Rewind to Earthquake Time

Posted on September 23, 2014 by Peter Hyatt | 0 Comments

I know, no-one bothers to read anymore. It's all tweets and texting. Anything longer than a crisp sentence or two is poison. Well, let's go against the grain today. I originally wrote this story below to celebrate the inventiveness of the LA architect David Ming Li-Lowe. Not much has changed since this was published almost 18 years ago except that Li-Lowe passed away last year. I wanted to acknowledge an innovator who never received the credit he so richly deserved.


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Hollywood is the world’s most celebrated suburb for sure. This sun-glass shielded enclave almost outguns Los Angeles itself. But celluloid celebrity fails to save many of the beautiful people from themselves. There is though another life to Los Angeles, away from the glittering gowns and plastic surgeons. Overlook the opening night hype, freeways grid-locked with Dodge Vipers and Hummers and there is no shortage of stunning architecture. Problem is, in a city of 20 million residents, the gold detector will need to work overtime.

The parallel between Hollywood blockbusters and architecture is revealing. Nine out of ten films are either box office flops, or fail to recoup their investment. Most of LA’s grand real estate projects appear to have undergone an aesthetic and cultural lobotomy. But all is not lost. Among the ‘blandeur’ we are reminded that Frank Lloyd-Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames made indelible marks on the landscape.

Not far away from Hollywood in downtown Purdue, near Santa Monica, David Ming-Li Lowe’s Earthquake House (1992) is a vital marker in the unfolding turbulence that underscores so much great modern architecture. Designed on a similar principle as motor-vehicle shock absorbers, the house is designed to gently rock and roll rather than crack open or collapse.

Lowe says the house resulted from wanting to leave an enduring legacy. It merges architectural flair with engineering savvy. In 1994 as part of centenary celebrations, the Lowe’s residence was selected as one of the nation’s 100 most important houses by the National Institute of Architects. Curiously enough, apart from some regional press, the project has been all but forgotten by mainstream architectural media.

Designed after a series of brawling episodes with city planners who rejected Lowe’s initial building application, the project was finally completed. This earthquake circuit-breaker recalls Heath Robinson’s vibrant eccentricity and Charles Eames’ astonishing pre-fabrication. It also had fortuitous timing. In 1994, LA’s Northbridge earthquake claimed 61 lives and caused more than (US) $30 billion damage. Soon after, Lowe was consulted by City Hall which soon after was retro-fitted with the same technology it had initially refused to pass.

During the quakes that shook the city, most residents reported around 40 violent up and down movements during the 12 seconds of seismic activity. Lowe recalls feeling only the first. “It was like a Richter scale 5 instead of a 6.8.” So with virtually no damage apart from minor cracks in the garage wall where it connects to the foundations, Lowe is vindicated in belief for the base isolator system.

Operating on a principle similar to motor-vehicle shock absorbers, the system utilises 17 base isolators which buffer the house from the foundation. Six corners are supported by a visco-damper base isolator. The unit contains a series of concentric steel rings immersed in a substance similar in consistency to synthetic honey. Each unit is about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet.

As part of his research into the visco-damper based isolator units he undertook research in Europe and Japan. In 1994 the base-isolator units cost between (US)$500-$1500. Installation in a house like Lowe’s 4,700 sq.ft structure totalled $20,000-$25,000. “About what you might spend on a nice bathroom,” he recalls.

Curiously enough Lowe does not see the development of his sprung base or overall design as the main achievement. “It’s the perseverance aspect that pleases me most,” he says. “You have to understand the stupidity of regulations in a State which has one of the worst seismic zones of all. Along comes an architect who wants to utilise technology that has been tried and proven in Europe and the city says ‘no, you can’t do it’.

Lowe’s odyssey with architecture sees the Earthquake House as a brief stop-over on a journey of discovery. Using simple, adaptive, off-the-shelf components - modular refrigeration panels to spun fibreglass panels - this is an eclectic combination of industry and domesticity. A curatorial eye for classic furniture, art and antiques, are all part of the collage that reflects Lowe’s genius.

Lowe was encouraged by his dean of architecture. “He put me in touch with a number of my heroes including Charles Eames who opened up his warehouse and office and showed me how he worked; how he sold his ideas, how he stored materials and information and the people he depended on. That made a great impression on me.”

The Vienese/Amercian architect Rudolph Schindler who practised in LA between the ‘20-’50s. also had a profound influence. Lowe eventually became friends with Schindler’s widow Pauline who introduced him to Bret Weston and Dione Neutra. “These were people I greatly admired and who taught me a different way of seeing. As a teacher, Lowe realises the invaluable connection with major figures he can provide students.

After graduating with honours in the mid-’50s he was singled out for a brilliant career.

And confronted with a classic moral dilemma. In 1957 and only in his early 20s, Lowe was employed by George Vernon Russell and quickly assigned to a Lockheed aircraft project. He was soon responsible for a top-secret urban planning re-development in Pao Alto, California. The project required the diversion of three rail lines and a freeway. After a string of personal security checks, Lowe became suspicious. He soon discovered he wasn’t designing a supermarket or stadium, but a manufacturing plant to build Polaris inter-continental missiles. With the Cold War in full swing, we had no ambition to participate in a program of destruction.

His parent’s advice was to ask the question: “Do you want to become the next Albert Speer of your generation?” The next day Lowe quit the big time and returned to his very first job - remodelling a suburban garage. The pay was lousy but he could sleep well.

The house echoes to the footsteps of his heroes. We hear Charles and Ray Eames’ with their passion for elegant steel prefabrication. Also in attendance, among others, is Pierre Chareau with his translucent walls of glass - actually spun fibreglass sandwiched in plastic.

By day this combination provides efficient light transmission and thermal management. Japanese shoji screens further mediate industrial aesthetic and residential harmony. By night it retains warmth and ensures privacy. “The effect is of a house that glows like a magic lantern,” enthuses its creator.

So much North American design is a catalogue of luxury fabrics and unruffled lifestyles - Tommy Hilfiger meets Ralph Lauren. Not that Lowe has a hang-up about comfort, but he presents another, more disciplined aesthetic that delivers a clasical modern: “Look at the inside of a pocket-watch with a magnifying glass,” says this acute observer. “It has a superstructure as impressive as any bridge you will ever see.”

Great architecture is inevitably hosted by a brave client. Innovative architecture and innovative film-making share a need for big clients, irrespective of budget. David Ming-Li Lowe provided the inspiration as client and designer of his Earthquake House. This bureaucrat buster and throttler of pettifogging officials is behind every nuance of this largely forgotten but history-making design.

The design is shaped by a broadly informed, multi-disciplinary base - professional photographer, film-maker and furniture designer. All of this places him somewhat outside the academy. Lowe’s lightness of touch shouldn’t disguise a diamond hardness in pursuit of his vision “You want to make it look like you’ve just squeezed this sort of building out of a tube.”

Posted in Charles and Ray Eames, David Ming-Li Low, Earthquake House, Pierre Chareau, Rudoph Schindler


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