The bridge after the fire

After spending time at Tassajara again last weekend I read the dramatic account of how five monks stayed behind after the main evacuation and risked their lives to save the building at Tassajara. You can read the blow by blow account and see the dramatic images of the fire racing down into the deep Tassajara valley along 5 separate fronts here.

Here is an image of the bridge taken by Mako immediately after the fire passed through.

I don’t know how it survived!

Smoke lingering in the air

The Tassajara Bridge

The Easter weekend was a time of resurrection for me personally. The Tassajara Bridge was rebuilt by an extraordinary team of friends – faculty and alumni from CCA. Following fires and floods the bridge is now standing astride the Tassajara River again marking the transition from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center to the Ventana Wilderness.

The bridge was designed by Richard LaTrobe Bateman when he was the Wornick Distinguished Visiting Wood Artist at CCA in 2005. I made a small catalog of the whole design, construction and then building of the bridge on site in 2005-6 which you can get here. This little book proved an invaluable guide to putting the Bridge back up again; as I was the only original crew member on site for the second coming of the Bridge and much water has passed under the metaphorical bridge since then.

2008 Basin Complex Wildfire from space

Russ Baldon and I took down the bridge in 2008 following  the 2008 Basin Complex Wildfire (the third largest in Californian history). Thankfully a few hardy souls stayed on at Tassajara when the valley was evacuated to fight the fire. The bridge was outside of the zone protected by hoses and sprinklers but the crew there were mindful of it and thankfully it wasn’t damaged. Here’s a photo of the bridge immediately after the fire – photo by Judith Keenan.

Now that the valley has greened up again and the threat of major silt flows and flooding has passed I was asked to collect a team to restore and rebuild the bridge. I am always delighted to spend time at Tassajara and this time I was able to introduce 4 friends to this extraordinary community.

The Bridge Crew!

Shawn Hibma-Cronan - unbridled enthusiast

John Randolph - balletic yet powerful

Lawrence LaBianca - master of the redundant system

Moi - corporate memory

Russ Baldon - chief gabion engineer

Adrien Segal - the yellow-legged, blue billed, Tassajara segal.

Barbara Holmes - the barefoot Diva

Barbara Holmes - the barefoot Diva

and many visitors over the four days...

First we had to clear the site of all the new riverine regrowth.

The site awaiting the bridge.

Including our old friend and constant companion – Poison Oak.

Nice and red and juicy!

Next we had to make sure we still  had all the bits.

Everything present and accounted for!

One team built a trestle to support the major beams mid-stream.

A worshipful thing!

The trestle in place, braced nicely against the far bank

A second team made needed repairs to the main beams with new material provided by Paul Discoe (who donated all of the original material for the bridge – Thanks Paul!!)

The scarf!

Many hands make light work.

Hi hooo!! Hi hooo!!!!

Lawrence busting a move, as we prepare to hoist the first beam into place.

Joining the three beams.

Once all three beams were atop the trestle we could join them together, attach the rigging and cross beams and raise the bridge with a chain hoist – I wish it had all gone as smoothly and quickly as this short little sentence! After a full day and a bit and a few setbacks we raised the bridge as the day faded to evening.

Thankfully at the end of every day we could look forward to delicious vegetarian meals and the best hot springs in California – to show us where our scratches were, to put the fear of poison oak contamination on us (it’s tricky finding the technu in the dark) and to soak out the stresses in our muscles.

The first portion is to end all evil...

Enjoying good food and good company.

By the fourth day we were ready for the footways.

More Hi Hooo!

Footway #1 in place.

Footway #2

Footway #3 lowered into place!

Then its was just tweaking turnbuckles, fitting handrails and cleaning up.

The rain started in earnest just at that moment – perfectly timed.


Mako, the Director of Tassajara, seemed pleased with the outcome.

And we were high as kites!

Barrows stacked under the eaves of the Zendo to keep dry

Rain dripping off the Zendo eaves being lapped up by the irises

"Cloud hidden ... whereabouts unknown"

Its always hard to leave.

Thank you Tasajara.

Thank you Bridge Crew!!

The Giant Camera

My colleague Peter L’Abbe has been researching Camera Obsucra recently and inspired me to visit the Giant Camera last time I was down at Ocean Beach! It had been years since I was last inside it and it was even cooler than I remember.

The Giant Camera perched on the cliffs at the northern end of Ocean Beach

It’s the last remnant of the various amazing entertainments that were found at this end of the beach back in the day. The Sutro Baths (burned down in 1966) and Playland (closed after a series of unsolved macabre murders – just kidding) were the big pieces in this now long gone picture.

Sutro Baths

Now the only amusement left is the Giant Camera. Standing alone on the cliff edge it has a bittersweet nostalgia about it. As if it too is waiting patiently for the end to come – watching the sun set on a bygone era – sniff, sniff.

Giant Camera and Seal Rocks

Roll up! Roll up!

Lots of helpful signage. from antiquity...

You pay your $3 and go in through the narrow squeaky doors to the darkened room. Eventually the MC comes in from the ticket booth, opens the all-seeing oculus and the world outside is magically projected on to the 5′ diameter dish in the center of the room.

The deep dish diorama

Its remarkably bright and the detail is incredible. As the upper tower rotates the full 360° panorama unrolls across the screen. You have to walk around with it otherwise the world starts to slip and slide.

Its a great experience! The curvature of the screen, the rotation, the constant sliding of the image, the incredible clarity. I want one in my house!

It looks like we are about to slide off the end of the world.

Bartram Gardens I

But all this Philly fun aside. I was here to work!

I had been invited to attend one of the open days in conjunction with a collaborative exhibition project between the Bartram Gardens (the US’s oldest botanical gardens) and the Center for Art in Wood. I knew very little about John Bartram and this legacy before I left Bayarea but I’m a always intrigued by a tale of internationalism and the dawning discipline of science during the Enlightenment.

I was excited to finally get there along with a gaggle of folk who I really respect (Albert LeCoff, Matt Hebert, Merryll Saylan, Mark Sfirri, Don Miller Jr., Jack Larimore, Leah Woods) and some others who I’ll get to know soon I hope. We met and talked and then went on a rambling, meandering stroll through Bartram’s garden down to the shores of the Schyulkill River.

The restored barn and house were very surprising to me having spent little time on the East Coast. So humble and hard hewn, but with touches of common luxury showing in some of the careful (if haphazard) details. I’m such a sucker for the vernacular!

Luscious lintels

Mysterious arcane symbols of fertility and idleness carved by the hand of John Bartram - we choose to believe.

The magnificent but humble house of the Bartram family.

I have to admire the heroic rough hewn columns of local stone, the window trims and  the carved motto – affirming Bartram’s revolutionary and enlightened stance against the orthodoxy of the Quaker faith.

"It is God Alone, Almyty Lord, the Holy One, by me Ador'd"

But we were here to do a bit of botanizing and hypothesizing. The gardens themselves are exquisite. Gone of course, are Bartram’s own crops, livestock and orchards – he was a working farmer after all. But still here are some of the trees that he or his son’s John Jr. and William Bartram planted

John Bartram purchased 102 acres here in 1728 and started to farm, build and explore. He wisely or fortuitously found a parcel of land at the junction of different geological groups that enjoyed diverse microclimates. Through his building of terraced stone walls and buildings he created sun-drenched hollows protected from the winter chills to enable him to grow an increasingly broad range of plants. These he found locally, or transplanted from further afield following a series of increasingly adventurous and ambitious expeditions and then finally through a fertile exchange with fellow botanists and horticulturalists in England. The whole wonderful tale of his commercial, scientific, camaraderie and friendship with  Peter Collinson in England is told in sumptuous detail by Andrea Wulf in her tale ‘The Brother Gardeners – Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession,” which also deals in detail with my old friend and life companion Sir Joseph Banks. Read it!

But let’s walk first!

The oldest living Gingko biloba in the US. Thought to be one of the original three bought to the US from China via England. One of which was given to William Bartram to nurture - which he clearly did!

Carnivorous plants first bought to the attention of Western botany by John Bartram

And the cage they're kept in - they ARE carnivorous after all!

Callicarpa americana - seducing English gardeners into a feeding frenzy almost as rabid as that of the Dutch with their tulips.

Later we went on a small tour of the house itself. Very relaxing and easy going – a comfortable life here is easy to imagine! A rambling and idiosyncratic interior, with a great Y-shaped staircase branching two two separate 2nd floor landings. I’ve only seen another like it in the Wharton Esherick house in Paoli, Pennsylvania. You can get a glimpse of that staircase here!

Bartram wuz 'ere!

The highlight of the inside tour was to catch a glimpse, in the gathering evening dark, of a small medicine chest used by James Howell Bartram (John Jr.’s son). most likely it was built for grandfather John Bartram, by John’s brother James (a local cabinetmaker). Nice piece! Got me thinking in earnest about what I might make for this exhibition. More on that later!

Bartram's Medicine Chest

ESP – The Eastern State Penitentiary

Oops, jumped too far forward. I haven’t finished talking about the trip to Philly.

Continuing the tour of strange museums of Philadelphia we come to the Eastern States Penitentiary.

I first heard of this space when Alan Wexler gave his first lecture at CCA. He was chosen to create a project for Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject in 1995 at the Eastern State Penitentiary – where he created a huge range of the artifacts for use in the space (books, paintbrushes, pigments,etc.) by dismantling and re-assembling things that were provided for his maintenance (paper cups and plates, napkins, etc.). I remember it seeming like a strange mix of Gilligan’s Island, Angkor Wat and every POW movie I’ve ever seen.

Enlightenment gothic!

The textures that have been retained, fostered, restored are amazing! It’s almost like coral in places.

Stairway to heaven?

And close up its Rauschenberg meets Kiefer (maybe).




You can’t NOT think about what human suffering sweat and talk has percolated through these walls to leave such stains.

Say goodbye for two years of solitary...

Some of the long abandoned cells have a grandeur about them. This one still has remnants of the urban rainforest that blossomed on this site after it was abandoned in the 70's

Some of the cells have become locations for site specific artworks.

Karen Schmidt's - Cozy. A hand-knit cell-warmer.

Local entomologist Greg Cowper's tribute to a prisoner who displayed his collection of 18 species of butterflies and moths (some quite rare) gathered at the ESP to Dr Henry Skinner in 1889.

Cowper works in the same role at the same institution as Skinner did 200 years ago. He has now collected more than 500 specimens of more than 150 species of insects and invertebrates at ESP which are now displayed in one of the cells.

There's been a long history of art at ESP as you can see from this extraordinary documentation of two inmate's precocious performance art from the 50's.

The ‘official’ caption reads “The meaning of their project has long been forgotten”. I think I’ve found the perfect epitaph!

The Paramount Theater

Last Friday, I had the rare and delightful pleasure of attending the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland for a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant movie The Birds. The Paramount is a classic Deco movie palace that has been lovingly and painstakingly restored to its former splendor. They now open it up for music performances, classic movie nights and back stage tours. I remember seeing Bjork perform here as well as Mariza – both awesome concerts! My favorite events to enjoy at the Paramount are their classic movie nights. They only have about 10 screenings per year, so its a rare and special event. You can find the schedule here!

It's a treat approaching the Paramount with its bank of colorful neon.

"Walk like an Egyptian"

"Always the best show in town"

You can read a detailed history of the Paramount here. In short, construction was started in 1930 at the height of the Art Deco movement’s international reach and when completed, it was one of the largest movie palaces on the west coast of the US. The designer was the well known San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger who was also responsible for the Castro and Alhambra movie palaces in San Francisco, the Bal Tabarin (now Bimbo’s 365 Club on Columbus Ave.) and was one of the architects on the team which designed the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-40).

Quoting from the Paramount website –

Timothy Pflueger was credited by one professional journal as “responsible for the work of more sculptors and mural painters in his buildings than any other western architect .” (Architect and Engineer, June 1941, p. 19) He engaged the most famous muralist of the time, the Mexican Diego Rivera (1886-1957), to paint “The Wealth of California” for the San Francisco Stock Exchange, and Rivera later identified Pflueger’s most original concept as his use of the fine arts in his buildings. “The group he gathered about him achieved a success in expressing their individual vision of American Society in a harmony which included the architectonics of the building.” (Rivera, My Art, My Life) Pflueger and Rivera were boon companions during the latter’s stay in San Francisco from 1930 to 1934, and while Rivera was not directly responsible for the facade mosaic of the Paramount Theatre, his influence may be seen in the majestic monumentality of the two figures in it as well as in its use of earth colors.

[Illustration from a detail of Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, San Francisco Art Institute. Rivera is seated on the middle of the scafolding with his back to the viewer and the trio below him includes Paramount Theatre architect Timothy Pflueger.]

The sculpted plaster panels lining the interior of the the theater are exquisite

As is the ceiling lighting system of cookie cutter style sheet metal patterns.

To top of all this architectural sumptuousness, there is the MAIN FEATURE!


Before the main feature there’s the mighty Wurlitzer organ, the glamorous game of luck and chance ‘Dec-O-Win’, with fabulous prizes to be won, the Movietone News, and an original Warner Bros. cartoon with the first ever appearance of Tweetie Bird! (a subtle reference to the main feature and perhaps to that other famous blonde ingenue bird Tippi Hedron (Tippi/Tweetie)).

The fabulous Dec-O-Win

But then finally the titles roll……

All you need is popcorn!

"Tippi, look behind you!!!"

What a great Bayarea event – from beleaguered Bodega Bay to glamorous Oakland!

Paul Discoe – Master craftsman – Icon

I took my CCA cabinet-making class to visit with Paul Discoe of Joinery Structures today.

I have the honor of co-teaching this class at CCA this semester with Paul: a woodworker for whom I have immense respect. Paul is an ordained Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshii of the San Francisco Zen Center. He was trained and ordained by Suzuki Roshii and subsequently lived in Japan for 5 years working with builders of traditional wooden building. Paul has enlarged on this unique experience by working on many important projects since his return; including major buildings at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Green Gultch Farm Zen Center, other traditional building projects around the world and sumptuous private homes created entirely in the immaculate Japanese tradition. His recently published book is a great resource and a joy to browse – available from SF Zen Center. Here is a link to Paul’s lecture at CCA as part of CCA’s Design and Craft Lecture Series in Fall 2009 – available for viewing or downloading for free at iTunesU.

Paul showed all of us around his extraordinary complex tucked away off Grand Ave. in West Oakland – just around the corner from my much more humble studio. Here he has the capacity to accept a wide variety of trees from our Urban Forest, which he then then can mill and dry entirely on site. We started by looking at some of the furniture pieces that Paul’s company Live Edge produces and at some samples of the woods that people bring him to mill, dry and then work with – Monterey Cyprus, Deodar Cedar, Redwood, Black Acacia, Camphor, Elm, Poplar and Port Orford Cedar.

Then we wandered out past several herculean piles of logs sourced from around Bayarea.

Redwood bones piled...

He has the capacity to slice these logs with relative ease on a full bandsaw mill – The Wood-Mizer!!

And has LOTS of equipment to dry, resize and finish the slabs.

Air-drying slabs

Deodar slabs fresh from the kiln.

A small part of Paul's irreplaceable archive


Trestles stacked ready for action

Dollies on rails to move the slabs

Eventually it comes down to handwork. Laying out and cutting joints with finely tuned handtools, assembling, detailing and finishing – all with a craftsman’s carefully honed senses.

One of Paul's master craftsman working with exquisite Port Orford Cedar.

Hand tools arrayed

Paul’s son sharpening Japanese style – using waterstones, on the floor, with great efficiency.

Thanks Paul!! For your time today, for working with us at CCA, and for honoring and maintaining great traditions.

Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre

I’m in the midst of teaching one of my favorite classes at CCA – the History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. This a seminar class surveying the incredibly complex, rich and interesting technical and cultural context of furniture design from Chippendale through to the latest showings at the Milan Furniture Fair. Way too much material to cover in a single semester, but I try my best; as do my students. In the last few weeks they have been helping me cover the huge diversity of designers by making presentations of their own. Last week, Justin Laughlin did a engaging presentation on the French designer Pierre Chareau and drew my attention to a great video on his seminal Maison de Verre. I thought I’d post it here for your enjoyment!

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

“Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio”.

This new documentary aired on PBS in the US last night. I missed it but will be getting the DVD for my own personal use and for teaching.

Sam Mockbee was the most inspiring educator I have heard of here in the US since I’ve been here and provides huge motivation and a moral compass for my own work in education.

Watch it if you can. There is a link to the movie (small size) on the PBS website below. Even the preview on the website for the documentary is inspiring!!

Watch the full episode. See more Citizen Architect.


The Netherlands is so tiny that getting to the other major cities is just a day-trip by train from Amsterdam.

We had to visit the Design Academy in Eindhoven where so many renowned Dutch designers have studied – Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerieus, Maarten Baas, Jurgen Bey, Toord Boontje, Piet Hein Eek and Richard Hutten to name a few. Clearly they must be doing something right!!

We were warmly welcomed by the chairwoman of the board Anne Mieke Eggenkamp and the director of international programs Yolande von Kessel. We had a great discussion about contemporary design education and the contrasts between the model at CCA and that at DAE. Yolande took us on a tour of the facilities. I was very impressed with the workshop facilities. They are even better than CCA’s with a lot more equipment and room for students to work. There are facilities for metalworking, woodworking, plastic and resin, plaster mold making and screen printing; all in one large space with some divisions where necessary overseen by a team of technicians. Their is even a tiny foundry! The workshops are open from 9am-10pm from Monday through Friday only!! My students at CCA would rebel at such limited access. The design studios seemed much less used or useful than CCA’s which are always packed with students, their work and their energy. DAE’s design studios are used in a very flexible, open manner and as a result aren’t used as a home base or dedicated professional studio by the students. The cafe was great – beer on tap and foosball!!!

We talked about the potential for student and faculty exchange and for cross-institutional projects. I’m hopeful we can grow our collaboration and have a meaningful exchange between CCA and DAE.

DAE workshops

DAE workshops

DEA workshops - metal machining area

DAE workshops - metal machining area



My next day-trip pilgrimage was to the Rietveld Schroder House in Utrecht. I lecture about this iconic building in my history of furniture course and have always wanted to walk around in it and see its ‘swiss army knife’ features in operation. The house is part of the collection of the Central Museum in Utrecht and the museum provides bicycles for visitors to pedal between the museum and the house – a great way to get a feel for the suburban environment in which the house was built.

Rietveld Schroder House

Rietveld Schroder House

At the time it was built the house was right on the edge of Utrecht. It finished a a street of row houses and beyond it was fields. Now it overlooks a small highway and the suburbs beyond.

The house is well titled as it was a collaboration between Gerrit Rietveld and Truus Schroder. It is unique in Rietveld’s ouvre even though many of its features show up in his other architectural projects. It is clear that Schroder had her own ideas about how the house should function and that her thinking was as instumental in the design as his and that his subsequent work incorporated ideas clarified in collaboration with her.

Its great to walk into the second floor space now and feel how open and airy it is. The interior was built for Mrs. Schroder who was a small woman but it doesn’t feel constricted – unlike most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors for example. All of the interior walls fold away into stub walls and dedicated closets so that almost the entire space can be opened up with windows on three sides. When all of the walls are pulled out and connected the space becomes cosy and private. The transformation is remarkably efficient and straightforward and Truus Schroder lived in and operated the house for 60 years from the day it was finished in 1924 until her death in 1985 (at age 95).

She also raised three children in the tiny house despite the fact that the house was generally abhorred by the neighbors who forbade their children from visiting the house or playing with the Schroder children.

The kitchen downstairs

The kitchen downstairs

The kid's bedrooms upstairs with the walls pulled back

The kid's bedrooms upstairs with the walls pulled back

The lounge area upstairs (Can one lounge in a Rietveld space?)

The lounge area upstairs (Can one lounge in a Rietveld space?)

I loved all of the moveable details especially the central staircase (to the left above) which can completely close up to keep the lounge area cosy and separate the living areas upstairs from the kitchen and office space downstairs.

If the museum ever chooses to de-accession the house I’ll sign up to move in. It is still eminently livable; much more so than its contemporary neighbors.

You can find a zooming panorama of the outside of the house here.