One of the most impressive that I’ve come across, and it’s for sale: the salvaged-materials collection of master handmade-house builder Braxton Dixon: sycamorehomestead.com
Gusty sea-mist moments periodically relieving a blue-sky summer day. Golden coastal light filtering through a perfumed forest thick with cypress, banksia, and tea tree. Within earshot: a cobblestone right hander, uncrowded!, with a lone rider—an old friend at that—smiling wide and stretched out inside yet another perfect gaping foamy peeler. (Someone smartly glued down the repeat button on this image.)
Right here, near the point, on a little plot of land of one’s own, a vision of a home base coming to fruition, built exclusively with friend labor and unencumbered by code or other for-the-masses restrictions. Improvisation, of an original tune being recorded for posterity.
Ahh, to be coming into one’s own like this on the north coast of New South Wales in the late 60s/early 70s, what that air of freedom must’ve felt like! For years, among not just surfers, that lifestyle’s been romanticized, mythologized even, and, well, here I am now pouring on some more. But to John Witzig, who lived that experience and even helped give shape to some of its more memorable characteristics, it’s of course something very real.
While also capturing the images that to a great extent define the revolutionary change chapter in a once-happily-slack lifestyle pursuit that’s evolved into a billion-dollar industry (see his new book with Rizzoli, A Golden Age;) and editing Surf International; and, in 1970, co-starting Tracks (the surfing mag that radically took its editorial cues not from sport journalism but from The Whole Earth Catalog and Rolling Stone), Witzig was pursuing a career in architecture.
While I’ve touched on this subject and his new book here before, and I included a bit on Witzig’s story and a few pics of his house in Handmade Houses, it’s time I respond to the requests from friends and fans of A Golden Age to fill in gaps and show more of Witzig’s own house.
I recall the first time I met the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, in 2003, and spent time inside his Raphael Soriano-designed nest in the Hollywood Hills, a 1947 house that was the epitome of architectural adventurousness for its time. [It should be finally known that Shulman, too, had been drawn to and photographed surfing.] I immediately realized then and there that, while a great photographer’s unique viewpoint will always be present in his pictures in ways worth understanding, how the photographer sees for himself— his particular requirements of his own personal sphere—demands as much study and understanding if you’re going to get a real handle on the work.
Witzig, who, like Shulman, is responsible for more than a few genre-defining and legend-making photographs, shares the distinction of having housed himself in a way that represents the very cutting edge of progression for its time and place. It was all about breaking the mold of conventionality…or at least loosening things up as never before. But in the counterculture-architecture statement that Witzig ultimately created, there’s no getting past certain allusions—the Northern California coastal-barn vernacular forms of the Sea Ranch, Prickly Mountain-style improv woodwork, the Australian vernacular and its emphasis on the veranda, and even the kind of indoor-outdoor plan fusion seen in the early Taliesin West tent shelters. Here was a design that was dead set on openly embracing its particular eco system, built of materials that might otherwise have ended up littering it. These and other moves show that Witzig, all sun-kissed and surf-blissed and out there in the land of “country soul,” hadn’t completely unplugged, that he had his history down and an eye on larger concerns. And now, I say, what he built has to be read as a vital part of that discussion—those larger concerns.
Mark Watts, son of Alan Watts, has produced a new documentary film on his father that anyone with a curiosity about the genesis of the handmade house phenom won’t want to miss.
Mark explains: “Why Not Now! with Alan Watts is now available along with The Essential Alan Watts” in a biographic two-DVD set…. The documentary film on the life and works of Alan Watts began conceptually as a shared storytelling in which the narrative would support Alan’s own telling of his story. However during development it became apparent that most of the story could be told through Alan’s own words, particularly when supported by the wealth of original media we had uncovered including video, film, and photos. The entire process took about 18 months after the initial video restoration, and in the end we were delighted to discover how much of the story was ‘in the can’ once the puzzle pieces came together. To this we added contemporary footage of Japan and Big Sur, music, animation by Eddie Rosas of Alan as a young man, and a fly-through of woodcut prints by Tom Killion brought to life by special effects artist Bruce Walters. The film was initially titled Being in the Way but with the new approach the title was changed to Why Not Now!, drawn from an LP on the art of contemplation recorded by Alan in 1968. Each film comes with The Essential Alan Watts, a bonus disc of video materials we couldn’t fit into the film, and The Animated Alan Watts (see description below).”
Buy the two-DVD set here, where you can also see photos of the Alan Watts Mountain Center.
And in the meantime, here’s a highlight reel.
One of the most significant homes in Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design—and one of environmental architecture’s seminal houses— just became an eco retreat, available to rent as a private getaway. To present it as such, the house’s owner had hired me to photograph the property and build a website, and all of that is now live. Check it out: vanderryn-eco-refuge.com
In a few days, Sim Van der Ryn‘s second book to be published this year, Culture, Architecture & Nature: An Ecological Design Retrospective arrives in stores. In 2012, Sim hired me to help him create an editorial concept around his talk transcripts and essays from the 1960s to the 2000s. There was an enormous amount of material to consider, with even the very earliest topics having surprising relevance today—some more now than when they were written decades ago. For the final selections, we ended up employing a reverse chronology, so you start the book in the 2000s and dig your way ever deeper to get into the past, decade by decade. Along the way, many of the major issues of the day are called out and explored and challenged. And for each decade, there’s a list of books for further reading—the books that, in those moments, had most captured Sim’s attention. Partly for purposes of pacing, we chose to illustrate with his own watercolor landscapes painted during the same time span, which I think worked out beautifully.
Buy and read printed books. Build home libraries. Live happier…
The heady early days of green architecture’s gelling into a real movement, in California in the 1960s, were as much a not-so-subtle middle finger to the general state of utter disturbance in society—blood on the streets—as they were a rejection of the lame status quo within the residential design-and-construction scenes. In architecture, the rebellion had two prongs. First, on the high-culture academic end of things, green’s pioneers (young architects, builders, and would-be homeowners) were turning their backs on the International Style, which for some of its practitioners had amounted to license to build a single kind of house, in steel and glass, no matter its site and circumstance; and its offspring, what we now call Midcentury Modern, which by then had an image much like the Ranch House—a look cheapened as a seemingly ubiquitous pop idiom of the Leave it to Beaver age; and last but certainly not least, the horrific but somehow widely adopted concrete-bunker aesthetic called Brutalism. Second, on the middle to low end, increasingly there were examples of housing tracts stretching as far as the eye could see, and while the tracts succeeded in accommodating the incredible population explosion of the times (in ’64, Calif. became the most populous state in the nation), their construction usually had the effect of leveling entire ecological habitats.
Searching for a more impact-aware and place-sensitive mode of architectural expression, a more soulful and otherwise humane and in-touch approach to making a home for one’s self, green’s pioneers, most of them in their 20s and 30s, retreated to rural parts of the state. In trying to make a go of it there, many soon found a path leading to the self-awareness practices of Zen Buddhism; the nature-first “organic” Japanese farmhouse; and, of course, earthy American-agricultural architecture like barns and chicken coops. More directly, many of them turned to the example of certain painters, poets, sculptors, and other progressives and intellectual radicals who, starting with some consistency in the wake of the Great Depression, had drawn from those very (aforementioned) influences in the making of their live-work spaces in California’s mountains and coastal forests. As poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “the first thing a poet has to do is to live that type of life which doesn’t compromise himself.” This kind of hands-on living—demonstrative of self awareness and nature-oriented and earthy in the way that a weathered old barn suggests—was that type of life.
One of those artists who, early on, had moved to the country and established what might be called a template for conscious living was the potter and wood sculptor J.B. Blunk, of Marin County. In ca. 1960, Blunk and his fellow-artist and architecture-aficionado wife, Nancy Waite, had built a cabin for themselves on donated land and a budget of $1,000. Much of the house was assembled from driftwood collected near Point Reyes and from WWII shipways scraps laying around Sausalito’s Gate 5. From the very start, the couple grew their own food in a garden next to their construction site. What they needed as far as kitchenware, Blunk would go on to make himself on-site in his own kiln. The same went for clothes and shoes—all of it homemade. [For more on the adventures of Blunk and Waite, see Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design.]
Blunk and Waite soon had two boys, Bruno and Rufus. Today, Rufus Blunk lives and works just a short walk down a country road from the house built by his father and continues the Blunk legacy of ignoring lines between “art” and “craft,” all with a profound understanding of and respect for the land.
That conscious-living template that J.B. Blunk and Nancy Waite established for themselves in 1960, Rufus Blunk and his wife and children honor it in their lifestyle in 2013. It’s a beautiful thing to behold…and so too is Rufus’s sculpture.
Here’s the outcome of my recent visit with Rufus Blunk at his studio in Marin. I hope you’ll enjoy it. —R.O.
Olsen: Finding your own way as a young artist, you not only had the formidable shadow of your father to overcome, but also there were innumerable other artists, some of them more famous such as Isamu Noguchi, regularly passing through your family’s sphere in West Marin. That seems like it could be a pressure cooker of an environment for a developing talent. Of those artists, who made the greatest impression on you…and why? And how did you navigate that situation—the influence factor—as well as you did?
Blunk: As a young boy, I was inspired by visitors, events with artists, and neighbors who were close like family, such as Gordon Onslow Ford and Jack Wright. I met many sculptors and crafts people who were nearby and making interesting things. I shared adventures and learned skills from my artist father, JB Blunk, and my mother’s father, Howard Waite, an engineer. They were constantly doing, making, and inventing things and I was often by their side.
I don’t understand your last question. I never thought of “navigating” my situation. I existed in a rich environment. I guess I never questioned that. In fact, I was eager to take advantage of everything that was available.
OIsen: At what age did you show a serious interest in making sculpture? How old were you when you made your first serious piece? Did J.B. mentor you in those early years? What was his policy on the use of his workshop, his tools?
Blunk: My father built tool benches in his workshop, one for my brother and one for me. Each tool bench had a vise to hold small projects and places to put our own basic hand tools—hammer, chisel, rasp, drill, handsaw, sharpening stone, and knife. At age 5, JB gave me a small hatchet which I used to make kindling, fell and chop trees, and make early art projects. Simultaneously, I became an eager companion to my maternal grandfather, who had retired and set to building his dream log cabin house in the nearby Bishop Pine woods. Together we searched the woods for the perfect curved or straight logs for the cabin.
At age 8, I dug local clay with my father and built my own tiny wood-fired brick kiln to fire my ceramic pieces, modeling the kiln and the work my father and grandfather made just up the slope. There was a lot of excitement around digging and firing local clay.
Our lifestyle during my childhood included making everything. We grew much of our own food, dug the clay, made the pottery, and ate out of our ceramic and wooden vessels. My brother and I built lots of tree houses in the bay forest. Our water comes from a gravity spring, which my father developed. My father mentored me on this system and in time, I came to be the steward of that water and the lands around. My wife and I have raised our own children with many of the same make-it-yourself traditions.
At a very young age, we scavenged beaches for interesting building materials which went into the making of my father’s house and for gifts we all made. By age 11, I was sculpting stools from solid pieces of cypress and redwood. I also made cheeseboards, candle holders, and small lathe-turned things which I sold successfully at a local gallery. With the funds raised through these early art sales, I helped pay for my trip to Kenya and Ethiopia the summer after fifth grade, when I went on safari with my aunt, also an artist, who lived near Nairobi.
Olsen: Would J.B. give you feedback on your work?
Blunk: JB would rough out the stools, and he provided strict safety guidance, technique, and care of the tools. JB was open to the correct use of almost all tools, if they were put back in their proper place clean and sharp, where he could find them when he needed them. Everything had a specific place. I learned to sharpen tools before I was allowed to use them freely. The dangerous adze was the only tool JB said I couldn’t use freely—until I was able to beat him in arm wrestling. That restriction was stopped after some years and after I’d demonstrated enough safety techniques. When I first started work with the chainsaw, JB would hold it with me to make the cuts, four hands on the saw. As I gained experience, he would start the saw for me and let me cut the easy cuts only. Later he’d let me do all the cutting only if he watched me. Eventually he let me do it all.
My own work developed through exploring the scrap pile of my father’s works along with the use of my personal collection of found materials. I had a good eye. I worked in wood, and clay, and much later stone. Much of my work includes a portion of the original natural surface from which I detect a story. JB did give constant feedback enabling my skills to grow quickly as my imagination flourished. I remember him using certain words to describe my early work—”whimsical” comes to mind. He was excited when I discovered something new, something he had not uncovered. One of my father’s favorite quotes, which he placed on a wall in our house: “There is no beauty in which there is not some strangeness of proportion.” As I matured, our feedback became more reciprocal. On one occasion, JB had me forge a special offset gouge chisel to help him carve out a deep salad bowl.
Olsen: Is there one piece that you made in those early years that marks a major turning point for you, as far as your own development is concerned?
Blunk: One early piece that might be considered a turning point for me was a four-pillared stool I carved at age 12 while working beside a woodcarver at the home of my aunt Jony in Kenya. I was inspired by things I saw in the many museums we visited in Kenya and Ethiopia. I began a series of pillared works. The pillars of the stool present a space to see through or even crawl through. I’d remove the heartwood on pieces made from green wood which helped to control cracking during the drying process. I used this technique on stools, benches, and small tables. I have more to explore in this realm still.
Olsen: In your little rural corner of West Marin, you’re part of a rich tradition of making work that goes back at least as far as the 1950s. What is it about where you live, other than wide open space, that is so conducive to making art?
Blunk: Besides the priceless gifts of open space and the abundance of inspiring materials, I have a long and deep connection and relationship to the place here where I was born and where I now have been raising my own family, all of which feed into my art and creative process.
Importantly, the material I work with, too, has a “place” and a “family,” which I recognize and try to honor. The source of the material influences the path of the project. Sometimes a fault, a crack, or a rotten pocket reveals itself as I consider the piece. This guides the process. I like to base the goal of an art piece on the potential I see within the materials on hand, much like JB based the frame of our house on the available pile of timbers he found.
I love the small surprises and the mystery that unfolds when working in wood, especially.
In my very full life, with my three growing children and my wife, many aspects are artful. I practice art in a sort of playful day-to-day expression with whatever is on hand. This includes landscaping, teaching, growing things, grafting, beekeeping, fishing, stewardship of our local waters and land, helping out in place-making projects, and the list goes on.
Olsen: Tell me about the work you’ve been doing the last few years. You’re still working exclusively with wood? Are you taking commissions? What’s been your main emphasis?
Blunk: In the last few years I have been very busy applying my aesthetic talents and practical skills in many areas including stone work, landscape, and public space projects.
I’ve completed a number of private commissions, including two rolling interior redwood barn doors, a redwood burl conference table, a redwood burl rocking bench, cypress stairs, and a fir timber bench and table set. Private commissions over the last few years include a set of eight madrone wood plates, a walnut coffee table, a Bishop Pine dining table, a Madrone and Bishop Pine breakfast table, a redwood sculptural bench, and many more.
Public works of recent years include the Jonathan Rowe memorial sculptural bench in Point Reyes Station; seating for a playground; an outdoor display cabinet for a local land-preservation organization, MALT; other landscape and public gathering space presentations combine my familiarity with growing things and my work in stone and wood.
Some recent work has been in stone, including a birdbath, a stone element that is part of a coffee table, and finish features on a wood fired bread oven. Most of my current work uses the supply of seasoned wood I have collected over years, as well as some new arrivals. I’m always open for commission work and like very much to work with a client to develop an idea. If I don’t have specific materials in stock, I can find it through contacts.
— THANKS FOR READING —
A holiday postcard I recently made reminding of the existing book and announcing the forthcoming one. Ten years of research has gone into these two projects. Tens of thousands of miles traveled. Hundreds of creatively energized and otherwise inspired folks befriended along the way. Thank you for opening your doors to me. And thanks to Rizzoli International Publications for supporting the journey. -R.O.
Reposting this Q&A I did with Free People’s Amy S.
Check out the work of Holly Tornheim at her website.
“The book recounts stories from my half-century of experience in the world of architecture and my journey of discovery of the importance of considering humans and nature as part of any project. It’s illustrated with my own watercolors… I hope it will inspire the next generation of architects to design places we can all enjoy.” — Sim Van der Ryn
My own tattered copy of Not Man Apart (1965)—one of my favorite books. As with all the volumes in David Brower’s Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, Not Man Apart‘s print-production is of the kind of quality that, nowadays, is rapidly on its way out, at least within mainstream publishing. The many riveting moments Edward Weston, Cole Weston, Steve Crouch, Wynn Bullock, William Garnett, Cedric Wright, Ansel Adams, Don Worth, and more caught on film during their ventures into the wildest corners of Big Sur—well, it all leaps off the page. This was, after all, a book made not long after the tipped-in-color-plate era, when “art books” were, themselves, works of art. Released three years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that sparked the modern environmental movement, Not Man Apart was one of those ’60s books that carried on its back the new earth-attuned message.
I was in Marin visiting with architect Dan Liebermann when he unveiled a mock-up of a cube lamp done in oak and stained glass. The glasswork was magical, suggestive of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Liebermann explained that the piece was new, done by his Berkeley friend Theresa Buccola. After sharing images of the finished product with my colleagues at Architectural Digest, unanimously the decision was made to publish it in the magazine. Fast forward a few years and now, I’m happy to report, Theresa Buccola has her own gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Theresa Buccola Stained Glass. And there’s a website and a Facebook page. Call her: (415) 812-9635. Theresa will collaborate one-on-one with you to create the perfect piece for your house.
In the early 1990s I found Barbara Shaum’s shop on East 4th Street in Manhattan’s East Village. What quality.
The diminutive “artist’s cabin in the woods,” specifically examples from the 1930s through the ’50s, is a subject that occupies big space in the new book I’m now writing and photographing as a follow-up to Handmade Houses. In my related wanderings, i found this intriguing little cottage that had been built in 1923 in Carmel-by-the-Sea for Dutch landscape photographer and gallerist Johan Hagemeyer. Just as the calloused hands of the Arts & Crafts movement seemed to be finally surrendering to Modernism’s everready machine, in Carmel, there was yet another trend reversal: Surrounded by oaks, Hagemeyer’s Craftsman Style board and batten house stepped out, confidently asserting all that is site appropriate for a village-in-a-forest setting. A year later, the photographer peeled back part of the rustic live/work space to the public, establishing Carmel’s first art gallery. Among its earliest shows was the architecture of one-time Frank Lloyd Wright employee and Modern icon Rudolph M. Schindler. Anyway, the cottage, as captured on film by its photographer owner especially, has a really nice feel.
This link tells more about the Schindlers (the architect and his wife, Pauline) and their time in Carmel. Interesting stuff. And if any of this is of interest to you, by all means put photographer Grant Mudford’s book on Schindler’s Kings Road House atop your wish list.
My new favorite interiors and furniture firm, Chinese Jesus Studio, keeps an office and woodshop only a few blocks from my house in Venice Beach. Recently, I pedaled over to see CJ principals Mike Lee and Deb Rumens and we got to talking about their work, the comeback of handcrafted solid-wood furniture, current trends in architecture and interiors, etc, etc. Here’s the first installment of that get-together.
RO: So, Chinese Jesus Studio—Unlike many L.A. designers who’ve taken commissions from Hollywood’s so-called A List, you aren’t based in the glitzy Pacific Design Center in buttoned-up Beverly Hills. Instead, you’re in a loft space in a gritty industrial hold-out of fast-gentrifying Venice Beach (echoes of Charles and Ray Eames’s legendary design-emporium-in-a-ghetto at 901 Washington Blvd). Why an alley in Venice…why not Beverly Hills? How does being over here “where the debris meets the sea” inform what you do?
Mike: For me the proximity of the ocean and infinite space above it is essential to the peace of mind I need to work well. And Venice has such a great mix of high and low – I need divey and weird to balance out all the fabulousness.
Deb: As an artist you always hope that what you have to say through your work is compelling enough that location doesn’t really affect the equation. The idea of “build it and they will come” appeals to me. That said, some of our better-heeled clients do need some coaxing to make the trip down to Venice!
RO: And because you design and craft your own line of wood furniture, you also maintain a separate legitimate wood shop. Real table saws! Real wood! Real saw dust! Joinery tools! What was the genesis behind the shop? The history of the CJ furniture work? Have you always done the furniture? Don’t you have a new line coming out with a nationally prominent showroom?
RO: What draws me to the firm’s interiors work is your emphasis on wood and how you often pair your own custom furniture, made by you in your shop, with uncommon vintage pieces sourced from your international travels. It’s an aesthetic rooted in classic Modernism but it’s a decidedly warm and earthy Modern. I see it as a signature style. Deb, is this accurate? How do you describe the CJ look?
RO: In Los Angeles at least, in architecture and interiors unpainted wood seems to be making a comeback, and I’m not just talking about veneers. In the last few years, especially in Venice, where so many architects and designers have built homes for themselves, I’ve watched the construction of at least a dozen Mid-Century Mod Revival houses with facade treatments of unpainted wood cladding, and whether or not there are any trees in the vicinity seems to have no bearing. It’s clearly not about harmonizing with context, it’s just become a trendy move. Of course during this same period, the use of barn planks became a full-blown trend here in Venice Beach and throughout California (and well beyond), in residential and commercial, and in many instances, it seems to me, it’s been used rather recklessly. Innovation taking a back seat to trend chasing. In general, in your particular client sphere, what are you seeing with regard to the use of wood in interiors?
Mike: I do see a lot of recycled or green materials used recklessly – it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I wonder if because we’re seeing the barn planks everywhere, people will soon tire of seeing them and move on to something else. It makes more sense to me in commercial applications because the cycle tends to be short anyway. We try to use wood in ways that feel timeless, and for us, it has to start with strong design and end with beautiful craftsmanship and smooth, natural, touchable finishes. Our clients love wood – the figure, color, and grain that give it life. I think that if you have a design that endures, and skillfully use wood in a way that highlights its natural beauty, you are outside of any trend cycle. That feels pretty green to me.
Deb: Wood walls add a tangible depth in interiors—an effect that can also be gained, for example, by hand-troweled plaster or a textured linen or grasscloth wall treatment. Personally it’s the evocative and timeless nature of these materials that leads me to include them in our interiors. They add a warm textural depth and resonance that just can’t compare to painted drywall. On any given project my primary concern is to create as beautiful a home as possible that is in keeping with the client’s desires and dreams and the quality of the woods we choose reflect that desire.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]
Here’s a little article I produced and wrote for AD in 2009 or 2010, while on staff at the mag. (A bit of backstory: In ’99, I’d edited The Treehouse Book, and then in 2004, craving more contact with the subject, I conceived, produced, and edited Treehouses of the World, a project that took us to some unforgettable locations. It’s hard not to find something enjoyable in a proper treehouse. Over the years, I’ve had a blast learning about them, and 15 yrs later I’m still hung up on them. The little building niche that is the treehouse scene is a place where the dissidents of suit-and-tie architecture can free their imaginations and create spaces normally encountered only in dreams.) So…popular interest in Japanese treehouse builder Taka Kobayashi is reheating (see the video I’ve posted below the article), and because of that I wanted to put this piece out there, for the many who likely didn’t catch it in Architectural Digest. This treehouse that Taka did in Tokyo is simply fantastic and ought to be seen.
And if you’re interested in treehouses, and I’m talking treehouses that deserve the title, not conventional architecture (a perched mini Tudor or Colonial, for example), you’ll want to know not just about Taka but also Roderick Romero, particularly the latter’s work with carpenter Jeff Casper. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the guys doing the most adventurous and inspiring work. Built of storied odds and ends smartly salvaged, their treehouses suggest functional art more so than mere stylized “structure.” Take a look. -R.O
Charleston, South Carolina.
The City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs presents The Spirit of Place: Traditions of the Agrarian Home in Barbados and the Lowcountry at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, September 7-October 6, 2013
Exploring New World building traditions and typographies common to the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States, this curated exhibition brings together artists’ perspectives on the architecture of Barbados and the Sea Islands of the Carolinas with documentation of the history of these buildings. Central to the exhibit is a model of a Barbadian chattel house, constructed in partnership with the American College of the Building Arts, the photography of Barbadian Bob Kiss and Charlestonian Julia Cart, and photos from the Avery Research Center archives by Robert Yellin and by Terry James of the Slave Dwelling Project.
Spent a beautiful afternoon catching up with the great Dean and Louise Pratt and revisited a few of their early collaborations, including this house above—one of my all-time favorites.
If you’re an architect or builder and follow the scene in California, you may have come across a Q&A with newly appointed SFMOMA A+D curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher that appeared earlier this summer in the The Architect’s Newspaper. [Link here.] It’s likely that you wouldn’t have paid much attention to what I found jarring, as it was perfectly in tune with the architecture cognoscenti’s standard line of amnesic messaging. In the interview, when asked to comment on architectural developments in the Bay Area today, the new curator mentions the extensive “repurposing” she’s seen [entire buildings, not building materials] and “architecture that is not just fabricated in a new method but responds to occupancy and climate,” before tying all that to “recognizing that these were early hopes from architects of the 1960s. This kind of Ant Farm movement… .”
Wait a second. So we’re now saying that Ant Farm, the multimedia collective founded by Doug Michels and Chip Lord in ’68, which produced one notable house with architect Richard Jost, the so-called House of the Century (1971-73) built in Texas, is an adequate benchmark of what was happening in the 1960s in relation to the SF Bay Area—the epicenter of First Wave of environmental architecture? What? Really?
The First Wave’s greatest strides, its most progressive and widely impactful experimentation, occurred in the single-family-house sphere—in the countercultural design-build dwellings that evolved out of the back-to-the-land movement. Fact is, in the U.S., a disproportionately great number of those experiments took place right in SFMOMAs back yard, in Inverness and in Canyon and on the campus of UC Berkeley. Instead of Ant Farm’s Texas one-off experiment in sculptural residential architecture via the ferrocement system, SFMOMAs new architecture and design curator ought to be drawing attention to examples that genuinely drove change in the scene of that time period: Sim Van der Ryn and Jim Campe’s UCB class on outlaw building, or the Integral Urban House, or the Energy Pavilion, or even the Farallones Institute. That was the “movement.”
Not to take anything away from the accomplishments and historical significance of the Ant Farm, but Ant Farm’s “House of the Century,” while certainly a trippy and fun curiosity and an achievement of note for its time and place and for its crew of five young designer-builders, was not “leading edge” by international architecture and construction standards of the time.
When it comes to the biomorphic architecture genre—its early days—and the “experimental” use of ferrocement, there are dozens of examples that happened much earlier. If you’re SFMOMA and you’re acquiring Ant Farm projects for your permanent collection, as they have already done, shouldn’t you at least be aware of where Ant Farm’s projects fit into the historical timeline? As i said, there are many earlier examples of “House of the Century-type” design and construction to consider.
First off, you’d probably want to be aware of the ecological residential architecture of Jacques Couëlle, who was originating in the Maritime Alps in 1960 what could fairly be called Space Age architectural experimentation, a house of the century, a decade before Ant Farm started on their project. For more on Couëlle’s story, see my book Handmade Houses. Or dig into the archives the New York Times. In 1965, Ada Louise Huxtable reported on Couëlle.
You might also go to go back to Frederick Kiesler and his 1950s unbuilt Endless House.
You might probe the 1960s work of artist-architect James Hubbell in San Diego County. For more on Hubbell, please see my book Handmade Houses.
You might consider Jacques Gillet‘s Sculptural House of 1967.
You might look closely at the late 1960s work of Jacques Couëlle protegé Antti Lovag, architect of the famous Pierre Cardin House.
Lastly, if only to reinforce the point that what I’m criticizing here isn’t Ant Farm at all, here’s a great 4-part video done by Richard Jost on his and Ant Farm’s House of the Century.
Is it even fair to expect SFMOMA’s curator to know about this aspect of architectural history? As odd as this may sound, the answer is “probably not.” From what I’ve heard from recent architecture-school graduates in Los Angeles (Sci-Arc, USC, UCLA), none of this subject matter, including environmental architecture’s First Wave in California, is a part of the current architecture curricula. In the world of architectural education, these subjects largely don’t exist.
Which reminds me of a quote on the back cover of a reprint of Lloyd Kahn’s 1973 classic book Shelter, an Architecture in Australia review of that book from its release forty years ago:
“It’s time to educate the architects. To that extent this book on shakes and wattle and daub is the most revolutionary architecture book around…”
Last night I received the news that Yuri Ordjonkidze had died. I think he was only 71 or 72—young. Throughout the Big Sur community, where he focused most of his energies since settling there in 1968, Yuri was regarded as an immensely talented builder and artist and, generally, an outright wild man—a guy who was more than a hell of a lot of fun to be around. I didn’t get to spend much quality time with him, though I did interview him. But in those limited interactions, Yuri struck me as having a special handle on the importance of friendship and what laughter does for the spirit. Of course not everyone gets that.
A few years ago, thanks to a mutual friend, I got to meet Yuri in his own element, at his fantastical in-progress abode/art emporium on a ridgetop in Big Sur. That day, he walked me through his evolving pad and then over to his main house in the top floor of a nearby barn, and I remember it being like a slap in the face: “How did I not connect with this guy in time to get him into Handmade Houses?!” I thought. “I missed a great one.” Yuri is one of these few guys who perfectly represents the full-tilt artistic freedom of Big Sur architecture in the 1960s and 70s—the exuberant building-code-defying artistry of the “outlaw builder.” For Yuri and others like him, the sky wasn’t the limit, it was the beginning!
Shortly after meeting Yuri, I included some of his architectural work in the Handmade Houses slideshow I gave at the Henry Miller Library. It was an early ’70s house made of reclaimed bridetimbers that, among other things, spoke of Yuri’s command of ornamental ironwork. It was flattering to see him in the crowd that night, and when I fumbled the pronunciation of his last name, he stepped up and kindly corrected me. Around that time, I also wove him into the storyline of the new book I am in the process of making today.
When this new book is done, if all works out as planned, the name Yuri Ordjonkidze will be familiar far beyond the tight little community of Big Sur. Given how much pride Yuri clearly took in his creations, I think he’ll appreciate the coverage. Cheers, Yuri.
P.S. I’ve got some photographs of Yuri’s architectural work but I’m saving them for my book. Here’s a video that John Mason made on Yuri’s art. Check it out.
There’s two new books by Sim Van der Ryn coming out later this fall, including one that I worked on as editor. (More on that soon.) In the meantime, many of the Van der Ryn watercolors that appear in the books have been gathered for a very special show at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame, California, July 27 – October 6. Click *here* for more information.
Peninsula Museum of Art
1777 California Drive, Burlingame, CA 94010
SURFING COWBOYS SHIPS TO YOUR DOOR! Check out their online store: http://www.surfingcowboys.com/
Read the Q&A with John and see more of his brilliant photographs here: http://www.tsovet.com/chronicle/issue-1/john-witzig
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest at Taliesin West, the Scottsdale, Arizona, campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. On one of those trips, I ventured out into the far reaches of Wright’s desert acreage to study the dwellings designed and built by the school’s students as part of their learning-by-doing education. Youthful creative energy, ideas, and confidence + small plot of land + trifling financial resources for materials + the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright = ingenious solutions to small-space living? Yes—mostly.
Working within the safe zone of the campus, the students could laugh at common code restrictions, so pushing the envelope of design and construction was possible, if not a given.
Architectural salvage stands out in the materials palette, and it’s frequently worth noting how much those rugged bits and pieces invigorate the students’ handling of the refined Wrightian design vocab and “desert concrete construction” system.
It all has the appearance of an epic left incomplete. Some students moved on before ever getting around to wrapping it up, but even those examples have instances of smart solutions on offer. Many of the dwellings aspire to little more than sleeping-porch set ups.
If the Taliesin West student shelters intrigue you, you might want to get Under Arizona Skies: The Apprentice Desert Shelters at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, the book by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. Check it out here.
Here’s a Florida house by the inimitable California architect Valentino Agnoli, one of the principal designer-builders featured in Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design. For detailed information on Agnoli’s work, pick up a copy of the book.
“We woodworkers have the audacity to shape timber from these noble trees. In a sense it is our karma yoga, the path of action we must take to lead to our union with the divine. Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny and its own special relationship to be fulfilled. We roam the world to find our relationship with these trees.” —George Nakashima
Nearly a quarter century ago this month, woodworker George Nakashima died. [What kind of furniture harmonizes with the classic handmade house, you ask? Do you know of Nakashima?] Recently I was going through some old files and found a few of the snapshots I took in late 2001 or early 2002 at Nakashima’s home-studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, when we were in the early stages of making NATURE, FORM & SPIRIT: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF GEORGE NAKASHIMA, a herculean effort even as these books go…and a book that I see around often in the shops where I live. I’d forgotten I had these pictures, and looking at them today I’m reminded of the timelessness of Nakashima’s work, not to mention his bewildering creative genius. It was a personal milestone being immersed in Nakashima’s world for an extended moment.
The idea to reevaluate Nakashima first came across my desk in the late 1990s, early in my architecture-and-design book career, while I was an editor at Rizzoli. A prominent NYC gallery owner, decorator, and Nakashima supporter had convinced the Nakashima family that it was time for a book and, to her credit, had taken the initiative to shop the idea to publishers. Growing up in a predominantly Norwegian family in which carpentry was a backbone skill shared by my father, grandfather, uncles, and great-grandfather, I immediately gravitated to the project. Others at Rizzoli loved it too. But despite the companywide interest, the book didn’t end up happening—with us or with any other publisher. While the general idea of “a book on Nakashima” was there, the necessary creative concept and the related practical components—writer, photographer, archival-photos sources, etc.—hadn’t been completely fleshed out. It wasn’t ready.
Not long after September 11, 2001, now as senior A+D editor for another Manhattan-based publisher, Abrams Books, I launched a new campaign to get a Nakashima book made and decided that, as I’d done in the case of other books, I myself would develop the concept and assemble the creative team. As I was seeing it, the new book would fill some glaring gaps. We’d explore not only the obvious—the five decades of wood furniture for which Nakashima is so celebrated (and widely copied)—but also the MIT-trained architect’s WWII internment camp experience (where he met the nisei woodworker who helped him find his destiny in woodworking). And Nakashima’s later journeys in building design, specifically the houses and other structures in New Hope; a dorm for the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India (work carried out on behalf of Nakashima’s early employer, architect Antonin Raymond); and the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Nakashima’s unique working philosophy and its underlying spirituality—his steadfastly purist commitment to Arts & Crafts “slow”, even in the face of speeding tech advancements increasingly dominant in the culture—would receive the analyzation that it deserved.
In getting to the heart of these subjects and more, I wanted the book to go beyond the all-too-common dry art-book editorial formula of “essays by a panel of experts” followed by a glorified photo album. (While Nakashima did create mass-produced lines for manufacturers such as Hans Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, his specialty was custom one-offs—individualistic, personal work. In the case of the furniture that came out his New Hope shop, even his most time-tested designs would always be adapted somewhat to fit the unique characteristics of the piece of wood at hand. These pieces could only ever be “one of a kind.” Thus, with the book, a personal account of the man and his journey seemed to me to be the most valid creative direction.) To that end, I thought it should be written by Mira Nakashima, George’s daughter and, in the wake of his passing, the chief designer of the still-thriving furniture studio. Mira had literally grown up in her father’s shadow, watching him from the foot of his workbench in a cloud of sawdust, until she was finally old enough to become his apprentice and, later, the head of his company. There wasn’t a more eminently qualified “expert” to do the job of recounting his story.
Persuading Mira, a designer by trade, to take on the formidable task of writing what amounted to a biography, one of her father no less, proved more challenging than my determination and enthusiasm had allowed me to foresee, however. Over a period of a year we spoke often about how the content should be handled, and several times I trekked to New Hope, attempting to assuage her lingering concerns about becoming a first-time author while simultaneously running a furniture-making business…and to convince her that she could in fact pull it all off. For added support and encouragement, I brought to New Hope some of the most talented folks I knew in art books, a graphic designer/author/design-book-guru and a publishing-vet/photographer, both friends and both of whom, I assured Mira, would also be on hand to help. Still, for a long while, it looked like this book wasn’t meant to be. And in trying to get there, I’m sure I pushed her too hard.
In the end, with the expert copy guidance of veteran editors Elaine Stainton and Diana Murphy, Mira came through. Now ten years after its initial publication, NATURE, FORM & SPIRIT: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF GEORGE NAKASHIMA by Mira Nakashima remains in print, having become a cornerstone of the scholarship on one of the greats of the 20th-century American craft movement.
“Organic,” “woodsy Modern”—no matter how you want to frame it, Nakashima’s work is essentially about acknowledging and respecting the inherent beauty of the tree…and knowing how to gently, slowly coax out that particular character to its fullest aesthetic potential. “Wood is a material related to man,” Nakashima said, “a material that fills a need in human consciousness by drawing one into the fine relationship with nature and time—to produce beautiful things or inspiring things or simple good things.”
In case you missed the 6/9 airing on CBS, this is well worth watching:
Back when it was announced, I’d expected this good news to get auto-added by ForeWord Reviews or my publisher to the book’s Amazon.com listing but, alas, it hasn’t so I’m posting it here. Handmade Houses made the finalists list (nine books in all) for “2012 Book of the Year” in the Architecture category. It’s a great honor.
A very big thanks goes out to each of you who’ve bought the book…and to all the homeowners, all the friends and family, all the libraries, and all the independent bookstores who have supported and who continue to support it.—R.O.
ForeWord Reviews‘ Book of the Year Awards were established to bring increased attention to librarians and booksellers of the literary and graphic achievements of independent publishers and their authors. ForeWord is the only review trade journal devoted exclusively to books from independent houses.
Our unique awards process brings readers, librarians, and booksellers together to select their top categories as well as choose the winning titles. Their decisions are based on editorial excellence, professional production, originality of the narrative, author credentials relative to the book, and the value the book adds to its genre.
If your books expand a reader’s world, introduce a voice society needs to hear, offer practical knowledge where none existed before, or simply entertain so compellingly that all distractions fall away, they should be submitted for the Book of the Year Award.
Keeping in mind the standard used by booksellers and librarians for purchases/acquisitions, judges will take note of the following:
- Editorial excellence
- Intent of book met by author
- Originality of subject matter
- Author credentials
- Professional packaging
Finalists will be determined by a jury of judges consisting of editors and reviewers of ForeWord Reviews, booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals.”
In the winter of 2005, I traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia with photographer Radek Kurzaj documenting rustic architecture for a book we’d been commissioned to make. I fell in love with Zakopané, a village in the mountainous south of Poland, near its border with Slovakia. There, we encountered the village’s namesake architectural style, evident in all its exuberance in houses, churches, and even treehouses. The Zakopané Style, an extensively ornamented, H.H. Richardson-influenced hewn-log architecture, incorporates the rich folk-art traditions of this region’s highlander culture—traditions that involve making everything by hand.
The man who formalized the Zakopané style in the 1890s, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, left behind several iconic examples in the village, most of them well preserved. There are also many contemporary interpretations of his work, such as these two houses by architect-builder Sebastian Piton. In Zakopané, the sons and daughters of the village’s elder craftspeople are taught the Old World methods and are encouraged to carry them forward. Here, you can indeed still find the talent.
Yesterday, we were in Rustic Canyon, in Santa Monica, and decided to drive by the old 1924 Hellman Cabin, where Daryl Hannah had lived for a while in the 1990s. It’s an Arthur Heineman-designed and J.E. Sturgeon-built log house that I’ve always liked, one that I included in “Log Houses of the World,” my 2006 book with photographer Radek Kurzaj. An actual log cabin in Los Angeles?? If you know the enclave called Rustic Canyon, you won’t be surprised. There are three or four good ones in that little community.
Fortunately, Radek’s photos capture the details and accurately evoke the charm of the old Hellman place, because the cabin is no longer. (For years following Hannah’s sale of the house, a new owner had been fighting preservationists to get renovation plans approved, and evidently his side of that battle won.) What’s going up now on the site, I’m pleased to see, is also a log house. Hopefully, it’s more a sensitive restoration of the original, not a completely new cabin. I’ll post some information on that soon.
In the meantime, here’s the Hellman Cabin pages from Log Houses of the World. Check out the Adirondack-style eucalyptus-trunk balcony that projects out from the upper-level bedroom. And the 10-foot-wide cobblestone fireplace. And the hand-forged iron strap hinges on the wide-plank door. And the stairway. If you’re going to chink log construction, you’ve got to go with a material like hemp, not cement, I say. But otherwise, the cabin’s interior was outstanding.
UPDATE: I finally had an opportunity to speak with the project’s restoration/renovation architect, Chris Peck, of C.M. Peck Architects in Pasadena. The owner of the house is going to great lengths to retain the original log cabin’s architectural and constructional integrity. Extensive damage from termites and weather made the work unavoidable. (The house is the owner’s primary residence.) The reimagined cabin, says Peck, will honor and extend the Uplifter’s rich rustic tradition. When they’re done, I’ll post a few exterior pics. – R.O.
A book on the design, carpentry, and construction work of the late Roger Somers is overdue. It’s my intention to help get it off the ground and to write and photograph it.
For the last year, since including in my book Handmade Houses some of Somers’ work at Druid Heights and touching on his close associations with Henry Jacobs and Alan Watts and his part in Sausalito’s The Trident, I’ve been steadily filling out the story—gathering more photos and interviewing his family, friends, and close associates.
If you attended my slideshow last summer at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, you got to see a sampling of the photos we have of Roger’s fantastical work on Neil Young’s mid-1970s tour bus. But there’s much more to share, many more incredible projects.
I’m now putting it out there—a call for support: If you knew Roger or know his work, if you’d like to help get a book on Roger published, please contact me. email@example.com [Thank you, Ann C.]
In the meantime, here’s a few photos from the family’s collection (please don’t re-post these in a public forum) and a video clip of a new doc on James Broughton.
I’ve been in the thick of gathering material for my Handmade Houses follow-up, so I haven’t had the time to post much to the blog, especially lately. Recently, while out photographing for the new project I had the pleasure of experiencing the work of the late Dudley Carter (1891–1992) and can’t help but take a moment now to share a few pics.
No nails, no screws, no assembly hardware at all. Just pure hand labor and artistry.
Along with his totems and other sculpture, Carter did houses. This one from 1935, now another family’s cabin, is deep in the woods of California’s Central Coast. The family’s outdoor bed shown here, one of several in strategic spots, overlooks the creek that cuts through the property, a bit downstream from the hot springs. Not bad.
All photos copyright 2013 Richard Olsen.
For more on Dudley Carter, including more photos, check out this link.