Kuth/Rainieri's Performance of Modernism
Commentary by Mitchell Schwarzer
Kuth/ Ranieri's lyrical talents come to full fruition at the Lodi Bunkhouse in the Napa Valley with the LEF Foundation as client. Like most of their work, this building was an exhaustive renovation of an older structure. At a vineyard site between an abandoned rail line and the Napa River, the program included dining, living, and meeting rooms, as well as bedrooms for artists.
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Wanting to express the new use of the shed and still fit into the rich agricultural valley, the architects chose to veil the building's perimeter: a provocation intended to prompt curiosity about its use.
Ranieri remarks that when you drive up to Napa, you notice that the old agrarian buildings have slightly distorted shapes, deformed by their programs to cover feed or provide shade for animals. They're very specific, yet abstract at the same time. Similarly, Kuth/ Ranieri wanted its building to evoke a chain of reactions. The building's belonging to the landscape went much further than mimicking existing natural or built forms. It was a matter of setting the stage for architecture to tell a story.
Architectural inspiration for the project came from near and far. Like the Berkeley-based 1960s firm MLTW (Kuth worked for partner Charles Moore in the early 1980s), Kuth and Ranieri were inspired by the astounding shapes of agrarian architecture in Northern California. And like MLTW's epochal Sea Ranch, the bunkhouse's unusual shape merges vernacular research with artistic inspiration.
Nonetheless, instead of cladding their structure in wood and shutting it off from further inspection, the architects wanted to provoke the public by revealing perceptual depth through the skin and into the building's systems.
Approaching the bunkhouse, observers note that the translucent fiberglass exoskeleton reinforces the shed's agrarian appearance and also hints at its new use. At moments, the building harmoniously rises into its landscape, with the limbs of trees even poking out of a wooden deck.
Still, the translucent skin discloses more than the wooden boards cladding older buildings nearby. Viewers see through the bunkhouse to the grid of wooden supports, which alludes to the rapport between skin and structure.
At night, when the building is illuminated, visitors can see from the outside the fuzzy patterns of people moving within — the skin acting like a filter on a camera lens as the chalk-colored exoskeleton modulates vision in and out of focus.
The main egress is provided at both front and back through airplane-hangar-like doors that can be drawn open or shut, to reveal or conceal the interior. At one side, long industrial windows similarly open and close, changing the bunkhouse's overall shape and connecting it with the outdoors. Inside, the architects continued their exploration of how surface can intrude into, intermingle with, and shape space.
To allow light to penetrate deep into the central void, they designed a 90-foot (27-meter-) wall of open-lattice trusses. Likewise, infrastructure fills the large space; mechanical, plumbing, electrical, lighting, and seismic systems are exposed.
At the beginning of the 21st century, in the midst of the Information Age, Kuth/ Ranieri Architects are attempting a merger of industry and information. For them, architecture must not merely provide a programmatic space supported by underlying and often invisible systems.
It must also use the systems as occasions for developing ideas. A century ago, Bay Area architects such as Bernard Maybeck and Ernest Coxhead had a similar notion. Yet they focused largely on engaging the public's attention with how the structural materials of their time fit together to make space.
Today, in this technologically advanced age, Kuth/ Ranieri have extended that quest to the broader arena of creating highly tuned sensory environments. How, they ask, can a building invite its users and viewers to a performance of its structural loads, its cladding, its lighting, its heating and cooling, its provision of not just plumbing and electricity but also electronic transmission, its division of space into work and play areas, zones of public access and privacy? How far, their Lodi Bunkhouse asks, can a building be stripped down, so that passersby are titillated by the wonder of what's revealed — and what's not?
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Byron Kuth and Elizabeth Ranieri earned degrees in architecture and fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, established Kuth/ Ranieri Architects in San Francisco in 1990, and launched the Deep Green Design Alliance in 2003. Both have taught at California College of the Arts, Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, and as Friedman Professors at the University of California, Berkeley.
Mitchell Schwarzer is a professor of visual studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
This article is excerpted from Kuth/ Ranieri Architects by Byron Kuth and Elizabeth Ranieri, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.