Inspiration and Influence


This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in his Northern California studio.

I. It’s interesting how we find our ways in life. I mean it’s hard for me to think of myself being anything other than an architect…maybe an industrial designer or a planner of some sort. And of all the places I could be working, here I am mentoring under you and being truly exposed to the hand of Mother Nature.

A. Life is like that. There’s good and there’s bad coming at us, and all we can really do is choose how we’re going to respond to it.

I. Truthfully, I often am not sure how to respond to many of the surprises life seems to constantly throw at me. I try to be thoughtful and I think about so many of our predecessors who have set examples for us. And somehow all of this helps to mold us into who we are today. “L’Architecture aujourd’hui” the French might say. So what are some of the big influences that have helped shape you as an architect?

A. Without my mother I wouldn‘t be here.

I. Ah ha! What about your dad?

A. Not so much. My mother, while very average in many ways, exemplified persistence and tenacity. I think I’ve used those characteristics to help push myself and my work to a higher level than it might otherwise have achieved. Bill Clark, the American Cemetery at Verdun, the paving of the Los Angeles River, the children at Smile Train and Shriners Hospitals come to mind. Architecturally, Jon Jerde had a significant influence on me. In Jon I saw the possibility of working at a level way above the status quo …that was inspiring.

I. What other architects have inspired you?

A. Louis Kahn, Bill Turnbull, and Steve Martino come to mind immediately, but every spark of brilliance is uplifting. And a couple of artists: Rico Lebrun and Jerald Silva. There is something particularly poignant about witnessing the genius of my contemporaries first hand.

I. And what about literature?

A. My Ántonia by Willa Cather, Design with Nature by Jean Paul Grillo, Hermann Hesse novels, and Bob Dylan’s songs. As I go through life I pick up pieces here and there hundreds of them – but I’m really not a disciple of any of them. I’ve been devoted enough to continue my own search and I’ve pretty much managed to find my own way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and experienced my share of poor judgment and low self-esteem, but now, in my later years I feel somewhat at peace with myself although I seem to have more concern for nature and the landscape than for myself.

I. I’m not even sure exactly what I’m trying to get at. I guess I’m trying to suck some insight, some short cut answers out of you.

A. You’re more than welcome. I’m glad to help. That reminds me of Gene Mackey telling me about his father, St. Louis Architect Gene Mackey Jr., and his partner who were on their way to a design conference in Michigan and stopped in to see Eero Saarinen. When they told Eero the reason for their trip Eero puffed on his cigar and said something like “You boys might as well just turn around and go home now. You’re not going to find any answers at a conference here. All the answers you are seeking are on your desks back in St. Louis.

I. You seem to always have a story.

A. I listen a lot. I listen for the occasional gem. These days I try hard to listen to Mother Nature but it’s so very hard to hear her…it’s mostly a matter of noting what works well and what doesn’t work so well. With that in mind I might add that I’ve learned a lot about the world from fishing. Things like the difference between what you think you know, what others say, the way you would like it to be, and the way it really is. The way it really is often evades comprehension – mostly we just catch glimpses of how it isn’t.

I. This could get discouraging.

A. I know, but I think that with a positive attitude and plenty of persistence you have a good chance of finding you own way…something few attempt and even fewer still ever achieve.