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.
Posts tagged with "Pierluigi Serraino":
On Friday, the LA Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne reported that Craig Ellwood and Jerrold Lomax's Hunt House in Malibu faces a demolition threat. AN reached out to several experts on Ellwood, preservation, and modern architecture for comments on what this means for Los Angeles. Designed in 1957, the modest beachside home built for Victor and Elizabeth Hunt is considered an iconic piece of midcentury architecture. Late last year, Hawthorne noted, documents were filed with the Malibu Planning Commission to replace the 1,335-square-foot Hunt House (sold in 2012 for $5.3 million) with a “a new 28-foot-tall, two-story, 5,511-square-foot single-family residence.” “The Hunt House looming demolition is a textbook case of artwork misread as real estate object,” wrote architect and educator Pierluigi Serraino in an email. As author of numerous writings on midcentury design, including California Modernism (Chronicle Books, 2006), he put a fine point not on the historic value or the property value, but on the true cultural value of the structure. “This is one of the landmark buildings of California Modernism and its potential loss would be sheer loss of cultural identity. Collector value as opposed to real estate value can provide a more apt lens to evaluate this small inventory of gems,” he continued. “Imagine if what is threatening the Hunt House happened to the Eames House. [The] proposed demolition speaks to the utter disregard a selected few have for what belongs symbolically to the collective.” In 1967, Esther McCoy was commissioned to write an essay for the Craig Ellwood monograph published by Bruno Alfieri the following year. In it, she discusses how the Hunt House by Ellwood and Lomax (who is uncredited) sets the tone for the firm’s work to come and solidifies its influences. “McCoy’s essay points out Ellwood's love for good detailing, adherence to logic ("the logic of steel"), independent spirit, and a sense of refinement informed by the 'full stark splendor' of Mies and modular principles found in Japanese houses and industrial buildings,” noted Susan Morgan, editor of Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader. “[McCoy] wrote that the Hunt House—with its H-plan, distinct volumes and levels—was very important in Ellwood's development: The three space frames are more three-dimensional Mondrian than Mies.” Morgan also reminded AN that the Hunt House features in Reyner Banham’s Architecture of Four Ecologies as the northernmost edge of Surfubria, his first ecology on beaches. Rudolph Schindler’s Lovell Beach House marks the southern boundary. The Hunt House, like other midcentury designs, is particularly vulnerable to demolition due to trends for larger homes, maintenance issues, and land values. “It’s worth noting that the City of Malibu has no protections for its historic places and got an F on our 2014 Preservation Report Card,” said Los Angeles Conservancy's Director of Communications Cindy Olnick. In October, the Los Angeles Conservancy sent a letter to Malibu Planning Commission calling for an “Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prior to the approval of any project that would adversely impact the building.” The organization urges individuals concerned about the fate of the house to write to the commission via Malibu City Hall.
William Stout Publishers recently reissued California Houses of Gordon Drake by Douglas Baylis and Joan Parry, with a new preface by Australian architect Glenn Murcutt and a new introduction by architect and author Pierluigi Serraino. Serraino is the author of Modernism Rediscovered, which contributed significantly to renewing interest in Midcentury Modernism, and went on to write NorCalMod, a book that helps rewrite the narrative about Northern California architecture. Photos of Drake’s work and some of the material from his archive will be on exhibit through May at the Berkeley location of William Stout Architectural Books. Kenneth Caldwell sat down with Serraino to get his thoughts about the newly reissued book. Why did Bill Stout reissue this book now? Pierluigi Serraino: I think that for Bill, these projects are reiterating what makes architecture such a fundamental enterprise in human existence. Drake really believed that these houses would make people’s lives better. How did you learn about this work? When I worked on Modernism Rediscovered. Julius Shulman often spoke about Gordon Drake, the spontaneity of his talent and his warm personality. The fact that Drake died so young always struck Julius, because he thought he had a tremendous promise of even greater buildings. I started looking at these images and noticed the polarity between the vernacular model, the northern California Maybeck, versus the hypermodernism of Neutra and the Case Study Houses. It’s not by accident that Drake never made it in the Case Study House program—it’s because of all the wood he used. Even if he was using it in a modern way, it was still an expression of some kind of attachment to the land, which is also something that Wright was very strongly tied to. But John Entenza (editor of Arts + Architecture, sponsor of the Case Study program) was not? No, he wasn’t. In Drake there is the experience of the war, because there’s his extensive use of plywood, an important material during the war. But he doesn’t use steel or concrete as a primary design expression or material. He reminds me of a Southern California Jack Hillmer, except his work wasn’t as pure as Jack’s. I also think the work of Ray Kappe, even if Kappe does not acknowledge it, shows some influence from Drake. How does Drake’s work fit in the reappraisal of midcentury modern design? I think we are at the tail end of the reappraisal at this point—it’s clearly institutionalized—but what’s happening is that we are becoming aware of this third paradigm, which included architects like Drake and Harwell Hamilton Harris, whom Drake worked for. But none of the houses of Harris are as plain as those of Drake. Drake’s spare spaces seemed to be targeting a middle-class audience. In Europe, they would call it “existence minimum”—just use the maximum amount of space with a minimum amount of money, maximizing the relationship with the outdoors, thereby doubling the size of the space. His own house became a manifesto for his ideas. The mythology of endless American wealth was questioned in his time. I thought it was worthwhile to reexamine that experience because we seem to be returning to that paradigm now. The paradigm of houses that may be smaller and built for less money? Correct, Drake’s houses retain a set of beliefs about modernity. And those houses are really still American, fundamentally American, because they retain the thought that you can have a single-family house for yourself with your garden. It’s going to be smaller—it’s going to have its own carport—but it’s going to be affordable. It’s within reach. So that was one of the things that I found particularly appealing. What also struck me about Drake was the awareness that he had about the publication process. Because he hired Shulman, with all of his connections? Beyond that. Just look at Drake’s address book, which will be on exhibit in the show at Stout Books. He had all the people that really counted in that book. How old was he when he was killed in a skiing accident? He was still fairly young, 34. How did Bill Stout get involved? Bill was the neighbor of Maggie Baylis, who was the wife of the landscape architect Douglas Baylis, who shared office space with Drake. Maggie and Doug put out the original monograph, and Maggie inherited Drake’s archive. Drake did a beautiful townhouse for them that is on the cover of the new book. So what’s new in this volume? Some of the drawings, which are really beautiful and had never been seen before. Within the limits of a sole practice, Drake was an excellent kind of one-man band. He also worked with Harris when he was doing the Weston Havens House. So Drake saw that house, although he never really had these kinds of heroic gestures about structure the way Harris did. There is also the essay I wrote based on the interviews with Julius Shulman and Clintorn Ternstrom, a colleague of Drake's, and the new forward by Glenn Murcutt. Was Drake as influenced by Wright as Harris was? In some houses, Harris seems really close to Usonian
models of Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re supremely elegant, very beautiful; but you can read the influence—in a way it’s almost too obvious—whereas with Drake you can’t. There’s a comfort about Drake’s houses, but they are really original.
Drake seems to work a lot with screens, whether they’re garden screens or interior screens that move. They have a Japanese quality, not heroic at all.
Drake served in the war and was stationed in Hawaii. I don’t know if he actually went to Japan. But I would argue that the Japanese aesthetic definitely informed the work, because his houses are based on units and modules, which is very much a modernist and a Japanese idea. The Japanese use light technology. Even if it’s wood, typically, it’s not about heavy timbers, it’s not about the logs you can find in Canada or in Norway.
You just feel the abstraction of the war, the machine layered into the wood. And that’s something that, in a way, is epitomized in the Katsura Palace in Japan. It’s an incredibly powerful project because it condenses so many of the tenets of the modern movement: an open plan, a light technology, a loose relationship to the ground, flexibility, screens, carving views as part of the landscape—the indoor/outdoor relationship, outdoor decks, navigating the space outside. Those ideas were carried out hundreds of years before modernism, yet they were powerful enough to navigate through space and time. So in this respect Drake must have been influenced by those messages, even if he never saw the Katsura Palace. That influence is just simply not present in Europe, where there’s heaviness in the architecture.
Very few houses remain for us to see.
Drake kept the addresses for the houses he designed. So I went to a number of them on Google Earth and just couldn’t find them. That makes me believe that many of them are gone. Gone because of economic pressures—the houses were too small for the site. It’s easier to rescue a house by Harris because they’re rather large.
Drake’s houses are also by an architect at the beginning of his career.
Yes, but they could have been bought by anyone, technically. That was really the idea. And in fact he was very involved with Sunset magazine in disseminating these ideas. Drake’s work was like a hybrid between something for the specialized audience and something for the general public.
In January of 1951, he started to work for Ernest Kump, but kept his office on Washington Street for evening and weekend work on what he called the Unit House.
The idea behind the Unit House was to retain the rigor of the design expression and the overall image while providing the flexibility that was always a critical attribute of the postwar house; especially because of the baby boom. Families were constantly changing, and therefore it was important to have a house that would lend itself to these changes—something, for example, Jack Hillmer never managed.
Drake was very much interested in designing a house that could change in scale without losing its own attributes. The sight lines go really deep into the Unit House, and it’s organized not around a courtyard really but around a critical, substantial outdoor space which carries the lines of the architecture onto the outside.
It’s not about landscape versus architecture.
Right, it’s all one. I believe he did this with Baylis’s help. But I’m not completely sure. I was unable to find the Unit House. Usually Julius would write down the address, but this one is just called “the Unit House” in Julius’s archive. After Drake died, no one really paid any attention to him anymore. Clearly he had a high conception of himself. He knew that he was talented, but he was very astute about how he was articulating that position and how he was selling that to the general public. And the work was relevant; it wasn’t just something that was a trend for the time. The work could have informed probably 20 years of residential design; although I think over time he would have gone on to other building types. Given his ambition, I just don’t see him staying with the single-family house.
These photos are beautiful.
This is particularly layered. There are a number of spaces where you don’t know exactly if you’re inside or outside. That’s what he accomplished.