Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Architecture & Food (part 3): Desserts

As expressed in my last two posts, Netflix's series Chef's Table, has given me much food for thought. The connections between architecture and food, and between architects and chefs are numerous. I have been taking the liberty of addressing two episodes per post. Each episode of the show features a chef - exploring his personal life, his philosophy, his approach, and his creations. My posts compare and contrast two chefs with two architects. The first post addressed the impact of couples and the emergence of sustainability. The second explored narcissism and sexism in the creative professions. This post will look at the ramifications of experimentation and the importance of regionalism in the culinary arts and in architecture.

Ben Shewry
Ben Sewry is a very likable chef who runs an inconspicuous looking restaurant in Melbourne Australia called Attica. His restless desire to improve his established dishes and to create new ones has resulted in constant experimentation. One of the things Attica is known for is "experimental Tuesdays". When diners show up for dinner on a Tuesday, they will be served something completely new and different. Usually the menu is quite successful, but not always. Some experimental dishes end up on the menu, such as the Wallaby, bunya pine, & begonia. Others are never repeated. That does not deter Sewry. Working from his refined memory palate, he strives to create satisying dishes using the proper balance of ingredients. "Sometimes creativity is a necessity", says Sewry. His experimentation is simply a means toward that end.
Wallaby, bunya pine, & begonia

Jean Nouvel

The preeminent architect practicing in France today is Jean Novel. His career began under the auspices of Claude Parent, a leading avant garde architect of the time. Novel was heavily involved in the May '68 movement which protested against the ornate Beau's Arts method of architectural education. He was and is one of the great experimentalists in the profession. His words are the best descriptors: "My interest has always been in an architecture which reflects the modernity of our epoch as opposed to the rethinking of historical references. My work deals with what is happening now - our techniques and materials, what we are capable of doing today." An interesting example of his experimental architecture is the recently completed Philamonie de Paris. The building sports a variety of materials with an interesting variety of textures and forms. Despite positive reviews, Novel took issue with departures from his design in the construction of the details, feeling they were often watered down or ignored in favor of expediency. His experimentation, after all, should be allowed to reveal itself in the project.
Philharmonie de Paris
image by Danica O. Kus

Magnus Nilsson 

As a young man finishing school, Mingus Nilsson was not much different than any other. He wanted to do something exotic with his life and get away from the small town in which he was reared. After culinary school he moved to Paris to hone his craft. Things did not turn out as well as he envisioned and he decided to return to his hometown of Jarpen, Sweden. Although he gained valuable experience, it was clear that he would have to alter his French cooking style. In doing so he began to gain a new appreciation for the rugged beauty of his homeland and the ingredients it provided - a variety of seafood, herbs, and vegetables. He also refined various methods of preserving these ingredients over the long winter months. Once Nilsson embraced his region and what it offered, he began to flourish as a chef. Today guests from all over the world make the long and difficult trek to Faviken Magasinet, Nilsson's small restaurant. They leave having been satisfied by the Nordic cuisine dished out by this master chef.
Scallops over juniper branches

Hugh Newell Jacobsen
I suspect that Hugh Newell Jacobsen, like many of his fellow Yale architecture graduates, desired to work for a prominent architect and design modern buildings. And he did begin his apprenticeship with Philip Johnson before landing in Washington DC, where he has been ever since. Over the past six decades he has designed many modern buildings, but his projects have been different than the "International Style" modern buildings designed and constructed beginning in the early twentieth century. The forms of his buildings are informed by their region. From steep pitched gable roofs and clapboards in Maine to low slung hip roofs with broad overhangs in Florida, his buildings embrace their region. At the same time, there is a vein of consistency that runs through just about all of his projects. It's a talent that few architects possess.

Duck Down Residence

Shewry and Novel use experimentation to advance their craft. Nilsson and Jacobsen embrace regionalism to enrich their work. Architects and chefs definitely have a lot in common. So do  architects and writers. We'll start the new year with a Short Letter.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Architecture & Food (part 2): Me and She

As expressed in my last post, Netflix's series Chef's Table, has given me much food for thought. The connections between architecture and food, and between architects and chefs are numerous. Thus I am taking the liberty of addressing two episodes per post. Each episode of the show features a chef - exploring their personal lives, their philosophy, their approach, and their creations. My posts will compare and contrast two chef and two architects. The first post addressed the impact of couples and the emergence of sustainability. This post explores narcissism and sexism in the creative professions.

Francis Mallmann
Francis Mallmann is much more than just a chef. He is a "Food Star", a household name in Latin American. Though he owns several restaurants, he is not defined by any one of them. His preference is to be in the great outdoors and experience the freedom of which he speaks so frequently. As a chef, he bucks refined cooking techniques and instead, exploits the potential of fire. He often cooks for large groups which necessitates his need for assistants. Mallmann takes pride in his food and in its presentation. His talent is not in question but, as I watched the episode in which he was featured, there was something that bothered me about him. Mallmann is really all about Mallmann. He has a woman in his life but makes it clear that he needs to be away from her and shuns any commitment. His nomadic ways have damaged his relationship with his children as well. His cooking assistants are clearly disposable in his eyes, as are his "friends". He confesses, but not really laments, "I'm a bit selfish." Yes, that seems to be true, but at the same time he is an amazing talent.

Butterflied Chicken a al
Parrilla with Chanterelles
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry is more than just an architect. He is a "Starchitect", meaning that he has attained a high level of notoriety among the general public. He has designed many iconic buildings which the populace love, or love to hate. Gehry's approach to architecture is unconventional, he designs more like a sculptor than an architect. He tackles large and complex projects across the globe, relying on a team of skilled architects which he rarely mentions. To his benefit as well as his detriment, Gehry does things his own way and has little patience for those who disagree with him. His personal and professional relationships have suffered from this doggedness. I must confess however that the narcissism expressed by Gehry is a trait often attributed to accomplished architects. Whatever ones feelings about Gehry, few can argue his talent.
Lou Ruvo Building
Niki Nakayama
In the male dominated culinary world, where women make up only 16 percent of executive chefs, Niki Nakayama stands out. (Sidenote: Even in the first season of Chef's Table, she was the only female.) When she began her career she often found herself in a kitchen of all men where she constantly had to prove herself. She endured lower pay, little respect, and far too little recognition. But prove herself she did. Today Nakayama is the owner and chief executive chef of one of the most successful restaurants in the world - n/Naka of Los Angeles. The attention she gives her guests is remarkable, keeping details of everything that they have ever been served in her restaurant. Despite her success, she chooses not to flaunt the fact that the fine cuisine being served was prepared by a woman. She prefers instead to stay locked away in the kitchen, preparing her renowned kaiseki cuisine.
Tsukuri Traditional Sashimi
Zaha Hadid
In the male dominated profession of architecture, where only 17 percent of principals and partners are female, Zaha Hadid stands out. She entered the profession when even those numbers were considerably lower. She persevered and was eventually recognized, then praised, for her design savvy. Hadid has always had a passion for teaching as well. She has taught, as well as practiced, throughout her career. In 1980 she opened her own practice in London, which continues to win commissions for many high profile projects, often out-designing her male colleagues in competitions. In the last few years she has begun to receive many of the highest awards in the profession. In 2004 Hadid became the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize and in 2015 the first woman to receive the RIBA Gold Metal.
Vienna Library & Learning Centre
Narcissism and Sexism are two problems that continue to plague the profession. Is narcissism a necessary trait for one to have in order to be a great architect? Can the architect be humble and still get his message across? Why aren't there more women in the profession? And why can't we remove  the obstacles that are impeding progress? And one more. Will we have a woman president before we have a female winner of the AIA Gold Medal (not posthumous)? 

We'll wrap up this Chef's Table series next time, with Dessert. Join me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Architecture & Food (part 1): Food for Thought

Netflix's series Chef's Table, has given me much food for thought. I found myself constantly making connections between architecture and food, and between architects and chefs. They are numerous - too numerous in fact for me to address in one blog post. I expect it to be difficult to address it in three. Thus I am taking the liberty of addressing two episodes per post. Each episode of the show features a chef - exploring their personal lives, their philosophy, their approach, and their creations. Each of my posts will compare and contrast two chefs and two architects and look at common themes. This themes covered in this post are: the impact of couples, and the infusion of sustainability.

Massimo & Lara Bottura
If I had to characterize the portrayal of Massimo Bottura, the word I would choose is passion. This chef's energy seems boundless. His desire to create is infectious. Stability comes through his wife and soul mate Lara, who documents and gives direction to the culinary ideas that seem to boil up within him. Together they run the restaurant 'Osteria Franciscan', a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy. Set in an environment steeped in old traditions of food and culture, they have made a name for themselves by reinterpreting many of the area's best loved cuisines. Initially dismissed by their neighbors for their avant garde approach, these same neighbors have now come to recognize their cuisine as an extension of their traditions, rather than a break from them. Bottura refers to his creations as the "new Italian kitchen".
Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart

Billie Tsen and Tod Williams
Tod Williams Billie Tsen is a firm with passion. Williams cut his architectural teeth at Richard Meier's office before opening his own Manhattan office in 1974. Tsen has a background in painting and arts as well as architecture. She joined the firm in 1977, fresh out of architecture school. Six months later, she and Williams married. Despite early skepticism, the couple have emerged as two of the world's most prominent architects. They balance each other well and promote the unique values espoused by their work. Williams explains, "I think we have signature values, but not a signature style". The outcome: conventional buildings that are also new and fresh, always informed by their context. 
Logan Center for the Arts

Dan Barber
Dan Barber, the well known executive chef and owner of Blue Hills at Stone Barns and Blue Hills in Manhattan, has become equally well known for his advocacy of ecological and sustainable farm systems. "When you pursue great flavor, you also pursue ecology," says Barber. He does not just visit the market to find produce, he grows his own. He raises livestock as well, for both milk and protein. Creating permacultures ultimately results in great tasting food, as evidenced by the success of his restaurants. I was struck by the broad scope of work Barber manages. He is hands-on in the kitchen, while also overseeing the test kitchen and farm. As if that were not enough, he is a constant researcher and a frequent lecturer.
Sweet Green and Wasted Salad

Renzo Piano
In 2006, Time magazine's "100 most influential people in the world" recognized one architect - Renzo Piano. He catapulted to fame in the early 1970s with the winning submission for the Centre Pompidou (along with Richard Rogers). Increasingly, this architect and engineer has become known for sustainable buildings. Not just buildings that sport solar panels and harvest rainwater, but buildings that seem to grow out of the ground, building which relish sunlight. Piano, the son of a builder, also designs and builds sailboats. His attention to how buildings work carries into his studio. His firm, in fact, is called the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Whether urban skyscrapers or elegant museums, his works are always well designed and well crafted. In addition to his busy practice, Piano frequently writes and lectures.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center

The teams of Massimo & Lara Bttura, and Tod Williams & Billie Tsen have reinterpreted what was expected and, in the process, have gained widespread acclaim. Dan Barber and Renzo Piano have expanded the role of their professions and have evolved into staunch advocates for sustainability. The next post will examine other chefs and architects and will address the topics of narcissism and sexism. Join me for the next post, Me and She.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Architecture & Fly Fishing: On the Fly

In the last few months I've developed an appreciation for, and an interest in, fly fishing. A connection between fishing and architecture may not be obvious, but if you've followed this blog even a little, you know the truism first espoused by Charles Eames - "Eventually everything connects."

To become a successful architect or fly fisherman requires the proper use of tools, and the tools are numerous and complex. The architect uses everything from pens and tracing paper to code books and computers. The fly fisherman uses everything from a rod and reel to boots and waders. Mastering the tools of the trade is a lifelong endeavor. It is never easy.  No matter how diligently one practices, true mastery remains elusive. 
Fly fishing tools (gear)
Architect's tools (equipment)
Though these things are true, I postulate that the most fascinating connection between architecture and fly fishing is more philosophical than pragmatic. Let's discuss the fly fisherman. There are really many different types of fishermen. At one extreme is the fisherman who is out simply to catch fish - as many and as fast as possible. For this type of fisherman, fishing is simply a craft. Nothing more and nothing less. 
Then there is the angler who fishes for more complex reasons - to relish in the natural beauty of the river, to perfect his cast, to discover the best fly for the given conditions in order to tempt the desired fish. To this type of angler, actually catching the fish is incidental to the experience. To this angler, fly fishing is elevated to an art form.
Bryant-Denny Stadium 
in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Just as there are different types of fishermen, there are different types of architects. For many, architecture is simply their job. They gain a certain level of competency and then develop techniques for churning out buildings. The simpler and more standardized the buildings, the more they can churn out. The more they can churn out, the better the bottom line, or the less time they have to spend at their job. The results are, at best, functional and efficient buildings derived by the craft of building.

Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron
Then there are the architects for which architecture is much more than simply a job. It is a calling. Each project is an opportunity to design something special. Of course their creations must function well, but there is much more to it than that. The buildings often require new or different systems and materials and will necessarily require much detailing. The results can be iconic buildings derived through the art of architecture.

The architectural design culminates as a building on its site, which is a much better fate than that of the fish, which ends up on a plate! Join me next month when we'll look at the connection between architecture and food, in the post.....Food for Thought.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Architecture & the Automobile (part 2): Architecture for the Rest of Us

Every year I look forward to Architectural Record's "Record Houses" issue. I find it to be a treasure trove of new and creative ideas - the kind of ideas that push the profession forward. Not all architects agree. Some see it as just a glorification of elitist ideas by narcissistic practitioners that have little to do with the way that we live and which serves to further alienate architects from the public we serve. This post explores the relevance of cutting edge domestic architecture, particularly as it relates to the public at large. I'll come back to that, but for now I would like to take a detour and identify a connection between the architecture and automotive design, which can serve as a basis for comparison and contrast.

Automakers spend considerable resources developing  concept cars and then showing them off at various car shows and conventions. These cars never make it into mass production, at least in form that they are originally presented, but their use is invaluable. They serve as a platform for experimentation, feature new styling, and employ new technologies. Some of the concepts introduced prove to be popular or successful, while others do not. The designers gather and analyze the input and use what they gleam to advance their product lines - to design cars that we will actually drive. Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a concept car with unproven features, we spend a few thousand on a car that incorporates well tested features and has a little less "cool" factor in its styling.

Production Car
2016 Honda HR-V
Concept Car
McLaren JetSet by Marianna Meremies

Yamate Street House
Taichi Mitsuya & Assoc, + Unemori Architects

Record Houses may be the closest thing the architectural profession has to the concept car. These highly customized houses are typically designed by prominent architects and financed by wealthy clients. The architects are often experimenting with innovative forms, using new materials, and employing new technologies. This is the point however where the connections between automotive design and architecture become tenuous. Whereas the automotive industry gleans much from its concept cars and introduces new models that utilize these advancements, the architectural profession seems relatively slow to adapt. We often hang onto dated forms, ignore advances in materials, and fail to embrace new technologies. 



I performed a simple experiment that you can easily replicate.  Google the simple words "house" and "car" and see what you get. When I googled the word "house", the first image revealed was that of a very traditional looking house (above right). The form of the house and the materials used in its construction could have been from yesterday or from a hundred years ago. It is also noteworthy that I had to scroll pretty far down the page before finding the first house that seemed to be of our contemporary era. When I googled the work "car" (above left) the opposite happened. All of the cars were contemporary models and I had to scroll down the page to find a car not of our contemporary era. The reasons for these different outcomes are not completely clear in my mind. Is it that the consumers are demanding something more nostalgic in their houses, or is it that architects are failing to learn appropriately and push the profession forward? No matter the reason, it seems that Record Houses are indeed the architecture for a small segment of the population and, in reality, do little to advance the profession.  It is the status quo that is the architecture for the masses.

Next month we venture off the beaten path to explore kind of a fishy connection to architecture.....On the Fly.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Architecture & Song Writing: 1989

In the Deluxe Edition of Taylor Swift's latest album, 1989, are three bonus tracks which I find intriguing. They are not songs, but rather Taylor's attempt to explain the malliable process behind creating songs. The connections between this creative process and the creative process employed in the creation of architecture is uncanny, and worthy of further exploration. In this post we'll first look at the creative process employed by singer/song writer Taylor Swift in her album 1989, and then compare and contrast it with the creative process employed by architect I.M. Pei in one of his masterworks, the Louvre Pyramid, which opened to the public in 1989.

When Taylor Swift is asked questions like "Where do you write?, How long does it take?, Do you start with the music or the melody?", she responds that it happens differently every time. She proceeds to cite three examples and explain the underpinnings of each song. In most cases it begins with some kind of spark which generates either a melody or a lyric. This is immediately recorded on a notepad or her cell phone so it can be recalled later. This spark can occur at any time, sometimes even in the middle of the night. Sometimes the ideas are fresh and sometimes they've been brewing a while. From there the process varies. Sometimes she sits down with her guitar or at the piano and builds on the melody or lyric. Sometimes she builds on a track passed along by collaborators or producers, Martin and Shellback in the case of this album. All this occurs while the song is still early in development. She incorporates their critiques, where appropriate, and continues to develop the song. Then comes the refinement. The instrumentation is established and the lyrics are finalized. Big Machine Records wisely gives her considerable leeway. Eventually she gets the song to a point where it feels complete. If it's deemed good enough, it will end up on the album, along with other songs created in a similar manner. Then the judgement. 1989 was released in 2014, and received high praise by both critics and the public.

Pei began work on the Louvre Pyramid in 1984 and completed it in 1989, the year Taylor Swift was born. When the project began I.M. Pei was a well seasoned architect at the age of 72. It takes considerably longer for one to crank out buildings than it does for one to crank out songs, but at this point in his career, Pei pretty much had the process down. As with Taylor, every project unfolds a little differently, but along a similar trajectory. It begins with an idea - a three dimensional object starts to form in his mind. This is quickly recorded in the form of a sketch on tracing paper, or a notepad, or a napkin, or whatever happens to be around. Pei, like all successful architects, surrounds himself with talented collaborators. When Pei designed the Louvre Pyramid, he relied on the structural ingenuity of Nicolet Chartrand Knoll and RFR. They helped him transform his ideas into physical form. He produced many more developed drawings and models as the project began to jell. The pyramid was kept simple and geometric so as not to compete with its Beaux Arts neighbors. The space planning and building form was ultimately finalized and final documents produced. The ideal client will give Pei the creative leeway he needs to fulfill his vision. In the case of the Louvre Pyramid, former President of France, Francois Mitterand, did exactly that. After the project was constructed, it was judged by its users, the press, and the general public. Pei's Louvre Pyramid, like the Eiffel Tower, was initially dismissed then embraced by the public. Critics almost universally applauded it.
Louvre Pyramid by I.M. Pei

Not all musicians are able to craft a tune like Taylor Swift, and not all all architects are able to evoke iconic forms like I.M. Pei. Perhaps that's a good thing. See what I mean by this when I present my next post, Architecture for the rest of us.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Architecture & Clients: To Educate and to Serve

The 2014 CRAN (Custom Residential Architects Network) symposium featured two sessions which roused my interest. The sessions had similar titles, The New Modern House and The New Traditional House. The format was the same for each. A moderator introduced three prominent architects who each spoke about their recent work and then joined the moderator for a roundtable discussion. The similarities ended there. I was struck by how different these two groups of architects were. I'll touch on a few of the differences, but I'd like to hone in on one - how differently the modernists and the traditionalists view the architect/client relationship.

Let's begin with the modernists. Gorlin introduced the speakers with a brief bio, including the number of design awards they have amassed. One could just feel that we were about to witness the bleeding edge of design, presented by the the innovators propelling the profession forward.

the New Modern House panel
Alexander Gorlin, Larcan O'Herily, Julie Snow, & Robert M. Gurney
These architects talked a lot about the site, and how they craft and position their houses to embrace the landscape. Their works tend to be comprised of large expanses of glass, blurring the distinction between the interior and the exterior spaces. The interiors tend to be open and flowing. The detailing tends to be spare. Careful placement of rich materials fill the void, if there is one, caused but the the lack of ornamentation. They were defensive at the assertion by some that modern houses lack comfort. Snow stated, "I find the world of pillows suffocating, and the world of glass liberating."

The modernists approach to handling clients demonstrated a desire to educate them. After all, the client retained them for their design expertise, did they not? The role these architects played was to take the client's program and reinterpret it in built form, guided by sound architectural principles. Modernists look forward, not to the past. One gets the sense that they consider the houses they design to be theirs as much as their clients.

Gurney directs discussions with his clients toward understanding architectural principles. They discuss such things as light, space, and relationships. "We never have a discussion about style," says Gurney. The clear implication is that style, and the shackles that come with it, are not a factor in determining the ultimate form and function of the house.

Gurney's 308 Mulberry
O'Herily, who works mainly with developer clients, made the point that it is often necessary to use the "art of persuasion" to convince a client to buy off on an idea or concept that they might not normally embrace. A client might be skeptical that he can rent a red and orange metal clad apartment building. The architect's ideas must be sold...and bought, in order for the architect's vision to be realized.

O'Herily's Formosa 1140 Housing Project
Snow expanded on this point of view, telling the audience of architects "We have a responsibility to give them [clients] your best advice." She also pointed out that her firm has occasionally fired clients who failed to follow their advice. Clearly the modernists make it known that they are the experts and they are leading the design process. This does not mean, however, that the architects think of clients simply as a means to an end - getting their creations built. They take pride in their ability to satisfy their clients, building houses that function well and are architecturaly significant.
Snow's B+W House
And now, on to the traditionalists. Rybcynski introduced the topic of traditional design by arguing that we want our buildings to have a connection with the past, but that we have to pick and choose, due to the expansiveness of the past. Indeed this is the approach of the traditionalists. Interestingly, the bios of the panelists did not mention design awards at all. It was as if these architects were just the most current group of notable practicioners continuing the practice of traditional architecture.

The traditionalists approach to handling clients demonstrates a desire to provide their particular brand of service. Their clients often come to them with a desire for them to create a house in a particular style. Their clients retain them for their knowledge of classical languages and traditions. The role of these architects seem to be taking the client's program and working with them to create appropriate design solutions. The modernists look proudly to the past. Appleton makes an interesting comment during the roundtable, saying that the work belongs to client, and when finished, it is healthy [for the architect] to let go.

the Traditional House panel
Wytold Rybcynski, Marc Appleton, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, & Gil Schafer III
Shafer caught me off guard in his explanation of the design process his firm employs when building new traditional houses. Since new homes do not provide a historical context in which to operate, they architects create their own narrative. For example, they might imagine a young couple buying a little land and moving into a farmhouse, then updating it in the latest style as they begin to acquire some wealth, and finally adding to it as their family grows. The desired result is to have a house that looks as though it evolved architecturally over time.

Shafer's Longfield Farm
Khoury-Vogt's small practice is currently working exclusively in a DPZ new urbanist community, Alys Beach, on the Gulf coast. Their clients have already bought in on a style so the role of the architects becomes fleshing out the form, finishes, and details with the assistance of a pattern book. She starts the design process by showing clients "inspirational photos" of houses and architectural details which she uses to inform the design of their houses.

Khoury-Vogt's Frist Residence
Appleton, who was trained as a modernist and worked in Frank Gehry's office before hanging out his own shingle, chose to work in traditional styles. He explained that it took a long time to "start talking plain english and stop talking like an architect, particularly with clients." Because of his desire to serve the client, he realized that he "had to start listening to clients and what they want, rather than what I thought might be right for them." Like the others, he loves the challenge of working with different clients in different architectural styles. He mentioned his satisfaction in being asked by a client to do a house "in the style of George Washington Smith."

Appleton's San Ysidro Ranch Addition
I consider all of the architects in both panels to be talented professionals, practicing in the manner they believe is best. The question of whether it is better to educate the client, as the modernists do, or to serve the client in the manner of the traditionalists, varies for every architect.

Most objective architects can find truisms and platitudes in the opinions of both the modernists and the traditionalists. Despite differences in the way we view clients, we are much more alike than we are different. A fundamental commonality is the creative process we practice to achieve artistic expression. That is something architects share with many other artistic fields, including music. That will be the subject of the next post, 1989.