When the Sonoma and Napa fires of 2017 tore through the Bay Area design community, several thousand structures were destroyed, and as many as 15,000 people were left without homes. Architects whose families and clients lost homes made it to the Monterey Design Conference last October to find comfort and to connect. Every year, I buttonhole attendees to seek out their favorite presenters. Sou Fujimoto won my informal poll, so I’ll start with him. Fujimoto began his presentation with a photo of a tree and a Tokyo city scene. The title of his lecture, “Between Nature and Architecture,” turned out to be the unintended theme for the conference. In all his work, Fujimoto questions obvious assumptions. This was true with two relatively small houses, House N and House NA, where he redefined the interior/exterior boundary. As with Richard Meier, most of his work is white. But unlike Meier’s work, his strives to almost disappear. He even questions assumptions about how to design a public bathroom in Ichihara, making the structure completely transparent and the landscape wholly private. Weiss/Manfredi’s opening lecture addressed the “binary reading of the natural and artificial.” Their low-rise projects express inventive ways to weave structure and landscape together, like Seattle’s Olympia Sculpture Park (2007) or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Center (2012). This approach reaches its apogee in the Novartis Visitor Center (2013). I can’t remember a high-security checkpoint being so graceful—like the spirit of one of Calatrava’s birds rather than the remains. They reminded us, with their handsome portfolio, that our experience of nature is largely constructed. An unexpected surprise was a last-minute replacement, the tall and very funny Jeff Goldstein from the Philadelphia based firm DIGSAU. Without a written script, he showed us a modest not-for-profit center that trains at-risk youth. Students helped build the wood collage wall. It was a glorious example of how to create authentic community engagement. Shohei Shigematsu, the head of the OMA’s New York office, showed us that there is a future to OMA beyond Rem Koolhaas. Milstein Hall, the expanded center at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning reminded of some of the big moves architects employed in the 60s. OMA’s diagrams are ingenious, but the spaces are not inviting. One of Shigematsu’s most interesting projects is his collaboration with artist Taryn Simon at the Park Avenue Armory. The concrete columns have a stillness that some of the jazzier permanent buildings do not. My spectacular visuals award goes to Dominique Jakob of the Paris-based Jakob + MacFarlane. Their design appears to be rooted in digital technology and seemed far removed from the mundane requirements of our West Coast digital overlords. On the river in Lyon, two office buildings, the “Orange Cube” and the “Green Cube,” with bold color and grand cutouts, make Apple’s and Facebook’s new buildings look almost banal. The firm’s 100-unit social housing project in Paris doesn’t follow the form of typical Parisian apartment blocks, and Jakob’s use of ETFE film for balcony curtains gives the building a wrapped Christo look on each floor. What was called the “Tribal Elders” slot at previous conferences was filled with the Los Angeles graphic and exhibition designer Gere Kavanaugh. Noted architect and writer Pierluigi Serraino, a raconteur and interviewer of some skill, could not contain Ms. Kavanaugh. While her presentation of modernist graphics did go on too long, Gere was entertaining. Another determined Angeleno, Julie Eizenberg, talked about Urban Hallucinations, her new non-monograph. Her firm Koning Eizenberg has focused on Los Angeles. They are unafraid of the quirky, the cheap, the historic, the imaginary, the gritty, or the glamorous. This is an architect who thrives on constraints and, as she says, “stretches the limits.” One of my favorite new projects was the Pico Branch Library, which allows everybody to connect to the larger digital universe while staying grounded in the very nonimaginary neighborhood. The “Emerging Talents” included Laura Crescimano, a founder of SITELAB Urban Studio with the late Evan Rose. She charts the course for design professionals engaging disadvantaged communities. Heather Roberge of Murmur and Jimenez Lai and Joanna Grant of Bureau Spectacular reminded us that Los Angeles’s up-and-coming architects are just as bold as the earlier generation. Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects alum Alan Tse stole the show. In the few minutes he was allotted, he made us laugh and admire his considerable talent. His restaurants and interiors are sublime, and his construction budgets are what other architects would charge in fees. He made architecture real in a way I’ve rarely seen. We all needed some levity and inspiration as we returned home to question how or even whether we should rebuild so close to the wildland/urban interface. As with most Monterey Design Conferences, we came away with more questions and few answers.
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This year’s Monterey Design Conference could have been titled the "Monterey Design Short Video Clip Festival." For as long as I can remember, most of the presentations at the conference have followed the same formula: show slides of recent work and explain them. But now most of the speakers are trying to tell a more nuanced story, informed by our mobile-app/social-media/you-are-never-offline age. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I checked in with attendees to get their impressions. Architect Clive Wilkinson was the first speaker. Some hardcore architects didn’t like the idea of an interiors presentation opening the event. But given the amount of interiors work that technology has generated, I thought it made sense. But Clive’s text slides didn’t fit the image slides. I loved the lecture that architect Rand Elliot gave because he linked growing up in Oklahoma to the work he does there, showing how the cars, gas, and big skies of his home state influence his approach to place. Some folks I talked to were snobbish about his presentation, but I thought an Eamesian sense of hospitality pervaded his entire presentation, including a broadsheet of his poetry that he gave to everybody. Attendee and architect George Bradley said that it was his favorite lecture: “His demeanor, his work, ethos, and pursuit for catching light are inspiring. I actually got goosebumps about architecture all over again. He also had the best video, and I wish his was the only video we saw over the weekend.” Merrill Elam of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects seemed to have more videos than anybody else. About half the people I spoke to loved her lecture and mentioned how it revealed her process. The other half was left unimpressed. As Mallory Cusenbery of Ross Drulis Cusenbery told me, “I think Merrill Elam should get an award in the category, ‘Best Presentation That Nobody Understood.’” Video is here to stay, but it was hard to see what scenes from the film Apocalypse Now had to with anything. Most folks that I chatted with agreed that the stars of the show were Spanish architect Carme Pinós and Japan’s Junya Ishigami. Pinós wandered all over the stage, gesturing and ending almost every sentence with “No?” As designer Addison Strong said, “And Carme Pinós....ah well, I have a huge crush on her! I found myself hanging on her every word and image. Her plan sketches become something ‘other’ as they morph into three dimensions and get extruded first into models and then buildings. You get the feeling she is constantly exploring, even when the project is under construction.” Ishigami was less daring in his presentation style, but his work stunned the crowd. Architect Cary Bernstein mentioned him and Pinós as the two standouts, as did others. “Junya Ishigami's near-fantastical structures perfectly complemented Carme's tectonic approach,” Bernstein said. Strong added, “His work was more than a little odd, but each project represented a true investigation of something that was of personal interest to him that he hoped would also have meaning for the users. I found him incredibly optimistic, and we can never have enough of that in architecture.” Speaking of optimism, I always find the “Emerging Talents” session of the conference worth attending. Everybody I talked to agreed that architect Casper Mork-Ulnes and Alvin Huang of Synthesis Design + Architecture were highlights. Mork-Ulnes had a clear message that linked his Norwegian roots and his experience in the West. Huang and his firm embrace all kinds of design exploration. As Strong said, “I particularly liked the work of Casper Mork-Ulnes on the first day and Alvin Huang on the last….they represented polar opposites—the analog vs. digital processes of design that demonstrate that either process is valid when done with care.” Every year the conference presents a “tribal elder.” As he often has in years past, architect and historian Pierluigi Serraino introduced the sage. This year, the elder was Claude Stoller. Serraino, who could be Dick Cavett, Italian and California Modern Division, must have known he would be unable to keep Stoller on track, so he began the “conversation” with a brief summary of the work and its significance. Later Michelle Huber, a principal at Studio Bondy Architecture, told me that this session was her favorite. “I felt like I was witnessing modern architectural history before my eyes. “ When I asked folks about why they came, the most repeated words were “inspiration” and “camaraderie.” People told of connecting with old friends from work or school and meeting architects they have long admired. The presentations that resonate the most tell a fresh, authentic, and coherent story—around a campfire, real or imagined. A little bit of wine doesn’t hurt either. Hint: bring your own.
A weekend at the 2015 Monterey Design Conference (MDC) held at Asilomar leads to a wealth and variety of insights about architecture and design. Including a lesson in "uglyful," says Guy Horton. I learned some new things at the 2015 Monterey Design Festival. Wait. I meant to write “conference.” Monterey Design Conference. That was a true slip. Everybody knows it’s the Monterey Design Conference. Sorry. But to me it was more like a design festival. And is it just me or did MDC seem edgy and on edge this time around? It seemed to pull the 800+ crowd—the conference sold out for the first time in its history—along for a wild ride. This was in no small measure due to the natural and off-the-cuff tone set by Reed Kroloff, who emceed the whole affair. It was, to mention just a few of the many highlights, a whirlwind of poetry, Jimi Hendrix, hot rods, and light by self-styled “stray dog” Rand Elliott. It was video of Liz Taylor applying makeup, Apocalypse Now, Jimi Hendrix again, and the sublime and sometimes frightening world of the “uglyful” by Atlanta dame Merrill Elam. With her, we all went down the rabbit hole. Feel free to dig deeper into this. Later, back on solid ground, came the precision of Bernard Tschumi’s words and drawings, pulled from the codex of his experience; the urgent, sometimes funny, and always intricate art of Pae White; and Junya Ishigami’s disappearing architecture, which took the wind out of anything that tries too hard or uses too much building material. The “emerging talent” definitely emerged. Doris Kim Sung, principal of DOSU Studio Architecture, pretty much mapped out how she owns the territory of thermobiometals and it will be everybody else’s job to catch up. Using his 15 minutes to the max, Alvin Huang, principal of Synthesis Design + Architecture, posed a series of questions as design propositions that will keep him, and others working in the digital realm, busy for at least the next 15 years. The whole thing was like a carnival, with bonfires and architects in black drinking the local Syrah on Monterey's powdery white sand. I know for a fact that at least one architect went surfing every morning. There was a nice left just off the Asilomar grounds. On the beach I bumped into Takashi Yanai and Patricia Rhee (both in black) from Ehrlich Architects. The entire firm was at MDC to be honored as the 2015 AIA Firm Award winner. “It really makes you think differently,” said Rhee when asked what the conference means to her. “It’s definitely out there,” said Yanai. “It’s like being in school again.” “What was most significant to me was hearing a range of mature, truly individual voices ringing out with specificity and confidence. The individual voice in architecture is something that takes years and years and decades to establish, and for many it never solidifies, never gels,” says MDC conference chair Alice Kimm of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects. The voices were indeed individual and, like Elam’s “uglyful,” had the power to take us outside ourselves, even if only for a weekend. And it worked. It’s all a little hard to pin down in 500 words. Just look at the relentless, blow-by-blow @mdc_conf Twitter feed and you’ll get the idea. “I recommend that everyone experience MDC at least once,” said Kimm. “It has a weird but magical combination of gravitas, levity, and inspiration that stays with you for a long time.”
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.
The California AIA's biennial Monterey Design Conference is on the next two days—September 27th and 28th—at Asilomar, the glorious Julia Morgan– and John Carl Warnecke–designed center on the Pacific Ocean in Pacific Grove. The conference will feature lectures by Thom Mayne, Marlon Blackwell, Thomas Phifer, Kengo Kuma, and AN board member Odile Decq. But first up this morning was Greg Otto from Buro Happold who presented various Happold projects that were created using a multi-disciplinary approach and discussed design and legal issues around responsibility and how these "stress traditional design assumptions." Otto also discussed his ongoing New York projects with Jeff Koons who wants to make large steel structures look "like marshmallows." Next a Pecha Kucha–type session on Technology Serving Design where German Aparicio, CCA and UCLA professor and AECOM architect, presented his "informedCITIES" digital data research on urbanism and how it can be applied to design. Aparicio has done fascinating urban metrics research on pre- and post-earthquake Christchurch, New Zealand. It's great to be at an architecture conference that does not just discuss local or regional issues but brings in the world's most important designers to present work of high quality and offers a 6:00a.m. "restorative wake-up Yoga" session sponsored by Academy for Emerging Professionals.
For the first time in 20 confabs the Monterey Design Conference, the AIA California Council’s bi-annual gathering of architectural talent and inspiration, didn’t follow a theme. One participant said that this year’s event was about materiality and light; others talked about science, optimism, and the potential of the future. The organizers did an excellent job reaching out to diverse voices and knew that each attendee would concoct their own theme. After many years the event has evolved to the point it doesn’t need too many impositions. I always try to attend the Emerging Talent sessions, where new voices get a chance to share their work and process. The audience was treated to, and sometimes baffled by, the robots of Andreas Froech (of Machineous), the connections between architecture and biology from Andrew Kudless (of Matsys), and the research questions of Rael San Fratello (loved their simple graphics!). At least Johnston Marklee had some buildings to show. But the theme that emerged from these largely academic architects was that research is going to become more important as architects expand their roles in a shrinking economy. An urgent sense of inquiry permeated all their work. Some of architecture's new shooting stars laid bare their methodologies, like recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Jeanne Gang, who showed how research and academic exploration can result in powerful projects. For a new project in Hyderabad, India, her firm is trying to create a million-square-foot residential project using bricks, airflow, and traditional courtyard shading devices. Closer to home, their work in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo Boardwalk includes collaborating with experts in several disciplines to revitalize what was a decorative pond. They have also finished a turtle-like wood pavilion that has become the preferred site for architect weddings. Among other things Michael Maltzan shared his numerous, and varied projects for Skid Row Housing in LA. Certainly this is one architect who is unafraid of the power of design, even when the project’s budget is very modest. An upcoming project for the organization includes the production of prefabricated modules stacked separately above a large central armature, a construction that will save significant time and money as well as being energetically original. Certainly architects will have to think like this in order to stay relevant in these difficult times. Over the years one of the successes of the conference has been its ability to bring international talent to shake things up. That role this year was played by the refreshingly optimistic Borja Ferrater, the son of the well-known architect, Carlos Ferrater. He practices with his father, sister, and brother-in-law in the firm Office of Architecture in Barcelona. His firm's Botanical garden in Barcelona was a lesson in how humility can create greatness. In the beginning the architecture was primary and the plants were the ornaments. But over time the plants became primary and the architecture became the ornament. How many architects seem pleased to see their work disappear? If there was a theme to be found it was that architecture has to be bold to be relevant. While boldness may often require audacious design and new ways of thinking, we learned throughout the conference that it may also be served by humility—to the profession, to clients and to others. We saw that other practitioners from the fields of science, geography, landscape, literature, and art help make better environments. We have to remember to be quiet to hear them. Kenneth Caldwell is a San Francisco-based writer and communications consultant.
REVEALING BITS Stephen Ehrlich is known to be a mild-mannered LA architect. But it looks like that wasn’t always so. As part of his tribute at Julius Shulman’s memorial service in September, Ehrlich bared not only his praise for Shulman, but also his butt cheeks. He wasn’t at the event, but the Getty presented an image that Shulman took of him in his—shall we say—perkier days. He was obviously hitting the beach a lot then, because we saw some serious tan lines. Uncle Julius, maybe you had another career waiting in the centerfolds? YOUR PINK SLIPS ARE SHOWING The layoffs continue unabated. But it’s even more painful when the firm doing the layoffs just bought your company. Our always (well, almost-always) reliable sources tell us that architecture giant Perkins + Will has just laid off more than 25 people in its San Francisco office. Around ten of them are former employees of SF firm SMWM, which merged with Perkins + Will about a year ago. Guess that M&A plan wasn’t such a good idea, was it? EASY LISTENING The gossip goldmine that is the Monterey Design Conference has delivered yet again. ... Send tips, gossip, and job fairs to Eavesdrop@archpaper.com
The gossip goldmine that is the Monterey Design Conference (held at the lovely Asilomar conference center) has delivered yet again. Somehow all the ocean mist, the fragrant Pine trees and the camp-like atmosphere (not to mention plenty of booze) seem to open up the floodgates that are architects’ mouths. Thom Mayne started the fireworks with tirades against big American firms working in China and Dubai (“HOK, and those other H architects”) against GM (“They have no idea”) and even against rural folk (“all the intelligence in this country comes out of the cities”). Perhaps even more interesting was the war of words launched by some of the older architects in attendance against the fancy young whippersnappers. After mind-bending, and jargon-laden presentations by the likes of Nader Tehrani, Antoine Predock, John Frane, and Neil Denari, William Krisel railed against “talkatects.” “I don’t have fancy words or theories, I just like to draw and build,” said Krisel, not-so-subtly referencing earlier speakers. Later fellow Modern master Ray Kappe worried whether today’s hippest architects really “understand the human being’s relationship to buildings.” He added, “I’ve been to Zaha Hadid’s buildings and I found it a horrible space to stand under.” Snap, that’s some old-school dissing. And all those flying words must have made the designers thirsty. We saw more than one famous architect get drunk out of their minds, in some cases stumbling to their cabins in dissaray. Don’t worry, we won’t name names. Yet.