5.24.2015

The Schindler Cabin: Which way is west?


We have a dream. The dream is to have a cabin in the mountains we can go to in the summer after we retires for three to four months to avoid the brutal Texas heat. A key twist to that dream is to build Schindler's unrealized log cabin from 1918.

In terms of site, we're looking to achieve several key attributes:

- cool summer temperatures,
- a location in New Mexico,
- an area with pine trees,
- an area with affordable prices, and
- an area with minimal building restrictions.

Cool summer temps are critical and non-negotiable. A location in New Mexico is preferred, but negotiable (especially if we can't find cool summer temps). And our desire to be in a place with pine trees is so the log cabin makes contextual sense. Minimal building restrictions relate to being able build in whatever style we'd like, but also to avoid having to modify Schindler's design too much to meet building code requirements.

Some wished for (but not dealkiller) items are:

- live water,
- easy access to electric,
- easy access to water, and
- easy access to the interwebs.

At first we were looking in northern New Mexico (northern = cool), but we found that the Sante Fe and Taos areas are quite unexpectedly warm during the summer. That caused us to expand our search to southern Colorado when we stumbled upon the Cloudcroft area in southeastern New Mexico.

During our expanded search, I landed upon a web site called Land Watch which shows temperature stats for the area you're looking in. Here's the data for Cloudcroft:


An average daily high of about 70 degrees and an average daily low of 47 degrees in the summer. That sounds like heaven to this August-weary Texan. We may need to add "summer hot tub" to that wish list...

So our plan is to spend a week in Cloudcroft this summer to check the area out. Is this where we want to build our summer cabin?

Since we have a cabin picked out that we want to build, we have the added complexity of finding a lot that will accommodate Schindler's site plan, shown at the top of this post.

Some observations of that site plan:

- it assumes a flat site of about 30 feet by 60 feet for the house and, ideally, 40 feet by 80 feet for the full site plan and
- it doesn't indicate orientation (in other words, which way is north?).

I suppose one could assume that the orientation shown assumes north toward the top with the other directions following suit. And although Schindler is careful to not refer to direction when showing elevations, he does slip when showing an inset elevation of a bookcase:


See where he writes "Looking East"? Ha! That means that north is indeed toward the top of the plan.

But that doesn't really make sense to me...

Presumably Schindler designed this house for the upper Mid-West, land of long winters. So why would he place the door on the north side of the building and orient the main windows north and west? It seems to make more sense for north to be toward the bottom of the site plan: the door would be out of the direct blast of the north winds, the side of the house with hardly any windows would be backed up against the north winds, and the mostly glass room (the bedroom) would be facing east, but would also get ample southern sun (good thermal loading).

I suppose the plan would work just as well with North oriented to the right: there would be a wink of eastern sun, solid southern sun, and four winks of western sun. There would be a wee bit of a wind buffer with the porch entry, which is slotted logs. Perhaps we just need to find a relatively flat area of about 100 by 100 feet and let the architect figure out the orientation when we have to.

In addition to the cabin we envision an architecturally compatible carport with storage, perhaps with an attached small flexible living space (will we go stir crazy in that cabin?).

Expect to see us in Cloudcroft in July or August of this year. We hope to talk to an agent to get the lay of the land and check the area out. Maybe we can even find an agent that can spell!


And you gotta love highlight photos of the property that include turd shots!


Real Estate in Cloudcroft:

cloudcroft.com
Lands of New Mexico
Land Watch

5.23.2015

counting drops with dropcountr



I received an invite to try out something called dropcountr, an app that compares your water usage to other similar users and provides a conservation goal for you to obtain.

It's pretty slick!

One interesting aspect of the app is how it only compares you to similar households. For example, since we don't use city water outside, the app only compares us to other households that don't use city water outside. That's rather brilliant. Rather than us feeling cozy (and superior...) to our lawn-watering neighbors, we're in a race with other water conscious crazies. The app also analyzes our month-to-month usage and identifies a goal for consistent water use (and, according to the red bars below, where we bust the goal). Also brilliant. Message: You can always do better!

It's a good looking app with gorgeously thought out graphics. Let's see if it saves water...










5.17.2015

haiku for "My Beautiful City Austin" by David Heymann


houses above trees
people wanting to belong
my beautiful town...

I became aware of the book My Beautiful City Austin after reading a brutal, eye-wincing review of it in the Austin American-Statesman. Given that this large-fonted, 161-page wisp of a tome is written by a local architectnone other than David Heymann, he of George W.'s uber-green and thoughtful ranch house in Crawfordfate required I buy it.

It's an odd book. It reads as non-fictionan architect's observations about Austin, its changes, and its people (especially when its people are architectural clients). In fact, that's how I read it: as non-fiction. It wasn't until after I finished and read the author's epilogue that I realized it was fiction. That made me a wee bit sad because the book works better as non-fiction than fiction. Sure, the fiction is likely inspired by the real-life observations of an architect, and yeah, it's the same book fiction or not, but as fiction the book left me somewhat wanting.

The first chapter, a description of Austin and the surrounding area in the good old days, is a challenging read. Nearly every sentence is weighted with an overly clever metaphor or simile, almost as if the text was from a NaNoWriMo exercise where every possible word is glommed onto a sentence to meet the day's word count. The creativeness is appreciated, but, wow, is it overdone. It's like employing all your lovemaking tricks in the first 90 seconds. What are you going to do for the remaining three and a half minutes? Fortunately, once Heymann starts storytelling, his style eases, and the dialog propels the book forward.

There's no plot. There's not a problem to solve, per se. It's description and small parables about how today's architecture, especially in Austin, is so unthoughtful. The reasons are manyfold: free-spirits falling into the groove of society's expectations for success and raising a family, lack of money, peer-pressure, inward urbanism, and narcissism. Heymann's unnamed character describes latter-day Austin from the top of Mount Bonnell: "Where there had been a hot hairy emptiness, now as far west as you could see these steroidal houses, huge and tall and gross and unseemly and pretentious, were erupting out of the cedar forest like a horrid skin condition, an outburst of limestone whiteheads." Austin is not alone in this, but with its progressiveness it is a head-scartcher as to why there's not more thoughtful architecture here.

There are a lot of judgements about people who commission custom homes, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny: "...to amass that kind of cash [to buy a lot and build a house] you typically have to be an asshole, or be genetically related to one, and in the path of their cash flow." But Heymann equally judges architects: "There should of course be a biblical injunction against the coupling of architects. Architects are wired to relate by denial. It's their own brand of competitive snobbery." and "...a drunk architect is usually pathetic." Spreading the wealth, Heymann takes aim at the backcrackers as well (you'll need to read the book...).

And then there's the comedy of an architect writing a wee bit about water: Lake levels vary in Lake Travis to keep Lake Austin level (uh, no...), water in Deep Eddy is piped over from Barton Springs (oh hell no...), Hamilton Pool is described as a caldera (forgivable mixed geologic metaphors). But I can't really talk: Austin Cubed is the comedy of a hydrologist writing about architecture (maybe Heymann and I should get together and compare notes!).

Despite it's issues, I did enjoy the book, and I think architects, or anyone appreciative of architecture, particularly contemporary (organic) architecture, would enjoy it as well. I also think the book is going to stay with me in that I will be thinking about it and its message for years to come. In that sense, the book is a success.

Based on the Statesmen's brutal review, perhaps one has to be more embedded in architecture to understand and appreciate the message. Along those lines, maybe the book needed a more direct explanation about how good architecture could preserve the city. And maybe a couple success stories to yin the yang of negativity about clients (do architects go their entire career without having at least one great client?). A success story could have also educated readers on how to be a great client. On the other hand, the vast majority of building in this country is horrific. The bride and I see new houses springing up in our 'hood with no consideration of solar orientation or place, replacing the 1950s cookie-cutters that also had no consideration of solar orientation or space. These new houses will sell for $750,000 to $900,000 a piece. Couldn't an architect have been brought in to, at a minimum, tweak the existing design to be responsive? Then again, the vastest majority of buyers don't care. The market doesn't demand it.

In his own architectural work, Heymann's roots lead back to organic architecture, especially landscapes absorbing buildings and buildings responding to place. In fact, he holds the Harwell Hamilton Harris Regents professorship in architecture at the University of Texas. His description of a house designed for Hyde Park in the book read a lot like Harris' Fellowship Park House or R.M. Schindler's Kings Road House (an influence on Harris).

The book does a great job of capturing the angst of architects (at least as much as I, an observer, understand it). The architectural profession seems to wander in a haze of melancholy. It takes a long time (and several recessions) before you can really spread your wings, clientele are often unappreciative of your skill set, and, in an ultimate irony, you rarely make enough money to live in your own attentively-designed space. The whole profession is suffering from bad karma. It's as if architects spent the economic downturn of the Dark Ages drowning kittens for fun.

Austin is in a beautiful setting, but Austin is turning its back on that setting. We're loving it to death through the thousand paper cuts of poor architectural decisions.


5.16.2015

a tour of St. Martin's Church, Austin, Texas


Docomomo and MidTexMod hosted a lecture and tour of St. Martin's Evangelical Church in Austin today. An acquaintance, Jason John Paul Haskins, gave a fantastic lecture about the history of the congregation, the architect, and the architecture. In addition to his Pope-ish (and half-the-Beatles) name, Jason John Paul is a multi-degreed architect specializing in ecclesiastic architecture (be sure to check out his blog, Locus Iste; I also learned that he's not a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright [the dude], so perhaps I need to go drink a beer with him sometime to commiserate...).

A fellow by the name of Robert Mather designed the church and oversaw its completion in early 1960. I drive by this church every day I go to work and wondered, based on the appearance of the vertical steel supports, if there was a Mies van der Rohe connection (they look Miesian to me, like something out of the Tungenhat House [1930]). As it turns out, Mather studied with Mies at IIT in Chicago beginning in 1946. Furthering Mather's education in Teutonic Modernism, he later worked for a Gropius collective in Cambridge.

The University of Texas' memorial biography suggests that Mather's upbringing in Pasadena, California, sparked his interest in architecture because that's where where much of Greene and Greene's work resides. However, I wonder if his stint at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the mid-40s gave him exposure to the early California modernism of R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and various second-wavers. As a conscientious objector during World War II, his politics were "right" to run in those circles.

After his wife, Jean, graduated with her degree in landscape architecture, she and Mather toured and worked in Europe for a time before they came to Texas, first College Station and then Austin. After designing this church, the university hired him, where he taught and thought until his death in 1984.

It's really a neat church. It's austere without feeling austere. The steel supporting structure is clearly expressed, lifting the roof slightly above the walls. The steel structure is also well integrated into the design (note how the lights hang off of the horizontal steel beams) and provide continuity from the outside to the inside (although on the inside the steel is now painted brown; originally they were the same deep-sea blue as the outside). Jason believes this is an important early Modern church in the United States, even though it is relatively unrecognized.

If you want to gawk at it yourself, stop by 606 West 15th Street. And someone, please, hire Jason to design a church. Given his knowledge and love for this type of architecture, I would love to see what he would come up with.


Jason John Paul Haskins giving us the what-what during the lecture. 

The original backdrop was curtains with a simple arc above providing light. The pipe organ was behind the curtains. Note the steel structure on the right back wall and the clerestory windows, just the height of the steel I-beam.

Here's where the pipe organ was moved to. One interesting aspect of the church is that there are few to no windows in the altar area. However, when you turn around toward the door, the light streaming in through the stained glass is an unexpected beautiful moment. The church seems to be saying "God is in here, but he is really out there."

Detail of one of the steel posts on the interior (sadly painted brown...). Note how the lighting hangs from the horizontal beam. Mather exploded the beam into a cross-like pattern.


Brought over from the previous church. Although not Modern, it works well in the church. The density of detail draws your eye toward it and thus the altar.


The stained glass is original and is amazingly progressive for its time.






Front entry with the Charles Umlauf sculptures on the front.

The footprint of the steeple is in the shape of a cross. You can just see a peek of the bell in the bottom left. Also note the fully expressed steel beams and posts holding up the roof. Also note how the footprint of the cross smoothly interlocks with the two wings of the building.

The steel beams and posts at the outside extension of the roof (which faces south).



Detail of the brick work on the south wall.








Somebody needs to wash their hands before playing the organ...









South-facing concave wall. There's that thin clerestory window the height of an I-beam at the top of the brick.

Back of the building. Notice how the horizontal steel beams are slightly offset from the wall, making it clear what's supporting what.


Western entry to an ancillary building.