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Under a mountain of unending fog and chilled by the news reports of record breaking snowfall on the East coast, I took a vacation to The Big Island (or Kona), Hawaii last week.  I stayed at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, a resort hotel built by SOM in the 1960s. Did you think I was going to talk about those Mai Tais I enjoyed? This is an architecture blog, after all!

The Mauna Kea is very much tied to its decade without looking dated. There is no outside or inside in the common hotel areas, simply roofs without walls or walls without roofs. Every space is expansive–with incredibly high ceilings, concrete as far as the eye can see.

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  And the use of color is delightful–the bright tiles (which are blue on some floors and red on others), the amazing Hawaiian art is what punctuates a mostly sparse space.

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A back stairwell

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Rooms flanking either side

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A view from the 5th floor to the 8th

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Another lovely stairwell

In fact, the whole structure is rather modest for a resort. Rooms aren’t spread out across various buildings, you won’t find the various restaurants or bars in different zip codes. There is one main building an an addition of new rooms (built in the 1980s). You could easily walk from one end of the hotel to the other in ten minutes.

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Kona is an expansive island which actually makes exploring it difficult. It can easily take four hours to drive from one end to the other. But I embraced this mentality and did my best to discover the immediate surrounding areas. It was to my benefit, in fact, as I got to check out (and compare) other  hotels in the area.

When I was told some of the best food on the Island could be found at the Four Seasons resort, about a 15 minute drive away, I knew I had to visit .

In contrast with the Mauna Kea, The Four Seasons is enormous. No, it is gigantic. You enter one building to register and then your room could be so far away, you’ll need a golf cart to get there.

Hualalai Golf Aerial

When we arrived for dinner,  we got lost walking to the restaurant twice! It was a ten minute walk through poorly lit alleys. Despite its airs, the whole resort is rather vernacular. It seems disassociated from its surroundings, resembling any other resort you might find somewhere else tropical. It screams Pirates of the Caribbean but without any of the fun.

Not a single material there is native to Kona.

Not a single material there is native to Kona.

It is (despite a lengthy Wikipedia article that disagrees) a sort of copy and paste job. And you can see it because the architects chose to build something that “represented” Hawaii than something that belonged in Hawaii.

It is worth noting two things about The Four Seasons. Firstly, we had slow-cooked boar there and it was delicious and second is that, and I do feel this is important, very few people who were born or raised in Hawaii worked at the resort. Very unlike the Mauna Kea, where you found lifelong Hawaiians not only in staff, but as customers at the spa and salon too!

Of course, the beautiful beachfront access doesn’t hurt my adoration for the Mauna Kea but in all, it is a spectacular modern hotel for one reason alone: respect. The SOM team not only worked on respecting the space, but the environment itself. You get a sense that the hotel is nestled into the Island, having found an appropriate (and small!) space for itself. Its modesty suits its modernity. Instead of making a guest forget they are in Hawaii, they feel more a part of the Island.

Fougeron Architecture on the cover of Architectural Record!

I am honored and excited to let every one know that Fougeron Architecture’s “Fall House” was featured on the cover of the 2014 Record Houses issue by Architectural Record. My daughter, who is ever supportive, described it as the architectural equivalent of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

The house sits on a 1.5 acre in Big Sur, Northern California. With sloping cliffs (a 250 foot drop!) and amazing views, this project truly was an exceptional and invigorating challenge.

OUTRAGE: On Moma

Does anyone remember the Outrage/Delight sections of The Architectural Review? We should bring that back.

In case you missed it, the New York MOMA is planning on tearing down a 12 year old building. The building in question, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, housed the American Folk Art Museum. After going bankrupt, MOMA bought the Williams/Tsien property which was adjacent.

I have a lot of feelings on this decision and none of them are positive.

From a strictly reason perspective, this seems like a waste. This building isn’t even a teenager, and now, in a time in which we lament the economy, we’ve decided that it should be torn down. It is expensive to design and build something. There are hundreds of jobs, thousands of hours and millions of dollars that go into a project of this magnitude.

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Hercule Poirot and Modernism

So who says you can’t learn something from TV?

I have been continuing my marathon of “Poirot” episodes and movies. I can’t seem to resist the weird Belgian detective of Agatha Christie fame. But, in my defense, it was raining this weekend. (If you missed my last post on Poirot, you should check it out now)

One of the best things about the series, which I did not touch on in my last post, is the great locations where the episodes are shot.  I don’t often look to television for architectural inspiration but Poirot’s apartment alone is a gem: a great deco, mid-rise with a bathroom you could have sworn was built in 2002 and not 1922.

The houses in the series are always owned by the wealthy English families. And we’re talking about a time in which homes are the ultimate emblems of success and heritage. Yet, we find something so refreshing about the modern architecture. It’s a statement! You don’t need to be an earl and live in Downton Abbey!

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A dozen or so things Poirot has taught me about life

I watch a lot of different television shows, based recommendations of friends (The Wire), other architects (Modern Family, Mad Men) or my daughter (Doctor Who). But none of those shows currently matter: I have caught Poirot fever!

If you don’t know who Poirot is, he’s a Belgian sleuth, a character created by Agatha Christie. I discovered Poirot in his television form (thank goodness for Netflix) after finding one of my old Agatha Christie books and rereading it. It was the closest I’d ever get to Flaubert but I was transported back to when devoured them as a teen.

Poirot is described as:

[...]hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military.

[...]The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

He is fastidious, almost obsessive, asexual and a brilliant logician. As a character in a novel, he was fantastic but English actor David Suchet brings him to life with such authenticity and life that I have watched almost nothing but Poirot episodes for the last few months. I am falling behind on other TV shows (oh the woes of my life!).

Later this month, I’ll be talking more on Poirot but I wanted to entice you all in joining me in my Poirot fever. Here are, a dozen or so things Poirot has taught me about life:

  1. The core of the concept is simple.
  2. Be willing to take the backseat.
  3. Be empathetic but not a push over.
  4. Make sure you surround yourself with people who have a sense of humor.
  5. Do not let someone’s employment cast doubt on their character.
  6. Elegance is underrated.
  7. There are a dozen different ways to wear a proper looking mustache.
  8. A slight French (or Belgian) accent makes you sound smarter. Is it too late for me to adopt one?
  9. The bad guy always loses, even it takes a long time (the whole 60 minutes)
  10. A little bit of vanity is okay.
  11. Embrace your eccentricities.
  12. You can spend 22 years with a project and still find it exhilarating, challenging and interesting.
  13. Secrecy has its purposes.

My next post won’t be a list but it will be on Poirot! But I make no apologies, I can’t help it! I have the fever!

The phenomena of signature buildings without a signature.

New Year, same blog and more complaining!

Maybe when you get old, you just get cranky and think everything is worse than before and it isn’t! Maybe one day I will look back at this rant and realize I was wrong!

The issue is that  I find myself looking at a lot of architecture, all over the world, and I can’t say I am impressed. The irony of the urge to rant using phrases like “in my day” is not lost on me.

I’ve talked before about signatures (whether it be in jeans, in food, in fashion) – greatness comes from an appreciation of the rules and then an ability to break them. The same, of course, goes for architecture.  It was only a few months ago that I was complaining about the dwell light phenomena!

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12 Things Architecture Has Taught Me

  1. It is slow, inversely slow to the pace of emails you’ll receive, documents you’ll have to read. As everything else gets faster, it gets harder to build and it takes more time.
  2. Making space is complicated; making good space is enormously difficult.
  3. You get better at it with time, practice really does make “almost” perfect
  4. It is addictive, an intense high, when something works and you know you hit a home run
  5. Failing is the most brutal, the evidence remains there forever.
  6. Architects are not the friendliest bunch: too competitive and insecure
  7. BB, don’t TT. Be bold and don’t twinkle toe. Wise words borrowed from my UC Berkeley professor Marvin Buchanan.
  8. Being a woman does not means I am the interior designer. Thank you vey much.
  9. Also, why is a 2×4 actually 1.5 x 3.5? Or a 2×8 is 1.5x7.25? Absurd! Give me metric any day My favorite example: There is such a thing an 13/32. In the field a carpenter refers to a 32nd as plus or minus a major fraction. For instance, 13/32 is 1/32 less than 14/32 or 7/16, so it is called “7/16 minus” and 11/32 is 1/32 more than 10/32 or 5/16, so it is called “5/16 plus.”
  10. I have to worry about birds and glass, a lot, and then there are the endangered species like red-legged frogs and the steelhead trout, and the invasive species like Cape Ivy that all influence the design and its footprint. I should not have skipped those science classes in college.
  11. If you invite architects over for dinner, don’t set a place for your kid they will be bored out of their mind.
  12. Every day the quote, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, becomes more and more apt.

Me and Liberty: A Story of My Naturalization

13 years after voting in my first election in France, I was naturalized during the second term of Mitterand and Reagan.

I would be remiss not to remind my daughter (and, sometimes, my friends) that I earned my right to vote and that resonates with me. But don’t worry. I’m not here to urge you to vote. I’m not even here to discuss the process of getting naturalized (which we all know is fickle, bureaucratic, painful and so on). I just wanted to add some levity:

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You can’t find us in binders, Mitt, but don’t worry – we’ll find you.

 If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard. - First Lady Hilary Clinton at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing (1995)

Last week, I participated in a panel at the AIA San Francisco conference called The Missing 32%.The panel sought, through discussion, to better understand and improve the fate of women architects. The 32% refers to the women who disappear from the profession after graduating from an architecture program.

I want to mention that, initially, I was not one of the invited speakers. And when I first found out about the event, I mentally noted that they had no speakers that were women, sole owners of their architectural firms. But I led it slide off my back–I was not going to broach the subject with the AIA.

I don’t know why I let it go at first. I have always been extremely outspoken, some might even say vociferous, about the need for equality and diversity in architecture and have never hesitated to try and shake things up. I grew up a feminist. I have never doubted for a minute that I was as good as the guys and as deserving.

I started my own firm more than 25 years back. I have a successful design business and I am old enough to feel that I have nothing more to prove. I know that I have spent the last few decades proving that a woman can run her own practice.

But fate intervened. I received an email from the AIA California Committee asking for suggestions on where to find new members of a committee I was on.  The list of prospective broke down to 8 men and 3 women (28% women).  It was so normal for women to be the minority.

 The fact that this AIA official does not even think that diversity on a prominent AIA committee is a priority, if not an obligation, is typical. After all, we only make up 18% of licensed architects but that number becomes even smaller, even less significant, in smaller firms, on committees, within bureaucracy.

I knew then that the women’s panel was too important to pass-up.

But I had to make the calls (well, the emails) and contact the powers that be. This is the reality of being a woman in architecture, day by day, event by event, I trek through this life looking for ways to show that women are as good as men and deserve the same opportunities, the same design awards, the same committee positions.

If you want to have more power in your firm, if you want more opportunities in the work place, than you must ask for it. Sometimes you can ask quietly, sometimes a little more forcefully, and sometimes you will have to shout. Sometimes, you might even have to grab the opportunities yourself, like I did with the panel.

If you want to see more women rise in the rank of leadership in architecture and in the AIA, you need willpower and perseverance. And you can never forget that is a daily battle and a daily decision to make the world a better place for women tomorrow.

And if you’re feeling hesitant, step 1 is easy: voting for anyone but Mitt Romney.

On dwelling

I had a sculpture professor during my undergraduate who said that “the strange thing about the infinite choices offered by democracy is that infinite choices do not produce infinite objects. And, after a while things start to all look alike.”

He would point out that cars were a perfect example, “they started by looking different and now, 70 years later, they all look alike.” Who can tell apart the generic black compacts or the luxurious silver sedans?

Jeans are another example of sameness. My daughter once wrote a piece on it for her college’s fashion magazine:

Hi-rise, mid-rise, low-rise (hip huggers), loose fit, carpenter, boyfriend, phat pants, relaxed, baggy, boot-cut, flare, wide leg, straight leg, and the immensely popular skinny leg, dark wash, light wash, the 80s classic acid wash, stonewashed, distressed. These denim demigods are still constantly reinvented with a myriad of varieties. There is a pair of jeans for everyone. Every major company and designer makes them. This is America and we are the jean culture.

Jeans have become our uniform.

The tyranny of consumerism, of infinite choices, is that eventually we all want the same thing. Capitalism is supposed to free us by choice, by allowing us choice: we can express our individuality. But choice is exhausting! And, the worst is that the irony of the situation seems lost on us.

Design and architecture are not exempt here. After a renaissance of modern design, we now find ourselves under the grips of what I call “Dwell light”–representing a house as thought it was made with a kit.

Dwell, as you may know, is a design/shelter magazine that was started about decade ago in the Bay Area. The magazine has done a lot to put modern architecture back in the forefront of residential design.

Unfortunately Dwell now represents only one kind of modernism (of course there is more than one kind– there’s always choice in architecture!).

And you know the kind: right degree angles, flat roofs, Ipe siding, large overhangs, boxy bay windows, big sliding doors with open corners, wood floors—bamboo (you end up rolling your eyes at how green it is)—these elements have become the predominant language of Dwell residential architecture.  And do not forget the silver sedan in the garage.

After serving on many architecture juries through out the USA, I can tell you the Dwell Light disease has spread across the country. DL has rendered homes indistinguishable from one and another. Lost is the individual creative voice of the designer, it has been replaced here as with cars and jeans by the desire for the mean, the unintentional uniform. And that’s never a good place for design to be.

This is a call to action. Join me! Just Say No to “Dwell Light!”

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