Monograph or Manifesto? Fernau + Hartman’s Improvisations on the Land

I’m always a little surprised when my free issue of Architectural Record arrives, seeing as I haven’t subscribed to it since I stopped getting it with my AIA membership a few years ago. The final issue of 2015 arrived recently and I flipped through the a short guide to new publications (Monographs in Disguise) penned by New York-based architect Alexander Gorlin. In it, he takes a swipe at the idea of a monograph, calling it a “a ‘must have’ accessory for every ambitious practitioner and a valuable marketing tool.” He goes on to describe “the camouflaged monograph,” which in Gorlin’s eyes is a monograph with a “theoretical premise” that exists as a way for publishers to sell more copies.  

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone thinks that making a monograph more topical and theoretical is some kind of clever slight of hand that will trick the book-buying public into buying more of them. But would a monograph with a theoretical premise really be such a new thing? What is the difference between the two categories in the first place? This is a topic that architect and professor Richard Fernau dealt with for many years in a seminar at UC Berkeley titled Monographs and Manifestoes where students read and discussed key architectural works from the early 20th century forward. The class was about the limits of theory as much as it was about how to write about architecture.

Fernau’s own new book Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman was part of Gorlin’s monographs list, and his take on it was less than positive. The review closes with the line “the baroque efflorescence of sheds and gables devolves into a cartoon of a farmyard, and the later high-budget projects suffer from a self-awareness that muffles the exuberant invention of the earlier buildings” while also referring to the F+H work as “playful riffs” on the vernacular via Hejduk, Gehry and Moore.

Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman

Rather than looking towards the work of Gehry and Hejduk, it makes more sense to look at the history of the Bay Area and Northern California (but when has a New Yorker ever done that?). Charles Moore is solidly a part of the Third Bay Tradition, which included his firm M/L/T/W and Joseph Esherick’s firm EHDD (more the the Third Bay Tradition here). The Third Bay Tradition built on foundation laid by Second Bay Tradition architects like William Wurster, and infused it with greater informality.

The Third Bay Tradition had nearly run its course by the time Fernau + Hartman were starting to build in the early 1980s, and their work picks up where it left off while also taking on the eclecticism and contextualism of Postmodernism. Importantly, the work is always deeply related to its site and this is a theme that is reflected in the title of the monograph and in the text. The word “improvisation” comes up again and again, and with good reason. There are no predefined solutions, and in many cases individual projects came together over a long period time as the architects got to know both the clients and the site.

Caperton House (Shepherdstown, WV 1998)

Fernau and Hartman’s satellite office (known as the “Bucket of Blood”) in small town Montana makes it in the book and is one of the stronger examples of their improvisational style, even though it doesn’t quite fit in with the larger rural residential projects that dominate the volume.  It does what the writing says it should be doing: it is a bit rough around the edges, works remarkably well in its location on a small-town retail strip, and is sustainable in a number of ways, including reusing demolition materials to build out the interior. It’s a Montana building done with a California sensibility on a reasonable budget.

A collection of short essays by Daniel P. Gregory, Beth Dunlop and others help to set the context for the built work. The bulk of the content is studies of individual projects spanning from the mid-1980s to the present. The earlier houses are simpler and more eccentric, while the later homes near the end of the book are more polished and expensive but all show the same determined focus on connecting the buildings with their occupants and their sites.

The line between a Monograph (often thought of as a glossy coffee table picture book) and a Manifesto (something ranty, possibly photocopied and hand-stapled and distributed on street corners) is often blurred in the architectural world. Fernau + Hartman haven’t set out a grand theory on how architecture must be done. That’s Patrik Schumacher’s territory. Nor have they simply compiled a collection of pretty photos, rather it is a collection of stories and the story of a how a firm thoughtfully evolved not only their own work but the project of California modernism over several decades’ time. The buildings are imbued with the philosophy of the authors, but are not rigidly defined by it. 

In the end, if you’re interested in West Coast Architecture and understanding one of the key California firms that has been working here day in and out for the past three-plus decades, pick up a copy. If I had to suggest there is an omission, it would be Richard’s first built project, a postmodern hot dog shop I believe was called “Franks for the Memories.” I guess they can save that one for the next book.

Santa Ynez house (Photo by Richard Barnes, 2012)

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.