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May 17, 2016

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Final Solutions

August 28, 2016


It is the last question: When? Our expiration dates are stamped somewhere we cannot see, and its mystery drives us to distraction or obsession until we reach it.

In talking to a person who visits those who know The Date is quite soon, she surprised me by saying that less than 10% die enraged over dying. Faith that this end is not The End helps, but most are just so sick and tired of being sick and tired that they have no anger at facing the prospect of becoming room temperature.

So it was with my father. He was an old 78 when he died. There was no chronic illness save smoking and drinking to great excess, no traumatic injury that caused a cascade to incapacity, incompetency and then loss of life. He had several illness in his last decade or two – some scary – but he survived them. He then retired, as his clients and partners reached their term limits as well, and went home with to be with my mother, who gave up the notion of leaving him, even serially, as she had for the 15 years before he died.

They were a fully bonded couple, though often miserable when I knew them. Joyous drinking had been made desperate after World War 2. Children that were to be the fulfillment of their legacy were not what they expected, and there were yet to be grandchildren.

It was a quiet end for my Dad. He had stopped drinking and smoking by necessity – for the first time in 60 years. He could be surly, as usual, but not drinking meant the explosiveness and attenuation of outrage was simply not there. So a 6 month decline to a short hospital stay and a quiet end seemed merciful to me, as I had never known him to be happy.

Given our family’s circumstances, I was the executor upon his death, and was, at 32, fairly cautious in my insertion into becoming the counselor for many quick important decisions for my mother. But we all knew where he would be buried – Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla in Westchester, New York – a truly beautiful place.

We knew that because his mother was buried there. We had the 1911 literature, contract and defacto deed to the plot where he was to be set next to the Mom he never knew, as she died when my father was one years old. My parents visited the gravesite in the early 1950’s. We had photos of her cast concrete grave marker – a simple base upon which sat a broken Corinthian column – the symbol of a life ended before it reach full  expression – Lucy Hill Dickinson was 27 when she died. She was the only one there, as his father (who buried her at Kensico) was buried in Queens, with his second, and ultimately third wives.

The “deed” clearly said there were 6 spaces-  3 doubled up places for caskets allowed for him, my mother and even the 3 children – pretty neat in its coincidental precision. So it was a surprise when the solemn face of the Cemetery Administrator greeted us 3 days before the funeral. “I am afraid I have some bad news” – in midst of our own unresolved sad state this was like a slap to the face in an otherwise easy slide into transition.

It turned out that the circumstances of Lucy’s death were thrown in our faces 76 years after it wrecked her husband Harry’s early life. Lucy was effectively a spinster at 25 when she met Harry. My grandfather Harry was, by all accounts, not a nice man. He had come to America from Newcastle, England in 1903 without an 8th grade education to play professional soccer, had blown out his knee by 1907 and was a bricklayer when they met. Lucy worked in the textile mills, and from the pictures we had of her she was not a beauty, but apparently they appealed enough to each other to get married.

Marriage meant children – and my father was born within a year or so of the their marriage, in 1909. Lucy died a year after my father was born. I know no details, but Lucy’s sisters in Toronto, who took care of my father after his mother’s death until Harry married his second wife 5 years after Lucy died, were fairly clear: Upon learning she was immediately pregnant again, by a man that was not a nice man, Lucy died having an abortion of their second child.

Kensico Century must have been a pretty distant place for a Brooklyn family in 1911 – as Westchester was essentially farms and summer homes for the rich. But the cemetery was right off the railroad line. Clearly Harry Dickinson wanted to exile his dead wife as far out of sight and mind as possible. The inexpensive cast grave marker was much the worse for wear, but was probably affordable for a bricklayer, especially given the circumstances. But it was more than that.

“I am afraid I have some bad news” was followed by a set of facts that were both sad and mean. Harry had buried the wife who died aborting his second child in the center position in the line of three coffin locations of the gravesite. If located properly, 6 spaces result from the 3 locations when the coffins are set 2 deep – a standard practice. But apparently Harry asked that the center coffin spot not be set at the lower position where 5 other coffins could be buried around and above it, but rather in the middle of the middle position, where no other coffin could be buried next to it, as its middle-middle position mandated disinterment (and disinterment was against contractually obligated cemetery policy).

After betraying his legacy, Harry meant to keep Lucy alone for eternity.

With the funeral a few days away for Harry’s son by her, we scrambled to find another plot within eyeshot of Lucy. At great cost there was an orphan site a hundred feet away from Lucy’s for 6 graves – 3 wide and 2 deep, just like hers. My father was buried low and to the side – allowing for the rest of his family.

But the final solution for my father’s final earthly repository was not reached by finding a burial site. My mother was an interior designer, I am an architect – hence the horrifically garish coffins offered up by the funeral home were both hideous and insanely expensive to us. I spotted a clean simple wood box in a separate room (pictured at the top of this piece) it was lovely in line, detail and material.

When I asked after it, the solemn mortician grimly replied “That is a casket for Orthodox Jews”: it had no metal fasteners, and was made of plain finished solid wood and had a Star of David carved into its underside and embroidered within its cloth interior – and was 1/3 the cost of the fugly alternatives.

Like his father, my father had some nasty aspects to his personality – one tough nut was his outlook on one part of humanity – he had been a reactionary anti-semite his entire life. He had essentially wrecked my mother’s relationship with her best friend – because she happened to be Jewish, and made life tense with her sister who married a Jew and had converted to Judaism.

My mother and I both thought the meeting of aesthetics, cost and irony found in this final resting nest was irresistible. We opted for the Orthodox Jewish casket, and I opted for its match when my mother died about a decade later.

We repaired Lucy’s broken and failing tombstone and made a new one visible from it of durable granite, per my mother’s design. A simple base has the column shaft and capital laid upon it – set as if it had finally come to rest after being snapped off from its neighbor so long ago. There is room for my sisters there, but my wife and I had to have a clean break from the legacy of sadness and anger these graves try to resolve.

We will be in wood boxes as well, but 9in x 9in. -we will be cremains set within our church’s columbarium, bathed in music and memories as long as it stands, amid the redemptive Grace that escaped Harry and Lucy.


August 27, 2016




Before & AfterLeonard Saari B&A Exterior

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Getting Done in San Francisco


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The outdoor chapel at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, CT

Click here to read about the project.

CEPHAS Housing 25 Years Ago in Yonkers NY

Click here to read about the project.


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In Common Edge: The AIA’s Response to Crisis Call In the Stars

In Common Edge: Will Architecture Have Its Donald Trump Moment?

In New Haven Independent: Visionary Bromances

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In New Haven Register: Battered Homeowner Syndrome in New Haven

In New Haven Register: New Haven Knights of Columbus building – an icon reclad

In Common Edge: Why Architecture Needs More Building Architect Critiques

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In Hartford Courant: Deborah Berke, First Woman To Lead Yale’s School of Architecture

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In Townvibe: Simple Pleasures, an Artful Blend of Modern and Traditional

In Hartford Courant (login required): A Classic Street Ages, But Retains its Beautiful Bones

In New Haven Register: Forum: Yale, Pearl Harbor bridge projects show branding matters, money follows

In New York Times: Everything and the Kitchen Sink

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In Hartford Courant (login required): “Christmas in Connecticut” was Perfect for War-Weary 1945 American Moviegoers

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In AIA: It’s not the Media: It’s the Work

In New Haven Register: Quarantining Architecture

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In The Mercurial: Erosion Revelation

In Architecture Boston: Post-Modernism and Intelligent Design

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Archive: Real Life Survival Guide



On WTNH News:  Madison Architect Sheds Light on Solar Solution for Homeowners

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On HGTV:  Mercedes Home Diaries       Password: mercedes



The Past Lives of Homes

August 21, 2016


NOON! TODAY, AUGUST 25th! Listen! 89.5FM &  Call in: 203-336-9756

Although 30 million homes have been built since World War 2, twice as many were, and are, still among us. Most of us live in homes that are not antiques, but are also not of our era. How were these homes conceived? Making sense of the unknown past lives of our present homes with 3 extraordinary observers of historic domesticity.

Steve Culpepper will join Duo in studio and has been a Executive Editor at Taunton Press and editorial director at Globe Pequot Press. Besides publishing any number of books on homes, Culpepper personally created 2 books: “Where We Lived”and “Where We Worked” and has spent over a decade living in a 140 year old Court Street, New Haven home and runs Steven Culpepper Editorial Services, Ltd.

Joining by phone will be John Herzan who is the Preservation Services Officer  for the New Haven Preservation Trust   and served as State & National Register Coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office for 25 years . His extensive experience in helping those owning older structures cope with the trials and opportunities of managing antiquity make John’s insights invaluable to anyone dealing with the past lives of their home.

A special guest will be Christine Franck who is a designer, educator, and author. She currently serves as the first Director of the new Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture (CARTA) at the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning. Christine ( is the 2016 recipient of the Clem Labine Award, in recognition of her advocacy of traditional design and building.




August 21, 2016


The 21st century has turned out to be time of great certainties. It’s just those extreme certainties are in raging violence against each other. The are few doubts about Right and Wrong – I am RIGHT and You are WRONG.

We are either GREAT or OUTRAGED on the InterWebNets where our minds and hearts have shrunk and distilled to Emotocon proportions. States of being like “ennui”, “confusion” or simply feeling “awkward” are largely left in the screaming wake of bellicose expression.

Into the InterWebNets a little reality must fall. There are times when things are neither PERFECT or TRAGIC. In fact it’s most of the time.

But there are times when unresolved futures – times that are not so much threatening or joyful as unsure and undefined. The Awkward Age is typically defined as those pre/early teens where humans are children with hormones. Where growing has not stopped but emotions are both random and unprecedented, and roles are not there to live to: Not Adult, Not Child, Not ready for sex, but thinking about it constantly, becoming smart in a sea of ignorance within a young brain, the Awkard Age is simply the breaking voice and new pubic hair invading our hearts and minds – everyone had that time in their life.

But there are other Awkward Ages: that time just out of college, first job: college spousal equivalents vaporized by, what? – but gone. I met my my wife when we we both there and now our children are experiencing  that odd period of suspension – when the dozen-plus years of school have ended and life has tilted to a threshold, not not yet become a life.

Neither fish nor fowl, feeling uncertain in an age of Extreme Definition Screamed Loud is even more awkward than it was in a quieter time. But Awkward does not end at finding the career, life partner, creating kids or “making a difference”: some awkwardnesses are just biology, like a 12 year old’s pubic hair.

I turn 61 today. What is that?

Old? Young? Wise? Lame?

Its Awkward.

I find birthdays absurd for the lucky. Survival of disease, Holocaust, or even a bad family is nicely celebrated by the reality of more years achieved. But I have been given most everything: the abilities to bring to bear, healthy children, my own health so good that an ingrown fingernail is a distraction.

If you have much, getting more is awkward – less is worse, and acheving something Great that’s of course better: but “Stay The Course” only worked for W against John Kerry, not against his sad inadequacies.

So whining about awkwardness has no brief: in a world that values certitude over righteousness, being in the crater after Great Events (graduation, turning a round number age, having a child) the odd inadequacy of “maintaining” is now more lame than ever.

The celebration of mere survival – continuity at the hands of unmerited Grace –  is absurd. But Everywhere. For those of us who were not at war, did not have cancer, or have not had to live any numbers of nightmares, a birthday has as much reason for pride and celebration as a sunny day.

I did nothing to survive to be 61. I am not old enough to sense the desperation of death, but I am old enough to feel its presence sooner than I am comfortable with.

Our children are grown and in a berth to sail forth, my marriage is a gift of 36 years, I have literally nothing to be upset about, everything to be grateful for,

but its awkward…





This Is Not Architecture

August 14, 2016

IMG_6844 copyArchitectural Record is a 125 year old old icon of architectural journalism. It was the flagship publication of America’s only national guild of Architecture, the American Institute of Architects for a very long time.

This month’s cover of Record is beautiful. The color, composition and design depicted is kinetic and static and balanced and its surfaces intriguing and evocative. But the cover and the cover story Is Not Architecture.

Covers of magazine used to be about eye candy, about luring an impulse purchase at a bookstore or magazine rack – but there are almost no magazine racks left, anywhere: covers no longer draw attention, they reflect editorial positions.

I know from covers. I have fought for and slaved over 8 book covers over 35 years. My work has been on covers; HOME, Better Homes and Gardens, Fine Homebuilding among them: each cover was chosen as a statement: the essence of summer, the future of the kitchen, the first interior on a HOUSES issue. Covers Are Statements.

Then what replaced architecture on this month’s cover?

Is it about a noble social effort? A breakthrough material? A fashion model? No. It is more problemmatic than these options (all previously done by architecture mags). With this cover Architectural Record effectively endorses the aesthetic fetish of most cutting edge elite architects in academia, the Awards Machine, and criticism.

The cover of Architectural Record is simply a really neat sculpture. That’s it.

Designed by architects, of course, who else designs nationally published sculpture these days?

Per the cover article:

“In the summer of 2013, when the architects Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa first visited the 11,500-acre Montana cattle and sheep ranch that’s now home to Tippet Rise Art Center, an hour southwest of Billings, they thought it looked like a lunar landscape….How could any manmade object compete with such a vast natural setting?”

There it is: architecture is any “manmade object” (I assume women can make them too, as one of the cover subject’s designers was a woman…) It’s a neat sidebar: architects who are also fine artists: but sidebars are not cover stories. In fact, the stated topic of the issue is work place design…

Magazine covers are the graphic sound bites of any given magazine’s premise: it’s essential POV. Political humans or icons are on political magazine’s home page or cover. Tech stuff is on tech mags’ covers, On the cover of American Architecture’s most respected magazine cover the message is clear:

Architecture worthy of cover publication IS sculpture.

The messaging could not be clearer: it is literal, unnuanced, and, to me, truly beautiful.

Of course, for decades, many (many) Record covers have had buildings designed to reflect the extreme reductionist aesthetics of formalism. Many covers focus on sculpture as being integrated with the buildings in the cover:

This cover is akin to Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue – which is Not about sports and this issue of Architectural Record should not project sculpture as its central message. Making sexier “Click Bait” on cyber “cover”’s is now necessary, but here “sexier” means sculpture, not building. One commentator on this piece says the next cover will have kittens or babies on it, per the Facebook Canon of clicking…

But architecture is not just, literally, exclusively about its fine arts sexiness. Architecture is the Mother of the Arts: it is not just one segment of its genetic code. Use, interior environment, safety, stability also come into play. Even a pyramid has a function beyond being a pyramid. It is inadequate, and I believe lazy, disingenuous and simply a lie to effectively equate architecture to any “man made object”.

Making a building disappear to gain the pop, power and beauty of the Record cover is sophistry: buildings are not sculptures: They Are More.

Sculpture is about shape, surface, space, allusion, light, all those ineffable things that make this cover image beautiful.

But It Is Not Architecture.




August 5, 2016

Architects deal with gravity first. If the design in mind won’t stand without freaky expense, it’s just not viable. If the design is not thought thru, and the building is simply unstable it’s a hazard, not a refuge.

Buildings are built as protection first, all other aspects come after that benchmark. Job One is providing safe harbor in a world fraught with dangers – weather and human. Families are also about protection, so where families live is a doubly sensitive reality. Homes protect what needs protection most: the love and care for our intimates.

As an architect it would be a lot easier to design homes if nothing changed. But families age-out children. A baby is born. A job moves home. But functional accommodation has relatively simple answers for any building. The first design criterion for a building to be modified is that it is stable to start with.

With 21st century engineering humans can pretty much build anything anywhere with stability: but it often takes huge resources, and the right structural design. In San Fransisco the design of a very large expensive building, the 58 story Millenium Tower, saved money by not extending its supporting piers to bedrock, and having a large underground transportation hub built next door, the building has sunk 16 inches in less than 10 years and tilts a bit.

But humans are the essence of adapting to survive: so our buildings reflect that. The little house you see at the top of this piece was built in 1935 on the east shore of Lake Chaplain, a huge body of water carved into rock by natural force. Humans may adapt, but we are also prisoners of our specific perspectives: when this house was built, it was on solid rock.

Since the last ice age ended, the east edge of Lake Champlain – a sedimentary stone coming close to slate – has eroded by water (flowing and freezing), tree roots growing between laminations and the actions of humans. But when a member of the family that owned the cottage’s site set to build a 500 square foot studio on the edge of the rock ledge 20 ft above the water it seemed like a great idea. Building on stone with an incredible view.

But soon after its 1935 construction some of that rock began to subside to the lake below – to the extent that when invited to a party a few years later the building family member would not venture to the lakeside of his little construction. “I know what’s under there” he said of the living room extension, now held up on posts over the water.

Building on anything, sand, stone, values does not mean much if those things change under you. Growing up in the most traditional nuclear family imaginable, it was a breaking shock to see its foundation simply vanish as the drinking life of my father, so joyous in the 1930’s became so desperately unhappy in the 1950’s.

The cottage you see in the picture has had several underside restructurings, and over the last 21 years I have inspected those: I can warrant nothing has moved – the rock, for now, seems stable. But that cannot last.

There will be a time when support will fail, despite all good accommodations, and the little house, and it’s exquisite stone mantle fraught with shells and sacred bits of memory applied by its first occupant in 1935 will either be moved or removed…

The stability of anything relies on its support: airplanes use the zillions of molecules in the atmosphere for that: when constant in their orientation those molecules allow for a smooth flight, when moving too much those molecules create “turbulence” – just like stormy seas for a boat or eroding rock under a little cottage at the edge of a lake.

Foundations moving do not matter much when on flat land, but building at the edge of a even a small precipice means that any movement, any instability, any lack of sport can be disastrous.

So our little cottage we visit once a year has radical care and attention that the other 70 little structures on the site do not need to stay stable. In the places of fragility care must be taken. Designing and renovating buildings, the resolution of gravity is primary: in the creation and care of relationships stability needs to be fundamental, or doubts are legitimized.

Instability is a fearful thing, in buildings, in cultures and in the people who create both. A crazy election makes for instability in the out years, causing fear and making people look for buttresses for their views and values.

Erosion is not limited to the shores of Lake Champlain. At 6 I knew my life had no foundation as my parents were in a free fall of coping, buttressing the breakage they caused, making no safe support for their children or each other. The results in my life, and thus my family’s, are the belt-and-suspenders overkill applied to any future possible instability.

We have perhaps created a presumption of support in our children akin to that of the Millenum Tower. My children rightly assume their parents’ constancy and support. But it is only so ardent and extreme because we had so little of it ourselves growing up.

When things went south in my childhood it was scary, but not unfamiliar: what is known becomes normal – just like the struts holding up our little cottage are invisible when you are inside it, all is well in a family until you can get some perspective and see the extremities needed to support a dangerous instability.

There are no cracks in our cottage’s sheetrock walls and ceilings – I look for them every year with keen attention – just as I look at my children’s lives – looking for signs of danger.

So far, so good.

The Case For Trumpitecture

August 2, 2016

does architecture suffer from having its own private server? My favorite description of Donald Trump was made in the previous century: long gone Spy Magazine dubbed Trump a “Short Fingered Vu…

Source: The Case For Trumpitecture


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