By Kenneth Caldwell
When the Sonoma and Napa fires of 2017 tore through the Bay Area design community, several thousand structures were destroyed, and as many as 15,000 people were left without homes. Architects whose families and clients lost homes made it to the Monterey Design Conference last October to find comfort and to connect.
Every year, I buttonhole attendees to seek out their favorite presenters. Sou Fujimoto won my informal poll, so I’ll start with him. Fujimoto began his presentation with a photo of a tree and a Tokyo city scene. The title of his lecture, “Between Nature and Architecture,” turned out to be the unintended theme for the conference.
In all his work, Fujimoto questions obvious assumptions. This was true with two relatively small houses, House N and House NA, where he redefined the interior/exterior boundary. As with Richard Meier, most of his work is white. But unlike Meier’s work, his strives to almost disappear. He even questions assumptions about how to design a public bathroom in Ichihara, making the structure completely transparent and the landscape wholly private.
Weiss/Manfredi’s opening lecture addressed the “binary reading of the natural and artificial.” Their low-rise projects express inventive ways to weave structure and landscape together, like Seattle’s Olympia Sculpture Park (2007) or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Center (2012). This approach reaches its apogee in the Novartis Visitor Center (2013). I can’t remember a high-security checkpoint being so graceful—like the spirit of one of Calatrava’s birds rather than the remains. They reminded us, with their handsome portfolio, that our experience of nature is largely constructed.
An unexpected surprise was a last-minute replacement, the tall and very funny Jeff Goldstein from the Philadelphia based firm DIGSAU. Without a written script, he showed us a modest not-for-profit center that trains at-risk youth. Students helped build the wood collage wall. It was a glorious example of how to create authentic community engagement.
Shohei Shigematsu, the head of the OMA’s New York office, showed us that there is a future to OMA beyond Rem Koolhaas. Milstein Hall, the expanded center at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning reminded of some of the big moves architects employed in the 60s. OMA’s diagrams are ingenious, but the spaces are not inviting. One of Shigematsu’s most interesting projects is his collaboration with artist Taryn Simon at the Park Avenue Armory. The concrete columns have a stillness that some of the jazzier permanent buildings do not.
My spectacular visuals award goes to Dominique Jakob of the Paris-based Jakob + MacFarlane. Their design appears to be rooted in digital technology and seemed far removed from the mundane requirements of our West Coast digital overlords. On the river in Lyon, two office buildings, the “Orange Cube” and the “Green Cube,” with bold color and grand cutouts, make Apple’s and Facebook’s new buildings look almost banal. The firm’s 100-unit social housing project in Paris doesn’t follow the form of typical Parisian apartment blocks, and Jakob’s use of ETFE film for balcony curtains gives the building a wrapped Christo look on each floor.
What was called the “Tribal Elders” slot at previous conferences was filled with the Los Angeles graphic and exhibition designer Gere Kavanaugh. Noted architect and writer Pierluigi Serraino, a raconteur and interviewer of some skill, could not contain Ms. Kavanaugh. While her presentation of modernist graphics did go on too long, Gere was entertaining.
Another determined Angeleno, Julie Eizenberg, talked about Urban Hallucinations, her new non-monograph. Her firm Koning Eizenberg has focused on Los Angeles. They are unafraid of the quirky, the cheap, the historic, the imaginary, the gritty, or the glamorous. This is an architect who thrives on constraints and, as she says, “stretches the limits.” One of my favorite new projects was the Pico Branch Library, which allows everybody to connect to the larger digital universe while staying grounded in the very nonimaginary neighborhood.
The “Emerging Talents” included Laura Crescimano, a founder of SITELAB Urban Studio with the late Evan Rose. She charts the course for design professionals engaging disadvantaged communities. Heather Roberge of Murmur and Jimenez Lai and Joanna Grant of Bureau Spectacular reminded us that Los Angeles’s up-and-coming architects are just as bold as the earlier generation.
Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects alum Alan Tse stole the show. In the few minutes he was allotted, he made us laugh and admire his considerable talent. His restaurants and interiors are sublime, and his construction budgets are what other architects would charge in fees. He made architecture real in a way I’ve rarely seen.
We all needed some levity and inspiration as we returned home to question how or even whether we should rebuild so close to the wildland/urban interface. As with most Monterey Design Conferences, we came away with more questions and few answers.