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article imageMinimalist architect pushes envelope for future urban design Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jan 6, 2013 in Entertainment
San Francisco - Clear simple lines and shapes are pretty much what the minimalist concept is about in art and also in architecture. This post-World War II style represents according to some a desire for just the essentials, nothing else.
Ornamentation, frills, even added amenities are cut back in order to emphasize just the basics. This is what the firm of Envelope Architecture + Design is all about. Founder and principal architect Douglas Burnham was very pleased this past December to announce that Envelope A+D was included in Architectural Record's Design Vanguard issue.
Surmising, this reporter figured out that an accolade from Architectural Record magazine is a big deal for architects; perhaps a really big deal. Because as Burnham noted to me via email "AR's annual Design Vanguard issue brings together the architects who are already doing some of the most innovative work in the field and will lead the profession in the future."
This reporter first became acquainted with Burnham and Envelope A + D's work about seven years ago when covering a story for the Mission Dispatch and Haight Ashbury Beat about the renovation of Octavia Blvd. The work that was done was transforming. What had been a portion of freeway obstructing much of the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco for many years became a total mess in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
If I recall correctly the crumbled off-ramp remained at Octavia Blvd for some time. To have Octavia Blvd completely renovated transformed not just the boulevard itself, but the entire Hayes Valley area. In the early 1990's Hayes Valley was "a dive" with dusty cafes, dilapidated flats and homeless here and there. Yet the area was poised to become "a destination" as shops and restaurants like "Absinthe" began to blossom. Artist, John Haag who worked with the five-star restaurant, witnessed the area change and transform. No doubt the "Dot Com boom" certainly had a hand in the transformation as real estate values all over the City sky-rocketed.
Large portions of the City which had been mostly industrial or "mixed use" amid a gritty urban setting suddenly were in demand and needed to be "re-imagined." This I think is where the "work/loft" idea stepped in as warehouses, manufacturing facilities and such were converted into office spaces and residential units. Areas like Hayes Valley, parts of the Mission District, Excelsior District, Bayview - Hunters Point, these were traditionally industrial and commercial distribution areas. Yet as San Francisco in those Dot Com boom years was changing so was the world.
This it seems to me was especially so in terms of urban planning and the global perspective ecologically. And, perhaps the minimalist concept fit best into this urban landscape. To be honest, this reporter often sides with more traditional notions of architecture and would understand why people like the former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onasis would view much of the Post-WWII, mid-20th Century design for public buildings as a "steel and glass nightmare." Yet even with her sentiments for older historical buildings like Grand Central Station in NYC and of course the White House, she too looked to modern architecture to define the future. Interestingly, Kennedy-Onasis selected I.M. Pei to design the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
Like most American cities, San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century relied heavily upon European styles evoking the "Baroque" in either French or Italian demeanor. Or as some did, simply copying the Spanish Mission style with its curves and moldings. Yet, since much of the West for the United States at least was "pioneer" territory, new ideas about building, especially urban and suburban expansion were needed as ecological needs became a priority in the 1970's.
Entering into the 21st Century with limited space and the need to conserve resources, a minimalist point of view applies well to an urban setting in need of renovation and "recycling." Here is where architects like Burnham would fit right in. As he told AR magazine about his use of minimalism, "it's a style but it comes from a series of tactics for removing barriers and things that are not required."
Trying to reach Burnham he would not say exactly what those tactics were and what were or are the things not required in his building designs. Yet taking a few moments to learn about minimalism itself, Burnham implies that minimal translates into "scraping things clean." Burnham who graduated from Cornell University and currently serves as adjunct professor of architecture at California College of the Arts, said he is influenced by artists such as James Turrell, Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Smithson with his concepts of "entropy" no doubt pushes the idea of architecture and ecology to a new perception.
House on Clipper Street is remodeled in minimalist approach  definitely not the  Painted Lady  one m...
House on Clipper Street is remodeled in minimalist approach, definitely not the "Painted Lady" one might expect of a Victorian era house.
Photo by Todd Hido, Courtesy of Envelope A+D
But how much these artists and their concepts inspire Burnham? He would not say to this reporter directly. Looking at his work pretty much gives witness to his commitment to minimalism. For example the way he softened and muted a traditional Victorian house. Such Victorians as any one in San Francisco and indeed on the West Coast know, get's a very bold and over-the top makeover with gold-leaf and stained-glass windows.
Yet Burnham's approach was to keep it simply and understated. So far, aside from residential dwellings, Burnham's specialty has been, restaurants, offices and "urban interventions" like the restoration of Octavia Boulevard. Going along the boulevard to Hayes Valley is such a different experience than it had been back in the 1990's. To know the contrast is perhaps to understand why architects like Burnham are in demand. And, why major trade periodicals like Architectural Record consider Envelope A + D leaders for the future.
More about Envelope architecturie and design, Douglass Burnham, Minimalism
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