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Cutting Trees in Buffalo

November 26, 2015

The mixed emotions during the Holidays are bad enough, but when filtered through decades, they can become inscrutably murky.

Mid-Century Suburban families had built in distortions that inevitably burst forth, and mine was no different. But Holiday realities overwhelmed all denial mechanisms.

Perhaps it was worse then. Remember, in the the post Depression/World War generation drinking was still in post-Prohibition exultation. For WW2/Korea vets PTSD was just letters on your Scrabble rack. Women, minorities and the “lower classes” all had heinous prejudicial injustices woven into a social code straight jacket that was often legally enforceable. It was the last gasps of a culture created by white males, who had in turn had recently saved the planet existential threats (which we, of course, had created).

Something had to give, and in millions of micro family devastations the Holidays often added the last straw to an already overloaded camel’s back of suppressed distortions. The 6 week Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years pressure cooker simply added an insane layer of unreasonable expectations to an already doomed situation. No family is a Hallmark Card. no Holiday season is a soft focus movie.

My family could be movie worthy, but it was not “A Wonderful Life”. My parents had flailed into a bifurcated life – a split created by my mother between New York City-centric suburban Husband Maintenance and escaping to an inner city Buffalo home where her two sons lived while at school: My sister had, stereotypically enough, for a time, was elsewhere having driven a Volkswagen Beetle to California.

But the 20 year suburban tether still pulled the family together in Westchester for some days during the Holiday Overload Time. Those gatherings happened in the first few years of the 1970’s. But as the Buffalo house gained a new kitchen, renewed/decorated surfaces and furnishings, the centroid of family life drifted to northwest New York State, despite my father’s full-time legal career in Manhattan.

In previous Christmastimes there were the “Mad Men” moments that make all children of alcoholics cringe, long past childhood. My brother asked my father to please watch his drinking when his first real girlfriend came to visit in 1970 – followed by an hour of ethanol-facilitated screaming, followed by 48 hours of complete silence as everyone walked on eggshells, broken on Christmas morning.

So, before I left for college, but after the domestication of our 19th century townhouse, there was a Christmas where we endeavored to once again simulate a family holiday, together. I am guessing it was 1972, as the decades passing have distilled the toxicity of the memories to a point where they are burned about the edges. Surviving the acid dip into the past is a severe reckoning, that makes even less sense now than it did 43 years ago.

I was a Senior in High School, as such I, and the other Jock Elite were anointed to raise money for Good Causes. Someone had offered up their tree farm for a pro bono harvest and sale. The senior athletes cut down about 30 trees, sold them, and the money went to a “good cause”.

I had set aside a particularly large 12 footer, as our 1870’s Victorian-ish house had ceilings at least that high. In doing this, I became The First Dickinson Ever to cut down his own Christmas tree. My grandfather had come over from Newcastle to play soccer in Brooklyn, so the tradition was to buy urban precuts, the ones which already had cascades of lost needles on a scale with those of a wealthy heroin addict.

But trees for our family harkened to another split. When children enforced suburbs on my urban parents, and it was not easy for them. Parenting was passive, and guesswork, so when the culture pointed to a parental role that was mandatory, my folks hit it hard. Private schools. Church on Sunday. Parents as Santa.

Extremity of make-up calls was the pattern, so the first decade of Family Christmas saw an empty house as my brother and sister went to bed on Christmas Eves, but then my parents launched into a full-on Make, Wrap, Install Everything All Nighter. Voila! Santa brought everything down the chimney!

This, of course, ended with my birth.

My witness of Christmas tree insertion was an all-day testing of zillions of often faulty strings of lightbulbs, sorting through lead “icicles”, and unending, loud cursing at the inevitable results of creating something from parts rushed away in exhausted depression a year earlier.

I have continued that family legacy, just without the lead.

But the Christmas of 1972 was memorable because I had gotten the tree. Coming home, tree on shoulder, I opened the door to find my father and brother watching a football game (NFL playoff, I think, in the days before the Super Bowl flirted with Easter), and my mother was, in theory, cooking.

“I got a tree!”

Silence, then: “Great.”

“Let’s set it up!”.


I realized it was after 5, so my father was in ethanol infusion, and the fact my brother was watching football meant he was likely stoned.

Being 17, I had seen things like this flambé to a bonfire of recrimination and reactionary defensiveness. Being a month out of captaincy of the Park Pioneer Football team, I was physically capable. Having witnessed and assisted a decade of cursing frustration, I knew how to do that.

So I did it.

The game went on seen thru the blue haze of Kent Fog, and I got it all done while “the boys” ate by the game in the next room and my mother “cooked”.

It was the last tree I cut down until we had our own house. It was the last Christmas where my father was the Patriarch. College happened, getting a job and family meant I was a even less frequent visitor than my father.

I could cut down and put up the tree, set the school record for tackles in a game, get into a couple of Ivies, but I could not make a family, until I had one.

Welcome to Saved by Design

November 23, 2015

New Stuff:

In Left To Myself : Fumble Drill

In Random Stuff: Peaks and Pits

In Not (As) Fat: Fat & Drunk

In Finding Home: Pro Bono and Architecture

In The Rules:  The Illusion of Value 

In Home Page Viagra-tecture 


November 21, 2015


This house Is this week’s featured project on the website Architizer. It’s Big Gesture is an outsized cantilever – nothing new: I just returned from a near 80 year old precedent:


But the message behind the images is often lost: extremity is often its own reward. Fallingwater is a masterwork, an intricate dance between site and building far more subtle and enriched than 2D images can convey.

The problem is we only have images to view for 99% of what we see in architecture: Architizer is HOUZZ for architects. Both sites, as with any website, aspire to hits.

Extremity gets hits. “Sex sells”.

The first internet images that a physicist friend said were on the World Wide Web were pornography. Extremity of image and primal connection to the most basic lizard parts of our brains grab attention and do not let go: they goad the viewer to seek more images,and more and more.

In architecture that means the thrill of the new: but the more “New” strives to be “Newer” we instinctively seek “Newest”. It’s a circular, impossible logic that overlays all the other aspects of building: money, materiality, environment, use. It’s an unquenchable thirst: not slaked by ever increasing extremity.

Fallingwater ended up at 5times budget. It’s cantilevers sag relentlessly. It never stops leaking – over 20 permanent, never-ending leaks. The pitch for donations at the end of our tour noted it takes $2,700,000 per year to conduct tours and maintain the building.

Fallingwater is a masterpiece.

But is it a house?

It was a weekend home: but clearly the Kaufman’s knew they were living, weekends, in art.

Is porn love?

Sex wants to be an act of love: but often it’s scratching an itch. Houses want to be homes: but architects want to make masterpieces.

Just like romance and sex occur together all the time, homes can be great architecture. But there are one night stands in sex and in architecture. The ends of expressing genius often justify extreme impacts on families like the Kaufman’s.

When love is not enough, men take Viagra. When the intense devotion of a family to express itself is not enough, architects aspire to genius. Without that aspiration innovation is lost.

But very little Viagra is used for erectile dysfunction – it just makes sex more extreme (or so I have been told). Viagra is unnecessary, as is porn, as is Fallingwater. But the joy they all give is as real as the safety of the basic Capes that kept the Pilgrims alive.

The Kaufman’s knew what they were getting from Frank Lloyd Wright. But the viewers of images on Architizer or HOUZZ cannot know about the costs, misfits and fixings that plague their occupants.

But that’s OK because they are just images on a screen. Part of us wants what Erica Jong called “zipless” sex in architecture – no strings, no meaning other than the moment and the sensation.

But our profession often think images are architecture. Being in Fallingwater showed how shallow images are. “Zipless” design is not design at all, its the image of design. Photoshop can make anything anything. What used to require distortional interpretation can now be realized: virtually, if not experientially.

Porn is not love, and it’s not even sex, but the blurring of the images and the act and the feelings can simulate intimacy via profanity.

Architecture is not images. But that reality is lost on those who want to feel they can define it, ignoring the vast majority of what buildings are.

We are losing the experientiality of architecture: just as porn removes humanity from sex, obsession over image takes the life out of buildings. I hope that the thrill of zipless architecture wanes as its unsatisfying inaccuracies become ashes in our culture’s mouth.

Finding hope in burn out is a sad thing.


November 20, 2015

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Under Construction

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Getting Done in San Francisco

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photo (2) photo (1)

photo (3)

Recently Completed!


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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.

CEPHAS-Existing-001-copyCephas Ext4aCephas Ext2Cephas PR Dwg4ps


In New Haven Register: When Things Go South – Design Can’t Save Bad Building

In Hartford Courant (login required): The Classroom of the Future

In New Haven Register: When Branding Becomes Blanding in New Haven

In Home Living Magazine: City Living: An Award Winning Renovation

In Hartford Courant: What CT Has Is History- Don’t Neglect It

In New Haven Independant: Architect Couple, Institute Library Snag Awards

In Hartford Courant: History is Precious

In New Haven Register: New Haven’s Court Street is ‘like its own little town’

In Hartford Courant (login required): Smart Home Design In A City That’s Neighborly

In New Haven Register: Villas on a ridge, New Haven’s Hillhouse Avenue

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

In New Haven Register: Millennial Meme Housing Sprouts in New Haven

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

In Room One Thousand: Sixty Panes of Faith

In Behind the Walls: The Not So Tiny House Movement (Part 1)

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

In New Haven Register: Quarantining Architecture

In New Haven Register: Weeds on New Haven’s Oak Street Lawn

In New Haven Magazine: Back Yard Forward

In New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty is a Buried Building

In New Haven Register: Tulips, Architecture Students & Bubbles that Burst

In New Haven Register: Flood tide of rental housing could change New Haven’s landscape

In New Haven Magazine: Still by the Sea

In New Haven Magazine: Preserving the Past for the Future

In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes: Boy Was It Worth It

In New Haven Magazine: From Family to Farm

In The New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty Is Buried Building

In The New Haven Register: Yale’s Evans Hall: Overdressed for Success

In New Haven Magazine: Cubed

In New Haven Magazine: Finding Design

In The New Haven Register:  Pearl Harbor Bridge in New Haven Extension of Greatest Generation’s Legacy

In Hartford Faith & Values:  An Elevator on Orchard Street

In The New Haven Register:  Are Neighbors More Neighborly when there is Greater Density?

In New Haven Magazine: Lawyers In Love

In Ink Magazine:  Architect Duo Dickinson: Celebrating 35 Years of Good Design for Everyone

In New Haven Magazine: A House of Homes

In The Source:  Duo Dickinson, Architect at Large

In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes:  On the Indian River

In The New Haven Register:  Aesthetically inconvenient Mudd Library faces death sentence

In Connecticut Magazine: Elements of Surprise

In The New Haven Register: Real Icons Aplenty in New Haven

In The Mercurial: Erosion Revelation

In Architecture Boston: Post-Modernism and Intelligent Design

In Design Bureau: Steve & Frank

Archive: Real Life Survival Guide



On Common Ground with Annette Ross:  She asked “Where is Architecture?”, I answered

On HGTV:  Mercedes Home Diaries       Password: mercedes



On Home Page, Binnie Klein & I debut our new radio show. Listen here!

On A Miniature World, Binnie Klein & I discuss springtime striving, mislaid spirituality & the folly of architectural terms. Listen here!

Guest Post from Hannah West, Storage and the Tiny House: Antithetical?

November 14, 2015

In 150 to 500 square feet of living space, where in the world do tiny house dwellers store their stuff? Of course, paring down is a prerequisite of the tiny house lifestyle. But no one, not even the least sentimental person in the world, could give everything away.

While you may think that “tiny house” and “storage” are two words that couldn’t fit together unless you were using a tiny house as a storage shed, at Modernize, we’ve discovered some clever solutions incorporated into tiny homes. The trick to tiny home storage is to create a second or third use for almost every piece or area in the home. Here are a few examples of double duty components in a tiny house:

Stair Storage


Via DIY House Building

Via iDesignArch

Many tiny houses use ladders, but that’s not practical for every tiny home dweller. If you’re intent on including some type of staircase, don’t waste the abundant space beneath them. Build drawers or open storage compartments into your stairs to store items like books, clothes, or even pots and pans. If you’re really savvy, you may even be able to fit a little bathroom under your staircase.

Subfloor Storage


Via Living Big in a Tiny House

Via Tiny House Talk

Lofts are the perfect use of vertical space in a tiny home. In fact, there are plenty of tiny house designs that use one side as the master bedroom and the other as a guest space, kids’ room, tiny office, or sitting area. Subfloor storage in these spaces is often a must-have element of a functional tiny house, offering much needed room for shoes, clothes, and even vanity mirrors.

Couch Storage



The biggest space hoggers are the best candidates for double use. Few items take up more space than a couch–which means few items can offer this boundless storage space. You can build drawers into the base of your couch or have storage compartments completely hidden underneath the cushions. You can even include a rolling hideaway bed. Just make sure you and your guests can still sit comfortably when all is said and stored.


Versatile Counter Space

Via Good Housekeeping

In tiny houses, the kitchen is the area that requires the most creativity. Between the fridge, oven, stove, and pot and pan storage, the square feet get nabbed pretty quickly. Slide out cutting boards, fold-down tables, and customized cutting boards that fit over the sink and stove are great ways to enhance counter space. Don’t forget about your vertical kitchen storage: your fold-down table doesn’t have to take up space of its own on the wall if it folds up against built-in shelves.

Hanging and Shelf Storage


Via Country Living

Taking advantage of vertical space is essential. Thankfully, wall storage can be as decorative as it is handy. Use hooks to hang pots and pans, shelves to store mugs and plates, and hanging baskets for utensils. You can also use this trick in the bathroom by hanging baskets and jars to store toiletries and towels. There’s really no such thing as getting too creative when it comes to tiny house storage.

Peaks and Pits

November 13, 2015


Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built Fallingwater in his late ’60’s. It was, by any measure a once-in-a-lifetime aesthetic tour-de-force. How does an architect follow that up? In Frank’s case it was with the Guggenheim, built well into his ’80’s.

Careerist tales of penultimate peaks with even later in life ultimate peaks give solace to those on the edge of old: me, for example. Churchill, Picasso, maybe a Manning or 2 all had world laud followed by even greater laud later.

But the the happy achievements all have one common aspect. They become finished. If you are still there when the quiet, darker, still absence follows the rush, you have more mirror than camera to look at. There is more baseline than plateau.

Given how I grew up, the celebrations over what I did have never meant more than a good meal: enjoyable, even joyous, but soon passed through to disposal.

Each win, each award, each tick on the résumé was like a brick: laid and then part of a large homogenized blank support for the next brick. The thing the brick wall basked in was the rest of what happens. For people who have children, one way or another, they become the meter, measure and definer of how you look back at the wall, the space around the wall, and everything else.

Frank had 6 kids. Its clear his 1867 birthdate meant that as a father he was likely less concerned about maximizing their perfection than achieving his own. But those dads, my dad, made fatherhood a crushing responsibility for we Boomers.

I took Will Clarkson, and his wife Nan, to Fallingwater last weekend: they are at the far left of the photo above, with their daughter Alison, my oldest friend who introduced me to my wife (the lens-distorted mass of hair, center-right). He loved Wright. At a fragile time, they showed me great, unmerited, kindness, and we have shared a genetic addiction to architecture. At 89, this was Will’s last chance to see the master work of his favorite architect (including me!)

The kindnesses he and his family showed me made this trip necessary. Not pay-back, or bucket list or karma: it was necessary, like food or sleep.

For its not each brick we achieve that matters, the heavily raked mortar between the brick, often unseen, (but sometimes gilt by Wright)


that builds the wall – and that glue is, in fact, love. Has Will Clarkson peaked at 89, at Fallingwater? – Just as Wright had not, Will has not.

The peaks are the flowers that bloom and fall away, the moments where memory is strongest – just like the pits of loss they reside among.

As I begin to have more memories than unknowns, the peaks seem less imposing. The abiding central focus is neither peak nor pit, its the flow beyond them, for me, our children. No peak they have makes the angst subside, no pit tempers the clutch on my guts.

Lists, peaks, pits, resumes consume the now, but I wonder, still, a few years after Guggenheim, as this world he built in was passing away from him, what did Frank think of, – his buildings, or his children?

Pro Bono and Architecture

November 8, 2015


Architects do a LOT of free work: everyone asks you to respond to the too-small kitchen, the front door that is rotting, the posible space for a business: but this is either friendship of marketing, just like any lawyer or doctor encounters.

But pro bono work in any profession is not based on friendship or marketing. Pro Bono Architecture is when an architect assumes responsibility for a Good Work where there is no money for its design fees. Unlike doctors or lawyers many architects are virtually addicted to what they do – they often design without asking, projecting both ego and facility into benign conditions.

When economic conditions make building less common, architects search for things to do: free services are a target of opportunity, and its better than being bored. Frank Lloyd Wright kept his volunteer staff busy and got some air time when he invented a Home for the Any Man – the architectural Model T: the Usonian Home.

In the last recession before this one a very nice group, Architecture For Humanity, was formed in the vague model of Habitat for Humanity. Local groups would respond to needs in any number of almost always foreign countries, work for free to get better buildings built. Noble. And funded by donations.

In other words the individual give of time by architects was often sponsored, just like Habitat for Humanity, with donations for staff and the tools to connect need to resources.

30 years ago I independently decided to completely weave pro bono work into my practice. I would do preliminary design for any not-for-profit asking for anything. If money became available via grants or donations I would take whatever was offered, no negotiation, but if there was no money for me, I soldiered on.

This approach was cast in concrete by a private meeting I had with the great architect E. Fay Jones in 1988: I asked about the miraculous Thorncrown Chapel. He said “I lost $17,000 doing that. Best thing I every did”.


The ethic, for me, like Jones, was broad-based. I became the local Habitat architect, tweaking a standard design we had defined in a committee for about 80 sites, plus perhaps a dozen renovations. There was even a grant for my services for an historic preservation project I freely donated back as it was already figured into our budget.

In Westchester County, New York, about 20 not-for-profits have used what I do for housing, and for the 50% of those that get built (after I design the buildings to leverage grant monies for free) there is the allotted fee: usually 50% of what I need to turn a profit. That’s resulted in over 60 built things, one actually received some laud: Here are some of many unbuilt donations:

I have done religious work on this basis, for Unitarians, Quakers, Catholics, every mainline Protestant sect, Jews and all the related efforts – including this church where the design and approvals work was pro bono and the when funds were generated to cover the cost of permit drawings, I took whatever the budget allowed, and did the construction observation work pro bono in order to meet the budget.


The photo at the top of this piece shows the Open Arms Shelter in downtown White Plains, New York. It is a good example of how free services leverage results. A pro bono preliminary design got approvals and a budget and then a grant. We received payment that would have covered my costs, but hard bidding saw us and the State of New York were off in our cost projections by about 30%.

I then opted to redesign the entire project back on the pro bono horse, including vetting the State’s “suggestions” (a huge dead-end time dump). A realler budget was created from downsized design drawings, and when bidding confirmed it, we received some more money, but as the project concludes (seen in the picture above) I do the math and I realize that a 6 year effort has taken about $100,000 out of my personal net worth, not lost profit but actual debiting of money. But 40 men will have a safe place to get off the street. Another unbuilt project combined extreme investment with heartbreaking failure over an 11 year effort:

Despite all the money lost and pain experienced, its worth it, because I built my practice to accept both.

We execute 50 projects in the office at any given time, 20 or 30 a year with about 8 full time people, and a couple of part timers. About 10 to 15 of these projects are pro bono, about 5 or 10 of those get built.

I would lay off perhaps 2 positions if I shut the door to pro bono work. I would, in theory net about $80,000 more a year.

But its worth it.

Its not a game, a calling card, a gesture: its my practice. If I cannot do what I do for Anyone: if I exclude the tiny retail fee project or the large pro bono project because of cost I would sleep even less well than I do now.

Architecture for Humanity went bankrupt this year: the recession that opened up free time for volunteers ended a lot of donations: and there are stories of excessive overhead and limited value: I called and emailed several times in its launch and never got a call back…

The truth of why pro bono work is worth it lies not in organizations served, but within each of us.

The “Why?” Question for architects is all too often answered by “making beauty” and the quest for Client ATM’s to pay for design and foot the bill for building it becomes as bad a rat race as there is in Western Civilization. The backbiting, anger-filled, ego-infused mud-wrestling match over who designs what at the World Trade Center after our worst national tragedy since the Civil War screams how extreme need for transformative design often crashes into shallow megalomania.

I prefer the deeper megalomania of working for all comers, walking away from other megalomaniacs who want to steal my time for folly (the call for free design for millionaires gets a “no”), but I run to those who have no clue and no money how to get where they have to be to survive.

In the end, all we have is time. A precise amount of heartbeats, here. I am clueless whether any cosmic, karmic or moral transaction occurs when I do pro bono work. But I am compelled to use what I have been given to those who need it most.

Working hard at school, putting in the extra effort and risk to build a business, to reject what would be the easy way for the better way, all these sacrifices are gifts simply because we have the skills and energy to engage in a calling beyond surfing the net.

The sacrifices we make to follow whatever mission has been given to us are not debts to be repaid: pro bono is not a make-up call for being a drunken jackass in college (or now), nor does it get me anywhere as an architect. Working for free for those that need it and cannot pay simply is part of the necessary food chain of human survival.

We all only have so many minutes left: use them to give what you have been given. Regret costs far more than money.


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