{ Category Archives: aesthetics }

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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The Cosmic Rhyme of Fives

sea star

Alone among a mussel cluster

a sea star glows in stillness,

vermillion

like a smile

like sunshine while

the sea grass sways.

 

Today

I stand in cold tide pools

because that

is where my bare white

feet make sense, alone among

the cosmic rhyme

of fives.

 

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Within Within

 

Within Within

When I turn the radio on
I want to turn the radio on
again
I want to turn the radio on
within within
I want to turn the radio on
I want to find a frequency without
a frequency without
to tune to
too
I want to find
a frequency
without
a frequency
within

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Vernacular Scale

I realized on a recent trip to Virginia that what I still glean from experiencing the pre-industrial vernacular architecture of the Eastern Seaboard is a sense of appropriate scale. My definition of scale here incorporates relationships between people, between resources, and between the commerce, enterprise and production that connects them all.

Despite the obvious (and nefarious) social inequities comprising this sense of appropriate scale, is that it appears to be in balance with nature, self-sustaining, self-regulating, and thereby sustainable. Ironically, it is the very balance of relationships and resources that led eventually to a kind of prosperity, or surplus, that yielded conditions conducive to innovation, which became the undoing of said balance.

In many ways, I feel that the human psyche is still looking for the sense of scale exemplified by the basic tenets governing all pre-industrial vernacular architecture. This leads to misplaced nostalgia, or sentimentality, a romanticization of times past, and a cognitive dissonance with the present and future conditions. Given that this cycle appears to be a recurrent part of the human experience, I’ve tried through my work to develop an inner sense of scale that allows me to glean from the present and anticipate the future, using a deconstructed past as a template.

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Mostri di Roma

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Looking up the Tevere towards Islola Tiburina

Water flows through Rome more visibly than time. It is an almost magical presence here, an animating force that makes the Eternal City feel alive in the present. Water streams constantly from hundreds of street corner taps, cold and delicious. Some still flows over aqueducts from the Colli Albani, or from the Simbruini in the foothills of the Apinnines. The snaky Tevere quietly carves Rome’s western contour and is easily crossed on foot over ancient stone bridges many times in a day. Water is everywhere here, connecting the past with the mountains, the sky, the sea. The success of the Roman Empire begins with mastery over water. Water is the Standard.

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Jet-lagged, I wind my way through Rome’s cobbled lanes in a cool pre-dawn, drawn by chimes and gurgles to the piazzas, the centers of public life. I am here on an A1 Travel Grant to study the fantastical sea monsters depicted in many of Rome’s public fountains. I am preparing to make our Makkeweks sculpture for the City of Oakland, and am curious how sea monsters have been depicted in public places in times past, particularly by Bernini and Borromini. I learn quickly that navigating Rome by public fountain is a wonderful way to experience the entirety of the City in a short time. The fountains are evenly distributed throughout Central Rome, and they are almost always sited in major piazzas, which are often flanked by significant churches and other public buildings. The piazzas are also the locale for open air markets and the best (if most expensive) cafes, so provide the perfect respite. After a long traipse, I recharge with cappuccinos and paper cones of roasted chestnuts. Traveling on foot in a light rain in winter in the early morning is the best way to avoid the crowds.

I am as interested in a sculpture’s initial impression as I am in the technical details of how something is rendered. Or, I’m interested in how these things work in congruity, in how the initial impression, the story being told, is reinforced by the way the material is shaped and textured. My sculpture will not have anything like the narrative detail or expressive gesture of the baroque, but I still have a lot to learn from the masters. I’m paying particular attention to how light interacts with surfaces from varying distances and perspectives. I’m also curious about what constitutes the idea of ‘monster’, what aspects of their depiction transcend the time and what aspects define it. In particular, what does the monster tell us about a time period’s relationship with water, with the ocean, with the unknown.

Here is a gallery of some of the images from my traipse through Rome, with attention to sea monsters (please leave a comment if you’d like more info on any of these):

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Free Sign #4

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Free Sign #4, found near Two Rock, CA

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free sign4b

To learn more about my Free Sign Project, please click here and scroll down.

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Sea Monsters on my mind

sea monster ref1

The depiction of sea monsters is as old as seafaring. Only the shape, size and imagined intention of the monster changes over time, generally in direct relation to what is being explored and whatever constitutes the boundaries of current knowledge. Sea monsters represent the unknown, simultaneously warding off and goading the curious-minded. Historically, sea monsters have been drawn on nautical charts to demarcate unknown waters; perhaps their origin is in some primordial fear of the unknown in any guise.

I think of sea monsters more as composites of observable, unexplained phenomena, drawing on encounters with charismatic mega-fauna of the sea and filtered through the compromised mental state of the ailing seafarer fighting scurvy, malnutrition and general ennui. Sea monsters invariably have traits of creatures that eventually find their way to scientific taxonomy, creatures that are simply unknown to science prior to their status as observable phenomena, as monsters of the sea. Whales, dolphins, seals and octopi all originated as monsters in the human imagination. It must have sometimes taken centuries of rare encounters to make for a complete picture. Even so, the fear persists, the sea monster persists in the imagination beyond reason, and there will always be an unknown.

I like to think of sea monsters as a kind of muse to scientific inquiry, or to inquiry in general, an idea that has guided my vision for the Makkaweks sculpture I’m preparing to carve, to be cast in bronze and permanently sited on the shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. I’ve been laying up laminations of large chunks of composite cork, which I will shape into the monster and detail with surface patterns evoking a plausible sea creature. As I block out the rough shape in cork, using my clay model as a template, I’ve been researching depictions of sea monsters from art history and popular culture.

I’m interested in sculpting a contemporary sea monster, an allegory of whatever is currently unknown, or considered inplausible. I’ve been researching ancient literature, classical and renaissance sculpture, natural history, Japanese sci-fi, and garden follies in Los Angeles for visual clues about patterns that define ‘sea monster’ before I begin carving. I’d love to hear from anyone who has sea monster references to add to the archive.

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I found these 2 sea monsters on the grounds of Huntinfton Library in LA. 

Click here to read more about the development of Makkeweks for the City of Oakland.

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