Architectural Photographer | Russell Abraham
  1700 Webster
  Taronga House
  Spring Rd Residence
  Fourth Street East
  340 Fremont Apartments
  Danville House
  Orinda Residence
  Golden Gate Rec Center
  110 Sutter
  Roofstock Office
  SFO Airport FireHouse3
  Palo Alto Fire Station No. 3
  Warm Springs BART Station
  Santa Clara Square
  Riverpark Tower II
  The Orchards at Walnut Creek
  Bair Island Marina
  Tahoe Family Retreat
  Willow Glen Colonial Revival
  Santa Lucia Preserve Residence
  Telegraph Hill House
  Hillsborough Colonial
  Pac Heights House
  Alameda Home
  Portola Valley Home
  Sinbad Creek
  Hilldale House
  Politzer Drive
  Los Gatos Home
  One Henry Adams
  Nobu Hotel Miami Beach
  Chateau Tivoli
  California Pizza Kitchen
  The Alise
  COMO Shambhala Estate
  Silicon Valley Courtyard by Marriott
  W San Francisco
  Il Fornaio Restaurant
  Hotel Griffon
  The Progress
  ARMA Museum and Resort
  Francis Ford Coppola Winery
  The Bristol Hotel
  The Orchard Garden Hotel


Early morning at Bair Island, near Redwood City, CA.
Early morning at Bair Island, near Redwood City, CA.

2020, What a Year!

OK, we are all taking a deep breath. Most of us managed to dodge a bullet. None of our immediate family got the virus. Only one of my kids lost his job and he is doing fine. We collectively managed to displace the Orange Fool in the White House, even though he is still screaming he does not want to leave. The economy looked like it was going to collapse in the spring and then managed to hang in there. I saw my retirement funds get chopped by 30% and then manage a decent gain by the end of 2020.

The new Palo Alto Fire Station No. 3. Shah Kawasaki Architects.
The new Palo Alto Fire Station No. 3. Shah Kawasaki Architects.

This is not to say some of us didn't take a beating. Many of our favorite restaurants and music venues are gone. We have lost close to 370,000 souls through ignorance and stupidity. Calling COVID-19 a "Democrat Hoax" was just about the most stupid thing any leader could say. Infectious Disease doesn't have a party affiliation. COVID-19 doesn't care if you are rich or poor, or live in the city or the country. It is just looking for the next host. Praise be given to all the public health officials, doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and medical assistants that have shepherded us through this medieval horror. They are true heroes all. Hopefully as a society, we can learn a lesson from this pandemic and be better prepared for the next one.

Residents at Madison Park Apartments senior housing. Development by EBALDC.
Residents at Madison Park Apartments senior housing. Development by EBALDC.

Oddly enough, we were engaged in a broad variety of projects over the year that touched on a wide range of creative endeavors. In no special order we shot houses grand and small. We photographed a lot of spaces dedicated to the very poor, the very rich, and those who someday might be rich. We shot some of the gritty side of Oakland and a bustling, restored, historic 19th Century downtown that was inspirational. We photographed towers of glass from Silicon Valley to the Central Valley and public buildings that anchored in the past. Kristen and I set about learning some new skills that we could offer to our clients. We put together the tools and learned how to create 360° virtual tours. Click on this link to see the results.

With the expert help of our partner, Eric Sahlin, we also did some time-lapse imaging of construction progress. Click here to view the video. Working with Eric and Arlen, our other drone pilot, we did a lot of drone imaging for a broad spectrum of clients. The image quality on drones has gotten dramatically better in the last few years. Who knew that shooting images from 75 ft. aloft was a great way to look at a building?

Stone Valley Middle School in Danville, CA. HKIT Architects.
Stone Valley Middle School in Danville, CA. HKIT Architects.
HVAC installation by Silicon Valley Mechanical.
HVAC installation by Silicon Valley Mechanical.

In an unpredictable way, both Kristen and I managed to thrive in a very difficult work environment. We both miss doing things we love. We have gone from sit down meals in our favorite restaurants to take-out. Regular trips to the gym have been replaced to long weekend walks with my wife. Live concerts have disappeared. My regular art group has become a zoom meeting in Barcelona. Kristen is bristling to get back to the swing dance scene. We can only hope that everyone wears a mask, listens to public health officials, and gets vaccinated. Life will return to normal soon if everyone plays by the rules and uses some common sense.

Crescent Village Apartment Homes in San Jose, CA. Irvine Co Apartment Communities.
Crescent Village Apartment Homes in San Jose, CA. Irvine Co Apartment Communities.
Athens Administrators office, Concord, CA. ODS Architects.
Athens Administrators office, Concord, CA. ODS Architects.
BLM mural in Oakland's Chinatown district.
BLM mural in Oakland's Chinatown district.

Glass Artist John Lewis's home in Oakland.
Glass Artist John Lewis's home in Oakland.

Thinking Small

Yes, we do photograph large architectural projects around the region for a variety of architects, designers, and developers. We also have a soft spot in our hearts for start-up design firms and individuals doing interesting work. This past fall we completed three interesting jobs you might like to see.

The Margarido Dr. Remodel for Alward Construction

This is the home of noted Glass Artist John Lewis. His medium is large cast glass sculptures used in mostly grand architectural tableaus. In this instance, Lewis brought his brought his glass artistry into his home. With the help of architect Jerri Holan and the skillful craftsmanship of Alward Construction, he used his cast glass creations as countertops, door insets, and lighting fixtures. Holan opened up the boxy 40's hillside house, expanded the kitchen, added a new dining room and completely changed the flow of the house. The 42" front door and side lights have inch and one half thick sculpted glass insets. On a sunny day, the house is filled with dappled patterns of filtered light radiating through thick glass windows.

Ty Karges Home

Ty Karges is a young woman starting a new home staging business. Her first project is her own house. Home staging is a complex business that requires great resources and an ability to jump through hoops at a moment's notice. It also involves good taste. Karges has more than her share of the latter. From shopping at high end suppliers to finding handcrafted accessories on Etsy, Ty is always on the lookout for something unique. Spending half a Saturday creating images that would become the backbone of her website was a fun experience. Ty was a gracious host and her sense of good taste was exhibited in every accessory and piece of furniture.

Coast Mastering

Michael Romansky is the brains behind Coast Mastering, a post production music studio tucked away in a quiet Berkeley neighborhood. Michael is the invisible savant behind much of the pop music you hear coming out of all your devices. Michael is the sound engineer who puts all the musical pieces together for the final rendition of a broad range of music. His work runs from Mozart to Alicia Keys to Too $hort. His hidden away studio is an audio masterpiece. The minute I walked in the room I knew I was in a "dead space," one that was acoustically neutral. Giant Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo speakers dominated the room with a central mixing command consul and more blinking indicator lights and VU meters than you can count. Clients often stop by to listen in. His lighting system is designed to change room color to match the music. He played an Alicia Keys song he was producing. I dared to touch the volume control. There were 16 speakers in the room with a different instrument emanating from each one with Key's voice booming from the massive ones in front of me. Alicia never sounded so good.

Grand Hyatt at SFO
Grand Hyatt at SFO.

Looking Up

Thirty years ago, most high-rises were sheathed in concrete panels with pop-in windows. Fiberglass reinforced concrete (GFRC) was an innovation for this building technology because it rendered a much lighter panel. Lighter buildings mean lighter structures, seismically safer, and less expensive buildings. Some buildings had aluminum panels and medium sized windows, but there was always a design tradeoff. And that was heat loss and gain. The greenhouse effect in buildings has been know for a long time. When sunlight shines through a window, the heat forming wavelengths want to stay on the inside. This is great on a cold day in winter, but not so great on a summer day when the thermometer is marching to the century mark.

Architectural glass makers have understood the problem of heat transmission for decades. They have finally done something about it creating a low-e glass that has greatly increased the material's ability to insulate and stop heat creating infrared light from entering a space. These recent technological gains have transformed high-rise design. Did I mention glass is much lighter than GFRC panels? Today, high-rise structures of thin, post-tensioned concrete plates and sleek floor to ceiling low-e glass panels set in thin aluminum frames are the new norm. One client of ours, Hydro, is the world's largest manufacturer of extruded aluminum. In a city like San Francisco, the added benefit is often killer views.

For most of this year we have been working with Architectural Glass & Aluminum, one of the leading suppliers of architectural glass panels on the west coast, documenting their numerous projects up and down California. From courthouses to condo towers, the design style has been the same, the sleek, dark wall of glass with its aluminum framing. Architects use a variety of design techniques to modulate the surface and sometimes articulate structure, not to mention imagination. But the basic premise holds: building technology has finally caught up with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Bauhaus concept of glass boxes reaching to the skies.

500 Folsom St, San Francisco. Designed by SOM Architects
500 Folsom St, San Francisco. Designed by SOM Architects.

Coping with COVID-19

The people here in northern California are so law abiding. Even folks down the street sitting outside at a well frequented watering hole are wearing masks. The president is right, "It will just go away like magic," but not nearly as soon as he wishes. One to two years out might be a more realistic timeline. In the meantime, we are practicing good hygiene and safe practices in our daily business life to insure we all stay safe and healthy. Mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing are the norm in the studio and on location. I am encouraged that the infection rate here is on a downward trajectory. Let us keep it that way until most of us have gotten vaccinated.

Mural at 8th and Webster in Oakland's Chinatown district.
Mural at 8th and Webster in Oakland's Chinatown district.

Finding Art in the Ashes in Oakland

Oakland always seems to be on the cusp of a revival. The old Sears store was converted into tech workspace for Square after Uber declined the invitation. So was Bruener's and a handful of other landmark buildings from the 1920s. But the pandemic and subsequent urban upheavals have left a lot of street level retail with boarded up windows and unhappy tenants. Surprisingly, a small army of artists have emerged to create handsome, politically active art on the new blank canvases that line Oakland's main boulevards. My wife Candice and I took a walk down its major streets one Sunday afternoon and found a lot to like. Some murals were crude, but many were done with a skillful hand and told a painful but hopeful message.

We ran into an artist, Matt Hunter, actively painting a series of murals of Black cultural heroes at 17th and Broadway. He told us that he was interested in painting the portraits of local folks, like the filmmaker Boots Riley, who are not fully appreciated here in their hometown.

In Chinatown we found lots of dragons and phoenixes and small queues of people lined up for take out bowls of Pho and spring rolls. On 9th St, loud R&B bounced off the walls of surrounding Old Town from a night club turned into an outdoor drinking establishment filled with people of all races. It may be a while longer before we can recover from this pandemic, but the vitality the local artists show in these murals will hopefully become a harbinger of a brighter future for this and every city.

A 360° Virtual Tours Adventure

360° virtual tours have been around for a long time. We have shied away from them because they had a vertigo-inducing quality. But recently, because of the issues of the pandemic, a few of our residential multi-family clients have asked us to take another look. We did. And now I can say we have the ability to create a realistic visual walkthrough that will not leave you seasick.

Creating a 360° tour from 2D files is akin to constructing a globe from the inside out. Each piece of the globe's surface is a photograph of a room that is fitted into the spherical projection, stitched together as one large and strangely distorted Jpeg and then projected through a software player as a global view of the room. There are several hurdles to jump through to create a 360, including rotating the camera on the lens' optical axis, compensating for great exposure variances, and stitching in floor and ceilings in a seamless way. The end result, if done correctly is a movie-like experience.

The other alternative to 360 2D is a 360 3D experience that is created with a stereo-360 camera. The brand name for this proprietary 3D application is Matterport. These folks use gaming technology to create laser models of a space or a whole building and then paint in 3D photos of each room. Rather than being at a stationary point and viewing a space, the Matterport tour lets you walk through the space as if you were in a 3D movie. Matterport can also create a floor plan and an orthographic projection of the room.

HVAC Equipment being lifted to the 10th story rooftop.
HVAC Equipment being lifted to the 10th story rooftop.

Looking Up

Usually when we are asked to photograph a project, we often arrive just as the painters and landscapers are finishing. Sometimes they are still working on the job as we are shooting. Occasionally we get to actually don hard hats, safety vests and glasses to shoot a project that is under construction. This past winter we shot two high rise projects in Silicon Valley for construction companies. These assignments were an interesting break from shooting completed buildings. On one of the projects we brought along our video partner, Eric Sahlin, who spent 8 hours shooting a time-lapse video that he telescoped into two minutes. Not only was it fun photographing dozens of highly trained construction workers perform complex tasks with effortless precision, for a day we got to document that process. Here is a quick sampler of two days, ten and fourteen stories up, ankle-deep in wet concrete.

Brokaw Rd
The project for Silicon Valley Mechanical was particularly challenging since we began ten stories up on the roof documenting the installation of a complex HVAC system in the pouring rain. Due to the announcement of the Shelter-in-Place ordered to take effect that night, the driven SVM crew completed 95% of this project in a single day, instead of the two days originally planned. Keeping ourselves and our gear dry while trying not to get wacked by huge chillers and pipes swinging overhead was an exercise in nimbleness. We documented SVM's installation of approximately 1,800 linear feet of pipe over ten prefabricated picks, twelve steel beams for AHU isolation, two 3-piece AHUs, six fans, a 27,000 pound combination skid, two 360-ton chillers, and fifteen or so large sectioned pieces of ductwork.

MIRO is a high-rise mixed-use residential project in downtown San Jose designed by Steinberg Architects. The development will be two 28-story towers when completed, making it the tallest residential building in San Jose. We were hired by Suffolk Construction to help update their portfolio of high-rise residential structures. Sited directly across the street from San Jose's new city hall, the building will have spectacular views of the city and the surrounding mountains. We were fortunate to be able to document the concrete pour of one floor from the second tower where form-work prep was being completed. Sometime early next year San Jose will have another 630 living units in the heart of the city.

COVID-19 Lessons

It became screamingly obvious to me and most thinking people that we had a problem on our hands back in March. Reading about a choir where 65% of the members became infected from a two-hour practice in a church hall convinced me that this was one highly contagious virus. This was the "black swan" event that epidemiologists had been warning about for years. It is clear that this is a disease transmitted by breathing other peoples' air in confined spaces. One does not get this disease from dirty toilet seats or taking a leisurely jog in the park. A person gets it from breathing contaminated air in an enclosed space. As much as we enjoy warming a barstool in our favorite pub or dining in a banquet in our cozy corner ethnic eatery, we are going to have to postpone those pleasures to preserve our public health. The science behind controlling these infectious diseases has been around a long time. A quarantine is something the Italians figured out in the 15th Century to control the Plague. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from the last pandemic that ravaged the world 100 years ago seem to have been forgotten by some Americans. I think it is time to let the scientists call the shots on this pandemic and have the politicians take a back seat. As for the anti-mask crowd, their warped vision of freedom is a threat to everyone. They should be ticketed the same way if you run a stop sign. Short of a vaccine, the only way we are going to stop this menace is by using some common sense and listening to the scientists who have been studying this for a generation.

Police maintaining order as pedestrians wait. San Francisco, 1972.
Police maintaining order as pedestrians wait. San Francisco, 1972.

Déjà Vu, All Over Again

Somewhere in high school I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance. I was OK with everything except the "One nation under God" part. In a civil society where one could worship any god from Krishna to Allah to Jesus, what did god have to do with pledging allegiance? But the line I really did like was "with liberty and justice for all." That made the most sense to me. That was the glue that kept us all together as a nation: the idea that we all had the same rights and the same access to justice. That is the simple reason that brown folks are risking their lives to cross our southern border. It is that basic desire for freedom and justice. To live in a place where they can be treated fairly and not summarily hauled off to jail and never seen again because they said something a crooked government official didn't like. Whether your name ends in a -berg, a -ski or -i or -shin, your ancestors came here so they could live their lives in justice and peace. Unless, of course, if you are black. Our fellow African-American citizens have the unique distinction of being the only people brought here in chains to serve our economic system. Slavery has been the original sin of this society for 400 years and continues to be a stain on our collective psyche. I don't need to recount the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow for you to understand that liberty and justice is not easily found among the ranks of our black citizens. Over 7000 mostly black people lynched in our country between 1876 and 1940 should be testament enough of our failure of providing "liberty and justice for all."

I am old enough to have lived through a similar time of social unrest, the 1960s. In my senior year at U.C. Berkeley, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the span of four months and most black neighborhoods in America were left in ashes. Hundreds of people died from "police violence."

I marched and photographed many demonstrations in the Bay Area from the late 1960s into the 1970s. They were all different. Many were peaceful, some not so. Most of the time, the police did their job and behaved themselves. Sometimes they responded with gratuitous violence, like the time I watched a phalanx of CHP in downtown Oakland attack a group of people waiting for a bus several blocks from the actual demonstration. They clearly were not the college kids who had come to demonstrate. They were just middle-aged people on their way to work. They were all badly injured. With the baton-swinging CHP just feet from my head, I did not stay to see the fate of those injured passengers.

These days I watch tens of thousands of people marching for justice in cities big and small across the nation, just as we did in the 1960s. Then, Richard Nixon ran on a "Law and Order" platform that barely edged him into the presidency in 1968. Today, it seems that "Clorox Don" wants to resurrect that mantra and have a repeat performance. With all due respect to the cleansing power of Clorox, I think this time will be different. What sane American can argue against: "Liberty and Justice for All"?  To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  For the sake of our nation, we can only hope this time he is right.

Homeowner Breeze Braunschweig and her companion Bayou, a Catahoula Leopard Dog, the state dog of Louisiana.

Two Houses Out of the Ordinary

Late last year we were asked by Alward Construction to photograph a very unique house in the Berkeley Hills. The house is the creation of Breeze Braunschweig, a woman of various careers, interests, and expressions. The original house was a two-story hillside number with a somewhat predictable Spanish revival façade. Working with Alward and architects Leger and Wanaselja, Braunschweig expanded the footprint both horizontally and vertically with decks off each level and an in-law unit on the newly discovered ground floor.

Breeze is a collector and every corner of her house contains some curated artifact from the last century. Almost every door and fixture is recycled. She spends about half her time in New Orleans working and remodeling another house in the Marigny District. She owns an old pick up truck which she fills with objects and carefully ferrys them from the deep south to her Berkeley home. Breeze stumbled over a wing from a Cessna Skymaster and figured out a way to use it as an awning on her upper floor deck. Here is a house in the Berkeley hills both eclectically grounded in the past century and ready to take off.

A month or so ago, Sylvia Kwan, principal in the San Francisco office of DLR Group / Kwan Henmi, asked me to shoot their house in Kentfield.  She and her architect/partner husband, Denis Henmi, built the house a few years back and I had photographed it then. They had just done a small remodel and wanted me to take some portraits of the both of them for a local magazine spread.  The quarantine regime had just started and we all made a conscious effort to keep our six foot distance.

The house was basically a tear down build-over on a large wooded site in beautiful Marin County very close to the College of Marin. Denis and Sylvia created a classic mid-century modern house with large open spaces that seamlessly connected with the outdoors. Denis is Japanese American, which informs his approach to the surfaces, fixtures, and volumes of the house in a subtle and tasteful way. The house is filled with both contemporary American art and classic Asian pieces. Sylvia and Denis have built a long and successful career designing both large multi-family projects as well as large scale transportation ones. Experiencing their personal space was a refreshing relief from their commercial and civic work.

Opening a Time Capsule

Being stuck at home during this quarantine has afforded me the opportunity to finally get to those scores of projects around the house that always get stuck into the "mañana" bin. At my dear wife's admonition, we tackled the basement this week. She retrieved a tattered box labeled "Old Letters." Opening the box was like entering a time capsule. It was chock full of correspondence from my college years and my days of living abroad in the early 1970s. Letters from family, friends and the draft board. ;Notices of college acceptance and scholarships given. The letters are very typical from college kids of the era, filled with angst, alienation, longing, and desire. The letters also are revealing documents of peoples' lives during one of the most unsettled times in our modern history. With many cities in the flames of racial strife and many of my cohorts being coerced to fight an ugly war of conquest, people were still able to express both love and hope. Some of the letters documented the literal hand to hand combat going on in the streets of college towns like Berkeley. Others, from a distant girlfriend, expressed the longing of one's touch. People of my generation expressed themselves in words on paper. Sheets of onion skin carefully stuffed into blue envelopes with red white and blue chevroned edges. People sent poems or long quotes from Chinese philosophers to each other as a matter of course! Almost all the letters are hand-written in beautiful script showing a discipline long lost. Expressing one's closest feelings on paper to a friend or lover seems to have fallen victim to our hyper tech society. Text messages and Twitter have become our replacement communication media. Hopefully the warmth and intimacy found on these almost ancient sheets of onion skin paper will find a way to be part our tech communications of the 21th century.

Old Oakland: Living History

Leland Stanford may have driven in the last spike on the Central Pacific Railroad in Promontory, Utah in 1869, but the transcontinental railroad ended on Seventh St. in downtown Oakland. And so, almost overnight, a commercial district grew up to service arriving travelers from the East. Those buildings, originally hotels and retail shops, are still standing and represent the largest intact collection of period Victorian commercial buildings on the west coast. Many of the buildings have unique cast iron facades and large plate glass windows, all very modern in 1875.

Although in continual use since the 1870s the area was long neglected, and buildings decayed. In the 1990s, the firm of Storek & Storek bought the properties and did major restoration work. The current owner, 11 West Properties has continued to restore and improve the properties. Today, Old Oakland is an active mix of boutique retail, restaurants and office space. The second and third stories of each building are occupied by tech companies, non-profits and internet start-ups. ThredUp, Blue Bottle, and Y-Combinator are tenants.

From top: ThredUp, Blue Bottle, Y-Combinator.

Last month we were asked by Eastdil to spend a couple of days to photograph the entire area including the robust social life and weekly farmers market. What we saw on the street was delightful. What we saw inside was amazing. It is almost a miracle that this slice of architectural history has been able to survive, be rediscovered and reused in the middle of a vibrant city. Old Oakland seems to be a place where the 19th Century and the 21st Century can live hand in hand.

Our Own Server

After years of using subscription services for FTP delivery, we finally initiated our own server. It works quite well and has a UPS backup. It is a RAID based array of large and reliable hard drives linked to a very fast commercial grade internet connection. ;Now when you receive a link from us, the downloading process will take a few minutes rather than a few hours. That should make everyone happy.

Sometimes looking backward can be fun. Knowing where we have been often helps us know where we want to go. So we took a quick look and the teens and came up with a retrospective format where we would pick out one interesting project from each year and try to find something timeless, if not beautiful about each one. I am divided up this retrospective into two newsletters, denominated by years. Let's continue with with 2015.

2015: Hotel Grace, San Francisco, Michael Stanton Architects

San Francisco has been a destination for people since 1849 all looking for their own pot of gold. Visitors do need a place to sleep and the city's hoteliers have been only too happy to offer one. Surrounding Union Square are a phalanx of big name five star establishments with legendary names and storied histories. This need to provide a home for the less well heeled traveler has been part of the city's business since it was first a city. Enter Stay Pineapple, a Seattle based boutique hotel group that wanted to join the long list of hotel entrepreneurs desiring a piece of the local small hotel market. Hotel Grace became their first entry into the Bay Area market. The hotel's origins date back to the post earthquake building boom a century ago. The new owners wanted to take a 1 ½ star place and move it up to a 4 star one. Stanton Architects reworked the old building from top to bottom, but put most of their energy on the ground floor remodel. Their efforts yielded a pleasant blend of Beaux-Arts grace with modern design touches.

Hotel Grace, San Francisco, Michael Stanton Architects
Hotel Grace, San Francisco, Michael Stanton Architects

2016: Bali Guest Houses, Bali, Indonesia by Alejandra Cisneros

We don't get to travel internationally too often, but when we do, it is usually very rewarding. In 2016 we were contacted by an American ex-pat, Alejandra Cisneros, running a small design firm in Bali who was interested in having her residential projects photographed for a monograph of her work. Her work is, to say the least, quite exceptional. She finds historic 18th and 19th Century houses from the island of Java, disassembles them, brings them to the island of Bali and creates a new house from the parts. The end result is an amazing blend of historic Polynesian design and Modern precepts. Many, but not all, of her clients are ex-pats from Europe and Australia who wanted to enjoy the beauty of the Balinese lifestyle. We spent close to a month there soaking in South Pacific Island culture. A remarkable experience.

Bali Guest Houses by Alejandra Cisneros
Bali Guest Houses by Alejandra Cisneros
Bali Guest Houses by Alejandra Cisneros
Bali Guest Houses by Alejandra Cisneros

2017: Santa Clara Square, The Irvine Company and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Palo Alto Farm House, FG Architects

Santa Clara Square by the Irvine Company is one of the largest multi-use building projects in Silicon Valley. It consists of 8 mid-rise office buildings, 1500 units of apartments and a large retail complex. Built over a period of 4 years, we have been fortunate enough to be able to photograph it in each of its phases. The project is still being built and we are continuing to photograph its various parts as they are completed. Working around the Live, Work, Play concept, SCS can be an almost self contained urban city with a city. The Irvine Company has done an amazing job designing this urban center for the South Bay. Once upon a time, there were farms in Palo Alto. I know, Palo Alto is the heart of Silicon Valley and any farms left would be peoples' vegetable gardens. But architecture is often historic and people often want to reference it to remind them of times past.

Fergus Garber Architects of Palo Alto are masters of blending the historic with the modern. Palo Alto, like many cities in the Bay Area is very much interested in preserving its traditional middle America college town look with strong design restrictions on new buildings. FGA managed to thread the needle with this project creating a completely livable modern house with a "farm house" feel.

Santa Clara Square, The Irvine Company and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Santa Clara Square, The Irvine Company and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Palo Alto Farm House, FG Architects
Palo Alto Farm House, FG Architects
Palo Alto Farm House, FG Architects

2018: Two Modern houses by Swatt | Miers, Fletcher Hardoin

Swatt | Miers have been clients of ours for many years. Their work keeps getting better. In 2018 we managed to shoot three houses for them, all in the modernist vein that they do so well. The Amara house is just the latest example of what the firm can do when they have a client with a singular taste and deep enough pockets to follow through on the original design concept.

Fletcher Hardoin is one of the leading architectural firms on the Central Coast. Their work is divided between luxury hospitality design and custom houses. Dan Fletcher worked with Jorie Clark Design to create a wonderful butterfly design house in the Santa Lucia Preserve. The house sits on one of the prettiest parts of the Preserve and offers a sense of serenity, elegance and beauty for the owners.

Amara House, by Swatt | Miers Architects
Amara House, by Swatt | Miers Architects
Amara House, by Swatt | Miers Architects

Santa Lucia Preserve Residence, Fletcher Hardoin Architects. Interiors By Jorie Clark Design.
Santa Lucia Preserve Residence, Fletcher Hardoin Architects. Interiors By Jorie Clark Design.

2019: Capitol 650 and Fourth Street East by KTGY Architects

It was hard to pick one multi-family project to feature from 2019 since we probably shot ten of them, but two stood out because of their scale and prominence as landmarks in newly emerging neighborhoods. Luxury apartment development is alive and well all around the Bay and we have photographed a fair amount of them in the last few years. We have also photographed below market rate and senior housing in a surprising number in the same time frame. No one design firm has a corner on this market, but our good friends at KTGY are major participants. We picked two of the five projects we have worked on with them in the last year or so.

Capitol 650 sits on a former cabbage patch in soon to be beautiful Milpitas, just steps away from the latest BART station. This large multi-level project has apartments and ground level town homes designed for families.

Fourth Street East just finished in 2019 and is a massive two building complex in the Jack London Square neighborhood. Designed to fit in with the existing waterfront warehouses the buildings feature brick facades and corrugated metal cladding reflecting the ubiquitous shipping containers at the port just blocks away.

Capitol 650 by KTGY Architecture + Planning
Capitol 650 by KTGY Architecture + Planning

Fourth Street East, by KTGY Architecture + Planning
Fourth Street East, by KTGY Architecture + Planning

Sometimes looking backward can be fun. Knowing where we have been often helps us know where we want to go. So we took a quick look and the teens and came up with a retrospective format where we would pick out one interesting project from each year and try to find something timeless, if not beautiful about each one. I am dividing up this retrospective into two newsletters, denominated by years. Let's start with 2010.

2010: Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Elk Grove, CA - HGA Architects

HGA expanded from its upper mid-western origins to California in a big way. They opened up four offices in Northern and Southern California in the oughts and started doing a lot of higher education and religious work. Of the many projects we photographed for them, Good Shepherd Catholic Church in a suburb of Sacramento was one of the most interesting. With curvilinear lines reminiscent of Notre Dame du Haut, this stunning gem of a church building is a surprise find in the central valley's often dull suburban sprawl.

2011: Two modern houses - Robert Swatt, Wm. David Martin

In 2011 I was in the middle of developing a survey book for Images Publishing of Melbourne and as a result, shooting a lot of houses around the U.S. Two great houses, one in the rugged East Bay hills of the Bay Area and the other on the edge of the Carmel River stand out. The Sinbad Creek house, by Robert Swatt, F.A.I.A. stands out for its simplicity of line and beautiful integration into the hillside environment.

The other, by Wm. David Martin, built on the edge of the Carmel River in Central California, is laid out along the lines of a classic Spanish hacienda with an enclosed courtyard and circular orientation. Both are dramatically modern yet very different in their approach.

Sinbad Creek House. Architect Robert Swatt
Sinbad Creek House. Architect Robert Swatt. Interior Design: Jorie Clark

Carmel House. Architect Wm. David Martin
Carmel House. Architect Wm. David Martin

2012: Martinez Commons student housing, Berkeley - EHDD and Behnisch Architekten

Just down the street from the notorious "People's Park" in Berkeley EHDD created a wonderful multi-functional student housing and services community center. Neo-Brutalism has certainly been part of EHDD's vocabulary, but in Martinez raw concrete gives way to wood, glass and metal design elements that are used to create a striking contemporary look. Berkeley Student Housing Services originally hired the German firm, Behnisch Architekten, but later called in EHDD to take over the overpriced and unbuildable design. The site was the home of the old Anna Head School which left in the 1970s and is slowly being absorbed into the Berkeley campus. Ironically, a year later, we ended up shooting the new Anna Head School (now known as Head Royce School) for Malick Architects in the Oakland hills.

Maximino Martinez Commons. EHDD Architecture.
Maximino Martinez Commons. EHDD Architecture.

2013: Scottsdale House and LA Valley College - Will Bruder Architect, Steinberg Architects

Working on another book project, I got the opportunity to work with Will Bruder in Phoenix, AZ photographing a house he did for a local family. Bruder is something of the heir apparent to a long line of princely architect outsiders starting with Frank Wright, that have made the Sonoran Desert home. Bruder's list of amazing award winning buildings is significant, but he still does houses. This Scottsdale house nestled in a hillside suburban site offers up surprise and delight at every turn.

Steinberg Architects in Los Angeles does a lot of academic and institutional work in the region. Their remake of the entrance and main plaza of LA Valley College is a tasteful effort to give a dramatic sense of place to an understated community college in the San Fernando Valley. The folded plate metal canopies offer both shade and a sense of place to the utilitarian administration buildings they are attached to.

Scottsdale House by Will Bruder, Architect.

LA Valley College. Architect: Steinberg Hart.

2014: Pelican Point House, Carmel Highlands - Eric Miller Architects

Big Sur has a special place in California's cultural and literary past. In the 1950s it was discovered by the beats, then hippies and later, New Age types who made it their home or their place away from home. Think Alan Ginsburg, Gary Snyder, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac. A generation or so earlier writers like Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers lived or wrote about the place. Dramatic stone cliffs that jut into a swirling surf below offer some of the most breathtaking tableaus in North America. Here on a cliff overlooking Point Lobos, Eric Miller was able to create a dreamscape house with unparalleled views and jaw dropping beauty. And we were lucky enough to spend some time there photographing it.

Next month we will finish the decade review with five more spectacular, architecturally interesting projects that we have been fortunate enough to be part of. We would love to be part of your designs in the 2020s. Just click on the link and let us know what you need us to do:

Pelican Point House by Eric Miller Architects.
Pelican Point House by Eric Miller Architects.

Abraham & Paulin Photography
The bustling Las Ramblas pedestrian street in Barcelona, Spain.

Looking for a Sense of Community

We have the good fortune to photograph all kinds of spaces, from the homes of the ultra-wealthy to shelters for the disadvantaged. With each job we gain a small sense of who we are and a bit of thankfulness for our station. It is especially rewarding to work for architects who have been tasked with building a sense of community in their work. Some projects are overtly community based, like community centers and public squares. Others are more subtle uses of private space for public use. In each instance, the concept of people sharing space and coming together for some common purpose is the central theme.

Europeans may have had their differences and certainly much blood has been spilled gratuitously in the name of this king or that religion, but over the centuries, their compact cities have provided a us with a remarkable blueprint for public space. My wife Candice and I spent several weeks in Spain this past spring soaking in the urban textures of its most noteworthy cities. Las Ramblas in Barcelona or La Plaza Mayor in Madrid should not be replicated here, but we can learn from their vitality and adaptability. As we rethink our urban fabric, providing spaces for people to congregate, dine, and live will be a primary task. Here is just a quick look at some community oriented spaces we have photographed over the past year.

The Oshman Family JCC Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.
The Oshman Family JCC Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto JCC

The Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto was designed by Steinberg Architects ten years ago. They asked us to photograph a community celebration this past summer. The JCC sits on a large site, the former home of Sun Micro Systems in south Palo Alto. In addition to serving a large Jewish community on the Peninsula, it also houses a low-income housing unit, a senior living facility, sports fields, a daycare center and two swimming pools. Almost half of the members are not Jewish and a Christian church uses one of their meeting halls on Sunday. Jews, Christians and Asians happily use all the JCC's well-appointed facilities. It truly is a private space dedicated to a public good.

Rotary Terrace, South San Francisco

Rotary Terrace is a mid-sized senior-housing facility in the heart of South San Francisco. The project was designed by HKIT Architects and was developed by the Rotary Club and Human Good, a housing non-profit. Rotary Terrace is an independent living facility for moderate-income seniors. Almost all the residents living there were thrilled to have the opportunity to live in a safe, clean, well-run facility in the heart of the Bay Area. Many of the residents had middle class lives until medical bills or supporting a sick spouse wiped them out financially. Rotary Terrace has become a safe haven for these residents.

ZO Apartments, Oakland

ZO is a recently completed high-rise apartment building in the middle of downtown Oakland. The project, developed by Gerding Edlen and designed by Perkins and Will, is one of a dozen new multifamily luxury high-rises that are quickly changing the core city. Like many of its cousins, it has smallish units complemented by expansive common spaces and decks on the podium level. Giving residents lots of room to hang out or make their home office is the trend in multi-family rental housing. ZO takes this theme one step further. The building has an open air "living room" on the ground level that is open to residents and the public. From 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon anyone can take a seat on a comfy couch in this public / private space and take respite from the busy street just steps away. Now if they could just add a pop-up coffee bar . . .

The Charles Porter Golden Gate Recreation Center

The Charles Porter Golden Gate Recreation Center in north Oakland is a new facility replacing a decades old one. Designed by Shah Kawasaki Architects, the center serves a large minority community with sports and educational programs. There are classrooms for after school programs and a small stage and dance studio for local performing groups. Facilities like these can be the life blood of working-class neighborhoods like north Oakland. I can remember spending many hours of a lazy summer in my youth at the local Rec Center learning pottery and taking art classes.

Photography by Abraham & Paulin Photography
ZO at 1700 Webster St, Oakland. Developer: Gerding Edlen. Architect: Perkins and Will.

The Quickly Changing Skyline of Oakland

Developers lined up in 2015 to beat a rise in the per unit development fee for new projects in Oakland. As a result, close to a dozen new high and mid-rise buildings are in the process of being built or completed in downtown Oakland. We had the good fortune of photographing one of the first projects to be completed in this phase of development. Gerding Edlen, a nationwide real estate investment and development firm, commissioned the high-profile Perkins and Will to design their 23-story tower on 17th and Webster in the heart of downtown. This apartment project is Gerding Edlens most ambitious project in the Bay Area to-date and breaks some new ground for Perkins and Will as well. Unique to your typical high-rise multi-family developments, the Perkins and Will team, led by Ming Ming Ong, added some attractive design features that make the building stand out on a street lined with colorful tile facades from an earlier era.

ZO, the new name for the building, sits squarely on Webster St., but its main entrance is on 17th. A substantial parking garage sits under the podium level and is wrapped in a folded, perforated metal screen of powder coated triangles interrupted by vertical panels of colored glass.  The building's entrance is marked by a shiny brushed aluminum canopy that rises to the 5th floor podium and becomes a covered enclosed seating area on the deck level. This four-story high enclosure yields a dramatic and sculptural element to the streetscape.The Perkins and Will designers use some simple but effective tricks to break up the glass slab look on the main tower by using walls of white concrete cut into discrete sections by bands of slate gray and white end caps. The effect is to create a stacked box look with window wall inserts.

At street level is a large, well appointed lobby with a huge garage door that is left open most days. Residents or people from the neighborhood can come sit in the comfortable lobby with its garden, sculpture wall and easy access to 17th street undisturbed. The building oozes with amenities, like a place to wash your dog, store your bike, have a party with one hundred of your closest friends, or chill out by the rooftop pool. Downtown Oakland has been in the urban dumpster for a generation. With ZO and its soon to be finished cousins, that is about to change.

Getting Married

One of the most fun things about being a photographer is not knowing where the next assignment is coming from. That is not to say that every e-mail is an offer to sail off to photograph a luxury resort in the South Pacific, but sometimes the calls just pull us out of our rut. Last month we got a call from a wedding planning company who wanted us to photograph a few of their wedding venues. Wow, who would have thought that there was an entire slice of the hospitality trade that did ONLY weddings! Wedgewood Weddings is the number one provider of turn-key weddings in the U.S. They can get you everything you need except a spouse. Our role in this assignment was to photograph two of their NorCal venues. The founders, John & Linda Zaruka, are real-estate visionaries who saw attractive, under-used meeting spaces, often private golf clubs and historic houses as a perfect venue for their wedding company. John and Linda seasonally leased the properties, brought them up to code, gave them a facelift, and created a venue. A prospective couple need only select the champagne and write the check. Wedgewood does everything else.

Wedgewood Weddings San Ramon venue.
Wedgewood Weddings San Ramon venue.

Jefferson Street Mansion, Benicia, CA
Jefferson Street Mansion, Benicia, CA.

Of the two places we photographed, the Jefferson Street Mansion at the old Armory in Benicia was wonderful. Originally an officer's quarters in the 19th Century, this historic house was completely decorated in period Victorian elegance when Wedgewood got there. They thinned out the furniture, added an outdoor chapel, dining room, and bar to complete the arrangement. From April to the end of October, the space is available to any prospective couple. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Carquinez Strait, what a perfect place to tie the knot. If only the rest of married life could be that easy.

Chase Center Area, SF. Photography by Abraham & Paulin Photography
The new Chase Center arena in Mission Bay, San Francisco.

A New Landmark For Mission Bay

It must have been the grease pencil sitting on the architect's desk, with its helical strips of paper peeling away to reveal its core that inspired the building envelope of San Francisco's new Chase Center Arena. Designed by MANICA Architecture of Kansas City, the Chase Center sits prominently on San Francisco's forgotten south waterfront. Wrapped in 20-foot-high curved ribbons of powder-coated steel, the arena makes a dramatic architectural statement that redefines this once industrial and nautical section of town.

The building's architecture is quite beautiful. Its front on Third St., and rear facing the bay, are both elegant and inviting. The helical ribbon design is exciting and keeps the building from overpowering the site. The building has two office towers that frame a large plaza that face Third Street. Getting thousands of fans or concert goers to and fro can present a problem, however.  SF Muni, Caltrain, and the ferry system will need to work overtime to bring guests to the front door.

I was always a fan of the Warriors' old Oakland home because of its architectural simplicity and structural cleverness. SOM hit a home run when they designed the Oakland Coliseum and Arena in the 1960s. The buildings did a great job of housing all three of Oakland's ball-sport teams. But times have changed, and spectator sports have become very big business. Sports team ownership has moved from rich eccentric individuals to corporate conglomerates that demand solo sport venues and upscale viewing accommodations. With the exception of the Cow Palace, San Francisco has never had an arena for either large sporting events or concerts. When major rock groups came to town, it was either Oakland's Oracle Arena or San Jose's SAP Arena that hosted them. Now San Francisco has a home for both. It will be interesting to see if the Chase Arena becomes a good neighbor to this newest part of the City, or just a traffic nuisance. It could be one more piece in the puzzle of transforming both Mission Bay and the Dogpatch neighborhoods.

Ocean View and Mountain Top Elegance in Carmel-by-the-Sea

I first discovered Carmel-by-the-Sea when I was a student at Berkeley many years ago. Its rustic cottages and windy roads bordered by a magnificent beach were compellingly beautiful. I am not the only one who has found Carmel magnetic. People from around the world often end up here, even if only for a brief visit. Both Pebble Beach and the Santa Lucia Preserve have the same zip code as Carmel and share much of the same oneness of living in paradise. Recently, we had the good fortune to photograph two houses, one at the beach and one on top of the mountain, that share a similar modernist theme.

Sea Glass by Eric Miller Architects

Sea Glass is a modernist home with a dramatic floor to ceiling open view of the Pacific just across narrow Scenic Drive. Architect Eric Miller has gone from a traditionalist to a modernist in the last dozen or so years creating a series of dramatic oceanside houses in the Monterey area. Building along the ocean on one of the most coveted stretches of real estate on the West Coast is always a challenge. Miller uses a few architectural tricks to reduce building height and expand views on a very tight lot.

Walls of glass are smartly juxtaposed against split faced limestone blocks for dramatic effect.  Working with an open floorplan and using below grade space to create additional rooms, Miller has created a large comfortable weekend home for a Bay Area couple.

Taronga by Holdren + Lietzke Architecture

The Santa Lucia Preserve, located next to Carmel Valley on the central coast, is an amazing place. Originally, it was the 20,000 acre ranch of a wealthy New York family. It was sold about twenty years ago and is slowly being developed into 300 home sites. This is not your average suburban development. The minimum acreage for each site is five acres with some being as large as 40. We were fortunate enough to be commissioned by Holdren + Lietzke Architecture to photograph their latest house in the Preserve, called Taronga, an Aboriginal word meaning beautiful view.

At 2100 feet in elevation, this is the highest point along this section of the Coastal Range. The views from every window are amazing; distant ocean views on one side and a sweeping valley and mountain range on the other. Architect Craig Holdren captures this breathtaking panorama with a 12' high window wall that rolls away on warm sunny days. Something the central coast has a lot of. A wall of split faced limestone starts in the garden, defines the entry and becomes the primary wall in the expansive living room. Deep shed roof overhangs help control mid-summer heat gain. The house has a breeze-way that connects the main house to the guest house and provides a protected outdoor seating area complete with its own fireplace. The owners, a retired executive and his educator wife love the solitude and natural beauty of the place.

Capitol 650 Apartments in Milpitas, by KTGY Architecture + Planning.
Capitol 650 Apartments in Milpitas, by KTGY Architecture + Planning.

Rethinking Cities Big and Small

It's no secret that more people want to live in the San Francisco Bay Area than there is space for. While certain people in Washington brag about how basic industry is returning to the Heartland, (U.S. Steel added 500 workers nationwide last year) Silicon Valley and its many constituents are booming in exponential fashion. Facebook alone is in the process of adding 10,000 workers with Google and other tech giants following suit. The region's seven counties are projected to add about two million more people in the next ten years. That is an eye popping 28% population growth. All those folks are going to need a place to live. This need hasn't been lost on developers or cities as they rezone underused brown sites and leftover properties to spur large scale multi-family development. Here is a look at three we recently photographed.

Fourth Street East, Oakland

The architectural firm KTGY based in Irvine, California has a large hand in multi-family development in the Bay Area. We have photographed three projects for them in the last year with another five or six in the pipeline. Fourth Street East is a two building, seven-story project that occupies a somewhat forgotten corner of the Jack London Square waterfront. Inspired by the nearby port and railways, the design resembles stacked shipping containers and the landscaping is bordered by train tracks. Using every inch of square footage, this large project sports all kinds of upscale amenities for its residents. The trend is to build minimal apartments that are surrounded by luxurious common spaces. A large gym, game rooms, meeting spaces, a big pool and an executive kitchen are all part of the package. Even with nosebleed rents, this place is filling up quickly.

Elan, Mountain View

Seidel Architects has had an active hand the multi-family housing market for many years. In the 1990's we shot large-scale, garden apartments for them. Today, the scale and quality of their work has improved. The projects are outward rather than inward looking, trying to recreate an urban feel of a streetscape found in an eastern U.S. city in the early 20th Century. Elan sits on the edge of downtown Mountain View next to El Camino Real. The large L shaped development replaces a strip mall and a handful of service-oriented retail shops. Some of the old shops were restored and new ones added. The El Camino Real side of the property is a five-story apartment block with first floor retail. The more residential Castro Street side is a townhouse format, replicating a streetscape one could find in an older east coast city. A parking structure is tucked behind the buildings and a quaint urban street with shops and outdoor tables runs through the middle of it.

Capitol 650 | SoMont, Milpitas

Capitol 650 and SoMont are two other multi-family KTGY projects built back to back, right next to the south bay's newest transit hub, the soon to open Milpitas BART station. Capitol 650 is a large five-story apartment block that faces busy streets and the elevated VTA light rail line. SoMont, the two-story, townhouse-like condos are placed behind on the quieter side. As with other projects on this scale, the apartment side is loaded with common space amenities from game lofts to meeting rooms. The apartment buildings facing the streets have deep setbacks with lushly landscaped green strips that provide both a mini-strip park for the neighborhood and some sound insulation for the residents.

Taking Our Backup System Up a Notch

After years of relying on a JBOD backup array, we finally installed a NAS system with a RAID array. While not totally bulletproof, this NAS server will dramatically improve our fail-safe archive and backup system. A RAID system (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a technique that paints files over four different disks in a redundant fashion, so nothing is lost if one disk fails. Our potential for data loss has been reduced to almost zero. Another benefit of the NAS is we now have our own addressable in-house server. Going forward, we will be able to deliver zipped files to you directly from our server at a much faster speed.

Bliss Dance By Marco Cochrane.

Las Vegas, a Shining Light in the Desert

"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die."   -- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Ever since noted Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel teamed up with the Italian Mafia in 1945 to turn a hot, dusty rail junction in the middle of the Mojave into the world's fantasy gambling mecca, Las Vegas has become one of America's iconic cities. Las Vegas is one of the few places in America that people have a hard time being neutral about. There is either much loathing or loving of the place. Las Vegas is a physical symbol of America's darkest characters and its brightest lights. Founded by gangsters and sustained by vice, avarice and venality, its "Sin City" moniker has more than a ring of truth to it. Yet its appeal is almost universal. After all, it is the one place where most Americans can go to have fun.

Personally, I think of Las Vegas as an urban design process that is continually expanding and evolving, possibly even for the better. From a design perspective, it has gone from the ugly, to kitsch, to the sublime. While entertainment, both legitimate and not, is the backbone of the economy, the city is flexing its muscles in interesting ways. The gambling and entertainment themes have added sports and convention venues. Las Vegas is now the third most visited city in the U.S. You can easily hear ten different languages on a stroll down the strip. From Muslim women wrapped head to toe in plus 100-degree heat to teenagers flashing more skin than any dermatologist would permit, the Strip is one of the most robust promenades in America. Restaurants and bars open onto the broad boulevard while foot bridges raise you over the bustling dessert streets. A few steps from the Strip one can find either cavernous casinos or very well-appointed luxury hotels and restaurants where a Wagyu steak dinner can run you something north of $500.

I ended up in Las Vegas a few weeks ago ostensibly to attend the annual A.I.A. Convention and Expo. I went as press, to exercise my editorial skills and take an anecdotal temperature of the town. I love conventions for two reasons, 1. Everyone is on their best behavior. Even when they don't want to be, they are gracious. 2. The wealth of information and eye candy in amazing. It is literally impossible to absorb all the offerings from floor exhibits to lectures. I wish I had a week, but I didn't. I am not a licensed architect and do not need to accrue CEUs, so I did not go to the lectures on "Optimizing Wall Panel Performance" or "Sound Absorbing Ceiling Tiles," but I attended a variety of floor lectures on urban design and multi-family housing innovations. I also talked with architects, dozens of product manufacturers and old friends from Cal Alumni to my publishing industry contacts. If you have never been, the amount of effort some manufacturers put into exhibit design is breathtaking. Window panels 12 feet high, real burning fireplaces, built in place concrete block walls, mockups of exterior cementitious paneling 10 feet high. All this so 10,000 architects could be awed. But after all, isnt what this is what Las Vegas is all about, to leave us all starstruck so that we can come back for more?

Terracotta panels on display.

Amara House by Swatt | Miers Architects.

Architects and Interior Designers Working Together

The rivalries between architects and interior designers are legendary. It is almost a "women from Venus, men from Mars" type of dichotomy. Yet, in the world of residential design, they often have no choice but to collaborate. Architects and Interior Designers have distinct and separate jobs and do see the world in different ways. They can and do work together, often creating compelling work. Here are three projects we recently photographed where residential architecture and design are woven together.

Amara House

Robert Swatt of Swatt | Miers Architects is a mid-Century modernist who has a pension for the spare look. No, Marie Kondo is not a staff member, but she would feel right at home in his studio. Their mid-Peninsula Amara house has all the trademarks of Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig seemingly plucked straight from the Palm Springs desert. Swatt chose his in-house interiors person, Connie Wong to fill in the space between the walls. Wong responded with a subdued palette of grays and whites adding warmth with rich mahogany wood accents. Because of height restrictions, the house has a full livable basement that contains many useful functions, from home gym to sauna to TV and game room for their children. The family's informal lifestyle dictated no dining room. Instead that space has become the "homework room" for the kids.

Perez House

Interior designer Jodi Tisdale of Pacifica was tasked with giving an upscale spec house in a hidden corner of Pacifica a major face lift.  The house was built with a traditional look and the clients chose not to stray too far from that. They also had a serious collection of one of a kind handcrafted furniture that they wanted to feature. Tisdale started the job and then realized that there were too many structural changes to the property for her to execute. She called in architect James Vaccaro who lent his expertise in building structure and engineering so that she could complete the project. Walls were moved, a staircase rebuilt, a kitchen completely redone and whole sections of the downstairs repurposed. In the end, the couple, who had just sent their last child off to college, had a new house to enjoy for the rest of their days.

Lafayette House

Michelle Moore is an interior designer who lives and works in the Lamorinda area of the East Bay. She was asked by a couple in the leafy suburb of Lafayette to redo their forty-year-old merchant-built home. Working with architect Peter Golze, she transformed major living spaces, expanded and modernized the kitchen, master bath and master bedroom suite. The Asian-American clients leaned toward a Japanese esthetic and Moore responded in kind with furniture and finishes worthy of any modernist. Since her building changes were not structural, her contractor was able to get permits from her drawings. In this instance, Moore wore both hats, interior and architectural designer. Once again, a soft palette of neutral colors and furniture fixtures with clean lines and a Bauhaus look blended seamlessly into her Asian inspired theme.

Getting Out of Town

It has been decades since my wife and I have been to Europe. Having a couple of flight credits from a cancelled job we decided to take the plunge and do a grand tour of Spain. As Americans, we may read all kinds of disturbing stories in the news about Europe, but they are actually doing just fine. Their streets are cleaner than ours, there is much less obvious poverty, the citizenry is well shod and well fed, and people generally seem happy. From Gaudí's wonderful Barcelona creations, to the treasures of the Prado Museum in Madrid to the hill towns of Cádiz, to the Alhambra in Granada, we soaked in as much Spanish heritage as we could in two weeks. Here is just a small taste of our travels.

Above: Ronda, Spain.
Below: (clockwise from top left) Gaudí-designed Casa Milá apartments; Sagrada Família church by Gaudí; View of Granada from Alhambra; Alhambra palace & fortress at dusk; flowered doorway in Graziella.

The Football Players (1900) by Douglas Tilden.
The Football Players (1900) by Douglas Tilden.

"Win One for the Gipper"

I hate to admit it, but Ronald Reagan's autograph is on my diploma from U.C. Berkeley. The sheepskin has been hanging in my studio for all these many years.  Seems like the "Gipper" was governor when I was an undergrad at Cal. In case you don't remember, it was the 1940's football movie Knute Rockne, All American about the dying football player played by Reagan that catapulted him to Hollywood stardom. That slogan kept running through my head when I got an email from a photo agency in London to shoot a university campus here in the Bay Area. The assignment went from very vague to very specific and was for a U.S. based advertising agency doing a marketing campaign for a study abroad program aimed at Asians and Europeans. And, of course, the university just happened to be my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. I guess this was one for "the Gipper."

In some ways, the Berkeley campus has not changed much in the years since I was a student. But the student body has grown significantly and the tenor of the place seems much more serious than when I was there in the '60s and '70s. The stately John Galen Howard Beaux-Arts Classical Revival halls are still there, now interspersed with more modern structures and a clever integration of landscape and building design. The campus lives in a tight 1200 acre quadrant with almost every square foot of land spoken for. Ronald Reagan sent in the national guard to put down student rebellions and Donald Trump has scolded anti-right wing protestors, but the university has prevailed and prospered as one of the nation's premier institutions. It was a unique and fun assignment.

Adapting the Past for the World of Tech

110 Sutter was being built when the 1906 Earthquake hit. It was one of the very few buildings in the city's downtown that survived. The building was originally the offices for the French Savings Bank. The vaults are still downstairs. In its modern-day iteration, it is home to a series of tech start-ups. M.J. Moore Construction hired us to photograph some of the restoration and adaptive reuse work on the building. The painted wall in the "breakout room" is part of the original sign that was once an exterior wall of the building. It was uncovered when a stucco facade was removed in the remodel.  His group restored the mosaic tiled floors and integrated them with the concrete ones.

San Francisco is percolating with creative space reuse and has been since EHDD redid the Cannery almost 50 years ago. It is encouraging to see that building tradition being carried forward.

The old French Savings Bank at 110 Sutter St, San Francisco.

Photo by Eric Sahlin.
Photo by Eric Sahlin.
The View From Above

Some of the most exciting views of San Francisco can be seen at about five hundred feet at dusk. A major real estate trust asked us recently to get a shot of the city at "blue hour" with their building featured in the foreground. We summoned our UAV (drone) pilot, Eric Sahlin, and set out on a mission that was as much a Photoshop exercise as it was a shooting one.

The shot needed ample room in the sky because it was to be used in print for an annual report cover. We also needed a high quality image for offset reproduction. Our plan was to take multiple shots from the same stationary location and stitch them together in Photoshop, thereby creating a seamless vertical single image. We have done that before with some success, but what we couldn't anticipate was the intense wind at 500 feet which almost scratched the mission. Our pilot was forced to use a very high ISO to get a stable series of shots that we could work with. Back at the studio Kristen Paulin stitched the images together in a very convincing way, but we then had to deal with the unacceptably coarse grain caused by the high ISO. Digital sensors are generally good to about 800 ISO. Above that, you are taking your chances with grain and noise. Using a third party software and some very sophisticated and seldom used grain reduction techniques, Kristen was able to save the day on a very tricky shoot.

Aging Gracefully

As life expectancy has increased, experts say that accepting changes and finding meaningful activities are paramount to staying happy and healthy in our golden years. Modern medicine and people paying more attention to their personal habits, like smoking and drinking, has stretched the average person's life span in unexpected ways. In the last few months we have been fortunate to photograph three facilities to provide housing for the elderly: one assisted care and two non-profit, low-income independent living. All these facilities provide an essential need, providing safe and supportive housing for our parents or grandparents.

The Trousdale senior living community in Burlingame, CA.
The Trousdale senior living community in Burlingame, CA.

The Trousdale is the result of a public-private partnership in Burlingame. Designed by SmithGroup architects, it is an assisted living development that has the look and amenity of a four-star hotel. A hair salon, a movie theater, and a massage studio are just some of its features. Each of the units are small studios with kitchenettes. The building has two dining rooms and a café on the ground floor with public access. This market rate facility seems to be designed to pamper seniors in their later years.

Life's Garden in Sunnyvale is an independent living facility built around a two acre open space that provides a green oasis in an otherwise increasingly urbanized South Bay environment. HKIT Architects, working with Beacon Development Group did an extensive remodel on this existing community of over two hundred residents. Life's Garden is a low income facility designed for independent seniors. This facility actively engages its residents in a variety of programs that serve much of its ethnic diversity. It was clear chatting with residents that they were all very happy to live in a safe and nurturing environment.

Life's Garden, Sunnyvale, CA.
Life's Garden, Sunnyvale, CA.

Whittier Fire, evening of July 13, 2017. Photo by Glenn Beltz.
Whittier Fire, evening of July 13, 2017. Photo by Glenn Beltz.
California Is Burning

Anyone who has been in California for more than ten minutes understands that the landscape gets greener as you rise in elevation. In most cases, the desirable neighborhoods are the ones with Hills, as in Beverly, attached to them. The reason is simple. They are greener. As winter storms roll in off the Pacific, they rise in elevation and just drop more precipitation on the higher elevations turning them into green zones of vegetation in an otherwise semi-arid landscape. I happen to live on one of those hills, a lush, wooded hillside environment where my human neighbors are far outnumbered by pine, oak and redwood trees. But there is a downside to living in "Paradise" both literally and figuratively, as many Californians have painfully discovered over the last few years. The winter rains usually end around April 1 and don't resume until the middle of November. That is seven months of dryness; enough to turn most woodlands into tinderboxes. Any ignition source can turn one of these green zones into an inferno with deadly consequences. The horrific Oakland Hills Fire of 1991 burned within a mile or so of our house. We were very lucky to have been spared.

1991 Oakland Hills firestorm.
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm.

There are three questions here. 1., Can we design a safer house by using better materials and technologies? 2., As the climate incrementally warms and the summers get hotter and longer, can we mitigate our natural environment so that it does not become a mortal threat? 3., How can urban planning help communities like Santa Rosa and Paradise rebuild in a more defensive way?

To answer these tough questions, I turned to two architects who lived through the Santa Rosa Tubbs fire of 2017 and have had an important hand in the rebuilding of that community.

Photo by Keith Allen Moore.
Photo by Keith Allen Moore.

The first is Warren Hedgpeth, a lifelong Santa Rosa resident, past president of the regional A.I.A. chapter and currently involved in rebuilding a number of homes and businesses in the Fountain Grove neighborhood. Hedgpeth is a forward thinking architect, always reaching for innovative solutions to everyday building problems. As an example, the last project we shot for him was a three story 50 unit apartment block in downtown Santa Rosa, constructed entirely of modular units. The Tubbs fire burned within a few blocks of Hedgpeth's house and left many of his neighbors homeless. They are struggling to recover, he says, even after receiving substantial insurance payouts. Many people see rebuilding as too much of a struggle and have resigned themselves to move on.

Building a fireproof house is almost impossible, says Hedgpeth, but there are several things that an architect can do that will greatly increase a structure's fire resistance. Cal Fire has created a new set of codes called the Wildland Urban Interface Codes which require both fire resistant materials for the exteriors and elimination of places where fires can start, like exposed eaves and deck overhangs. That, and a brush free perimeter around the house will give the structure a fighting chance. Fire resistant cementitious paint, ventless attics, fire resistant glass, fusible link shutters on glazing are all part of the fire-resistant equation. Hedgpeth noted that while the blue collar Coffee Park subdivision is well on its way, the more exclusive Fountain Grove is struggling to come back.

The second authority I spoke with is Julia Donoho, A.I.A., Esq. Donoho is both an architect and an attorney. She is also chairwoman of the A.I.A. Firestorm Recovery Committee. Helping people rebuild their communities has been a full-time job for her since the Tubbs fire, which took just three hours to burn 12 miles, destroy over 5600 structures and kill 22 people. Donoho's approach has been on many fronts, from streamlining the permit process to studying the ebb and flow of heat in firestorms, to looking at more efficient ways of building fire-resistant structures. A firestorm is different than a basic wildfire in that it creates its own wind system from the intense heat. This phenomenon can lead to very strange weather effects.

Donoho told me some startling things that most people don't think about: 1., Houses and structures aggravate a fire because they burn so hot they add excessive heat to it. 2., If heat from a fire could flow around or through the structure, it could sometimes be saved. 3., Heat flows in patterns much like water and wind. If we could understand it better, we could build structures where the heat from a fire could flow around a building rather than consume it, much like the air around a moving car. Donoho is also vice president of a construction company that is focused on finding new technologies to build cost effective new structures in the burn zones. Her biggest adversary right now are the insurance companies that are using outdated formulas to compensate homeowners. It is relatively easy for a medium sized contractor to say, rebuild fifty homes in a subdivision like Coffee Park, but much more difficult to rebuild one offs in more exclusive Fountain Grove. "All insurance companies are not the same," she said. "Consumers need to know what they are buying."

More of us are living in the Wildland Urban Interface. We love the beauty of the place but may not fully understand its risks. Warren Hedgpeth told me of experiencing the Hanley fire in 1964 that burned over the hills to the edge of Santa Rosa. Its pattern was almost identical to the Tubbs fire 55 years later. The primary difference was the fact that in 1964 the fire consumed woodland and ranchland. In 2017 the Tubbs fire burned homes and shopping centers. There are no easy ways to stop wildland fires. Rakes don't work, POTUS. But building smarter more fire-resistant buildings and creating defensible space around them seem like our best short-term alternatives.

Harper Crossing in Berkeley, by Steve Kodama.
Harper Crossing in Berkeley, by Steve Kodama.
Shelter for Those Who Need It Most

Everyone, with the exception of those holding 30 year mortgages on houses they bought years ago, complains about the cost of housing in the Bay Area. And their gripes are real. The explosion of market rate housing prices and significant population increases has put pressure on the entire housing market. The rapid appreciation of real estate values in marginal neighborhoods in places like Oakland is in no small part a contributor to the tent cities that are populating freeway underpasses all around the town. There are a handful of non-profits working with corporate sponsors, institutions and pension funds trying to at least roof over the heads of the working poor. Last month we had the good fortune of photographing three below-market-rate housing projects in some unlikely places for architectural firms with a long history of working in this sector. The results were gratifying.

Kodama Diseño Architects: Harper Crossing, Berkeley

Located in south Berkeley, just a block from the Ashby BART station, Harper Crossing is a high density affordable senior citizen housing complex that provides numerous amenities to its residents. The U-shaped four-story structure surrounds a green courtyard with its own vegetable garden maintained by residents. Despite the busy location, the inwardly facing units offer a quiet relief from street noise and traffic. The ground floor has meeting rooms and a common area that can be used for classes or private gatherings. Kodama's use of pitched roofs and mixed wood and stucco siding are informed by the craftsman prairie bungalows that dot the surrounding residential neighborhood. Architect Steve Kodama has been working in the affordable housing arena for many years and is one of our oldest clients.

Mithun Solomon and HKIT Architects: 1515 Riviera, Walnut Creek.
HKIT Architects: 1738 Riviera, Walnut Creek.

For the casual observer Walnut Creek is a sleepy sprawling suburb with an unusually large office and retail presence near its BART station. Walnut Creek does sprawl eastward to the foothills of Mount Diablo, but the city has an extremely vibrant core filled with restaurants and a large open-air mall with unique shops that make it the urban focal point of the East Bay. Because of its strategic location, Walnut Creek has been aggressively urbanizing its downtown by adding high density market rate housing at a breakneck clip. The one thing missing was affordable housing.

Taking advantage of a low-income housing tax credit program, the city of Walnut Creek decided to build housing for working low income families. They selected two sites just north of the BART station that were leftovers from the last office building boom of the 1980s. The developer they selected, Resources for Community Development, hired HKIT and Mithun Solomon to create two high density buildings for working families.

1515 Riviera by Mithun Solomon and HKIT Architects

HKIT and Mithun Solomon had to work with less than ideal sites. The 1515 Riviera Ave site is sandwiched between two busy streets and a fast food parking lot. Mithun designed the 1515 building to follow the curve of Riviera Ave.  They punctuated this arc with dramatic triangular sunshades giving it a cheese grater like facade. The building's residents represent a broad range of ethnicities that are part of the fabric of a growing diversity in the East Bay.

The 1738 site sits hard and fast next to a very busy, elevated ten-lane freeway and a feeder street for the BART station. On the freeway side of the building, HKIT used a single loaded corridor design with a double wall insulation to separate noise. They placed decorative bays and triangular sunshades on the freeway side to create visual interest for motorists at 60 mph. On the street side, HKIT designed a large community room that opens onto a podium level courtyard with play area. Both buildings are designed for larger families with the majority of apartments being two or three bedroom units. These small steps by forward thinking cities will not solve all of our housing problems, but they are steps in the right direction.

1738 Riviera by HKIT Architects.

Getting Ink

This month, our photos were featured in Gentry HOME magazine for Swatt | Miers's project, a residence in Atherton.  Pick up a printed copy or view the story online.

Atherton residence by Swatt | Miers Architects, on the Jan/Feb cover of Gentry HOME