Last weekend’s Monterey Design Conference had many special moments–beyond those spent walking the spectacular grounds of the Asilomar center on the Pacific ocean. The conference, which is essentially the bi-annual meeting of the California AIA, is trying to re-brand itself the “MDC” in hopes of encouraging the general public to attend. But the conference has been M.C.ed for the past dozen years by Robert Ivy, Chief Executive Officer of the AIA and once again he did a brilliant job (with help from Larry Scarpa) of keeping the event moving along between wine tastings, a small trade show and attendees’ desire to escape the darkened conference hall for a walk on the beach. Ivy began the weekend with a bit of AIA news from the AIA Octagon by announcing that (after 50 years of trying) the AIA is reducing its board of directors from 52 down to a more manageable 11-15 members. It has been nearly impossible for a group of this size to meet regularly and a smaller board should be more nimble and allow a reconstructed board “council” to act as working groups to research AIA issues. Ivy also reported that he had just flown in from New York and attended the Clinton Global Initiative where he began a relationship with the organization that will focus on how design can create “a healthier environment.” But the real meat of this conference has always been design–celebrating its masters, introducing young firms, and honoring its elders.
The first session began with a talk by Fayetteville-based Marlon Blackwell who has spent several decades working in a state he calls “home of Bill and a billion chickens.” Claiming he had just “cut his mullet” for the event Blackwell went on to show his well-crafted regionalist projects that he says are placed on a site between the ideal (think Fay Jones’ Throwncrown Chapel) and the improvised local jeryrigged landscape. He riffed on his well known TV dish (purchased for two cases of beer) turned dome for his St Nicolas Church project. Next up was emerging San Francisco practice Brian Price who showed multiple digitally rendered projects but thus far his work is mostly unbuilt. He is recently relocated from the Ivy league hothouse of the East Coast and this will hopefully allow him to build and craft a real project. The evening finished with Anne Fougeron showing her elegant residential projects, including a dramatic cantilevered house hanging over a steep Big Sur cliff.
The second day began (after 6am “restorative” yoga on the beach) with Thomas Phifer who presented his beautifully detailed institutional and residential projects up and down the East Coast and in Houston. He began his presentation “Outside In: Architecture in the Landscape” with Dan Graham and Michael Heizer images and it was fun to watch this East Coast architect lecture the West Coast on light, reflectivity, and nature while they ogled his hard-edged glass walls. Ivy introduced the young San Francisco practice Future Cities Lab who like their Los Angeles cohorts Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu showed their formal research into media walls, networking (“communicative surfaces”), distribution, and latticed space frames. These young designers are like, many of their generation, more interested in formal research and installations than actual buildings or even social engagement. Further, the work of these young firms is pointedly performative in how it conceives of its practice and presents itself, with the Oyler Wu Collaborative even showing a time lapse video of the construction of their recent Sci Arc graduation pavilion. But the smaller Asilomar break out sessions presented several young practitioners who do wed design and social engagement in a compelling new formulations like computational designer German Aparicio founder of informedCITIES talked about his research on real-time data, systems and networks and how maps, GIS, data visualization, urban sensing can be put at the disposal of design projects. These Pecha Kucha-style sessions also included a convincing talk “Mighty Hand: Hand Drawing Within the BIM Workflow” by Jess Field who went to describe the benefits of hand drawing and what digital renderings leave out like a reference to scale and the human body. The AIA then presented Jack MacAllister with a lifetime Achievement award and he sat in a large chair on the stage and told folksy tales of sixty years of practice.
Later that day Odile Decq and Kengo Kuma presented their work which are both highly inventive but could not have been more unlike in built form and materials. Decq showed her black and red designs for the MACRO in Rome, the Garnier Opera restaurant and a sleek yacht design for an Italian client. Kumo eschews contemporary materials for materials (built by local artisans when possible) like wood, adobe, and ceramic tiles that he claims strive for “building that harmonizes with the climate and environment of the place.” Both designers had their adherents in the audience as Kuma’s traditional materials certainly has affinities with Bar Region traditions and Decq’s pure formalism, which resonates with contemporary Los Angels designers. Different groups gave each standings ovations after their presentations. The presentations ended with a warm tribute to Thom Mayne who seemed to be concerned that this awards might harm his “bad boy image,” but was described as a warm, supportive, and helpful colleague to younger practices in California.