a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.



barn, Sunshine Canyon

Along with 170 or so houses, there was at least one barn lost in the recent Fourmile Fire.  It was not remarkable or even functional, with walls falling apart and a partial roof.  It stood by its self in a little field right along Sunshine Canyon Drive, a visible and much loved signpost along the road.

The fire burned up from Fourmile Canyon to the north and east, over the ridge that is Sunshine Canyon Drive and partially down the other side.  There was a very controlled line just west of the Bald Mountain parking area but this barn was lost on the east side of that.  I don’t know exactly how it happened but the burn immediately around barn indicates that a few embers probably caught the old, dry wood of the barn and the flames were contained.

This barn marked the turnoff from Sunshine Canyon Drive that was the access road to a project I designed and that I visited frequently during construction.  A couple times a week for about three years, I watched this barn slowly, almost imperceptibly, fall down while our project was building up.  And, like many architects, the barn held a fascination for me that took me into the falling structure to poke around and take dozens of photos.  The beautiful, simply structure housed a couple of old rotten-stuffing upholstered chairs, a stove, and a whole army of rusty cans and pails.

And now, the site holds only the memory of that old barn.  No one will rebuild it, or ever could recreate the strange and intriguing air that floats around inside abandoned buildings.


some images from Michigan

I recently spent a few days in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan.  And, of course, I took some pictures.  As I am trying to catch up on emails and work from this trip, this is all I’ve got for the blog today.

A lighthouse on Lake Michigan at New Holland, MI or at nice way to calibrate your RGB printer.

Meyer May house by Frank Lloyd Wright in Grand Rapids, lovingly restored by Steelcase.

a blurry edge of water and sky, the beach of Lake Michigan

Like a lot of Midwest cities, a stark Miesian box of government buildings is relieved with a bright, joyful Calder sculpture, in Grand Rapids.


architectural photography and experience

Great photography makes great buildings. We have all had the experience of visiting a project often viewed via photographs only to find the actual building a bit of a disappointment.  Architectural photography is stunningly reductive in its depictions, rendering complex spatial relationships as simplistic single-point perspectives.  It can also isolate a beautiful view or picturesque vista and ignore the crappy architecture that surrounds it.  On rare occasions and in the hands of a real artist and professional, it can reveal truths about the building that not even the architect knew.  Julius Shulman’s photos of California modernist houses didn’t just nicely depict the emergent architecture, but helped to define the culture of a place and time.

Kaufman House, by Richard Neutra, as photographed by Julius Shulman

I have worked on two houses that seem to defy photography.  One was so nicely buried in a forest that you couldn’t see the house without so many intervening branches, leaves and boughs that the building was almost invisible.  Clearly a success in trying to integrate the building with the trees, but not so good for the portfolio. The Sunshine Canyon house that I have often posted about is equally frustrating.  So much of the design was intended to diminish the scale of the house and weave its various levels amidst the steeply sloping boulder field that an overall view of the house is only possible from a great distance.  I have recently been out there taking some snapshots and I keep finding that the images are meager in their ability to explain the house on a purely visual level.   This project, more than others, was intended to be a sequence of spaces and views that slowly revealed themselves, one at a time, with only hints and allusions to the overall construction. So, what I am left with are some nice photos of pieces of the building.  A few from the northeast showing how the living/dining room wing is a multi-layered space of enclosure, roof and walls.  Another from the southeast showing a similar variant of concentric spaces.  Or a courtyard view clearly showing how much of the building can not be seen upon arrival. The final result is not surprising, as I have often written here about architecture’s nature as a 3- or 4-dimensional medium.  The phenomenological experience of the house is one of slow exposition, not the picturesque.  It is of a material and spatial richness that defies the solely visual aspects of photography.  Not to mention that I am no Julius Shulman.


Bernd and Hilla Becher

I am sitting in my office in a rare cloudy and rainy day in Boulder.  The flat, whiteness of the cloudy sky reminds me of miserable drippy days in Chicago, cold, damp walks to the subway in Boston and strangely enough, the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Most any architect coming of age in the 1980’s and 90’s is familiar with the stark and beautiful black and white photographs of industrial architecture taken by the Bechers over many decades.  Their frank and almost shadowless images were a revelation, depicting working landscapes and the functional beauty of structures made without affectations.  As an architect I am still fascinated by these images and their books sit on my bookshelf directly across from my drawing desk.  Although these images are of heavy industry and its buildings, they are a far cry from the aesthetic-driven “industrial” look of the late 1980’s with its exposed fasteners, fakey diamond-plate steel, and tricked-out handrails, stairs, and especially furniture.  The Becher’s images are often quite soft, of curving forms and the gentle weathering of time and delayed maintenance.

What is also so notable in these photographs is the blank whiteness of the skies in almost every image.  It makes these industrial, mechanistic objects placeless and timeless, not located on a world with a sun or human beings, not really participants in the world of humans but as the remnants of man’s desires.  Or, the sun is maybe blocked out by the processes and products created by these dreadful and beautiful machines.


architectural typologies

the properous
Frank Lloyd Wright, H H Richardson, Bernard Maybeck

“I am clearly affable, touched with genius, and we will let you know when we have completed our design for your house”

the earnest
Alvar Aalto, Stanford White, Walter Netsch

“With 20 centuries of architectural history weighing us down, we will be very responsible in spending your millions”

the artist
C R Mackintosh, Rudolf Schindler, Charles and Ray Eames

“You love me,… yes, yes, I thought so.  Don’t talk to me of money or schedule, let us celebrate life (with your project)”

see also:



Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, USA

some photos of a recent family trip with friends down to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

700 foot tall sand dunes, blown up against the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains

sunlight streaming through the fissure of Zapata Falls, just outside the park

thirty-three square miles of sand dunes, blown in to amazing curves, with a surge-flowing seasonal creek below


quarry, central Kentucky

I have always been fascinated by this strange, enigmatic image shot just inside the mouth of a limestone quarry in central Kentucky.

the almost surreal doubling of the images in the still water and the two object groups, one in shadow, one in the light, are as close to the everyday oddness of the photos of fellow Kentuckian Ralph Eugene Meatyard.   My earlier posts on this work:


(photo by Mark Gerwing, around 1989)


Abelardo Morell

I have briefly mentioned the work of photographer Abelardo Morell in a previous post and a recent purchase, a new monograph of his work published by Phaidon, has brought many more of his amazing photos.  This book has a number of different series of photographs, including the beautifully melancholy camera obscura images.  However, the collection of photographs of books has most resonated with me.

Four Old Books, 1995
Six Dictionaries, 2000

Many of these images treat the books as objects, sculptural and architectural edifices.  For those of us that live with many books, at home and at the office, these images remind us of their physical presence, their mass and weight, texture and smell, beyond their collective rank and file order on the shelves.  Morell is a master at re-presenting the ordinary, transcending the stuff of everyday life into hauntingly contemplative objects.

Two Tall Books, 2002

These photos are great lessons for architects.  That we could make buildings of such beauty and weight, of such substantial stuff as these.  We often mistake our memory of books for the information they contain.  It is why the Kindle and other electronic reader devices are mere conveniences, not objects of adoration and contemplation.

All images are low resolutions scans from the book, Abelardo Morell, published by Phaidon 2005.