An Evening with Leo Marmol and Steven Price at Modernism Week 2017 by Alston Thompson

  This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

 This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

Easily the most interesting event of my first weekend at Modernism Week in Palm Springs was the panel discussion featuring Steven Price, with his new book Trousdale Estates: Midcentury to Modern in Beverly Hills, and Leo Marmol, notable architect of Marmol + Radziner. Moderated by the clever editor Michael Boodro of Elle Décor Magazine, the discussion organically bounced across challenges and trends in preserving mid-century homes, the iconic architects and architecture in Trousdale and Palm Springs and the surrounding areas. As Boodro acknowledged, “. . it’s not enough to preserve midcentury homes... nobody wants to live in a period room. So we really wanted to talk to someone who understands how you adapt mid-century to the twenty-first century. And there’s no one more experienced in that area than Leo [Marmol]”

The National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties provides guidelines for four distinct approaches: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Marmol made a point to highlight the midcentury architecture of Palm Springs as the one place his firm has applied all four approaches in their work.

Steven Price’s droll and entertaining humor immediately set the stage when he asked the audience to set its collective “33’s to 45” because he had a lot of ground he wanted to cover. The evening was an enlightening and often hilarious course in modern mesign by a master practitioner and a knowledgeable historian whose passion and insight made for what was in this writer’s opinion one of the most exhilarating educational experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Price reminded the audience, some of whom were decked out in go-go boots and mini dresses, of the relative nature of the term “Modern”. Most of the homes in Trousdale are over fifty years old. Steven Price suggested Mid-century modern falls into two categories: “The Ceremonial” in which the design is aspirational and “The Familial”. When Trousdale Estates was begun in 1955, Paul Trousdale, the developer, had already built around 25,000 mostly conservative houses, shopping centers and hotels. Trousdale built only eight of the 535 houses on the 410 acres, which was essentially the backyard of the 46,000 square foot Graystone Mansion at Doheny Ranch. For the other 527 home sites he supplied the infrastructure and the lots and the homes were built by the owners. Trousdale’s marketing material described living in Trousdale Estates as living “above it all”. Stephen Price fell in love with the Trousdale Style at the age of ten cruising around the neighborhood with his dad who he described as Don Draper minus the alcohol. But what made Stephen Price’s presentation so enthralling and his passion so contagious was his irreverent humor. He dubbed the look of an A. Quincy Jones designed home made-over from its original earth tones and wood to mostly glass and mirrors: “Ice Palace Disco” and an extravagant home dominated by glass and gold alloy aluminum, he called “Mies Van Deluxe”.

An architectural review board, headed by master architect Allen Siple, mandated the homes be at least 3,000 square feet, well over double the national average at the time, and single story with a fourteen foot height limit to protect the views, but the homes were not prescribed stylistic constraints. Price observed that the best designs “didn’t even look like homes. They more closely resembled banks, museums or country clubs”. Since Trousdale didn’t fill the development with spec homes, the designs weren’t watered down to appeal to the broadest spectrum of the market. These were statement homes designed by A-list architects and interior designers, fueled by massive budgets in a time of exuberant optimism and conspicuous consumption.

By the 1990s Trousdale had lost a lot of its appeal and many homes were razed and replaced. Fortunately mid-century modern has come back into favor and many buyers are restoring and adapting the homes to today’s sensibilities.

Leo Marmol recalled the lack of interest in mid-century modern architecture in the early 1990s when he and his partner Ron Radziner were chosen to restore Neutra’s 1946 modern masterpiece the Kaufman House in Palm Springs. With a touch of self-deprecation, he acknowledged the fact that he and Ron were chosen for the Kaufman House because they were the only firm willing to drive out to Palm Springs to look at it. “There just weren’t any preservationists interested in that type of design in the late 80s and early 90s” he said.

Marmol emphasized that his firm’s approach to preservation is not about fighting change but rather respectfully adapting homes to current sensibilities. As an example he noted that most kitchens were “back of house” in the forties, fifties and sixties. Now kitchens are opened up to the living room and dining room experience.

Michael Boodro asked how the design community could be doing a better job of educating people on the beauty of modern design. “Why do we see so much ersatz Georgian and ersatz Tudor and ersatz Victorian?” Marmol pointed out that doing modern is hard; the history of ornamentation is about covering up imperfections. He use crown molding as an example; it’s there to cover up a gap between the wall and ceiling that’s unsightly. His point was that less is necessarily more expensive when it comes to modern design. The response from Marmol and Price was also hopeful and often hilarious. Price quipped “I completely agree with the excellence of the clarity of the modern, but I had to learn to love other styles too; and let myself love them. I was always thinking ‘I’m not going to be cool if I like Victorian’... which I don’t….”

He pointed out that the preservationists’ latest challenge is in defending postmodern design. Examples he sighted are three Michael Graves’ homes in Malibu. While Price is not necessarily a big fan of Michael Graves’ work, he recognizes its importance and hopes the homes will be saved. This raised an important point about how it takes time for many styles to be observed, appreciated, and thereby preserved.

Marmol went on to challenge the premise of the question with some rhetorical questions of his own: “How many people came to Modernism Week this year compared to year one? How many books are being sold today on modern design? How much traffic is there on the internet looking at modern design in a way that’s never happened before?...I think we’ve seen a tremendous rise in the influence of modern design. Look at Elle Decor. When you look at magazines like Elle Decor and your competitors that are putting the word out at the level you are, it’s great!”

The watershed moment for preservation of Mid-century Modern homes in Beverly Hills and beyond was the Kronish House, a Richard Neutra designed Modern masterpiece. After years of being unoccupied, the home was listed as an $11 million dollar tear down in 2011. When demolition began, public outcry demanded the house be saved from demolition. Thankfully a Marmol+Radziner client had the resources and vision to rescue the home. With Marmol taking the lead, the Kronish House was a rallying point and galvanized the city of Los Angeles’ preservation efforts, ultimately culminating in an innovative, yet very restrictive, preservation ordinance. The unintended consequence of protecting homes through landmark designation is that homeowners sometimes find it’s easier to raze an existing home and build a new home, rather than to seek approval for changes to a landmark home.

Boodro brought the discussion back to community oversight and planning; and how helpful or restrictive it might be in producing great design. Marmol’s opinion is that “the communities that have been the most successful, the planning guidelines are not aesthetic...they are about scale...they are about mass...they are about setback…We’ve done new houses in Trousdale and the original planning guidelines were very restrictive but nowhere in there does it say ‘and it has to be modern’.”


What do Monica Lewinsky, the Watergate and Mussolini have in common? by Alston Thompson

Bob Dole and Monica Lewinsky were next door neighbors at the Watergate during "Monica-Gate". I imagine Senator Dole speed walking, fiddling for his keys to avoid having to chit-chat with Monica in the hallway....."awkward"..... Like most people, I know more about the scandalous side of the Watergate than I do the complex itself. When we were editing our images for the Wall Street Journal piece we worked on about the Watergate and its residents, I looked at aerial photographs and realized the offices and apartments form a deconstructed Colosseum with poolside sunbathers at its center rather than gladiators and lions. I realized I knew nothing about the Watergate's architect Luigi Moretti or its development. 

View of the Watergate from the Kennedy Center. Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

When I discovered the architect was Italian, I figured I was on to something. Moretti is considered a Modernist. The Watergate was one of the first ever structures derived from a computer aided design. Moretti was heavily influenced by Brutalist architects, particularly Le Corbusier. While Brutalism in English equates to violent, oppressive behavior, in French it means wild, rough or unrefined. After World War II Corbusier wanted cheap, unfinished surfaces that reflected the state of urban reconstruction after the war. Reinforced concrete fit the bill. 

Architecture As Propaganda ........In some ways the selection of Moretti is as scandalous as its occupants. A fervent Fascist, he designed Mussolini's personal gymnasium and the fencing academy within the Foro Mussolini (now called the Foro Italico in an attempt to separate it from its Fascist past). The complex was home of the Fascist Academy of Physical Education. In 1938 Mussolini hosted Hitler at the academy with a performance by hardbodied young men carrying torches in the shape of a Swastika and the words "Heil Hitler". Hitler was so impressed he told Mussolini he had seen "the Roman state resurrected from remote tradition to new life." 

How Moretti, someone so closely associated with the Fascist leader, was able to pull off the Watergate design in the cradle of democracy is astonishing. Either the classical, curvilinear influence of the Colosseum obscured the developer's Fascist design roots or Moretti was one hell of a pitchman. It's hard to believe that Moretti didn't revel in planting a ten acre Modernist/Fascist flag in the heart of Fascism's ultimate foe. But whether that's the case or not isn't clear. There were practical considerations for it's curved structure in that it echoed the proposed Inner Loop Expressway and surprisingly the Kennedy Center next door (originally called the National Cultural Center). Edward Stone's initial design for the Kennedy Center was curvy and modern rather than the final rectangular classic revival design. So perhaps Moretti's design was more in keeping with Brutalism's aspiration for a structure to reflect the untamed nature of the urban concrete cityscape.

One problem that arose in the extensive approval process of the Watergate was its height. At the time there was a ninety foot limit for residential buildings. So to satisfy zoning laws, retail and office space were added to the design. So, no, apparently the communal design was not some subversive Fascist ploy, but rather a practical attempt to satisfy zoning laws.

And the theory this author put forth, that Moretti's design was some sort of Fascist Trojan Horse draped in neoclassical clothes can neither be proved nor disproved.  Yet it's hard to believe that Moretti didn't take some subversive pleasure in pulling off the Watergate complex.                                          

And, finally, below is the Wall Street Journal article we contributed to that led me down this rabbit hole:                                                                                                                                              


Studio Visit: Surface Architectural Supply by Alston Thompson

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Floor, wall panelling, tables, and chairs at Tazza Kitchen, Midlothian, Virginia provided by Surface Architectural Supply

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Floor, wall panelling, tables, and chairs at Tazza Kitchen, Midlothian, Virginia provided by Surface Architectural Supply

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Wall and ceiling panelling, and desk at the Boathouse, Short Pump, Virginia, by Surface Architectural Supply.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Wall and ceiling panelling, and desk at the Boathouse, Short Pump, Virginia, by Surface Architectural Supply.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  The game room at a private residence in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia. Surface Architectural Supply provided the wood flooring and panelling for the bar. 

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

The game room at a private residence in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia. Surface Architectural Supply provided the wood flooring and panelling for the bar. 

When we started the renovation of our studio in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, a friend in construction recommended we talk to the guys at Surface Architectural Supply. As photographers of architecture and interiors, we were immediately impressed with the beautiful reclaimed wood surfaces in their showroom and the space itself.

When Alston Thompson Photography sat down with Kirsten and Hunter Webb, owners of Surface Architectural Supply, we asked them how they would explain the benefit of old growth timber to someone who may not know much about wood. Hunter likened it to a Stradivarius violin. While the craftsmanship of a Stradivarius is second to none, the wood is where the magic really happens. Antonio Stradivari hand picked the trees he used in the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps where spruce trees in that climate and that particular altitude form what is called “Il Bosco Che Suona” - The Musical Woods. Webb goes on to say “Old wood is different. Anyone who cares just understands that. When you see the tightness of the grain….what it’s really about is how the trees were allowed to grow.

"You can't fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun."

Most of the stuff people are growing today is farmed, but a tree that grows up in a competitive forest doesn’t get as much light, it grows slower, the ring count is tighter; it’s reaching and growing straight because that’s where the light is. In a farming situation the trees don’t grow many branches, they grow up faster. Because it’s easier for them to grow, the wood is less dense. Using our reclaimed wood keeps this material out of the landfill,  we are honoring the generations before us by reusing their captured energy in these materials. A lot of the things we have are unique; once they are repurposed there is no more like them. You can’t fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun. I can spot the

‘distressed’ wood trying to be reclaimed wood from across the room. It’s all about taking what nature has done and polishing it a little bit." 

Surface’s sweet spot is buying an old barn and reclaiming the lumber; floor joists, flooring, siding, everything. Hunter gets especially excited when he has the opportunity to salvage an old walnut tree. He’s a self-proclaimed wood hoarder. Especially when it comes to scarce and one-of-a-kind wood sources. Did I mention he likes walnut (his license plate says “WALNUTS”)?  He’s taken an excavator to a golf course to salvage a walnut tree that was four feet wide and over forty feet tall, “I even dug up the stump, that’s where the good stuff is…” They received a phone call after Hurricane Sandy to see if they were interested in reclaiming part of the old Coney Island boardwalk. Kirsten laughed and said “the client who was interested in the boardwalk planks asked if we’d make sure to scrape all the gum off the wood.”  You name it, they’ve seen it, gymnasium floors, bowling alley floors, the list goes on….

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Surface Architectural Supply sourced and finished the wood for the island in the kitchen at HKS Architects in Washington, DC.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Surface Architectural Supply sourced and finished the wood for the island in the kitchen at HKS Architects in Washington, DC.

When Surface sources wood and brings it back to their facility their work has just begun. They have a passionate, energetic team that handles the millwork in-house. In other words, they don’t just do floors. They can mill trim, casing, shoe moulding, base board, risers, landings, nosing, balustrades, newel posts; build furniture, doors and casing, wall paneling, decorative joists, functional supports, corbels, mantels; and source hand hewn, rough sawn and milled surface beams. They recently supplied Shou Sugi Ban wall paneling for a major corporate client’s feature wall. Shou Sugi Ban is an ancient Japanese technique of scorching a wood surface, which makes it impervious to bugs and fire resistant. While it’s traditionally done with cedar,  the technique can be used on other wood types. Kirsten adds, “It’s used in a lot of really modern environments. Juxtaposed with lighter wood and metal, it is absolutely stunning”.

Kirsten and Hunter were attending San Diego State when they met. Hunter was in graduate school and Kirsten was studying furniture design under Wendy Maruyama. After they graduated Hunter convinced Kirsten to return to his native Richmond. Hunter’s family home in Manakin-Sabot had the ideal woodworking shop, an old carriage barn that they added onto as the company expanded. They both love Richmond, “It’s a friendly, easy place to live….” said Kirsten. They’re also proud of Richmond’s unconventional vibe: “Did you know Richmond has more tattoo parlors per capita than any other city in the world?”  The Webbs are anything but conventional. With a post and beam home furnished with modern, industrial chairs and tables that they designed themselves, the fact that they live in rural Manakin-Sabot and work in Scott’s Addition mirrors their business philosophy; to repurpose what is old in a contemporary application. For anyone not familiar with Richmond, Scott’s Addition is an industrial district developed around the 1920s and 1930s featuring colonial revival, classical revival, and art deco buildings.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and has been experiencing urban renewal ever since. It’s where all the cool kids want to be. In August 2013 the Webbs moved into their Scott’s Addition headquarters and never looked back.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Knotty pine sourced by Surface Architectural Supply marks the entrance at Tazza Kitchen in Midlothian, Virginia.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Knotty pine sourced by Surface Architectural Supply marks the entrance at Tazza Kitchen in Midlothian, Virginia.

Having the chance to watch the process and meet their team, it’s obvious they value bright people with great attitudes. “I look for passion. If it is apparent that a potential hire believes in something and has worked hard towards that goal, chances are good they will work towards our goals too. Honor, creativity, and work ethic are crucial. Being able to work with others on the team and be open to criticism to improve are a must.”

With a strong team and amazing clients like Richmond’s Tazza Kitchen and HKS Architects’ Washington, D.C. office, Surface Architectural Supply is poised for continued growth. They also have sales reps in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and California.





Höweler + Yoon : Architecture as Interface by Alston Thompson

The Helms Design Center hosted Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon for a reception, lecture, and discussion in collaboration with the Cal Poly LA Metro Program in Architecture and Urban Design.

h+y china brick building.jpg


Höweler + Yoon described submitting a design to a client in China that involved turning a packed, inverted pyramid space into an interpretation of the traditional Chinese house. All of the architects who submitted plans were rejected after their 1st iteration. The client insisted they channel "the Chinese feeling" and incorporate it into the design. The architects were given a Chinese poem to interpret as the building and they were taken to a mountaintop in Zhucheng Province for inspiration.


Through a packing exercise the Höweler + Yoon team developed a series of courtyards which framed a Chinese garden with living and work spaces nested closely together. After nine months the team was informed that not only had the program and site changed, but that construction was already underway. With a flurry of activity the team adapted its plans to fit the new site and its new use as a 60,000 square foot exhibition hall. Traditional Chinese bricks and small windows with flared surrounds made of Corten were used to stunning effect as the primary construction materials. Remarkably, one of the doors, described by Höweler as "an interlocking frame within a frame", was designed and fabricated in a week. This build highlighted how Höweler + Yoon adapt to last minute site changes and cultural idiosyncrasies, while underscoring the collaborative capabilities of the engineers and craftsmen they employ to fulfill their vision.


Höweler + Yoon’s masterful problem solving skills enable them to turn the very constraints imposed upon them into a creative force. The grey brick and the traditional Chinese masonry practice of a fixed east/west, north/south orientation applied to the exhibition hall, regardless of the geometry of the site, has been leveraged to mesmerizing effect. While right angles produce squared corners and smooth surfaces, oblique angles lend to the juxtaposition with a staggered, feathered, rough effect. With the masonry surface serving as a compass, Höweler + Yoon were able to delve further into the notion of architecture as user interface; as opposed to a place to be passively observed, maneuvered and inhabited.


Responding to a request for a residential high-rise, their team designed a staggered balcony for each apartment for privacy, and used an algorithmic packing logic where each floor was divided into ten equal parts, and the next floor eleven equal parts and so on.....An astonishing bowed, sculptural exterior effect materialized from the logic of the interior layout. While the design was not commissioned, the exercise gave Höweler + Yoon insight into how rules and relationships can affect outcomes of design; not unlike how rules are used in computer programming and scripting languages.



Höweler + Yoon have an acute interest in architecture as an information system. An outdoor sculpture project for the city of Boston enabled them to represent the twenty-one boroughs through data points in the city's 311 mobile reporting app. The sculpture tapped into the open source reporting system and broadcast the activity through a computer controlled lighting system. Another outdoor lighting project highlighted during the lecture was a project at the San Ysidro border between the U.S. and Mexico where they wanted to expand the number of entry lanes. Essentially a band of light spans the new twenty-six lane border crossing. As a car crosses the border a pulse of light is triggered, while multiple cars cause an ebb and flow of colliding pulses to spectacular effect. The practical effect was to give drivers a timeframe while waiting to cross the border.



Höweler + Yoon were commissioned to design the Sean Collier Memorial at M.I.T., commemorating the campus security officer who was killed during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. The recurring themes "M.I.T. Strong" and "Boston Strong" led the team to choose a dome of varying sized granite blocks to signify strength and unity from diversity. The blocks weigh multiple tons and support each other through pure geometry and physics. The lengths to which the team went to build a fully compressive, solid block granite structure were fittingly heroic for such a memorial. They developed an applet to calculate the gravity loads of the granite blocks to ensure they stayed within the extraordinarily tight two millimeter tolerance threshold.



Höweler + Yoon’s process stretches beyond defining public and private space or how architecture affects boundaries and frames viewpoints. Rather their work explores how architecture shapes interfaces between spaces and the people interacting within those spaces. Höweler + Yoon embrace the fluidity of spaces by looking beyond architecture as static; and see it as an interface much like software with inputs and outputs, datasets, and by balancing technical functions with visual elements.





The End of Sitting Down In Public Spaces? by Alston Thompson

Sitting down can kill you? Well, maybe not....but as more medical evidence proves that a sedentary lifestyle and sitting for long periods can be as harmful as smoking, stand-up desks are becoming ubiquitous. The design team of RAAAF and visual artist Barbara Visser explore the future of resting positions in the workplace and public spaces of the future with their installation, The End of Sitting - Cut Out.


The Living Room of Chicago by Alston Thompson

The mother-ship of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is the Chicago Cultural Center. At the entrance the design team of Pedro&Juana from Mexico City have created “Randolph Square” which gives a whimsical jolt of light from spherical fixtures; not unlike the old gas sconces that originally lit the space. The lights are conjoined by bright orange rope and a pulley system which is counterbalanced by solid brass weights. Having undergone many transformations since its construction in 1897 as the public library, the choice of a moving light system is brilliant. Visitors are encouraged to pull on the weights and ropes, which gives the space fluidity and a visceral experience for visitors. 

The white, metal mesh furniture, some of which is on rockers, enhances the feeling of lightness and movement of the space. Having designed such an interactive lighting system draws visitors into what was conceived as the “living room of the city”.

The State of the Art of David Adjaye by Alston Thompson

Alongside the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Art Institute of Chicago showcased forty-nine year old David Adjaye’s mid-career body of work which includes fifty built projects. Having such a comprehensive look at an architect so young gives the exhibit a vitality and sense of possibility not often found in an architectural retrospective of this scope. Adjaye’s aesthetic is grounded in context. Adjaye strives to convey a sense of place with his designs; rather than showcasing a specific design style. Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, and raised in the Middle East and England; Adjaye’s sensibilities are anything but parochial. As Adjaye’s pavilions and public places are accessible to the people in the surrounding community, so are the ideas behind their design. Rather than imposing an idea on a community through radical design, Adjaye’s designs are emblematic of the surrounding communities which lends context to his modern vision. His designs seek to bridge differences between people in communities struggling with cultural differences. Being the son of a diplomat, having lived in diverse cultures, Adjaye has clearly honed a mastery for reflecting the essence of a community with a welcoming, uplifting, modern aesthetic.  

In addition to models, sketches, floor plans and film clips; his 2007 wood-slat “Horizon” pavilion has been moved and reassembled on the 2nd floor of the Abbott Galleries in the modern section of the Art Institute of Chicago. If you are planning to attend the State of the Art of Architecture: Chicago Architecture Biennial, then you should take the time to experience this wonderful showcase of David Adjaye’s work.


Sarah Thompson inside Adjaye's "Horizon" pavilion.

We are headed to the Chicago Architecture Biennial by Alston Thompson

We are so excited to be heading to the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. We'll be arriving October 2nd. The official kick-off is on October 3rd. The first event we'll be attending is an interpretive performance of Powers of Ten; a Charles and Ray Eames film commissioned by IBM in 1977. The performance, Superpowers of Ten is an interpretation presented by the Madrid-based architect Andres Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation. The Eames' produced almost sixty books, films and performances highlighting the aesthetic elegance of scientific principles for clients such as: Polaroid, Westinghouse, Boeing and IBM. These principals were central to their design vision. They sought to breakdown complex scientific concepts into simple visual elements for the layman. 

The next event we have on our itinerary is a panel discussion: Post Modern Architecture: Preservation's New Frontier. This discussion will highlight the post-1970 architecture of Chicago as a case study. It will explore the evolution of concepts related to major projects from this period; while exploring conceptual issues about the interpretation of history through urban architecture. Panelists include: Cynthia Weese of Weese Langley Weese and  Zurich Esposito, Executive Vice President of A.I.A. Chicago. The discussion will be moderated by Paul Makovsky of Metropolis Magazine.

We've also got a couple of social events planned, a 125th anniversary tour of the University of Chicago and a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed  S.C. Johnson headquarters.

We hope to see you there.....