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When More is Really Less

The tendency in architecture these days is to go bombastic: think big hair beehives in the 60’s, not to be missed, in your face, flashy and maybe a little tacky….and all under the guise of modernity.

Frank Gehry’s Louis Vitton Foundation

Just like mentioned in the Devil Wears Prada, economics doesn’t trickle down but style does. So when there’s this tendency for grandiose object making architecture by brilliant architects, the aesthetic trickles down to the more common, but the buildings become more desperate. Without the knowledge and context of a season architect, it becomes a hodge-podge of copy and paste. If you can have wood sliding, wood panels, metal and copper, why not add metal screens, glass, tile and stucco?

The facades become only skin-deep, full of materials and not much else. But the good news is, no matter how horrifically a building is, someone will deem it worthy of publication, 15 seconds of fame on the Internet.

Humor aside, it isn’t just the lack of weight and meaning behind the facades. It really is what this represents. The thing here is that these buildings are supposedly modern in form but really there are post-modern in their exterior expression—an attempt to resolve the architecture of the new with the appreciation of the old. The ornamentalism and contradictions of post-modernism cannot co-exist without much education, thought and deliberation. Post-modernism is a beast of rule breaking and remaking. This is the ultimate revenge of post modernism (ugly post modernism, at that), which got shunted by modernism in the 90’s. It has insinuated itself back–behind the scenes– reemerging in the hands of the modernist who are desperately trying to differentiate themselves.

All the glass facades have begun look alike. How many variations on mullions, glass colors and module layout can you do? Is the issue education? How young architects sometimes seem oblivious to any “modern” architecture before 2000? History is a subject no longer taught or in fashion in architectural education. So the newbies to the industry design with panache, unaware that it has all been done before. Worse yet, they design without much reference to the successful buildings of the past. But it’s a hard to slay a beast if you don’t know why you’re fighting it in the first place.

The Amazon by Acronyms

I just came back from a phenomenal trip to Brazil, visiting some of the world’s most unbelievable architecture. But nothing truly compared to the Amazon: fantastic sites, unbelievable nature and no cell-phone reception! But we don’t all have the luxury of wistfully dreaming of the Amazon (or reading someone’s 1,000 word blog post), so I bring you the abridged version.

ICYMI: It’s amazing. It’s awesome.

The Amazon covers 40% of South America (including 8 different countries), it’s 20km across at its widest and it’s been around for over 10 million years.

FYI: There aren’t many animals and there are a lot of hiding places.

Don’t go to the Amazon for exotic wildlife. Movie depictions tend to romanticize this area, which is more overgrown with monkeys and bird populations than jaguars and anacondas.

OMG: It hasn’t always been the green heart of the world.

Scientists have now found evidence that humans occupied this area for thousands of years till the 15th century (the Amazon was previously considered “unlivable” by scientists). Estimates show that there were over 15 million people living in the Amazon at one time. And human cultivationthat’s what made the land so fertile. The astounding conclusion is that it is a man-made product.

IMG_4102BTW: It’s not one climate.

It’s easy to imagine the Amazon as humid, unbearably hot and wet. In truth, there’s a dry and wet season for the Amazon and the amount of rainfall varies from location. There’s a lot more rainfall in areas closer to Peru while Manaus in Brazil is known for its dry season.

P.S. Ever heard of El Tunchi?

He’s known as an evil spirit that haunts the jungle, terrorizing (and eventually hypnotizing) humans who disrespect the environment. He lures people with an eerie whistling sound. Legend is, if you hear the whistling, do everything in your power to not respond to his whistle—or it will be the last thing you do.



Due to the sensitive nature of this piece, we’ve redacted certain language. This blog post is not suitable for children and probably chauvinists while we’re at it. To read the uncensored piece, click the read more link.

This past Sunday was International Women’s Day, for over 80 years, March 8th has been a day to █████ women, to celebrate how far we’ve come and acknowledge how much farther we ████████. My daughter, who is now 25, had a ██████ with me about the word “███████████,” how when she was younger she felt it was harsh and stigmatized, how she didn’t like to ██████████ herself a feminist until her 20s.

It made me think of college, where we slung the term “feminist” around like people do “dude.” We were all feminists and loudly, proudly so. My daughter’s previous ███████ at “feminist” also reminded me of my college moniker, “█████ ████████ ████████” (TFB). A lot of people may find the name rude or inappropriate, but I find it as apt and accurate in 2015 as it was in 1975. I am French and yes, I am a ███████, well a ███████in the patriarchal interpretation of the word. Understand that the name was given to me at ████████████ and that my friends were well aware of the ironies. They called me TFB because I was an honest friend, open about my opinions (even if they were unpopular) and perhaps a bit ███████████.

As ███████, we fear that which is “harsh” (I think we often conflate strength and resolve for grittiness), the identities or adjectives that separate us from our ██████████. I don’t mind TFB because I am one and proudly so. I am not only unwilling to accept sub par work and I will tell you it is sub par. I will not let my ███████ colleagues talk over me in a meeting. I have little patience for ████████ or laziness. And, as any woman can tell you, these traits in a man would have him lauded for excellent leadership: a clear and honest communicator, a confident ██████████████ and a hard worker with exceptionally high standards.

But I am a █████, and therefore in order to be everything a male counterpart is, I must be a “███████.”

I will not allow the boring (patriarchal) laws of “female decency” to █████ my personality. I am proud of the work I have accomplished, I am proud of the firm I have built and I am proud of the ██████ that I am. And if that makes me a ███████, then so be it.

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Going Off Season

This November, I went on an architectural tour of Italy and Southeastern France. It included Venice, then La Tourette by Le Corbusier and astounding mines of Ronchamp.

This tour was first real off-season vacation I’ve ever taken and after it, I’ve decided the off-season is the only season! Especially you’re a bit of a seasoned and cynical traveller like me.

And having a vacation where I could truly relax and enjoy my surroundings, unfettered by other tourists, I was reminded of three important lessons.

  1. Timing is Everything

I normally travel in the summer and end up resenting fellow tourists almost as much as the locals. But France in November? No lines, no long waits, easy to nab reservations at great restaurants. On one of our last nights, we even had an 11th century Chateau all to ourselves!

Château d'Island Avallon Vézelay

Château d’Island Avallon Vézelay


It is a different experience, being in an almost-empty museum or taking a guided tour with no other tourists. There is more time for contemplation and pure appreciation. Your experienced isn’t marred or affected by others.

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Five things You (and I) Really Don’t Need for Christmas This Year


Selfie Stick1. The Selfie Stick: I have nothing against selfies but this just seems excessive. I guess it’s easier to use a selfies stick to share your face with Instagram followers than be slightly embarrassed to asking a stranger to take your picture?


2. A roommate who winds up starting the new Facebook and suddenly has nothing to do with themselves and the next thing you know, they buy a major American publication and institution, like The New Republic, and run it into the ground.


3. A movie about the podcast SERIAL or these backdoor knock offs. Even I can see the meta-charm in there being dozens of podcasts about the podcast but leave it to the producers of This American Life to be the pinnacles of storytelling, not you. (My daughter once attended a talk by Ira Glass who said the biggest problem in storytelling was that “people didn’t actually know where the real story was.”)

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Architects and Optimism: Harmony or Horror?

The other night, I was up late, watching yet another British crime-mystery show. I would call myself a fan of good wine and cheese but only an addict to one thing: this sub-genre of television. I have now resorted to online subscriptions to English web sites so I can stream the most obscure shows. Anyway, in the climax of another whodunit plot, the corrupt business-type “perp” (I like to use context-appropriate jargon) is finally coming clean. In a long, pessimistic, diatribe he describes the world as a cesspool and that only greed is a value worth considering.

Pessimist is a word I am used to and if you sat it at a dinner party with most architects, you can get a sense of negativity. I think a lot of people would describe architects as pessimists; we’re certainly tempestuous enough. But while we architects are often a bitchy, mournful lot, forever complaining about the complexities of our jobs, our poor financial compensation and the trouble of trying to make good architecture in a profit driven world, we are really a bunch of optimists.

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Ray and Charles Eames

My daughter and I had a debate this morning on the telephone. The previous night, I had sent her an interview of Charles and Ray Eames done by Arlene Francis for the Arlene Francis Home Show in 1956.

See video below Ray Eames shows up 1:38 minutes into a 4.25 minute video.

I went off how the video was the epitome of sexism in American society of the 1950’s. That there was something patronizing and pejorative by calling her the “interesting and able woman behind the man.” Eames looks to the floor, seemingly embarrassed. And Arlene Francis doesn’t seem to know how to balance the interview; at times completely ignoring Ray and then diverting attention back to her.

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Close to Home: The Napa Earthquake


Being a homeowner requires a lot of vigilance, there’s insurance and a mortgage, monthly payments and upkeep. And in California, sometimes it can also require picking up broken pieces of plates and glass at 3:30am after a 6.0 earthquake hits.

Over the weekend, my social media feeds were full of commentary on the massive earthquake that happened in California: the biggest one in 25 years.

It was a reminder that we can’t control mother nature and that there are downsides to living on the Best Coast. For everyone in the area, the shake hit close to home.

But for some a little closer than others. That night, I had been at my home in Napa where I would discover we lived across the street (70 feet) away from a fault line. A fault line that had been conveniently inactive for 1.5 million years. They don’t list those kinds of things in a real estate ad.


The red star is our home — see how we’re along the red fault line?


I make light of the event because, in actuality, it was terrifying. The house felt like it was crumbling. Outside, it looked like there were fireworks or lightning when it fact it was electrical lines hitting each other and shorting out. We were jolted out of our bed by a deep rumbling sound and a feeling that our house was being torn apart (we later found the earth moved as much as 2 feet). Dogs for miles couldn’t stop barking. The earthquake only lasted 20 seconds but as all us “earthquakers” know it seemed like an eternity. By the time the shaking stopped, the lights had gone out and I struggled to open the bedroom door. Entering the living room kitchen, we were almost expecting to find half the room gone. In fact, there was lots of broken wine glasses and a whole container of salsa emptied all over the room. (Note to self; put the salsa in an airtight container.)

Luckily, we had our wine stored in small refrigerators.

And it wasn’t only exciting/terrifying for us; we had some poor souls visiting us that weekend. Our good friend, Gwen, who is every bit the New Yorker and friends from Chicago staying in an RV because they were on their way to Burning Man.

After the quake, Gwen couldn’t sleep and as my partner Mark and I attempted to calm our nerves, we could hear her pacing and fidgeting. It was too much excitement even for a New Yorker. In the morning, our RV-relegated friends would say they were convinced it was going to tip over, that they would find themselves sideways before getting to Burning Man. By a miracle, they had parked their RV in the direction of the fault so it stayed up.


We were lucky, though. Despite the ten-mile line crack in the ground from the fault (see attached photos) our property was spared. And really, the dog seemed more traumatized than the guests.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4


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Just a few minutes of your time…

What happened to the days where you had to earn the right to complain? You could have a miserable trip on United, come home whining about the terrible flight, the food, the delays and the general attitude of the airline and when you’d have finally calmed down enough, you would then spend many hours and many phone calls trying to find who to complain to and finally—FINALLY—you’d find the address and send off a pithy and disgruntled letter. Few highs were as satisfying as when you would get an answer back, a form-style apology and a couple of thousand Frequent flyer miles for good measure.

Now, complaining isn’t satisfying, it’s a nuisance! You can barely go to the bathroom at the airport without being asked to fill out of survey asking you: “How was the service? Toilet clean enough? Toilet paper soft enough? Did you love the new scented soap? How about the automated hand drier? Take our survey. It will only take a few minutes of your time.”

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The Advantages of Being a Woman in Architecture

When I first thought of this blog post, I was excited. I figured, “why not! There must be a ton of reasons. Right?” I mean, there are missing women in the field but there’s also an emergence of recognition for women in architecture (and the missing ones!). People are claiming the proverbial the glass ceiling is shattered! I could find a positive spin too, couldn’t I?

I decided to sit in a quiet room and really think this one through. Actually, I’m on hold with Orange (the equivalent of ATT in France), so I have tons of time. I pick up my pen. I pause.

Are there any advantages at all?

In fact, it took me a long while to come up with a narrative for this blog. I wanted to stay away from the simplistic notions, like women are better at interior design and kitchen design or that women care more about program so they are better at planning.

I decided I would make this a personal perspective about why architecture suits me as a women and a human being.

  1. I do not have to go play racket ball with my male client as they never ask. Same goes for golf and poker games.  This is all good since I’m not much for team sport or activities.
  2. Being one of the few women architects who owns her own business in Northern California confers respect and means I am a slighter bigger fish in a huge pond.
  3. I have learned a ton (pun intended) about structures and construction and yet, like many of my male architects friends, I’ve never felt the need to pick up a hammer and put that knowledge to use.  I’m happy to have the contractors do that.
  4. In the same vein, I can easily impress any contractors when I start to talk about construction technologies.
  5. Architecture is a multi facetted endeavor that fits many personality types. For me thinking outside the box is an essential part of what and how I operate and architecture is a good fit.  Architecture also moves at a snail’s pace while I move at the speed of a bullet train. It’s good for me to work on something that slows me down.
  6. Architecture involves a lot of multi tasking, which is really just a euphemism for having to juggle about ten balls up in the air all at once. But I love juggling.
  7. My feminist social values have always been at the forefront of my architectural thinking.  It is my commitement to women reproductive rights, right to abortions and affordable health care, that led me to work for Planned Parenthood, Feeling social injustice is a big motivator and I feel proud using my career as a tool to help make an active difference in health care design.
  8. 8. And finally I have enjoyed the camaraderie with other female architects. Nothing like being a minority to make you stick together. Us women architects really know what it means to be in the trench and it has made us closer and willing to share experiences expertise and just a good stiff drink.



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