The Artists of the Handmade House: California Sculptor Bruce Johnson

Sculptor and former Canyon Construction carpenter/construction foreman Bruce Johnson was one of the master craftsmen charged with realizing artist James Hubbell's design for the chapel at Sea Ranch, on California's Sonoma Coast.

1973’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art, along with Boericke and Shapiro’s subsequent books, unveiled rather concisely an adventurous new “code” of design and construction that had emerged principally from California’s SF Bay Area. At the time, there was a heightened consciousness of and preference for the iconic farm and ranch buildings of the American West, that “architecture without architects” created by the homesteaders and other pioneers (men and women who by necessity possessed a very hands-on relationship with the earth). Choice of building materials was paramount, and the dominant preference was for old redwood bridge timbers and other salvaged timber and hardware not normally considered for domestic use. Hand-applied ornamentation done with individualistic flair—”we’re imperfect works of art, so our homes should be too”— allowed one’s idiosyncrasies to shine in the building. Ornament wasn’t a crime after all. Forget Modernism’s pristine steel-and-glass box, rustic and rough hewn (“natural”) and one-of-a-kind was now considered cool. This was green design and construction before “green” existed—before it became technical and product oriented, the big-business domain of the marketers and advertisers.

Firstly (and this is illustrated in my book), it has to be said that some of the most creatively progressive (and still lived in today!) handmade houses of the 1960s and early ’70s were made by do-it-yourselfers without formal design, construction, or other applied-arts training. Unburdened by “how it’s supposed to be done,” they were free to truly create. At the other end of the spectrum, there were instances, especially in Berkeley and Stinson Beach, of far-outside-the-box design and artful construction done by countercultural architects who could build. But the houses that effectively codified the artistic-ad-hoc “handmade house” look that ended up spread around the world by Boericke and Shapiro had been designed and constructed by another constituency: actual artists with advanced degrees. In fact, it was one group of friends, some of them sculptors, who’d gone “back to the land” in Canyon, California—leaving the art world in order to build houses—that led the way.

[Sidebar 1: From my interviews with homeowners who met Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro during their travels, it seems that it was Boericke, now deceased, who found the well-hidden houses for the books he made with Shapiro (also deceased) in the ’70s and ’80s. Boericke’s own handmade house is featured in their first book. He was plugged in to SF’s countercultural design community. But how did Boericke end up on all of those out-of-the-way paths? Everything I’ve seen suggests that Sim Van der Ryn, the UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture (now Emeritus) and, later, former CA State Architect, was at least an important influence. And of course Sim wrote the foreword to their first book and allowed his house to be featured.]

[Sidebar 2: During the Vietnam War draft, certain members of the Canyon crew relocated to Hornby Island, B.C., greatly influencing Canada’s back-to-the-land architecture and construction. That’s a story for a later blog entry.]

To name a few members of the 1960s/70s Canyon crew: Barry Smith, Tim Biggins, Michael Wesling, Dean Pratt, Louise Pratt, former UC Berkeley sculpture professor and Canyon Construction founder Deva Rajan, and sculptor Bruce Johnson.

Johnson remains active and has furthered the particular handmade approach of the late-1960s Canyon crew in fascinating ways—refining it without losing the hand-touched idiosyncrasies that made it great in the first place. For a long while, I’ve been wanting to show some of his more recent projects—the buildings and the sculpture. Note: Johnson’s early-2000s Poetry House (see pics below) is for sale!

Shelter mag writers have a habit of misusing/abusing “stunning” to describe just about any pretty picture. (When was the last time you were in fact “stunned” by a photo of a house??) But seriously, if used in the context of Bruce Johnson’s work I think we’d be looking at fair play.

Bruce Johnson's Poetry House was made from a redwood log that he found half buried in the earth. The post-and-beam structure's roof is made from salvaged copper shingles. And what is a "poetry house," you might ask? "The empty space where attention resides," says Johnson. Evan Johnson, Bruce's brother, took the photos.

The Poetry House's "tokonoma" wall (at rear) features green glass tiles—slumped and fused wine bottles—made by Canyon artist Louise Pratt. Its roof is sheathed with wood from an old pickle barrel. Note: The home of Louise Pratt, along with that of her husband, Dean, is featured in Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design. Johnson first collaborated with the Pratts in the early 1970s in Canyon.

One of the Louise Pratt recycled-wine-bottle tiles.

The French window opens to allow a stage for a poet to read to a group gathered in the garden.

A detail of the front door. "The front door lets light in near the floor," Johnson says. "A building with floors designed to be lived on has different light requirements. Subdued light is part of the design." The infill panels are textured copper.

"I cut all the posts freehand with a chainsaw," says Johnson, "and tried to follow the grain like it was being split, something which this tight, dense knotty redwood would not do. The posts were smoothed with a draw knife and spokeshave, and while the wood was luscious to cut, it got too smooth and pretty and I had to go back and create an adzed texture using an electric Makita radius plane with custom-ground plane irons."

"There is one exterior side (of the five) that has no door or window, so it became a mandala site."