Mapping and Design Process

How does one begin learning the design process? Start teaching, and you will relearn it in a whole new way! Coming across students with a variety of approaches, intellectual understanding, creativity and methodologies begins to teach the teacher how to teach. Nearly all architects claim to be good designers, because all of us got to where we are today after having been through those grueling studio exercises and years of professional experience. However, those who stay in academics after school form a completely different design vocabulary than those who practice in firms. Needless to say, it’s a process of relearning when a practitioner delves into academics after staying afar for years. Welcome to my world!

One side effect of teaching is that the educator has to read a lot. Fortunately, by this time through your experiences, you have formed a deeper understanding of what you are reading than the time when you read similar content as a student years ago. Hopefully. Reading now is far more eye-opening, inspiring and enticing. Suddenly spending your Saturdays catching up on reading doesn’t feel like a daunting task, but something you’d look forward to.

Mapping and the art of drawing has always been a curious subject to me. As a student I invested some energy into getting inspiration from the processes of mapping and composite drawings. But once you start practicing in the professional world, you normally tend to lose touch with such theoretic approaches. The priorities change, and design process becomes mundane, if I may. I am revisiting the subject now as a “part-time academic”. I just finished reading about “The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design” in Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte. Not only is it applicable for students in design studios, but for practitioners creating drawings, documenting their work, making presentations, conveying ideas we might say. A great read, for the academic or professional within you. Read it, and let me know what you think.

GREENBAUM HOUSE: COD 2013 Spring Conference

Greenbaum House Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Homes are expressions of our individualities. The home emerges out of the ground wrapping around the space we need to lead a comfortable life. Comfort has a direct correlation with the climate. Following our individual expression, it is the climate that is the primary determinant of the home design and construction. Exploring the mid-century modern architecture, the AIA Committee on Design (COD) held its annual Spring Conference at Palm Springs, CA on May 9-12, 2013. The conference led us to many homes built between 1930s to current date in this desert climate. I was one of the two lucky winners of the COD Knowledge Scholarship, and was able to avail the opportunity of being a part of the tremendous conference through the generous support of couple donors.

Palm Springs is a unique city located off the major arteries of Los Angeles region, sitting on a detour between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The city was born and put on the map when celebrities traveling between LA and LV would leisure at Palm Springs having a good time away from the tourist traffic. The practice continues today. This pattern has led to many homes away from homes in Palm Springs. We toured many of the luxurious residences and other prominent projects during the COD conference. The architects of the projects we visited included Albert Frey, Palmer & Krisel, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Stewart Williams, William Cody, Jim Jennings, Marmol & Radziner, O2 Architecture, Ana Escalante, and Frederick Fisher. We had the privilege of hearing from William Krisel, Jim Jennings and Fred Fisher, among others.

Responding to the local climate, each home we visited had a large private swimming pool, which seemed to be a checklist item for all construction in Palm Springs. Each project also made the best use of the surrounding views, so much so that one forgot the house while looking out. Of all the projects we saw, I was immediately taken by the Greenbaum House designed by Ana Escalante, completed in 2006. This is a residence where the boundary between the outdoor swimming pool and the large living room completely melts, a house where the individuality of the owner shines, and a house that begins to speak to the Palm Springs climate.

Entrance to Greenbaum House. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The inspiration for the house came from the owner who loves to swim. The initial thought was to design something very environment appropriate, which slowly turned to be exhibitionist as well. The house expresses the individuality of the owner by bringing the outdoor swimming pool at your face as soon as you enter the house. The entrance of the Greenbaum House is sunken, approached by a sloping ramp from the street level culminating at a shaded outdoor vestibule. One enters the living room directly facing the swimming pool beyond the concrete wall with punched openings.

During our visit, once we absorbed the blue glow of the light coming from the pool filtering into the living area, we were surprised by the sudden appearance of the owner waving at us from the pool. We found ourselves drawn immediately to the glass wall separating the pool from the living room. Only after exploring the pool did we take in the rest of the space. The effect is mesmerizing to the first time visitor.

Living Room Wall’s Punched Openings to Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Owner Swimming as Seen from Living Room. Image by Deepika Padam

This house is about the pool, built around a pool, engulfing the pool, exhibiting the pool, with the owner almost living in the pool. But the pool was not just meant to be a pool during the design phase. It was imagined that because the pool will stay at 70 to 80 degrees temperature throughout the year and the windows between the pool and the living space are well insulated, it will help control the temperature within the house. But the owner jokes today that it is similar to being in a plane at 42,000 feet and mistakenly thinking that those plane windows also insulate. In reality, the Greenbaum house controls temperature well because it is part subterranean and insulated in the superstructure very well. The pool certainly helps keep it cool, yet is not the primary insulator. However, the pool remains the central attraction for everybody. When the owner holds parties at the house, everybody has a lot of fun with the pool and the picture windows, where everybody has taken a Facebook™ picture.

Second Floor Perched Above the Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

There is more to this house than a beautiful 25m lap pool sunken in the ground. The house is located 500 feet above the valley floor in a gated community with dramatic views of the desert and the city below. “The developer of the community created the home site by leveling the existing natural mountain features. The project carves back into the site as well as hovers over it, in order to restore its original dramatic topographical features.” – Escalante Architects. Not only does the form of the house address the local terrain in this fashion, but it also takes advantage of the natural insulation offered by the ground due to being subterranean. Ample daylight is allowed into the interiors while controlling the heat gain through shutters, projections and canopies. The indoor spaces flow into the outdoor spaces with large glass expanses that open up into terraces. These terraces are used for entertaining guests during the milder temperatures in the evening.

Floor Plans. Source:

The organization of the house functions is not atypical. The living room seating area steps down following the site terrain and opens up to the valley view beyond. The kitchen and dining area are in the opposite direction with a guest bedroom in the back. The second floor is perched above the swimming pool, crosses over and lands on the detached fitness room alcove on the other side of the pool. The upstairs consists of two separate bedroom suites. Flanked by the two bedroom suites is a small library / seating alcove that opens up to a large terrace fully equipped with barbeque appliances. When you walk out to the back at the mid-level, you are welcomed by the pools. The sunken lap pool provides the illusion of an infinity pool casting a blue glow over the second floor slab above. There is also a separate sauna building adjacent to the fitness room.

Blue Glow from the Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Pool Image by Marco Garcia from the website of Escalante Architects

At about 4,300 SF, the Greenbaum House is a good size house built in steel frame construction. The owner shared with us that it took about a year and a half of construction time to build the house. The construction had to stop a few times because the engineers wanted to reinforce the living room/pool demising wall with redundancy. So they kept re-engineering it. It is designed to withstand an 8-point earthquake. The glass windows are composed of four layers of glass and four layers of mylar, making them a total of 4.5” thick pane windows. The utility bill, which in the Palm Springs desert could be up to $25,000 a year, is under $100 a month on average for the Greenbaum House with the integrated active and passive solar systems. Standing in the Living Room and pointing to the East wall with punched openings to the pool, the owner is confident that the pool helps insulate along the Eastern edge. He proudly swims every day.

Punched Window Between the Living Room and Outdoor Pool. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

When the house was built, the design team took as many eco-friendly measures as they could at the time. A small token of it is the tile in the pool, bathrooms, etc. made of recycled bottle glass. Using materials and finishes that speak of the desert, the house sets an example for responsible architecture at Palm Springs. It turns out, the house is currently for sale. As the owner spends much of his time in the Bay Area, he has decided to move. When asked what his next house will be like, he says with a smile that it will be smaller.

Seating Lounge on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

One of the Suites on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

A majority of the work we visited during the COD conference was done in the 50s. The Greenbaum House is one of the few that is done by a contemporary architect. These custom homes not only express the owners’ individualities, but also the unique design approach to the climatic conditions of the desert and the styles prevalent during the time of construction. The Greenbaum House, although may seem to be a rather usual house with expected functional organization, orientation to views, and response to climate, gets away from the design approach of its Palm Springs predecessors. This is evident in the site manipulation to make it a 3-level residence in essence, and in the use of contemporary measures to environmental control and envelop design. However, the house fails to accomplish many shaded outdoor spaces that some of the older homes at Palm Springs so generously provide. Ultimately it is a functional modern home that could be located in another climate or locality very easily. However, having lived in a desert home for many years myself, the $100 energy bill on average seems quite a feat!

The Owner Sharing his Stories with the COD Group. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The Greenbaum House screams simplicity. It is a simple home that springs from a pool with living spaces suspended above the pool. The interior finishes and furnishings are modern and simple as well along the language of the contemporary desert architecture. It is a place built to entertain with blurred indoor and outdoor boundaries. The house delivers the owner’s desire of focusing on the lap pool. This was the one house we visited during the entire conference where I finally removed my shoes and wet my feet.

Pool as seen from Second Floor Entertainment Patio. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Deepika and Dorothy Taking a Break from the Palm Springs Heat. Images by Steven K. Alspaugh

Although Greenbaum House left a permanent imprint on my mind, the whole conference was an eye-opening experience for me. It broadened my perspective for the committee, and I was able to connect with professionals from various spectrums, levels, and backgrounds. COD is a great group to get involved with for emerging professionals and seasoned architects alike. The conference itself is an out-of-the-box experience with the majority of the time spent in visiting architecture instead of talking about it in a freezing conference hall. The work is carefully chosen along the theme for the year. I took the time to enjoy the conference and the great company during the three days, but also stayed in touch with the outer world through my tweets and images. I returned overjoyed, energized and inspired.

Architects Can Be Leaders

History is witness to the many ups and downs we go through in our lifetime. Wars, terrorism, natural disasters, accidents, etc. have always been part of the society. These devastating natural or human acts, although disastrous, bring the affected people together. The inevitability of rebuilding communities follows. That’s when architects are needed the most.

Not very far behind security and medical professionals, architects are the leaders that make a positive difference in the society through rebuilding or uniting efforts. Although architecture can at times be a cut-throat profession with architects competing to win the limited amount of paid work available, at the time of disasters these same architects can be seen working hand-in-hand in all parts of the world doing pro-bono work to serve the people. Those are the citizen architects that are truly fulfilling the oath they took when they first got their license, and those are the true stewards of the built environment.

Architecture can have a powerful impact in the aftermath of a tragedy. Whether in the form of a memorial, or a healthcare or security facility, or any public service building, architecture begins to serve those in mourning or rehabilitation. A single building can have the strength to drive the rebuilding of communities and cities around it. A single building can turn the economy around and bring work to a city. A single building can invite tourism into a city, and a single building can survive through the ages and live to tell its tale a century later. Multiply this impact with the number of architects living in a city and the number of buildings each architect is designing, and the value of architects begins to surface.

But does getting an architect’s license make one a leader? Simply because someone is an architect in a project team doesn’t make one a leader, especially in the collaborative team environment we live in today. Going to an 8-5 job and occasionally getting CE credits doesn’t make one a leader. Making a positive impact in the community through architectural or non-architectural service makes one a leader.

It is during the times of turmoil when we are reminded of what purpose we serve in the society as architects. Are we in this profession for winning awards for aesthetically pleasing projects? Are we in this profession to win accolades for our service to the profession? Or are we in this profession because we want to help people in a way that gives them the strength to face the challenges of daily life? If we could just remember the oath we all took as architects and make it second nature, all of us are not far from becoming citizen architects. Being an architect doesn’t automatically make one a leader, but architects can be leaders.