Piano Lesson

Rene Davids
Renzo Piano at the California Academy of Sciences Enlarge [+]

In the eve of the California Academy of Sciences’ grand opening on September 26, 2008 architect Renzo Piano, famous for co-designing Paris’ Pompidou Center, took some time to sit with students and discuss how green structures can be beautiful, how every building has a story to tell and how creating a structure, especially one as complex as the academy, is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Smiling like a proud parent, the world-renowned architect pointed through the building’s glass-encased piazza, the heart of the academy.

Tall and lanky, with gray hair and beard, the architect craned his neck towards the sky, showing his audience a spider web of steel frames and the layers of wind screens and light shades that make up the piazza’s ceiling.

He told his listeners to watch people as they cross the second floor walkways, which he can see from where he was sitting, center stage, in front of 300 students from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and the California College of Arts.

“I call this a ‘Piano Lesson,'” he said about the intimate student lecture. “Without a piano.”

The process of creating the academy was portrayed as a simple one, that Piano simply pitched a sketch of several curve lines to the academy’s board of trustees, won the honor of designing the building and construction followed. But he cautioned the students, ‘that’s a myth, don’t believe it.’

Piano said designing and constructing the 10,000-square-foot structure, complete with a living roof, planetarium, rainforest and aquarium, was difficult from the very start.

“Nothing is clear in the beginning,” Piano said. “The beginning of the story, it’s a mess,” he said in his thick Italian accent.

Piano Lesson by Marnette Federis
Piano Lesson by Marnette FederisEnlarge [+]

The project took architects, engineers and scientists eight years and half a billion dollars to design and construct. When asked about integration and how different teams worked together, from engineers to landscape architects to botanists, Piano said it was more important to surround yourself with people who are more knowledgeable, people you trust and can fight with, comparing the process to marriage.

“I have five or six wives in my office–we don’t even talk,” he joked.

But the building, which Piano said is really comprised of more than 30 pieces, eventually came together. After 10 to 15 prototypes and figuring out which native plants to grow on the living roof and how to house living coral reefs, the result is one of the most ambitious green buildings ever constructed and one that garners the highest possible Platinum LEED rating, the largest public building in the world to do so.

In today’s world where Earth’s fragility is clear, the architect stressed the important of building with sustainability in mind.

“The purpose of this building is to prove that architecture does not have to be ugly to be green,” Piano said.

At the end of his lecture, Piano gave students a chance to ask questions. Some sought advice on how to face the challenges of building and designing for a more sustainable future–“Don’t compromise,” he said–while others wondered how the now 71-year-old architect first began in his career, to which he answered, that he came from a family of builders.

Piano Lesson by Marnette Federis
Piano Lesson by Marnette FederisEnlarge [+]

Many in the audience, were CED graduate students who have studied the building throughout the years.

“It was a great experience to be in the building while he was talking about it so he can actually point at locations and talk about how things work,” said Gina Siciliano, (M.Arch ’09).

With local architects like Kang Kiang of Mark Cavagnero Associate Architects, working on the project and also serving as a Friedman professor at CED, students had the chance to learn about the academy before its opening.

“We actually studied this piazza and how the air and ventilation worked,” Behman Farahpour, (M. Arch ’09), “We already knew so much about it from class that walking in, it makes sense, you have the information you already have with the experience.”

Undergraduate students were also pleased to have an early peek inside the building.

“It’s a little bit of over stimulation at first,” Ryan Nguyen, a fourth-year architecture student said. “But you see all these systems at play and you’re trying to figure out how it all works.”

Mary Comerio, chair of College of Environmental Design’s architecture department, said an architect like Piano, who has challenged the conventions in the industry, inspires students as they grapple with the social and moral responsibilities of building according to the world’s current environmental state.

“This conversation with Piano allows students to really open their thinking not just to try and do what it takes to get a job, but to really think outside the box, to think about what the world needs and what the design field can do in the current situation,” Comerio said.

Piano encouraged the students to be first and foremost passionate about their work and to be artists while at the same time being pragmatic. He said all buildings tell a story. The Academy’s story, he said, was one of how families have come to the place for generations to enjoy and learn about science. “The building’s ‘magic’ is the proximity of science and exhibition,” he said.

When asked about what the building is saying today, what story it has to tell, Piano paused.

He said the building is saying, “Make me happy.”



Photos by Karim Elgendy

Berkeley-Kyoto Exchange: Landscape, Culture and the Art of Maintenance

The landscape design education that most students receive in the U.S. emphasizes the design and crafting of space.
Tim Mollette-Parks Berkeley-Kyoto Exchange
Berkeley-Kyoto ExchangeEnlarge [+]

This education typically ends before the installation of a design, when dirt is moved, trees are planted, stones stacked. However, as six UC Berkeley students discovered while visiting a top Japanese design school, the end of construction can mean the beginning of a new phase of design. During a weeklong workshop hosted by the Kyoto University of Art and Design in May, six students and LAEP chair Linda Jewell were exposed to an approach to landscape design education that pushed students to value thoughtful and creative maintenance as a crucial component of the design process. During the workshop, we saw the elevation of maintenance to an art form, defining its role as a shaper of space and experience alongside conceptual, on-paper design.

This lesson in the value of maintenance emerged during visits to Kyoto gardens such as Katsura Rikyu, Kinkaku-ji, and Daisen-in and from doing hands-on maintenance with our Japanese counterparts. The UC Berkeley contingency was joined by two students from Rutgers University and their professor Seiko Goto, one of the organizers of the event. Two faculty members from the Kyoto University of Art and Design led our workshops: Ken Kawai (M.L.A. ’93) and Takahiro Naka, one of the foremost experts on Japanese garden history and restoration. Our hands-on workshops included learning time-honored pine pruning techniques that consider the visual and experiential implications of each grouping of needles, which we were trained to trim and shape by hand. We learned from master gardeners how pruning, when considered as a design process of its own, can adapt to the evolving characteristics of the tree and the conditions of the space it occupies. Other workshops utilized Professor Naka’s expertise in garden restoration. Our Berkeley group, working alongside students from Rutgers and Kyoto, helped excavate an ancient stone path as well as a pond garden on imperial palace grounds in Kyoto. The Kyoto students spend one day per week honing these creative maintenance and restoration skills to augment their conceptual design instruction.

Tim Mollette-Parks Berkeley-Kyoto Exchange
Berkeley-Kyoto ExchangeEnlarge [+]

Of course, the mode of professional practice in the U.S. limits the role of this type of maintenance in design thinking. Here, firms see projects through construction, sometimes providing guidelines for maintenance to the client, sometimes not. Budget cuts put maintenance of public landscapes at risk. Developer-driven private landscapes mean relatively rapid changes in ownership, leaving long-term maintenance unlikely. From viewing the results of maintenance in the Kyoto gardens, it became clear that many meaningful American landscapes built today will not receive the care that enables landscapes like Katsura and Daisen-in to abide.

The exchange of knowledge during our week in Kyoto did flow in both directions. The six Berkeley students, along with Professor Jewell and the Rutgers students, delivered presentations on the influence of Japanese gardens on U.S. design and designers. Topics ranged from the important role of Japanese immigrants in the residential gardening industry in California to the influence of traditional Japanese gardens on modernist landscape architects in the U.S. Through these presentations, we described for the Japanese students how their design heritage had affected our built landscapes, from the commercial-driven mimicry of the Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park to the profound inspiration for leading designers such as Rich Haag.

The week-long exchange with the faculty and students at the Kyoto University of Art and Design cast Japanese and U.S. attitudes toward landscapes in an appropriately contrasting light. The notions of continuity and harmony and tradition that are so important in Japan are likewise critical in their man-made landscapes. The rapidity and temporariness inherent in U.S. culture no doubt play a role in our attitudes and actions toward designed landscapes. The experience in Kyoto added up to a crystallization of an idea we all grapple with on a consistent basis–that landscapes are inextricably linked to the culture that produced them.

Tim Mollette-Parks Berkeley-Kyoto Exchange
Berkeley students receive instruction on creative pruning techniques alongside students from the Kyoto University of Art and DesignEnlarge [+]
Tim Mollette-Parks Berkeley-Kyoto Exchange
Berkeley-Kyoto ExchangeEnlarge [+]

My Debt to the Ark

In Spring of 2009, the College of Environmental Design in conjunction with William Stout Publishing will release the new book, “Design on the Edge: A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.” The editors, Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell gratefully thank author David Littlejohn, Emeritus Professor of Journalism for his permission to reprint selected highlights from his reminiscence.

I learned four important lessons from my years in the Department of Architecture at UC Berkeley. First, I learned that, like medical residents or marine commandos in training, I was able to work totally inhuman hours. I could accomplish worthwhile things by doing without sleep, to which I have given fairly low priority ever since.

Second, I learned the immeasurable value of working with sympathetic and like-minded fellows. If we were suffering, at least we were suffering together. The camaraderie, high spirits and mutual support made life in T10 and the Ark not only bearable but fun. Our best teachers, while offering their own frequently harsh criticism and grudging moral support, encouraged such collaboration. As a teacher myself for 35 years, I tried to foster similar learning environments–although nothing can take the place of an all-night charette.

Third, I learned the value of spending one’s working hours in a handsome, well designed space, by which I mean the Ark not T10 or Wurster Hall.

handbook used in workshop
David Littlejohn and the Ark. Enlarge [+]

What mattered most to me, though–since I never did become an architect–was the profound and lasting importance of people like Ken Cardwell and Jim Ackerman, who opened my eyes to the ever-nourishing inspiration of good buildings of the past. Once you get hooked on architecture as an index of human history–a proposition nowhere better argued than in Spiro Kostof’s A History of Architecture of 1985–and on the compulsion to stand in and move through fine buildings (not just drive past them, or look at them in pictures)–you have access to a lifelong source of joy beyond the imagining of your blindered fellow-humans, to whom all buildings, streets and spaces look alike.

During my third year in the undergraduate architecture program at Cal (1956-1957), I was forced to face up to three large important facts:

  • 1. I was a better writer than I was a designer,
  • 2. By and large, I preferred old buildings to new ones;
  • 3. I really, really hated engineering.

Troubled by this confrontation with reality, I took off a semester to wander around Europe, where I tried to find as many as I could of the great buildings James Ackerman and Stephen Jacobs had introduced me to in Arch 121 and 122. (The quest is still going on). I decided to change my major from architecture, which was beginning to seem too much like engineering, to English, where I was getting better grades. In 1963, I got a PhD at Harvard but no part of my education mattered as much to me as the three years I spent–in fact, virtually lived–in T10 and the Ark.

This had, I believe, much to do with the sheer number of hours I spent there each week, working elbow-to-elbow with like-minded fellow students on the same projects. We put in hundreds more hours building models, solving overnight sketch problems, and drawing geometric forms and intricate perspectives for Arch 6N and 7N, which then had to be shaded with hand-ground sumi ink washes.

For two years I spent almost every weekday afternoon and evening, as well as most Saturdays at T10. I kept cutting one class to study for another, or abandoned them all to get back to the board. First 12-hour design sessions, then all-nighters became common–once a month, then every week: three in five days in May 1955. I pulled my first two-nighter (62 straight hours) in November, my second in December. In April 1956 I wrote, “Hellish, killing crit from McCue. Finally wound up shading, coloring and lettering about 4:30 AM, inhumanly and agonizingly beat, crushed, sick, sore and suffering. Drove home–stopping to give some oaf a push–and crawled into bed. For three hours.”

I’ve never worked so hard in my life, before or since. But I’ve also never been able to work with such an agreeable team of mates–watercoloring somebody else’s sky in streaks of canary yellow, or zippatoning his shadows, while he drew me a background of cubistic trees or let me copy his door-frame-section details. A third buddy ran out to get us hamburgers and coffee.

Is there another professional field in which the educational process involves so much helping (and learning from) one’s coevals, instead of competing with them? Of course, we were competing secretly–for scores, for grades, for X’s and KX’s, for the attention and approval of our teachers and juries. The camaraderie and good feeling–essentially all-male in those days–extended to afternoons at Harmon Pool–also all-male–adventures in San Francisco, and drives around the Bay Area in search of Maybecks and Wrights, the latest Callisters and Wursters and Eshericks. Each Spring, the costumed revelry of the Beaux-Arts Ball let us pretend that one night of mock-debauchery in a dark, noisy, decorated Ark made up for nine months of slave labor.

What has it all taught me? That I can work fantastically hard and long whenever I need to. In 1963, I wrote a 450-page PhD dissertation in four months. Since then, I’ve written many other things, often on deadline. But nothing I’ve done has been as labor intensive as my usually unappreciated design projects of 1954-1957. If you can design, draw and render an acceptable overnight esquisse on “Your Grandest Dream or Inspiration” (a genuine assignment of May 1955), my unconscious mind must have decided, you can do anything.

Thanks to my classmates I also learned that higher education only makes sense when it’s congenial rather than competitive. This depends primarily on classmates, but also on a few fundamentally benevolent instructors to set the tone. Midway in my sophomore year I began venturing both south of North Gate and west of Berkeley. By junior year, the combination of literature, art, theatre, and music–both on campus and in San Francisco–seduced me away from the straight and narrow of the T-square.

So I quit architecture, but architecture never quit me. I still believe, thanks to what I learned during those years, that the most profound and exciting aesthetic experience life offers is to feel yourself standing in or moving through a perfectly designed and constructed space.

Almost any house designed by Wright or Barragan will do it for me, as well as the best works of Renzo Piano–the Beaubourg, the new Lloyds, the Beyeler Museum. An architect-friend in Paris always takes me to the latest Bofill, Nouvel or Portzamparc when I visit. Just three years ago, an architect from Herzog and De Meuron showed me around their own top hits in Basel. This deep-rooted need for “the architectural experience” first took root during my three years in and near John Galen Howard’s modest, redwood-shingled Ark. When, in 1982, Don Lyndon agreed to design a high, sunwashed study-addition to our modest white 1941 house in Kensington (recycling one of its old windows into the new wing), I felt that the physical setting for my life had reached a peak it would never again achieve.

Three of my books–Architect: The Life and Work of Charles Moore (1984), The Fate of the English Country House (1997), and The Real Las Vegas (1999)–provide even more evidence of my debt to the Ark. The first would never have happened had not Dick Peters, then a professor of architecture and a fellow Arts Club member, agreed to introduce me to its subject–whose work I had admired since I first discovered the Sea Ranch Condominium in the 1960s–and got me invited to one of Charles’s legendary Sea Ranch house parties in December 1981. For the country house book, I read through carloads of books from Wurster Hall–including 100 years of Country Life magazine–nothing I had been taught of architecture or planning in the 1950s quite prepared me for Las Vegas at the century’s end.

It might seem that those thousands of hours I spent at the drafting table were hours wasted–and not just because no one drafts by hand (or grinds sumi, or stretches paper) anymore. Given the direction my professional life has taken, I might better have spent those hours reading Shakespeare or learning Russian or mastering the cello. Or even sleeping.

But I wouldn’t have given up my hours in T10, CRP and the Ark for all the Great Books of the Western world. On very few parts of my single life can I look back with such total satisfaction as I can the three years I spent with George, Jay, Dick, Ted, Bob, Jack and all the others scribbling through the night on rolls of yellow trace, then fudging the dimensions of my T-square-and-triangle lines on pristine white 20 by 30 inch illustration boards–inevitably spoiled by my overhasty water coloring just before deadline.


“Design on the Edge: A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley” is comprised of essays, reminiscences, photographs, and a full-color centerfold of student drawings. The book will be available for sale through the Environmental Design Archives.