Architect, Landscape Architect, Urban Designer, Land Use Planner, Environmental Observer

Monday, August 31, 2009

Good Signs !!

(downtown Santa Cruz, California)

classic applied letters with
"gooseneck" lighting

applied signage with logos

window signage with neon logos

"blade" signs

Downtown Santa Cruz is a walkable area.
Fortunately, the signage is designed for pedestrians.
. . .

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Side Elevations - Example #3

another house on a standard residential lot...



Seems simple, doesn't it? ...

but the problem is not so much in design, but in planning restrictions.

The projections into the side setback shown above would not be allowed. One could argue that the designer has no business filling the entire "envelope" if it is going to produce dull elevations that show no relief.

Both are true - perhaps the value of better design might prevail over the "no crossing the line" attitude of the planners.

. . .

Saturday, August 29, 2009

In Contempt of Context -

I'm not sure anyone outside the architectural world really cares, but there is a great debate circulating regarding a notable British architect losing a major commission due to a letter from the Prince of Wales to the client (a prince of Qatar).

The site is called "Chelsea Barracks" located in Westminster.

The blueish triangle is the area to be redeveloped.

This was the proposal from Richard Rogers' firm.

This image is a sample building in the scheme.

So, what's wrong with that?...


here is what is around the area...

Chelsea Hospital

So, not too surprisingly, the new architect is a traditionalist and this is his proposal.

The melodrama continues...

Richard Rogers was knighted by the Queen for his architectural accomplishments. He is now Lord Rogers of Riverside.

He is a member of the House of Lords, more properly called "The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled".

Lord Rogers wants to abolish the monarchy...hmmmmmmmm....a man of privilege created by the monarchy system !!


But my issue is that he did not adequately respond to CONTEXT. Most "starchitects" don't. Consider Frank Gehry...

Here's the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in context.

Here's the model in Gehry's office.

check out the debate ;



Before the first sketch is made on any project large or small, designers, clients and the community as a whole need to ask basic questions about its impact:

How will it generate vibrant public life?

How will it honor its context in the community?

How will it create a community place and draw on local assets? (Cultural, ecological, historical, social, and economic)

How will it delight people, bring them together and enhance their lives?

The challenge in creating great cities for the future is enormous, yet critically important. Our attention needs to be focused on many levels of urban life: livability, local economies, community health, sustainability, civic engagement, and local self reliance. Good architecture and design, broadly defined, must be at the heart of all these efforts. When all of these goals are aligned, we’ll see a world-changing movement to repair the environment and improve living conditions for everyone living upon it.


there is a long tradition of not giving in to the existing context...remember Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City??

Here is the building (on Fifth Avenue) with the surrounding buildings and Central Park in the foreground.

Here is the model in Frank Lloyd Wright's studio.

draw your own conclusions...

should architects consider and respond to the context that their site is in?


Palladio's Children -

"The architect was traditionally occupied with the monumental palace, villa or church. Yet, during the past century, architects became fully immersed in the entirety of the field. This signaled a fundamental and unprecedented shift. The demands of the everyday environment are vastly different from what is required to create the extraordinary. Nevertheless, the profession's self-image, publications and ways of working still cling to its roots in monumental architecture."

N. J. Habraken

Professor Emeritus, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

. . .

Friday, August 28, 2009

Window Walls -

I was reviewing a Medical Office Building (designed by an internationally known architectural firm), when we got on to the issue of the window wall system. Their design was boring - more like standard store fronts.

I decided to photograph good examples of interesting window wall systems.

The following are from St. Louis, Missouri -

Using various widths and thickness' give shadows

and a sense of depth to the facade...

Corner elements are of particular concern...

Patterns of glazing and mullions and the base of the wall
make these designs interesting and rigorous...

. . .

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What If ... designing subdivisions the landscape elements
were considered on a larger scale??

Even in one standard cul-de-sac subdivision, trees could be grouped and repeated to form major landscape elements.

As I walk to work, I notice the taller trees in the neighborhood - Coast Redwood, Port Orford Cedar, Monterey Cypress, London Plane Tree, etc. They are scattered and not in any particular pattern.

But what if you arranged them in larger scale patterns as subdivisions were added. You would see grand "hedge rows" ... giving a form, color and texture that ran through a part of town.

. . .

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Here Comes The Sun ...

This is a simple way to start thinking about solar orientation and sun and shade:

1. What hemisphere are you in?

If you are reading this in Australia, the sun at noon will be due North. If you are reading this in the United States, the sun at noon will be due South.

2. What is your latitude?

Check some good maps or an atlas. The USGS maps have longitude (lines from north to south) and latitude ( lines from east to west). Look at how much above or below the Equator you are located. Santa Cruz, California is approximately 37 degrees North latitude.

3. Where is North on your site or building?

This example works best when things are oriented north- south.

You will need to know the approximate tilt of the earth -

23 1/2 degrees!


at Summer Solstice, June 21st at noon, the sun is:

90 - latitude + 23 1/2 (degrees above the horizon)

at Winter Solstice, December 21st at noon, the sun is:

90 - latitude - 23 1/2 (degrees above the horizon)

for the Equinox, March 21 and September 21, at noon)

90 - latitude (degrees above the horizon)


I was recently asked to look at a "building envelope" and the effect it would have on giving the neighboring residence sun in the windows. Here are the two diagrams -

What conclusions would you make from the drawings above?

you could also model this in SketchUp !

. . .

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Perfect Street Tree -

probably doesn't exist !

What characteristics would the "perfect street tree" require?

- Appropriate size

Just like the fable; not too big, not too small, but just the right size. Too big would probably mean a large trunk and large roots. Too small is just out of scale with the streetscape. In some situations, tree canopies could block signage for commercial buildings.

- Appropriate form

Some like them rounded, some like them columnar. What it can't be is "droopy", i.e. the branches cannot curve downward. Hopefully, it would naturally be branching upward and give a lot of trunk height.

- Adaptable to pruning

Some trees don't like being cut. Maintenance crews will come along and make sure people, cars and trucks can pass under the lowest branch(es). Utility crews will come along and top branches right at the power and/or phone lines.

- Climate specific

Trees, like people, need to thrive and not merely survive. Here on the coast of California, that means the choices of trees should probably come from one of the five Mediterannean climates of the world (California, Northern Mediterannean, Chilean coast, Australia and South Africa). Natives often don't work well as street trees (because most natives like well-drained soils).

- Drought tolerant

Irrigation (if there is any) will probably not work or not work well in a few years after planting. Irrigation will get run over, may never get adjustment or simply may not have been put in well. Don't count on it for your street tree to thrive (see above).

- Available without custom growing

Nurseries simply should have them in stock. Size is not that critical and a University of California study showed that smaller stock will catch up with larger stock in a relatively short time - tell that to your City Council !!

- Minimal maintenance

America is short on the budget for maintenance, let's face it. Park budgets may contain provisions for new parks, but all too often do not contain money for new employees to maintain the urban forest. Choose the right tree, and plant it well and that will help.

- Smog tolerant

It's only getting worse, rarely better. Some trees choke or develop diseases easier in dense urban settings.

- Tolerance of compacted soils

Good planting requires all trees have loose soil for their roots. Too often the ground has been compacted and then we can't figure out why the trees don't survive well. Trees grow in soil, never in concrete. Don't scrape the side of the tree planting area. Avoid heavy machinery in the areas that are to recieve plants.

- Well- behaved roots

Trees need water - one of the few basic requirements. Roots seek out water. If the water is under the sidewalk, that's probably where the roots will head. Don't pick a tree that requires large amounts of water to survive and provide watering tubes with bubblers for each tree.

- Medium growth time

Maybe it's okay to have your grandchildren appreciate the large street trees you selected, but most officials don't think that way. On the other hand, if the tree grows like a weed, it IS a weed.

- Insect and disease resistant

Keep up with what is attacking trees in your area. I check with the local Agricultural Extension agent.

- Lack of fruit drop

People can slip on tree fruit and big leaves. Cars can be stained due to fruit juices. This really limits the trees you can use, but cuts down on the complaints.




California State University, Hayward


A study was conducted from 1978 to late 1984 of the survival of inner-city street trees planted by the Oakland, California urban forestry program.

The tree survival rate of approximately 60 to 70 percent from the trees planted in neighborhood parkways through urban forestry sponsored block parties contrasted sharply with less than one percent survival of trees planted earlier by the Model Cities program without community participation or ceremonial plantings.

Explanations for the high tree survival were tested using participant observation, interviews with residents, and a small panel. Tree survival was not found to be related to the explanations provided by urban forestry ideology; namely, that residents had been educated to hold both instrumental and expressive values toward trees. Rather, the explanation appeared to be the function of an unintended solution to the issue of parkway ownership. The tree planting process which included species selection meetings and tree planting ceremonies tended to define the parkway trees as a resident's property, thus decreasing the significance of the parkway-property barrier.

. . .

Sunday, August 23, 2009

reDESIGN - Case Study #7

This is a gas station on a freeway exit in a rural part of the county -



The avoidance of country-wide anonymous corporate architecture is vital in giving some sense of place in America. The illustration above could be anywhere and indeed is designed to give an image that is easily "recognizable" as a brand name gas station. In this situation, the gas station is in California, it is on the coast, it is across the street from artichoke fields and very visible from Highway One.

Repeating the masonry image of the California Missions, using real clay tile roofs, giving the entry a formal archway and breaking down the scale of the window wall system aids in bringing the design within the local context.

. . .

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities ...

...and two buildings

...and two plazas

...and two architects

Federal Building
San Francisco

Thom Mayne, Architect


City Hall
San Jose

Richard Meier, Architect

Two public buidlings - full of beauracrats. Both architects are of world class stature and absolutely brilliant. The Federal Building in San Francisco, however, is unwelcoming. The San Jose City Hall is lively, fascinating and the plaza is a welcome city-wide attraction. The plaza in front of the Federal Building (when I visited it) was depressing, cold, windy and strewn with litter.

While I love both buildings for their intellectual rigor, the San Jose City Hall brings a quality and life that the Federal Building doesn't. I fault both buildings for the lack of a grand entry lobby that is clearly visible from the street - isn't that a prerequisite for a public building of any size in any location?

. . .

Friday, August 21, 2009

Side Elevation - Example #2 ...

Another example of a single family residence that had a lively front facade and a dead, private side elevation on a narrow lot in an old subdivision.

Does the side really matter in this case? ... of course it does !

(would the Architect be proud to hang this elevation on the wall of his office?)


Using elements from the design of the other parts of the building, and with minor planar variations, the design is balanced and enlivened.
. . .

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting Some on the Side...

Elevation, that is !


Forgotten facades;
Little attention given to side elevations

Article from: Intelligencer Journal Lancaster, PA
Article date: May 9, 2003
Author: Gregory I. Scott

During the reign of King Wiliam III, a window tax was introduced to help curb inflation resulting from years of war and conflict with the British Empire. Landowners were taxed an additional property tariff if their house had more than six windows. The more windows, the higher the assessment. It was not unusual during those times to literally brick up openings to avoid taxes.

A recent trend in speculative house construction is the elimination of windows on certain facades of the residence, primarily the side elevations. This phenomenon compromises both the aesthetic and the function of the rooms they represent with regard to daylight, views and interest.

Bring up the rear
(design of side and rear elevations of single-family dwellings)

Article from: Builder
Article date: June 1, 1999
Author: Weber, Carolyn

Just say no to movie set streetscapes. Fully realized side and rear elevations are essential to good design - because good design sells.

John and Mary Move-Up were charmed by the clever details of the home's front elevation. It had everything: a gabled roofline, big windows, a sizable porch, a mix of materials including faux stone accents, and beautiful landscaping. This use had tremendous curb appeal, and it was beginning to appeal to them. But upon closer inspection, they rounded the corner to discover that the charm, as well as the stone, stopped. They were blinded by a vast expanse of vinyl siding, broken up only by one postage stamp-sized window.

Great Elevations

Article from: Builder
Article date: January 2006
Author: BUILDER Staff

What makes a great elevation? Depends on which one you're viewing. There are plenty of well-done front fa├žades, of course, but award-winning exterior design is a four-sided affair. Although we show only the street views here, trust us that the other sides are just as carefully considered and dramatic.







Attention to details, alignment of elements and articulation (breaking up the long wall with inward and/or outward elements) changes the mundane to interesting.
. . .

Monday, August 17, 2009

Northern California seen by two artists

I would not say that the built environment of Northern California is special, but the natural environment is a true gift. The geography of the coast, bay and coastal ridge, combined with the Mediterranean climate is magnificent. While many artists have captured this area, here are two of my favorites in different media.

Oil Paintings by
Jim Caldwell -

Woodcut prints by
Tom Killion -

. . .


Recommended Books

  • - Precedents in Architecture
  • - City Comforts
  • - A Pattern Language
  • - The Architecture of Happiness
  • - Architectural Composition
  • - Design Language
  • - Elements of Garden Design
  • - Chambers for a Memory Palace