November 25, 2013
By COD 2013 Berlin Conference Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA
One thing you may not know about Berlin is that from the middle of World War II until 1989, 80% of the city was destroyed or demolished. That decimation is shown in the graphic below as the areas in blue. White areas are open areas: streets, the river Spree, and parks such as the Tiergarten. Black areas are buildings that predate 1942.
According to Manfred Kuhne, Department Head, Urban Design and Projects, Berlin Senate for Urban Development, Berlin was originally a farm city. Over two generations, the city became a powerhouse of wealth and culture. And then, skipping over some very important other dates in German history, a wall was erected in 1961 which divided the city into two zones – West and East. When that wall was destroyed in 1989, the former Eastern half found itself in the center of a confusing, and contrast-heavy, opportunity with the former West. City leaders, according to Kuhne, took several years to work on plans for redevelopment and reunification of the whole city, even as they debated where to locate the capital of the now-unified nation. Berlin was ultimately chosen as the capital. It was decided that a large business district was not needed; smaller businesses are more successful.
Two decades later, this situation is still an active part of the city landscape. Berlin remains attractive, Kuhne said, because land and rent is less expensive than in the larger cities of Frankfurt and Bonn, where financial powerhouses buoy the economy. Germany is the fifth largest economy in the world, according to the current US CIA World Factbook, with a national unemployment rate of 5.5%. Its working population numbers 43.9 million people. Berlin is home to 3.2 million people, with unemployment at 11.6%. With relatively high unemployment, the bright side of Berlin life is a low cost of living, and low land costs.
Construction is evident with cranes that bookend the skyline, and in piping of water that otherwise would undermine foundations of new buildings. The piping maintains the pre-construction below-ground soil and water pressure.
Kuhne said, “People come here because the city is not perfect. And it is affordable.” I love this quote about Berlin, because it encapsulates cities themselves – all sorts of lives, all sorts of reasons for being there, and entanglements and opportunities all around. The Telegraph reports that 80% of Berliners rent apartments rather than own their own houses, but that rate is changing. Rental prices in the city rose 8.1% last year, and interest rates on loans are lowering, providing more impetus to purchase a property (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/constructionandproperty/9967397/Germans-develop-a-thirst-to-own-their-homes.html ).
Modern Berliners have created new ways of developing housing and small business offices. Through the hosts of the Committee on Design conference, we met a local architect, Walter Nageli, whose firm has worked on housing that ‘operates a bit like a cooperative’. The architect hung flyers around the neighborhood to see if people would be interested in owning a building together. After a certain percentage of clients was secured, the architect approached the bank for a loan. The clients own the building after its construction; the architects essentially act as the developer. Because the cooperative formed without a developer, costs for the architect and owners are lower.
Three other firms we met at the Origins of Modernism conference had similar projects where the acting financial force was an individual, a firm, or a group of future owners: Kristien Ring with Bar Architects, Britta Jurgens with deadline Architekten, and Florian Koehl with Fat Koehl Architekten. Each showed slides of their ideas behind those projects. Primarily, the projects sought to mix live/work functions in apartment buildings, to keep ‘eyes on the street’ (hello, Jane Jacobs), and provide rich live/work neighborhoods.
Fat Koehl’s office and apartment building is one such building, with the architects’ office on the ground floor, as well as separate access for residents.
We were treated to a tour of the clean and well-thought out interior, featuring some really wonderful expanding balconies (more on that in a future post). The balconies were a response to building codes which prohibited permanent overhangs on the street – temporary balconies open off of living spaces and be tucked back inside when not needed.
November 18, 2013
The AIA Committee on Design Week in Berin turned out to be about a lot more than the architecture. Our tireless and very knowledgeable guide, Sonke, gave us a flash of its history; the Wall, the People, the Art, the Innovation, the Landscape, the Old, the New….Everything is all mashed together in Berlin and its all really fascinating and full of energy.
Although, it has been years since the Berlin Wall came down, its memory, its whisper, is everywhere. It affects every discussion about the city and its development; What is its relationship with itself, with the outside world and between inhabitants?—there are tensions and sympathies on both sides. The growth of the city for the future seems to be couched in terms of ‘before’ the wall, ‘east’ of the wall, ‘west’ of the wall, ‘after’ the wall, ‘in spite of’ the wall, ‘because of’ the wall, in memory of the wall…..and so it goes.
Marcie Meditch, AIA
COD Berlin Conference
September 20, 2013
Menrad House in Twin Palms Estates by Palmer & Krisel, Palm Springs, CA
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
A Case Study of Twin Palms and a Conversation with Bill Krisel
The 2013 AIA Committee on Design Conference “Regional Modernism” in Palms Springs, California presented an encompassing probe through the epicenter of California Modernism. Guided tours gave exclusive access to a number of seminal projects and proved to be a history lesson in the legacy of Mid-Century design; an era where experimentation in lifestyle, materiality, and technological exploration were pivotal to the discipline of design. In a span of 2 days, over fifteen impressive residential projects were visited, ranging from small cottages and luxurious homes, to large scale hotel developments, all of which epitomized the origins of mid-century modernism and its evolution into the International Style and contemporary Minimalism. Perhaps more importantly, the value of this experience was twofold. It offered not only compelling site visits, but an enriching experience through the connections made with fellow participants. The entire experience of the COD conference was augmented by the personal connections and shared discussions with a collection of design-minded peers from around the country, and as a recently licensed Architect in the formative years of their career this was an invaluable experience in both Architecture and Life.
In my eyes however there is one project, and more importantly, one connection which stood out as the highlight of the trip; the opportunity to visit the restored home of Chris Menrad in the iconic Twin Palms Estates and his impressive collection of original Eames, Jacobsen, and Saarinen design pieces, alongside the opportunity to connect with Bill Krisel himself.
Through the “Regional Modernism” conference and subsequently the process of writing this paper, I have had the privilege of a series of extended conversations with Bill Krisel who has graciously shared with me his insights, experiences, and wisdom regarding Architecture, Design, and Life. In this paper, I will use my case study of Twin Palms as an opportunity to share the knowledge that Bill has so generously shared with me. I feel it is only appropriate, given that my experience in Palm Springs was just as much about connecting with people as it was about experiencing buildings, that my paper reflect how these parallel streams of insight intertwine, and even more fitting considering the beliefs held dear by Bill himself that the project is bigger than the building.
Krisel sharing his insights with the AIA COD at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
The Story behind Twin Palms
After graduating from the USC School of Architecture in 1949, Bill Krisel alongside Dan Saxon Palmer in his senior year at USC founded the firm Palmer and Krisel. Krisel and his firm were first invited to Palm Springs in 1955 to advance a novel tract development by the Alexander Construction Company. The pre-cursor to this project was the Ocotillo Lodge; a hotel designed by Krisel adjacent to the development site, in aims to attract prospective buyers and promote interest in the new Palm Springs housing development. Originally known as Smoke Tree Valley, the development eventually became known as Twin Palms due to the two palm trees that adorned each home. The juxtaposition of palm trees with the butterfly roof become a trademark of Krisel’s work in each home, a memento to his background as both an architect and landscape architect.
The critical premise proposed by Krisel that solidified the development and helped define the architecture of Palm Springs was in convincing the Alexanders that these homes had to be different than those in the city (Los Angeles). Unlike the city, these were second homes and vacation destinations geared towards
“the guy who wanted to trade in his three-piece suit and four door car for walking shorts, golf bag, and a seat by the pool”.
With such an appeal, the projects privileged an open plan and indoor/outdoor spatial experience enabled by post and beam construction, tailored to a lifestyle of entertainment and leisure.
Krisel’s signature butterfly roof at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
Pragmatics as Design Drivers
Each of the 135 houses in the Twin Palms development is based on a single 40’x40’ floor plan with eight different variations of facades, and eight different framing systems. As the facades of each home varied, the identical floor plans were veiled behind a “custom look”, giving each home in the neighborhood a presence of its own. Material choices varied accordingly and each facade incorporated a range of possibilities including concrete block, stucco, stone, wood panels and wood siding. The roof lines also varied, consisting of a long and short butterfly, flat roof and gable roof. These decisions allowed for the economy of mass production, while enabling the richness and variety necessary to enable the character of a neighborhood.
The 40’x40’ square layout granted a maximum interior space while minimizing exterior surface area. Though only 1600 square feet each, Krisel’s skill in planning and the open nature of their design made the houses comfortable to live in; every unit had an open patio separating the house from the garage, services were located in the center of the home including an open atrium off the master bathroom, and HVAC ducting was incorporated into the slab, eliminating expensive soffits and allowing for dramatic ceiling heights throughout the house.
With identical floor plans, the construction of the Twin Palms estates was expedient and efficient. All of the timber members were pre-cut, bundled and delivered to site, while fixed quantities and the elimination of on-site cutting allowed for minimal waste to be achieved. Interested in completing the project for the desert “high” season (Oct/Nov), summer construction in the desert sun made handling steel nearly impossible, leading to material choices such as wood and masonry which became just as much a pragmatic decision as it was an aesthetic or performative one.
Integrated landscaping and architecture at the Menrad House, Landscape architect: William Krisel
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
Revolutionizing the Industry
The 2 bath, 3 bedroom homes were designed using a modular post and beam construction, thus the interior walls were non-load bearing, enabling the open plan living which characterized modernism and the mid-century. Krisel embraced this technique whole-heartedly, exploring it as a spatial and aesthetic device, but also as a modular assembly and fabrication technique.
In the context of the early 1950’s, this was a revolutionary building technique. Krisel had to
“…retrain the framing contractors because they only knew conventional framing…16” studs on center with trimmers at every door and headers over every door. As much as they understood the beam, and they understood the post, and they understood the lintel…they just couldn’t conceive of the fact that you didn’t need any studs in between the posts and lintels and the beams to support them.”
To combat this, Krisel took teams of experienced carpenters and untrained them. By having his construction team erect just the primary structure – the posts, beams and lintels – and spray painting those elements weathered brown, Krisel highlighted the structural integrity of the building.
“I said ‘ Fellas, this is what holds up the house, anything else you put in here is just to make separations between one space and another…just keep looking at that color and remember that you can’t cut into that, you can’t drill into that, you can’t move that. Everything else is redundant.’”
This epitomizes the legacy of Krisel not only as an innovator, but as an educator interested in both teaching and un-teaching those around him to enable them to achieve what he aspired to. As Krisel himself notes
“I got that idea because I remember Frank Lloyd Wright, in one of his stories he said he not only had to draw the details that he wanted, he also had to draw the details that he didn’t want, because he knew what the contractors were going to try to do.”
Post & Beam construction enables the open plan & Inside/Outside living.
Photo credit: Alvin HuangThe Project is More than the BuildingTwin Palms exemplifies Krisel’s obsession with design and how its impact on the occupants of his buildings transcended all scales and disciplines. In addition to being a licensed Architect, he was a licensed Landscape Architect, graphic designer, and product designer. This multi-disciplinary skill and all encompassing approach to design enabled him to win the trust and confidence of his clients to take on more than the buildings they were commissioning.
“I customized everything, and my philosophy was that the project is more than just the building, it was the interiors, it was anything that went into the house… anything related to the project we were involved in and we had our say in it.”
Did Krisel help Chris Menrad choose his car to match the butterfly roof?
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
Modernism as an Evolving Language and not a Style
Similar to Richard Neutra’s design philosophy, Krisel follows his predecessor with an adamant belief that Modernism is not a style but rather a language. Denouncing the importance of style as an end in itself, Krisel emphasizes the importance of build-ability and live-ability, with modern design as the operative language.
As an early communicator of that language, Krisel has mastered it on many levels, and despite the characteristic signature of his trademark butterfly roof, Bill states bluntly:
“I don’t believe in style. Decorators do style. They pick something that’s in today and out tomorrow. What architects do is not a style; it’s a way of life.” Real architecture, he says, “has nothing to do with what is “in” or “out” of style.”
“In other words, if you’re doing a block wall, then it is just a block wall. It does the function and then it ends. Or can you take the block wall like I did, and make it have integrated ornament…a third dimension that gave shadow and texture. Or how you lay out the bond, or rake the joints. All of that is part of the language that is making something functional but taking it one step beyond and making it functional, more attractive, and yet not costing any more.”“The language is not a stagnant language; it’s a language that adapts to the time. It’s always based on intelligent research and problem solving. I think one of the primary purposes of an architect is…to solve the problem.”
Integrated ornament at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
The Architect as the Captain of the Team
Despite his beliefs in the evolution of the language, Krisel fears the evolution of the practice in which today’s Architect has been reduced from master builder to subsidiary participant, largely due to the growing role of the construction manager and the emergence of specialist sub-consultants. Krisel laments that
“Architects have gone from being the captain of the team, to being the substitute player that has been replaced by the construction manager.”
During his prime, Krisel was in full control of not only the project but of his clients. Today he believes the construction manager has more influence over the client than the Architect. He finds it particularly upsetting that in many instances the Architect is chosen by the construction manager rather than the client and is viewed as nothing more than an additional cost.
To combat this, Krisel advises that Architects need to come up with a realistic plan, know how much it costs, and know the codes.
“You have to become a valuable member of a team; you have to be able to contribute something to their discussions when they are talking about what we are going to build. And once you get their confidence you are looked upon as being a valued adviser… my clients, no matter how big they were, would say “I just bought this acreage, go out and take a look at it, tell me what we are going to do with it”. And they relied on my knowledge… it wasn’t that I was just in agreement, I mean I knew they wanted to make money and I wanted to do better architecture and they are not mutually exclusive.”
The interiors of the Menrad House are a mid-century design museum
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
A Passion for Architecture
When asked what his inspirations are, Krisel’s answer is direct and personable. Literally.
“I like people, and I like all kinds of people, and I like to learn about people, and I like to listen to people, and I like to have a very difficult problem with lots of limitations. But I like one critical voice, I don’t believe that you can design by committee…Frank Lloyd Wright said that if you have a project designed by committee then you have a ‘cam-ox’ – half camel / half ox – because it’s compromised…and I hate wasting time compromising.“
“I am really not a thinker, philosopher, and analyzer. Someone asked me once ‘how do you come up with these?’ and I can’t tell you, I just feel it….”
To Krisel architecture is about passion and solving problems for people. If you give him a problem, he will find you a solution that works functionally, fits the budget, has an aesthetic beauty to it, and is appropriate to the site.
Not to mention, architecture is what he has always known he was meant to do. He chose his path at an early age and his advice to young architects echoes that early determination, and continued passion.
“Don’t be an architect unless you would rather do it more than anything else in the world. I told my wife when I proposed to her “you are No 2, architecture is No 1.” She said “I accept that”. And I admired that. So I think you have to have that feeling first.”
Poolside at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
The Building is more than the Building.
In the end, my experience of the Twin Palms estates in Palm Springs and with the AIA Committee on Design Conference was nothing short of amazing. The project was one of many inspiring examples of a period that completely revolutionized the way in which we think not only about the products but also the disciplines of architecture and design. Twin Palms’ innovative deployment of novel construction techniques, progressive aesthetics, and its radical ideas about how we engage with space have clearly left a lasting legacy on contemporary architectural language. It is a unique and historic architectural landmark that I am very happy to see carefully restored and now preserved.
As impressive as the legacy of the building is, the legacy of the man behind it has moved and inspired me further. It is only fitting that what started out as a case study of the Twin Palms estate evolved into an extended conversation that went well beyond the boundaries of its post and beam framing system.
Similar to Krisel’s belief that the project is bigger than the building, his legacy and body of work echo the same character – proving to be bigger than the buildings that remain. I am very fortunate and proud to have had this opportunity to engage with Bill Krisel as a mentor and friend.
It is precisely this combination of both architectural and interpersonal inspiration and experience that I think makes the Committee on Design Conference a unique and wonderful opportunity that should not be missed.
William Krisel in his Brentwood studio, where he still works daily.
Photo credit: Alvin Huang
Defining Architectural Design Excellence: an AIA Committee on Design Conference, Columbus, Indiana, April, 2012 By John Morris Dixon, FAIA
March 2, 2013
The Committee on Design visited Columbus, Indiana in April, 2012. Click here to read the conference report written by John Morris Dixon, FAIA. Photos courtesy of Jim Childress, FAIA, Ann Thompson and Aaron Trahan.
February 19, 2013
Member Slideshows are created each year for the Spring Conference to illustrate the recent work of the attendee’s firms. All COD members are welcome to participate. Attendees have 6 slides and 60 seconds to present their projects, or whatever is on their mind. Many of the 2012 Member Slideshow slides are posted on the COD Pinterest page.
Nancy Rogo Trainer, FAIA, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, and Daniel McCoubrey, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, presented their slides.
February 3, 2013
In April, 2012, about 120 members of the Committee on Design went to Columbus, Indiana for our spring conference. Together we explored the architecture of the community, talked with many of the architects who designed the projects, and met with citizens who have been active in championing modern architecture. We also discussed and considered how to measure design excellence. The following film was created by Boaz Ashkenazy and his crew at Studio216 as an overview of what we saw and experienced.
For a guide of the projects we saw, and the people we met, please see the Committee on Design to Columbus, Indiana here.
September 11, 2012
By Aaron Trahan, Committee On Design Spring 2012 Conference Knowledge Scholar
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
As the Fall Conference approaches, it is important to remember where we left off this Spring in Columbus. One of the consensus’ that we was that context matters in design excellence. I found this quote from Eliel Saarinen particularly relevant to this topic because it seems so obvious, and yet there are buildings in all of our cities, towns and neighborhoods that somehow miss this fundamental principal.
The modernist additions to downtown Columbus truly embodied a consistent sense of scale, and a natural progression from the residential neighborhoods, to the community buildings, and to the retail center. Living in Boston, with such beautiful historic buildings, I always imagined what our neighborhoods would look like if the only structures breaking above the canopy lines of the trees were public buildings, such as churches, town halls, and courthouses. I imagine there would be a higher quality of civic discourse prevalent when you could find your way to a public meetingplace by just looking up, and knowing where to go by distinguishing the design of each tower.
Architecture, in this sense, has the ability to prioritize and foster community. Columbus has a unique character in its urban planning, which is applicable today in neighborhoods of a similar scale. Hopefully, as young architects focus on community design, buildings that serve a public function will be given greater architectural presence.
April 5, 2012
The Committee On Design is holding its Spring Conference in Columbus, Indiana April 12 – 15, 2012. COD Chair Mike Mense selected Columbus as part of his year’s theme: Defining Architectural Design Excellence.
Why, after so many years of excellent public and commercial architecture in Columbus, Indiana, are there almost no modern houses?
Why, when you drive north from Florida’s South Beach passing miles and miles of waterfront houses, less than one percent are anything we would call architecture?
Why do Americans drive designer cars and drink designer coffee but live, most all of them, in a house or apartment that is pretending to be the home of some wealthy ancestors long deceased?
Are we determined as a profession to continue to define ourselves in ways that isolate us from the greater part of the society in which we practice?
Can we find some definitions of architectural excellence upon which we can agree and that we can explain successfully to the silent majority? Is it even something we want to do?
The exclusive opportunities for attendees to the Columbus Conference Include:
- The opportunity to meet and converse with many of the national and local architects who have worked in Columbus, Indiana, including Gunnar Birkerts, Ben and Cynthia Weese (representing Harry Weese), Daniel McCoubrey and Nancy Rogo Trainer (representing Robert Venturi), Ralph Johnson of Perkins+Will, Jane Weinzapfel, Kevin Kennon, Carlos Jimenez, Fred Koetter and Susie Kim.
- An open house tour, with personal photography allowed, of the Miller House and Gardens, “America’s most significant modernist house” per Travel+Leisure. The house showcases the collaborative design of leading 20th-century architects and designer: Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard and Dan Kiley. You will be allowed to wander the house and gardens on your own, with docents available for information, instead of the limited guided tours. Personal photography is permitted, not allowed on public tours.
- Meet Will Miller, patron of modern architecture, son of J. Irwin Miller who commissioned the Miller House and started the renowned Cummins Foundation architectural program.
- The Cummins’ Friday evening reception and dinner at the Cummins Corporate Headquarters, designed by Kevin Roche, including tours of the workplace. Dinner provided by Cummins’ executive chef. You will also have the opportunity to meet and dine with Cummins executives and community leaders. Cummins Corporate Headquarters is a secured building and typically not open to the public except for the lobby.
- Tour Cummins midrange engine plant in Walesboro, an innovative sustainable design by Kevin Roche completed in 1973. Cummins facilities are not typically open to the public without special arrangements.
- If you have never been to Columbus, Indiana before, we will visit many of it’s unique collection of over 80 modern buildings, designed by nationally and internationally noted architects, including Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, I.M Pei, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, SOM and many more. Columbus was ranked 6th in the nation for innovation and architectural design by AIA members. It was ranked 11th by National Geographic Traveler’s on a list of 109 historic locations to visit worldwide.
- If you have previously visited Columbus, but not been back in the last 5-10 years, we will visit many new buildings and experience the ongoing redevelopment of the downtown, designed by noted architects Carlos Jimenez, Ralph Johnson, Deborah Berke, William Rawn, Cesar Pelli, Fred Koetter and Susie Kim.
November 16, 2011
We began the first day of the COD Japan conference with two lectures, held on the 45th floor of the Mori Building at Roppongi Hills, designed by KPF. It was a great vantage point to look down on buildings visited in the last few days. The first lecture was by Masami Kobayashi of Meiji University. The title of his talk was Japan & the Tohoku Rebuilding Efforts.
Professor Kobayashi described how Tokyo had grown through centuries of what can only be called calamities– wars, fires, and earthquakes. Parts of the city were damaged or destroyed and then rebuilt. The city, therefore, has the texture of many eras of development layered on top of one another, creating a weaving of old and new, dense development and open space. He described it as a ‘salami pizza city’.
He went on to describe the enormous damage caused in eastern Japan by the recent (March, 2011) earthquake and tsunami. In helping with the reconstruction of the coastal towns destroyed by the tsunami he was finding a unique role for architects. The key, long-term issues are where and how to restore the communities that were destroyed. One key issue he and others are struggling with is that if you build a sea wall high enough to protect a community, you separate them from their key asset, the sea. The other key issue is a tsunami often destroys part of a community (the part lowest and closest to the ocean), leaving developments further back or on hillsides unharmed. The challenge arises in how to integrate sections of rebuilt areas with the older surviving ones.
Through charettes, his team of students and faculty are working to find alternate solutions. One idea is to raise the land; sounds simpler than it probably is. Another idea is to redevelop the low land but provide clear and easy paths out for people, i.e., lose buildings in future tsunamis but not lives. Yet another solution explored how to break a sea wall into sections that would break up waves yet provide views. I was impresses that his group was working toward real solutions to complex, community-oriented issues. The quality of life obtained in the end for the inhabitants, the fabric of the community, was equally as important as the civil engineering solution to the problem.
The second lecture follows….
Jim Childress FAIA