Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The World is a Digital Design

Digital design reveals the fluid nature of the physical world. On my monitor, a stone wall is as bendable as a river's current. A slate roof is as sliceable as soup. Within the rectangle of the digital screen, what appears solid is as substantial as air. What my mind conceives, instantly becomes form. Instantaneous form becomes space my mind inhabits. It invites imagination to conjure new stories of dwelling. New stories of dwelling become places where I live.

Any child in a sand box understands this play of creation. Yet, as our minds solidify their viewpoints of how to navigate the world, the world appears more solid and inflexible. We become more rigid too. We look for hard facts and solid ground upon which to stand. What we find however, is that the fluidity of the digital would is not limited to our computers. Life pulls the rug from beneath our beliefs every day. Again and again we find ourselves swimming when we think we should be running.

Sages of all sorts have urged us to remember to row our boats gently down the dream of living. Instead, we strive to turn the responsive boat and the moving stream into resistant houses standing firmly on unmovable bedrock. We argue with the elusive nature of life and it washes away our arguments every time.

This is the great shift of our age—what we thought was solid is fluid. The fluid world is constantly shaping and reshaping. What seems like an insurmountable obstacle can dissolve like a puff of smoke.  The world has always been this way. The virtual world is inviting us to wake up to what has been going on all along. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What I Shoulda Learned in Architecture School

This is not a photo of a German factory. It's not a bunker for observing nuclear bomb tests. It's not Abu Ghraib prison. It is Wurster Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus. Here, I gained my formal training in architecture. Despite the brutalist style of the structure, I loved those days, discovering the process of translating thoughts and emotions into physical structures. I learned a lot, and afterwards, I had to unlearn a lot. I had to fill in many blanks about what architecture actually is, what the practice of architecture is and how to tell the difference.

Why I wasn't taught what I've found to be essential in work with people, land and materials to create buildings is a mystery. So in case your interested, here's what I should have learned in architecture school:

1. Listening as a source of creativity - how to put aside my personal agenda and sense the forces gathering to be expressed through the building. These forces include the client's needs and dreams, the site's needs and dreams, the needs and dreams of the culture as it evolves through technology, economics, politics, etc.

2. How to invite a client into a deeper dialogue about design and place that simply looking at pictures in magazines and books.

3. The relationship of the human body to architecture through the direct experience of dance and yoga.

4. The relationship of architectural system to the body and environment through biology and ecology.

5. How musical structure can be employed as a too in design.

6. Architecture can be more than a self-centered pursuit and become a structure pointing beyond itself to the none thing that influences everything.

7. The fashions of style a impermanent and design can be more than be a slave to fashion.

8. Architecture is not a problem to be solve, but a mystery to be explored.

9. Clever design ideas indicate you're headed in the wrong direction. Again, listening for what wants to be born is more interesting  and connected than overlaying your preconceived grid of ideas on a situation.

There's more, but I have to get to work.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Portal in Time

Friday, I left work early and drove up the mountain to visit a tree I've known for almost 40 years. From this tree the panorama stretches south to San Francisco and north to Point Reyes. Looking west, the mountain plunges steeply into the Pacific. Beneath the tree, a flat stone makes a perfect seat. Here I have returned again and again to sit under the canopy of branches and peer at the Red Tail Hawks gliding the updrafts and the sun setting over clouds rolling in like ocean waves. On clear days, I look to the horizon and sense infinity in the curving line where sea touches the sky. 

Since the time I first sat beneath this tree near the end of my teenage years, I have sat in countless places: beneath trees bodhi trees in Nepal, olive trees in Greece, aspen trees in the Rockies, mango trees in Bali, maple trees in Japan, cedar trees in Italy... I sat on every kind of vehicle from bicycle rickshaws to camels to private jets. I have sat huddled in packed, suffocating trains in India and ridden subways in New York alone in the middle of the night. I sat at rickety and splendid tables. I sat at make-shift and ornate desks. I sat on broken down and finely maintained benches in wastelands and wonderlands. I sat on meditation cushions and on the hot seats of judgmental scrutiny. I sat in crowded stadiums of screaming fans and alone in silent deserts... Like you, I've sat in a lot of places.

In the four decades since I first sat beneath this tree on the mountain, nothing there seems to have changed. The tree seems, miraculously, to have remained the same size. The steep, slope of the mountain undulates alone the same ridges and creases. The ocean stretches to the same infinity. The hawks soar along the same currents of air.  

Sitting beneath the tree, I see through all the masks and costumes I've worn and through the stage sets I've inhabited. I sense the silent awareness that peered through my eyes when I was five years old, when I was 19, 40 and now. On the stone beneath this tree I enter that which was never born and that which will never die. I remember the genuine me.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

5 Cent Architecture and The Parthenon

Tonight, these two images shimmered across my monitor. One, from a Nova program on PBS, explored the depth of knowledge, subtle skills and artful perception it took to design and craft one of humanity's great buildings. The other, from an Architectural Record article, described an architect who sells design advice for a nickel at a Seattle farmers' market. Could there be a more vivid depiction of what our culture has come to? Instead of facing the hard boundaries of the material world with insight and grace, we throw wisdom and art into a tin cup and sell it to the lowest bidder. 

For me the problem with selling architectural design on the cheap is not about money or grandiose architectural fantasies. I've written two books on finding sacredness in everyday architecture through shifting one's perceptions. What could be less expensive than that? The problem is that we've brought ourselves to value money more than experience. I don't blame the architect, John Morefield, the "founder" of Architecture 5 Cents, www.architecture5cents.com. He's a young guy doing whatever it takes to engage people in a dialogue about design that might lead to work with some descent pay. Rather, I'm sick about living in a society that is so damn ignorant about materialism.

The Walmart mentality that puts low price at the center of our thoughts and actions drains the power from material objects. Instead of savoring the rich experience of mind and body with form, color, sound, taste and smell, we focus on the senseless grabbing and storing of stuff. The result: we gain houses and storage lockers full of stuff, but live in emotional emptiness. The further result: economic meltdown, depression, obesity... 

It's not the stuff that's bothersome. It's the belief that having the most stuff at the cheapest price is really living. In reality, it's the death of the planet, the death of creativity and the death of architecture. 

But, there's hope. Also on my monitor last night was a TV series I enjoy called "Life." It's about a Zen L.A. police detective. Much less hokey that it sounds, the program ended with a voiceover: "Objects are not deceiving. They are deception. What we see, what we hear, all that our senses present to us is a fiction, no more real than a dream. We can only know that which we believe. That which we believe, that is all we have."

When we believe that architecture can be bought and sold for five cents, our life and culture has no more substance than a dream. When we believe that nature, creativity and objects are priceless, our lives and cultures engage the forms and functions of architecture in ways that point through the dream to genuine substance, the indescribable mystery at the core of being. 


Saturday I rode the ferry into the city. Every conversation around me buzzed with naming landmarks. "There's Angel Island." "That's Sausalito...Alcatraz...the Golden Gate Bridge..." It struck me how the mind is obsessed with establishing its coordinates on the terrain of life. As we pass through a day we are constantly naming. "She's a vegetarian...he's an architect...we're creative...they're ignorant..." Furthermore, those coordinates reflect arbitrary naming expressing the beliefs of our culture. "That neighborhood is beautiful... that house is boring... that car is hot...that dress is not... Wanting to know where we are and what is important is understandable. Yet, it narrows our vision and shuts out possibilities of experience and limits creative connections.

When the ferry docked, I wanted to see what would happen if I looked through my mind's obsession with naming for a while. It's difficult to describe this using words which by their nature involve naming, but here goes. On Saturdays, the Ferry Building and the surrounding area are teeming with a farmers' market. There are a lot of people to see, foods to smell and taste, and sounds to hear. Rather than naming this vegetable, that fruit, this guy and that woman, I opened my senses to simply receiving impressions of form, color, sound and smell. Preconceived distinctions became transparent and walking through the scene became a flow of matter and energy. The meanings of words became less important than the melody and rhythms of their music. Where objects were places and people stood took a back seat to the shifting composition of their relationships to one another. The substance of how things occupied physical space was eclipsed by how they shimmered as bundles of energy. Instead of an exhausting trek through a frustrating crowd, it became a mystery walk of discovering new treasures in familiar territory.

After a while, my mind's obsession with naming climbed back into the driver's seat. With it, the usual dissatisfactions and longing for something else returned.  But, stepping out of the coordinates of naming for a bit was a great escape from self-imposed limits. It was a great reminder that things are much more than we make them appear to be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Birthday Lou

March 17th was the birthday of Louis Kahn, the great architect featured in the film, My Architect. Though I never met him, Lou has been one of my mentors. He looked into soul of architecture and saw its vital connections to shaping human experience. For Lou, a door wasn't just a way to get through a wall. It was an event of transition, making the passage from one world to another. Lou's buildings could break new ground, but his words inspired generations of architects. Here are some examples:

"A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable."

"To express is to drive. And when you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And there is where Design comes in."

"All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light."

Mostly unappreciated in his own town of Philadelphia, Lou found clients that understood his soulful approach to architecture half way around the world in Banglahdesh. When designing this Muslim country's capital buildings, Lou was asked to include a small room for prayer in an out  of the way corner. Lou made the prayer room 30,000 square feet and placed it at the entry to the legislature chambers. Lou said that if the government officials spent time in prayer before carrying out their work they might act with more wisdom. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sex, Lies and Architecture

On the surface, the movie, The Reader, is about the after-shocks of an affair between a young man and a former Nazi concentration camp guard. The mixture of tender love scenes and brutal courtroom testimony about the holocaust make it easy to miss a powerful question raised by the film, can an individual resist the urge to go along with the tribe? Each of us would like to believe that when push comes to shove we would do the right thing and stand up to mindless brutality. Yet, blazing a trail into a saner, healthier world is not as easy or clear as it might seem.

We live in a society where survival is based on damaging the ecosystem and wounding the soul. Our survival systems for obtaining food, shelter and clothing are enacting a holocaust against the Earth and numbing the vitality of our spirits. In the last 40 years there has been tremendous growth toward more compassionate ways of living. Yet, the same old beliefs glorifying money over life and ego-centered image over interconnected vision still guide much of daily living. 

I face this each day I work as an architect. I want to create dwelling places that nurture the soul and honor links to the greater web of life. Yet, day after day this well-meaning intention is thwarted. Out of touch planning and building codes, the whims of the latest design fashion, the affordable efficiencies of standard building technologies make it almost impossible to create buildings that nurture the planet and the soul. In the hope that someone would see through the societal cloud of wrong-headed design, I wrote two books about the links between spirit, mind, body, nature and architecture. While many people and students have been inspired by these books, few clients have expressed interest creating dwelling places that are genuinely holistic. How can I blame them? Try as I might, living an integrated life of making soulful architecture attuned to nature and making a living is something I haven't been able to pull together.  

Seeing The Reader, reminded me that this struggle between the individual responsiveness required to address the fluid needs of living and surviving in a society that thrives on suppressing that individual responsiveness is an timeless theme. Several times in the movie the opening lines of Homer's Odyssey are read: Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide... Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover, he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do as he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home.

What we face, individually and collectively, is the task of seeing through the illusion of our times. This mistake of the group mind believes that survival is based on conforming to the present systems of dwelling in the world and making tiny shifts. It says, for example, that progress is developing an electric car instead of progress being walkable human scale communities. The question for me is, can I step back from the box of the collective mind far enough to distinguish what actually works from what doesn't? Can I open to and live a vision of an integrated life, or will I be like Odyssey's sailors carrying out the sheer folly of eating the cattle of the sun-god and never reaching home? 

Friday, March 13, 2009

Creating in Chaos

When life is uncertain (when isn't it?) creative responses to the world can seem confusing or futile. Well-known terrain, once solid, dissolves into watery currents. Old maps don't trace present, fluid movements. Time-tested tricks don't do the trick. Flailing about just makes choppy waters choppier. Suddenly, at sea, it's sink or swim. Other than "to be or not to be," the question is how to swim in ways that turn breakdown into breakthrough. 

For thousands of years, the old wise guys and wise women left clues to navigating uncertainty in sacred art and architecture. The geometry, iconography, and spatial forms they left behind are vital manuals for traveling wisely through a mysterious world. One example is the image above. I came across this painting of Christ creating the universe in an out of the way church in Toledo, Spain. I'd looked at reproductions of similar images before, but I didn't really see it until that day in Toledo. In the painting, Christ stoops over the firmament, plants the point of his architect's compass into chaos and carefully swings the arc of a circle, transforming formlessness into form. 

What I appreciate about this image is the universal depiction of design growing from the undesigned; that taking a humble stance and carefully drawing energies from the void is the sustainable process of creating organic order. It also reminds me that orderly structures that try to contain and suppress chaos will be swept away by shifting tides. On the other hand, structures arising from chaos have the support of its endless vitality.

For me, the uncertain times we're passing though call for the wise response indicated by this painting. That response is, wherever I'm swimming in my day, plant the point of my compass in the swirling currents and swing the arcs of design arising from that momentless moment in that placeless place. What flows into form may not be what I expected, but its vitality and particular design seem to provide just the right stepless step in the next phase of my course through the world.  

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's Alive!!!

Passing any strip mall, big box store, or office park, I see a graveyard of lifeless buildings. I understand the limitations of budgets, building codes and routine function. But I don't get limitations in imagination and missing the chance to infuse matter with life. The energy is in there, waiting to be released from the frozen appearance of stone, wood, glass, even plastic; released from the seemingly static stance of walls and furniture. In the rush to find renewable sources of energy such as sun and wind, the potential power within designed objects is being overlooked.

To free the vital forces within architecture, takes letting go of frozen beliefs about form, function, color, sound and other qualities of built environments. By naming a pillar a "pillar" we limit the possibilities of what a pillar can be. Then, along comes an architect like Antonio Gaudi who sees that a column can do more than stand vertically to support a beam. It can tilt! It can dance! Put them is a row and a line of tilting columns can become a conga line of a colonnade.

Energized buildings aren't the result of wild shapes and clever design tricks. They come from looking past preconceived ideas of beauty, purpose, cost, etc. and saying hello to the building elements and furnishings we live with. Try it. Look at the room where you see. Direct your attention to a piece of furniture. Notice what preconceived ideas you have about the furniture. Look through those ideas and imagine you have never seen a designed form like that before. What do you see? What is within this object that wants to be expressed. How could the object be altered to release the energy within it?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Listening for Change

Sometimes, the most creative act is listening. We celebrate initiative, movement, the can-do attitude and the extraordinary effort. With all the problems facing the planet and the neighborhood, it's natural to rush into action. "Just do it," sums up our beliefs about improving life. Yet, at the root of pollution, climate change, and overcrowded cities was someone trying to do the right thing. Who would have imagined what could go wrong with providing people with electricity, faster transportation, more abundant food, better housing and longer life spans? On the other hand, doing nothing creates problems too. The world would be a bleaker place if people hadn't stood up to bigotry, violence, corruption and a host of other ills.

Between action and inaction is listening. At its best, listening involves stillness noticing the flow of movement in mind, body, relationships and the surroundings. When I allow the stillness in me to simply notice the chattering in my head, the sensations in my muscles, and the interactions around me, I realize how little I listen and how much is happening when I do.

What happens when I listen or feel listened to? My mind opens, my breathing flows, interactions with others and the world come alive. Points of resistance and ways to move through them are more easily seen. Opportunities for growth that nourishes others as well as myself are a bit clearer.

Listening in this way is one of the key skills in creating architecture attuned to the sustainable processes of nature. Our preconceived ideas are powered by great intentions, but those helpful beliefs can blind us to genuine, vital connections that are crying out to be included in repairing a polluted environment. If we ignore the way water actually flows, assuming we know everything about it without listening to its ways, our roofs will leak. If we ignore the qualities of the ground upon which we build, our foundations may sink. 

The biggest obstacle to healing the planet and ourselves may not be that we aren't trying enough. It may be that we are trying too hard. All the helpful speeches, rallies, movements, organizations, and individuals may be more effective, if their passion to "Do something!" was proceeded by a feel moments of listening. Like wise gardeners waiting for the right moment to plant their seeds, we can listen for the auspicious moments when the gathering of forces of nature will support our endeavors.  

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Creatures in the Architecture

Sometimes, when I'm at a market or airport, I look around and remember that we are mammals inhabiting an elaborate nest of our own making. If we saw sea otters at the deli counter ordering lunch, or fruit bats passing through security at the United Terminal, we would think we were in a Disney animation. But, humans emerged from the same primordial soup as dolphins, hawks, lizards, tigers and elephants. 

Perceiving myself as an animal living within architecture, I sense the sparks ignited by biology colliding with mental abstractions. This intersection of nature and mind, body and conscious is the creative womb-space where architecture is born. Just as bird perception determines the way birds make nests and ant perception shapes anthills, human conscious determines the way humans inhabit forests, grasslands and deserts. Since our cultural viewpoint puts the mind in conflict with the body, it's no wonder that we've created buildings and cities that clash with nature. In the last 100 years, buildings have reduced the body's importance and favored mental abstractions.

Want would happen if we created homes and neighborhoods more for our animal selves and less for our clever minds. Imagine redesigning the room your in so it focused less on visual/mental aesthetics and more on touch, sound, and smell. Would the material of your chairs have a softer, rougher texture or a harder, smoother one? When you walked across your living, would you like to hear beneath your feet the crisp crunch of gravel or the spongy hush of moss? How would your bedroom change if it were designed around fragrance of lavender or the sound of rain on the roof? What color would your stomach paint your dinning room? How would your arms and legs redesign your shower? Getting out of that brain space between our ears and designing from our bellies opens an entirely different ways of shaping nature into architecture, and crafting buildings into nature. This way, we might begin yo get beyond the idea of green and learn to touch, smell, taste and hear green.   

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Perfect Self

This is an interactive artwork by Jennifer Parker called "The Perfect Self." About it, Jenny wrote, "You can move around the labeled pins (characteristics) on different areas of the brain. Maybe you feel more compassion one day?  Maybe this is a vision brain for what qualities you are desiring?" You can see more of Jenny's art at her Flickr link, http://www.flickr.com/photos/junipertrail/sets/72157601812728795/

If there's one thing about ourselves, perfect and otherwise, the labels in our thought streams are constantly shifting. One day we're right with the world, the next day we're not. What I appreciate about Jenny's artwork of found objects is it's honest representation of who we are. 

Buddhists say, "the self is made of non-self elements." Like this collage, what we can "me" is made of bits and piece gathered on our life journey. The DNA structuring our cells arrived at our bag of "me" from millions of years of evolution. The air we breathe and the food we eat comes from processes of nature beyond our making. The language we use, the culture we identify with, the cities where we dwell are hand-me-downs that we paste together to shape the stories of our lives. The people who we share the journey with meet through chance encounters.

When I remember this, creating architecture (and living life) becomes a creative mystery. Releasing the ego's need for authorship, I enter the freedom participating in the patterns of design that are spontaneously emerging. When "I" step aside, the fun and real creativity begin. Suddenly, the situation shifts from a childish "am I getting my way" encounter to an expansive "let's party" fest. The experience moves from straining to push life into a preconceived box to a fluid ride flowing toward unexpected possibilities. 

The architect Louis Khan suggested asking in designing architecture, "What does the building want to be?" Since buildings are collages similar to Jenny's artwork, they are assemblies of the forces coming together at a particular place and time. If our intention is to overlay our preconceived notion of truth, or rightness, on that moment and setting, we are blocking the revitalizing energies and patterns that want to be born there. This is the essence of sustainable design, to trust and facilitate the patterns and wisdom of nature wanting to be born here and now.

This is both more difficult and easier than it sounds. The difficult part is loosening our grip on the belief that we are in control. Yet, what could be easier than relaxing our fingers and accepting that we are not in control anyway. Sure, we select the style of roof we want, but that roof has to meet a whole list of requirements that are beyond our choosing. It has to respond the laws of rain and gravity and the height limits of the local zoning code. We can face this a victims that we can't do anything we want, or as creators dancing with the complex music of the world.

Maybe the perfect self and the perfect world is not what we think we should have, but appreciating and participating in the one that is being born again and agin each moment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gross National Happiness

Last Sunday, I went to an exhibit of the sacred arts of Bhutan. Wandering through the dimly lit galleries displaying the tanka paintings of Buddhist deities and mandalas, I sensed an ancient hum I hadn't experienced in years. At the age of 20, I traveled for nine months through India and Nepal. What I was looking for, I didn't know. I just wanted to get away from the materialism of Western culture. Amidst the poverty, gentle people, chaotic cities and timeless temples, I foul my soul. Since then, my life has been an exploration of integrating the connected ways of being I discovered behind outer appearances into the day to day life of dwelling here now in the USA. Maybe this is why I became an architect, to reveal spirit in matter. Reconnecting with that spirit through encountering the Bhutanese sacred arts moved me to tears.

At the exhibit, a film was screened describing the Bhutan government's measure of success. Instead of calculating, as we do, the Gross National Product (GNP), they look at the GNH (Gross National Happiness). Studies were cited indicating that around the world material wealth is important in gaining a level of food, shelter and clothing that supports happiness. After that, more material wealth does not increase happiness. It can actually impede happiness. To the materialistic mind this is insane. Doesn't everyone want a bigger house, a shiner car, more clothes, a refrigerator or two packed with food? Yet, in the bargain, we seem to loose sight of our most tangible possession, our experience of the world and ourselves here and now. Physical objects come and go, but the awareness that senses these thing is always here. But, in so many ways we discredit our inner sense of well-being and chase after that thing that will bring us happiness. When we get it, we're like children delighted until the shine wears off. Then we race after the next thing. If we made Gross National Happiness our priority, silly as it may seem, we might keep our priorities straight. Instead of crushing debt, pollution, global warming, and fear, we might live not being living to pay the bank, the planet would be a garden, rains would come on time and peace would be the measure of success.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tony's Work in Interior Design Magazine

A house I designed about 10 years is shown in the February issue of Interior Design Magazine. Here's the link:


The photo depicts the center of a home organized by the principles of vaastu, the science and art of architecture from ancient India. This core of dwelling is called a brahmasthan. It is a hub of silence, about which the daily activities of the house revolve. 

Creating this brahmasthan was one of the great design opportunities in which I've had the good fortune to participate. It is the result of a client who clearly stated his desire for a sacred space, an architect who had studied the principles of sacred space for decades, and a builder with the skills to manifest the intentions and the plans. 

The photo says more than I can put into words. For me, however, this is a little temple. It is embodies the essence of establishing a dwelling place in the world. The stable Earth is reflected in the stone base. Sunlight flooding through the roof invites the wheeling Heavens to animate the dense matter of the building. The wooden pillars recall trees standing between earth and sky. The etched glass mandala in the blue wall expresses the geometries of the soul as it weaves the fabric of existence. The stone base steps up toward the center, calling the imagination to peer into the core of silence. At the heart of this brahmasthan the stone base steps downward, receiving the energies flowing into the house. Here a small fountain revitalizes these energies and re-radiating them to the home.