Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small
We’ll skip the early bits.
- Undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon.
- Stints with John Lautner in Los Angeles, Smith & Williams in Pasadena, Anshen & Allen in San Francisco and Charles Blessing at Detroit City Planning.
- 1969-72 Assistant Professor at California State Polytechnic University
With Small’s CV, project dates span actual positions but the following project encompasses his time at California State Polytechnic.
- 1965-77 Biomorphic Biosphere
“Biomorphic” is still a media and student preoccupation that’s no closer to being realised now than it was then. With higher resolution graphics and less gender objectification, Small’s Biomorphic Biosphere proposal wouldn’t seem that out of place in 2015. The project was contemporaneous with Metabolism and its alleged preoccupation with megastructures organised as if by the principles of Nature (i.e. like a tree). Instead, Small’s artificial structures are places for Nature to take place. In retrospect, this was not a good career move. With all the architectural distractions of Post Modernism, people didn’t have much time left to contemplate Nature but, when they did, they liked it to fit into an architectural scheme, not an engineering one.
- 1972-1990 Founded and taught at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)
Previously, I’d imagined a group of students and faculty dissatisfied with how and what they were being taught and going off and starting their own architecture school and, in the language of the times, doing their own thing. In a sense this is true, [but how did this work in practice? Did kids tell their parents they’re switching university and they must pay fees again?] Shelley Kappe, wife of SCI-ARC founder recollects something different.
During the summer of 1971, however, when Kappe was not on [California State Polytechnic] campus, the Dean of the School of Environmental Design, allowed more students to be admitted into the Architecture program than Kappe desired, upsetting the balance between Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning. Ray Kappe had a meeting with the Dean about the divisiveness this was creating among the three departments, as well as the misinformation the Dean had been giving him. Kappe very strongly stated his disapproval of the Dean’s actions, after which the Dean asked for his resignation
It doesn’t matter – it’s all history now. Nevertheless, the detachment did result in a new institution with a new curriculum designed around cooler preoccupations such as ecology, lightweight structures, social awareness, and political awareness. Remember these names.
It’s easy to imagine them all listening to Janis Joplin, Chicago, Rolling Stones, a bit of Led Zeppelin, Santana, Chicago, some Velvet Underground perhaps, and some Beatles and Carole King as a guilty pleasure. Students had to actually build things because computers were still the size of a small planet and, besides, nobody had any idea what use they could ever be to architecture.
Small taught at SCI-ARC until 1990 when, according to his side of the story, the baddie who ousted him was Thom Mayne. If true, such a freethinking and radical institution was not beyond some good old-fashioned academic skullduggery.
Flash forward … The funny thing was, my daughter was interviewing Thom Mayne while making her film about me, he mentioned this thing, that I frightened them, that, I had the charisma and attracted the students with my ideas.. Basically, he said, I had that power with students and that was threatening to them (directors) and their ideas and what they wanted to do with SCI-ARC. So, they sure weren’t going to nurture my game there. And they didn’t want anybody there to tell them that stylistic stuff wasn’t too meaningful. No they didn’t want anybody saying that. They had to get me out.
Still, 18 years isn’t a bad innings. Alumni include Greg Lynn, Shigeru Ban, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss … A website showcasing alumni achievements has a high proportion of large houses for wealthy people in LA. As you’d expect, they look like nice places to be but sustain entrenched architectural and media values rather than changing any.
Confession. Part of my problem with SCI-ARC was that I thought the “SCI” bit stood for science. Now I know it only stands for Southern Californian Institute Of, houses like the above make sense. It’s just southern Californians building for southern Californians. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. There’s nothing particularly scientific about these projects.
To be fair, there is some building of solar stuff but that’s nothing special these days. I have trouble reconciling this next image with the two above.
Anyway, over its 40-plus years, SCI-ARC overcame funding, salaries, accreditation and the other trivia of running an academic institution.
Despite their differences, Glenn Small did attend Sci-Arc’s recent 40th anniversary bash at LA’s Disney Centre. I can’t find a photo of him with Thom Mayne. Here’s Small standing with Dean Nota.
Small’s take on the event is interesting reading.
- 1977-1980 THE GREEN MACHINE
The Green Machine is low-income housing. It dates from Small’s time at SCI-ARC. Interview excerpts are from SCI-ARC alumnus Orhan Ayyüce interview over on Archinect.
“A fusion of Airstream trailers and nature to form a new human ecology. The trailers cost approximately $5K each at the time the proposal was made (the current price for used Airstreams is not radically different than this).
It’s just possible these days to get a 1965 model for $7,500.
I like The Green Machine. It’s representative of Small’s interest in structures that allow access to air and light for people as well as for Nature (a.k.a. plants) to happen. It’s sort of Metabolism meets Walden. The project had a sorry history of funding troubles brought on by a certain Ronald Reagan who had just become Governor of California. Low-income housing was not on the political agenda.
But 1980-1997 is that dodgy period once again. The Green Machine probably got left behind by history for not being ironic enough or iconic enough. With Post Modernism, things had to mean other things in order to be taken seriously and what The Green Machine meant was not good. An Airstream was no longer a cheap living capsule but a statement of mobility, of freedom, of living The American Dream in American Nature.
Seen through Post-Modern eyes, The Green Machine is thus too good for low-income people. For people on higher incomes it was insufficiently aspirational because anyone could just buy an airstream and do the Walden thing anyway..
- 1990 House on Mulholland Drive, LA.
1990 was also to be Small’s last year at SCI-ARC. The Mulholland Drive house took five years to build and wasn’t completed under Small’s supervision because of a falling out between the architect and his clients. In 2009 it was available for rent at US$27K a month.
- 1983 TURF TOWN
I have a lot of respect for this project and the reasoning behind it. I’ll let Small describe it in his own words excerpted from his blog, underlinings mine.
THE SITE, THE OLYMPIC PARK AREA WAS AN AREA OF LOS ANGELES THAT WAS A TYPICAL GRID IRON STREET PATTERN THAT IS FOUND THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES. IT WAS SELECTED FOR ITS LACK OF CHARACTER AND UNIMPORTANT CONTEXTUAL BUILDINGS ON THE SITE. ALSO IT OFFERED A CHANCE TO BE IMPLEMENTED IN OTHER PARTS OF THE CITY AND OTHER CITIES.
MY CONCEPT WAS TO CREATE A SOLAR ZONING ENVELOPE FOR HIGH DENSITY DEVELOPMENT THAT INCLUDED ECOLOGICAL AND MOVEMENT SYSTEMS. ALL HERE AND NOW STUFF THAT COULD BE BUILT.
LOS ANGELES DOWNTOWN IS LAID OUT ON A SPANISH GRID. THAT MEANS THAT ONE CORNER OF A BLOCK DIAGONALLY FACES SOUTH. THE THINKING BEING THAT ALL SIDES OF A BLOCK WOULD GET SOME SUN EVERY DAY MOST OF THE YEAR, BUT THE SOUTH CORNER WOULD GET THE MOST. THEREFORE I MADE THE SOUTH CORNER THE HIGHEST. WORKING OUT TO OVER 20 STORIES AND BOTH SIDES TAPERED DOWN TO 3 STORIES. I THEN DREW A DIAGONAL LINE IN PLAN TO THE TWO LOW CORNERS. THE CONTROLLING HEIGHT OF THE SOUTH CORNER WAS A 28 DEGREE SLOPE TO THREE STORIES. THE RESULTING SOLAR ENVELOPE LOOKED LIKE A THREE SIDED PYRAMID.
WITH THIS CONFIGURATION THERE WERE NO SEVERE SHADOWS CAST ON ADJOINING PROPERTIES AND THE SLOPING ROOF OF 28 OR LESS DEGREES RECEIVED SUN ALL YEAR AROUND. THE STREET FACADES WERE VERTICAL AND HAD CRASS COMMERCIAL SIGNAGE. A HEIGHT LIMIT OF 30 FEET WAS ALLOWED ON ALL SIDES OF THE BLOCK. THE ROOF WAS TO BE PLANTED GREEN AND HAVE PUBLIC ACESS OF WALKWAYS.
• • •
There’s a movie – which I’d love to see but I can’t get Netflix here.
“Hilarious and heart-wrenching…”My Father, The Genius” has the raw emotional power missing from “A Beautiful Mind”.— Scott Foundas, Variety
“My Father, The Genius” comes up with no definite answers, just richly lifelike ambiguities: that Glen Small has an admirable professional integrity, that he’s not the most well-adjusted person, that he’s a dreamer scarred by reality.” — Paul Sherman, Boston Herald
“…blithe, brilliant, and intimate…a real-life “The Royal Tenenbaums” in which dad comes off as insufferable but nonetheless charming and sympathetic, an uncompromising idealist whose failure to “play the game” exiled him to the margins … Small’s father, Glen, a visionary architect, could make a strong case for the distinction of this title…”
— Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix
Here’s a review from LA Times. There’s also My Father The Genius II, charting Small’s further adventures in Nicaragua where he currently lives with his “tropical” wife, feverishly blogging with the caps lock on.
• • •
Well my daughter made that movie My Father the Genius and people are aware of that and potential clients watch that movie and they pull back and I figure basically they get frightened of me and think I might be assertive and have ideas and I am going to take their money and they can’t push me around. Like I envy Frank (Gehry) that his clients come to him and say ”˜just do whatever you want Frank because you are the greatest.’ They are not doing that to me. I really think if you know about coffee, if you know about wine, if you know about shi-shi food, if you know about golf and tennis maybe some knowledge of jazz and some knowledge of classical, with that you can literally build any building you want. Because its nothing about the building, its more about making someone comfortable. They go about that stuff all night and that makes them connected you know. They feel that… And I find that stuff nauseating, so I am broke.
• • •