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January 18, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Breaking ground Breaking ground (January 18, 2006)

Architect Stan Field provokes Palo Alto's adventurous spirit

by Carol Blitzer

For more than 30 years, Stan Field has carved his architectural initials into the landscape of three continents, with original designs that manage to simultaneously blend into their sites and stand out as extraordinary.

Each of Stan Field's structures tell a story. From his very first project -- a study of walls -- he was intrigued by "what the built form meant in the natural landscape," the whole idea of taking materials and directing something.

This fascination has resulted in the desire -- and ability -- to create individualistic, avant garde architecture. His vision has created such local stand-outs as the "super-Eichler" in Old Palo Alto -- a wave of stucco with a steel wing, two buildings connected by light.

"...I really believe Palo Alto is the kind of place that can address those issues, of breaking new ground," the 62-year-old Field said. "The whole spirit of Palo Alto is about that."

The Palo Alto-based architect recently received top honors from the American Institute for Architects, San Mateo Chapter, for two vastly different structures: a single-family home in Los Altos and a yet-to-be-built ecologically oriented housing estate in South Africa.

Each expresses his design philosophy, and his ability to tell a tale.

Born and raised in South Africa, Field studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The late '60s "was a troubled time, but a very opportunistic time. I was very fortunate to be around a great convergence of teachers," Field said.

His mentor was Louis Kahn (perhaps best known for his designs of the Jonas Salk Institute in San Diego, Kimbell Art Museum and the capital complex in Dhaka). Field was also influenced by Ian McHarg, author of "Design with Nature," a work he calls a forerunner to modern "green" thinking.

"I really started to understand what architecture means when I came in contact with Louis Kahn because he was an amazing teacher. He believed that order exists and it's just our uncovering of this latest order that we think is new," he said.

But Field was troubled by that philosophy. "Everything was collapsing around us at that time -- '68, '69. Students were protesting. ...While I loved everything he taught, I had trouble with aesthetics when everything was changing," he said. "I felt the situation needed to have a dynamic component that accommodated change."

Soon it was the "situational dynamic" that became the source of Field's inspiration. "Any project really is a coming together of the client's aspirations and the site. That unique coming together creates situational dynamic," he said. "Architecture needs to express the spirit of the times. Times change, technology changes," he added.

Returning to South Africa after his studies, Field was initially excited to be building in his homeland. "I was very rooted in Africa. I really felt a connection to the place. It has a pulse, the wildness of the country, the untouched areas, the bush, the ocean...," he said.

His first commission was a house to be built on an outcrop of rock. To fully understand the site, Field built a model and carved each boulder out of wood. "I got to know the boulders personally. Each one sort of had a character," he recalled. He then designed the house around the rocks, creating "an architecture that dialogued with nature."

Field didn't complete the design before building started. "Because of the way the rocks were on the site, a certain amount of improvising" occurred, particularly dealing with the way the light played inside. This early work set the tone for later projects, where Field chose to get involved in both the interior and exterior -- down to the landscaping, furnishings, textures and materials.

Although he built numerous structures, including a civic center, after about 10 years he got the urge to move. "Politically, it was difficult to feel any sense of freedom in any way. South Africa was a police state and it limited one's thinking, what one could do, who one could work with," he said.

So Field packed up his wife and children and headed for Israel to explore his ancestry. For 12 years he lived in Jerusalem, at first as chief architect of the Jerusalem municipality. There he worked on "The Seam," a project to bridge East and West Jerusalem along the No Man's Land.

Seemingly impossible -- "I likened it to trying to clap with one hand," Field said -- large parts of the scheme were implemented. "I was in Jerusalem last week (in December) and I actually drove down the city and saw the project," he added.

He also designed what he calls "an urban kibbutz," in Ramot, a neighborhood for new immigrants with "112 families, 112 different opinions."

But even living in Jerusalem began to feel limiting. "I got to the point where I started to long for the modern world, in terms of architecture. I felt I had reached the limit of what I could do in stone. And so with a very heavy heart we uprooted ourselves again," he said.

Attracted to Palo Alto initially by its proximity to Stanford University, "I felt this was a place I could grow and begin to contribute," Field said.

As he had in South Africa, Field began to teach in America, this time as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley's School of Architecture. His eyes light up as he speaks of entering competitions, burning the midnight oil with his students, attempting to break new ground in architecture. He's never shed his academic manner -- somewhere between artsy and absent-minded professor in his wide-wale brown corduroy blazer and shaggy gray hair.

Teaching architecture helped Field understand the new environment and culture. "My training in fact is in the bigger scale of architecture and urban design," he said, adding "it's not easy to get big-scale work when you start again."

He has entered a couple of competitions, first for a new San Francisco waterfront after the collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in the '89 earthquake. His idea was to rebuild the freeway in the Bay, with the streets diving into the water and becoming canals and the blocks becoming islands.

"San Francisco being a city of gestures, I thought this one new flail of exuberance would be appropriate," he said.

He also took on the World Trade Center memorial.

"I saw this event as a groundswell, and as a result I created waves out of the ground. This wave basically posed the question of cause and effect ... and became a continual, moving, kinetic experience, both viewed from above and down into the space," he described.

Today he focuses mainly on residential projects, with several built or nearing completion in the Bay Area.

One that stands out is the aforementioned home in Old Palo Alto.

To counter the flat topography of the neighborhood, he began with the concept of two mounds with a river running through it. Designed on a double lot that's 200 feet deep, he sited the home with the narrower planes facing the street.

"Stan came up with the artistic concept and also made a lot of effort to pick up motifs from the surrounding environment," said the home's owner, who did not wish his family or his residence to be identified.

According to the owners, who chose Field because "each of his works is unique," his "passion for excellence and artistic talent" and "clean, artistic lines," the project was a continuous struggle between aesthetic form and function and value vs. cost.

"The result is a compromise between architectural vision and our own desire, and even between us, husband and wife," the husband said. "Sometimes we regret we didn't follow (all) his suggestions. We realize Stan had the right vision."

"Obviously, we expected that there would be big challenges," Field said, but neighbors were invited to a tea party to hear about the plans. "I've had a lot of pleasant experiences with design review boards and neighbors. When they understand the intention behind the architecture, what architecture actually is, what it's expressing, they seem to come on board," he added.

Vivi Naumovski spotted two Field-designed houses in Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills. "They looked creative, different. They are very daring, but extremely different in style," she said, adding "they're modern but not cookie cutter."

Naumovski and Field got on immediately. "She was one of the few people who spoke my language," Field said. "She wanted the architecture to have integrity, she wanted to use real materials, she wanted natural light. She wanted a smaller, affordable house. She wanted to go down instead of up. I looked at her and said, 'when should we start?'"

"I didn't have to say a lot to Stan and he reads me like a book," Naumovski said. They quickly agreed on materials -- mainly gray concrete and glass -- and function, including a basement with a theater and an outdoor kitchen.

"I am a very minimalist myself and he is too, when he's allowed to by his clients. The house serves the four of us perfectly. Every time I stepped into a house, even not finished, my heart skipped a beat," she added.

"My whole ambition is to find clients like her. I call them enlightened clients," he said.

In the process, it's not unusual for Field's clients to become friends. One of the first homes he designed in Palo Alto was made of recycled redwood siding and zinc. Tzipi Tramiel recalls interviewing five architects, and hiring Field "on the spot."

The Tramiels didn't approve his first drawing, but two days later he came back with the winner. "He tried to integrate us into the house and the house as an extension of us," she said, down to the nails in the redwood representing the warp and weft of the Guatemalan weavings they collected.

"He's a joy to work with. He's so smart; he's such a soul. There's real poetry there. We really value him as a friend as well as a creative force," she added.

Mark Delman and his wife were house-hunting in Palo Alto when they came upon a house under construction with interesting curves and angles. "I ran back to the car and said, 'Sharon, you've got to see this.'"

After purchasing an Eichler in South Palo Alto, the Delmans turned to Field for their remodel, figuring a junior architect in his office might take on the project. "When I called Stan, a miraculous thing happened. One of his theses was on how to take an Eichler into the 20th century," Delman said.

"We did not want to ruin this Eichler. There is an inherent beauty that needs to be preserved," Delman said. "We wanted to soup up our Eichler and also give us more space."

What they got was Field's design for "The Cube," a plug-in home office made of zinc and glass, cantilevered over a wall, with a partially glass floor where one can see into an outdoor kitchen or play area.

"The Eichler was a contemporary form of the '50s. I want to extend its life into 2000s," Field said, clearly showing excitement about this project. "It's small enough, it's affordable and it transforms a house into something much more than what it was."

Describing Field as very easygoing and easy to work with, Delman said he can't wait to make this project happen. "We wanted something that's frankly, a little cool. And we got it."

Rather than talking about style, Field prefers his prospective clients talk about the feeling they want in their home. He recalls a conversation where the person said she wanted a Tuscan house. "Eventually it turned out she wanted a romantic house. From that moment we began to develop an architecture that captured that feeling," he said.

Field often finds himself puzzled when contemplating Palo Alto's latest architecture. "I can understand styles relative to periods, but now that we're in the 2000s... It's almost like an insecurity, that they need to bring along Spanish, Tuscan, Mediterranean. It's this labeling of styles that I think is so restrictive," he said.

In 2005 Field applied to Palo Alto's five-member Architectural Review Board, coming in third when only two could be appointed. Reflecting on the process, Field notes that "it might have been a mistake on my part to be on a review board. ...Even though I have been a teacher of architecture most of my professional life, I think the committee felt I would be putting myself in the shoes of the designer, without having that sense of remove. I think they probably were right in that sense."

But, a part of him is still longing to influence the review board, opening up people's minds through his comments "to an architecture that would be more forward looking." Although he has not ruled out re-applying in 2006, he said "I need to design and build architecture. That's more my role than reviewing architecture."

So far, he's built for others, but never for himself, even after a recent move to Half Moon Bay. Although he was looking for a house that he could re-design, he found one where "we just fitted into. ...It's my dream (to build my own house) and I'm hoping one day to realize that."

More than that, what Field really wants is to continue pushing the boundaries of architecture.

"I believe the physical environment is destined to catch up with the intellectual environment and the technological adventurism," he added.

Assistant editor Carol Blitzer can be reached at cblitzer@paweekly.com.


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