in an inexpensive form. Well, okay—not that inexpensive. 

Habitat '67 was architect Moshe Safdie's pioneering attempt
to use repetitive units to reduce housing costs. But as creative
as it was in conception,  its limited repetition didn't
translate into less expense
Le Corbusier and a host of other Modernists brought their affordable-housing ideas to the United States and, unfortunately, some of them got built. Minoru Yamasaki’s ultra-rational Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, celebrated as a shining example of urban renewal when it was constructed in the Fifties, ended its short life as little more than a highrise drug den. Its demolition by dynamite in 1972, a slow-motion image seared into the conscience of many an architect, vividly signaled the failures of Modernism.    

One problem with attempts such as these lies in the architect’s characteristic compulsion to begin from a clean slate. Wright invented what amounted to a whole new construction system for his Usonian houses but, being unfamiliar to contractors, it could hardly have gained rapid acceptance. And in his Broadacre City model town project of the ‘30s, he proposed that each house be placed on a full acre of land, at a time when most Americans were already gravitating toward big cities.

The live-work concept, which originally repurposed disused
industrial buildings for truly affordable housing, was quickly
hijacked by developers and their architects and turned
into high-end lodging for hipsters.
While Wright dallied with such bucolic notions, the International Style Modernists instead seemed convinced that rationalism and technology held the key. In his “Ville Radieuse” project—mercifully unbuilt—Le Corbusier placed a phalanx of numbingly identical living towers on a site that resembled nothing so much as a sheet of graph paper. It was the spiritual ancestor of Pruitt-Igoe, based on the strange idea that equality was somehow linked to mindless anonymity.  

Moshe Safdie’s innovative Habitat housing scheme, built in Montreal in 1967, attempted to stack a standardized concrete housing unit into a sort of multistoried modular sculpture. Alas, the need to design much of the details from scratch once again derailed the project’s practical potential for mass construction.

And on it goes: Last May, 4000 people sent in applications
for this affordable housing complex in Oakland.
It contains 28 units.
Since that time, there have been any number of attempts to provide decent housing at a reasonable cost. Many have been laudable, and some have actually been affordable. Few have been both.

In recent years, one of the most promising forms of affordable housing has been the concept of industrial loft housing (often called live-work), in which obsolete industrial and commercial buildings were adapted to residential use. Artists, musicians, and craftspeople found generous areas of low-cost living space in these buildings, and could pursue their avocations there at the same time.  

As soon as architects eager for show-stopping projects entered the picture, however, the industrial loft became just another trendoid living style. I know—I helped it happen.  The result, I’m sorry to say, is a gentrification so rapid that industrial lofts are now essentially the domain of attorneys, stockbrokers, and techies. 

Once again, the virtual absence of practical training in architecture serves us badly, leaving most architects unable to judge what’s affordable and what isn’t.

Monday, January 27, 2020

KITCHEN PLANNING: No, Bigger Isn't Really Better

A small kitchen that works: This corridor of "Pullman"
arrangement works well for many old homes with lots
of doors. In this case, the kitchen was opened up to the
dining room with an arch that repeated designs found
elsewhere in the house. (Image: Peter Eckert)
Over the years I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to design a great kitchen, but fairly easy to design a good one—in fact, a basic kitchen will usually just about design itself. 

This assertion may have my kitchen designer colleagues whipping out their Dreizack knives, but no matter.

First, on the question of size: Big kitchens aren’t necessarily better. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of palatial, 400-square-foot kitchens that are perfectly awful, with pointlessly convoluted counter shapes and appliances separated by marathon stretches. These kitchens are like old Cadillacs: their size serves merely to impress; it doesn’t make for efficiency. In fact, functionally, a well-designed small kitchen can be in every way equal to a large one except for all those scads of extra storage space.  

The U-shaped kitchen will generally provide the least
interruption of workflow from through traffic, though
at the expense of a somewhat remote, "cul-de-sac" feel.
Regarding appliance locations, the hoary old rule of the “work triangle” remains a useful one. If you draw lines connecting the three major work centers in your kitchen—sink, stove, and refrigerator—the sum of the sides of the resulting triangle should equal at least thirteen feet, yet not exceed twenty-two feet. Ideally, circulation paths should not cross this triangle, though in real life it’s often unavoidable.

There are only four basic kitchen arrangements: U-shaped, Corridor, L-Shaped, and One Wall, and your choice is dictated mainly by the number of doors or other circulation paths that enter the kitchen space. More openings usually mean less uninterrupted counter space, though not necessarily a less usable kitchen. 

Because the U-shaped kitchen is entirely

A compact L-shaped plan modified by adding an island.
This is another go-to arrangement for older homes
with doors interrupting the kitchen.
removed from through traffic, it ensures both the maximum continuous counter space and the least disruption of the cook. One arm of the U can also serve to divide the kitchen from an adjoining room, such as a family room or great room, in place of a solid wall.    

Alas, many older kitchens have multiple doors entering the room, which demands a different arrangement. When the room is long and narrow and has a door at either end, the Corridor (or “Pullman”) kitchen is the ticket. It’s extremely efficient in narrow confines—hence its use on railroad cars--and also simple to plan: the sink goes on the outside wall beneath a window, the range is placed more or less at the center of the counter opposite, and the refrigerator can go on whichever end suits you best.

A one-wall kitchen isn't necessarilya bare-bones affair:
This one is functional, bright, and elegant, while occupying
a scant 30 square feet of floor space. And what a welcome
change to use an actual color instead of white or gray.
If the existing room is interrupted by doors entering on two adjoining walls, an L-shaped kitchen usually fills the bill. In this case, the sink once again goes on an outside wall under a window, and the range takes the approximate center of the counter space on the adjoining side. Depending on space constraints, the refrigerator can be located at the extreme ends of the “L” on either wall, depending both on your preference and the space available.

The humble one-wall kitchen, which is most often found in efficiency apartments, doesn’t really have a work triangle at all, since the work centers are all in a row.  As long as there’s enough counter space between the sink, stove, and refrigerator, this arrangement will serve perfectly well. In fact, it’s ideal for all those single guys who dine on Pop-Tarts over the kitchen sink. 

Monday, January 6, 2020


Eichler homes: These now-coveted mid-century marvels
were reviled for forty years.
If I’ve ranted and raved about any architectural subject over the years, it has to be the idea of fashion-driven “modernization”.  With today’s renewed appreciation of Mid-Century Modern—which was reviled for the previous forty years—you’d think that designers would finally get the message that every architectural period has its finer points. We’ve all seen the pattern umpteen times:  After five or so decades of neglect and abuse, older styles are suddenly rediscovered and cooed over by designer types, while more recent styles are patronizingly judged to be in need of "an updated look”—words that instantly set my teeth on edge.

San Francisco restoration specialist Thomas Leach
had to "de-update" this Victorian house, which had
been stripped of ornament and covered with asbestos
shingles by a previous modernizer.
(Image courtesy
Architectural styles have always followed a cycle of initial popularity, decline, disgrace, and rediscovery. Victorian homes were held in contempt until well into the 1970s, during which time countless irreplaceable examples were either demolished or just as irrevocably destroyed by being “modernized”.  Today one wouldn’t dream of stripping the ornament from a Victorian house and coating it in stucco, but during the Forties, that’s precisely what many architects and designers urged their clients to do in order to get that “updated look”.  

A 1970s ranch-style house "updated"
with the current uber-fad among
decorators—the sliding barn door.
For popularity, I give it five years, tops.
As ridiculous as this sounds now, we've apparently learned nothing from such mistakes. Regardless of the quality or thought that went into their design, examples of past styles that are currently out of favor—for instance, the over-the-top, woodsy and deck-laden homes of the 1970s—are deemed unworthy of the same appreciation we’d give an Eichler or some other style that’s currently chic. Design elements integral to 70s homes—elaborate wooden decks, lava-rock veneered chimneys, shake roofs, conversation pits, and all the rest—are blithely ripped out or painted over because they don't reflect the current mania for plasticky, frou-frou-laden design.

A basic truth of aesthetics is that the more fashionable something is now, the more unfashionable it will be later—and not very much later, mind you. Yet, driven by the relentless juggernaut of advertising and fashion industry hype, both designers and homeowners continue to buy into the oxymoronic notion that a thirty-year-old house is an embarrassment, while an "original" sixty-year-old house is a prize.  

First, we’re encouraged to remove everything that makes the original house belong to its era; then, a few decades later, we’re supposed to wring our hands in regret and try to put it all back. Why not cut out the middleman, and simply keep your house in its original style?  

Spectacularly original 1970s interior. How long before
they're back in fashion? Answer: Not long.
(Image couresty
I invite any architect, designer, or decorator to cite a single example of a fashion-driven residential makeover done ten or fifteen years ago that can still be considered an improvement in light of changing tastes. On the other hand, I can cite any number of homes that have commanded higher sale prices for having never been sullied by an "update".