Procedural Style: Parametric Emergence, Part 1

Wowhaus grew out of our ongoing conversations, beginning when we met in 1988

Ene and I never thought of Wowhaus as a style. We always framed it more as a way of life. But over the years as we’ve realized such a broad range of projects in such wide-ranging media and locales, a kind of style is beginning to emerge.

I first took notice of this when we consolidated our studios and home by moving from Oakland to rural Northern California just over ten years ago. I began to pay more attention to our public process more consciously, and began to document my own thinking strategies while making things in the studio. I called the endeavor Deep Craft and was awarded an Investing in Artists grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to give it form. Over the next four or five years I published a blog chronicling my craft-related thinking and making processes, culminating in a kind of manifesto of my most salient and transferrable observations.

Somewhat unconsciously, I internalized many of these observations and organized them into a kind of mental algorithm to more rigorously guide my designing and making. Our projects as Wowhaus began to deepen in scope, form and content. Ene applied her own tactical strategies with complementary focus, particularly as regards collaboration, community engagement and project management.

We became known for innovating within very tight parameters of site, budget, and functional and aesthetic constraints. Our work began to take many forms, almost confusingly so– sculptures in cast bronze, or glass mosaic over ferro-cement; ceramic lenticular murals; sound-producing and interactive, kinetic sculpture; public seating in cast GFRC and FRP. Deep Craft also began to take on a life of its own as a kind of brand, garnering furniture and architectural commissions, pop-up retail experiments in skate and surf culture, artist residencies, teaching and speaking engagements. While the range of work may have confounded our prospective clients, we did not make much distinction between outcomes. To us, the consistent style was one of process, not of product. I think of ours as a Procedural Style.

Site-generated treehouse project, Cazenovia, NY, 2002

Our Procedural Style grew naturally out of an approach to living we had developed in the early days of Wowhaus. We saw our public projects as an extension of our private lives, specifically as an extension of our young family’s meandering inquiries into both nature and the built environment, and the role of community in shaping/being shaped by either. We invented three guiding principles to help frame our working/living aspirations:

  1. What makes a good day?
  2. How do things, places and relationships acquire and retain meaning?
  3. What makes things last?

In many ways, the more recent Deep Craft Manifesto is a fine-tuning and elaboration of these basic tenets, informed by years of actively realizing a string of public projects. I maintained the blog as much for myself as for the public. I wanted to be able to track how projects unfold to find redundancies and increase efficiency, but I also wanted to illustrate the consistencies of process underlying our projects, despite dramatically divergent outcomes.

I discovered that our Procedural Style is more evident in the ample documentation of our working process, which has mostly taken analog form—physical meetings and workshops, site reconnaissance, historical research, proposal writing, drawing and model-making. Scrutinized for their inherent, if accidental, aesthetic content, the archived records of our working process is remarkably consistent and recognizable as having the same author(s). Also, because we prepare at least two to three times as many proposals as commissions are awarded us, we have a robust collection of prototypes, models, technical schematics, spreadsheets, renderings and slide shows. So it’s easy to see the consistent hand throughout the process.

The finished products of this handmade process initially appear to be far more divergent and disconnected, one to the next. Mostly taking the form of permanent public sculpture, the final products are all highly integrated with their sites, both programmatically and architecturally. In many cases they are also partially site-generated in some way, either through their manufacture (form) or through direct community engagement (content). Because of this, and as a result of our finely tuned Procedural Style, the finished work appears to belong, to have always been there, as though organically emerging from the site.

I think of the results of our Procedural Style as something like Parametric Emergence. Our very consistent system of generating form and content by deconstructing the specific parameters underlying each unique project leads to a continually evolving, ever-changing outcome. After twenty years we’re just beginning to codify these outcomes into typologies, or formal frameworks, where the medium and method of manufacture are consistent, but the specific content is variable and adaptable to the particularities of site.

While our work is not well know and only moderately profitable, it is highly successful. Our public projects invariably become beloved icons within a community or neighborhood. They become interactive destinations that are seamlessly knit into the web of contemporary, pedestrian life in American cities. Ironically, because of this success, our projects have proven to be something of a failure for our midterm prospects. It has proven very difficult for us to quantify or to verify the cause of these cumulative successes, their being so gradual and modest, and seemingly inconsistent in both form and content. Each new project requires that we sell a client, which typically consists of a committee with divergent goals and expectations, on an entirely new and unfamiliar concept. Despite our impressive track record, each new concept is invariably seen as a potential risk until its completion and inevitable success, at which point credit is dispersed and we are perceived more as agents or orchestrators of an elaborate collaboration, and our authorship gets a little blurred in the process.

So, we do indeed see it as a success, and it is our intention, when one of our creations seamlessly integrates into the complex conditions comprising a particular place, like the most enduring vernacular architecture. But it has proven challenging for us to scale our approach without due credit and recognition for these successes over time. We get stuck in a kind of bureaucratic loop of finding new opportunities and making proposals, which lately commands about a third of our time. If our work were better known, and our process more featured as integral, we could devote more time to innovation, while maintaining the Wowhaus/Deep Craft ethos that is so central to continued success. We are ready for the clients to find us for a change, instead of us constantly trying to find new opportunities.

The core of the realization here, and the core of our practice as Wowhaus/Deep Craft, is that style should be emergent as opposed to imposed, especially when the overarching goal is to achieve a kind of meaningful timelessness, or enduring value. By ‘meaningful timelessness’ I mean that any particular thing—a sculpture, building or piece of furniture—is viewed more as a vessel for a recognizable and relatable ethos, a belief system emblematic of a sustainable relationship with place (or use), rather than emblematic of an idealized, or in most cases, technology-driven set of rules. The latter is more recognizable, more universal in intention, and thereby more commodifiable, like High Modernism; while the former is more situational and variable, like pre-modern vernacular design and architecture.

Exceptions to both include instances where the underlying ethos of a built thing is in sync with the technology that brought it into being, like in Shaker design, which is both universally recognizable and regionally and temporally variable. It’s just that the products have outlived the ethos that brought them into being; same with High Modernism. Our interest as Wowhaus/Deep Craft is in developing and promoting a body of work where the ethos outlives the products. A part of this strategy is to begin to reveal our process more as product through publication, exhibition, and any other available means. Now that we know how to do it ourselves, going back to our initial three guiding tenets, we want to create and share a kind of operations manual.

I may be getting ahead of myself here, so here is a little preamble. In the fall of 1997 I initiated a project I called Wowhaus. I had passed the previous two and a half years as a fulltime, stay-at-home dad, raising our daughter from infancy to her first day of preschool. The term ‘wowhaus’ came from her. It’s what she called the tiny cabin I built in the garden behind our bungalow in North Oakland as soon as she could form a sentence, “Papa’s in the Wow House!”. I built the structure, which I used as a design studio, when we needed room in the house for the baby’s crib and converted our only spare room from my studio into a nursery.

The original ‘wowhaus’, Temescal, Oakland, CA 1996

Just prior to our daughter’s birth I had designed and built a community garden in Berkeley, a ‘stair tower’ in Noe Valley and an outdoor dining room for a restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina District. I also had several active furniture commissions after exhibiting some experimental prototypes. I designed the new furniture commissions and made models in ‘the wow house’ and fabricated them in my basement woodshop beneath our bungalow.

The common thread linking all of these projects leading up to the formation of Wowhaus, was my ongoing research into the self-authored built environment, or vernacular architecture. I was at the time, and remain, most interested in the potential for invention within tradition, and the potential to articulate a kind of formula for invention under the combined constraints of geography, material resources, labor/production models, belief systems, communication systems. I wanted to make something like what I understood to be, and loved about, almost all of the vernacular architecture I had encountered and studied. At the time, I was calling my approach ‘materials-based design’. I looked to the inherent properties of materials, specifically wood from trees that reflected the bioregion, because I had woodworking skills and could test my hypotheses fairly easily and inexpensively. Plus, the results of my experiments found a place in a new marketplace at the time as ‘art furniture’. To be continued..

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