On February 4, 2020 I interviewed Craig Roland at his house in Santa Rosa.
O: You know I would have to say that our relationship has been somewhat estranged. I’ve always been intimidated by you but always looked up to you and felt like I’d have to have better work to represent myself.
C: Well, we got to know each other much better when I was helping with your application for the AIA Fellowship. Remember? I have frankly felt the same way. Here we were with a lot in common but didn’t know each other that well but saw that we had a lot in common. Now that you’ve made this overture…
I was telling you why I left Roland Miller Associates – it had to do with the fact that I wanted to work by myself and I wanted to do smaller projects and if I got larger projects I wanted to be a consultant as opposed to being the principal in charge of the project. So in 1993 or 1994 – John died in 1993 – I set up my own office at that house I built in Mark West Meadows – never made a lot of money but I was a lot happier – I drew every single line myself. I did some nice buildings. I had a chance to develop some friendships while doing those projects that I still have today – that’s an interesting outgrowth of my decision of being independent. Prior to that the projects were mostly commercial. The tragedy was that John died around that time. Frankly I felt some guilt in leaving the firm and felt I may have contributed to his death but he’d had an outstanding heart problem and always knew he wasn’t going to live a long time. I have remained good friends with his widow Inga – she still lives in the house they built for themselves. The good news is that I’m still doing some projects – they are few and far between and I have not made the jump to doing computer aided drafting so it’s all by hand even though it can be very difficult.
O: It’s very difficult but I also don’t use the computer for drawing. That’s interesting. Are you doing any projects right at the moment?
C: As a result of the ties we made when we lived at Mark West Meadows – all those houses were destroyed in the 2017 fire – I have been doing 2 or 3 projects – one of which is completed and the parties have moved in. For another the building permit has just been issued and the 3rd one is a stop and go – we’ve gotten through schematic design. For a short time I worked on schematics for the single guy who had bought the house we’d sold, but then he decided to buy a place in Sebastopol. The end result is I’ve enjoyed doing this work – I still have those skills – at least most of those skills – my brain has not yet totally departed from my body.
O: I am interested in hearing about your architectural background. Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in architecture?
C: Well, I was born in Nebraska and then when I was ten or eleven years old we moved to Seattle. I ended up going to the University of Washington. My interest was always artistic and even as a kid in the 1930s and 1940s I was out building things even when my parents had no money at all. I’d find a pile of sand and some blocks and start building. I was always doing that when I was a kid. So when I went to school that’s what I wanted to do – I was very naïve and very young – I started college when I was 17 – I was overwhelmed by the talent that was already in the school of architecture so definitely struggled with catching up but I did catch up – and the learning process was painful at times but otherwise it all worked out well. I think I’m one of the longest living members in my class – we were the class of 1957 comprised of 25 members – most have passed on. There were a couple of fellows like you and me but otherwise no one out of the class was famous. I do keep in touch with those few who are still alive. And very briefly Edie and I met after I completed school and was serving in the military.
O: What branch?
C: The Army.
O: Where did you meet John? In school?
C: Yes, he was a classmate. I was the youngest in the class and I think he was the second youngest. We had entirely different personalities but we hit it off and had a lot of respect for each other. We were different kinds of people entirely but we became good friends. After Edie and I were married we immediately left Seattle for California and John came down and he got a job in the Bay Area as well. Then Edie and I went to Europe for two or so years – I worked there – and John came over too. That’s where he met his wife who is Danish. They’d met in a French class in Paris and were married there. When we got back to the Bay Area I got a job in San Francisco and soon suggested we think about establishing a practice outside of SF. We were still quite young in our early 20s and naïve as well. So we thought we’d go to Santa Rosa and just move in there and “set the house on fire” – We were very fortunate when we came here in 1966. We worked out of a garage for a while; then got a small office downtown. There were three of us. A couple of jobs came in – and then we were very lucky because I got a reference from a previous employer to do a Bank of America Branch in Petaluma – it’s been torn down and replaced by a bigger B of A which we didn’t do. We were fortunate – one thing led to another, we prospered, and we got to do our own buildings. That’s it in a nutshell.
O: I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who was your original partner.
C: Jane Duncombe. The original name of the firm was Duncombe, Roland and Miller She is now deceased (as of 2015) but at the time was single, was about 10 years older than we were, and ultimately did not feel comfortable in this community and belonged back in the Bay Area so in 1972 the firm became Roland Miller.
O: What other architects have you liked particularly in the past or that have been influential?
C: I’m kind of an eclectic guy. I like a lot of influential things. I did notice during the middle of my practice that not having a recognizable style was a deficiency because once you have a kind of style as for example Frank Lloyd Wright did people come to you for that and getting the projects becomes easier because you are dealing with people who know what to expect.
Edie and I have lived in 5 different houses that we designed – each one very different from the others. Started in 1971, then 1985, two houses in Canada (one of which we sold and still own the other), and last moved into one of the town houses which we designed back in the early 1980s. I was interested in investigating different things architecturally. The Mark West Meadows house is very different from the houses in Canada which are highly reflective of their environment. When John and I became Fellows in 1994 they looked at our little practice here and decided we were worthy even though the buildings were so different.
What can I say? I’ve enjoyed going in different directions at different times and I’m still doing it. There you go.
O: You didn’t give me a single name, but that’s OK. Do you keep track of the University of Washington?
C: As I mentioned I do keep in touch with the few classmates who are still alive – barely. We go through there on our way up to Canada which has become a second home.
O: I hadn’t realized that. Whereabouts in Canada?
C: Yeah. Here’s the story of how it happened. We decided in the 1980s we’d go back to our northwest roots. We started nosing around the area because we’d be up there to visit family and friends. Years went by and we weren’t finding anything that grabbed us so we started going further north and ended up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Victoria is on the southern tip and we kept going north looking for a place and then in 1990 by a fluke, an accident really, found a small old house on the beach. It was situated on 9 acres of land. The U.S. was in turmoil politically while Canada was peaceful. Being there settled our blood pressures and we’d go out in our kayaks on the water or hike the area. Now, we’re pseudo Canadian citizens.
O: Do you still run?
C: I was a runner until my early 70s. I took up running for about 40 years but then noticed a bit of pain in my knees and stopped. My orthopedist says parts do wear out; however, he was amazed that the condition of the cartilage in the knees is the same as when he first looked at them 14 years ago.
O: That’s fantastic. Now, back to architecture. What projects are you most comfortable with or proud of or what multiple buildings are you especially fond of? There must be some that are like a crowning achievement or thereabouts.
C: People have asked me that question. It depends on what mood I’m in. I answer in different ways at different times. I don’t have any single one that I consider my piece de resistance.
O: There must have been buildings when you were young and starting out in practice. I assume like in my experience there were successes but some deficiencies you were able to overcome – most of all the deficiencies – I am sure you’ve reached that point.
C: You can’t always tell if a building is successful after it’s built. Time has to pass. Recently two houses that I designed 50 years ago and that had been lived in by the same people for those 50 years went on the market – when that happened I looked at them as if I were a new buyer and it dawned on me how contemporary they both were and they both sold right away. I was pleased how well they looked – didn’t look passé.
I designed a neat place at Sea Ranch where you had a practice for many years and it still looks good. I designed 2 houses for those people: the place at Sea Ranch as a second home and one in Napa which was their primary home. To say you liked something is not the achievement I want – to say there’s my masterpiece there is something wrong with every building …there are always flaws. Some things have to have the distance of time.
O: What an appropriate and great response. One of the values of having this recorded is that it’s not the response you get from most people, but it rings true and is so appropriate.
C: There is something about getting older that makes you more honest.
O: Ha, Ha…
C: Also, forgetful…
Roland Miller had a long practice. A building, Bethlehem Towers, we designed in 1968 is still the tallest building in Santa Rosa. I thought the city would be full of tall buildings by this time. It was done for a HUD Client for low income housing.
O: How did you get the project?
C: A series of small miracles occurred to make the project happen. The developer looked us up all because of John and Inga’s membership in a Lutheran Church located in downtown. The church wanted to move to another property but that was predicated upon their selling a piece of property which they owned in downtown and the interested developer successfully applied to HUD to develop the land. Every time a check came in for $500 we were ecstatic and then suddenly here was this multi-million dollar project – quite strange and very fortuitous. And then later we got to design a new church at the edge of town for Bethlehem Lutheran.
Every time we’d do a project we’d think this is great – look at this great project. Certainly, we’re going to get hired by other people who want to do something similar. I remember when we were hired about 1970 by Rodney Strong to do his winery. I designed it as a cross in plan with 4 wings that came down from a central section and a ramp that went up to a tasting room on the second floor with offices on both sides – above that so that everybody left the main floor to go to the tasting room but could view the fermentation rooms all the way around and in each of these quadrants there was a different activity in each section to view – one for trucks to come in and be loaded for example. When this winery broke ground in 1970 we did a couple more wineries but nothing like the firms that specialize in winery design. But getting a job type two times as opposed to 15 times made us happy to be doing an assortment of projects that made us re-think each type. We did recreation centers and office buildings for some corporations but not a lot of those. Scattered among them were residential projects. You hardly see that now – most firms specialize. The first thing you’re asked when you go to an interview is how many of these building types have you done and unless you can tell them you’ve even done a Jewish Synagogue you don’t get the project…Certainly, it’s a challenge.
A part of my life I haven’t told you about is when Edie and I lived in Europe two years in the 1980s we joined a contingent of scuba divers who traveled all over the world scuba diving – we went down to the southern hemisphere – get on a plane and go diving for several days and then fly back. I’d never do that now – I’d be dead – but that was a common part of our lives then – it was very invigorating and very interesting. Something else came along the way that was my taking part in marathons. When I was 50 years old I was one of the best marathoners in the country. That would take a lot of time. I’d need to practice a lot and after a while it no longer made sense to continue.
O: Any thoughts about the scene of architecture from your early days to today? Obviously, the world is changing …things are moving on.
C: The change in architecture is that people are more involved. The public has caught up. Now, there’s a difficulty to actually get approvals for things. City and neighborhood groups give their input. I’m still involved with Eric Glass on an occasional basis and we deal with people in the audience saying they want the roof to go that way instead of this way and are clamoring to be heard. The planning department is useless – the whole process is insane but that’s the way it is. Too many say we won’t allow it… The end result is that good designers become conventional to get projects approved.
O: I experience that constantly. It’s a struggle at every front. It seems that more design committees, planning departments and the like make value judgments. One doesn’t know what their response is going to be so you can see ahead of time what you need to do to get around it.
C: Back in 1972 the mayor at the time asked me to head up a new design review board in Santa Rosa – there wasn’t one then. I was asked to be the chairman – the board has continued to exist all these years. We immediately saw the problem – what I can say about that group was we wanted to be accepted as an important step in the process not as an impediment to the average project. We weren’t there to tell people to create masterpieces – we were there to be very clear and open and committed about that and not get in the way of anyone wanting to do a reasonably good building and try to establish a practice.
Now design review boards are frequently staffed and populated by people who have nothing better to do than sit on such a board and they often don’t have any particular expertise – now, that’s how most design review boards operate. If we couldn’t tell people what we didn’t want to see happen we had no business telling them what to do. Instead of saying no red buildings are allowed in this community – I am using a ridiculous statement as an example – if we couldn’t say it that easily we had no right telling people that they couldn’t do something …unless they had to be almost like breaking the law.
I’m working on a project now that has community groups chiming in – it seems one can’t get away from the politics of it all.
O: From my opening comments regarding my feelings towards you have come full circle. You have an amazing clarity and depth of insight to the things you see in the world and you express it so well. You’ve always been that way – It’s very impressive.
Do you have anything to add or say as we come to the conclusion of our interview here?
C: I will say this – I consider myself an extremely flexible person for the life I have. I’ve had a lovely profession for the most part where I’ve been able to make buildings and have made friends with people I’ve designed buildings for. I’ve used other people’s money to build my own art projects – You must feel that way too.
C: We’re very lucky – That’s why when asked why don’t you retire? I respond “Well, if nobody hired me, I’d be retired.” That’s not what they mean though. They think of retirement as something one does at age 55 or 60 – that’s because they have a pension that’s available and aren’t doing something they really love – I was just getting going at their age. I consider myself extremely fortunate.