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Cookhouse Fenau Hartman

Cookhouse, Park County, MT. Photo: Richard Barnes

The willingness to take a chance and depart from the script is the quality we most admire in vernacular architecture.
— Richard Fernau

As I read a New York architect’s review of Improvisations on the Land, the iconic New Yorker cover “View of the World from 9th Avenue” came to mind. I pictured the map’s solipsistic, Manhattan-centered geography as the architect breezily dismissed Richard Fernau’s book and the design it discusses. There’s a long history of East Coast critics getting the West Coast wrong, trusting an internal map that’s lamentably at odds with reality. The Los Angeles–based writer Alissa Walker uses the hashtag #lahaters to call out such distortions. Except for its cuisine, which East Coast critics generally praise, the Bay Area has it even worse than LA.

The term regional, first invoked by Lewis Mumford and then reinforced by Kenneth Frampton, attaches to Bay Area architecture. In Improvisations on the Land, Fernau rejects the word’s implications of provinciality, quoting Eudora Welty’s contention that regional is an outsider’s term. Far from being provincial, the tradition in which F+H is situated is wide-eyed about the world around it. To live in the Bay Area is to be immersed in a place that gathers up the senses, encourages openness and flow, and discourages anything that seems too predetermined.

Fernau’s lead essay is the heart of this book on F+H’s houses. It could be read as a tutorial on how to practice architecture as he and Laura Hartman see it, in which place and improvisation provide valid, potent bases for design. While he isn’t cited in the book, the pioneering, Berkeley-based wine dealer Kermit Lynch shares a similar view about the role of place in creative practice. According to Lynch, author of Adventures on the Wine Route, viniculture and winemaking combine art, craft and science with nature; the grapes, soil and climate matter, but the rest is human and improvisational — skill, experience, nose and luck. F+H’s design process resembles this. Place is the starting point, the context, but the client is also present.

Cunniff House Fernau Hartman

Fernau/Cunniff House, Berkeley, CA. Photo: Richard Barnes

Fernau compares the process to modern dance, another improvisational and collaborative art. He compares F+H’s houses to collage in their use of materials, their fabrication and the way they incorporate “rogue elements” that place itself provides. And he points to the vernacular as evidence of how people confront their environments. This reminded me of William Morris’s Anti-Scrape Movement, which saw places of human habitation as evolving records to which dwellers contribute. Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick’s ordinary is mentioned — an ordinary that values straightforwardness, the way William Wurster would punch a window randomly in a façade to frame a view. Wharton Esherick, the architect’s sculptor uncle, is quoted: “What would a farmer do?” Perhaps emulate a hedgerow windbreak or a coastal barn to make a Sea Ranch house?

F+H is part of a lineage that includes Esherick and his contemporaries Donald Olsen, Louis Kahn, William Wurster, Bernard Maybeck and others. F+H started out in a garage near Bernard Maybeck’s studio in the Berkeley hills, and Fernau notes his influence. What struck him is the way Maybeck played with spaces to achieve what Peter Buchanan calls a “loose fit” suited to a casual, open, unfolding existence that’s set in a place, not against it. When the weather was good, Maybeck worked outdoors under a canvas canopy and slept on a porch. Many of F+H’s houses allow such a life.

Big House Garage House Fernau Hartman

Big House/Garage House, Nonquitt, MA. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker

F+H’s houses exhibit the variety and maturation you’d expect given their range of places, owners and jurisdictions. There’s no “regional style” here but a commitment to take place seriously. Fernau describes living with a site to understand it. He means living with the clients, too, using their shared experience of a place to inform the design.

F+H is a teaching office, another Bay Area tradition. The elaborate list of design teams at the end of the book speaks to how many young designers benefited from working on these houses. Architects are often hazy on who did what, and more than a few of them hog the limelight. F+H avoids the all-cats-are-gray demeanor of too many team practices, while sharing the credit generously. 

Book: Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau+Hartman, by Richard Fernau, The Monacelli Press, 2015