A dear colleague shared correspondence with me which asks a group of people on a committee for an architectural exhibit to share their thoughts on the theme of the future/primitive in architecture:

“As we have progressed with our theme of Future/Primitive I have begun research into the ideas that are important to the planning committee for this year’s exhibit. As I have done some reading into contemporary thinking around the word “primitive” as used in the architectural field I have found that the use of the word is quite contentious – as it is in other fields of anthropology and cultural studies. I will provide a link to a book I was reading from and I think that the issues I am referring to are clear in the introduction, which is quite short. Would some of you be willing to read it as well and let me know your thoughts?”

Of course, don’t ask me what I think:

I like the passage in the introduction “…architects continue to use the word [primitive] to mythologize and reify the practice of simplicity.” Which also makes me think of authenticity, both the cultural/ephemeral and the material/tectonic…

Hailing from the South, where hushpuppies come free of charge (like chips and salsa do at their “Mexican” restaurant counterparts), I think of Tom Douglas’ foray into another brand of authenticity with his Brave Horse Tavern ca. 2011 in the middle of the new car smell of South Lake Union (see also Local 360, where the only thing local about the idea of grits as a side dish is paying $3.50 for it, which at that price should be called polenta)…

Brave Horse, invoking images like this:

And serving familiar food like this:


Fried chicken? Macaroni salad? Watermelon?

The design response to authenticity may be romance, even nostalgia for the future/primitive, machines we can look at and understand, the opposite of say the iPod ‘back in the day’, if you can recall your own first impression/fascination with the simplicity of it and its iterations, but also your frustration with how something as simple as changing its battery was no longer in your domain, among other things.


At the architectural scale, Tom Kundig’s kinetic architecture may be a response/celebration of machines we can look at and understand and that somehow speak to an authenticity, a transparency about how things work, and beyond, how we live and interact and view the built environment and the world around us vs. say the iPod-class of buildings:


This popular sentiment, to which Sweets Catalog can attest, see their recent product design feature, Practice Makes Products.

Is this new/old aesthetic the primitivization of building products and buildings, the modern analogy to the English Arts & Crafts Movement’s response to the Industrial Revolution?

Perhaps Douglas and Kundig’s is a response or some antidote to the present day revolution already upon us, the Information Age. The future already looks like this:


In the statement accompanying the World Architecture Festival Building of the Year, 2011: “The Industrial Revolution and now the Digital Revolution. Today, in the information age, architecture is a technology platform that consists of computer system connections and new materials. This project has been commissioned by The Consortium of the Zona Franca CZFB and 22 @ of Barcelona. 22@ is an experimental district with a powerful, distributed and accessible, energy load. Part of the Districlima network, where new business values are intangible. We were extremely interested in this digital city model based on ICT (information and communication technology), with the idea of a city where what matters is knowledge, added value and patents, in short, where the objective is for your architecture to be in sync with your own values…”

How can/does the primitive persist in the Information Age? Into that “experimental district with a powerful, distributed and accessible, energy load” ie. eco districts? Or among the Amazonians of South Lake Union?

There must be something about the primitive which represents our longing for authenticity, simplicity, continuity, provenance if not permanence. A memory-grounded anti-Information Age statement via hand-cranked windows and fried chicken, where the currency of information, open-source, virtual social networks and concepts as ephemeral as The Cloud, are held at bay, or in contrast to the dominant paradigm of the day.

If not still fried chicken, what will be the future’s go-to ‘comfort food’? Will we define Kundig as someday charming, quaint, the Delta Shelter making the cover of American Bungalow?


The character “Mater” from the Disney movie Cars, comes to mind. Popular, CORTEN after all, capitalizing on hushpuppies and grits, and a bit of the American nostalgia for a bygone era where people changed their own oil, their own flat, and tinkering on cars was a pastime. And so on…


Is it not that the future/primitive for any generation is an attempt at authenticity when authenticity seems all but lost and some bygone era, a ‘Golden Age’ ala Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), gives us hope, respite and perspective, eventually re-grounding us so that we might yet make that next bold step more confidently in the direction of one’s dreams?



Express Bus

April, 2011: the white noise reached through the white earbuds of my privileged sanctuary, a thin veil between me and the black woman with too many bags, who sang aloud with the hymn from her own, black earbuds:


A bike shook wildly on the bus’ bike rack, “glad that’s not my bike”, I say to myself.

The express lanes are not quite “express” on this typical Seattle morning: dreary, wet, 15mph on I-5 both ways, you know, typical.


I want to sing along, maybe something we all know, “Amazing Grace”? Google the lyrics. Wiki the origins. All the YouTube renditions.

A sing-along, Yes! The Society of Morning Commuters and one fixed income elderly woman perhaps living with chronic mental illness, perhaps not – all together now! like that Coca-Cola commercial having an Express Bus flash mob sing-along “…in per-fect har-mo-ny…”, there’s an app for that.

But no WiFi in the Bus Tunnel, no Pandora, no NYTimes, no Twitter, no Facebook.

Is it cruel to think: “When will she be getting off?” And that I failed to ask myself: “Could this be me?” And hum: “…How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

I keep my white earbuds in anyway and listen through my thin veil of personal space, to the silence of Society and to the black woman with black earbuds and too many bags singing:

“Praise Him. Prrr-aise Himmm….”

Black or White or Brown, she wears her earbuds like me, to tune out. For her it’s from all the eye rolling, cringe and grimace, shame and embarrassment of a busload of fellow citizens on this particular morning, tuning in to Egypt and Libya and Wisconsin, anywhere but the seat in front of them on the Express Bus.

Her eyes closed tight, almost crying, tears of joy, sorrow, waving hands in the air in praise, while I TXT my joy
😉 and sorrow 😦 to some other ether shy of Heaven, a blogpost perhaps. Too long-winded to tweet, too deep to Facebook.

In our own ways, we wave our hands in the air, looking for a sign from above, a signal, that we are not alone, that we are in good hands.

Seattle Shotgun: House

11.29.10: Seattle shotgun is already Future Shack. Perhaps the new small is only one idea of living in a city with an historic urban residential fabric. Little jewel boxes may not be the best way to living more densely, or being resource-efficient. I may take this thead up and look more at my passions: adpative-reuse and mixed-use urban infill.


No. 1: 26th Ave NE

In this City, notable for its neighborhoods of single family homes, a hundred years worth, the new small have been the most interesting to me.

It’s a case of which came first, the artist or the patron: there is certainly a lot of ‘Design’ per capita here, and the patronage to consume it/demand it. Or some might say that my perception of Seattle is such, for having just come from a design-starved-low-demand region of the country?

That Seattle is a place where design is mainstreamed has its pros and cons. Can everyone be the artist? Is design within reach of everyone really pushing the envelope? Because can you really reinvent the wheel? Big ideas have come from this place: Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and so on. So maybe there’s a case to be made for the creative class here. And why even small houses come bundled with such big aspirations.

Somebody said to me recently, “So you’re an Architect, huh? Attorneys and Architects, this town’s full of ’em.”

No. 2: Ravenna Ave NE

I am reminded of a colleague (he was in charge of IT, did 3D modeling and digital renderings) who left architecture for the video gaming industry (which has its own moral trappings). He said two things that will stick with me for the rest of my career: he was tired of drawing pretty pictures (renderings) for his bosses and he was tired of how the building industry (especially shoddy new construction) was simply just adding to the landfills.

There is also the saying: less is more. It is obvious that small is less too, but there is a chance there may be more in these little gems also (ref. the not so big house movement) ie. meaningful intimacy vs. meaningless status space like the 2 story entry foyer or the 20 ft. living room ceilings – love or hate him, David Brooks wrote an article recently in the NYTIMES that comes to mind), quality vs. quantity, consumption and energy/resource sustainability.

The economy is a factor again, as if all of a sudden. Maybe less has cache because we’re going to have to get used to the new paradigm. Brooks and everyone else, Red, Blue and Green, talk about a Society losing its way in so many ways. The new small shows us, by Design, how we could influence change by our choices and priorities, about our domesticity, transportation (for choosing an infill site, knock down or reno. in an established urban infrastructure over greenfield), the myriad of other patterns and habits of consumption (local food movements, COOPs, CSAs, proximity to goods and services), and so on.

No. 3: Mercer Island

Mercer Island is not quite in the NE ‘hood but I share the 900sf lake house by Hutchison + Maul that exemplifies both the design and patronage thread while setting off another about the City of haves and have mores.

And by contrast, c/o a friend in Baltimore after sharing with me pictures of small Maine, a certain Miss Rumphius came to mind, and her: what will I see when I travel the world, how will I leave this world a better place, and where by the sea can I imagine spending the rest of my life? The Maine Coast is neither in the ‘hood nor necessarily any more ‘accessible’ than lakerfront Mercer Island property so is ‘idyllic’ regional? What is a student of Architecture raised on Le Corbusier, Scarpa and Kahn, Brian MacKay-Lyons, Shim-Sutcliffe and Mockbee-Coker to do? Or is ‘quaint’ redefined by every generation? Are there lasting qualities to place irrespective of period architecture? Is architecture always about itself up to the point of design-saturation, permanent deflection?

Can a house-by-design embody the qualities of the family’s summer house with all its mis-matched silverware and mashed up memories tied up in real property? I do not either mean family picnics on a rock and calling it Fallingwater. Nor do I intend to romanticize the Vernacular. But can also a new, small yet poignant, urban vernacular emerge from the wreakage of the economy and accessible by more than just the spoils and follies of a few? Is there a fabric of our built environment and our lifetime of memories that can be repaired by design, contained and expressed by our brick and mortar, with or without a gorgeous view?

No. 4: Miss Rumphius

November, 2010: New construction? In this economy? In this neighborhood? Seattle keeps on ticking. Pb Elemental Design delivers another: the Z-House, in the neighborhood bound by Ravenna Park to the west and 25th Ave NE to the east.

No. 5: NE 24th St

The neighbors are all abuzz about this one: that the City said it must face the street not the alley, that it’s the first of 3 more, that it’s a spec. house. Pb said that the house was not spec. it’s custom, one of a kind and no others to be built on what looks like space for 2 more. 3 bedrooms/2,500sf is surprisingly small for new construction, a little big on the Rumphius-scale. A departure from the modest older houses on the block but seen in the bigger context of the new and the small, anything less would be, well, less.

Again not NE, but one from Queen Anne, from a UW studiomate with his own shop in town, Eggleston Farkas Architects, the Cavehill Residence, featuring some sweat equity and featured in Affordable Architecture: Great Houses on a Budget.

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Good job Allan!

No. 6: Queen Anne

More from the neighborhood to come.

Stay tuned.


We lived straight up Phinney Ave. on Phinney Ridge from Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood when at the bottom you could have a “microbrew” in a “smoke-free” “brewpub” at Red Hook’s Trolleyman.

19 years later, “foodies” sample “organic”, “small batch”, “single-origin”, “fair for life” chocolate at Theo in the same adaptively-reused historic brick trolley barn.

What is it in the going away, and coming back to a place, to witness a little history unfold from the same street corner?

How far flung or how long adrift before you find your beer or taste chocolate like you’ve never tasted before (like I just have: 74% Single-Origin Madagascar Dark Chocolate)? I suppose if you’ve never left Fremont [or are one of the happy 500 employees at Adobe’s Fremont campus] you wouldn’t have to go far or be gone very long.

As for the rest us, is it only either the porch swing or carpetbagging? There’s plenty of beauty to behold from the porch swing…with a beer…and some chocolate…oh and WiFi.