A New Online Home for Design Faith Blog

I have moved the Design Faith blog to my relaunched website kennethcaldwell.com You'll be redirected there in 10 seconds.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Designer and Teacher Closes His Store on Union Street

My friend and frequent collaborator David Wakely told me that after 45 years, interior designer John Wheatman has retired and closed his shop at 1933 Union Street. I first saw his shop when I was a young teenager exploring Union Street with my family in the early 70s. I think of that era as Union Street’s greatest moment, when there were exquisite antique stores, street cafes, and a brand new bistro named Perry’s. For the next forty plus years, you could depend on a decent hamburger at Perry’s and beautiful design at John Wheatman’s.

All photos by David Wakely

I moved to San Francisco in 1977 and began working in a restaurant on Union Street. I would often arrive early so I could go down the street and walk through the shop and marvel at the placement, selection, and of course, prices. Back then, a thin little man with a thin little bow tie watched over the store and always treated me respectfully, as if I could afford to purchase the finely tailored furniture. Eventually, the store expanded across the garden courtyard and upstairs. Each turn, niche, and room combination was worth studying. Nothing was placed carelessly or with haste. A three-dimensional haiku. Sometimes on Saturday morning, you could spy him moving furniture around before the shop opened.

Wheatman was an old-time decorator who sold at retail and drew customers in with the shop. It is hard to imagine him without the storefront to explain his ideas, to share the evidence of his thinking. I think of his store, along with the national chain Design/Research, as my education in design. Wheatman loved neutrals, Asian antiques, modern art, all before combining them became fashionable. He could add a new piece to his repertoire or even paint a room red, but restraint was Wheatman’s comfort zone. People brought a room to life. He was crafting a perfect background – sometimes for three generations of the same family. Although he was a man of rarefied tastes (even his samples were hauled around in an old oversized Hermes bag), he understood that many people could not afford bespoke interiors and reached out by teaching interior design at UC Extension. He didn’t need the money – he wanted to share beauty with more people. One of his classes was called “Decorating on a Limited Budget.” And he meant it.

All photos by David Wakely

He felt that design was possible within almost any means. To further extend his experiences beyond his clientele, he began collaborating with David Wakely and his wife Sharon Smith on a book that would capture his thinking. They brought me in at the earliest stages to see if I could help with the text. I treasure those days interviewing John in his office and listening to his funny stories. Family and job pulled me away from the project, and writer Barbara Stevenson took over and worked with John beautifully. The first book, Meditations on Design: Reinventing Your Home with Style and Simplicity, was published in 2000. John had a lot more to share, and the same team created another book, entitled A Good House Is Never Done, in 2002. I went to the launch party for the second book, and in a few seconds John drew a sketch on the title page while he talked with various guests. It looks a great deal like my living room today. He was a great inspiration and teacher.

All photos by David Wakely

The other day I was having lunch with David and Sharon, and it turned out John and another friend were at the next table. I had not seen him in many years, but he was as courtly as ever. We both finished at the same time. John stood, still taller than any of us, in a beautifully tailored suit. Using his long slender fingers, he picked up my modest cotton jacket and held it for me to put on. In that moment, while design was his passion, it was the people he touched that really mattered.

Wheatman's storefront. All photos by David Wakely

Friday, October 9, 2009

Faith and Design

I launched this blog about a year ago because I was turning 50 and wanted to share what I was interested in. My father had his first heart attack at 50 and nearly died. So death and faith have been in my thoughts.

A few people have told me that they are surprised that my blog is about faith and design. Design, sure—I’ve been interested in buildings, furniture, and cities since I was a little boy. But faith? My friends don’t mean to suggest that I am a heretic, but they do know that I am irreverent, not exactly beatific, and generally agnostic.

Faith—by that I mean faith commonly associated with religion—has to do with the transcendent, something unknowable beyond ourselves. And yet so much discourse about religion is quite personal, often psychological. This is something that Dorothy Day spoke about: the idea of serving others without any anticipated reward. In the Jewish faith, the tahara, the washing of the deceased, is considered a great deed because the person being served cannot express appreciation. That is an aspect of faith that interests yet eludes me.

We have friends who are strident atheists, and Paul subscribes to a newsletter called “Freedom From Religion.” I think of it as freedom from the folks who decide their faith is the right faith. But how can faith be comprehended without some structure? How can one person make sense of an entirely blank page?

Faith may be most effective when practiced in solitude or a small community so that institutional self-perpetuation does not take hold and interfere. Herein lies one conflict for me. I don’t necessarily want the organizational infrastructure, but I do enjoy the buildings.

Since I am not a regular member of any faith community, I often pray or meditate when I am swimming or in the shower. This year I visited two religious structures that had water in common. The Catholic Cathedral of Christ the Light (2008) by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) sits on the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland. The architects sited the church so that water’s reflection can influence the light on the interior, but the vista of the shimmering lake is seen as one exits the doors and looks out, not from within the sanctuary. We watched it being built outside our window. They started with the compression ring at the top, placed the tall wood ribs, and then glazed it all. (A visual timeline can be seen at www.ctlcathedral.org.) Craig Hartman, design partner at SOM, integrated a lot of symbolism into the seemingly abstract sculpture. The main focus is on the light. How Hartman and his team at SOM filter the light defines the experience within. The extensive use of wood relates to stories from the bible as well a shared idea of inhabitation. However, there are more direct biblical influences to be found as well. The geometric structure of the sanctuary is created with the intersection of two arcs. In the plan of the cathedral, the Vesica Pisces form is visible. (It looks rather different in plan than on the back of a car.)

Oakland Cathedral photos by Cesar Rubio

In addition to the complex geometries that create this marvelous space there is the Omega Window, which transforms an image of Christ from Chartres Cathedral. At first, some people think this image is a hologram or pixilated image. Although it took a great deal of technology to create the image on perforated metal, Christ himself is just light and shadow.

Some large churches, like Pietro Belluschi’s and Pier Luigi Nervi’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, inspire awe but also intimidate. (Although I love Richard Lippold’s baldacchino). At Christ the Light, I felt awe, shaped in part by the beautiful wood interior structure, the ethereal image of Jesus, and the enveloping light. But the gentle geometry allows the individual to relate to the immediate community of worshipers. My eye returned to the pews, to the people around me. There is an intimacy on the ground.

The other religious building that moved me deeply in the last year was Eero Saarinen’s nondenominational chapel at MIT in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston. A perfect cylinder built of ragged brick reminds me of that Buddhist saying that only God is perfect. The curving form stands on a few piers in a shallow reflecting pool. Inside the cool, dark space, the walls undulate, and the pattern of the water dances up on the walls. In the center, a shimmering metal screen, by Harry Bertoia, encircles the simple marble altar. A small circle of light from the ceiling illuminates the marble and reflects on the small pieces of bronze. They look so delicate, so fragile, but they are not broken, they endure. It was a perfect place to pray for a few minutes.

Recently I returned to the Unitarian Church in Kensington, California, designed by Wurster & Bernardi (Emmons was not a partner at the time). They brought hints of the mission style, Asian architecture, and the eclecticism of Bernard Maybeck (who donated the land) into a simple and inspiring structure that feels much the same as it did when I was growing up a block away. The water fountain centers the atrium. I was pleased to see the parking lot and sanctuary full. This is where I first felt the possibility of church architecture. In a religious structure the architect has to satisfy the congregation’s program but also find something ambiguous, unknowable.

Earlier this summer in Provincetown, I sat by myself under an umbrella on a folding chair looking out at the Atlantic and the long empty beach at the end of Cape Cod and thought, this might be the perfect church. Maybe it’s the water.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Interview with Robert Holgate

Holgate Residence, San Francisco, CA Photo: JD Peterson

A few years ago, I met an interior designer who wasn’t obsessed with fancy labels or excess, who – to borrow a phrase from Charles Eames – took his pleasures seriously. He talked about the meditative practice of moving objects around until they found their rightful place. He loved the spare beauty of a Platner chair as much as the mysterious depth of a Fortuny fabric. We sat down in his apartment overlooking Buena Vista Park to talk about the links between design and faith.

Q: When did you first know that you were interested in something related to design?

Robert Holgate: I grew up in Big Piney, Wyoming, so there wasn’t a context for design that I understood. But I knew there were some issues when I wouldn’t wear anything but corduroys until I was in high school. I drove my mom crazy. I was really particular about what I wore, and I designed my room and had this pattern painted around the room that was interesting for that era. It was orange and yellow and brown with stripes going around and coming to a point: very modern. But I don’t think I really understood that design was what I was meant to do until I started selling women’s clothes and then worked for Sue Fisher King.

Q: Did you go to church in Big Piney?

Holgate: My mom and dad weren’t big about them going to church, but my mom was pretty adamant that my brother and I go to church. It was a little Episcopal church in Big Piney; I think there were maybe 15 or 20 in church. But I was the altar boy and helped with services and stuff. I didn’t have a happy childhood, so I think I kind of used church as an escape.

Q: Did you rebel at some point, or did you just grow up and move away?

Holgate: I think by the time I got into high school, I stopped going to church so much. I didn’t rebel until I understood how evil it really is. I don’t think spirituality has that much to do with religion. The church is missing compassion. They’re riddled with judgment.

Q: So, what was the path to get to San Francisco from Big Piney? It seems a long way. You couldn’t make that name up.

Holgate: I always wanted to go to a city. I loved going to cities. My mom had to go to the doctor fairly often, and the closest doctor was in Salt Lake City, which was a four-hour drive, about 250 miles. So every time she’d have to go to the doctor, I’d beg to go. The day I graduated from high school, I loaded my car up and moved to Salt Lake City and started school there.

Q: What were you studying?

Holgate: I planned on becoming an operating room technician, because I thought they made good money. But I got in the operating room and passed out when they started cutting people open.

Q: How did you react to it being so Mormon?

Holgate: I didn’t really care that much about it, because to me it was a big city, and I loved that. I loved the variety and the fact that there were gay people there. But I didn’t come out until I’d been in Salt Lake maybe four or five years.

Q: When did you go to school?

Holgate: Needless to say, I didn’t finish school in Salt Lake City. When I came here, I went to the hotel restaurant program at City College. I worked in hotels and restaurants, and then I met Douglas Durkin. It was fun being with him. I realized then that I loved this stuff. At the time, Sue Fisher King was looking for somebody to run her store at Wilkes Bashford. Just before that, I had sold women’s clothes, and I did really really well. She recruited me to run her store at Wilkes Bashford, and that’s how I got into doing homes. People would come into Wilkes and say, “Will you come look at my kitchen? Come look at my dining room and see what kind of table stuff I need.” And eventually, people started coming in and saying, “We bought a new house, will you just come down and look at it?”

Q: How did you handle both?

Holgate: I had four clients when I was still running the home store at Wilkes Bashford. But it was crazy because I was working nights and weekends. I decided to quit when Glide Memorial United Methodist Church asked me to help them with their low-income housing facility, to help redo some aspects of the sanctuary. I was going to Glide at that time.

Q: Tell me more about Glide. How did you get there?

Holgate: I was friends with the people at MAC, the clothing store. A friend from there named Ben and I led a Shanti support group, and we became good friends, and I think he told me about it. He said, “You really should check Glide out, they have great gospel.” So, I started going every Sunday.

Q: Between Big Piney and San Francisco, had you gone to any other church in the interim?

Holgate: Not really. When I came out, I was really turned off by church, because of their not accepting me. I started doing a lot of reading about metaphysical things, about Buddhist teachings. I realized that was more the direction my spiritual path could take.

When I got introduced to Glide, the thing I liked about it was that it was so mixed, and there were a lot of gay people there, and Reverend Cecil Williams was standing up talking about how it’s okay to be gay, even though the Methodist church was telling him it wasn’t, he didn’t listen. He still preached the opposite. The choir was great, and it just felt like a community.

Q: So this project helping out with the housing and the church allowed you to say, “Okay, now I’m going to do my own thing.”

Holgate: That was the moment when I was overwhelmed, when I was like, “I can’t do both.” And that’s when I decided to do my own thing.

Q: So did clients just start coming?

Holgate: A lady called and said, “You know, I’ve got a house in Atherton, would you come down and look?” So we were about six months into it – and this is just when I was pretty new – and I get a call. I was in the hospital because I had had my appendix out. She said, “Robert, can you fly to Vail with us next week, we want you to look at this house we just bought.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll go.” They had their own jet, so we flew down to Vail and we walked through this house and it was on Beaver Dam Road, and the ski lift was just right there. So you could ski in and ski out of the house. That was my first big break.

Private Residence, Vail, Colorado Photos: JD Peterson

Q: Where did the phrase Wu Wei come from?

Holgate: My client and friend Wendy came up with term, and then I looked it up. It’s about things finding their right place. Wendy had a penthouse at Fourth and Brannan, and we would move stuff around until it was just right. She was one of my first clients. Wendy’s different in the sense that she doesn’t like what’s normal or safe. She likes things that are different. I am pretty intuitive – I can usually tell, after just a little bit of time, what it is clients like or don’t like. With Wendy, we were just in synch from the beginning. We both got in the same space, and then we’d look at something or do an installation or do an arrangement in harmony. It is a kind of a spiritual thing, because we’d move it around and say, “Oh no, no, this, this, this, oh, that’s it!” And we’d do it for hours.

We were in New York, and it was around Christmas time, and I loved going to see Bergdorf’s windows at Christmas, and they had these wonderful book sculptures in the window. That’s where I got the idea, so we did that.

Residential Loft, San Francisco, California Photo: JD Peterson

Inverness House Photo: David Wakely

Q: Do very many clients talk about that aspect of the work?

Holgate: I get goose bumps when I’m working with somebody if something feels right, or if I really love something. So I say, “Oh God, I got goose bumps.” Now quite a few of my clients say, “Well, did you get goose bumps?” Because they won’t get something unless I got goose bumps. But I think it’s a pretty good indicator for me, and I think it’s really kind of my soul coming through, kind of a higher power coming through when I get those.

Q: Talk more about that, if you can.

Holgate: In this apartment, I don’t have anything here I don’t love, absolutely love. It’s my requirement. And I try to get my clients to feel the same way about what they have. I feel like it’s a connection to source energy. If you can keep things around you that you love, then you create harmony, and then people who come into your space feel that.

Holgate Residence, San Francisco, CA Photos: JD Peterson

Q: Let’s talk about our friend Al’s apartment in the Brocklebank. I met you when you were working with him. The first time I saw that color, I was sort of shocked, but then I came to understand how it came out of the Chris Brown painting and Al’s art collection. He was moving from a four-story house and bringing 40 years of stuff into a smaller apartment.

Holgate: I started by talking with him about everything he had, looking through it, getting an idea of what was important and what wasn’t important. With him it was all about honoring the art, that’s where the color came from. He also has strong opinions. But it’s fun with him, because his stuff is part of his memories and brings him real joy.

Brocklebank Apartment, San Francisco, CA Photos: David Wakely

Q: So let’s go back to spiritual practices. What happened after Glide?

Holgate: I just got really busy.

Q: And as far as your own spiritual practice?

Holgate: Because of my childhood, I just shut down. I needed a way to find a path to opening my heart and not being afraid all the time. And so, doing the design and helping people with their houses and creating spaces they love and they’re happy with, I think was part of that path. It brought me joy, I become very present, I am totally in what I’m doing. I think spirituality is being present. Being compassionate, being open in your heart, being present, and being willing to show up.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Faith Inside Out? Random Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of the Manson Murders

This isn’t a blog about design. The structures I’m mentioning weren’t architecturally significant, and most of them no longer exist. It’s a rumination about faith turned inside out.

Forty years ago today, Charles Manson’s “Family” brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon. The next day, they murdered the LaBiancas across town in Los Feliz. Joan Didion wrote in her essay “The White Album” that no one was surprised. I am not quite sure what she meant by that. Woodstock took place a few days later, but the lazy hazy romantic notion of hippiedom was over. I am still trying to sort out those two days in the summer of 1969 and why they continue to interest me. On April 8, 1966, TIME posited that God was dead. Some bizarre faith healers, including Charles Manson, showed up to fill the void.

Within a few weeks of the murders, LIFE magazine ran several photos of the crime scene, and a few of us ten- and eleven-year-old kids at the community recreation center began playing amateur sleuths, theorizing how this could have happened and who was guilty. We were mesmerized. There were celebrities, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Like most vast conspiracies, this one wasn’t. If one of the Manson girls, who was in jail on an unrelated charge, hadn’t started bragging, the crime might not have been solved. I never got the event out of my head. It was a milestone, an announcement that childhood was over, and as Didion pointed out, it was the end of the 1960s. Maybe that’s what nobody was surprised about.

Most days, I walk three blocks south from the Civic Center BART station to my office on Folsom Street. I pass any number of people who look like they could have been in a snapshot of the Manson family. Recently I even saw one who was a dead ringer for (a taller) Charlie Manson. I was afraid to look him in the eye. I wonder how many of these homeless people are actually violent. I am distancing them. Charles Manson offers a permanent context for the “other.”

Manson was the most extreme of cult leaders. Ten years after his crime spree, people talked about a raft of softer gurus, like Rajneesh, Muktananda, and even Maharishi, as having formed cults that recruited middle-class children. And then there was Werner Erhard, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard, and others. Several high school friends of mine took Erhard’s est. Another friend ran off with the Moonies, and another took Scientology and eventually converted from Judaism to Catholicism. A close friend followed Muktananda, changed her name, and disappeared. I don’t mean to suggest that any of those gurus were cult leaders, nor that they resembled Manson. The late 1960s erased a postwar tape that included fairly prescribed religious paths for the middle class. And in the 1960s and 1970s, we were easy targets for shamans of all stripes. You think you wouldn’t fall under the spell of a false prophet, but where along the continuum does an authentic helper or faith leader become a destructive madman?

When you see or hear former members of Manson’s family on TV occasionally, they look and sound relatively normal. And it makes me think, how did kids just a few years older than me lose their way like that? Is redemption even possible? How close were any of us aimless kids to falling off the rails? How much angrier (or how high) would we have to have been to follow a madman who talked about starting an armed black Armageddon being waged from an underground city in Death Valley? If you think the Weatherman were out there, read the Wikipedia definition of “Helter Skelter (Mansion Version).” Manson quoted extensively from Beatles songs and the Book of Revelations. His was a strange brew of religion and popular culture. This was a pattern that we watched replay itself in other places like Jonestown, and later, Waco.

Growing up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, we romanticized the folks we saw floating around on Telegraph Avenue. It was a long way from resisting conformity to the violence of August 1969. But that was one of the revelations of a middle-class white-male-dominated media. The ragged, fringed, long haired kids all blurred into one “other.” Exaggeration sold papers – at least back then.

In 1990, I drove up Benedict Canyon and found the house on Cielo Drive, still standing, behind a solid fence. From the gate, you could only see the top of the garage. There was little else to look at, even from the road across the canyon. My first apartment in Los Angeles was only a few blocks from the still-standing LaBianca House on Waverly Drive. Yes, I felt guilty being a murder tourist. Why had I read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter twice? He pieced together the extraordinary concept of Helter Skelter and took the enormous risk of foregrounding the wacky idea as the motive for murder. He explained a mad revolution that was based on Manson’s twisted theology.

Tate Polanski residence

Of course, Roman Polanski went on to have legal troubles after a liaison with a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house on Mulholland Drive. He no longer visits the United States. Sometime in the 1970s, I saw Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown (where in one famous scene Polanski appears as a gangster and slices Nicholson’s nose). Polanski gave us the narrative for the creation of sprawling Los Angeles. It was born of a different kind of lust.

Within a matter of minutes, you now can find photos of the houses and the victims. You can learn that members of a band called Nine Inch Nails were the last occupants of the Tate/Polanski residence on Cielo Drive, and that the house was replaced by a Mediterranean-on-steroids monstrosity in 1994. The photos during Polanski’s tenancy show an American flag draped over an ample tuxedo couch, a few antiques, and some contemporary art on the walls. Good taste with a groovy flourish. When the relatively modest ranch house that was tucked into the landscape was razed, bits of stone and walls were sold to those interested in the macabre. Trent Renzor, of Nine Inch Nails, relocated the famous front door to Nothing Studios in New Orleans. The things you find out when you have a laptop and a few minutes to spare at the airport.

Spahn Movie Ranch

Spahn Movie Ranch

Spahn Movie Ranch

Just this week, a parole board approved parole for Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme. Sharon Tate’s late mother organized a successful campaign against parole for Manson and his followers. A few people escaped the actual event, including the landlord’s caretaker/houseboy and Linda Kasabian, who left the Family and became the prosecution’s star witness. It seems unlikely that the people who participated in the murders, despite their rehabilitation, will ever be paroled. Redemption will only take place inside prison.

Those events ruined the lives of dozens and dozens of people. Murder, cruelty, even bullying, ripples outward in ways nobody knows. In 1969, a number of people hungry for some kind of faith or misplaced recognition hooked up with a weird little man who portrayed himself as a new savior. He killed the essence of young people’s humanity, and they followed him into the night.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Remembering Julius Shulman

July 17, 2009

I was saddened to hear that Julius Shulman died on Wednesday, July 15. He was 98. I only knew him slightly, but he hardly seemed to age in the 20 years I observed him. Julius’s life reminds us that an individual can have enormous impact on the culture.

In 1989, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for AC Martin for a few years. The firm’s history was completely tied to Los Angeles’s emergence as a dominant city in the 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, they worked with Julius Shulman on documenting several projects. The images of the Department of Water and Power are a permanent record of what Reyner Banham waxed poetic about. During the seminal landmark “Blueprints for Modern Living” exhibit at MOCA from 1989 to 1990, David Martin and I were looking at one of Julius’s photograph of the building, and he commented, “The lady with the red scarf looks like she just walked over to DWP from one of the case study houses.” The model dates the photo, but she also captures the awe people felt at the majesty of the new building floating over downtown. Shulman caught more than the building, he made the magic.

Whenever I ordered prints from him, he would ask if I wanted them delivered, or if I wanted to pick them up. Driving up into the Hollywood hills to his Soriano house on Woodrow Wilson Drive was one of the highlights of my short stay in Los Angeles. He referred to himself as Uncle Julius and was endearing. He was also irascible, self-absorbed, and a braggart. But I didn’t care; he was easy to forgive. After all, he told the story of the cultural emergence of West Coast modernism to the rest of the world. After seeing him a few times, you also got to know a gentler person. But with an audience, he was a ham. In the privacy of his home, he would encourage guests to “play” the metal Bertoia sculpture, enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and talk about everything. He adored his wife, and she watched over him.

I interviewed him for the April 1990 issue of LA Architect. That article is reproduced here.

Q: When did you start taking pictures?

In high school in 1927 I took a course in photography. In the process of taking field trips, I had the assignment to take pictures of a high school track meet at the coliseum. I set my camera on a ledge overlooking the tunnel. I heard the starter’s gun, and the runners came out of the tunnel below me. As they went over the first hurdle I snapped my picture. That picture’s coming out in the Angeles magazine story as my first picture.

I didn’t do anything with the camera again until 1933. I finished high school and went on to UCLA in 1929. In 1933 somebody gave me a vest-pocket Eastman Kodak camera, and I started taking snapshots. I went from UCLA up to Berkeley for a couple of years, had the camera with me and stated taking pictures of students and buildings around the campus, without ever knowing about architecture. Those pictures I blew up to 8x10s, framed, and sold around the campus.

When I came home in February 1936, my sister had rented a room to a young man employed by Neutra, and she introduced me to him. One Sunday, at his invitation, we went to see the Neutra house down at the bottom of the canyon here. I took some snapshots, and gave the prints to the fellow, who showed them to Neutra. He called me and said Mr. Neutra would like to meet you, can you come down Saturday. I went over and Mr. Neutra said he liked my pictures very much, and he bought some. That same day Neutra pointed to the house up on the hill that was being done by Raphael Soriano. So I drove up to Silverlake and met Soriano, and we became good friends. That’s how I became involved in architecture.

Q: What format did you use?

99% of my work was 4x5. However, in the 50s we did a lot of work for certain magazines such as Good Housekeeping, whose art directors insisted that all photographers work with 8x10 film. As time went on, 35 mm became so effective, that most publications could reproduce it just as well as they could reproduce 8x10. There’s no limit to the work you can have published from a small camera. I would take a black and white picture first, then I would have my assistant hand me a color transparency and sometimes a color negative, and then I’d take a 35 mm slide.

Q: Did you do other kinds of photography?

I covered the arts, sculpture, ceramics, landscape architecture, and found there’s a big market for commercial work, too. Especially in the 50s, I had accounts among the advertising managers of major building projects and material companies back east. American Airlines had their national maintenance and operational plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which I photographed for an architect in Oklahoma City. And while I was doing this work in those years I learned that the companies who installed the major equipment needed pictures of their products. Especially in those days, they were heavy advertisers in the architectural and the trade magazines. After I finished photographing the building, I spent two or three days photographing equipment in the boiler room, and I sold thousands of dollars worth of photographs to the manufacturers, who appreciated the service I was giving them.

Q: Do you miss the use of black and white photography in magazines?

So many publications, even the AIA magazines, waste a fortune on printing color. They could get two or three times more pictures in their space if they remove the color. However, in this world of ours, if you want advertising revenue, and you show a magazine full of black and white pictures, the advertisers will say no, we will not publish in your magazine unless you show more color editorially.

Q: Did you work side by side with the architects on shoots?

For one house that I photographed for Gregory Ain, there was no landscape because the people didn’t have the money for landscaping. So while driving to the shoot, we saw a geranium grove in front of someone else’s house, and we sneaked out and filled the car with boughs of geraniums and stuck them in the ground in front of Ain’s house. Even in black and white they photographed very nicely. But the point is that architects worked together with photographers in those days. Neutra often pushed me away from the camera and had me or my assistant move the camera right or left, or crank it up and down. Other architects agreed that we would discuss the composition, and most of the time they would be willing to accept the framework of the scene that we were creating. But as the years went on, architects became too busy to go with me on assignments, or too lazy, and in the bigger firms the architects didn’t even know where the building was.

Q: Do you perceive yourself as photographing for history?

I would be very dishonest if I were to say that I was far visioned. I didn’t dream of ever becoming a photographer. After seven years of school, I almost became a forest ranger. I knew all the time that photography was important, but it was only in recent years that I realized what a treasure the photographs are.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Postcard from Waikiki

May 19, 2009

Waikiki is sort of like Venice. You are a tourist. No way around it. You are not a native. Instead of gondolas at every turn, there are tiki torches. And rum.

Honolulu is also a strange stew of Miami and Bangkok with a bit of Vegas thrown in. It’s like Bangkok in places because of the density, dark garages, and hideous architecture. And Miami, because after all, it is American, and you do end up at the shore sooner or later.

Diamond Head from the water

Most folks are as near naked as they can be. But that isn’t what makes it so much like Vegas. One of the main attractions is walking from high-rise hotel to high-rise hotel and checking out the luxurious lobbies. The lobbies are smaller and not as outrageous as those in Vegas. Some, like the Halekulani Hotel, are intimidating, but if you act like you belong and walk towards the bar, nobody bothers you. Unlike Vegas, where the show is largely within a sealed environment, here everything opens up. Gorgeous furniture and art are just a few steps off the street, and there are no doors or windows. That part hasn’t changed in thirty-five years since my last visit.

Despite the beauty of the Halekulani’s public spaces, the buildings aren’t that interesting, and there was almost nothing to connect with from my memory of the old hotel. I remember a group of modest bungalows in an overgrown garden. Now there are high-rise slabs with pitched roofs that are supposed to recall the original buildings but don’t. The bar and dining room still have a great view, the beach is still miniscule, but it’s not a world apart like it used to be.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel from the beach

On the other hand, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel still feels distinct from the crass commercialism of Waikiki, despite the Royal Hawaiian Mall across the rear lawn and the towering Sheraton. Known fondly as the Pink Palace, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel once defined the concept of the luxurious sanctuary in the exotic tropics. Now it feels like the last defense. Just down the beach, the historic Moana Surfrider resort has a lush banyan tree courtyard, but a hideous 1950s-era addition. The Royal Hawaiian’s 1960s-era addition is relatively inoffensive. The recent renovation adds a layer of luxury that doesn’t quite add up. The men’s room off the ocean lanai wasn’t remodeled, and some bronze sliding doors to the retail shops were not removed. A green window frame should have replaced the dark aluminum windows. There seem to have been a few test windows that look great, but they haven’t finished the job. It feels like a partial facelift. However, the staff is gracious and not obsequious. The women are greeted with leis and the men with a necklace of dark beads. My room was spacious and outfitted with appropriate fabrics. Even though I faced the garden, I could hear the ocean. I do wish that Starwood would stop charging wireless fees for their more expensive properties. It doesn’t make them more competitive in this economic environment.

What remains unchanged in Honolulu is the light and the warm water. The best time to get a beach chair is in the early morning and the late afternoon. Watching the light settle on Diamond Head allows you to imagine it’s the late 1920s and you are one of a few dozen people who have discovered this paradise. Just when you think you are lucky enough to have secured a beach chair under a pink umbrella in the Royal Hawaiian’s strip of sand, you realize there are others who have their favorite chairs reserved in perpetuity.

Despite the occasional elitist string of deck chairs at the luxury hotels, Honolulu is weirdly democratic. There are lots of European and Japanese tourists, wedding parties, and Americans of almost every economic strata and hue. Eventually they all end up at the beach, if not in the water. If you want to mingle with folks you would never meet at home, take a sunset cruise on a catamaran. One dollar mai tais bring out the best in people.

The real purpose of my visit was to see Shangri La, the Doris Duke Estate. It’s a bit of a trial to get tickets, because you have to transact over the phone, and all you get is a message machine. The touring is administered by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and it feels a bit like taking a tour in a third world country. You go several miles north of Waikiki to catch a rickety jitney to take you several miles south of Waikiki. But the good news is that the Honolulu Academy of Art itself is an exquisite piece of tropical courtyard architecture designed by Bertram Goodhue and worth a visit. So leave yourself most of day for the Duke House Tour, the Academy, and a nap. (The website is www.honoluluacademy.org.)

Doris Duke Estate: master bedroom wing

Doris Duke Estate

Before my tour, I did not read any biography or see any of the movies about Doris Duke. I wanted to appreciate the house for itself. The home, designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, is the size of a normal house in Bel Air or Beverly Hills; it is not a Hearst Castle–type villa. At some level it was an indulgence, but it was a serious indulgence. The house itself is not a brilliant architectural statement, but it is a brilliant interior experience. Apparently, Doris Duke was the orchestrator.

The jitney moves slowly down a steep drive through the green leafy tunnel to the banyan tree courtyard. Because there is no air conditioning, the tour guides hand out handsome fans as soon as you arrive. Basically all you see are two perpendicular walls and two doors. You wonder which one will open first. The door to the garden leads to a Mughal-style garden, which is largely decorative. You are not allowed to wander beyond the shaded terrace inside the entry. The other door is the main entrance to the house. This wall is one of the best architectural moments on the entire estate. Anybody who stood at this front door knew they were about to enter the vacation home of one of the wealthiest women in the world. A long blank wall with little relief tantalizes. Inside the front door is a cool dark reception area sparkling with multicolored light from high Spanish-style windows. As your eyes adjust, they see a screen that obscures an interior courtyard surrounded by thin mirrored columns. Each space you enter beckons you to another space beyond. Yet there is no clear path, the plan meanders. House as long seduction. Despite the hot day, the house was cool and comfortable. As you enter the living room, your eye goes out to the pool, guesthouse, and Diamond Head beyond. The guard pushes a button, and the living room window descends into the floor as it does in Mies’s Tugendhat house in Brno, Czechoslovakia. There weren’t many of those in the late 1930s! Various windows, shades, and shutters temper the direct view and sound of the Pacific. In many ways, this was my favorite architectural move. The living room does not open to the ocean directly; only a few of these shaded windows do. Originally, the dining pavilion was completely glazed on two sides. In the 1960s, Duke removed the original aquatic displays and added fabric to enclose the room and make it resemble a tent. Living on the ocean can be too much. Duke’s bedroom and bath, which were not on the tour, for reasons I didn’t understand, also have a highly screened view of the ocean. On the opposite side from the sea, the suite opens to a private courtyard. The ability to mitigate the overwhelming grandeur of the site is one of the design accomplishments the tour does not address.

Our tour guide spent too much time at the beginning, and we were rushed through some splendid Turkish-style rooms at the conclusion. Apparently Duke’s house could not accommodate rebuilding the room from the Damascus home of a wealthy merchant in one space, so she recycled the pieces into two rooms. I don’t think Duke was so concerned about the precise restoration of any artistic fragment as she was about creating a collage that suited her sensibility.

The curatorial direction at Shangri La appears to be moving away from Miss Duke’s celebrity. Given that her creation has little to do with scholarship, therein lies a conundrum. Is this a collection meant for scholarly study or aesthetic pleasure? While the collection was probably created largely for personal enjoyment, Duke left instructions in her will that the residence and collection be left to study for scholars of Islamic art and culture. But how could the benefactor be left out of that equation? What will interest visitors, the breadth of the collection of Islamic art or Doris Duke and her curious life? On my tour, the guide discouraged speculation about Miss Duke and gave only the barest outline of her life. But she did admit that most of the visitors were more interested in Miss Duke than Islamic art.

Doris Duke Estate: view to public beach

Doris Duke Estate: roof pavilion

Doris Duke Estate: pool and guest house

As the small, beautifully printed book about the house from the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art points out, Doris Duke was the only individual continuously involved during Shangri La’s active inhabitation. Amazingly enough, to my untrained eye, the parts that we saw during our tour add up to a beautiful coherent whole, not a jumble. For example, Doris Duke placed the most valuable artifact, the mihrab from the tomb of Imamzadeh Yahya in Iran, on one of the main axes of the house, even though the whole purpose of this kind of niche is to indicate the direction of Mecca—which it does not in this location. Again, this suited her needs. It’s difficult to know the nature of Doris Duke’s intense interest in Islamic art. Was she collecting these works as unique aesthetic objects independent of context or as part of some larger stream of thought? Or did she begin in one place and end up in another? Why was she interested in supporting the study of Islamic arts? Besides the interest in specific pieces within the collection, it is hard to see how the context supports the study of this kind of art. As a place to write, or meet, one could hardly imagine a more beautiful setting. Perhaps that will be its greatest value, a repository that reminds us that cultures that we do not understand require further dialogue.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Postcard from New Jersey

April/May 2009

New Jersey gets a bad rap. Poverty, pollution, (highly) organized crime. There is also great beauty in the landscape. We went out to Glen Rock in Bergen County a few weeks ago to see Jennifer Busch, the editor of Contract. It is a leafy suburb with gently curving streets, modest hills, well-built Dutch Colonials from the 1920s, and a two-block downtown framed by two train lines. It is an archetypal East Coast suburb where your neighbor might have been Donna Reed or Marcus Welby.

There is even a store that repairs vacuum cleaners. Although Glen Rock was a relatively early suburb, it feels so familiar that it’s easy to forget that it’s an invented form. The train from Penn takes you through Paterson, the town that William Carlos Williams wrote about. You change trains in Secaucus, a major interchange. On my return I changed here to catch a train out to Princeton to see my friends.

Princeton makes parts of Beverly Hills look, well, almost cheap. The houses are epic. People used to build with stone, something we don’t do in California. The houses look as if they have all been standing for at least a century. Princeton feels like Europe in that way, as if it were always the way it is now. Affluent California suburbs like Bel Air, Santa Barbara, or Malibu seem to get burned down every few decades and start anew.

Henry Moore in Princeton

Old friends at Princeton

Downtown Princeton has several small squares connected by alleys and pedestrian walkways. It is as charming as Carmel, but not so forced. Even the national chains seem inoffensive. And the gelateria was the best I’ve visited outside of Rome. The town nestles up to the campus, which wears its ivy effortlessly. No wonder it’s used so often in the movies. The art museum looks quite modest from the exterior, yet was hosting a fine show of contemporary Chinese American artists and their influences.

Just outside Princeton, you drive through what appears to be farmlands. Behind the farms lurk large corporate headquarters, mostly out of view. Only a few miles from this faux agrarian paradise is Trenton. We went to pick Paul up at the train station as he was coming in from Manhattan. He changed into his dress clothes in the station’s men’s room, where he was accosted by a transsexual in a wig, short skirt, and flashing a Prince Albert. Since s/he was so high, the situation was fairly easy to ignore. When we told our host, the response was, “Welcome to Trenton.” We took a wrong turn and ended up doing a tour of downtown Trenton on our way to the country club for the benefit party we were attending. The ghetto looked far worse than West or East Oakland. The despair, the hopelessness, hung in the spring air like stale summer.

The Trenton Country Club was like something out of a 1960s sitcom. Cheap faux colonial architecture, chirpy, polo-shirted teenage valets, and a buffet featuring a mashed potato parfait. Definitely the sit and eat diet. But the cause was important – Princeton’s teenage sex and drug education program known as Hi-Tops. No platitudes, but real information. We heard good news that President Obama has done away with the idiotic abstinence program. Of course, the highlight was our dear friend Cherie getting an award for all her contributions to the group. It is a model for other organizations doing this kind of work.

One of the benefits of getting older is to watch my friends have families and to be part of the kid’s childhood memories. I’ve known Cherie’s daughters their entire lives. Much as I wanted to linger over coffee Saturday morning, the young women had to get back to their work. One to school to conduct rehearsals for a play she is directing, and the other to Manhattan to talk about a possible film project. This gave Cherie and me time to find one of the great little American buildings of the second half of the 20th century.

We found the address of the Trenton Bath House online and put it into our GPS system. When the unreal voice told us we had arrived, we were driving past a hideous-looking faux art deco diner. We had to laugh. This is also New Jersey. We drove around the block for a few minutes. Just behind the diner and next to the Jewish Community Center, an undistinguished late 1950s building, sits a great moment in modern architecture, one we nearly lost.

Many of us grew up with community pool structures built of concrete block; they were utilitarian and often dull. At first glance, this modest group of pavilions could be mistaken for one of thousands of similar bathhouses across the country. A few subtle moves in this little group of changing rooms lead to a new way of thinking about the possibility of architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

The Trenton bathhouse by Louis Kahn - at last.

It can be argued that modernism ignored history at its own peril. Practitioners, in a spirit of youthful rebellion, disregarded lessons of order as well as incremental growth and accretion. Corbu imposed an arbitrary order at the city level, which didn’t work. His own buildings got better when he introduced sensuality and his own murals. Mies’s endurance as a sculptor of space is rooted in his deep understanding and translation of order. Kahn became a seminal architect because he embraced modernism and history as he strived to create something original. Kahn felt that a shift in his own work happened here, in Ewing, New Jersey. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

By the time of the bathhouse (1955), Kahn had already completed what is generally thought to be the first of his mature buildings, the Yale University Art Gallery, which was recently restored. As Susan Solomon points out in her excellent book, Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center, it was in this bathhouse that Kahn was able to work out his idea of served and servant spaces. The spaces themselves are extremely modest; indeed, one of the servant spaces outside the bathhouse was holding faded plastic pool toys.

It could be argued that the floating roofs are not purely modernist, because it’s hard to figure out what supports them. But they serve at least three functions: protection from the summer sun and rains, provision of natural light within the enclosed spaces, and ventilation. Although clad in simple shingles, the pyramidal forms are eternal. This is Kahn’s genius writ small. Common contemporary materials and a classic plan of served and servant spaces combine with a legible historic form that results in an articulate hierarchy of space. All this for changing rooms at a suburban swimming pool.

We were visiting in late spring when the building was closed. While it appears to be in disrepair, it has been used recently for the summer swim season. (Ownership has been transferred to Mercer County and Ewing Township .). At this writing, it’s not clear how the building will be restored, although one report suggests reconstruction. Future blogs will look into the building’s preservation and future in greater detail.

One aspect that has not been widely seen, and that I barely knew about, is the original mural at the entry. According to Susan Solomon’s book, it was probably painted over early, but there are historic photos in her book, and a sketch for the mural can be seen at the website of Max Protetch’s gallery (www.maxprotetch.com/main.html?id=37&show=7). Of course, Corbu was known for extraordinary murals and spent part of every day painting. As far as I know, Kahn’s murals are few (although his beautiful sketchbooks are numerous).

More info on the Trenton Bath House can be found in Ms. Solomon’s book and at www.kahnbathhouse.org.

A few extra photos from the trip:

Saarinen at JetBlue

Off to the Gala at the Trenton Country Club

Paul explains it all to Catherine Goldschmidt and April Masten

The Goldschmidts

Cherie gives her acceptance speech. Well organized as always.

Another cocktail please (but not one of those mashed potato confections!)

David, Jess, and Connie shake it up.

April and Vince catch their breath

Sisters record sweaty glamour

Kenny and Paul in Central Park

Kenny and Paul loose on the roof

William Thompson tries to turn it off