02 November 2014


Preparing the warp on a four-shaft Saori loom.
I started weaving a few years ago at Saori Berkeley, a studio not too far from my house that's run by Lynn Harris. I began with a two-shaft Saori loom - one of hers - but then another came up for sale. I bought it and, with her help, converted it to four shaft. In that configuration, I can weave patterns. 

The B&W-white striped arrangement of the warp.
Lately I've been weaving scarves. This latest one, as I envision it, will have a B&W weft. I bought a black linen yarn and a white wool yarn at Claddagh Yarns, a shop in Walnut Square in north Berkeley. I haven't decided yet whether to use these yarns exclusively for the weft or mix them in with carpet thread, which is easier and faster to weave. I don't think out the design, but improvise as I go along. Weaving is like writing sonnets: there's a structure and you start off with an intention, and then they interact.

Detail of a recent scarf.
My interest in weaving began when I went to an exhibit of Mayan textiles at the old de Young Museum in San Francisco. One interesting aspect of it was the transition, in the 1940s, to synthetic fibers, but I was also struck by the colors. The scarf above is probably the most directly influenced by that show. In 2008, I spent time with my daughter in mountain towns south of Granada, Spain. In one of them, we found the studio-shop of a pair of weavers. They had floor looms, much bigger than mine. 

Floor looms are capable of larger, more intricately patterned work. I've had two opportunities to get a loom of that size, but I'm not ready. I only weave two hours a week, for starts, and I like weaving in a studio with other people. Then there's the question of what do with the output. Early in the summer, I had coffee with an artist friend and traded her a scarf for a painting. I liked that arrangement.

A scarf drying after being washed.
That scarf, shown above, was better suited in length for women, who like their scarves wrapped around them. I don't scarves that way, so the ones I weave for myself are shorter. This one, hanging up to dry, looks like a Japanese fish kite.

A scarf in a twill pattern.
The colors I choose vary - sometimes colorful, sometimes dialed back. Often the back half of the scarf is completely different from the front, one result of improvising as I go along. This one I could wear, and probably will. I like especially the mix of blue and black. The color of the warp affects the colors of the weft, which is part of the interest.

Another view of the scarf I traded.
The interplay of warp and weft is why I wanted to do patterned weaving. Some of that's possible with two-shaft Saori weaving, also, but I think the patterns bring it out more and permit juxtapositions of color that I particularly like.

10 May 2014

Åsa Pärson

I heard Åsa Pärson give a talk today at the Berkeley studio of Yoshiko Wada, aka Slow Fiber Studios. 

Pärson is a Swedish textile designer who has drawn from a world of traditions, experimenting with the techniques she has learned in the field and then applying what emerges - what can be both repeated and scaled up - to commercial textiles, mainly for use by interior architects and designers.  

The community she addressed is part of the World Shibori Network. I don't know anything about it, but I got a sense of it today. The studio where I weave is run by one of her students, Lynn Harris. The talk and some of the comments from the audience used technical terms from this movement. I didn't have a notebook with me, so I can't repeat the terms, but they must be on the website (shibori.org).

Her work is striking. She has two studios - one in Stockholm and the other in the north of Sweden - each with several looms, dyeing pots, and other things. The country studio has looks out to a view she compared to northern Japan. Some of her work experiments with removing color from existing fabric and then reworking it. Some of it uses bamboo with cotton so the dye takes selectively. The piece below was made by exploiting a fabric's tendency to shrink or expand - a technique she uses quite a bit. The talk opened a window on a world that she said is rooted in making: she creates by experiencing something and then working with it. She takes care to note what she's doing, so she can do it again. "Luck," she said, "is not enough" - meaning that you can't use what you've done in a larger sense: replicating the effect at a different scale, for example, to make it commercially viable. 

Pärson has a website, www.asaparson.se, but today (10 May 2014) it's still under construction (her email address is info@asaparson.se).

09 April 2014

Neil Denari at CED

Neil Denari reminded me of a jazz musician like Dave Brubeck, as I imagined him from the album covers, skirting the line between one genre and another while maintaining a businesslike demeanor. Attentive to details in a borderline obsessive way, he's also like Arata Isozaki (not quite so detail oriented) in the way he mines a particular formal move ("trope," as Denari put it) to the point of exhaustion. 

His theme was the coexistence of the concrete and the mysterious. In one example, this came down to juxtaposing a white element with a curved, thin wood-covered, darker one. Most impressive of his built work was his ultra-luxe condo "tower" next to the High Line at W. 23rd St., which I saw without realizing it was his. It's very good, projecting out over the walkway without intruding on it, unlike any number of upmarket wonders nearby that make the High Line their feature in a "seen-and-be-seen" way. 

Denair contrasted his work to "moral modernism" while discussing the High Line tower's graphic expression of structure. (The actual structure is set back behind the façade.) Moral modernism would want to express its structure in reality, he said, defending not doing so in the name of mystery. Later, he distinguished his work from parametric exercises done for plutocrats. (I paraphrase.) Zaha Hadid was mentioned, not favorably, yet he acknowledged that the High Line tower was also tipped to the high end, with no need to value engineer. This led to an explanation of the simplicity of a tower in China - using a single prefab panel instead of the High Line's multiple panels, one of which was truly bespoke. ("Only he could do it," he said, referring to the structural engineer in Buenos Aires who fabricated a particulary beautiful opaque one.)

Denari showed a taller tower in Vancouver that's still under wraps and is chock full of micro-units that he also designed and furnished. It's different - Miesian but with notches that push the height and add corners and asymmetry. The tiny, highly transparent apartment reminded me of the Automat of my NYC youth: young people on display. (The critic Trevor Boddy wrote once that voyeruism is an issue in Vancouver, owing to the proximity of glass-enveloped towers.) Denari showed several projects in Asia, noting a current interest in "responsive icons" after a client in Taiwan  called for "an icon" in its competition brief. Responsive as opposed to responsible, he added, but the real contrast appeared to be to towers like the Gherkin that really work for it.

Towers took up the last part of his talk and included an unrealized one (above) that reminded me of Minoru Takeyama's nightclub towers. I asked Denari about them and he recalled that one of them was on the cover of Charles Jenck's book on postmodernism. "I show it to my students to tell them, 'Who says you can't do an orange building?'" he said. Like the High Line tower, many of Denari's projects have graphic elements woven into them. "I also studied graphic design," he explained.

15 March 2014

A Joan Busquets lecture

Busquets (left) and Hans Harms.

On 12 March 2014, I heard a lecture at Berkeley CED by Harvard Professor Joan Busquets, best known as a planner of his native city, Barcelona, where he has an architecture and urban planning firm. Busquets has written a number of books, one of which - Cities X Lines - formed the basis for his talk. X in this case means 10. He used the word tracks as a synonym for lines, but I would call them types of urban intervention. His talk focused on four of them - extending, decentralizing, transforming or restructuring, and re-qualifying or upgrading - using his own work as case studies. 

Along the way, he made some interesting observations. He noted that the Shanghai metropolis and the Netherlands are both developing 80 new towns. (This was part of a discussion of decentralization.) He noted that Toledo has an urban pattern typical of traditional Arab cities, with the blocks subdivided into plots less than 20 square meters each, which leads to three-to-four-story buildings. Discussing a project for Toulouse, he noted how the computer's ability to layer makes possible a quantum leap in the richness of plans, since every component (trees, for example) can be considered in detail by specialists, and then integrated with the whole. He said, in reference to putting a train line that serves and passes through the center of Delft in a below-grade tunnel, how much planning owes to and learns from engineers.

An aerial view of Barcelona.
Turning to Barcelona, he compared it to two other gridded cities, New York and San Francisco. Barcelona's grid was a 19th-century extension of the historic city. As the aerial photo shows, it has a very uniform pattern of midrise, attached buildings on separate sites that define the street front and enclose a large inner open space. The pattern accommodates a remarkable variety of architectural styles without losing its coherence. He also showed the redevelopment of the harbor, parts of which followed the morphology of the waterfront. We may quarrel with the way some of it implemented, he said, but the attention to context - mediating between the city grid and the harbor, creating a public beach, and solving the environmental problems that Barcelona had heretofore caused for the Mediterranean, like raw sewage pouring into it - made the area's redevelopment a success. 

Cities are complex, Busquets noted, but we finally have the tools to contend with their complexity. If plans were simpler in the past, this reflected the real limits of the planners' understanding - their analytical tools were inadequate. Some bemoan the loss of this simplicity, but in fact we should be grateful to find ourselves with "fantastic tools" that can assist our analyses and our designs.

02 March 2014

Aftermath of a quarrel

A while ago, I inadvertently triggered a quarrel. Among the things thrown at me was the sentence, "I don't have a big respect for YOUR writing." I've never commented on this person's writing, but failing to comment can be read as indifference or condescension. The sentence has stayed with me. While I attributed it to projection, it made me think about writing itself. I use the word respect regarding writers, not their work, although of course the work engenders the respect. I would say that I admire the work, whereas respect speaks to a writer's motivations. 

On a visit to Charlottesville last weekend, I stopped in at the New Dominion bookstore. Local author John Grisham has adopted it, and his work was in the window. They also sell signed copies. I know of his work, but haven't read it. I respect Grisham as a lawyer who now makes a living writing novels. The literary model is Anthony Trollope. I've read several of his novels. I liked them, but they grew repetitious. I particularly like his autobiography, in which he lays out, straightforwardly, how he engineered a similar transition from civil servant to bestselling author. Grisham and Trollope are commercial writers, in essence: they write in large part to sell books. (There are doubtless other rewards and questions of art and craft. Not every author of bestsellers can write.)

I've written up to chapter length, but I don't like it. If I write at any length at all, I have to give the longer piece sections or segments that can be written in one sitting. My best work is short and takes a specific form: essay, post, review, or sonnet, for example. I rarely plan out what I'm going to write, sensing the whole without really seeing it. Revision for me is the bulk of the writing process. Every time I reread something I've written, I see ways to make it better. But getting something down is just as important. 

Because I've written or edited for others most of my adult life, I approach my own writing as an amateur. I've always made this distinction. My other work is done to a very high standard, but its motives and satisfactions are professional. 

A recent conversation touched on The Book of the Courtier and a parallel example from Ming China of sprezzatura, the seemingly effortless performance of diverse arts. Of course, considerable effort is involved, but the point was to avoid being seen as a specialist, worried about technique. This is why the artist-architects of the Italian Renaissance discounted the Sangallo brothers, the sole professionals among them. Even now, to be an amateur is, I think, to follow in this tradition. The risk, it's said, is to be thought a dabbler, and not serious. Being an amateur doesn't mean that you drop all standards; it means that you write what resonates, what wants expression. Respect for oneself as a writer isn't really the issue, but self-confidence definitely figures. 

One reason I respect Stendhal is his willingness to persevere in the face of indifference and a huge shift in the auguries that buoyed his twin careers as diplomat and writer. On the margins of a memoir in manuscript, he notes his motive (to get this down) and his sense that the work will resonate with others at some later point, as it resonates with him, a man out of sync with his own times. Later, he drags The Charterhouse of Parma out of himself as the lights are dimming. To me, these are the actions of an amateur in the sense above. Stendhal uses his gifts for their own ends, his ends, and believes that others will fall in with it later. Or not, who knows, but still there's enough belief to write, and even to write notes to them in the margins. 

09 February 2014

Studio One: Programming Matter

Student work from Studio One on display at Wurster Hall.
Studio One is an interdisciplinary studio at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley led by Maria-Paz Gutierrez and sponsored for the first time by a design firm, HOK. This year's Studio One Symposium (7-8 February 2014) was on "The nature of programming matter - programming matter and nature." 

The impressive roster of speakers included Harvard's Joanna Aizenberg and Sanford Kwinter, Sci-Arc's Peter Testa, Stuttgart's Achim Menges, Penn's Shu Yang, Cornell's Jenny Sabin, and Berkeley's Luke Lee and (at LBNL) Delia Millron. These are materials engineers and scientists, chemists, bio-engineers, and architects, most involved in cross-disciplinary research. Gutierrez and HOK's Paul Woolford also spoke. Berkeley and CCA faculty, including historians Irene Cheng and Massimo Mazzotti, served as respondents. 

One major theme was how nature is mined for clues about new materials. As Mazzotti noted, responding to Aizenberg, part of the search is for strategies that can be mimicked. Yet it's clear that much of what stimulates the imagination of these designers, scientists, and engineers takes place at a molecular or nano level. There is a consistent interest with the way nature generates structure, for example, and harnesses light and magnetic waves for reasons that aren't always immediately obvious, but that suggest analogues that, scaled up, might  bring light into interiors or build lighter, more malleable structures. Aizenberg described sponges whose structures embody light sources and a sensitivity to magnetic fields, and live symbiotically with shrimp.

Menges noted that biological systems use relatively few parts, but they grow and adapt to their environments. Much of his work is focused on materials that change - in relation to humidity, for example - without mechanical or human intervention. Millaron, whose work complements Aizenberg, Lee and Yang, said her focus is on rebuilding the molecular structure, rather than applying standard elements to the problems that buildings face in relation to their environments. Gutierrez and Yang discussed polymers. All of this work aims toward a model that Gutierrez described as, "the active is the new passive": that "active materials" do things that would otherwise be handled in ways that we would traditionally call "active." Lee mentioned building materials that can resist pathogens and building systems that can clean gray water using light or the molecular qualities of the material itself. He told me later than urbanization is causing a pathogenic crisis, which buildings will need to play a part in solving.

Robotics was another theme, addressed by Menges and Testa. Menges works with Kuka robots in the same way that other architects work with fab machines, while Testa gangs Stäubli robots up and programs them to "dance." They and Sabin are interested in a craft-like form-making that generates larger wholes from lightweight, demountable parts. Testa is also interested in generating unexpected forms from processes that are programmed, but allow both human intervention and "accident." The work has an animated quality that reflects his Robot House lab's location amid the film industry.

A project at Peter Testa's Robot House at Sci-Arc in L.A.
Lee ranged farthest from architecture, with work at a nano scale that's concerned with how to use viruses to deliver genetic cocktails that can "turn off" malignant tumors and how a single chip might be used in the future to analyze a drop of blood, providing the same diagnostic data as current "blood work" without the need for vials of blood or labs to do the analysis. While Sabin's work is bound up with Yang's material science and the interdisciplinary work of Peter Lloyd Jones, her work exploits new materials using techniques from weaving and knitting, for example. Like some of Menges's work, it produces large, spherical "enclosures" from a small number of parts that can be collapsed and carried. (Her Nike piece fits into a bag and weighs 150 pounds.) 

In her response to Yang and Sabin, Cheng noted that their work shows the value of visualization to the understanding of matter. She compared it to the neglected but crucial contributions of Rosalind Franklin and Odile Crick to the identification of the DNA double helix, each providing visual clues to its structure. (In Franklin's case, her visualization was simply pilfered by the Nobel Prize-winning men, Cheng said.) Sabin's work with Jones also exemplifies the importance of visualization to their collaborative materials research. 

Woolford described two projects that used biomimicry as a design approach, one of which was done in tandem with the Studio One students. While he talked about the analogies from nature they chose and applied, he glossed over the details of their process and the analogies themselves. This made it harder to understand the logic of their choices. As part of her response to Yang and Sabin, Cheng argued that neither of them take nature as a "right" model. Yang actively alters nature, while Sabin has studied cancer cells. Materials research benefits from not taking nature literally, Cheng said. This may also be true for biomimicry.

In passing, Woolford bemoaned the situation in which large firms like his operate: innovations have to be proven for a generation before clients and builders will embrace them. I don't doubt this, but so much experimentation is happening now at a smaller scale. Even in large firms, younger designers are looking for ways to break the mold. Many of the experimenters have been at it long enough that they're starting to scale up. This was the message of last year's Studio One Symposium. I may be optimistic, but I think the gap will steadily diminish.

Sanford Kwinter on deck.
In his wrap-up talk, Kwinter said that this moment is characterized by a "fluidity of collaborations" that is a new development. But we also face "the problem of matter and its relation to regimes of control and regulation," a comment that picked up on Woolford's "generation gap" assertion.

The problem of nature is fundamental to the 21st century, he added, noting that what distinguishes the modern period is the convergence of physics and biology. He cited Whitehead's observation that biology deals with larger organisms and physics with smaller ones. Kwinter mentioned three people whose work has a direct bearing on matter as the symposium approached it: the physicist Erwin Schrödinger; the biologist Joseph Needham; and the metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith. 

Schrödinger saw life as a pattern in time that unfolds an an asymmetric matrix, Kwinter said, seeing matter and structure as a field that is irregular and aperiodic. Needham stressed the importance of field work - observing nature - and of doing research without application to feed the "systems of explanation" about natural phenomena. Smith too felt that the theoretical always followed the empirical in science. He argued that matter couldn't be studied in a reductive way - that metallurgy was more like biology than physics, because matter is often in a "middle state": solids are like foams, films of matter than are structural but also in motion. Biology, Smith said, is a historical science because it's a sequence of events, and this history is also internal to matter.

Part of the panel: Makower, Menges, Lee, Testa, Kwinter.
The panel that followed Kwinter's talk was the least satisfactory part of the symposium. The moderator, "green entrepreneur" Joel Makower, asked the perennial "How can this be applied to the mainstream?" question that, ignoring Kwinter's talk, felt like a non-sequitor.

Asked what would help them make progress, Gutierrez and Sabin noted the difficulties of interdisciplinary work in the face of  turf wars among fields and problems of funding and resources. The panel discussion surfaced the issue of monopolizing discourse, as with the tussle over design between architecture and engineering. But the whole thrust of the symposium points to the need for a shared language with which to discuss problems that touch many fields, to which all of them must contribute, since none of them has a monopoly on the knowledge that's required.

I asked Kwinter afterward if he knew Paul Feyerabend's work. Yes, he said, and he'd thought of him, rereading Karl Popper. The enfant terrible philosopher of science argued for ignoring the border conditions and methodological niceties of "official" science. "Anything goes," he famously declared. This applies equally to the symposium's topics. We need a "new science" in Vico's sense of blending disciplines to get closer to the heart of the matter. We need a new attitude, also, that accepts that some failure is inherently part of making progress, and that "tuning" and "calibrating" are intrinsic to matter's unfolding. If we can live with that in other walks of life - airplanes and cars adopting carbon fibers, for example - it should be possible in the built environment.