Processing Ghost 13: An International Architecture Conference

Nova Scotia, June 14-17 2011
Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, Hosts

Ghost 13 Event Web Page

I’m still processing this rural retreat conference for architects. I have had alternate sensations of comfort, seeking, challenging ambition, and relative ennui ever since.

I went because I work in a walled garden, in an idealized small town within prosperous rural agricultural counties. We have lovely clients. It’s a life focused and barely compromised, but it is isolated.

It was a safe bet I’d be pleased with what I’d hear, and would be in the company of my tribe. I’ve already bought into so much of what was to be promoted there. They were going to preach to the choir. We would say hallelujah.

I wanted to attend because I had just turned 60. My architectural practice has been reinvented four times already, and before I launched number five, I thought it would be a good time to check in with The Others. To mostly listen, then connect all the dots: perhaps some pattern would appear. And that would strengthen, or even modify my next professional iteration.

I was curious about some of the successful small practitioners. Those who, like myself, had abandoned large practices in order to connect more directly with the work. Those who also practiced a form of regionalism. Those who practiced outside the usual cultural hot spots, and yet remained connected. Those who built and designed. Or those for whom building technology and craft could be a design method.

The speakers were my generation’s most lauded practitioners and thinkers within the rather broad themes of sustainable architecture, regionalism, craft, and community.

This was Woodstock for Architects: see DesignBuildBluff founder Hank Louis channeling Joni Mitchell in his eloquent rift to Ghost13 at Hank Louis Diary Link

Then there was our audience. Easily four or five generations of architectural eras, ages 20something to 90something. Perhaps 120 conference attendees and an audience of hundreds for the evening keynote lectures.

I recognized the architect genome in the hundreds of faces: I had not met anyone before, but I’d known most of these humans all of my life.

There were many thoughtful voices in the audience, among them Michaelangelo Sabatino, Scott Francisco, Trevor Boddy. There were other voices I did not meet, but not because I didn’t try: any line at the coffee, the bathroom, the lunch, or in random seatings prompted introductions fore and aft. This was serious chat-roulette. Perhaps a quarter of those attending were somewhat like me: mature, regional practicing principals. Their variations on the theme were more than I had hoped for.

The generosity and good will was palpable and surprising for such a gathering. I don’t think it was just Canada. My guess was that no one could possibly believe that he or she was the smartest person in the room. Tom Kundig started his presentation, but stammered, gushing at the caliber of the company before resuming to modestly present some of the buildings I admire most.

In fact, that was one of my growing impressions of the symposium: that there were a hundred or more surprising opportunities for considerable respect. Very different forms of sensitivity were presented and in attendance. There were the venerable elder masters, the charismatic professors, and the articulate authors. There were the visionary college deans. The cerebral introverts and the rock stars. The urban and the rural. The sophisticates and the savages. The cultured and counter-cultured. Women and men. Editors and journalists. Renegades, saints, intellectuals, Old Testament prophets, poets, mudsmiths, tech nerds, surfers, hot rodders, tinkerers, mad scientists, and tin men. Each in this congress of architects had more or less successfully wrought some well evolved works from their land, their culture, their raw materials, and even their demons. Who knew that there were so many paths to Allah?

Most began with stories and images that were as love poems to their homelands. I cried for some. Australian Peter Stutchbury’s bush narratives and family’s old station. Opposite Deborah Berke presented New York City with a similar sentiment, and succeeded. Richard Kroeker’s seeking hands built a canoe, then various wigwams, then lead him to a rather profound series of buildings for contemporary Native Americans. Making is a method of understanding.

There was the anger and empathy of Andrew Freear, his history with the Rural Studio in Alabama, and the distilled, raw bone $20K house prototype.

Was it a surprise that our host Brian Mackay-Lyons was the very embodiment of the balanced Critical Regionalist?

There were great celebrations of teams. There were a variety of design build practices in which teaching architecture and building were one and the same. Teaching architecture was a rather common denominator among the speakers.

There were the moderators and historians who, although they had only minutes to give introductions and only seconds of commentary compared to the hour presentations, delivered many of the most dense and influential contributions.

Maybe it would have tested the love-fest, but with such a congress assembled, I regret that some form of manifesto or credo had not been made there, to be delivered and nailed on the door of the Castle Church.

Among the many ideas, I am most thankful for the following impressions:

1- That there was so much heart and humanity, yet not one atom of kitsch here.

2- That architects may be avoiding community involvement because we keep ourselves on a pedestal and cannot be in full control.

3- Writing, teaching and speaking are excellent ways to stay connected and challenged.

4- Metaphor is our full and unconscious way of thinking.

5- Our million year biological and cultural histories are fundamental to architectural substance.

6-Vernacular architecture represents the anthropological source. It embodies the wisdom of a region, a people, and its elders.

7- The post-petrochemical era is an ecologically motivated era. The environment, and sustainable practices are the biggest thing to happen since Modernism.

8- Sustainability is a middle ground practice between abundance and scarcity.

9- Ecologically sound architecture may have more to do with landscape architecture.

10- In the end, the only really sustainable buildings are the ones that we wish to continue to inhabit.

Links to Speakers at Ghost 13
in order of appearence

Kenneth Frampton (Books)
Rick Joy
Ted Flato
Wendell Burnette
Deborah Berke
Marlon Blackwell
Ingerid Helsing Almaas (Books)
Juhani Pallasmaa (Books)
Patricia Patkau
Peter Stutchbury
Brigette Shim
Vincent James and Jennifer Yoo
Tom Kundig
Glenn Murcutt
Andrew Freear/Rural Studio
Dan Rockhill
Steve Badanes/Jersey Devil
Richard Kroeker
Brian MacKay-Lyons and Talbot Sweetapple
Christine Macy
Robert McCarter
Peter Buchanan (Books)
Thomas Fisher (Books)


Ned Forrest Architects Home Page

everything should be the same unless it must be different

Brunelleschi: Pazzi Chapel at San Lorenzo Florence

1- The First Modern Architect

Many have credited the origin of Renaissance architecture with the career of Filippo Brunelleschi. His professional response to overwhelming technological and social complexity may have new relevance.

Until Brunelleschi, the use of a technology of standardization was nearly unknown. Medieval building had been a craft in which every element and form was under consideration until the moment of execution. Every decision, every detail, was designed and made for a single instance of its use, requiring an unwieldy amount of staff, time, and money to complete the project.

Brunelleschi started by first designing the elements and the details. The standardized elements were revisited, refined, and reduced as the building design proceeded. These elements also became a repertoire for future projects. By this means he was able to allocate most of his effort to the part of the project that actually was unknown, the part that actually was new. To progressively evolve the elements with each project and improve the next.

Brunelleschi used modular patterns to measure his details, and as a layout grid for the building. A large, complex building could be accurately drawn in the dirt with a stick, yet match the design precisely. He would whack out a rough model of a detail with a knife and a turnip, but the precision imbedded from the modular ideal could be recreated in stone.

A sketch, a concept, or a rough model could refer precisely to what would be built. The representation could be compared to the ideal and to the result. Enormous amounts of information could be designed, understood and communicated. An idealized, complicated organism could be managed through the episodes of changing conditions and personalities with every part and principle in Brunelleschi’s mind.

This allowed the full artistic control of the complexity of the task of building to a single designer, and allowed him to develop his own architectural ideal over many projects.

see Leonardo Benevolo The Architecture of the Italian Rennaissance Vol 1 for a rich description of Brunelleschi’s very original practice, and the source of the ideas presented above.

Brunelleschi: intersection of three columns and one pilaster St Spiritu Florence. Solution for the exception.

everything should be the same unless it must be different:

2- Brunelleschi is an architect for our time.

We are often re-designing each instance of similarity instead of finding out why the instances could be the same, and what the best version of that might be.

We are increasingly operating within large unwieldy committees, and must shepherd an Ideal through them.

We increase staff and hire consultants to make sense of it for us, but they are even more remote from the Ideal or the nature of the content.

We load dumpster size hard drives and buy faster processing instead of distilling or organizing content into something we can actually manipulate, remember, or even ever see again.

Our current culture values novel buildings rather than improved buildings.

We may be working more than we think at recapitulating the history of a door, for instance, rather than moving on to improve the Door. In seeking to invent an altogether new door, our entire effort may only be to discover why all doors ended up more like Doors than the novel door we thought would be so ingenious.

Instead, I would propose that on occasion, we do think about the history of the door. That we forever compare that Door to doors we see or have made and modify the model Door from what we learn. When we come to design our next door, we may focus on why and how this door need differ from the Door.

Brunellschi: door at the Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

everything should be the same unless it must be different:

3- Why the urge to be different?

Blame it on status seeking. In a society with expanding prosperity, the quest for status drove fashionable styles that would set oneself apart. But fashion ages quickly. Nothing could be more ephemeral than novelty.

There were the Discoveries and their styles. Goa and the Manueline. The expulsion of the Turks and Greek Revival. Chinoiserie. Neoclassic Pompei.

There were idealized societies like Gothic Revival, then Arts and Crafts.

There were technological status symbols like light bulbs, space ships, megatron televison screens, and now solar panels. There was Art Deco and the emulation of speed.

Blame our profession that the storybook version of modern architecture is about new materials begetting new techniques. Our heroes made something revolutionary out of this change, as well they should have. We late 20th century architects believe that unless our work looks as radically different we just aren’t being very creative.

Blame it on the Media. Our era gives it’s attention to Novelty. Specialness. Individuality. Camp. Shock.

Suppose you want to design a building, a house. Suppose you want to make a house such as the world has never seen.

Why have they never seen it? Considered answers would be in the realm of a new material, a new tool, or a new condition. Or culturally, to promote a new way to think or live.

Let’s do go right ahead, but know that a revolutionary building may often represent the worst building that could be made now. It’s highest virtue might be to inspire the design of some future building that could be built well.

If all we have to do is invent a better mouse trap why is the world not beating a path to our door? Precisely because so often the new are gimmicks that have offered no real advantage.

Sardi: S. Maria Maddelena, Rome. Entry – a revolution, a style, but yes, also astonishingly beautiful.

everything should be the same unless it must be different:

4- As an exercise, consider that everything is more alike than different.

People are more alike than different. Mammals are more alike. Life is.
Water is more alike than different. Clouds are more alike. Even snowflakes are.
History is more alike than different. Days are more alike. Minutes are.

Shelter is more alike than different. Buildings are more alike. Libraries are. Faucets. Cooking.

Finding the commonness is to find the essence of the Type. Finding the difference is to find the exception of the individual instance.

The Type is the archetype, rather than an instance of the concept. It is a model that has the essential characteristics which exemplify the ideal.

Types are clear and predictable. We know how to use a Type. We know how to find the way in. To find a cup and a drink of water. The best place to urinate. To hang up our coat. To make a mess, and to clean it up.

We would be squandering countless opportunities of real interest every day if we had to operate in a domestic hell of full novelty.

In design, solving a real exception to the Type is the contribution of the design. The designed response to an exception is the design concept.

Specialness should not be arbitrary. We mean something when we make different, so let’s be sure it reads. Difference should explain itself. A clearly necessary problem that is an exception to the Type will clarify what is beautiful about the solution.

So much living is a recapitulation of all life, any life. It is renewing to the species that each of us lives as though it was the first time, and that is a good thing.

But to find out what is really different is to discover what is really interesting, and what is really new.

McKim Mead & White: Boston Public Library Quiet leather entry door to reading room.

everything should be the same unless it must be different:

5- So what? All of this could not be more obvious.

Clearly this is already an unconscious or an intuitive part of the process of our best designers. The archtypes are abundantly discernable in the best work.

Yet many architects have an allergic reaction to a serious consideration of our existing best standards as a starting point for their creative contribution.

Humans and buildings are pretty nicely co-evolved beings. Were we to improve humans the way we seem to consider our next buildings, we would appear to be starting from a single cell animal, a Neanderthal or a unicorn. We could instead examine the characteristics of a Mark Twain, a Martin Luther King, or a Catherine Deneuve. Or perhaps the common characteristics of our best tribes.

Some would argue that they don’t wish to look to the past but to look forward. That I am promoting traditional architectural styles. I am not promoting the styles, I am only looking for the substance.

The present is more like the past than it is different, and I suspect that the future will be more like it as well. It is all a kind of now, and you can pretty much look at 3,000 years of shelter or literature and see your life there, reoccuring again and again.

What has always been the same is the only place there is to be, and what really must be different is something not to miss.

I intend to explore the following subjects in five draft essays:

1- Everything should be the same unless it must be different.

2- Vernacular architecture as a source of first principles.

3- Institutional building and the super-ordinary as a source of inspiration.

4- The opposite is also true, and using taboo as a source of inspiration.

5- The fracturing of order and messy patchwork of life as a source of inspiration.

doors that are all the same, doors that must be different

Back stage apartment Drotningholm Opera, Stockholm

South Portal to the Sun, Stonehenge

Avila, Spain

Charles Rennie Macintosh: Hill House, Scotland

De la Guerra House, Santa Barbara

Louis La Vau: Salpetiere, Paris

13C Cistercian Monks: Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, UK

Man door in carriage door, Santa Fe

Man door in a carriage door, Hungary

Entry vestibule, Obidos, Portugal

Stone screen to stupa entry, Bagan, Burma

Ise Shrine, Japan: entrance draped with pristine white fabric. You visit, but it is too sacred to enter, unless you are the Emperor

Gunnar Asplund: entrance to a crematorium in a forest, Sweden

Anasazi at Mesa Verde: Kiva entries are doors to the Underworld origins

Japan: Shinto shrine for stillborn infants

Brunelleschi: Abandoned baby door at orphanage. (all the iron work is contemporary) At a plain door in a narrow alley on the other side of this door, a mother may put her infant in the niche , ring a bell for the nuns, and walk on into the city.


DOMUS: Forms of Energy

Dwight Center at Pepperwood Preserve
DOMUS Web article September 20 2010
authors: Alessandro Scogna Miglio and Maria Luisa Palumbo

“The recently completed Dwight Research Center designed by Ned Forrest Architects is a free-standing building in a large nature reserve in the mountainous coastal area north of San Francisco. It is a campus with classrooms and laboratories for the study and conservation of Mediterranean ecosystems in California. To respond to the hot and arid climate and reduce the need for energy for cooling, the project uses the land’s slope to create a south-facing C-shaped building that is partially underground on the north side. The massive use of exposed concrete and lightweight steel sunscreens complete the optimization of the passive system while creating a large solar canopy for a double-height entrance court. Firmly rooted to the ground but sensitive and responsive to the sun – material but transparent and open to the surrounding landscape at the same time – this building illustrates a silent technological solution elegantly integrated with an entire building…

…If we look at the three selected projects from an energy standpoint, it is easy to assert that they all work towards the same goal of energy self-sufficiency by using appropriate solutions and types of intervention on different scales. Solar technologies are part of the projects along with other elements belonging more to the traditional realm of architectural. It is like saying that in all three projects this choice lies in a domain that conceives of the building, or square, or the neighbourhood as a small – or even tiny – ecosystem whose metabolism is satisfied by energy provided by the sun. Not surprisingly, then, from a formal point of view, the use of photovoltaics is, for example, not particularly characterizing even when it is clearly visible. In other words, the use of solar technology is so mature that it is almost taken for granted thus leaving room for a more explicit architectural discussion.

So, looking at the projects and their contexts again, it is interesting to highlight the energy logic that underlies the specific design choices. In the first case, Dwight Research Center, the building is isolated in an area dominated by wild nature, and is, perhaps just like the local native plants, an organism capable of consuming very little energy (LEED gold certification) producing only what it needs to function. In a non-urban environment, the building stands in relationship to nature and the landscape drawing from them the energy that it needs to work well and to ensure user comfort. In the second case, the Plaza del General Vara del Rey, the square is the heart of an artificial ecosystem that is different from the previous one – the city. Here the goal is not to “resist” – taking from the environment the most possible – but to dialogue with the surroundings through a system of flows of matter and energy. The need is not so much to meet the square’s energy demands but rather to create a balance on a larger scale so that the energy produced by the square’s large photovoltaic roof can offset the energy consumption of nearby buildings or functions. In the third case, neo-rural, collective environment, the vision is even vaster and includes an ecosystem that is small, but more complex, in which units that consume and those that produce are present and where the careful design of energy production can once again generate a feedback loop that subtracts entropy from the system thus triggering a virtuous circle. In all three cases, energy and architectural form seem perfectly integrated. In the California building, the solar canopy is homogeneous with the other materials used for in the building in terms of pattern and texture making it almost invisible. In the Spanish square, although the photovoltaic modules clearly denounce the use of solar energy, the entire roof can still be read as a texture whose basic element is the photovoltaic cell. This texture, by virtue of the knowledge that we possess today of the need to use solar technology, no longer seems, like some time ago, extraneous to the traditional repertoire of materials and forms of architecture. In the Italian neighborhood, the only element that marks the presence of photovoltaics are the roofs of the individual buildings – surfaces that slope to find the best solar exposure maximising energy production. Alessandra Scognamiglio, researcher and architect (ENEA) and Marialuisa Palumbo, architecture critic “


Dwight Research Center

At the Pepperwood Preserve
Mayacamas Mountains, Sonoma County California

Completed June 2010

All photographs by Mark Darley


Green Meaning

The Dwight Research and Education Center Building at Pepperwood was completed in June 2010, and designed to be certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council. To further the conservation education mission of the 3000 acre Pepperwood Preserve, the Center is intended to express, promote, and inspire green building.

An inspiring building is more than bricks and mortar, and a green building that inspires is more than a list of green materials and technologies. How do we express the green in building, especially on a large, pristine nature preserve?

The buildings of traditional cultures of the world offer some good examples, because they were forced to evolve from successive trial and error to become comfortable, secure, delightful, and sustainable. Traditional agricultural regions and practices are a particularly good place to find environmental values. A sense of nurturing is, after all, fundamental to agriculture and environmental conservation.

Buildings of the rural cultures are visually subordinate to the land. They are often rugged and even geological in form. They use materials that are sustainable, local and durable, as well as those that may gracefully age or become even more beautiful with repair. The materials are assembled with craftsmanship, which demonstrates and promotes a culture of care.

st francis, taos nm p: forrest

farmhouse of grass, near osaka, japan p: forrest

On these pre-industrial buildings, the structure is exposed and becomes the form and the finish surface.

Utilitarian elements are frankly expressed. The buildings are flexible in use, and even improved with remodeling. They use every means to conserve energy, because energy surpluses are temporary. The buildings are frugal. They often express an economy of elegant spareness and austerity.

Three categories of these qualities are most important to the design the Dwight Center at Pepperwood. The first two of these groups are timeless in principle. Some parts of the third group are for our era alone.

1- Site and Sun. The project makes its own sheltering site and uses passive solar and geological elements to stabilize the temperature. The building layout is a crescent to the sun, half buried in the temperate earth. Inhabitants dwell in louvered glass rooms within a “rock formation” of passive solar mud towers.

2- Materials, Authenticity, and Sustainability. The structural materials are the actual finish surfaces, and they will be allowed to attain their inherent patina. Concrete will be seen just as it comes from the formwork, and with characteristic imperfections. The recycled steel beams and girders will be allowed to slightly rust. Trash wood excelsior is used for the occasional floating acoustic ceiling panel. Straw, cork and recycled paper is used for different kinds of wall paneling, all unpainted.

3- Assembly, Craftsmanship and New Technology. The assembly and construction techniques are frankly expressed, showing off the structure and connections. The large tilting roof is a photo voltaic panel array. Building components, the low energy heating/cooling system, the LED lighting systems, and particularly elements of green technology, are all exposed and used sculpturally.

These elements are bolted on in an almost ad hoc manner, suggesting (and allowing) continuous development and change. New Technology is expressed as a contraption-in-process. Just as NASA’s lunar module did not ultimately look like a rocket ship, this developing green is more Hot Rod than German automobile.

Beyond its practical functions and green scorecard, this building is a kind of a coming-of-age story for a culture of environmental conservation. The building and the metaphor are about youth: slightly messy, searching, experimental, and showing great technical facility implemented with urgency, perhaps even for survival, but with confident optimism.


Interview by an 8th Grade Architecture Student

I tried to answer questions from this very detirmined young architecture student about Green Architecture. I didn’t want to be cynical. I didn’t want to talk about products. I didn’t want to be Howard Rourke either. Fortunately, nothing will stop Margaux.

Margaux on Site

-What inspired you to become an architect?

A bulldozer was stuck in my backyard for a week when I was four. My mother taught art in elementary schools. My father was a real estate property manager and developer. I grew up with my art teachers assuming I had artistic talent (whether I did or not), and around building and tradesmen. I found the old black men who maintained the downtown buildings and fired the boilers with coal to be the wisest and most exotic people on earth. I had a tree house. I built forts. My father and grandfather built a garage themselves over a couple of weekends while I watched. My parents drove around looking at houses as a form of recreation. They bought a new (old) house every few years and fixed them up. This transformation was always the high point of family optimism. My mother valued gardens and antique furniture.

I designed a building in high school for my father, but my school advisor counseled me out of architecture school because I was poor at math, and advised fine arts. In the late 1960’s it was fashionable to practice basic fundamental life skills like making food, clothing, or shelter. I traveled a lot and began a fascination with buildings owner or community built using patterns suggested by local materials and climate. A girl broke my heart, so I decided to abandon myself in something supposedly as hard as possible, architecture school. Everyone else in school wanted to be Richard Meier. I didn’t wear shoes and wanted to be a carpenter. Since I was the only one in the school like that, I was confident that my own opportunities would be abundant. Destiny is not like in the movies.

- In my project, I talked a lot about solar panels, rainwater catchment and solar chimneys; do you think these are important when you design buildings?

The most effective thing a society can do to for building in a way that taxes the planet the least is to build on a damaged site, and heal it in the making.

The next most effective building act is to use less energy and material, prevent waste, and be smaller. Using less.

Another important building action is to fix the buildings that don’t work well, because a horribly inefficient old building can be modified for huge efficiencies far more easily than our current new buildings can be made even slightly more efficient.

That is not romantic or fun, and it is not what I do either, but it’s a good thing to remember if your mission is to save the planet. Basically, it won’t be done by buying or building new, efficient gear. It’s not about buying a Prius, it’s about driving.

The next most effective thing is to create efficient stuff (Climate control, energy and water) with technique or technology. This is what you are asking about.

All that you mention are important. I like the solar chimney as a category because, (1) interior climate control is the greatest energy user and, (2) shading, capturing air/heat/cold, and orientation, can lend a coherent theme to the building, and a form that looks responsive to the site and climate has a good chance to feel beautiful. And may promote more buildings like itself.

- What is your most favorite part about green architecture?

That it was mostly green already until we had cheap energy and less prosperous neighbors beginning in the 1940’s. And that since I like the building traditions of the world, I am delighted that they now have renewed importance.

- What do you think is the most important part in green architecture?

Heating and cooling buildings, and making sure the building loses as little heat or cool as possible.
Materials that look good as they get older. That can be repaired and look better when they are repaired.
Short lived materials should be recycled into new materials.

- What materials do you always end up using in your green buildings?

Massive walls: concrete, concrete block, adobe, rammed earth. I like them for our arid climate. We design differently in Hawaii.

- What newly invented object/material are you most disappointed or upset about? What object/material are you most impressed about?

Disappointed: That right now, buying stuff that flaunts a green political stance is virtuous. (Full Disclosure) This is unfortunately a great deal of what architects can sell as green right now as a result. Hopefully some good is done.

Upset: Color applied to foam products that resemble real building parts. That look disposable in 15 years or less. In general, fake stuff that doesn’t age well.

Impressed: I am most optimistic that much dwelling activity, our work, and many cultural assets can be performed and stored in a very small device. That we may be able to dematerialize. That things that are important to the mind and heart could require little material or energy, and that nature, which is important to our animal self would not be consumed by what becomes important to us.

- What do you think is ahead for green architecture?

Short Term:
The style or fashion to appear green will make consumption of green stuff a conspicuous form of status until everybody has some.

Mid Term:
That the cost of materials and energy will become so high that, by necessity, using so much of it will become less important. We will all live with much less stuff, and look for other things to do. Perhaps the look of re-use, of salvage. It will be OK that every day inside is not 72 degrees.

Nearly all, perhaps everything that makes being human worthwhile has not changed in 500 years. Likely 100,000. I’m not speaking of medicine, abundant food or women’s equality. I am referring to the possibilities of the heart and mind.

Long Term:
That it becomes cool to have nothing. High social status will be attained by having something interesting to think about, something powerful to feel about, someone to do it with, and some others to enjoy watching doing their version of it. That our focus will be on being alive, the richness of nature, and our affinity with creatures, plants, water, clouds, and rocks.

Green Architecture will be a nearly empty, translucent semi porous white cube with images and sound. Or a cover of a few banana leaves with a fire and stories. The New Modern will be 100,000 years old, but it will be this long term green attitude that will allow 8 billion humans advantages we haven’t seen since we were a small tribe.


The Handsomest Turkey Barns in Carneros

Gallery Buildings for the diRosa
Carneros Apellation, Napa County California

A presentation to the Design Forum of the SFMoMA, March 18, 2011

All photographs by Mark Darley

Rene diRosa didn’t like to talk much about art. He liked living with art. He liked the company of artists. He liked the company of farmers. The collection still lacks placards for the works because he believed we should experience art and quit talking about it. His most quoted narrative on the nature and purpose of art was “Blah, Blah, Blah!”

Quite possibly this was because he didn’t actually have anything to say about it.

I somewhat share the premise that buildings speak for themselves, and quite possibly I actually don’t have much to say about architecture. So it is odd to do so here at Rene and Veronica’s.

The collection at the diRosa seeks to provoke. If art is an instrument for brain surgery, this stuff may be it’s most blunt instrument.

And there is a story.
I have worked in this area, the Carneros region, since 1981.

I had never noticed Carneros until I visited the first of a series of clients here. I didn’t like it much that day. It was colder, very windy, and it lacked the glamorous potential of an architectural practice in the Sonoma or Napa Valleys.

Carneros is a place for outliers. At the time of European settlement, this area formed the grazing lands granted to the Pueblo of Sonoma, then capital of the Northern California. The road on which we came was a muddy path only accessible in the summer. The real trail was a through the mountains and creek beds north of this site and it existed there until the 1930s. This region was a place that you were pleased only to get through easily. A place between the civilizations of Sonoma and Napa, but of neither. It is the frontier.

When Rene bought this land in 1960 it was not much better, and Carneros was hardly known for quality viticulture. The place could not support stellar Bordeaux style varietals like Cabernet. But it turned out to be fantastically compatible to Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These were to become the next fashionable wines.

Or maybe Rene just told everyone that. He tirelessly promoted Carneros, and was made fortunate by his foresight.

Almost as accidentally, his collecting came to be of such a scale that it needed space. He ran out of walls, even ceilings. It was also clear that this had become an institution, and a legacy.

After 10 years of flirting with architects, he ended up with us. He wanted buildings that were discrete, and rural. He was notoriously frugal, and proud of it. He wanted buildings that were hopelessly cheap. He didn’t want architecture. He said that. The whole commission could seem an unflattering offer, except that Rene was a contrary, and Bad was very good.

He said he just wanted some turkey barns, and that he would brag about how dumb and cheap they were to Bob Mondavi. I told him that he would have the handsomest turkey barns in all of Carneros.

You can’t beat Inigo Jones: The Virtues of Agricultural buildings

The frugality of agricultural buildings enforces a frank austerity with materials and form that I find not at all inconsistent with the values of Modernism, and coincident with the values of environmentalism and sustainability.

Quiet, monochromatic, background interiors are, of course, the usual script for gallery space. I could add that really super-ordinary boring farm buildings may also be the perfect foil for the outrageous, gregarious, perverse, and even dangerously beautiful nature of the collection.

It has been said that American building modules, standards and components began with barns. That the 4×8 module we still use was the perfect compromise of builder (largest he can lift), metric (divides into halves and thirds with even numbered inches), and Horse (smallest she can walk through).

Detailing those modules and standards is one of the differences between high architectural values and agricultural vernaculars. Unlike contemporary high tech craftsmanship, ag buildings do not display careful considerations to problems that their standard detailing cannot solve. They can be ad hoc, even sloppy.

God is not in these details, so how did She grace the better of these buildings? I think one subtle aid was through a technique sometimes called a Dominant Binder. That is, a unifying feature that renders details to mere texture. Think of Louise Nevelson sculptures: all black hodgepodges of scraps.

In the simplest examples, the building is made with all the same material. Then that material ages in various but consistent ways, depending on its weathering exposure. Like an all redwood California barn.

Most often, we enjoy this result from the paint. Our ag builders were not particular about paint colors or even paint. They’d mix up whatever they had a lot of, often blood and/or milk, and they would cover every board and door latch with the same goop.

Using a Dominant Binder can bestow integrity on a fair amount of chaos. It achieves the dumb integrity of All-One-Thingness.

In our time, the typical barn is the manufactured metal building. So the first thing anyone does who wants a turkey barn is to get a number of metal building catalogs. We poured over these and rather than use a single model, we assembled components from a number of manufacturers.

Manufactured buildings are low tech, and messy at the connections. Especially when you mix up manufacturers. We floated the display panels, and didin’t let them touch the messy skin and skeletal parts. Then we hosed our buildings with single colors. The Gatehouse is all galvanized. The Big Turkey is all black (well, dark bronze). The interiors were hosed the color of Carneros dust, because that was inevitable. The display panels float white.

The Gatehouse sited on the dam of the lake, is the entrance gallery. It was designed as a pump house, a silo, a boat house and a garage. The collection includes a number of art-vehicles.

The Lake is unseen until the visitor reaches the front door, and its reflectivity suggested a design to capture the light in an upside down manner. We’d do the same at the coast: the light comes from below and bounces into the galleries from the ceiling.

The Big Black Turkey gallery is more introverted, with a low passage gallery adjacent to a huge top lit space.

From there the visitor takes a dripping tunnel and vaulted space designed in collaboration with the artist Paul Kos for his Chartres Bleu wall of video stained glass installation.

We shoot straight up in a glass elevator overlooking the art meadow, and walk into the diRosa residence, and experience the full-on domestic life of an art collector.

The manmade in Carneros has direct and simple forms. The light has an intense source but diffuse from the Bay moisture. To dwell here, in a land more ground than figure can be a bit of an Edward Hopper painting. Until you go in.

Visit diRosa:


Now What Do We Build?

“But away back here across the Ohio, it had no fields. You tramped day long and when you looked ahead, the woods were as dark as an hour or a day ago .”
-from The Trees of the trilogy Awakening Land by Conrad Richter

Out of what what was nearly a jungle, my feral predecessors after a generation in what was a nearly hunter gatherer existence in the Northwest Territory (the frontier west of what is now Ohio) decided to cut hardwood trees with axes and plant crops amid the huge stumps.

Shortly after another generation of experiments with logs and whitewash, yet another lonely, unwashed genepool eventually recapitulated the history of architecture.

We clear the land of stumps, perhaps gentrify the savage neighborhood, or even breed with the savages. Sooner or later, having beaten extinction, when we eventually believe that we may clothe, feed and educate the off spring, some optimist will eventually ask the question “What do we build?”

Now What? (upload title)
from The Great Central Valley johnson/dawson/Haslam photo carleton watkins

Wife an I got some land, some water, some questionable helpers. What Now?


“Once they were in the cabin, they had creature comforts again. Worth set his gun up in a dark corner where he wouldn’t see it unless he had to, and set to work splitting out three inch puncheons and hewing them smooth with the axe.” -from The Trees

In my view, these moments of late 18th century New World life were our latest opportunity to notice the similarities of the Stone Age to any age.