075 Visionary Architect Glen Howard Small


Flying House from the Biomorphic Biosphere

Our guest this week is architect Glen Small. If you’re not familiar with his work I’d really recommend taking a look at some of his amazing buildings, drawings and models while you listen to this podcast–you can see them on his blog which is Small at Large and at glenhowardsmallarchitect.com. Glen was one of the founders of the architecture school SCI-Arc and is probably best known for his visionary Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructure, which we talk about during the podcast as well many other projects and buildings such as the Downtown Troposphere and the Green Machine.

Green Machine 1977-1980

Green Machine 1977-1980

He was also the subject of a documentary by his daughter Lucia Small, My Father the Genius. During the conversation we discuss the state of “green” architecture, Small’s large proposals as well as his buildings in Nicaragua and much more.

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Take a class with architect Glen Small

Image source: Small at Large

Visionary architect Glen Small doesn’t need a computer. He can take a bunch of scrap paper, cardboard and some glue and make amazing models. He’s also of the last generation of architects who know their way with pen, paper and watercolors.

Small was one of the early proponents of a style of architecture informed by natural forms and environmental concerns. He was one of the founding members of the architectural school SCI-Arc. And I’m hoping to have him on the podcast soon.

If you’re in the Southern California area you have a great opportunity to take an inexpensive, hands-on architectural modeling class with him at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, CA.

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How to Design and Fabricate Homestead Projects


I’m a horrible designer. My music degree (I have a master’s degree in un-listenable noise from UC San Diego), did not prepare me for the rigorous design and fabrication needs required for our two books and this blog. But, over the years, I’ve bugged our art, design and architecture friends for advice. Luckily, I’m also married to a talented artist (also with a UCSD degree–go Tritons!) who can provide 24 hour emergency art and art history advice.

I’ll use the process of putting together my Vegetable Prison as a way of showing what I’ve leaned from my brainy, art-damaged friends:

Go to lots of art shows, museums, take classes, go to furniture stores and watch strange movies
One of the things I love about living in a big city is the opportunity to experience lots of high and low culture. I drew on those experiences when it came time to come up with a cage for the veggies. Due to my fascination with out-of-favor 80’s postmodernism, I remembered Robert Venturi’s Franklin Court from an architectural history class I took as an undergrad:


Impressed that I remembered a small detail from a slide show in a class I took 30 years ago, I Googled Franklin Court and showed it to Kelly. She countered with Wonder Woman’s airplane:


I counter-riposted with the set from Lars Von Trier’s difficult Dogville, which takes place entirely on this bare-bones set:


A trip to a high end furniture store yielded a contemporary example of this “outline” or “ghost” strategy, in this case a fire log holder:

With these ideas in mind I proceeded to the next step: doodling. As tempting as it is to dive straight into Sketchup, it’s best to draw stuff out on paper first, otherwise you risk letting that 3d modeling program turn you into a “tool of the tool.” I’m not great at sketching things on paper but you don’t have to be a great artist to get some ideas down. And that’s the point. With paper and pencil you can draw lots of ideas out quickly.

For learning how to draw there is no better book than Drawing From on Right Side of the Brain. Once you go through that you’re ready for a fun book I’m currently making my way through called Sketching for Architecture + Interior Design.


Lastly it’s time to get those ideas in the free version of the 3d program Sketchup. You can learn Sketchup in an evening or two and it has really helped separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to my many bad ideas. With Sketchup you can rotate the object and really see if it works aesthetically. You can even place it in a photo and see it it works in context. It’s also cut down on waste as well as those “I forgot something” trips back to the hardware store. Once the object is rendered I can easily determine how much lumber and hardware I need.


Where do you get your ideas both good and bad?

Our hypocrisy revealed


(Well, one of our hypocrisies.)

We make snarky comments  all the time about the new trend toward horizontal fencing in our neighborhood– what we call “flipper fences.” We’ve talked about flipper fences at least once on this blog, probably more, and anyone who hangs out with us has heard the term from us too many times.

To us, these fences are symbols of gentrification. The appearance of one in front of an old house is a sure sign the interior has undergone a rough-n’-ready “Dwell” style modern makeover inside, and the house is about to be re-sold at a 100k mark-up.

Yet when it came time to finally install a handrail on our staircase (just in time for the holidays, to appease our family, who for some reason find our treacherous staircase problematic) we discovered that arranging the boards horizontally worked best.

In short, due to a combination of laziness and skill deficiency and general expediency (the usual deciding factors in our design decisions) we’re constructing our very own flipper fence.


A Pedal Powered Lathe


I’ve blogged many times now about the incredibly useful and free 3D visualization program Sketchup (and had John Zapf on to talk about it on the podcast). A few avid woodworkers used the program to help build a wooden, bicycle powered lathe for a school in the Dominican Republic town of Punta Cana. They built the lathe so that kids at the school could make their own baseball bats.

You can find out more about the project on the Sketchup blog.