Book: Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women by Jane Hall

Cover image via Phaidon’s gorgeous website

Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women
by Jane Hall
published by Phaidon
2019

The premise behind this book is that lots of women are designing impressive buildings you recognize, buildings that are worth celebrating, but you may not be aware of this because their work is often shown under a firm name or misattributed to men. To correct this gap in your knowledge, this book collects excellent projects, both recent and historical, and tells you about the architects behind them.

So many gorgeous projects, including projects you have seen in magazines or in person! (Via Phaidon’s website)

The selection of projects neatly tilts toward my favorite types: large public works, plus large private projects, both of the type that are experienced by a lot of people: concert halls, offices, museums, schools. Each architect is represented by a brief biography and one or more excellent project photos with key details for further research. Collaborations between men and women are recognized and celebrated in an acknowledgement of the team effort that contemporary architecture ordinarily requires for large scale projects.

Hall is very modest about her research and the limitations of the Europe-centric architectural awards processes that favor Europe and selected other regions, but I am delighted by the geographic range of her selections.

The essay and quotes in the book underline the importance of spotlighting these high quality projects to correct for the erasure of women in the field. Hall calls out the 2014 scandal around having architect Patty Hopkins photoshopped out of a photo of architecture award winners, while her husband was left in for a BBC show about their shared firm’s work – even though she co-founded the firm, and their shared name is on it! (See the article in Architects’ Journal entitled, “BBC slammed for ‘bias’ after Patty Hopkins is sidelined in TV show” dated March 5, 2014 by Richard Waite and Laura Mark.) It isn’t just about the photo, it’s about the program’s premise that men were exclusively responsible for the shape of contemporary design – the photo was just a reminder that the facts did not support that narrative. If your are actively edited out of discussions about the firm you co-founded and the projects you worked on, just to indulge some stranger’s all-male hero narrative, who is safe? The lone genius theory is bad enough, but diminishing key founders because of their gender is outrageous.

“No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable.”

–Denise Scott Brown

(This issue is, unfortunately, relatable: a male teacher happily gave my boyfriend/classmate credit for my architecture work because just once I used my bf’s woodworking tools to build a model, though if he had borrowed equipment from me, the reverse would NOT have been suggested. My bf told me he took it as a compliment (to him). Their creepy camaraderie over rewarding him for my work made quite an impression on me.)

This is a beautiful, oversized book of great projects with lovely photos. The core details about the firms behind the designs are enough to send you in the right direction to learn more. The presence and success of the women behind these projects is encouraging and satisfying.

This book also gives you an excuse to visit the Phaidon website, which is GORGEOUS and has many wonderful temptations, especially the fine art monographs and design books.

Book: Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green, by Deanna MacDonald

How is that for a cool cover?

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green
by Deanna MacDonald
published by Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont
2015

This is a beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese building projects which show a commitment to environmental sustainability.

This book grabbed me right away by immediately explaining something that had always confused me: why are homes made with renewable, traditional materials so rare? The answer that explains it all: insurance companies won’t insure old houses. One MUST tear down and rebuild to new codes every 30 years to get insurance. And so houses are basically disposable, and less sustainable materials can be cheaper, faster, less flammable, or more fashionable.

Some of the edgy, innovative Japanese house books I’ve seen are now so easily explained: no one is building for the long term, so being over-specific for a point in time, or taking risks, and being daring makes more sense – you won’t have to grow old in what you build! (Even in the recent Japanese fiction I’ve been reading, families tear down buildings to sell an empty lot – this seems to be considered the best choice almost always…)

This book profiles a range of projects from architects with a range of attitudes and credentials about environmentally sustainable building. It is a buffet of different eco-emphases: some projects focus on energy use, some on thermal insulation, some on traditional wood treatments (like charring to protect against insects), some on attempting to preserve the natural features of a landscape by resting on smaller foundations (which involves using a lot of steel, however), and all result in a range of reasonably conventional homes that wouldn’t jump out as eco-friendly without some explanation.

By showing a diversity of approaches and solutions, the book provides a good survey of concerns that CAN be addressed and SHOULD be considered. You CAN have a normal-looking house while making better choices!

As with all architecture books, I get a better sense for how living in the spaces could be when they have signs of human life in them, such as art or furnishings, so I am relieved that several of the homes are furnished, at least minimally. While a few of the homes are absolutely palatial (the vast, full floor height, insulated windows in some of these projects alone probably cost more than my entire house), there are some modest / practical ones in the mix. I also appreciate the interludes to cover topics such as the use of landscaping, and kit homes (hello, Muji!), and the inclusion of some international projects to tie what is happening in Japan to global trends.

Overall, this is an attractive, nicely presented book showing how many potential approaches there are to improve the sustainability of residential construction, especially in the climate and circumstances found in Japan. I enjoyed it.

Book: Cabins by Philip Jodidio

Cabins
by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen
2018

This hefty, dense, trilingual (English, German, and French) volume features extremely charming illustrations by Cruschiform (Marie-Laure Cruschi), great photos, consistent and clear floor plans (!gasp!), and outdoorsy-buildings, only some of which are cabins.

While the promotional text discusses rustic simplicity, and there are a few rugged/utilitarian structures, MOST of these aren’t modest buildings you could track mud into. I mean, there are some without heating, or that are only intended for seasonal use, but many are fully developed, large, contemporary homes for the well off.

I adore this “boathouse,” but we have boathouses in our public parks here in SF, and they are basically uninsulated garages for boats that are rusting and have bird poo on them. They don’t look like this:

This home by AR Design Studio in the UK is fantastic. Too fantastic for cabin-hood! It is a retreat from… another home on the property.

The design of the book is great – the illustrations are stylish, fun, colorful, and provide clear transitions between projects. The consistent floor plan graphics help explain how the buildings should work. The index is well organized, and the essay at the front is worth a read.

The projects themselves range from translucent structures that you can camp in, to wine country vacation homes, to buildings where you could live normally, to those that are better suited for ‘glamping’ (pretend glamour camping). There is at least one where I can imagine snowshoeing in from the edge of the property with a sled full of cocktail ingredients and catered food, though unpacking supplies in the immaculate kitchen that appears to have no food preparation tools of any kind would be daunting. 🙂

It’s difficult to tell what the criteria for SUCCESS in the design category is. The program for a cabin (a real cabin) is looser than one for a home, but that leaves their utility ambiguous. Are we snow camping, or are we entertaining? Can our older parents visit, or is it too difficult to access? Is it comfortable for a weekend only, or a week, or a month?

The structures that are fully furnished are easier to interpret – I know my parents could sit down without me having to bring furniture, so that’s great. Some bedrooms are completely filled by a bed. Why? Should you need to leave the bedroom to open a suitcase and dress? Should you need to climb a ladder into a loft to sleep? Does the enormous trap door in the floor without railings feel sketchy when you’re hauling in your supplies? Is a glass-enclosed bath a great idea if your parents are visiting for the weekend?

The client’s desires and goals for using the space are mentioned at various levels of detail, but without giving away too much, I’d love to have a scorecard to compare the programs on a practical level, considering the range of projects. Accessibility (how able-bodied do I need to be to get in, and how many stairs am I hauling supplies up), is there enough floor space to dress in the bedroom; is there enough light to read; is there space to draw/paint/write; is the temperature range comfortable in its intended seasons, is there any storage space for the outdoor gear you need to get there… This would be especially valuable because of the glossy architecture magazine convention of showing most of the spaces without human occupants, without normal personal possessions, and without any normal living functions being performed.

This is a fun collection to leaf through, and I do have at least one new Swedish island cabin getaway fantasy now, so I think this book has accomplished its mission.

Art: Textile design by Märta Måås-Fjetterström

I received a gorgeous postcard in the mail today from Norway; it’s a card from a retrospective art show in Sweden of the artist Märta Måås-Fjetterström. She’s famous for her amazing carpets, which have been used in Nobel Prize ceremonies, and are in design collections of museums around the world.

I was delighted to search for her, and see some of her work. Her studio is still active and producing her designs, and so there are MANY search results!

Somehow, the WSJ has one of the best-illustrated article on the operation of her studio in the present time.

I learn so much from my friendly postcard senders!

SF Life: Slow Streets

Another thing that we’ve implemented in San Francisco that we should keep and expand is the Slow Streets program. With so many people cooped up and isolated in the city due to pandemic precautions, all needing to exercise and enjoy fresh air safely, this is a program whose time has come.

It’s like an expansion of the brilliant and popular Sunday Streets program (sundaystreetssf.com), organized by local non-profit organization Liveable City (livablecity.org).

SF Life: Shared Spaces

SF launched an outdoor dining/business program called Shared Spaces to offer some relatively safe outdoor dining activities, and to support safer pick up for delivery services from food service companies. While I want the sidewalks to be kept clear for pedestrian use full time, especially for the unimpeded use of the disabled community, the approach of using car parking space for public enjoyment is a better, higher value, higher density use of public street space than storing privately owned cars, and so I zealously support it.

You can see the Shared Spaces interactive map here.

When I say that this offers a relatively safe outdoor dining, I mean that it is very relative based on how the space is configured. I’ve walked past some of these arrangements, and they vary widely. I won’t sit with unmasked strangers from other households while they eat within a high-walled area with a tent or overlapping umbrella roof. I wouldn’t sit that close to them surrounded by an enclosure if they were smoking, so there’s no way I would sit near them when they MAY have a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus! Those configurations aren’t “outdoor” enough for me.

“Outdoor” dining has become less and less outdoors as we move into our “winter” in North America, and that’s the safety issue:

If you are looking for a really GOOD outdoor dining set up, visit the Park Chalet at the west end of Golden Gate Park, which has an large lawn and can space tables 12 feet apart easily. Or visit any Parklet in the Mission District that is outside a cafe, where the walls are low, the air moves freely, and there is a decorative element that adds to the character of the street.

My hope is that the Shared Spaces approach for using street space for human uses – rather than car storage uses – will be implemented extensively and in the long term; and also that the execution of these spaces will be improved and measured against new, fit-for-purpose standards to ensure safety and appropriate air flow even beyond the pandemic.

Book: Machine Art (Museum of Modern Art Catalog from 1934)

What a great cover! What a great band wrapped around it! Great design overall.

Machine Art (Sixtieth Anniversary Edition)
by The Museum of Modern Art
published by The Museum of Modern Art (and Abrams)
1934, reprinted in 1994

I don’t think I’ve written up a review of the de Young Museum of San Francisco’s show & book on Precisionism called Cult of the Machine (which I should do!), but suffice to say for now that I’m interested in how “the machine age” changed how we think about the design of utilitarian (useful) objects. While the de Young show was a retrospective, Machine Art is a catalog of a show DURING the era of fascination with what machines can do.

It’s a pretty funny catalog.

The new preface by Philip Johnson is a light-hearted acknowledgement that the catalog essays he’d written were a bit naive, and that he was very zealous with his ‘machine made = good, handmade = bad’ arguments. The essays are unbalanced in favor of mass production, though there is some acknowledgment that early machine production made inferior products to those of artisans. There is also a decoration-is-evil thread to the writing, because of course there is – this is how we know we are modern! 🙂

A phone photo from my couch of sample illustrations from the catalog

While the Precisionist show I’m comparing this to was a celebration of the best-of-the-best in retrospect, this catalog is far more… happy with chrome toasters of no special renown.

These functional design ideas have stood the test of time – these toasters were for sale in 1934, and models of the same appearance are available now – but aren’t something you’d necessarily buy a postcard of. (I buy some pretty weird postcards, just so you know.) They are plain enough to be shown as examples of a kind of functional purity (aside from the chrome, which is seen as functional rather than garish – I’m more pure than you, and I say this should be sheathed in plain concrete, bwa ha ha ha ha) , but are not glamorous. They definitely do avoid unnecessary decoration (again, I think the high polish IS decoration, but that’s me). The catch is that objects that look like this have become generic and somewhat invisible – which is either a great victory of function over the sentimentally decorative past, or… just the passage of time wearing the shine off these objects.

Oh look, the fancy drip coffee stacked labware setup has always existed! Who knew?

Summary: interesting catalog with essays of a zealous pro-machine/anti-handicraft bent, with objects which succeeded to such excess that the novelty and surprise of them sails past me. (Another thing ruined for me by architecture school and Bauhaus books & shows!)

Design: Pandemic-themed Design By Distance at SFMCD

Speaking of the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (sfmcd.org), they have a virtual exhibit on the theme of designs to create distance or separation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Yes, creative people are already trying to work out how to make the world work during a time of highly contagious ailments, and they are raising interesting questions and proposing some pretty (and wild, and uncomfortable, and practical, and edgy) solutions. Some of these are intended as humor or commentary more than as design, but they round out the range of speculative thinking nicely.

Design by Distance

June 2-December 31, 2020 Design by Distance showcases how designers from around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through the development of objects, garments, accessories, and space planning. Curated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of c2-curatorsquared, Design by Distance highlights

There is a lot to think about here.

I like these cone-of-silence-like barriers for dining in groups:

Gernigon – Curatorsquared Virtual Views

Christophe Gernigon plex’eat, 2020 Stating that all the solutions he’d seen to date to insure safe dining had looked to him like prisons, French designer Christophe Gernigon created what he thinks of as a kind of a bell, an elegant form made from bent plexi, sized and configured to prevent claustrophobia, and to avoid interfering with pendant lamps, ubiquitous in dining spaces.

As an introvert, I also like these beach cubicles. While my enjoyment of them conceptually feels anti-social (which is supposed to be a bad thing in ordinary times), these DO appeal. I want to be outside! I want other people to keep their distance! These cubicles could help achieve this in crowded / popular locations, to a point.

Menasci – Curatorsquared Virtual Views

Umberto Menasci SafeBeach, 2020 Lexan Perhaps his early legal training instigated Umberto Menasci’s current project, SafeBeach, enabling sun worshipers to enjoy beaches while respecting the new practices regarding social distancing. A grid of outdoor rooms, open to the sky, made of Lexan, allows for two lounge chairs, and one large umbrella, and a small table in each unit.

Afterward: We are in the adaptive phase of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, now that we have realized there is no immediate solution and we will need to change how we live. I’ll be remarking on other things like this, but at some point, once we HAVE adaptated, these environments will seem normal, and future people will look back on this and wonder why I made a fuss over THESE, rather than all of the shared/high-contact/crowded places of the past…

Design: Face Mask Design Competition

Why just wear a paper mask or bandana to protect your community from the spread of COVID-19 when you can get creative? The San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design sponsored a protective face mask competition: the winners are at the top, but the gallery with all of the entries is FUN, so I recommend that.

Let’s Face It: Community Gallery | MCD

On May 11, the Museum of Craft and Design launched Let’s Face It, an international mask design competition. We received 363 entries from 17 countries, with participants ranging from 4 years old and up. Thank you to everyone who participated.