Joseph Esherick.

An architectural practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1938-1996 : oral history transcript / 1996 online

. (page 49 of 75)
Online LibraryJoseph EsherickAn architectural practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1938-1996 : oral history transcript / 1996 → online text (page 49 of 75)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

One of their contributions they had a big room that was
like a lounge or a meeting room for the residents, but they
wanted to have that room available for the community so that
community people would come in, and so that the residents would
get to meet the community people, which was, I thought, a very
good idea.

And the other thing was that we put a nice porch out in
front, a terface, where in good weather the residents could
gather in the evening and sit out there and talk to people as
they walked up and down the street. It's an area right close to
downtown, and there is a lot of foot traffic around there.

Riess: There was no objection to having it there?

Esherick: The nuns had that very well set up. The city I thought was

very - I hate to say enlightened, but very reasonable about the
whole thing. They didn't have an exclusive nature or an
exclusive feeling about the thing, and they felt that these were
just other people living in the community who were different and
who ought to be brought in and shouldn't be excluded. They
didn't see them as any kind of a danger or a threat.

Riess: Good. And did you say that was 1980?

Esherick: I didn't say. I can't remember when it was, but later than
1980. I would guess 1990. I think it's now called Concord
House. I have a friend who has a daughter who lives there, and
I get reports from him - I don't see him any more because he has
a new position, and we don't cross paths, but he was very
pleased with the place and has been to a number of meetings , so
I've heard that it works well.

The whole process was confirmation of what I had learned
when working on Langley Porter - ! think we talked about that
earlier. At Langley Porter I spent a lot of time talking to
patients, spent a lot of time in the wards with the Langley



Porter patients. I think it's always better to get the
information as close to direct as possible.

It's a very difficult problem becauseyou have to learn
something intangible, in a way, about all of this. When you're
dealing with a house for an individual, the person you're
talking to, designing for, is answerable and grows up with the
processnot that when the house is finished and they sign all
the papers, that they are then frozen for life and that they're
never going to change, but at least there's a basis for it all,
a starting point.

But the sort of project that this is, a project for a so-
called unknown client, you don't really know them to begin with,
and then in their occupancy of the space they're going to be
succeeded by other people from elsewhere and so on. It's a
major problem with education, because what students are like in
1970 isn't necessarily what they're going to be like in 1980 or

The problem is with buildings for people who are replaced every
four years.

Esherick: Yes, or variable periods of time, employees for a big

organization, for example. There's a sort of flow through the
thing, so you have to understand something about the activity
that goes on in the particular space, whether it's something
relatively simple like housing, or whether it is something more
complicated like a business operation. If you look at what work
spaces are like in Silicon Valley, it's just entirely different
from what it was years ago. The workplace has changed
enormously, and one thing you know is that if it's changed as
much as it has, it's going to change again. So you have to
understand it.

Riess: Your democratic way of workingyou were asking those

developmentally disabled people to form a consensus in a
democratic manner.

Esherick: But not a kind of consensus that then other people had to

conform to. In a way, it was to do what was going to be good
for everybody but not constrain anybody, not force them to live
according to some consensus-driven pattern of living. The idea
is to keep it as open as possible.

Riess: Do you encounter this when you're working on school buildings?
Educators must have ideas about what spaces are most conducive
to learning, but you've probably asked to talk to the students.


Esherick: Yes. Well, in the Tenderloin school we spent a lot of time

doing that. "Education" is something else. My impression is,
the less somebody knows about education, the stronger their
opinions are about it. I've probably mentioned it to you
before, but it's like the old definition of a fanatic as being
someone who, having lost sight of his objectives, redoubles his
efforts. [laughter]

Entering Buildings Ht

Esherick: I think it's a tremendously important thing. At the beginning

of the ADA requirements there were people who were yelling their
heads off about how terrible it was. The requirements were
expressed as "the intrusion of the federal government into every
part of our lives" and all that baloney.

I don't think there is anything in ADA that has a negative
effect and in many respects the ADA requirements are minimal
requirements. At UC San Diego some interesting things have come
up in connection with my being on the design review board. We
run into all sorts of ADA requirements. At San Diego they
interpret the issues that surround how you get in a building as
being so that in no way should the handicapped entrance be a
sort of second-class entrance.

They have a neat rule that says that if two people are
approaching a building together, and one of them is disabled and
the other one isn't, that they have to be able to naturally and
easily go to a disabled entrance accompanying one another, that
you don't have a situation where the disabled person takes off
another way.

Riess: Even a ramp?

Esherick: Ramps are acceptable, but the ramps have to be given greater

prominence than steps. The idea is that the accompanying people
don't have to separatethat there is no occasion for them to
separate, they naturally both go in the building together.

I think all those things are good. It's a difficult
problem because there are all sorts of wonderful, dramatic
architectural forms that come from the elevated building, and
going up ceremonial stairs. The Acropolis is filled with such -
the way up through the Propylea. Nobody realizes that those






damn steps are about twelve or fourteen inches high. It's a
real struggle to get up there, even if you are able-bodied.

And that flight of steps in front of the Philadelphia Art
Museum, I'm sure you've seen. Of course nobody goes in that way
anymore. It's just there so that when you're driving up the
Parkway, there's this splendid business.

The main entrance to Wurster Hall has no stairs,
choice on behalf of the disabled?

Was that a

Originally there were stairs in there, and then we decided that
it was better to not have stairs, to just go directly in.

Was that a design decision, or an access decision?

Both. And there was a fairly substantial difference in grade,
because we were meeting all sorts of grades around there.
Wurster was built where the old testing tank used to be, and
there were wartime cafeterias in the way, and nobody knew what
the grades were. We set the grades as high as we could, so that
getting out the other side, the east side, wasn't too difficult.
And that meant either a not insubstantial number of stairs going
up from the main pedestrian route past Morrison and Hertz, or
some kind of ramp.

There are big wing- like things that support the sunshades
at the ground level [of Wurster Hall], odd-looking things,
notched back. Originally you could walk under the supports, but
when we raised the grade that was a real problem because people
would hit their heads on this stuff, which is the reason for
those goofy-looking seats in therethe seats are put in there
to keep from whanging your head. This is just to acknowledge
that it was a sort of improvisation, but it's a much better
solution the way we ended up with it. You don't have to go up a
ramp or steps, and you go straight through on a single level.

If someone opens the door for you.

[laughs] Yes. Well, those doors aren't too bad,
as bad as the ones in the doctors 's office.

They're not

Do you have one person in this office in charge of looking at
plans for ADA compliance?

Oh, we all pretty much know it. We have some people who know it
better than others, and they become the resource, the checkers.
They have the building code imprinted in their mind someplace.


Riess: If you were to do a building in a place where awareness of

disability issues is far less, would it be your conscience that
would be your guide, or would the clients have to be responsible
to ensure the access.

Esherick: Well, our conscience- -we would do everything we could to

persuade our client to be fair about the whole thing, especially
anything that's supposed to have public access.

To me it's just inexcusable to do a new restaurant and then
make it so that disabled people have to be sent around up the
garbage ramp. And what's even more inexcusable, to argue that
that's the way we had to do it, or something of the sort. I can
understand if the restaurant has been there for a long period of
time, say for twenty-five years, long before ADA got started,
say something like the Shadows, where the dining room is up on
the upper floor. I think probably even they were smart enough
to realize that you had to have an elevator, before it was

It really isn't very well handled in a lot of San
Francisco. For example, not all the Muni busses are able to
accommodate wheelchairsnot all of them are the so-called
kneeling bus, where people can get in easily. But the new
entrances along the Embarcadero all have ramp accesses for the
new light rail, when that goes in. It's the way it works in
Portland, and the light rail in Sacramento works that way. You
know, it's just so much nicer, better for everybody.



McLeod Residence

Riess: An important house, much published, is the McLeod residence. It
was finished around 1962.

Esherick: [discussion of the numbering system, and problems with the
office job list]

Don and Jo McLeod were really a very interesting couple.
As I recall it, he was a commodities trader. And I think she's
about the only client who was the same kind of committed James
Joyce fan that I am. She always came into the office for a
meeting with books in her hand, and once came in with Finnegan's
Wake, or something like thatthen I knew that she was an
important client. She was very bright. We didn't spend a lot
of time talking about reading, and I don't remember too much
about designing the house, that is, the actual process of it.

Riess: You mean, about working with the McLeods?

Esherick: Yes, I don't remember the meetings, the design meetings.

Sometimes I remember those design meetings clearly, but not
always. I remember more the results.

They had a very nice lot on the east side of Belvedere,
overlooking the lagoon. (The weather is just marvelous in
thereBelvedere is extremely interesting in the number of
weathers it has for such a small place.) And the house was
going to have to be as close to the road as we could get it,
because the ground fell off very rapidly. Even with the
shortest possible driveway you need to go across a little bridge
into the house .


What impressed me enormously about the site was that the
view was a view that went down, but at the same time you had the
feeling that it was going up, a megaphone-shaped view. So that
actually got literally expressed. You at one time asked me
about what somebody meant by expressionistic, and at the moment
I didn't know, but now I figured out what he [Franck Welch] was
driving at. We were talking then about the Mclntyre house, and
the expressionistic aspects of that are the expression of the
internal workings of the house.

In the McLeod house it's more a repeated expression of what
you might call the realities of the site, or the possibilities
of the site. The expression of those realities became a main
feature of the house: you go in to a short entrance hall and
down a few steps to the living room. The kitchen is at that
upper level, and so is the dining room. Then you go down a
couple more steps into a little pavilion beyond the living room.

As you go down, the ceiling of the pavilion isn't just
higher because you went down, the ceiling is made to go higher.
One of the nice things about doing it that way is that it gave
us little slots of light up above, because the uphill roof was
always lower than the next roof, so there was room for little
clerestory windows in there.

The McLeods understood exactly, right away, what it was
that I was doing. And the fact that it was a little bit weird
and unconventional didn't bother them at all.

Riess: Maybe they came for the weird and unconventional. Who sent them
to you?

Esherick: I really don't know.

I've always thought it was a very legitimate thing to come
in and visit different architects and talk to them and see what
the chemistry was. So much of it is a matter of both chemistry
and language, so that you can talk together and everybody
understands one another, you don't have to start back at Genesis
to figure out what the hell is going on.

Riess: If you don't remember the client meetings that much, is it
really a house you did mostly in response to the site?

Esherick: No, but very much with them, with their idea - a study, a way to
get downstairs for possible future rooms, which they have
actually done now.


There were great opportunities. The main view was out over
the Lagoon and the East Bay Hills; you look out on the Tiburon
Peninsula, up Raccoon Straits, and Angel Island is out there.
And then to the south, off the dining room, you look into a
marvelous oak grove. So there was lots of south light coming
in, filtered in through the trees. There were different
qualities of light wherever you looked. Then their bedroom was
all the way at the north end and looked out to Tamalpais, and
all the way up to the Sonoma hills.

It's extraordinary, every now and then you get a place
where you get these remarkable views. But you couldn't do a
sort of blocky, chunky house because there was so little land to
build on, it was so steep. So you had to do a big linear thing,
stretched out like a train sitting up there with different rooms
in it. There is a uniqueness to the particular views, so that
looking one way is one thing, and how the house accommodates
itself to each one of these views is different.

They were wonderful to work with because they were
enthusiastic about it, especially Jo. I don't know where she - I
always said that my clients never got divorces, but I suddenly
realized that they did. They're about the only ones that I can
remember. But that house was just great fun to do.


Esherick: The Weigel house in Atherton was something that didn't get

built. We had earlier done a remodeling for them out on Pacific
Avenue. They were thinking about moving to Atherton, but about
this time he was made a judge, and I think he decided to stay in
San Francisco. A very interesting man. I believe that he was a
friend of Matt Tobriner, and that same kind of very bright

The Byrne house in Oakland didn't get built, unfortunately.
It never got beyond the design.

The 1947 Goldie house I don't think ever really came to
anything. That was a house that, if you go down to the bottom
of the windy part of Lombard Street and lose control of your car
and turn to the right, you run into it.

[decision made to stop taping until the job list is accurate and
the tape recorder are both working]


Bermak Residence

[Interview with Esherick and Gordon Bermak at Bermak Residence,
5999 Grizzly Peak Blvd., Oakland. Italicized text added by
Dolores Bermak when the interviews were sent to the Bermaks for

[Interview 22: September 16, 1995] it



What had you heard about Joe Esherick before you met him?
how did you choose him to be your architect?


Dolores would be the one who would remember, I think. I can't
remember how she got the list of five or six architects - ! don't
know from whom, and the order, but eventually she came up with
five or six architects. She either had driven around and looked
at their houses on the outside, or had some sense that they
would build like we would like.

Dolores: Besides Gordon's short listhe interviewed two men, names

forgotten - ! was taking a photography class from Morley Baer in
1962, who was at that time an architectural photographer. I
asked him for some recommendations. I had known a few names of
Bay Area architects, having made a point of looking through
books and looking at outsides of noted dwellings.

On my list I had Esherick, Charles Warren Callister, Worley
K. Wong, and another guy whose name I cannot remember. Anyway,
I threw these names out at Morley. He liked my list. I then
went about phoning each. I had appointments with Callister and
Wong. These two I rejected quickly. The fellow whose name I
cannot remember was difficult to talk with over the phone... how
much are we willing to spend? is that all? Etc.

Then I called Joe. We talked for twenty minutes. His firm
was winding up work on the environmental design building
[Wurster Hall] on campus and may have the time. I told him we
were looking to build an "elegant barn." I wanted him to look
at the site ASAP since we had an option to buy and needed to
know if it was buildable. I liked Joe and the way he handled me
over the phone. We made a date and looked at the property
together. On the site visit I felt his enthusiasm. I was sold.

Riess: Was the idea that she was in charge of that decision?

Bermak: [laughs] No. We had only been married a couple of yearsthis
was very much a mutual thing. But she had more sensitivity to
architectural things. Her lover and boyfriend before she and I
got married was an architect. We had not talked a great deal







about this man, but enough so that when Dolores raised the
question of his building our house, I said, "No way!"

So she had a history of some contact with architecture,
more than I had. The whole idea of even having an architect
came from Dolores, rather than from me. I didn't even know
about architects. She was the informed one. So, in a sense,
answer to your question, you could say it did come from her.


And did you interview all of them?

Not all. I remember two myself,
with one or two others as well.

I think Dolores met probably

Gordon interviewed two from his list,
list, which included Joe.

I spoke with those on my

But Joe was the first person who, when he saw the property, it
was very clear that he liked the property. [property is a west-
facing about 45 degree down-slope from Grizzly Peak Boulevard,
in Oakland] That was very important. At least one person who
saw the property, I could tell it wasn't where it was at for
him, but Joe had the sense, or the blindness, I don't know
which. One architect, it was like he was going through a list:
Are you close to schools? These kinds of questions. Absolutely
the wrong things to ask me. The whole idea of building here was
because it was the top of the mountain.

You had always wanted to build, and not to live in someone
else's house?

We had looked at - [to Riess] please interrupt,
to say too much about oneself. Guide me.

The tendency is

We had just been married. We were both strange characters
in some way in the sense of - . Well, in answer to your
question, we were looking to build a house. I felt very
stronglythis is Iabout being an adventurer, and not fitting
into some kind of a mold. Marriage could not be that for me, or
I never would have married.

I had been a white-water kayaker, skier, and so on. That
was my life before I met Dolores. So the idea of settling down
was a mixed bag. And the idea of having a house that had other
houses near it, or was in a settled part of the world, felt like
a danger.

Dolores was sensitive to that. She felt a little bit
differently about life than I, but we came together on that.







the idea of building came out of that. She was prepared to buy
a house anywhere, settle down, to get on with life and children
and so on. I, myself, was more involved in, as it were,
building on the mountaintop. So that's how the compromise came
about, how to build somewhere which was possibly in reach of
realistic things.

All that led to the adventure of building a house, building
our own kind of place. And she got very much into it, as you
can imagine.

[to Esherick]

And you came to see the lot first? You always


Yes. Not in order to find out whether somebody is qualified to
satisfy my requirements [laughs], or anything like that. But
just to see. To understand.

My great bit of understanding was seeing Gordon bringing
his kayak up the back stairs of where he was living before. I
knew right away that this was an interesting guy.

[to Bermak] My recollection was it was a kayak you had
built yourself. It was a fiberglass kayak, and the fact that
you hadn't bothered to paint it was most impressive. It was
just f iberglass - you couldn't see right through it, but the
light came through it. That was impressive.

And that fit in with your way of seeing things, about function
and so on. It wasn't necessary to paint a kayak for its

What came next? Where did you meet to talk about this?

You mean at the very beginning? We met at my office on College
Avenue. Four blocks away from the campus, on College Avenue,
where I still am, there is a cruddy coffee pub, and we would
meet at lunch for an hour.

Joe would come by, and Dolores would come by, and we would
have a sandwich. And we would then go over these ideas about
how to proceed. Joe would make a sketch of where we were last,
and we would discuss things. We did this for eight months.
Everything was discussed.

[to Esherick] Did you ever have this with any other clients?
This long in planning?

Esherick: Eight months is sort of longish, but it has happened before.





Not everybody has the patience to meet every week, at least
not all clients. I enjoyed the meetings enormously, in fact
probably subconsciously was dragging them out because they were
so much fun. But the ideas that were coming out were very
interesting, to me.

This house came at a time when I was beginning to see
additional possibilities in residences, sort of getting better
at it all. I think- -what ought to happen as you get older is
that you ought to understand the expansion of the area of
possibilities, and you don't know enough at the beginning, your
world is more limited. The opportunity of expanding that world
is what is exciting to me. 1 had just, 1 guess, got to the
point where I was beginning to see different ways of thinking
about things, and so on.

Was a lot of your conversation sort of theoretical? I mean,
after all, at this time you were writing about designing design
systems, which you might call theoretical.

I have an intense dislike for theoretical,
trying to think.

I would say I was

I remember some things that might help- -I had forgotten it until
nowabout how we came to choose you. I think it's a little
more revealing about what you are touching on.

I remember saying to you, very, very quickly, that we
wanted you to build an elegant barn. It was to be an elegant
barn, it was to be a tower, and you were to be able to see how
the house was built from inside the houseyou were to be able
to see the structure from inside the house. Those were three
things I said.

Then I remember that we proceeded to look, and you showed
us houses you built. You showed us a house in Ross, not your
own home, which you lived in at the time, but a big house with a
big swimming pool - I think you personally showed it to us. And
you also showed us a small house on Panoramic Way, a barn-like
house. AlsoI don't think you were therewe went and looked
at [Louise] Hewlett's house on Mar in. So I remember going and
looking at houses.

And I remember discussing with you, and contrasting,
relatively tactfully I think, what that was, and that it was not
what we wanted. But it was clear to me that you were able to do
what we were talking about. Although I couldn't conceptualize
it any more than that kind of language. So there was something

Online LibraryJoseph EsherickAn architectural practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1938-1996 : oral history transcript / 1996 → online text (page 49 of 75)