Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oliver Ranch - Part 2

Nauman's "untitled" Stair

Bruce Nauman's remarkable "Untitled" stair at the Oliver Ranch property is part of a series of works Steven Oliver commissioned for this property just a couple miles east of Geyserville.  

Despite the array of artistic talent on the site, after a few hours roaming the property, you feel there is a characteristic running through the work.  In one respect, it is quite obviously "the site."  There are few level spots.  The site, just off the valley floor of the Russian River, undulates everywhere you look.  

As an architect, I have seen different approaches to this kind of topographic challenge.  There is a strong temptation in the architecture and engineering design industry to cut and fill to create a level pad or "bench" for a project.  This is true despite the tremendous effort involved in creating a level bench where the land does not organically want to have one. Why is this so often done?  One simple answer is it makes schematic design simpler.  Not necessarily appropriate or practical, but simpler.  

Obie Bowman is a local architect who rarely caves to this instinct and crafts his buildings to respond to exisiting conditions.  A laudable instinct worthy of emulation.

In anycase, one has the sense on this property that most of the pieces were in some way, direct responses to the specific topography on which they sit and this fact generates a wonderful consciousness of the hill's beauty.  Everywhere you look, things are moving with, or responding too, the land.  

With all the lamentation that takes place about our civilization's impact on the environment and the impunity with which we, as a culture, disregard it, it is worth musing on the sensibility of this property.  How does a building sit on the land?  It is not a metaphor for our treatment of the environment.  It is the literal manifestation of our attitude toward environment.  Do we adapt our ideas to an existing condition.  Is the site a source of inspiration?  Or do we manifest preexisting ideas with impunity.

Like so many constructs in California, this stair is not necessary, in the strict sense of the word.  If one wants one can step off and walk the hill.  The stair is a playful affair.  The treads are constant and the risers vary.  In this way the stair reads as a kind of plot of the hillside; a surveyors measurement of the land.  

But walking the stair makes you acutely appreciative of the variation in the hillside.  Not just this hillside but any hillside.  As the stair comes to the road cut, the risers becomes quite steep and one is forced to take momentous steps down the hill.  The way the stair sensitively follows the terrain makes it seem somehow more fragile; like the barb wire cow fences that bob up and down across our hills.  Looking back now on the descent of that hillside I feel aware of its personality in a way a simple stroll would not have revealed.  It reminds me of a simple truth: We can understand land through a conscious dedication to nature and wilderness observation but it is more often the case that we understand land through the lens of our built environment and our habitual experiences in it.  For this reason it is important that we preserve a sensitivity to land in the creation of our built spaces.  It is too easy to become obsessed with important, but also self important, life safety concerns (e.g. handrails and guardrails) that, outside the building, are a non-issue.  A worthy challenge is to make spaces that mingle in inspirational and esthetic ways, outside of LEED certification, with our land.

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