We always knew we wanted to cover architects in this blog, but in a city full of great ones, we weren’t entirely sure which ones really have a love of craft and bring it into their work…or which ones get as involved with the making as the designing. Where to start?
With lunch, of course.
Specifically, lunch with our friend Margie O’Driscoll, the astute, ever-creative dynamo/Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Just 30 seconds into a description of what we were after, Margie was rattling off a list of architects we should chat with (we told you she was good). One of the first names on her lips: Boor Bridges Architecture. Trust me, she said.
A quick review of their website showed a diverse array of work (residences, restaurants, stores, schools, offices, and public spaces) and their blog rang all our favorite bells: authenticity, simplicity, creativity, individuality. And instead of a lot of blather about Design with a capital D, their website gave us a sense of partners Bonnie Bridges and Seth Boor as people. (What a concept.) Clicking around, we even found a list of Seth Boor’s favorite possessions–that resonated with us too. Very, very promising.
We met with Seth in his office, around the corner from Four Barrel Coffee on Valencia, designed by….well, you can guess. Very convenient: and it’s a perfect example of their work and the way they work.
Their look? Creative use of reclaimed materials. Respect for context. A love of industrial age materials and themes. Clean, smart lines. Down to earth vibe. Space design that encourages interaction and reverie. Relaxed warmth. Something unexpected and thoughtful in every view.
The way Four Barrel came together seems to be vintage Boor Bridges as well: open collaboration with a hands-on client whose own passion was sparked by Boor Bridges (and vice versa). A willingness to explore and discover, born of deep experience and talent. A gorgeous and deeply cool result.
There’s some great design out there, but there’s also a lot of sameness. Conservatism, even. Or is that just our imagination? No, it’s not. There is a lot of what seems to be “architecture by catalog.” It may look like it reduces risk in a place with sky-high real estate prices, but what it really reduces is creativity.
So how do you keep it real? Well, we try! I think it’s because we think a lot about circumstance and about collaboration. If we’re designing a house, we think not just about the site, but the neighborhood, your friends, your environment. We want to work with what’s there. We also think about what moves a client. We try to get inside their heads, understand what they love. Together, we end up creating a common language to use for the project. In our minds, we really do share ownership for design. Not in all cases, but often.
How does that feel, though? Don’t you lose some control? Sure. But we think of ourselves as humanists. We don’t want to force people into a long, shiny box.
But let’s be real…do people know what they want? (Seth laughs.) Well that’s why we work hard to figure out what people love, what resonates with them. (Sounds familiar.) I think people know at some deep level. Our job is to bring it out. It’s actually really interesting…our clients tend to discover themselves along the way…and we act as designers, marriage counsellors, therapists. And what about the client who knows exactly what they want? Where’s the room for you? Well some people think they know, and go straight to the solution. We try to pull them back and talk about their desires, rather than the solution. That’s when creativity happens.
You seem to have a real commitment to reclaimed materials. (Their Ames Cottage project–an old tap dance studio–reuses the floor where hundreds–maybe thousands–of tiny Freds and Gingers shuffled and tapped away their afternoons.) Where did that come from? It’s just our instinct. We love materials with soul–nowadays, materials are almost nameless and faceless. It used to be that people wanted materials from far away, believing them more luxurious, more exotic. But today, the real luxury is history and texture and warmth. What’s ironic is that a lot of people think that reclaimed is cheaper. It’s not, generally. But it’s more authentic, and you really feel connected to history and locale. Like anything else, it’s a choice.
We were chatting a little earlier about what you called “hands on” architecture. What does that mean to you? It comes from our love of the material, but also goes back to circumstance, and in this case, the circumstance of the material. And it’s in this area where we as architects really get to exercise more control. I really enjoy this. I love playing with material to see what it does, what it can do for the design. I mess around with new materials and techniques all the time.
You personally? Absolutely. I’m always doing mock ups in my garage. (Then he passes us a block of wood whose color varies from molasses to ebony, with a glossy, silvery sheen. Seriously gorgeous.) It’s a Japanese technique (called shou-sugi-ban) and involves burning the exterior of the wood to weatherproof it. We love the effect and it’s something we hope to use.
The hands on experience also helps in working more effectively with the actual builder, which is something we pride ourselves in. I think I need to have some experience in doing things to have confidence to tell a contractor what to do. You know what’s possible, what’s gone wrong with your idea. And, it feeds my excitement about the project….it’s all part of the story.
You’ve got a real commitment to the City. We do. We’re really trying to support local creativity…a lot of it on the pro-bono basis. That’s maybe the upside of the recession: we have a little more time to pour into pro-bono work which is actually pretty creative, pretty cutting edge…and things we hope to put back into our more mainstream work. We’re supporting pavement to park initiatives, vertical gardens with Flora Grubb, etc. And we’re part of Public Architecture–working on an eco-center in Hunter’s Point: it’s the first off the grid building in San Francisco. We’re also really excited about the street food movement and trying to figure out how to support it.
You’ve got a real thing for creativity in unexpected places. Vertical gardens. Pavement to park. Street food and mobile kitchens. Anything else you got cooking (so to speak)? I’m kind of into this idea of backyard sheds….it’s a great way for homeowners to get creative architecturally without taking out a mortgage. And in San Francisco, you can build a small shed without getting a permit. It’s a way to keep it fun, mix it up a little. (Creative subversion. We like that.)
What inspires you? The moment at the beginning of the project where the owner is telling you their inspiration and how and why they’re connected to it….Understanding client desires, their lives, getting under the skin. I love the potential of that moment. And I love the inspiration that comes along the way…often in the form of materials and the things we find.
What objects define you? Oh you ask that question too? (Turns out it’s a key part of their design process.) I’m really interested in vertical gardening. It’s an illustration of my architectural inspirations….architecture is the design of an essentially static thing but it’s supposed to support a living thing–there’s an inherent tension there. I have some espalier apple trees and have built a simple, modern fence behind them. I love seeing how the trees react to them…and then what happend when I tweak them. It’s called thigmotropism…how living things respond to the structure behind them. It’s a collaborative thing, except this time with nature. The control you have is always far less than you think it is. (Now those are words to live by.)
Seth Boor and Bonnie Bridges