Friday, April 18, 2014


Let’s see… You hire an architect to come up with a new design that enlarges your facility. In order to do this, though, the new design needs to travel directly through the middle of an existing building. There is a public uproar about the possibility that the existing building might be torn down, so you ask the architect you hired to study the new building to “study” the possibilities of saving the existing building. A sufficiently long-enough period of time passes, and the architect comes back with a report stating that the existing building needs to be removed to allow for expansion.


Exactly the scenario the Museum of Modern Art in New York has gone through with Diller and Scofidio in determining whether or not to save Williams and Tsien’s beautiful American Folk Art Museum building. A building that was only dedicated in December of 2001 - 12+ years ago. Now that makes ecological sense… 

Isn’t this the museum that purports to be interested in all things green?

I have no doubt that their new structure will be LEED Certified.

Michael Kimmelman raises a number of issues in his recent New York Times article, including the question of how MoMA was thinking they were going to transgress the small museum building to get to their developer-driven high-rise space were the Folk Art building not to be removed. Now, that’s a good question. And, maybe the answer would allow the building to remain.

But, perhaps more importantly is the question about expansion and size. How large do museums need to be? When are they no longer museums? What’s the point where “mega” takes over “museum? Does New York’s Museum of Modern Art need to consume the entire block, the entire mid-town district, the entire island of Manhattan, in order to remain a museum?

You may have stood in line recently at the Savernack Street Gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District. No gift shop, no fancy (or fast) dining, no bookstore… Just art. And thinking. And, contemplating.

So, which is really a place to further the intellectual process and development of human thought? The Mall of America, on 53rd Street in mid-town Manhattan, or a sidewalk in the Mission District? Granted, the peephole gallery is probably not going to sell many t-shirts, or raise a multi-million dollar endowment, but I have a feeling their carbon footprint as a ratio to brain neuron firings is significantly higher. 

Friday, August 2, 2013


Here are a few quotes I have recently come across that I thought were worth passing along:

From an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rigo 23 comments on the status of status in our society: “…progress and going toward the future cannot only be measured by the size of your cell phone.”

From an interview by writer Iman Ansari, published in Hamshahri Architecture in Iran, Peter Eisenman laments the loss of hand drawing in architecture: “I cannot read a book on a Kindle.To me, drawing and reading are the same thing. I can’t read on the computer. Anytime someone draws something in the computer, I want it printed so I can draw over it either with tracing paper on it or without it. You cannot make a plan in the computer by connecting dots. You have to think about a diagram or what it is you are doing. You have to think in drawing. I watch people in this office sitting and looking at these things on their screen as they roll them around in space, and I think to myself,what the hell are they doing? It’s nuts. It’s totally wacko.”

From an article in the New York Times about a cadre of new movies, including “The Great Gatsby”, “The Bling Ring”, and “Spring Breakers”, talking about Gatsby: “The contradictory answer supplied by the movie is that he thought he was just like everybody else: exceptional, a winner, a V.I.P. The idea that everyone can have everything may be logically preposterous, but it is ideologically essential to the imagination of a country that seems to be living simultaneously in the Great Depression and the Gilded Age.”

From an article in the New York Times regarding the ongoing negotiations between England and Argentina regarding the status of the Falkland Islands, and Britain’s suggestion that the Argentinian Foreign Minister meet with a representative of the island population: “I need to meet with the Foreign Minister. Kings meet with Kings, and Queens meet with Queens. Usually that is the way it works.”

Friday, July 26, 2013


One of the real advantages of living in a place like San Francisco is the enjoyment of watching the 1% spend their money. It appears to get distributed in a spray shot that hits everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. 

One of the places this new-found wealth seems to be directed more often than not is toward saving the planet. Good! One of the places it doesn’t seem to get directed toward is design. Ouch!

And, a favorite place to spend money, at least in California, is on cars!

Not long ago all hybrid cars looked like enlarged packaging cases for feminine hygiene products or characters in a Dreamworks movie. Why was it that almost all hybrids looked like they were an offshoot on the family tree of the Prius computer design program? Why was it that no one, or seemingly no one, was able to design a good looking hybrid / electric car? Did someone decide that design was in part responsible for global warming?

But, then, along came Tesla, and suddenly design and the environment were, or are, back in the same bed. Only, the problem is that the bed is made with the equivalent of imported 360 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Titans of the New World can afford that count. The 47% group will have to hope that design is headed their way at some point downstream. But, at least Tesla seems to have reinserted the idea of passion back into the world of automobile design. It’s been a long time coming. As Godfrey Sullivan, CEO of Splunk, was quoted as saying in a recent SF Business Times, “It’s as if Steve Jobs built a car.”

If Jobs had been born earlier, he might have been friends with the Arfons. You might have seen the recent obituary for Walt Arfons. He and his brother, Art, defined passion and automobile design. After dropping out of school after the 10th grade, and serving in the military in WWII, Walt and his brother spent the next 20+ years strapping cars onto jet engines in an attempt to set the land speed record. 


The jet-propellled WingfootExpress set the record, on 2 October 1964 at 413.2 mph.

Three days later, Walt’s brother Art, who by this point had become estranged from his sibling, set a new record with his turbojet driven car. 434 mph. That record lasted just over a week, at which point an auslander from California set a new record. At that point, Walt dropped out of the race, and the two remaining teams exchanged records several times.

What the two brothers didn’t exchange, because they were both full of it, was passion. Summed up by Walt: “There’s nothing like sitting in a car and feeling the afterburners.”

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Brad Garlinghouse, the CEO of YouSendIt, was asked what traits he looks for when he hires someone:

“The thing I look for more than anything else is passion. If someone brings passion to their work, it compensates for myriad potential weaknesses, and that passion manifests itself in hard work and commitment. It manifests itself in authentic communication. For really passionate people, it’s hard for them to keep their opinions to themselves because they feel so strongly about something.”

What’s your passion?

Thursday, May 30, 2013


You might have missed John King's article in the SF Chronicle regarding Apple's new retail store on Union Square.  You may have missed my blog entry on Apple's new corporate headquarters as well.

King has a number of issues with the new Apple store.  Some you may agree with.  Some you may not agree with.  One issue he brings up is the fact that the new store has a very tall two story clear glass façade facing directly south onto Union Square.  King brings up concerns regarding heat gain and the amount of energy-consuming air conditioning this will require to mitigate.  OK...  Trees.

Forests : According to the EPA, 150 million cell phones were junked by Americans in 2010 alone.  Apparently, Americans replace their cell phones every 22 months, on average (it's unclear if this takes into account the whole cell phone theft calendar or not...).   Between 2006 - 2010, Americans threw away (this does not include anything sent to a recycler) 850,000 tons of cell phones.  Add in the 3,930,000 tons of computers, monitors, keyboards, and mice, and you end up with something that approaches the weight of 47 + Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.  Ouch!

Keep in mind, that's what went into the trash.  Some stuff did, in fact go to recyclers to be properly returned to the system.

So...  I own an iPhone.  Most likely, you do to.  And, despite being an architect, I think I care a lot more about trying to require companies like Apple to recycle all of their product than I do about the energy consumption of a store on a public square.  Obviously you can do both, but if we can save the whole forest I don't get too concerned about cutting down a single tree.  Congress introduced the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act in 2011, which had bipartisan support, but was never put to a vote. That’s something I would really like my Congressman to be paying attention to.

Wonder what happens to all the lead, cadmium and mercury contained in e-trash?  Here's a hint:

So, instead of getting concerned about a two story façade, let's get Apple dealing with this bigger issue.  And, while we're at it, let's skip the whole tax thing as well  -  chump change to the world, in comparison!  Get Apple to take the tax delta and apply it to recycling their products  -  in the end that is good for them, good for Mother Earth, and good for the American economy. 
Probably better than paying taxes...

Two other points I should mention that King has with the new Apple store:

Apparently the façade along Stockton Street is blank.  I agree this isn't very nice.  In fact, it's unfortunate, and - probably - a missed opportunity based on an architectural diagram.  I’m sure that will get figured out downstream.

And, King seems to have grown sentimental over the Ruth Asawa fountain at the stairs off Stockton between the current Levi's store and the hotel to the north. I'm going to guess if you polled 100 San Franciscans about that fountain, a strong 3 would even know it exists. I have a feeling there is a much better location for it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Green or Evil - You Decide

In May of 1972 I was sitting in my family's dining room in Frankfurt, Germany, when the Red Army Faction set off a car bomb just a few blocks away.  Like any young boy, I was attracted to the bombing like a moth to light, and I arrived on scene to experience my first sighting of a dead person, a Lieutenant Colonel lying on the sidewalk.  I had no comprehension of the socio-political overtones of the event.  In fact, what seemed to fascinate me most was that the bomb had blown out ever single window on the facing wall of the I.G. Farben Building next to the Officer's Club where the bomb had been placed.

The I.G. Farben Building is a large crescent-shaped building, built by the IG Farben company, one of the largest stake-holders in Nazi Germany's military-industrial complex.  The rumor on the street, when I was living nearby, was that the built structure was only part of a much larger full-circle building, whose diameter was to be approximately a kilometer. Luckily, the outcome of World War Two prevented that.

My own personal fascination with the building, though, was its large collection of patternosters, which provided for endless hijinks for teenage boys.  They most definitely did not meet current ADA / HC Accessibility code requirements.

Which all brings me to the soon-to-be-realized Apple Corporate Headquarters in Cupertino.  It seemed to slip off the new headlines after its original unveiling, but is now back on the front page. The cost of the building has ballooned from just under $3 billion to nearly $5 billion at the same time that Apple's shares have dropped 38% with strong competition from other smartphone and tablet manufacturers like Samsung Electronics.  Reasonably so, shareholders are wondering why the company is spending so much on a building, which - for the record - has a per square foot estimated cost of $1,500, and will exceed the total cost of the new World Trade Center in New York.

I'm not so worried about the cost of the project.  It's not my money.  I am worried about the idea that Apple, and their esteemed architect, Sir Norman Foster, are seemingly able to push the building as a model of "green" architecture.  I'm unclear on what is green about a 10,500 car parking garage, and, for that matter, building a corporate headquarters in a location that requires most of the 14,000+ employees to get there in a car.  It seems to me that no matter how many photo-voltaic cells you put on the roof of the building, or no matter how many trees you plant, the equation just never pencils out on earth's side.

To make that number of parking spaces just slightly understandable, I'll compare it to a structure you may be familiar with.  The Fifth and Mission parking garage  -  a full block in length, and eight stories of parking.  It holds 2,585 cars.  Apple's green garage will hold a little more than four times as many cars.  Ouch.

Maybe Apple could have considered actually being green, as opposed to looking green, and located their offices somplace easy to get to by public transportation, as opposed to conveniently next to an interstate highway.

Maybe my skepticism of the building runs deeper than a concern for its green-ness.    Besides the IG Farben Bulding, which was [at least theoretically] to be a complete circle, the only other building I know of that is the same physical magnitude as the Apple headquarters, and general architectural idea, is the Pentagon.  Which makes me think of Google's corporate slogan : "Don't be evil."

Or, maybe this new building makes me think of other high-flying Silicon Valley firms that constructed big fancy corporate headquarters, like Silicon Graphics (now the Computer History Museum!), Borland Software, and Sun Microsystems, and subsequently, like Icarus, paid for flying too close to the sun.

Apple may want to re-think its architecture for a number of reasons.  Apple is a great company.  They can do better.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Paintings / Picon / Preservation

I am scheduled to have lunch with a long-ago colleague from SOM this coming week at the Pied Piper Bar and Grill in the Palace Hotel.   "So?... " You may say.

So...  There's a lot embodied in that lunch hour.

First, I am reminded of my time at Skidmore.  Great training ground, despite the fact that my tenure with the venerable firm coincided with its nadir in the design world.  Hopefully the two conditions were not related.  Since my time there, SOM SF has produced a large portfolio of extraordinary buildings, Including both the international terminal at SFO and the Cathedral of Light in Oakland.  I applaud their work, and I continue to strongly suggest to young architects that it is a great place to hang their hat for a short period of time.

Then, I am reminded of how much I don't really like Maxfield Parish.  He is the artist who was commissioned in 1909 by the hotel to paint the "Pied Piper of Hamelin" a 16' x 6' painting that hangs behind the bar.  As an undergraduate, Maxfield Parish's studio / museum in Cornish, New Hampshire wasn't far from my college.  As was Augustus Saint-Gaudens'.  Saint-Gaudens was a lot more interesting to me than Parish, who always seemed to be the Norman Rockwell clone of Hieronymus Bosch, without the intellectual content.  Saint-Gaudens, on the other hand, at least did some very cool designs for money.

And, finally, all of this gets me to start to think about the power of historic preservation commissions and City agencies.  As an architect, these regulatory boards are just one of the many banes of my existence.  But, as a participant in something that loosely makes up a living organic urban fabric that we call "city", I rely on these entities to protect the many "things" that provide for this fabric to be,  for lack of a better word, enjoyable.  So, should an historic preservation commission be able to regulate the interior of a hotel, and require that a painting not be removed from a bar? Or, should the hotel owner be able to do as they please, and sell the painting on the free market, thus changing a piece of the fabric that has, for many years, contributed to the City?  Because the bar is a public  place, and enjoys an economic benefit as such, does it then fall under different consideration than other interior spaces?  As Kevin Starr, the unofficial state historian of California has noted, growing up in San Francisco he was introduced to life in the City when he was taken to the Pied Piper, at 18, for a drink and to admire the painting.

Luckily, we don't need to decide if the interiors of buildings, and this painting, are protected.  In the end, at least for now, the Palace Hotel has decided to keep the painting in place.

So, head to the Pied Piper Bar and Grill, and enjoy a little bit of history in a wonderful setting.  And, when you do that, you will be taking in one of San Francisco Architectural Heritage's 25 Legacy Institutions.  Which is a whole different, and just as interesting, topic.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Plays!  Books!  Movies!  Videos!

OK, let's just get it out of the way first...

Charles and Ray Eames are now hip enough that Ice Cube has made a video about his interest in them, their work, and the legacy they left for Los Angeles. It's a long way from Cop Killer...

By this point you may be aware that architects seem to be back in fashion as the object of desire in the media.

The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is about to present a play, "Higher", about two architects competing against one another to win a competition for a memorial in Israel:

And, I am sure many of you have read the recently-published book about the architect who wins a blind competition to design a 9 / 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan, only to be revealed to be Muslim after the competition results are announced. Amy Waldman's book, "The Submission", has had every glowing adjective possible attached to it.

Which then brings us to the current spate of films about architects and architecture! The three films currently out are spread across the spectrum : a PR event for an architect, a most decidedly non-PR piece for architecture, and a third somewhere in between.

The first, Norman Foster's "How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster" seems to be a visual version of a vanity press book. If you don't know his work, or don't know much about Sir Norman, this will will visually fill you in.

The second, "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth", centers around the failure of the public housing project in St. Louis, and is summarized in the quote from its designer, Minoru Yamasaki, "Social ills can't be cured by nice buildings.'' Definitely not a PR piece for architecture.

And, finally, "Eames, The Architect and the Painter", an archival research piece into the world of Charles and Ray Eames.

Among the many fascinating pieces of the-world-according-to-Charles-and-Ray this film explores, three stick out:

1. Eames' explanation of what the architect, or designer has to offer a potential client at the start of a project: "You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it's an unlimited repertoire." Not too far from what we have been telling clients (who generally don't want to hear this, or don't understand this) for years : "MH/A begins each project with the understanding that the questions which should be asked are more important than knowing the presumed final answers."

2. Eames' explanation of the issue of constraints, and how they are manipulated in the design process (as summarized in this excerpt from the book " Eames design, The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames"):

Does the creation of design admit constraint?
Design depends largely on constraints.

What constraints?
The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.

Does design obey laws?
Aren’t constraints enough?

Have you been forced to accept compromises?
I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.

Which also pre-echos something else I have been telling clients for years: "The assumption on the part of MH/A is that the world is not an "either-or" universe, but rather a "both-and", and that one of the tasks of the architect is to discover the point in space where disparate arcs of issues actually coincide."

3. And, finally, Kevin Roche, expressing how "fucked up" (his words) he thought the Eames were when he went to their house for dinner, and they served a "visual" dessert, of beautiful flowers in a vase, at the end of dinner. He left and immediately drove to Dairy Queen.

You can watch the film, in its entirety, here.