It Wouldn’t Hurt To Know What You’re Looking At (part 1)

John_Durant_Architectural_Photography_San_Diego_California_Safdie_Rabines_Tree_House Safdie Rabines Architects – Tree House, 1999 San Diego California

In case you were wondering, the most beautiful house in San Diego is in Mission Hills. It was designed by Safdie Rabines Architects and completed in late 2000. It’s a tiny contemporary home built on the footprint of the original house which was destroyed by fire the previous summer. Ricardo Rabines told me it was his favorite project. I photographed the house in February of 2001, while the architects were having a cocktail party on the roof deck. I used Fuji RDPIII 4×5 color transparency film and the tripod was positioned on the edge of the neighbor’s roof, shooting at the perfect time of day: about ninety seconds before sunset.

I mention these details not because color transparency film is beautiful and sharp – which it is. Not because Safdie Rabines is an amazing firm – which they are. I bring these details up because you should know there was time in the not too distant past when beautiful work was done entirely by hand. If you look carefully at the upper left and right corners of the photograph, you can see the black clip marks left by the film processor. If you look even more closely, you can see the cut-away slots of the film holder. Yes, each individual sheet of film was loaded by hand, in a darkroom. Light metering had to be right on the money and you waited a day or two for the photo-lab to process the transparencies (this is an archaic word meaning film).

The plans for the Tree House were drawn by hand, using pencil and paper. Cell phones were rare. There was no Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, but somehow it all got done – and it wasn’t that long ago.

John Durant – February 2015


Art, Surfing & Design

John_Durant_Architectural_Photogrpahy_Mingei_Museum_San_Diego_California_1Surf Craft – Mingei International Museum, San Diego

In the summer of 2014, the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park mounted an exhibit dedicated to San Diego’s surfing history. The museum, recently designed by CO Architects is everything a traditional museum should be: clean, surprisingly sincere and well organized.

I wrote a review of the Surf Craft exhibit for Surfer’s Journal that posed this question: is it possible to create an exhibition of surfboards predicated on the understanding that a surfboard is an object of art?

The answer is yes – if you place surfboards in the context of other great functional masterpieces, from furniture to automobiles, where handcrafted prototypes play an enormous part in product design. Think: Charles and Ray Eames. Think: Ferdinand Porsche. Think: Mies Van der Rohe.

The Mingei International Museum is dedicated to the unusual proposition put forth by Japanese philosopher  Sōetsu Yanagi: traditional handcrafted objects possess a powerful beauty based on function. Here in the pristine main gallery of the museum, Yanagi’s original idea is carried into the present by San Diego surf-historian and first-time curator Richard Kenvin in support of the idea that surfboards are art. Kenvin has curated a large collection of multi-era, multi-function surf craft from hand-made wooden boards through early production models to today’s experimental ideas. A pair of early production Hobie hot-dog boards greet you upon entering the museum, and though the exhibit is roughly chronological, there are side excursions to George Greenough’s flexible kneeboards, a fleet of hand-foiled fins and meticulous models by Carl Ekstrom.

The exhibit is arranged, displayed and lit with rigorous attention to detail: surfboards and prototypes are labeled, attributed, dated and affixed to bone white gallery walls. The lighting design is clean and soft, revealing values a casual observer might have missed if the surfboards were anywhere you might normally see a surfboard – like your garage.
But you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate the fantastic patina on an early Hobie or the finish on a hand-made balsa. Years of layered color, ding repair and scuffs from the board washing to the beach after hundreds of wipeouts have created the abstracted subtlety of a Richard Diebenkorn: color that doesn’t come out of a tube and can’t be purchased.

The show’s heart, and one of the key elements (which keeps the the exhibit from looking like any high-end surf shop with, wares enticingly displayed), is the center of the Grand Plaza where a collection of Terry Hendricks’ experimental knee machines hover like a school of bright, oversized fish swimming through the gallery at eye level. Surf Craft is a guided tour through one man’s take on modern surfing history. Is it a complete history? That’s a tall order for any one show. Are there gaps and missing parts? Of course. But the exhibit pays homage to the greats: Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Bob Simmons – and the obscure: George Freeth, Bear Mirandon and the countless unknown craftsmen from whom modern surfing draws its heart and soul.

John Durant – October 2014



Mid-Century Modern, Energy Innovation & San Diego

Hanna Gabriel Wells Architects - San Diego Gas & Electric Energy Innovation Center

San Diego Gas & Electric Energy Innovation Center, San Diego California. Design: Hanna Gabriel Wells Architects

The architectural style we all know as Mid-Century Modern has its roots in pre-war Berlin and if you want to follow the logic backwards to the absolute beginning you’ll find Walter Gropius at the headwaters of this design idea as far back as 1919. By the 1930s the cutting edge in architecture and design was Bauhaus modern, with architectural deities Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe (among others) setting the standard for housing, furniture and factory design.

By the early 1960s the language of  Mid-Century Modern was part of everyday architectural and product design with adherents, followers and flagrant plagiarists worldwide. About this time the Safeway supermarket corporation had begun using classic form follows function principles – low pitched roof, glass curtain walls – in their supermarket designs and some of the best examples of Mid-Century Modern are still functioning here, every day in California.

The new San Diego Gas & Electric Energy Innovation Center resides in the shell of a classic Mid-Century Modern supermarket built in 1963. The original lines are clean and low-slung. The re-model, completed in January of 2012 by architects Hanna Gabriel Wells, compliments those lines with a classic zig-zag motif popular throughout the modern movement. You can see Zig-Zag Modern in Emil Praeger’s dapper outfield sun-shades at Dodger Stadium (1961), Martin Stern’s fabulous Ship’s Coffee Shops in Los Angeles (1957-61) and in Eldon Davis’ Hope International University in Fullerton (1962) – in other words, all over Southern California.

John Durant – December 2012


A Few Words About Large Projects – November, 2014


SOM Architects – La Jolla Commons, Tower Two, San Diego California

Skidmore Owings & Merrill Architects: La Jolla Commons Campus – San Diego, California

It can take a crack architectural team six months to design a fourteen story glass-skinned tower. And it will take an experienced contractor eighteen months to build the shell. In another six months the interiors and tenant improvements will be complete – so think of it as a three or four year process from start to finish. Within that time-frame a multitude of component parts will be purchased, stored, installed and adjusted. Consider: grading, electrical, plumbers service, heating and ventilation for a 421,000 square foot structure. Before ground is broken there will be soil and site evaluations and surveying. If you’re the general contractor you’ll oversee temporary power, aggregate piers, structural steel, building equipment and sub-contractors. There are a lot of moving parts. A lot.

After the landscape goes in, after the furniture installation and ribbon-cutting, after the punch-list and after hundreds of items have been repaired, replaced and repainted, I come in. I make photographs at the very end of the process, after the corporate logos have been hung on the parapets. After the windows have been cleaned.

Skidmore Owings & Merrill designed the La Jolla Commons Tower Two in the clean, clear language of International Style. The rhythmic fenestration and open first floor atrium give the building a lightness on its feet that bely the intrinsic weight of an office building. Architect of record Paul Dana referred to this quality as bringing the building to the ground lightly.

The firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill is one of the iconic American design firms, formed in Chicago in 1936. SOM is responsible for some of the tallest buildings on earth as well as some of the most distinctive North American architectural designs: Lever House in Montreal, Telus Tower Manhattan and One Chase Manhattan Plaza all bear a striking resemblance to the La Jolla Commons project.

John Durant – November 2014