Monday, April 25, 2016

SHAMELESS THEATRICS: Taking A Cue From Movie Palace Lighting

Indirect lighting makes the ceiling vault appear to hover.
(Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, 1931)
Remember the sumptuous and exotic interiors of the great Art Deco movie palaces of the Thirties? Their magic owes a great deal to a technology that was just beginning to mature during that era:  atmospheric lighting.

Today, sixty years on, we can still learn a lot from the innovative lighting techniques of these remarkable buildings.  
The heart of most Art Deco theater lighting was the indirect lighting fixture.  In “indirects” the light source was concealed, producing a soft, glowing light with no obvious source.  The lamp bulbs were often hidden behind frosted or etched glass diffusers, inside niches, or behind pierced metal screens or grilles.  Several different colors of lamp bulb were used in one fixture, and each was controlled by a rheostat (the predecessor of today’s dimmer).  By varying the intensity of each colored lamp, the theater’s atmosphere could be made “warmer” or “cooler”. 
Indirectly lit water fountain niche,
(Pantages Theater, Hollywood, 1930)

Another Art Deco lighting trick was to conceal fixtures in continuous recesses near the tops of walls or in stepped ceilings, producing a halo of light at the ceiling’s perimeter and making it appear to float.  Again, multicolored lamps controlled by dimmers were used to vary the atmosphere of the space.

Still other theater lighting used etched glass panels edge-lit by hidden lamps. Refraction caused the etched design to luminesce while the clear glass remained dark, producing an almost holographic effect.  

Due to its unnatural direction, indirect
uplighting creates an otherworldly effect.
(Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, 1929)
Another atmospheric trick used in these building is indirect uplighting. Since the shadows cast by upward-facing fixtures are the reverse of what we’re used to seeing in sunlight, the effect is eerie and highly atmospheric.  

Shamelessly theatrical?  Yes.  Too wild for residences?  Hmmm. . .

The aptly-named Fountain of Light consists of
frosted glass panels backlit with colored lamps.
(Paramount Theater, Oakland, 1932)
•  Indirect lighting is still one of the simplest and most effective lighting schemes.  The fixtures themselves can be inexpensive, since they’re often totally concealed in the architecture.  What's more, the advent of affordable LED (light emitting diode) lighting has vastly expanded the range of indirect lighting possibilities. For example, LED "tape", which contains rows of tiny lamps on a flexible backing, can be fit into tiny spaces that could never have accommodated incandescent or fluorescent fixtures.

Uplit buddha figure with glowing eyes.
(Fox Theater, Oakland, 1928)
• Since the real impact of indirect lighting depends on the way it’s incorporated into the architecture, try unusual locations like beneath cabinet toe spaces or stair risers to achieve a floating effect.  Staircases can be lit by strip lamps concealed beneath handrails. Use indirects LED lamps hidden behind the front edge of niches to light objects inside, rather than lighting them from above.  The objects themselves will appear to glow.

•  Dimmers, a longtime staple of theater lighting, are becoming much more popular in residential work as well. By having several types of dimmable fixtures in one room, you can produce an infinite range of moods to suit any occasion. High-end dimmer systems even feature programmed “scenes” which adjust the lamps to preset light levels at the touch of a button. 

•  Colored lighting, which fell out of favor by the end of the Art Deco period, was dealt another blow by none-too-subtle usage during the psychedelic era of the 1960s. But it still has its place. LED lighting is available in a range of colors and can also be programmed into"scenes". Subtly varying light color can have a remarkable effect on room ambience, just as it did in the days of the movie palaces. Combined with dimming, varying colors offers a tremendous range of lighting possibilities.
Indirects work outdoors, too. Exterior uplighting
create a dramatic gradation of light from bottom to top.
(Senator Theater, Baltimore, 1939)

Shameless theatrics? You bet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Author's note: Storybook Style, the 2001 book I co-authored with photographer Douglas Keister, is being republished by Schiffer in a renewed and expanded edition that will arrive next Spring. I've written on a number of the architects featured in the book, and in anticipation of its arrival, I'll reprint some of these essays in this blog from time to time. The following piece sketches the life of one of my favorite architects, Carr Jones.

If you think today’s “green” architects are pioneers, take a look at the work of Carr Jones.  An obscure engineer-builder, Jones clung stubbornly to environmental priniciples we’ve only lately come to cherish--and he started doing it back in the Teens.    

 Rear courtyard of the c. 1932 Hermans Residence
in Oakland, California. Jones both designed
and constructed his singular homes.
(Photograph by Douglas Keister)
Jones was born in Watsonville, California in 1885.  He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911.  Around this time he designed and built a simple redwood cottage for his parents in Berkeley, kicking off a long and colorful career as what we’d nowadays call a “design-build contractor”. 

But Jones was ahead of his time in other ways.  He worked in large part with recycled materials--brick, slate, timber, scrap steel and bits of salvaged ornament--from which he managed to conjure lyrically beautiful homes that transcended their humble origins.  

Carr Jones homes were often wrapped around
an interior courtyard that provided a quiet
sanctuary from the street.
Jones’s houses are almost invariably built of roughly-laid bricks left unfinished to show their natural range of colors; many have a gently curving floor plan embracing a central courtyard.  His unmistakable elevations are graced by an array of turrets, dormers, and chimneys.

Interior walls in a Carr Jones home are of exposed brick as well, enlivened by a variety of arched openings.  Overhead, massive, exposed roof trusses of salvaged timber provide dignified drama.  The genius of these houses lies in their perfect balance of the familiar and the unexpected--on the sense of calm lent by an ancient palette of materials, played against the builder’s continual ability to surprise.  In a Jones house, every window frames a charming vista; every room is a spatial banquet; every corner holds architectural delight.

Jones combined salvaged timber and brick with
factory-sash windows and clay floors
to create a uniquely natural style.
(Photo by Douglas Keister)
Though Jones’s houses share many traits with the Storybook Style homes of the 1920s--aged appearance, serpentine curves, and whimsical details--in his hands these features are organic rather than superficial.  It’s a happy result of building in a true medieval vernacular, without undue concern for perfection or popularity.  Jones chose his materials and designs not because they were fashionable, but because he believed in their absolute fitness for domesticity. 

Just where someone trained as a mechanical engineer acquired these refined sensibilities, we may never know.   There’s no doubt, however, that Jones would have been quite comfortable working in today’s era of earth-friendly architecture.

In view of where green architecture is now headed,
Jones's designs are about as old as tomorrow.
Like many pioneers before him, building with an unwavering conscience brought Jones neither financial success nor even much recognition during his lifetime.  When Revival styles lost favor after World War II, the demand for his lovely and personal works became even more modest.  He completed a scattering of postwar commissions in the Bay Area and designed his final residence in 1966, dying on the morning that its foundations were being chalked out on the site.  Jones’s stepson, Doug Allinger, completed the project following his death, and has admirably carried on Jones’s building philosophy in his own work.

Alas, Jones didn’t live to see the birth of the ecology movement in the late 60s, nor the subsequent rise of green architecture--events grounded in the very ideas he’d been practicing for half a century.

Monday, March 28, 2016


Check out any visual medium, whether large screen or small, and chances are you’ll come across a show with fictional lawyers doing brilliant verbal sparring in court or in some shadowy back hall.  The law—at least as it’s portrayed in fiction—is pretty compelling stuff.  It must be, considering the parade of lawyer shows that have appeared since the dawn of television.
Gary Cooper (left) as the insufferable Howard Roarke
in "The Fountainhead", perhaps the funniest movie
about architecture ever made. (King Vidor, 1949)

Lord knows we’ve also had enough medical melodramas during that time, from Ben Casey to E.R. And then there’s that whole slew of crime-scene investigation shows that make examining dead bodies seem action-packed.

And then we have architecture.  

Chances are you’ve probably never seen a show or a movie about architects, and there’s a good reason:  the preposterous histrionics of “The Fountainhead” aside, seeing an architect in action is about as thrilling as watching ivy grow.

Walter Pidgeon played a more likable architect
in Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942).
You can tell he's an architect by his jacket.
That, unfortunately, is one of the architectural profession’s biggest image problems.  It seems reasonable to pay your lawyer big bucks for slaying the enemy with a well-honed courtroom phrase.  And it certainly seems worthwhile to pay a hefty doctor’s fee when your gall bladder is at stake.  But it’s harder for many people to see the return on paying an architect thousands of dollars for a) talking in dreamy generalities about your project, b) sitting on his or her butt for three months waiting for inspiration to strike, and c) sending you a thumping invoice for the mysterious services rendered.  

You haven’t been spared from six months in the slammer, nor has your gall bladder been restored to making first-rate gall, or whatever it’s supposed to do.  Instead, all you’ve got to show for your hard-earned money is a few lousy sheets of paper.

I’d love to remedy this public-relations shortcoming with a comprehensive list of all the nitty-gritty things an architect does for his commission.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  The truth is that designing a building is in fact a vague and amorphous business, because the most valuable part of an architect’s service is purely intellectual.  But that doesn’t make the work any less valid—just less visible.  

Charles Bronson did some more great
for architects playing a nutty vigilante in Death Wish.
(Michael Winner, 1974)
Architecture, alone among the professions, is a schizophrenic mixture of art and science—a lot more of the former, if you ask me.  And while an Einstein might be methodical in documenting his work, no one expects a Picasso to explain how he goes about producing great art. What’s more, it would be utterly unthinkable to ask an artist, brilliant or otherwise, to justify the cost of his work.  

"Your drawings are
going to cost me WHAT?!"
Yet it’s seldom that an architect, upon presenting his bill, doesn’t get a certain look from his client that says: Exactly what the *!%&! did I get for all this money? 

It’s perfectly reasonable that people want value for their design dollar. In architecture, however, value doesn’t consist of objects or even accomplishments, but simply of ideas. That’s a pretty tough sell, and it can lead to bad feelings on both sides.  Still, buildings last a long, long time, and I’d like to think that anyone who cares enough to hire an architect can also appreciate that the road to good design is bumpy and not well charted.   One hopes that, ultimately, the client will find it worth all the effort and expense.

We’re not prime time stuff, but we try.        

Monday, March 14, 2016


The late architect Louis Kahn, a man known for the exquisite ambiguity of his design philosophies, once began a lecture thus:

“Light. . .is .”

Rule No. 1: Living areas should face south or nearly so.
To which I might humbly amend, “Sunlight. . .is even more so .”  Sunlight is probably the single most essential ingredient of a livable, welcoming home.  Yet it’s staggering how many houses are built with precious little consideration of when and how sunlight will enter the rooms. And while home buyers are often particular about gimmicks like six-burner ranges and fridges with internet connections, they’ll blithely overlook poorly-oriented living spaces that will make their home unalterably dreary year-round.

The rules for good solar orientation are simple, easy to implement, and have been recognized for thousands of years.  If you’re house hunting, or especially if you’re planning a new home, pay scrupulous attention to solar orientation before you worry about built-in ironing boards and all that. 

•  The first rule of orientation:  The windows of living areas should generally face south.  Not necessarily due south, but close enough to get direct sunlight (or "insolation", in technical jargon). Southern orientation of living areas warms your home in the winter and brings in plenty of natural light.  Given identical floor plans, it can make the difference between a warm, inviting home and a dark and miserable one.

A Real Loser: Never, ever face outdoor living areas
to the north. They won't get used.
And by the way, the roof isn't helping any.
However, make sure that you have a means of shading, either with architectural overhangs or with window coverings, in order to control the amount of sun coming in.  Why bother facing south if you’re going to put up shades?  Simple—you can always keep sun out when you don’t want it, but you can’t bring it in if it ain’t there.

•  Minimize north-facing windows.  Since sunlight seldom reaches north walls, north-facing windows effectively contribute zero solar heat gain;  meanwhile, they radiate lots of heat outdoors, making for cold rooms.  All in all, a lousy deal.  So whenever possible, relegate north-facing spaces to utility areas like the garage, laundry, pantry, bathrooms, and so on.  

Mmm, I can smell the bacon frying.
 Who could resist eating breakfast here?
Another caveat:  Never locate outdoor areas like patios and decks on the north side if they’ll be in thee house’s shadow.  You’ll end up with a space that’s chilly and unused for most of the year.  

•  Orient specialized areas according to their time of use.  For example, a breakfast room should face east or southeast so it’ll get plenty of morning sun.  A deck that you plan to use mainly in the afternoon should face southwest or west to get afternoon sun. Orient the kitchen according to the time of day when it’ll get the most use:  east for mornings, west for afternoons, south for general all-day use.  If bright sun helps wake you up in the morning, face your bedroom east, and so forth.  These rules may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many homes have rooms that get sun at all the wrong times (or worse, no direct sun at all).
No one could possibly oversleep in a sunny
bedroom like this one.

• Remember that the sun’s altitude isn’t constant during the day.  Morning and late afternoon sun comes in at a lower angle and requires special attention to shading to avoid uncomfortable glare.

 •  Finally, while real-life conditions like views, street access, and terrain may dictate some compromises in orientation,  don’t stray too far from the basics.  You might be left in the dark.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

SURPRISE! Design That Makes For Double-Takes

Niches are a sure-fire
and very inexpensive way
to add interest to an interior.
It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a pattern containing fluctuations. In other words, the human mind likes to have a handle on an overall aesthetic pattern, but it also longs to be challenged by fluctuations or unexpected changes in that pattern. That’s where the element of surprise comes in. 

In architecture, surprise entails the use of unexpected spaces or elements. The real trick is knowing when to break the pattern—which isn’t as simple as it sounds. A design full of nothing but odd and unexpected elements won’t be seen as beautiful, but rather as simply disorienting or bizarre. Rather, a good designer gives us an unexpected fluctuation just when we think we’ve figured things out--keeping the expected pattern always at hand as a reference point, and only then deviating from it.

Here are some ways to add surprise to your own architecture:

An unexpected dormer window
adds new interest to what would have
been a standard-issue vaulted ceiling.
•  Add unexpected forms, recesses, or features. Something as simple as a niche in a hallway can provide interest to an otherwise routine space. For example, homes of the 1920s often featured a small arched recess off of the entry containing a set of doorbell chimes. These kinds of touches are inexpensive, but can go a long way toward making a space more memorable.

•  Vary floor levels. Break out of the two-dimensional mold of conventional floor plans by including raised or sunken areas. Overlooks from higher to lower levels are also an excellent way to add interest, for just as people like to explore, they also like seeing where they’ve been. Especially effective are overlooks where they’re least expected--from bedrooms or other upstairs spaces.     
A few steps can make a big difference. Imagine how
bland this room arrangement would be without them.

•  Vary ceiling height. Ceilings can also frequently benefit from breaking out of the two-dimensional doldrums. Once again, contrast is the key:  Very low ceilings can be intentionally oppressive and claustrophobic, while high ones give a great sensation of spaciousness and release. Hence, a narrow, low-ceilinged passage that unexpectedly open into a will a huge, soaring space wrings the maximum possible drama from this transition.  

•  Introduce unexpected views. Asian designers have long utilized the technique of “framing” a view from selected places within a room, rather than exposing the entire wall of the room to it as we often do in the West. They recognize that, just as we grow inured to the sound of ocean waves, we soon grow numb to even the most beautiful view if we’re constantly exposed to it. Framing a view has the effect of renewing our appreciation for it, so that it remains a recurrently delightful surprise to the senses. 
The "zen view" is a refreshing alternative
to the usual Western practice of
pounding people over the head with a good view.
The fact that it's limited renews our appreciation.

•  Use mirrors to make spaces look bigger and more dramatic. Integrate them into the architecture so they’re not just hung on the wall like a picture. Try using mirrors at the backs of niches, above high wainscots, or in places where they’ll reflect columns or other architectural features—that way, you get two features for the price of one. Just don’t place mirrors where confused people might run into them.  That’s not the kind of surprise you’re after.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Come on, admit it—
you'd like to know what's up there.
How many of us, as kids, could resist the temptation to climb the stairs in a strange house to see what was “up there”? Now that we’re grown, we suppress these kinds of urges for the sake of propriety, but they still exist in our subconscious minds, and can be drawn upon quite subtly by a clever designer.  

In architecture, spaces which draw on the human sense of curiosity are said to have mystery--they foster the creation of drama or suspense by alluding to architectural spaces or features while keeping them partially concealed.   

Mystery can subtly entice us toward a particular space. Let’s suppose there are two hollow eight-foot-square cubes about ten feet away from you.  The front of one is open, so that the interior is completely visible.  The front of the other has only a two-foot-square aperture at the center, so that the interior is largely concealed. Which cube will attract you more?  

Not much mystery here—practically the whole house
can be taken in at a glance. Ho hum.
Most people will approach the enclosed cube precisely because they can’t see what’s inside. Likewise, an architectural space that’s immediately comprehensible presents little challenge to the mind—it simply isn’t as interesting as a space that keeps us guessing. And although entertainment is not a designer’s primary charge, an intriguing space is inevitably more memorable than one that simply functions.  

Here are a few ways to evoke a sense of mystery in your own designs:

Hmm—how do I get up there?
•  Allude to the destination.  For example, the head of a staircase often disappears up the stairwell so that we can’t see its termination. Yet the presence of the staircase obviously implies a space above and arouses our curiosity. If the destination is obvious, it holds much less interest—we already know what’s “up there”.   

Small interior balconies and other openings opening into a room can also  hint at the existence of spaces beyond. This entices the viewer to reach them, all the more so if the means of access isn’t obvious.   

Architect David Adler's
Lasker House, Chicago (1925):
What's around the corner?
What's through that doorway?
•  Provide tantalizing glimpses of rooms or areas in the home, rather than making them obvious. A room that immediately reveals itself is disappointing to the mind’s sense of curiosity. By carefully considering sightlines during the planning stages, you can control the views from one room into the next, so that the spaces unfold in an intentional and effective order.  Columns and screen walls can also be used to alternately reveal and then conceal the destination without “giving away the store”. 

•  Manipulate light levels. Here, contrast is the key to creating mystery or drama. Try to play light against dark--the effect of a bright, sunlit room will be redoubled if it’s approached from a dark and mysterious one, and vice versa.  A uniformly bright or uniformly dark series of spaces will lack this counterpoint.  

At night, dimmers can help provide dramatic artificial lighting. Indirect lighting is especially effecting in creating a subdued or mysterious effect. Of course, bright light should always be available when needed for cleaning and maintenance. 

Do use these techniques with a bit of restraint. Subtlety, not theatrics, is the key to creating mystery.   

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

THE GREENEST WAY TO BUILD: Use Stuff That Already Exists

During the 1950s and 60s, when
Victorian architecture was held in
contempt, many an interior like this one
met the wrecking ball.
Unlike Europe, the United States has never had many reservations about demolishing its old buildings to make way for the new.  The vast array of exquisite materials squandered during the Modernist era— when ornamentation was held in contempt—could make a grown person cry. After World War II, countless Victorian homes filled with ornately-milled hardwoods, marble, leaded and colored glass, brass and bronze were blithely destroyed to make way for the sedate, blank surfaces of the “new” age. 

Nowadays, any green designer or builder worth his salt recognizes the value of quality salvaged items. Yet ironically, long before the green movement, it was wrecking contractors who first saw value in such items.  Over the years, their equipment yards became stockpiled with items hastily stripped from old homes in the last bleak hours before the Caterpillars arrived. These stockpiles eventually grew into organized salvage yards featuring a huge array of architectural materials.   

With money as scarce as it is today, many remodelers have turned to salvaged materials as a way to save a few bucks. And rightly so: If you know what to buy and what to avoid, the salvalvage items can be a real bargain. With luck, you may even come across an architectural treasure or two. Don’t expect perfection, however; remember that these items have already lived one lifetime. Consider a chip or scratch here and there as a badge of honor. 

All these windows once graced the interior
of someone's old house. The lease we can do
is to give them a second life.
(Photo courtesy
Probably the most useful salvage buys are metallic items like high-quality cabinet hardware, railings, escutcheons, grilles, scutcheons, grilles,  They’re easily stripped of paint and reused, and their quality is generally far higher than similar items you can buy today.  Also worth searching out are fireplace mantels and other stone or marble items that are very expensive purchased new.   

Panel doors can also be a bargain as long as they’re in good condition. Except for really one-of-a-kind items, though, don’t bother buying doors that are badly weathered or otherwise damaged; repairing them simply isn’t cost effective. Also, try to use salvaged doors in new openings made especially for them, not in existing openings. Modifying old doors to fit an existing opening (or vice versa) can be a real headache.  

Salvage yards frequently have leaded or colored glass windows, too. Many have interesting muntin patterns or
Knobs, anyone? You won't
find ones of this quality
at the local Big Orange.
unusual shapes, and can fit nicely into remodeling plans.  However, the more mundane types of double-hung or casement windows are seldom worth buying for new construction (nor will they usually meet modern energy codes). By the time you’ve gotten them properly refinished and in smooth working condition, you’ll wish you’d simply bought a new window.  Save your rehab efforts for windows that are worth the time.

Salvaged plumbing fixtures must also be approached with caution.  Many old toilets, for example, are difficult to connect and few will comply with modern water-conservation standards. Pedestal sinks, on the other hand, are easily retrofitted with modern water-conserving faucets, and are often a bargain. Avoid the cast iron variety and look for the higher-quality chinaware type, however.