Robert Raushcenberg  First Landing Jump , 1961

Robert Raushcenberg First Landing Jump, 1961

PLACE MATTERS

Richard Fernau

The connection to place, which is at the center of who we are as architects, is most intense and potent in the private house. This book explores the houses of Fernau + Hartman and some of the ideas that run through them. It is about a sensibility I have developed with my partner, Laura Hartman, and other colleagues at our firm working on various building types, at a variety of scales.

The book focuses, at times, as much or more on the particular places and circumstances that gave rise to the houses (where they are located; what the land, climate, and vegetation are like; who and what influenced the design) as about architectural ideas and objects. It is about the messy process by which a team of “designers”—a team that includes not only architects and assistants, but also clients and planners, contractors and craftsmen—combine efforts, often over a number of years and considerable distances, to produce a unique, site-specific piece of architecture. The best ideas often come from unexpected directions and at awkward moments, and they do not necessarily come in the order one would choose. Designers must know how to improvise, shift their weight, respond to the unanticipated, and devise a way of working that can absorb change.

The nature of this process has always seemed to me more like that of a film writer/director than that of an outsize auteur like Howard Roark or an autonomous studio artist. All buildings contain stories worth telling, but houses are bristling with subplots, backstories, and visual detail. However, architecture is too complex to tell all these stories here. The improvisational and collaborative nature of the architectural process renders even the issue of authorship problematic, if not moot. A film script, no matter how carefully crafted, is reinvented by the director, reinterpreted by the actors, and restaged to meet the particular requirements of each venue. Likewise, a building is a truly collective work. We are attracted to the messy, circumstantial, “impure” quality of architecture and its inherent potential to connect us to where we are, whether that is a city, suburb, or rural site. We have developed strategies both to accommodate the unruly process and to tie a building to a particular piece of ground and the natural rhythms of the site.

Since it is not possible to tell complete stories of the houses, we must settle for vignettes. Between the common threads in this introduction and the narrative digressions that accompany each house, an image of our way of working and our sensibility will emerge.

 As young designers, we asked, what if an architect’s role as an improviser were overt rather than covert? How would that change the process and the product? Could improvisation lead to a clearer connection to place and a richer aesthetic? Architects are closet improvisers: convention forces them to conceal the often-unplanned aspects of the architectural process and preserve the illusion of total control. But what if architecture were accepted as improvisational art? The measure of designers’ talent would then be how well they can collaborate and respond to the unexpected, rather than how well they can “hold the line” and sustain the fewest “hits” to their preconceived vision, or how well they hide the inevitable compromises. The what-if that I am suggesting is simply, “What if the role of improvisation in architecture were assumed to be fundamental?”—not a regrettable necessity, but axiomatic. What if the consequences of this process were not only part of the making, but also part of the aesthetic?

Schindler House, 1922, West Hollywood, California

Schindler House, 1922, West Hollywood, California

Kurt Schwitters,  Cherry Picture , 1921

Kurt Schwitters, Cherry Picture, 1921

Our work often employs collage: an assemblage of diverse materials with fragments of “reality” woven in that alter the meaning of the whole and tell a more complicated story. Collage as an architectural strategy not only allows for the inclusion of disparate materials (coarse and finished) but also affords the opportunity to incorporate existing elements (fragments of structures or whole buildings) into the overall composition, to tell a story of where a house is located and how it came to be. It also explicitly addresses the reality of the design process by openly accommodating midstream changes and future additions. What appeals to us about the collage aesthetic is the ability to articulate and record choices in order to tell the story of a building’s relationship to and history on the land. Architects never encounter blank canvases: they confront a unique convergence of conditions and desires.

In exploring the way collage operates, we have found particularly helpful the works of Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg, and the attitude each had toward incorporating bits of everyday objects. Schwitters would paint over or doctor his pieces of everyday life (railway tickets, newspaper clippings) to create a more resolved whole, while Rauschenberg would often pluck objects off the street and leave them largely untouched as part of an assemblage. In designing a house, when we are impelled to improvise— to accommodate a site condition or an unanticipated programmatic element, for example— we often choose to call out the change, as a “patch” or repair to the original design, and record it with a different material, color, or didactic detail.

For inspiration in architectural improvisation, we often look to the vernacular, which I define as the “architecture of expediency.” The vernacular is not of interest for its imagery, but rather for the directness of its expression and as a source of adaptive strategies in the face of evolving circumstances. The street language of architecture, the vernacular has its own eloquence, expressing the passage of time and the decisions made along the way with unembarrassed clarity. Regional variations on vernacular architectural types (a dogtrot house or courtyard plan or Georgian hall) often offer clues to appropriate climatic responses.

Laura and I were once asked to give a lecture at the Anchorage Museum and offer suggestions about what authentic regional expression in Alaska might be. We had one day to figure this out, and we ended up showing a number of examples from a mobile home park to illustrate how, in the face of the harsh Alaskan climate, the residents had made expedient adaptations, most notably mudroom vestibules, to make their dwellings more livable.

Expecting perhaps some variation on the log lodge park architecture, a significant percentage of the audience was horrified (one woman forbade us to show our photographs outside of Alaska). Our fascination with the vernacular derives from the improvised quality of ordinary buildings; alleys are always more revealing than Main Street. 

If architecture were assumed to be an improvisational art, an architect would be wise to develop informal as well as formal strategies to express the unexpected and to adapt to microclimates, hidden site conditions, and emergent environmental concerns. This kind of casual and informal sensibility has arguably always been a part of the “Bay Region style” (defined in opposition to the doctrinaire rigors of the International Style), which can be seen not only in the work of Bernard Maybeck but also continuously on through William Wurster, Joseph Esherick, Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, Richard Whitaker, and William Turnbull to the present. The great critic and urbanist Lewis Mumford, who coined the term, attributed the style’s origins to Berkeley at the turn of the twentieth century. He described it as a “native and humane form of modernism . . . a free yet unobtrusive expression of the terrain, the climate, and the way of life on the Coast.”3

We have always had a slightly awkward relationship with the Bay Region style—not the tradition itself, but the regionalism that is implied in the term. It never was our intention to be regionalists, and we have been reluctant to be associated with the term. However, we have been greatly influenced by the Bay Area tradition, both by the work (which is all around us) and by its practitioners, a few of whom we studied under, worked for, or taught alongside at UC Berkeley. Eudora Welty, the renowned writer from the Mississippi Delta who was often belittled by the regionalist label, had it right when she called regionalism “an outsider’s term.”4 The Delta was where she wrote from; it shaped her sensibility but her “regionalism” was a by-product of her point of view, not her goal. What sense does it make, she asked, to call Cervantes or Turgenev a regionalist? Our ambition has always been to develop a place-rooted architecture, a sensibility that would allow us to work in a variety of landscapes and climates, and the place where we were was Northern California.

La Verada, the garage where I lived and worked, and the first Fernau + Hartman office, 1982

La Verada, the garage where I lived and worked, and the first Fernau + Hartman office, 1982

Ernest Coxhead House, San Francisco

Ernest Coxhead House, San Francisco

My first “office” was in a garage and potting shed (where I lived) in the garden behind Maybeck’s Lawson House, less than a hundred yards from where Maybeck had had his home and studio. The office was so small that working outside was an attractive option much of the year. A number of houses by well-known architects were close by, and all the generations of the Bay Area Tradition were represented. Maybeck, Wurster, Esherick, Julia Morgan, and Donald Olsen (as well as notable Southern California outliers such as Rudolph Schindler) had designed houses within a quarter of a mile. Having minimal practical experience before opening an office, and not much of a portfolio to show clients, Laura and I would take them on walks through the hills at various points in the design process and talk about details and materials or the way a house was situated on its site and its relationship to the landscape. Autodidacts in the craft aspect of architecture, we found that this formative period constituted a kind  of accidental apprenticeship in the Bay Region tradition. Later, when lecturing about our work outside the country, I used to begin with a slide show of architecture within a ten-minute stroll from the studio. This was meant as a way of suggesting that in addition to an architectural canon that we all share, there is a personal canon, if we are lucky, of the things that we know, admire, and see every day that shape our point of view.

Living and working in close proximity to one of Maybeck’s most iconic residential works had a particularly strong influence on us. The most commonly admired quality of his architecture—a combining of historical styles—was not what interested us. Underneath the picturesque and theatrical gestures were important lessons: the juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements; the notion of architecture telling a story, as in the “remodel aesthetic” of Charles Keeler’s house; the blurring of the distinction between indoors and outdoors—and underneath the tireless invention, a certain lightness. A true bohemian, Maybeck worked outside much of the year; his summer office was under a canvas sheet. He designed houses with outdoor living rooms, showers, and sleeping porches to facilitate a similar lifestyle. Moreover, he used landscape, such as hedges and allées, and landscape elements, such as trellises, pavilions, and outdoor fireplaces, to extend his residences into their gardens, embedding the houses in their sites. Maybeck was witty, eccentric, inventive, and environmentally aware; living and working in his former backyard was infectious.

One of my earliest built projects, the Brodhead House, in La Honda, California, was commissioned as a result of an agitprop proposal to retrofit the White House. It was 1978, in the shadow of the first oil crisis.

I was just out of school and Jimmy Carter was formulating an energy policy. Friends of the Earth approached me and asked if there was anything we could do to push national policy in the direction of low-tech, passive solar energy and strategies for energy conservation. In particular, I was intent on demystifying sustainability by explaining the ways in which traditional American architecture had been adapted to climate. A long night produced a one-page cartoon that listed straightforward suggestions ranging from sunshades to a greenhouse to bringing back President Wilson’s idea of having sheep trim the south lawn to save gas. The proposal was sufficiently provocative at the time for the Washington Post to run it as a full-page spread and interview a member of the White House. At first dismissive (wondering about “people watching where they stepped” and “the sheep during the twenty-one gun salute”), a member of the White House staff later apologized in a phone call, saying they were giving the proposal serious study. Because it was timely and the press found it amusing, the story was published nationally and internationally, and the phone began to ring. I began getting calls from prospective clients. The Brodhead House was my first opportunity to explore and test these initial investigations: traditional and emerging sustainable design strategies as a means of tying a house to its site.

Although the energy conservation movement was in a nascent stage in the 1970s, it was discouraging to see that green architecture was already congealing into a style: a contradiction for architecture that was supposed to be site- and climate-specific.5 Solar houses with concrete walls and acute triangular sections were emerging from climates as divergent as those of Switzerland, Arizona, and Hawaii. Consequently, I wanted to explore what would result if I started with a traditional house form and adapted it to the site, the climate, and the particular requirements of energy conservation. Thermally, the house combines the heating strategy of a colonial house (with its massive, centrally located fireplace) and the cooling, aircirculating properties of a Georgian plan (with its central circulation hall and belvedere). The necessary modifications to the traditional gable form are called out with material changes and are foregrounded, even caricatured, through additions to or subtractions from the basic shape. This approach is similar to the Japanese tradition of mending, in which repairs are incorporated as part of the design and celebrated. The Brodhead House was pivotal in shaping my thinking not only in terms of site-specific, sustainable design, but also in terms of exploring the idea of a “remodel aesthetic”: “patching” or “mending” initial design ideas to adapt to site-specific conditions.

Many years later, in the spring of 2000, the Architectural League of New York mounted “Ten Shades of Green,” an exhibition curated by Peter Buchanan. “Ten Shades of Green” showcased contemporary architecture that “combined environmental responsibility with formal ambition”6 and, in many ways, articulated what we had been working toward all along. The exhibition focused on large institutional projects by European architects but also included houses by four Americans. Our Straw-bale House in Northern California was among them. The radical agenda of the exhibition was to unpack the notion of sustainable architecture and rescue it from being dismissed as a technological fix rather than a cultural/architectural paradigm shift. Buchanan opened the discussion to include not only sophisticated technological analyses but also a broader set of criteria, including aesthetic, environmental, social, and experiential considerations, to understand what it means to be “green.” In addition to efficient systems and first principles (solar gain, sun shading, insulation, natural ventilation, and daylighting), he included: “loose fit” (buildings that age well, that people want to keep, and that can be adapted); updating the local vernacular through a contemporary lens; enhancing a sense of connection to the natural world; and increasing a sense of wellbeing by embedding a building in its site. Buchanan argued that for green architecture to succeed as a true paradigm shift, it must address the sensual aspects of sustainability that connect people to a particular environment.

Sakiori  and  sashiko  are Japanese traditions of mending where the repair or “patch” is foregrounded, rather than suppressed, and is integrated into the design.

Sakiori and sashiko are Japanese traditions of mending where the repair or “patch” is foregrounded, rather than suppressed, and is integrated into the design.

Oscar Wilde famously observed that if nature had been comfortable, architecture would never have been invented. Yet Herman Melville sounded a cautionary note in Moby-Dick on the deadening effect of the “luxurious discomforts” of too well-tempered environments that alienate us from our experience. He argued that to truly “enjoy bodily warmth, some part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”7 The question then becomes, how much architecture is required to be “comfortable” before we lose all sense of where we are? A wall? A floor? A roof? In what seasons and for what activities? Houses are ideal for exploring these issues, because there is someone there to make a decision and take a chance. Second homes, because where they are located is their reason for being, are particularly rich with possibilities. This tension between providing comfort and cutting us off from where we are and what sustains us is at the very core of what architecture is and should be.

There is no set formula for embedding a house in its site. Green architecture is not to be found in a catalog or a spec book. Degree days, sun angles, and climate records only get you so far (usually someplace close to the airport). To marry a house to its site, you must at a minimum know the conditions on the ground year-round, and to do that you must spend time. It might entail building a platform or renting a cherry picker to confirm critical views, placing anemometers on-site to record site-specific wind data, talking with locals about snow buildup and drifts, or camping out on the site. It always entails time on the land. Nothing can substitute for direct experience. All our buildings begin with an intensive landscape study, whether the site is a working ranch or an urban parcel. We look for ways of exiting the box, of creating both defined outdoor rooms and casual, almost accidental exterior spaces (only partially defined by architecture and landscape features). These rooms are there to be found and invite engagement with the site and the senses. Houses in particular have given us the opportunity to explore, in strikingly different locations and climates, a variety of architectural and landscape strategies that blur the boundary between indoors and outdoors, deepening the connection between built and natural environments. These outdoor rooms not only expand the experience of a house, but also connect us to where we are.

The houses in this book are the product of collaborations between people, within a given set of circumstances, played out on a particular piece of land. Despite the massive level of planning and organization, there is a rogue element in the architectural process that demands, at odd moments, that we rethink choices and depart from the plan. While often vexatious, these moments are invariably imbued with possibilities to invent— if we are open to them. This willingness to take a chance and depart from the script to address a problem is the quality we most admire in vernacular architecture. It is often what particularizes and humanizes a building. It is our hope that our improvisations on the land share, along with architectural rigor, some spark of the vernacular pragmatism and wit. At the heart of our work is the simple belief that place matters. A house can be an instrument to connect you to where you are and, in doing so, connect you to yourself.

1. Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 193.

2. Barry Kernfeld, “Improvisation,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 554.

3. Lewis Mumford, “The Sky Line,” The New Yorker (October 11, 1947), 110.

4. Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction,” The Eye of the Story (New York: Random House, Inc., 1979), 132.

5. Richard Fernau, “Solar Architecture: a New Regionalism,” Werk-Archithese, vol. 65, 1978.

6. Rosalie Genevro, Preface to Ten Shades of Green, by Peter Buchanan (New York: The Architectural League of New York, 2005), 4.

7. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1979[1851]), 55.