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Richard Olsen is a writer and photographer specializing in rustic and environmental domestic architecture, historic and contemporary. The author of "Handmade Houses" and "Log Houses of the World" and a co-author of Julius Shulman's "Malibu," Olsen is currently completing his next book, CALIFORNIA GREEN: HOUSES OF THE ECO MOVEMENT, THE JOURNEY FROM HANDMADE TO HIGH TECH (Rizzoli, 2015). Formerly the senior architecture editor for Architectural Digest and Abrams Books and editor for Doubleday, Rizzoli, and Amazon, Olsen also takes on special projects in a supporting role. In that capacity of acquisitions and development he has more than 50 books to his credit, including 2013's CULTURE, ARCHITECTURE & NATURE: AN ECOLOGICAL DESIGN RETROSPECTIVE by Sim Van der Ryn. Richard is an avid surfer and outdoorsman and lives in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Sequoia Spring

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For the last two years I’ve been working on my next book, California Green, a project that traces the history of the environmentally attuned single-family house and the California influence from the “shack simple” dwellings of the 1930s avant garde to today’s Passivhaus progression, a big undertaking that I’m very happy to say is nearing completion. Rizzoli, who commissioned it, plans to publish late next year. Recently I was in and around Sequoia National Park photographing another house for this and found a little time for hiking and general immersion. Thankfully we’ve had some rain lately, and it showed. Here’s a few Iphone snaps from the Mineral King area. Sierra Nevada_1_www.richardolsen.org Sierra_2 Sierra_5

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Someone had the right idea—which, by the looks of things, had come to an end.

 

Nicely tucked into a ravine overlooking the Keawah River, this cabin's a rental. Nice deck, outdoor shower, bbq, etc.

While trying to find a trail down to the river I stumbled upon this place. Nicely tucked into a ravine overlooking the Keawah, it turned out to be a rental. Expansive deck, outdoor shower, bbq, etc.

Here's the entrance to the rental cabin.

Here’s the entrance to the rental cabin. If you do a little searching of your own online, again in Mineral King, you’ll find the details on this spot.

 

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In Three Rivers, the Lloyd Kahn influence was present.

In Three Rivers, there’s a great geodesic dome, now a gift shop, from the early 1970s, its builder no doubt influenced by Lloyd Kahn.

UFO in the Woods

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The 1956–57 Pearlman Cabin, a Star Wars intergalactic cruiser earth-docked on an array of peeled poles, little known it seems and one of my favorite John Lautner houses, was a feature in my ’06 book for Abrams on log cabins. Unlike anything I’ve encountered, this house, it could be said, predicted the Space Age, which of course had its formal beginnings with Sputnik 1′s 1957 launch and which would have a resounding effect on the appearance of domestic architecture and interiors during the period.

And yet despite all the interest in and big marketing of Midcentury Modern now, I haven’t seen the Pearlman Cabin around at all. Which can probably be explained by the fact that Lautner tends only to receive media attention for houses unlike this one—those that are celebrity owned (Kelly Lynch and Mitch Glazer; Courtney Cox and David Arquette; and on and on) and/or that have been used in blockbuster movies (Diamonds are Forever, Lethal Weapon 2, Less than Zero, The Big Lebowski).  In the increasingly unsteady shelter-magazine universe, there are only so many slots for “architecture” stories, and these days there isn’t a single magazine editor who isn’t hunting for a job-securing celebrity scoop. So that’s what we get, over and over. Such is life in this top-10-list Kardashian culture of ours.

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For the house’s mountain elevation, Lautner created an accordion window wall, neatly slotting the glass directly into the logs. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

 

In midcentury Los Angeles, Lautner (1911–1994) was the guy who could put a house on the ether. Back then, if you were among the small percentage of would-be homeowners who were inclined to hire an architect for your house project and also had a lot that was challenging or risky or, worse yet, said to be unbuildable (in LA, there are many of those), Lautner likely would have made it onto your radar. And so the story of the Pearlman project is a typical one in the exciting Lautner canon. It goes like this: Agnes Pearlman was seeking an architect who could give her family of four a progressively designed but small and inexpensive vacation cabin in Idyllwild, a mountainous rural area near Palm Springs, about two hours east of Los Angeles, that was then becoming a popular getaway destination for “alternative-minded” Angelenos. It was 1956, and the middle-class bohemian Pearlman, a resident of L.A., was having trouble finding a taker for the job.

“Mom didn’t want an ordinary four-walled log cabin,” recalled Pearlman’s daughter, Nancy. “That’s what they were building up there then.” One of several architects from the city (Idyllwild itself didn’t have any architects) who’d turned down the job suggested that Pearlman see the LA–based Lautner. “Mom had studied interior design and Modern architecture in the 1940s,” said Pearlman. “She knew Lautner had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Like his mentor, Lautner usually took his design cues directly from the natural characteristics of the building site. Highly inventive, he was a great problem solver, and that too was evident in his architecture.

While not as off-putting as some of his Hollywood Hills jobs, Pearlman’s site was nonetheless a potentially costly major inconvenience—steep to the tune of about 40 degrees and boulder-strewn and with an enormous jagged rock outcropping in the very spot where a house would have optimal views of the adjacent mountain range. Access was narrow and similarly rocky. Heavy materials would have to be at least partially transported in by hand.

“They couldn’t get anybody up here to built it according to Lautner’s design,” Pearlman told me. Her uncle, William Branch, ended up constructing it, with great competence it should be said, and he lived on the property in a tent for several months until the job was completed.

Construction detail. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

Construction detail. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at his body of work but it turns out Lautner has a long and intimate history with the log cabin. In 1923, at age 12, he helped his father build the family’s Swiss Chalet-style log house (Lautner’s mother was the designer) on Lake Superior in Michigan, a property that the architect would, himself, later own and keep for himself his entire life.

But the incredible Pearlman Cabin, all earthy and warm and yet also as tech oriented (from a construction standpoint) as some of the architect’s celebrated works, is what could be called Lautner’s only riff on the log genre. Certainly it’s a triumph, and one of a kind.

For more on Lautner, check out this website.

P.S. In the period since my interview with Pearlman, the cabin was placed on the market for film-and-television location rental.

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The living area, all done in concrete and conventional lumber, at the center of the circular plan. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

 

Coral-Stone Constructed

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Over the last few years i’ve slowly been gathering material for a book on the historic architecture of Barbados. (There are other Barbados posts on this blog.) A recent trip included a research stay at Little Good Harbour, which occupies the old Fort Rupert building in the fisherman’s village of Shermans.  A superb hotel, and with a great restaurant, I should add. Here’s a link to them: http://www.littlegoodharbourbarbados.com/
Snapshots by Richard Olsen.

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A Bohemian Rhapsody: John Witzig’s Early-’70s DIY Surf Shelter

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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.)

Angourie, New South Wales, Australia, in all its glory. Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Angourie, New South Wales, Australia, in all its glory. | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

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.

Here’s what he had to say about the place.Witzig_Angourie_x1

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"This tent was 'home' for many months. It had a floor that came from a house I demolished, electricity, and even a refrigerator. The pattern of leaves on the canvas walls convinced me to replicate those in the house. Driftwood was a useful source of materials for benches. It arrived complete with character."

“This tent was ‘home’ for many months. It had a floor that came from a house I demolished, electricity, and even a refrigerator. The pattern of leaves on the canvas walls convinced me to replicate those in the house. Driftwood was a useful source of materials for benches. It arrived complete with character.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974. When you’re building a house, some people are useful, and most just get in the way. No one helped me more than Nigel building this first house. He was too good a craftsman really. My impatience, and his inclination for doing it well were sometimes at odds.

“Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974. When you’re building a house, some people are useful, and most just get in the way. No one helped me more than Nigel building this first house. He was too good a craftsman really. My impatience, and his inclination for doing it well were sometimes at odds.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Construction gang c. 1973. This was the day that we raised the frame of the front part of my house. This event clearly needed the help of everyone that I knew at Angourie. Owner-building thrives on these celebrations.

“Construction gang c. 1973. This was the day that we raised the frame of the front part of my house. This event clearly needed the help of everyone that I knew at Angourie. Owner-building thrives on these celebrations.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“I added a lean-to on the back of the middle section of the house to give a bit of storm protection to the back door, and also the kitchen windows. The little veranda relieved the rather stark geometry as well… no bad thing.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“Ah… the interior lining done. As I remember, the boards were painted and I simply turned them around. They were wide, and quite beautiful. The kitchen cupboards were courtesy of the skill of my friend Nigel. They were designed to fit things like the old ceramic sink that I’d found somewhere, not the other way around.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“The western end of the middle section had fly-screen walls, and fibreglass sheeting for the roof. It was almost like living outside… lovely in the summer, and a bit cool in the middle of winter.”  | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

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“I plotted all of the trees on the site, and basically filled the gaps between them. Only one tree over three feet was sacrificed.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Self-portrait at the Angourie house c. 1974. I really don’t know when I took this picture. The front bit of the house (it was in three parts) is finished (really!). There’s even a picture hanging above the fireplace. It could be as late as 1977, but I doubt it.

“Self-portrait at the Angourie house c. 1974. I really don’t know when I took this picture. The front bit of the house (it was in three parts) is finished (really!). There’s even a picture hanging above the fireplace. It could be as late as 1977, but I doubt it.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

Why Not Now! The Alan Watts Documentary Film

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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.

Why Not Now? Highlight from Mark Watts on Vimeo.

Sardinian Santa

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www.caladivolpe.com/

www.caladivolpe.com

Christmas eye candy from the Hotel Cala di Volpe—the architecture of Jacques Couëlle and Savin Couëlle, among my most unforgettable discoveries for Handmade Houses. In the book, I talk about the sources, including those of the wood and iron and tile work.

With a floor lamp by Francois Thevenin. www.caladivolpe.com

Guestroom with a floor lamp by Francois Thevenin. www.caladivolpe.com

 

With more lighting by Thevenin...  www.caladivolpe.com

Another guestroom, with more lighting by Thevenin… www.caladivolpe.com

 

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Lobby lounging.  www.caladivolpe.com

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www.caladivolpe.com

 

Snowfall and the Swedish House of Heavy Timber

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TKTKTKTKTK. Photo copyright Radek Kurzaj, from Log Houses of the World by Richard Olsen and Radek Kurzaj.

On the outskirts of Stockholm in an area that, in the last 50 years, has become yet another example of suburban uniformity, I found one house that stands for an earlier, much more individualistic and artistic time of architectural expression: Lars Wahlman’s “Tallom,” the house–studio the architect designed and built for himself in 1904–6 during the National Romantic period.  Expressive construction details and leaded-glass windows, along with more overt, applied ornamentation in the form of carvings, forgings, and painting, on the exterior and interior, result in a total-work-of-art effect in which traditions that might have been a little tired are given new vitality and relevance. The particular log-joinery method employed here, full scribe with locking ends, stems from the Swedish province of Dalecarlia—its Old World building practices, a deep well as these things go, were in the middle of a fiery renaissance when Tallom was conceived.  “Whether hewn or not,” the house’s architect advised in the journal Arkitektur in 1908, “the walls of logs have a more truthful and honest look than any others, and no more solid wall construction can be found in the north.”  (A note of perspective: This house, and the larger Swedish building trend of which it is part, had a close kin in America’s National Park architecture and also in the ultimate bungalows of Greene & Greene.) —R.O. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com.

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Tallom’s front door makes a killer impression with its massive wide-plank construction and Wahlman-designed ironwork. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com.

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As if to flaunt the amount of deft handwork involved (and why not), the log-end carvings are set off in red stain. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com.

 

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Forget draperies, here the “window treatments” on the leaded glass come in the form of carved-and-stained permanence, allowing for maximum light and heat gain. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com

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I’m not a fan of putting paint on walls made of genuinely beautiful wood… but i do like the room’s door surround and the floral-motif carvings and niches on the fireplace. In A PATTERN LANGUAGE, Christopher Alexander used this room as the “Alcoves” chapter opener.  Note: All the white paint (and there are other rooms in the house that take it further) suggests the internationally felt influence of the Glasgow Style, as seen in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1903 Hill House in Helensburgh, Scotland. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com

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One of several carved-and-painted stair posts in the house that impressed us. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com

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The walls of the first-floor living room were fortunately spared the paint job, leaving a richly textured blonde backdrop for paintings. | Photo copyright 2014 Radek Kurzaj. www.radekkurzaj.com

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Wahlman’s own illustrations of construction details. Translations are as follows:
A. The timber dries more quickly when hewn on two sides. B. The groove was made somewhat deeper than the curve of the log below. Additional packing has never been done or needed. C. If the lower member of the frame reaches the bottom of its groove, the upper member must have a groove large enough to allow for settling. D. This type of of log construction is still well known to the traditional Dalecarlia carpenters and can be found in many old cottages in southern Dalecarlia. E. The knotted variant [of construction] used at Tallom. | This and drawing below from the aforementioned 1908 edition of “Arkitektur.”

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Stay at One of the Featured Homes from My Book Handmade Houses

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A view of the house at Van der Ryn Eco Refuge, a green getaway located in Inverness, California. Photo by Richard Olsen. Copyright 2013/14.

A view of the house at Van der Ryn Eco Refuge, a green getaway located in Inverness, California. Photo by Richard Olsen. Copyright 2013/14.

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