Eight visions of building in nature

David Briggs
Daniel Liebermann, an architect known for his radial designs, such as this one in his Inverness ridge home, is part of a group exhibit at Toby’s Gallery.

“Architecture: Eight Visions,” a stunning exhibition on display through January at Toby’s Gallery, features the work of Jim Campe, Jon Fernandez, Paul Korhummel, Dan Lieberman, Alex Riley, Igor Sazevich, Sim Van der Ryn and the firm of Ron Wagner and Garen Fechter. Each of these fiercely individual designers deserves a separate show; yet, in this collective presentation, common themes and complementary accomplishments are present. Each artist demonstrates a blending of work into its setting without overwhelming the surrounding environment; a frequent use of natural, often recycled, materials; and a consistent effort to incorporate energy-efficient features.

To understand what is distinctive about this West Marin vision, it is useful to contrast it to what has emerged in mainstream modernist architecture. This movement may be best represented by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which won the first Pritzker award, often called “the Nobel Prize” of architecture, and is designated a national landmark. The Johnson House is made almost entirely of glass walls, with a minimal frame of steel beams and girders to keep the large panes in place. In the years since the house was built, this approach to design—placing a building on a site, with those entities treated as separate—has been repeated many times in urban and rural settings. 

By contrast, the architects featured in this show have created structures that strive to become part of the landscape through the integration of wood, glass, metal and other materials into the existing environment. Often they use wood from trees cleared from the site, or, in projects in the southwest, for example, adobe.

The ideas and designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, another pillar of modernist architecture, provide a key to understanding the show. Wright believed in creating buildings that are in harmony with humanity and its environment; he called this approach “organic architecture.” An influential example of his work in this style is the Marin County Civic Center, nestled between two hills, with an interior courtyard covered by an enormous skylight. Dan Liebermann, the most senior architect in the show, is an important link to Wright; he apprenticed under him at Taliesin, Wright’s school for architects, and was a member of Aaron Green’s architectural firm that Wright chose to realize his vision in Marin.

Liebermann’s own designs display the same blend of creativity and integration with the environment. Pictures and architectural drawings of Liebermann’s Radius House in Mill Valley are part of his contribution. The house features a series of columns ingeniously woven together at the center of the building, with wood beams flaring out to glass walls surrounded by a verdant landscape. Liebermann used a great deal of recycled material to complete this work, including glass windows from World War II B-52 Bombers. Variations of this radial design appear in subsequent Liebermann buildings, including his own Inverness ridge home.

Perhaps the best-known participant in this show is Sim Van der Ryn, who has explored many aspects of how people can live in ways that contribute to and enhance the natural environment. Eight books, covering a wide range of topics, constitute part of his display at Toby’s. Van der Ryn has not limited himself to designing individual structures; the topics of his books range from recycling waste and conserving water to sustainable communities. In his most recent book, titled Design for an Empathic World, he turns inward, exploring the ideas underpinning his lifetime of work in chapters called “A Sustained Awakening of the Human Heart” and “Journey to the Inner Self and Outer World.” 

The designs, drawings and other pictures that Van der Ryn displays reflect how his thinking and work has grown over more than 50 years. Because of early work at the University of California, Berkeley, he was appointed State Architect in the 1970’s, during Governor Jerry Brown’s first term in office. Van der Ryn seized the opportunity to spearhead some of the first energy-efficient government buildings. He later added new dimensions to his designs at Real Goods Solar Living Center, at Zen centers in Colorado and California, and for private homes. 

Other participants in the Toby’s show have produced equally imaginative and environmentally sensitive work. In order to see one such project by Alex Riley, take a short walk down Main Street to the Palace Market, which he transformed from an eyesore into energy-efficient building with clearstories and other glass windows that capture natural light and heat. His homes in West Marin and nearby areas show the same sensitivity to natural conditions. Riley has also designed adobe houses in more arid conditions in the southwest; their style is congruent with the traditional dwellings found in pueblos, incorporating the same effort to conserve energy.

Not far from the Palace Market is the office of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, originally designed by Igor Sazevich. As is true of others in the Toby’s show, Sazevich has completed projects in rugged and isolated spots; one, a cluster of beachside vacation rentals known as Dancing Coyote Beach, is particularly arresting. Sazevich identifies himself as both an artist and an architect; he is an active member of Gallery Route One, where his artistic work will be on display in February.

Jon Fernandez provides another highlight in this unguided tour. Fernandez designed the renovation and expansion of an old hay barn downtown; the Tomales Bay Foods building now houses the Cowgirl Creamery, Marin Organic and other offices. Many of his projects are also colorful renovations. He observes that, “Where existing buildings are involved, it is always our intent to discover, understand and preserve these buildings while adapting them to current needs.” Pictures of the Cowgirl Creamery and other renovation projects included in the exhibition indeed illustrate this commitment. 

Jim Campe’s design work can be viewed at the Point Reyes Community Health Center, the Dance Palace Community Center and Papermill Creek Children’s Corner. Campe has posted plans and photographs of these buildings and of many local residences in the Toby’s show. There are also some fascinating pictures of Raccoon Construction, a loose collective that existed in the early years of his career. With careful scrutiny, many local builders, including some in the show, can be identified. Among them is Paul Korhummel, who went on to construct many local homes. 

Korhummel has established his reputation as a designer and builder with a careful attention to detail and outstanding craftsmanship. One picture in his display is emblematic: imposing wooden beams, salvaged from San Francisco’s abandoned waterfront piers, carefully integrated into a private residence. One of the beams ends with a carving of a whale’s head reminiscent of Pacific Northwest First Nations art by local sculptor and craftsman Bruce Mitchell. A very different example is an eye-catching gatehouse that incorporates traditional Japanese features.

A notable innovation of a quite different nature is the beautiful studio and office of Ron Wagner and Garen Fechter, which was constructed from two ocean-going ship containers. A recent edition of the New York Times featured a story about builders in New Jersey who are repurposing unused containers stacking up in various ports (due to the volume of foreign imports) to create inexpensive new buildings. Wagner discovered the same thing, and was experimenting with this surplus material many years earlier. 

In conjunction with the show, The Community Land Trust of West Marin (CLAM) is offering a tour of local homes on January 25, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 and are available at clam-ptreyes.org. To reap the full benefits of the tour, those who sign up should be sure to see the show at Toby’s—more than once, if possible.


Herb Kutchins, who cannot draw a straight line, has lived in a passive solar house designed by Alex Riley for over 30 years.