Assembly Required: The Desert Cure

by Rubén Martínez

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

The transformative art of Noah Purifoy

Late one winter morning I drive off the asphalt and onto the loamy, rutted earth at the outer reaches of the village of Joshua Tree in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. I am on a pilgrimage to see the work of assemblage artist Noah Purifoy, who in 1989 abandoned his longtime home in Los Angeles and remained in the desert until his death in 2004. On a ten-acre parcel near the perimeter of the Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center (half a million acres of chocolate mountains and sand dunes that serve as a simulacrum of the Middle East), Purifoy, one of the founders of the Watts Towers Art Center that rose from the ashes of the 1965 riots, spent the final years of his life creating the monumental “Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture” made from tons of discarded materials. The “Environment” (the nickname a few critics and Purifoy himself sometimes used) is an astonishing feat of the imagination as much as it is a physical one.

In the desert, Noah Purifoy assembled a searing experience of life and loss that rises from sand and stone. I’ve been here several times, but I am never quite prepared for the sight of the Environment suddenly emerging from the Mojave. Innumerable manufactured objects of every material you can imagine—metal, wood, glass, plastic, porcelain, concrete, paper, cotton—are fastened to one another to create shapes alien and familiar, sublime and frightful. With its colossal scale, it is a veritable art-city whose overwhelming physicality has a profound resonance with my emotional geography.

Shipwrecked, during the Sawtooth Complex Fire, 2006. Photograph by Noah Garcia-Brown.

I lived nearby on and off from the late 1990s to the mid-aughts. I was drawn by the light and space of the California desert—and by the fact that I was broke, broken, and needed a cheap place to live while I pulled my life back together. My story was not unlike that of many of my neighbors in the Mojave. People have been making healing journeys to the desert for a long time. There is something in Purifoy’s art that sums up why I came to the desert and why I keep coming back, even as it stands for larger narratives that tell of a people and a time: us, now.

Long known as the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, and with something of a reputation for skinheads and meth labs (ironic, given that so many of us came out here to get “clean”), the village has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. Art, real estate, and media have combined to produce the gentrified desert. What was once a modest, largely hidden outpost of outsider artists is now home to a thriving music and visual art scene. Concurrent with the growth of the art colony, Joshua Tree also became a destination for increasing numbers of “amenity migrants,” the upper middle class seeking the authenticity of a rehabbed homestead shack and the greatest amenity of all—nature, the desert itself.

This was certainly not the desert Noah Purifoy came to in 1989, thanks to his longtime artist friend Debby Brewer, who offered him her property to create new work. There were no galleries or haute eateries then. There were lots of people who’d fled life “down below” (as the old-time residents of the high desert referred to Los Angeles and its endless suburbs) and had come seeking physical or spiritual renewal—like me. What Purifoy saw was a fantastic space to make art, without any of the limitations associated with the urban studio.

As usual, I am the only visitor when I arrive. There is no attendant to charge an entrance fee or hand me a map, no pedantic docent. The Noah Purifoy Foundation, which oversees the property, takes appointments online, but promotion is modest. Even so, some 2,500 art seekers make the trip annually. A dry storm is passing through, a stiff wind rapidly driving swatches of dark cumulus across the sky. The property sits on a plateau with a view both of the park and the Marine base, which, geologically speaking, look exactly alike—it’s all Mojave. Today, there are no training exercises underway; when there are, detonations tear the air and make the earth shudder, coils of oily smoke rise over the mountains, convoys kick up dust on the dunes. Then, there is a great contradiction in the Mojave, between the military’s desert and the one preserved by the California Desert Wilderness Protection Act, which created the national park.

Shipwrecked (detail); in background, Carousel. Photograph by Noah Garcia-Brown.

The experience of the Environment begins with its siting. It lies in a borderland where several deserts overlap. Desert as wilderness (both in the spiritual and ecological sense). Desert-cool (Route 66, the ghost of country-rock legend Gram Parsons, alien sightings). Desert as place to hide (the meth lab), or place to get away (today’s boutique desert). Military desert, bohemian desert. There is an inevitable dialogue between this environment and the Environment.

Untitled. Photograph by Noah Garcia-Brown.

The overall work consists of dozens of self-contained pieces. Each reflects a particular formal challenge—engineering problems solved according to the materials used, and Purifoy’s own oft-stated goal of breaking with linearity—as well as a peculiarly strong human narrative for such conceptual and abstract art. Purifoy, who spent his childhood in segregated poverty in Alabama, studied at the Chinouard School of Art in Los Angeles after World War II. His turn toward assemblage was cemented by the riots of 1965, after which he collected neon melted by the fires and fashioned Sixty-six Signs of Neon, a work that was widely exhibited. Avant-garde technique forged by social conflagration.

The main entrance is formed by a dirt lane bordered by car tires, a few of them whitewalls, half-submerged in the earth—we are being led on a path into another kind of desert. The first major work past the portal is Carousel, which, as its title suggests, is a circular structure made of scrap wood. Instead of carousel animals, it contains a battery of vintage computer monitors, keyboards, printers, and an empty chair placed before a kind of command module. The interior walls are covered with decidedly analog artifacts—acoustic musical instruments, several snow skis, a shelf stacked with random books (I pick up a crumbling paperback edition of Cosell by Cosell, sportscasting legend Howard Cosell’s autobiography), sets of dominoes (white tiles separated from black), a wall of hubcaps. Like every other environment here, Carousel is alive with movement. The wind causes loose electrical cables to swing, pieces of metal to clang, scraps of clothing to flutter, wood to creak. Purifoy reveled in the idea that his work would be rapidly transformed in the extreme climate of the desert.

White/Colored. Photograph by Noah Garcia-Brown.

Segregation is an omnipresent leitmotif—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. Here, sitting atop wood posts, are five street lamp covers in a row, the big kind that line highways. Standing at eye-level, they are placed vertically instead of horizontally, the socket for the absent bulb facing away from the viewer. One of the covers is charcoal-colored; the others are a distinctly paler industrial gray. The very next environment up the pathway makes the point brutally direct. White/Colored is a plywood wall painted white, the wood splintering in the dryness of the desert, the paint flaking. Attached to the wall are two drinking fountains. The “white” fountain is an office cooler. The “colored” is a toilet with a drinking faucet affixed to the seat.

Whenever I visit the Environment, I attempt a structured tour. I begin by following a path suggested by the forms and their narratives. I fail every time. Logic and chronology unravel amid the overwhelming quantity of shapes and profusion of objects that compose them. Toilets appear in several works, (sometimes comically, never scatologically), the porcelain gleaming now as the clouds part to reveal a silver winter sun. Bowling balls, most of them black, some on the ground, others crowning poles. Glass is ubiquitous too, clear and mirrored, most of it in shards, creating paths that cannot be walked. Decorative lava rock and pebbly gravel, vacuum cleaners, and coat hangers. Stacks and stacks of books and newspapers and magazines—seemingly enough to fill a mid-sized city library.

Sculpture Garden. Photograph Courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Metal is as common as wood in Purifoy’s installations—light and heavy, aluminum and wrought iron, roofing and fireplace grills—and one sculpture featuring industrial shavings fashioned into the shape of a champagne cork. There are several nods at robots: droid-like figures, vehicles like Mars rovers, all stationary as if their batteries had long ago wound down, as if the civilization that created them was extinct. And in several environments there are clothes, every kind of article, underwear and blouses, work shirts and suits, shoes and hats and jeans.

The more obvious narratives constantly are disrupted by juxtapositions whimsical, absurd, and utterly other: a mostly illegible fragment of the Declaration of Independence engraved on tin, crumbling mannequins, wine bottles cemented into cinder blocks, and everywhere, the natural world lurking, teasing, overwhelming the aesthetic realm. Clusters of creosote bushes dance in the wind between structures, cholla cactus thorn-balls creep into enclosures; the landforms on the horizon widen the frame of each of the environments and the overall Environment. At his most ambitious, Purifoy insinuated himself into the very earth, digging a rectangular trench about fifteen feet deep, supporting the walls with rebar and panels of corrugated steel. Built in 1999, Earth Piece is slowly collapsing—earth molding art.

The White House. Photograph Courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

There are very few human forms aside from mannequins and, conspicuously, the dressed-up legs and feet in From the Point of View of Little People. But there are plenty of ghosts and those are very nearly corporeal. There are no bodies hanging from Gallows, but we can imagine them clearly since all that is missing on the scaffolding—again, of wood painted white—is the noose. There are several variations of living quarters, some fully enclosed, one with walls but no roof, another just a couple of chairs and a couch in front of a fireplace out in the open. The most ambitious is the large, galleon-shaped Shelter, which includes a TV sitting next to a cot, and an enormous amount of clothes sitting in bins of wood and chicken wire and hanging from the ceiling. The American home shipwrecked in the desert.

From the Point of View of Little People. Photograph by Rubén Martínez.

I recently finished writing a book about my time in the desert, which includes a long story of addiction. Perhaps that is why I can write now of the Environment, which is as powerful an emotional journey as it is one of ideas, fusing subjective experience to the history of manufactured form. Perhaps the greatest ghost of all here is the human labor that produced every single object in the Environment. In all it is the California dream and its reversal writ apocalyptically large—boom and bust, which we can’t help but feel so very pointedly and poignantly in these times. Situating his masterpiece in the desert provided Purifoy with mythic depth and a metaphor for both devastation and restoration. For every serrated edge, for every “broken” object here, there is always a connection to another object, which in turn connects to another, and that one to yet another—assemblage artists are masters of fastening—and ultimately what was broken is mended, shaped not into the functional, but into the abstraction of art without which our spirits cannot heal.


Honey Pies and Aquadettes

by Malia Wollan

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Stories that stretch forever

California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Skateboarders in Fresno ride the drained-out insides of foreclosed swimming pools. Silicon Valley tech nerds join fight clubs to punch each other, bare-knuckled, in suburban garages. A man in San Marcos, some thirty-five miles north of San Diego, sculpts made-to-order, anatomically correct, life-sized plastic dolls. A mariachi musician in East Los Angeles polishes his trumpet and says wistfully, “Mexican music is like a fever.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

These are just some of the haunting video portraits in a series of web videos by filmmakers Drea (pronounced Dray) Cooper and Zackary Canepari. The growing collection of three- to ten-minute video vignettes is called California Is a Place. The project has attracted more than three million viewers since the first videos went online in early 2010. Widely distributed across the Internet, the videos have won awards and been featured on news sites including PBS’s NewsHour, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. “People are craving honest stories,” Cooper says. “They want stories that are unmitigated by the television structure of dramatic moments.”

One of their films, the ten-minute long “Aquadettes,” was chosen for the Short Film program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Set in a southern California retirement community called Leisure World, “Aquadettes” tells the story of 76-year-old former nurse Margo Bauer, who takes up medical marijuana to ease the nausea of multiple sclerosis, enabling her to continue with her synchronized swimming team. “This year is the first year I’ve been aware of my disease in the water,” Bauer says. And while her voice contains the aches of age and illness, the camera captures a gaggle of tan, elderly ladies in ornate swim caps turning graceful flips in chlorine-blue water.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

California is not an easy place to conjure up. The country’s most populous state is home to over thirty-seven million people. It is a tangle of every kind of person and every imaginable aspiration—a mash-up of poverty, opulence, beachside mansions, suburban sprawl, technology, farming, ocean, deserts, the broken-down, and the over-built. While California Is a Place is no summation of California as a place, the videos do evoke something elemental about the stories and obsessions that play out on this particular hunk of land.

Cooper, 34, and Canepari, 33, met in 2005 on a shoot for a Sega video game commercial in San Francisco. They were production assistants armed with walkie-talkies who became friends. They shared a visual aesthetic and for years talked about making “something” together. Four years later California Is a Place started to take shape. “We had this idea that we wanted to do short things, but what were those short things?” says Cooper. “At first we thought they would be about America. Then we thought they’d be about the West. Then we were like, ‘No this is about California.’”

Canepari, who had been freelancing as a photographer in India, moved back to California in 2009. Cooper quit his job teaching multimedia skills to high school students in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. He had just completed a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University.

That June, the duo set off carrying Canon 5D cameras capable of shooting high-definition video. They filmed four stories over three summer months. “The great thing about documenting the state you live in is that nothing is that far away,” says Canepari.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Their first piece, “Cannonball,” took them to Fresno, where they the hopped fences of foreclosed homes to film skateboarders bent on draining backyard pools to ride their smooth, concave surfaces. Sometimes the pair go into a story already knowing who their central characters will be, but for other films they just go somewhere and trust that they will find someone with a tale to tell.

For “Borderland,” which was shot along the California-Mexico border, they knew their geography but didn’t yet have a central subject, so they gave themselves a few days to hang around filming different people until the right ones emerged to tell the story of illegal border crossings, volunteer militias, and drug smuggling.

Finding their film subjects is part luck and part a keen ability to filter through news, overheard conversations, and images for tidbits of information that lend themselves to moving pictures. “We’ve got similar tastes,” says Canepari. “We’re always passing along different things to each other that might work within our palette.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Cooper spotted the used-car-salesman character from their film “Big Vinny” driving around Alameda, his childhood home. They found their synchronized swimmer, Margo Bauer, mentioned in a small, online news story. Even before they met her, they could visualize underwater shots of aging bodies, lithe legs, and pointed toes. “At the end of the day, this is a visual medium,” Cooper says. “What we make needs to look beautiful.”

Cooper (who lives in Oakland) and Canepari (who calls Los Angeles home) research, shoot, and edit the videos on their own dime and in their extra time. While that independence is sometimes a challenge financially, it also allows them to make the films they want to make, to maintain complete control over aesthetics and content, and to capture their California the way they see and experience it.

On occasion, the two get caught up in the visual potential of something only to find there is nothing in it to make a story. They spent a few days filming a women’s roller derby team in Santa Rosa and toyed with the idea of following some Berkeley unicyclists. But the stories felt flat—full of motion but lacking narrative tension—and so they moved on.

Within days of uploading their first stories to the video-sharing site Vimeo in early 2010, thousands of people were watching and sharing them. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there is a real community online where people want to watch interesting stuff and not just another freakin’ cat video,’” Cooper says.

Although they are not paid for the videos, the viral success of California Is a Place has won them commercial work. Just like individual viewers, companies are drawn to Cooper and Canepari’s brand of visceral, visual storytelling. The two now make commercials for major corporate clients such as Toyota and Ray-Ban. “We do the commercial work in order to fund the personal work,” Canepari says.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Shot with professional actors, studio lights, and big budgets, their commercial work contains residues of the filmmakers’ core aesthetic—a flicker of blown-out sky, a shallow depth of field, a camera mounted on a bicycle, fading light through dry grass, a sense of place.

Thus far, California Is a Place is comprised of nine videos, but the duo has a long list of possible Golden State stories and issues they want to explore including Indian gaming, water, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, and subcultures like gangs and the cultish fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Following their participation in Sundance, they are considering expanding “Aquadettes” into a feature-length documentary.

Someday Canepari and Cooper want to take their cameras across state lines and film stories elsewhere—an “America Is a Place.” They talk about maybe moving east from here, finding a handful of stories to tell in each state, a kind of documentary road trip. But that would require time and funding. For now they are keeping to this stretch of land between the Siskiyou Mountains and the Tijuana River Estuary, from Bishop to Cape Mendocino. “The state is endless,” says Cooper, “and there are stories forever.”


Stages of Learning

by Liane Brouillette and Ilona Virginia Missakian

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Theater and language in San Diego schools

Known for its sunny beaches and mild Mediterranean climate, its tourist attractions and international conventions, San Diego is a popular travel destination. Yet this cultured and cosmopolitan city has another face, which is little known to outsiders. East of downtown and south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway lies the area locals call “the Southeast.” Through the last three decades, it has been plagued by gang violence, homicide, and poverty. In fact, its reputation was so bad back in 1992 that Councilman George Stevens campaigned against any official use of the designation “Southeast San Diego,” pointing to the term’s perceived negative connotations.

Yet something significant has been happening in the elementary schools in this part of the city. While schools in the coastal and northern areas of San Diego have usually scored well, now innovative programs have begun to energize schools in neighborhoods that were once left behind. This includes the Southeast, a diverse area with nearly 90 percent of the population distributed among Latino, Filipino/Southeast Asian, and African American groups. In state tests for the 2009–2010 school year, San Diego ranked first among California’s seven large urban districts in language arts and science, and third in mathematics. One factor leading to these advances was an intriguing, grant-funded program that draws on the arts to teach literacy in schools where budget constraints limit options and art programs have long been absent.1 The power of the arts, not only to help with language learning but to encourage children from diverse backgrounds to bond during creative activities, has been striking. But the mechanisms through which arts integration works are still not widely understood.

Transcending language barriers in the classroom

A moment during a theater arts lesson captures the role of imagination in helping children connect to new vocabulary. As a kindergarten teacher in southeastern San Diego gazes around the circle of sixteen children who stand facing her, they keep their feet together and arms at their sides. “Actors,” she says quietly, “touch your nose if you’re ready.” Giggling, each child does so. “Let’s act like we’re so cold that we are shaking. Brrrrrrr.” Children shiver dramatically. “If we were hot, what would it look like?” They mime wiping sweat from their foreheads. “What if you were reading a book?” Each child turns the pages of an unseen book.

With an arts teacher, students work on vocabulary through movement. Photograph by Liane Brouillette.

Glancing around the circle, the teacher can immediately see when a child needs assistance. When the school year began, few of these children knew more than a few words in English. Three months into the school year, some still glance quickly at their peers before responding. Yet, the light-hearted mood is unmistakable. The motions that accompany the teacher’s words enable the children to follow along easily. “Now, I want you to use your first grade voice, even though you’re still in kindergarten . . .”

Although these theater arts activities may seem like play, they have a serious curricular intent. Theater activities, along with music, dance, and visual arts, provide a powerful medium for experiencing and communicating. A dozen teachers interviewed about their experiences affirmed some of the gains they witnessed students acquire. In September, most of the children barely spoke above a whisper during theater lessons. Now, as winter break approaches, they step forward and introduce themselves with confidence. In describing the impact of the theater arts lessons, their teacher emphasizes the enhanced sense of camaraderie, teamwork, and motivation she sees in her class this year.

Another teacher describes how two very shy students blossomed during theater lessons, “broadening their vocabulary and . . . just showing a lot more confidence. [They] . . . participat[ed] more throughout the day, not just during theater but through our shared reading or during math.” Discussing how a fairy tale character’s feelings piqued interest and also boosted language acquisition, a third teacher observed, “I’ve compared my kids this year, right now in November and early December, to where they usually are in April or May. The quality of talk that I’m getting from the students right now is just amazing. The kids are just opening up. I didn’t see that until the spring [in previous years], and I’m seeing it now.”

Second grade students plan a dramatic scene together. Photograph by Denise Lynne.

A dance lesson builds upon prior learning experiences through music and movement, echoing the processes that children go through when first learning to communicate. Mirroring their teacher’s motions, children experiment with new vocabulary words: they “ascend” as they mime, growing like a flower or flying like a bird; they “descend” by pretending to sink under water or melt like ice. Physical and sound cues (syllables and rhythms) allow children to use their bodies to grasp meaning and understand verbal instructions. In visual art lessons, children draw and organize representations of their evolving mental models of the world, coming to terms with fears and desires in a safe space, before describing the content of their pictures to peers.

Research shows that if ELLs (English Language Learners) are to learn English fast enough to succeed in school, practice with oral language is critical. Regrettably, in many urban classrooms, the opportunities for one-on-one verbal interaction between teacher and pupil are limited by rising class sizes and a highly structured curriculum. Performing arts activities allow a teacher to interact with many children at once. Arts integration is especially effective at the onset of students’ learning a new language—when children understand more words than they can produce. Given the chance, children will exhibit gestures, behaviors, and nonverbal responses that indicate understanding of what they’ve heard. Performing arts activities allow children to build vocabulary in a manner that grows naturally out of their nonverbal responses.

Students demonstrate a character enactment for each other. Photograph by Jasmine Yep.

Bringing the arts back to school

The collapse of arts education funding in California has, unfortunately, made scenes like the ones just described exceedingly rare. A 2007 study by SRI International found that 90 percent of California elementary schools fail to provide a standards-aligned course of study across all four arts disciplines—visual art, music, theater, and dance—with theater and dance most often skipped.2 Although the recent fiscal crisis has resulted in still more cuts to arts education, collaboration between teaching artists and school districts may help to bring the arts back.

The K-2 Teaching Artist Project (TAP), a collaboration between the San Diego Unified School District and the University of California, Irvine, uses arts integration to boost the literacy skills and social-emotional development of children in fifteen high-poverty area schools with large numbers of ELLs.3 During their first year in the program, teachers co-teach twenty-seven weekly arts-and-literacy lessons (divided equally among theater, dance, and visual art) with teaching artists employed by the San Diego Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA). In their second year in the program, classroom teachers implement the same lessons on their own with support from VAPA resource teachers.

The goal of the program is for teachers to become comfortable using arts-based strategies to provide multimodal learning opportunities in all content areas. The Teaching Artist Project was a product of serendipity. San Diego city schools have a proud history of excellence in the arts; dedicated professionals continue to show how much can be accomplished through targeted assistance, with minimal investment in supplies. Visual and Performing Arts Director Karen Childress-Evans and resource teacher Denise Lynne believed strongly—based on their own experiences—that the arts could be a powerful resource for preparing K-2 teachers to expand the oral language skills of ELLs. In 2007, they shared their ideas with one of the authors, a researcher with the UC Irvine Center for Learning through the Arts, Sciences and Sustainability (CLASS).

Originally called “The daVinci Center,” CLASS was first set up to serve the UC ArtsBridge network, which sends advanced arts students to co-teach with classroom teachers in arts-poor public schools. The Center’s mission was broadened after the demand for ArtsBridge residencies waned following passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001, with its single-minded focus on literacy and math. Urban schools, under pressure to raise standardized test scores, became hesitant to “waste” time on the arts. This hesitancy, along with budgetary constraints, gradually eliminated standards-based arts instruction from most urban schools in low-income neighborhoods. Ironically, recent research indicates that well-designed arts integration actually boosts student achievement in language arts.

Implications for the future

For the San Diego and UC Irvine partners, the opportunity to reinvigorate arts in the curriculum and to show that arts-based strategies can boost the achievement of ELLs was exciting. Soon a grant proposal was in the works. From a policy perspective, however, the salient characteristic of the K-2 Teaching Artist Project partnership was the active involvement of both school and university personnel. The University of California has a tradition of public scholarship; but, in recent years, the definition of “research” has narrowed. Faculty have, therefore, channeled their efforts toward writing for academic journals, leaving limited time for meaningful engagement in public problem-solving that broadened the scope of their efforts.

Yet, in times of diminished resources, the university is one of the few institutions that still has assets to invest in addressing state-wide problems. Numerous faculty would undoubtedly lend their talents to public initiatives if university policy enabled them to do so without sacrificing other important career goals. Perhaps the time has come to make productive public engagement a more prominent component of the mission of California’s public universities.

First graders start a giant banner together. Photograph by Lynne Jennings.

In San Diego, a border city where 30.2 percent of students are English Learners and 59 percent receive free or reduced price meals, finding effective ways of educating ELLs is an urgent priority. And San Diego is not alone. In recent decades, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in children entering school whose home language is not English. Presently, this population comprises 10 percent of all students, or five million, of whom nearly one-third are in California.4 This is a young population: According to the California Department of Education, ELLs comprise 25 percent of the state’s kindergartners. In a time of budgetary austerity, there is a tendency to react to such statistics with a sense of numbness. However, children now in kindergarten cannot wait until the economy rebounds.

The need to educate California’s future workforce compels more than reflection. The Teaching Artist Project powerfully demonstrates that hope and resilience can be stimulated by the arts, some institutional collaboration, and a modest injection of outside funding.


1. Made possible by an Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) grant administered by the California Department of Education.

2.The report can be found at the Stanford Research Institute link at

3. Streaming videos, lesson plans, and other materials created for the K-2 Teaching Artist Project theater and curriculum are available, free-of-charge, on the website of the UC Irvine Center for Learning in the Arts, Sciences, and Sustainability, at: and To view the videos and lesson plans, click on a grade level, and then on a specific lesson.

4. Thomas B. Parrish, Maria Pérez, Amy Merickel, and Robert Linquanti, Effects of the Implementation of Proposition 227 on the Education of English Learners, K-12: Findings from a Five-Year Evaluation (Sacramento, CA: American Institutes for Research and WestEd, 2006).


California Damming

by Howard V. Hendrix

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Manufactured lakes and the reproduction of nature

(above: View of Friant Dam, with Millerton Lake at low water in foreground. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.)

Feeling conflicted about dams is a fine old tradition in our state. Many Californians are well aware of the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy canyon, the construction of which may have caused John Muir to die of a broken heart. Many of us have heard that in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires, the Hetch Hetchy project was at least partially sold to the public on arguable fire-fighting grounds. Nonetheless, to this day the dam and the reservoir behind it provide clean Sierran drinking water to San Francisco, where the Sierra Club, founded by Muir, makes its headquarters.

The conflict over our state’s dams goes far beyond Hetch Hetchy and San Francisco, however. Ask any two Californians who enjoy or care for the Sierra Nevada about dams and you’ll likely get three opinions: (1) Build more of them (“Our state doesn’t have a water shortage problem—it has a water storage problem”); (2) Remove them (“Dams are environmental mistakes—restore the [insert name of river here]”); (3) Keep the dams we have (“It’s too expensive to build more, and tearing down what’s already in place is a waste of money”). California environmentalists, too, remain divided over the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power as an alternative to both coal-fired and nuclear power plants. About the only thing we can all agree on is the critical importance of the Great White Reservoir of the Sierran snowpack, but what, exactly, global climate change will do to that water storage system remains controversial.

My own dam conflict is more personal than the big issues of hydration, irrigation, recreation, and electrification. In 1928, when my father was still an infant, his mother, Ruth Kearney Hendrix, slipped, fell into, and drowned in an undammed stretch of the snowmelt-swollen Sacramento River. When my father was still a child, his young cousin, Larry Kearney, swam into trouble in the outflow below Boca Dam. His great-uncle, Andrew Finnegan, tried to save him and drowned with the boy. The interactions of my extended family with mountain rivers seem to have been damned whether the rivers were dammed or not.

Outflows on the downstream side of O’Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy. Photograph by Michael Riese.

This background may explain why my father never learned to swim and lived the last forty-three years of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio—far from mountain rivers and dams. As a child growing up in the Midwest, I was nevertheless haunted by flows and dams. When my cohort of friends and I were on the shy side of ten years old, we reveled in building earthen dams across the small creek that meandered through the woods behind our homes. Unlike the monumental structures made by adults, all of our dams were impermanent things, never lasting much longer than was needed to create a small pond, over which we would bravely swing to the far bank, aping Tarzan and his yell as we clung to a bottom-cut wild grape vine.

Eventually, ecology lectures I heard as an undergraduate biology major led me to develop a distinct aesthetic preference for natural lakes over man-made ones. After finishing my Bachelor’s degree (and learning to swim) I moved to my father’s native state to attend graduate school. A quarter of a century later, I came to live in the Central Sierra. Now, like some generationally delayed, mutant salmon hybrid, I live within an hour’s drive of no less than eight dammed lakes and reservoirs, seven of them built primarily to provide hydroelectric power, one to provide water for irrigation, all doubling for recreational use and flood control.

Following such a fish-ladder trajectory through life has led me to realize that we Californians tend to focus too exclusively on dams as concrete objects, and forget that it is the power of more abstract forces—symbolic, aesthetic, political—which leads us to create, maintain, or remove dams. Two dams in the San Joaquin River watershed, Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam, both within that hour’s drive of my home, illustrate this situation well.

The Florence Lake Dam is part of Southern California Edison’s Big Creek hydroelectric project. A two-hour drive from Fresno, up and over Kaiser Pass (9,184 feet), Florence Lake is relatively remote. Completed in 1926, the dam has long been popularly, though never officially, referred to as “Eastwood’s Dam” for engineer, water developer, and dam designer John S. Eastwood, the man behind the Big Creek project and its system of dams, lakes, penstocks, forebays, and powerhouses on the San Joaquin. (In 1987 the Eastwood powerhouse at Shaver Lake was officially named for the great dam designer, long after Eastwood himself, in one of those strange ironies of history, drowned in the Kings River, the next drainage south of the San Joaquin.)

Sky view from the base of one of Florence Dam’s multiple arches. Photograph by Jerry Taylor/jrtce1.

Eastwood was a great proponent of the multiple-arch approach to dam building. He much preferred such dams aesthetically, and less concrete had to be hauled to remote locations to build them. Florence Lake Dam is just such a “scallop-shell” structure and is often photographed for the aesthetic qualities of its construction. Anyone willing to make the short scramble to the base of one of the arches will, upon looking overhead, be rewarded with a unique perspective: part unfinished Pantheon dome, part keyhole view of the sky.

Public attitudes toward Florence Lake Dam, although not completely immune to controversy, have been generally positive. Reasons for this include not only the dam’s remoteness and beauty, but the fact that in the years of its construction hydroelectricity was popularly seen as an unalloyed good. “Salvation in White Coal,” an editorial from the 8 August 1918 New York Times, mentions “extensive power plants . . . that tap the streams of the Sierra Nevada for California cities” and notes that “We are just on the edge of a greater development of electrical power through the utilization of all sources of energy. . . . Our ‘white coal’ or long-distance electrical power may yet banish all locomotive smokestacks and local factory stacks, belching their unused carbon into the air.” Although there’s something eerily prescient about this ninety-four year old editorial, the response to such early dams involved more than just the boosterish view of hydropower during the first decades of the twentieth century. The overall negative public response to Friant Dam provides a contrast helpful to understanding the complexities of the issue.

Aerial view of Friant Dam, with a very full Millerton Lake behind it. Photograph courtesy of NOAA.

At the boundary between Sierran foothills and the San Joaquin Valley floor, Friant Dam and Millerton Lake are within a half hour’s drive of downtown Fresno, and are much more in the public eye than Florence Lake. The dam at Friant drowned the community of Miller Town. Its associated canals (Friant-Kern and Madera) diverted almost the entire flow of the San Joaquin River from its bed, turning that channel into little more than a big irrigation ditch, at the same time ending the salmon run on the San Joaquin and devastating Central Valley wetlands dependent on the river’s near-annual spring overflow.

In contrast, no community was inundated by the filling of Florence Lake. Florence Lake Dam—indeed all of the Big Creek Project’s High Sierra components—had almost no effect on the salmon run, since the hydropower dams were far above the elevation of the salmon spawning grounds. Both the role of Friant Dam in the disappearance of the San Joaquin salmon and the possibility of restoring the salmon run and the river itself have been fought over in legal cases all the way to the US Supreme Court—an ongoing newsworthiness Florence Lake has managed to avoid.

The Friant Dam/Millerton Lake complex is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (CVP). Begun in 1937 and completed in 1942 despite the onset of the Second World War, the dam and lake were intended mainly to provide water for irrigation. Like the whole of the CVP, this project is seen by many as benefiting a narrow segment of the populace (farmers and agribusiness), in contrast to the more generalized public good of hydroelectric power. Indeed, when it was proposed that Friant Dam might provide municipal power generation for Fresno, power company opposition led to the dam being legally banned from having a hydroelectric power component. And unlike the aesthetically interesting scallop-shell structure of Florence Lake Dam, the Friant Dam is more often viewed as a functional (if rather moderne-brutalist) river plug.

Something further distinguishes public responses to Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam. In 1936—at the very time Friant Dam was being designed and planned, and when the majority of the Big Creek Project was already completed—cultural theorist Walter Benjamin published his seminal long essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In that essay he discusses the ways in which technology can be made to serve either “the aestheticization of politics” (extreme but telling example: the Nazi Party Congress rallies at Nuremberg as portrayed in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) or “the politicization of aesthetics” (extreme but telling example: Socialist Realist poster art of the Soviet Union under Stalin).

Since Benjamin’s work is usually discussed in the context of how the mechanical reproduction of nature via technologies like film or photography can be used to influence and manipulate the aesthetics and politics of the general populace, it might seem odd to apply Benjamin’s ideas to dams. Yet dams are quintessentially a technology for the mechanical reproduction of nature. In the region of the Sierra where I live, the bodies of water behind the dams of Southern California Edison’s earlier twentieth-century Big Creek Project are called “lakes,” while the bodies of water behind the dams of Pacific Gas and Electric’s significantly later Helms Project, in the Kings River watershed, are called “reservoirs.” As the camera can be used to create an artificial vista, so the dam can be (and generally is) used to create an artificial lake.

In its utilization of the idea of Progress during the first four decades of the twentieth century, the dam-building industrial complex provides a fine example of the aestheticization of politics. Both developed and developing nations loved their dams, almost as if the building of such monumental structures proved a nation had “arrived” on the world stage.

The monumentalism of Modern Progress was itself an aestheticizing of national political will, something powerfully apparent to anyone who has toured Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, another Franklin Roosevelt-era Reclamation Project. So much of Hoover speaks to the dam’s role as a political and aesthetic object, in addition to a functional and utilitarian one: the Modernist-influenced spillways and intake towers; the Art Deco terrazo floor motifs relating Native American geometric forms to power plant turbines; Oskar Hansen’s two thirty-foot tall bronze “Winged Figures of the Republic” statues, representing the “eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty” (as Hansen put it); and, most strikingly, the cosmic context of a terrazo star map depicting the celestial alignment from the dam’s location on the very evening of its dedication by President Roosevelt in 1935.

During the course of the past century, however, there emerged a counterweight to the aestheticization of politics characteristic of so much of the rhetoric of Progress (and its more extreme incarnations, futurism and boosterism). That counterweight, of growing heft and sophistication, was a politicization of aesthetics variously referred to as environmentalism, the environmental movement, or the environmental ethic. The Romantic poets’ aesthetic response to the sublimity of wild nature laid the groundwork for the creation of the national park system and for the decades of biological studies that eventually came to underpin the scientific critique of dams. That underlying Romantic response had, by the late 1960s, become politicized enough to prevent further dam building in the Grand Canyon—a change none too soon in coming, given that the waters stored behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams had already inundated a significant portion of the greater Grand Canyon system.

Low water at Millerton Lake, with surrounding foothills. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.

The remoteness of Florence Lake Dam, its obscurity, its perceived general public good, and its comparative lack of harm to human and natural communities—but most of all the still inchoate state of a scientifically based environmental ethic in regard to the impact of dam building, at the time of its construction—contributed to the more positive public perception of Florence. Friant Dam’s ongoing presence in the media spotlight, the perceived narrowness of the segment of the populace benefiting from the project, the harm done to human and natural communities by the dam’s construction—but most of all the increasingly sophisticated state of the environmental critique of dam building—have all made Friant Dam and Millerton Lake much more controversial over the long haul.

Dams are poignantly symbolic of the fact that every form of progress, however needful, necessarily carries within it a form of oblivion. The dam is the cusp of the present. Its rising waters are the harbinger of a utopian future. The human and natural landscapes inundated by those waters are the drowned past of lost times, places, and peoples. The pastoral quiet of a foothill river valley lies far below what is now Millerton Lake State Recreational Area. There, on summer weekends, partiers on litter-strewn beaches have to scream to each other to be heard over each other’s amplified music. The air itself is choked with the noise and smoke of two-stroke powerboat engines.

The aestheticizing of politics today is the wind blowing through our hair as our powerboat races ever faster over the surface of the lake behind the dam. The politicizing of aesthetics is the haunting realization that, in the still, deep waters below us, ghost salmon swim the streets of ghost towns. Even if we forego the shedding of tears for the already drowned, the wind as we race across the lake will make our eyes flow, reminding us that, in the words carved on the Romantic poet John Keats’ tombstone, our lives, too, are “writ in water.”


From Ghost World to Your World

by Spring Warren

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

An Interview with Daniel Clowes

Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. He launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent. In April the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Daniel Clowes: A First Survey, on view through 12 August of this year.

Spring Warren: You were born in Chicago, but you’ve been in California now for going on twenty years. What brought you here?

Daniel Clowes: I came to Berkeley for a reading on a particularly nice day in February. It was 80 degrees and I wound up meeting my future wife at a signing.

Warren: Wow. Love and weather.

Clowes: Yeah. We had a long-distance relationship and then she said why don’t you come out to Berkeley and I couldn’t think of any reason not to, you know? The first time I went back to Chicago, there was freezing rain and I had to walk to a bookstore to do a signing where I knew nobody would be because it was the worst weather in the world. I just wondered how people ever settled there.

Warren: Now you’re living in paradise.

Clowes: That’s right.

Warren: You once said that when you close your eyes, you see Chicago. Not California?

Clowes: I saw Chicago for a very long time. I’m not usually dealing directly from experience in my work, but dealing with my own inner life. My stories tend to be based in emotions that have been with me for a long time. But now I feel like California is seeping in or some version of California is multiplying with images of Chicago, so there are palm trees mixed in with the urban blight and my vision of the landscape is now much more Oakland than Chicago.

It took a very long time to tap into the California thing, a self-satisfaction that we have in California—and I’m as guilty of it as anyone—that comes from living in a place like this where the weather is nice and there’s a certain beauty to the landscape that you don’t have anywhere else. I found that sort of off-putting at first and then came to see California, like the East Coast, as one of the two places that you go in America to be as far away from where you come from as possible.

Warren: Which might contribute to a certain colorful eccentricity of characters that show up in your work?

Clowes: I feel like that’s certainly true in this area. I spent many years living right in Berkeley and they’re almost intolerant of non-eccentrics. . . . Like you wouldn’t be welcome if you wanted to sell insurance. But even though I live in a real pocket here where the values are really liberal and you know, everything is very sort of progressive and artsy, all you have to do is drive through the Caldecott Tunnel into the suburbs and then immediately you’ll start seeing Romney stickers and stuff like that.

Warren: Do you sketch in Oakland public spaces—for instance, are the coffee houses in Wilson actual places?

Clowes: All of the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful are based on actual places in and around Oakland, but rather than draw them accurately, taking photos, or doing location sketches, I’m more interested in drawing my memories or impressions of those places, expressing how it feels for me to be in those spaces rather than to transcribe their exact particulars.

Warren: Is there anything about Wilson, the character, that is particular to California? That is, if Wilson the book was set in New York, would he still be the same guy or was there something about Oakland or California that spawned him?

Clowes: He strikes me as uniquely Californian in some way. In New York, for instance, his personality would be easily explained by the anxiety of living in such a dense high-pressure environment, but in the context of Oakland, his peculiarities seem much more self-generated.

Warren: Does the current, rather dismal state of the State of California show up in your narrative line? Like the Bush era being reflected in Death Ray?

Clowes: I am certainly very interested in what’s going in California but I’m not consciously trying to deal with that in my work, though I think anything you immerse yourself in will come out in your fiction; I am sure you know.

Warren: It would seem so with the art world here—your work seems in keeping with the experimentation in narrative form that California is known for.

Clowes: Maybe in a general, zeitgeisty kind of sense, because I really have no connection at all to that world here. I feel kind of purposely out of touch with that stuff.

Warren: Certainly the zeitgeist of comics changed in the nineties—they became more about social commentary than ever before, and graphic novels shifted to being okay for grownups to read. What was going on in the Bay Area then, and were there particular artists in California you were influenced by?

Clowes: Certainly Robert Crumb and some of the other Underground Cartoonists of the sixties were based in the Bay Area, and they had a great impact on what we were and are doing. Among California artists, my favorites are the architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and above all, Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo, The Birds, and Shadow of a Doubt are three of the greatest Northern California films, along with Coppola’s The Conversation.

Warren: I heard from one of the curators that there was great excitement over your upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California. That artists like Alicia McCarthy and Barry McGee and Ruby Neri are all great admirers of your work. Do you interact with these artists?

© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: I don’t know them personally. I actually know who those three artists are, but that’s because they’re like the biggest of the big.

Warren: Maybe at this moment they’re having a conversation along the lines of “I’ve never met Daniel Clowes but I know who he is, ’cause he’s one of the greats.”

Clowes: No, I doubt it. I doubt it extremely.

Warren: You lived in Berkeley for a while. Were you relieved to move to Oakland because of a certain second-tierism you’ve mentioned?

Clowes: Yeah. Oakland feels like the weak sister to San Francisco, and you know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is really the neglected half of the city compared to the north side. When I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn, which at that time, was not cool. And it was certainly the lesser part of the city when compared to Manhattan, so I’ve always found myself in those sorts of neighborhoods and I often wonder if I actually feel more comfortable there and that’s why I wind up there, or if it’s just sheer coincidence.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: You also worked for Cracked magazine.

Clowes: Yeah. The sad little brother of Mad.

Warren: I saw a photograph of you, perhaps around that time, posing with some fans in a comic shop, and you wrote about how uncomfortable it was, that you didn’t really know these people and they had your comics in a box in the adult section.

Clowes: Always. Even as a teenager I was interested in comics and wound up being sort of pen pals with some other guys who did comics in that area. You know, you see somebody’s address who’d written a letter to a comic and you’d write them a letter. That’s how you’d meet people back before the Internet days. And you wind up going over to their house for some party or something. We’d all like comics, but I had nothing else at all in common, you know. Even the stuff they liked about comics was the stuff that I actively disliked about it, and it made me even more alienated. You can talk to somebody for a few minutes, however, and the way they respond to the work, you can surmise a lot about them. You see the parts of the work that they respond to and you do feel connected to them in a way that’s much more profound that you’d imagine.

Warren: In all the interviews and public appearances that I’ve read and seen, you’re just fantastically popular, scads of people in the audience, very erudite, self-possessed. I imagine you being put up in the poshest digs with chocolates on the pillow. That hasn’t always been the case?

Clowes: Back before there were graphic novels, when they were just comic books, I would be invited to a comic store in another city and I’d drive fifteen hours to get there and wind up staying on the guy’s floor. Then you’d go to the signing, and you’d realize it’s just the comic shop owner and his five friends. When you’d go out to dinner afterward, you’re like held hostage until three in the morning. I remember one time staying at somebody’s house, sleeping on their couch, and to get to the bathroom, they said you have to go through this door and our roommate’s asleep in there. So I enter this room where this guy was asleep and he woke up yelling, “Who the hell are you?!”

Warren: That’s all changed?

Clowes: Even recently I agreed to do a little slide show for one of my books, and at every single venue they didn’t have the right adapter for my computer and the audience had to just look at my back while we’re trying to figure out the computer. I figured they hated me by the time I could do anything. It rarely goes well.

Warren: You said at readings that people are sometimes disappointed that you are not Enid from Ghost World?

Clowes: Yeah. I mean, I’ve certainly had that feeling of meeting an artist of some kind and you feel like you’re going to connect with some character that you really respond to and you realize it’s just a guy who made that up and spent hours and hours revising it to get it to feel the way it did and it didn’t just spring straight from their id onto the page. It’s something that takes a lot of effort and solitude to come up with.

Warren: Speaking of solitude—when you were thirteen, you idolized Wally Wood [one of Mad magazine’s founding artists] and said at that age you wanted to be a cartoonist even more than you wanted to draw cartoons. That you loved the idea of obsessively drawing all night when no one else was awake, with a cigarette dangling from your lip and a jar of pencils at hand.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Do you now like being a cartoonist more than you like to draw?

Clowes: Back when I was sort of looking to be like Wally Wood, the actual act of sitting down and drawing was often a struggle. I was really trying to learn how to do this stuff and had a vision of how I wanted it to look, a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then to achieve that was much more difficult than I ever imagined it, so I was just constantly frustrated and I was always throwing my pencils on the ground and storming off. I never would finish the day feeling like I did a great job. I would always think Goddammit, I’ve gotta fix this tomorrow. It really was very unsatisfying. It’s only been in the last ten or fifteen years that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do or what I set out to do, or at least I don’t put the pressure on myself to do something that I know is impossible. I kind of know what I’m capable of and so it’s much more fun. Your brain gets acclimated to doing this thing and now I feel utterly at ease when I sit down to draw. It’s tremendously challenging still and there’s still frustrations, but it’s something I can’t not do at this point.

Warren: You’ve talked about how a lot of your projects took off when you thought that your career was over. For instance, Eightball happened because you couldn’t bear to do any more Lloyd Llewellyn, and Wilson came at a time when you were struggling with this weighty tome of a book and really didn’t want to keep waking up in the morning to work on it.

© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: So now that you are a celebrity, maybe even a commodity in some way, does this create expectations that could interfere with your work—like you’re being asked to create the millionth Deborah Butterfield horse?

Clowes: (laughs) You know, I certainly don’t, there’s nothing of that in my daily life. Nobody ever calls me and nobody ever recognizes me on the street, so that there’s no sense of that at all. I mean, really, I feel more anonymous than I ever did. Back when people actually wrote letters and stuff, I used to get thirty–forty letters a week from people and anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. Now there’s no response at all. So while I’m very self-conscious in many ways, I’m not at all in terms of the work I do. I don’t really think about how anybody’s going to receive it until it’s basically done and it’s too late, and then I start to agonize over it. When I’m working, it’s a very personal thing, not for anybody else, and I’m only thinking about myself. I mean, the one exception to that would have been Mr. Wonderful, that I was doing for the New York Times Magazine. I was actually thinking about an audience, but that very quickly changed.

Warren: You’ve been very free in terms of shifting styles. Wilson, in particular, is noteworthy, as within the comic itself the work goes from more naturalistic illustrations to highly stylized ones in the turn of a page. It seems a sort of lens in which one views the exact same things happening to the same characters in a totally different way. And even when you sort of go more, maybe, classically cartoony, it reads even more tragically, you know, in a really intriguing way.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: How did you arrive at this collection of styles?

Clowes: When I first started, I did all these little strips while I was with my dad in the hospital, stick figures. The work was all just about the writing and the rhythm of the comic strips that had nothing to do with the drawing. When I got home and it finally dawned on me that I was gonna have to do this as a book, I set out to come up with a style that would work for all of these strips. And I found that a certain style would work well for some of them and not for others, and vice versa. I was getting very frustrated by that and I just couldn’t figure out if I was just gonna do some sort of middle-ground style that worked fairly well for everything. . . . Finally, I started looking at all my drawings and trying to figure out what style I was gonna pick, and I realized that all of them together were what I needed to do and that my brain had kind of solved the problem already and I just hadn’t noticed it.

You know, the result was really what the book was about and what I was trying to get across. [It] was something you can really only do in comics, where you can shift a style like that and all of a sudden it shifts the perceptions of the reader, but not to the degree that they get lost. They still follow the story, and after a few of these shifts, they’re used to that and it’s not jarring at all. The shifts become a way that colors the events that are going on. I found you could play with emotion to such subtle degrees by shifting the style; it was endlessly enthralling to work on that every day.

Warren: Wilson, the character, didn’t occur to you first as an image, is that right?

Clowes: With Wilson, the character just emerged without me even knowing what he looked like. He just existed as this stick figure that had a fully formed personality from the very first couple of little thumb-nail drawings I did of him, and it was just a matter of note-taking, just like writing down everything he said. He became one of those very rare characters that can lead you rather than you leading them, and so I just let him go. I would give him a situation and think, what would he do with this? And then, next thing I knew, I’d have a six-panel strip. That was a very different experience from most projects, which are much more of a struggle to get it all to work and for the character to come alive.

Warren: Is starting out with stick figures a pretty typical way for you to work?

Clowes: No. No. I work differently every time.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: When people have asked is Wilson really you, you said something along the lines of being more the person that would be victimized by Wilson.

Clowes: Yeah. I don’t think it was conscious, certainly, but if you look at the guys that Wilson victimizes throughout the course of the story, they’re all basically versions of me.

Warren: All tall, lanky guys.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren:Wilson follows a man through his middle years. Ghost World is about teenagers. I love the way that your work bounces back and forth between these two age categories and it seems there are a lot of similarities between them—facing big changes in your life that might be exciting and might be terrifying—and you’ve got all these big questions about why am I here and what should I be doing, and also some huge feelings of hating the rules of the world, just rejecting them. Is this just my imagination that you’re working back and forth between these two places?

Clowes: I think they’re both really interesting times. When you’re a late teenager it’s kind of your one opportunity to define yourself and so the pressure is on. And I think that’s a really interesting dilemma to have to face. Then in middle age, I feel like it’s very different than what I imagined it was gonna be. You think of yourself as not being so plagued with self-doubt when you hit a certain age.

Warren: That’s for sure.

Clowes: And if anything, if anything, it’s certainly, possibly, worse.

Warren: I have noticed that at two in the morning.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Wondering if that story line is going to work or not . . . Do you agonize over narrative? I mean, when people think of comics, they think about the visuals carrying the story.

Clowes: In comics, really, the writing is the drawing in a lot of ways.

Warren: But it’s not like the words don’t matter, that if you can draw a picture you can necessarily make a strip.

Clowes: Yet, when I’m writing I would never think in terms of blocks of text or, you know, in terms of dialogue or anything like that. I think in terms of how the images are going to go together and tell the story. And I would hope that in any of my books, if you couldn’t read English, you could still figure out what’s going on in the story. The visual component would let you know the basics of what’s happening. And that’s what’s really interesting to me.

Warren: You do all of your work from top to bottom, your own inking and coloring and lettering?

Clowes: Yeah, absolutely.

Warren: That’s unusual. Do you ever think, gosh, I just hate lettering. I’m sending it out to have it done.

Clowes: I love the lettering, but I hate, I hate doing the computer coloring. That’s the one thing that I think at some point, I could at least hire somebody else to do all the computer files and I could pick the colors, but I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. I have, like, separation anxiety. It’s hard to let go.

© Daniel Clowes

Warren: There’s something about seeing the forms and colors in place to know if it’s really right.

Clowes: Yeah. That’s true and you know, there’s something about getting a book back from a printer and knowing I did every mark on the page. There’s nothing at all that’s not mine except for the UPC code on the back—which if I could do it by hand, I would.

Warren: It must be interesting, then, to relinquish your work to a museum to present it to the public. How did the exhibit for the Oakland Museum come about and what’s it like to go from comic book to museum wall?

Clowes: A curator named Susan Miller first approached me around five years ago with the idea of putting together a museum show, and through her tireless efforts and some luck it wound up going to my favorite local museum. I’m very curious how it will feel to see people experiencing the work in such a different way. My hope, of course, is that they will see the original pages as artifacts of the process of making comics and will seek out the books, which are the actual final works.


Water into Wine

by Thomas C. Moran

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

River Planning in Sonoma County

Water isn’t free in California. For more than a century, water in the state has been trapped behind dams, funneled into pipelines, routed down canals, and pumped over mountains; it has been allocated, bought, and sold to such an extent that the natural and designed environments are now tightly interwoven. And even as this hybrid waterscape took shape in the twentieth century, new demands were being placed on it.


By the 1970s, growth and development were no longer the only priorities for water use, and this change in social values was embodied by a wave of environmental laws and regulations. We asked to have our rivers, and drink them too. In many ways, the state is still learning to live with the full implications of this shift, and the challenge of reconciling tensions among legitimized water users poses a major challenge for California water design in the 21st century.

Many examples of highly manipulated water environments exist across California. The expansive federal Central Valley Project and the slightly newer State Water Project make it possible to irrigate almonds near Bakersfield and to wash dishes in San Bernardino using rain that fell just miles from the Oregon border. This water passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with its fragile complex of levees, channels, and pumps that is the heart of California’s water capabilities and its water woes. Hundreds of smaller but substantial water projects scattered across the state must likewise balance competing demands for limited resources, but with fewer of the dizzying economic and political complexities of statewide systems.1 A close look at one place that has no choice but to reconcile human and ecological water uses, and perhaps to blur the distinction between the two, can help us understand some of the considerations that will frame water design and management decisions in California for decades to come.

The Location

Two hours north of San Francisco, on the western edge of Sonoma wine country, there is a small valley known for its world-class zinfandel and bucolic setting. The waterway down the spine of Dry Creek Valley begins among steep, snowless hills covered with grasslands, oak woodlands, and evergreen stands. The creek eventually settles into a gentle approach toward its confluence with the Russian River, splitting the narrow floodplain of the lower valley. The Dry Creek watershed covers over two hundred square miles, which means that one half of an inch of rain across this area constitutes nearly two billion gallons of water. Just twenty miles inland from the Pacific, wet ocean winds bring more than 44 inches of rain to the watershed in most years, nearly all of it occurring during the winter and spring. Some of this rainfall evaporates, much of it is transpired by plants, just a fraction is used for agriculture, and the rest flows out of the watershed via Dry Creek.2

The Italian immigrants who first cultivated wine grapes in Dry Creek Valley in the mid-1800s must have felt quite at home with California’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soils. But the region has not always been wine country. Wheat fields and apple orchards were more common than vineyards in the valley until the mid 1900s; California wines were not particularly reputable or profitable until 1976. In June of that year, a tasting in Paris was staged as a faceoff between France and California. The superiority of the French wines was a foregone conclusion, at least until it wasn’t the conclusion at all. In a blind test, a panel of nine French judges gave top honors to California wines, a stunning outcome which Time Magazine reported as “The Judgment of Paris.”3 George Taber, the reporter for Time, reflected recently that the judgment “created a market for California wines that hadn’t existed before … literally overnight.”4 The subsequent rise in California wine grape values, combined with the high quality and premium branding of Sonoma wines, created the economic incentives that quickly transformed Dry Creek Valley into the vineyard monoculture that it is today. The transition was lucrative; the valley’s 2010 wine grape harvest was valued at $40M for just six thousand acres of grapes.5

Water distribution in Dry Creek Valley for a median year (2004) and a dry year (2001).

The Dam

Despite the dominance of grapes in the valley’s landscapes and livelihoods, water is an almost equally valuable export. The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) collects $30M per year for providing water to cities and districts in Sonoma and Marin counties.6,7 The key to this supply is Warm Springs Dam, which fills a narrow gap in Dry Creek Valley fourteen miles upstream from the Russian River.8 Conceived as a collaboration between SCWA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), construction was delayed for decades by funding shortfalls, local opposition, and legal battles that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. When the dam was finished in 1983, it was the last big federal project of the California dam boom. It stores a two-year water supply for half a million residents of Sonoma and Marin counties, and reduces floods in the valley below it by 80 percent.9,10 The mouth of Dry Creek is less than 10 miles from the city of Santa Rosa, the ninth largest city in northern California and the biggest customer of SCWA water. Dry Creek is the supply conduit: there is no other way to get water from behind the dam to the water agency collector pumps along the Russian River.

Grape wine harvest values adjusted to 2010 dollars using U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index for fruits & melons, fresh/dry vegetables, and nuts. Data Sources: Sonoma County Agricultural Crop Reports USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, California Fruit and Nut Crops Historical Report

This role for the creek is problematic for folks like Bill Hearn, a supervising biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who sees this arrangement as “basically treating fourteen miles of critical habitat as a conveyor belt,”11 which is to say that cities and farms aren’t the only constituents of the creek. Nature also needs the water, and the NMFS, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for ocean-dwelling fish like salmon, is a powerful ally of several fish species indigenous to the region. A 2008 study found a bleak outlook for endangered coho salmon throughout the Russian River water basin, with only somewhat better prospects for threatened steelhead.12 These species evolved in conjunction with their surroundings, adapting to take advantage of the full complexity of physical, chemical, and biological processes in the region. When human development altered these processes, the environment was made less hospitable for many native fish and wildlife. Their survival now depends in part on how well we understand our shared ecology, and how far we are willing to go to apply this understanding.

The Human Factor

Each of these groups has a legitimate claim to the water in Dry Creek. An estimated 98% of the property in the Russian River region is privately owned,13 including virtually all of the land adjacent to Dry Creek, and this ownership comes with rights that predate other human uses of water in the valley. Specifically, landowners control physical access to the creek, so their cooperation is needed for any research or work in it, with few exceptions. The combination of legal rights, economic clout, and political engagement gives the landowners and wine growers of Dry Creek Valley a strong voice for preserving their current level of access to the water in the valley.

Dry Creek flow levels (blue) reacted to rainfall (black) until Warm Springs Dam was completed in 1983. Consistent flows provide water to cities but have consequences for fish.

The State Water Resource Control Board (“the Board”) is responsible for surface water rights allocations in California. The Board granted the SCWA a water right that is equivalent to 11 inches of rainfall in the region that drains into Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam. However, SCWA responsibilities extend beyond keeping a consistent flow to homes and businesses, as the agency must also maintain the environmental health of the Russian River basin by managing the waterways in compliance with state and federal regulations. Like many places in California, the Russian River water system is sorely stressed in dry years, and the supply margins are only getting thinner with a reduction in artificial transfers to the basin.14


It might be tempting to villainize urban water users as oblivious consumers of natural resources, but Californians looking to place blame should keep in mind that they almost certainly fall into this category themselves, since nearly everyone in the state lives in areas classified as urban.15 Furthermore, per capita urban water consumption has actually declined within California since 1995.16 This is not to say that urban water conservation and efficiency are anything less than essential to the future of the state, but the fact is that cities are expected to provide safe, clean, cheap water to all who choose to move in. John Dracup, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, makes this point with the rhetorical question, “When you moved to your town, did you call ahead to ask if they had sufficient water for you?”

Fish in Mind

Fish have only recently been treated like legitimate water users. The vast system of concrete, steel, and turbines that forms the backbone of California water infrastructure was built despite the fish, not with their needs in mind. But then the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s gave legal credibility to what previously had been merely obvious: fish need water. And not just leftover water, but dynamic water systems that closely resemble the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans where each species evolved. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 has emerged as perhaps the most powerful and controversial environmental law in the country, a future that would have surprised the Senators who voted unanimously in its favor and the conservative icon who signed it into law. “The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings,” President Nixon declared earlier that year. It has been said that as few as four people in Washington, DC truly understood the vast implications of the law.17

The Extinction Vortex

California’s climate encourages ambitious water design.18 Nearly all of the rain and snow in the state falls from October to April, while human demand for water peaks during the dry season from May through September. The vast majority of this precipitation happens in the north part of the state, yet most of the population chooses to live in the arid south. What we call droughts and floods are simply natural weather patterns; the “typical” water year is a myth. Native vegetation and wildlife evolved to survive and thrive in this erratic environment, but the most recent wave of human development expended monumental efforts to tame the state’s wild rivers and wetlands. Until the 1970s, little legal or political leverage existed to counteract the promise of economic growth that accompanies a stable, predictable water system, and so California’s water infrastructure expanded as quickly as its dreams.

As the environmental costs of unbridled growth became impossible to ignore, a tide of federal and state laws reflected a shift in social values. The ESA was virtually unopposed as it passed through both houses of Congress and across the desk of President Nixon. But, within a decade, the broad scope and language of the ESA became a powerful lever to wield against the growth priority, and it increasingly influences water design and management in California.

Coho salmon used to thrive along the central California coast, but today they are nearly extinct, with as few as five hundred fish returning to their home streams at the end of their three-year life cycle.19 The coho species native to this region was listed as threatened in 1996, and by 2005 its status had deteriorated to endangered. There are many reasons for this decline, including the cumulative effects of logging, dams, land development, over-harvesting, and water pollution. But at the heart of the coho’s plight is the loss of places to spawn and grow large enough to journey to the sea.19 The ESA treats habitat loss just as seriously as it treats direct harm of a protected species,20 and this is what recently disrupted the fragile equilibrium of water use on Dry Creek.


When coho were listed as a threatened species in 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to consult with the NMFS to determine if any of the Corps’ operations in the Russian River water basin might be harmful to these or other protected fish. A key piece of this assessment was a 2001 study by teams of fish biologists that rated habitat on Dry Creek for three different levels of flow released from the dam,21 and what they observed was bleak for the salmon. One serious problem was that the speed of water in the creek was too fast for young coho to survive through the dry season. This evidence, along with other harmful conditions found on the main Russian River, led to the conclusion that the status quo jeopardized the survival of coho in the region.22 The long consultation process culminated in a 2008 Biological Opinion, in which the NMFS minced no words in describing the gravity of the situation: “The Russian River population of coho salmon is likely in an extinction vortex.”12 Another key finding of this study was that the lower stretch of Dry Creek is critical to the survival of the species, an idea that is ironic to those who knew the creek before the dam.

Long-time residents of the valley will tell you that there never were any coho in the part of Dry Creek that is now below the dam. And, though historical fish counts are sparse and imprecise, science supports these recollections. Coho need cold water. Before the dam, Dry Creek warmed up as it trickled slowly through the valley under the summer sun, making the water too hot for the species by the time it reached the lower valley. So, any coho in the creek likely summered far upstream or in its tributaries, in shady stretches where the water stayed cool as it seeped from the ground. Before Sonoma County was utterly transformed by human development, the Dry Creek watershed accounted for only about 4% of coho habitat in the Russian River basin.23 Now, water released from Warm Springs Dam is deliberately kept cool enough to support fish in the creek below. Because of the broad degradation of regional waterways, this means that lower Dry Creek and its tributaries could represent up to 40% of all remaining potential coho habitat in the basin today.12

The goal of coho recovery on Dry Creek is not, then, to restore some historic condition, but to redesign the waterway and its immediate surroundings for a specific purpose: to serve as spawning and rearing habitat for coho and other endangered fish. Ecologists refer to this approach as “reconciliation,” a conservation strategy that acknowledges the vast, perhaps irreversible impacts of human activities, and aims to achieve specific ecological goals within a manipulated environment. Preservation of any remaining undisturbed ecosystems remains the highest priority for many conservationists, and restoration to some previous condition may be desirable where it can be realistically accomplished. But it is likely that most future efforts to protect native species in California will involve at least some aspect of reconciliation.16

Consistently high creek levels used for city water supply result in poor habitat conditions for young coho salmon.

An Approach to Reconciliation

How might the competing demands of human uses and ecological needs be reconciled, given the reality of the creek today? One approach is to tailor the flow for the benefit of the fish. However, because the water agency uses the creek as its main transmission channel, this would stress municipal water supplies throughout the region. A pipeline has been proposed to bypass high summer supply flows, but there is a consensus that such a project would take a decade or more to complete, which may be too late to save the coho. This option is estimated to cost upwards of $160M and is unpopular with nearly everyone, including landowners who are concerned that large changes to the creek flow could infringe on their water rights. Even if a pipeline is someday built, reduced summer flows alone would only go so far toward improving fish habitat on Dry Creek.12


The immediate approach to water reconciliation on Dry Creek is simple to describe, if harder to execute successfully. The needs and habits of coho have been studied for decades, so, in principle, creating high-quality habitat is simply a matter of giving the fish what they want. Because the water quality is already excellent, the most serious shortcoming in Dry Creek is the lack of physical habitat for juvenile coho. These fish require a diversity of deep pools and quick (but not too quick) riffles, with boulders and large woody debris to provide shelter from fast flows and larger fish. Coho also need plenty of native vegetation to provide shade and to nurture a vibrant food web. In short, the design challenge is to introduce complexity, which is the opposite of what is typically found downstream from dams.

To create this complexity, six miles of Dry Creek will be manipulated to look and function more like a natural water system. This involves reshaping the creek bed, introducing boulders, logs, and other woody debris, and constructing dead-end channels and ponds connected to the creek, as well as controlling non-native vegetation nearby.24,25 This endeavor is not cheap—changes to the creek and follow-up monitoring are expected to cost $6-8M per mile.26 But the outcome could be very important to recovery of protected fish. The NMFS is hopeful that habitat creation could support over 30,000 young coho in Dry Creek. The number of these that survive hazards beyond the creek and return to spawn is a more complicated matter.12 If this approach is not effective, the costly and unpopular pipeline plan will go into motion, which means that the success of the habitat project could become a one hundred million dollar question.

Sidebar: Water Data as Art, works by Adrien Segal

Data are just numbers until someone interprets them. This interpretation can take many forms, as with the art of Adrien Segal, a California native who designs and creates sculptural furniture that is based on the shapes of water data.

Adrien describes her work in the following way: “I make sculpture as a means to communicate data and statistical information about the intersection of humans and the natural world. Simplifying complex ideas, my design method involves translating sets of data into graphics—shapes, lines, and forms—which are then fabricated out of tangible materials such as metal and wood. I aim to present scientific information about fascinating aspects of the natural world in an unexpected poetic form. Bringing together rationality of scientific analysis with the emotional realm of sensory experience, the sculptures push scientific and artistic inquiry in an unanticipated direction, revealing new capacities in the representation of information. The resulting objects are data embodied in physical space, making the information accessible to viewers in an alternative medium that engages the body though intuitive understanding of sculptural form and creates a space to contemplate ideas about the natural world and our role within it.”

Tide Table is the first piece in a series of work that represents data about water in sculptural forms. Sourcing daily tide graphs from NOAA’s Historic Tide Database, the curves of the tide highs and lows are translated into hand bent flat-bar steel. Twenty-eight consecutive days (a full lunar cycle) of tide graphs are framed within the structure of a hand-crafted walnut table, revealing the natural undulating patterns created by tides over a given amount of time. SCULPTURE BY ADRIEN SEGAL, PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LORENZE.

Sourcing data from the USGS report titled “Analysis of Water Use in the United States: 1950–1995,” Canyon is a three-dimensional representation of national water use statistics, where the central river and its tributaries are related to a specific categorical use. The two largest uses define the central shape of the table, which is based on the line of Colorado River (Thermoelectric) in its entire length, and its main tributary the Green River (Irrigation). Additionally, Industrial, Public Supply, and Domestic/Rural/Livestock are embodied as tributaries in the canyon walls. The Canyon width is relative to amount of water used, and the table height is a measure of time – the top is relative to 1950 water use, the very bottom of the canyon is 2000. Viewers can physically see the changes – as thermoelectric use grows, the statistically smaller categorical uses are swallowed into the crevice walls by its immense growth. Conversely, water use for irrigation has the reverse effect of decreasing gradually over time. SCULPTURE BY ADRIEN SEGAL, PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LORENZE.

The Prospects

Opinions vary about the prospects to save the coho by any means. A recent study ranked coho from this region as second most vulnerable to extinction of all the freshwater fishes native to California.27 Research about the effectiveness of habitat modification finds mixed results,28,29 though some methods, such as in-stream log and boulder structures, appear to be broadly successful.30 California river restoration projects have become increasingly common in the last thirty years.31 Close to $50M has already been invested in river and watershed restoration in the Russian River basin since 1980, primarily to counteract the effects of logging and other land development.13 A reconciliation effort in Lagunitas Creek, forty miles south of Dry Creek, is considered a qualified success for its role in supporting the largest population of native coho in the region.32

Schematic for “canyon” derived from water use statistics for the Colorado River.

When asked whether the Dry Creek habitat effort could be successful, Rick Rogers, a fisheries biologist for the NMFS, answered directly, “We wouldn’t be encouraging this level of effort and cost if we didn’t believe the benefits were commensurate … we think the benefits will be huge.” Rogers bases this confidence on the excellent water quality in Dry Creek, the comprehensive scope of the science and implementation around the project, and his belief that the right people with the right experience are involved. He also emphasizes a close collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Game to exploit their expertise and to ensure compliance with California’s own Endangered Species Act.

Peter Moyle, a prominent fish biologist at the University of California at Davis and author of Inland Fishes of California, was more measured in his response about prospects for recovery of the regional coho population. Noting the many factors other than waterway management that conspire against these fish, he offered, “It is hard to be optimistic about the long-term future of central California coast coho.” However, he added that the advantages on Dry Creek, including potential benefits for other native species, make it “worthy of investment as a site for both coho recovery and for research and demonstration” of recovery methods.

Water enters Dry Creek Valley as rainfall and leaves as either creek flow to the Russian River or vapor into the atmosphere. The monthly balance, water in minus water out, has a pattern reminiscent of a heartbeat, which is a reminder that water is the lifeblood of the plants, animals, and livelihoods of the valley.

The matter of defining success on Dry Creek is a work in progress, though it is expected to include some measure of whether coho are using the newly created habitat, as well as an indication of an overall positive effect on the regional coho population.33 But lurking just beyond this is the broader question of whether such efforts could or should be considered successful even if the coho go extinct. What if the coho disappear but steelhead thrive? Or Chinook salmon? The Endangered Species Act requires the protection of all listed species; it does not permit any sort of triage that would allow one fish to perish if others could benefit. In Dry Creek, the habitat creation effort is expected to benefit all of the protected species, but it is worth pondering whether putting equal emphasis on all species is always the optimal strategy for managing our dynamic ecology, especially in the midst of broader climate shifts that will favor some species over others.16

Like many other residents of Dry Creek Valley, Greg Chambers, a vintner and former president of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley trade association, supports efforts on the creek to try to save the coho. As he sees it, “If it works, everyone gets a nicer creek.” But he also voiced a question shared by many: “How much is a fish worth?” The ESA treats this as an open-ended question, but there is always a tradeoff of money and effort that could be prioritized elsewhere. In this way, choosing which pieces of our ecology to value and protect is a design decision in itself.

Whatever the outcome, the reconciliation approach for Dry Creek is not a template that can be blindly applied elsewhere. Ecological and human dynamics tend to be highly specific to each circumstance. In some places, more drastic measures may be appropriate, such as the planned removal of dams on the Klamath River. The values of stakeholders can also vary widely, as with the case of indigenous tribes and the Bureau of Reclamation working together in the Klamath basin. But Dry Creek offers some instructive perspectives about how an increasing number of water design and management decisions will be made in the future. It is important to acknowledge the preexisting tensions among groups with different types of legitimate water claims, and to understand what incentives or fears might motivate each group to cooperate with or obstruct a particular design alternative. Many future water design decisions in California will be made in the context of complying with one or more environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. This means that for a design solution to be considered, it must be injected into highly structured planning and enforcement processes. Furthermore, for the next fifty to one hundred years, most water design in the state will happen amidst an expansive legacy of twentieth century water infrastructure that may be anachronistic to our needs and values today.


The future of a single waterway like Dry Creek is not all that is at stake. Warm Springs Dam is a node in a water network that extends down the Russian River basin, up and down the coast and out into the ocean as far as the salmon and steelhead roam. The next generation of California water design must acknowledge this interconnectedness and decide how the network can be used to craft the 21st century waterscape for cities and towns, farms and fish. We cannot turn back the clock on centuries of environmental manipulation, but we can take charge of the decisions that will shape what comes next.

The author is grateful to Prof. James Hunt at UC Berkeley for an introduction to the fascinating story of Dry Creek and for his guidance on early drafts of this paper, and to Carolyn Remick at the Berkeley Water Center for conversations that shaped the story. The insightful and constructive comments provided by two anonymous reviewers were invaluable. Water data analysis was made possible by the technology and support of Microsoft Research.


1. For thorough and enjoyable histories of California water development see Norris Hundley Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water-A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) and Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin, 1993).

2. Water also seeps into the ground, but the climate, geology, and water uses in the Dry Creek watershed result in fairly stable groundwater levels on a year-to-year basis, so this factor can be ignored for gross estimates of the yearly water balance.

3. G. Taber, “Modern Living: Judgment of Paris,” Time, 07-Jun-1976.

4. M. Brand and G. Taber, Judgment of Paris 35 years on: when CA wines trumped French. Pasdena, CA: The Madeline Brand Show, KPCC Radio, 2011.

5. L. Corriea, “Sonoma County Crop Report,” Office of the Agricultural Commissioner, Santa Rosa, California, 2010.

6. SCWA, “Sonoma County Water Agency Basic Financial Statements, FY2010,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Financial Statement, Nov. 2010.

7. SCWA, “2010 Urban Water Management Plan,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Jun. 2011.

8. SCWA also manages water from other sources in the Russian River basin, but the agency policy is to use water released from Warm Springs Dam as its primary municipal supply source.7

9. SCWA, “Final Current Conditions Inventory Report, Dry Creek: Warm Springs Dam to Russian River,” Prepared by Inter-Fluve, Inc for: Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, CA, Sonoma County, CA, Dec. 2010.

10. Flood protection diminishes further downstream of the dam. For example, Warm Springs Dam controls 60% of the flow out of the Dry Creek watershed, but less than 10% of the flow in the Russian River at Guerneville, 35 miles downstream from the dam.

11. G. Kovner, “Too much water?” The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, 02-Jul-2007.

12. NMFS, “Biological Opinion for Water Supply, Flood Control Operations, and Channel Maintenance in the Russian River watershed, Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Santa Rosa, California, F/SWR/2006/07316, Sep. 2008.

13. J. Christian-Smith and A. M. Merenlender, “The Disconnect Between Restoration Goals and Practices: A Case Study of Watershed Restoration in the Russian River Basin, California,” Restoration Ecology, 18 (2010), 95–102.

14. The Coyote Valley Dam is 60 miles upstream the Russian River from Dry Creek, where it regulates releases from the reservoir called Lake Mendocino. A significant amount of the annual flow into this reservoir is an incidental transfer from the Eel River basin that has been piped through a mountain to power a private hydroelectric facility since 1908. Recent environmental regulatory rulings have reduced this transfer by up to half, and renewal of the operating license in 2022 is in question.

15. USDA Economic Research Service, “California Fact Sheet: 2010 Rural, Urban, and Total Population.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 01-Nov-2011].

16. E. Hanak et al., Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 2011.

17. H. Doremus, “The Endangered Species Act: Static Law Meets Dynamic World,” Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 32 (2010), 175.

18. T. E. Grantham, A. M. Merenlender, and V. H. Resh, “Climatic influences and anthropogenic stressors: an integrated framework for streamflow management in Mediterranean-climate California, U.S.A.,” Freshwater Biology, 55 (2010), 188–204.

19. P. Moyle, J. Israel, and S. Purdy, “Salmon, steelhead, and trout in California, status of an emblematic fauna,” Center For Watershed Sciences. Davis, CA. A report commissioned by California Trout, 2008.

20. Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the importance of habitat as a consideration for protection of listed species was decided against a lawsuit that originated in the author’s childhood town of Sweet Home, OR. Babbit v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, 515 U.S. 687, 1995.

21. USACE and SCWA, “Russian River Biological Assessment,” Prepared by Entrix Inc. for: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, CA and Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, CA, Sep. 2004.

22. Threatened steelhead were also found to be jeopardized, though less imminently than coho. Chinook salmon, also a threatened species, were determined to be relatively unscathed by Dry Creek water operations because their young leave the creek by late summer.

23. B. C. Spence, S. L. Harris, J. Weldon, M. M. Goslin, A. Agrawal, and E. Mora, “Historical occurrence of coho salmon in streams of the central California coast coho salmon evolutionarily significant unit,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, 2005.

24. G. M. Kondolf, “Some Suggested Guidelines for Geomorphic Aspects of Anadromous Salmonid Habitat Restoration Proposals,” Restoration Ecology, 8 (2000), 48–56.

25. SCWA, “Dry Creek Fish Habitat Enhancement Feasibility Study Draft Report,” Prepared by Inter-Fluve, Inc for: Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Mar. 2011.

26. SCWA, “Overview of Draft Habitat Enhancement & Draft Pipeline Feasibility Studies,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Apr. 2011.

27. P. B. Moyle, J. V. E. Katz, and R. M. Quiñones, “Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: A status assessment,” Biological Conservation, 144 (2011), 2414–2423.

28. P. Roni, K. Hanson, and T. Beechie, “Global Review of the Physical and Biological Effectiveness of Stream Habitat Rehabilitation Techniques,” North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 28 (2008), 856–890.

29. M. Palmer, J. D. Allan, J. Meyer, and E. S. Bernhardt, “River Restoration in the Twenty-First Century: Data and Experiential Knowledge to Inform Future Efforts,” Restoration Ecology, 15 (2007), 472–481.

30. S. L. Whiteway, P. M. Biron, A. Zimmermann, O. Venter, and J. W. A. Grant, “Do in-stream restoration structures enhance salmonid abundance? A meta-analysis,” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 67 (2010), 831–841.

31. G. M. Kondolf, S. Anderson, R. Lave, L. Pagano, A. Merenlender, and E. S. Bernhardt, “Two Decades of River Restoration in California: What Can We Learn?,” Restoration Ecology, 15 (2007), 516–523.

32. G. Andrew, E. Ettinger, E. Childress, M. Piovarcsik, D. Morell, and A. Wolf, “Lagunitas Creek sediment and riparian management plan review and evaluation report, 1997–2009,” Marin Municipal Water District, Jun. 2011.

33. R. Rogers, NMFS Fishery Biologist, Personal Communication 28-Oct-2011.


The People’s Sidewalks

by Bess Williamson

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Designing Berkeley’s Wheelchair Route, 1970-1974

A story of Disability Rights, although rarely included in accounts of the Sixties in Berkeley, runs alongside the history of protest against University of California policies, the War in Vietnam and the establishment in general. During these tumultuous years, a community of mostly young disabled persons, many of them students or graduates of the University, left a mark not only on the politics of the city, but the physical landscape as well. From 1970 to 1974, the City built the first planned, wheelchair-accessible route in the United States. These sloping curbs—varying in design over time—created the physical foundation for one of the largest and most active communities of disabled people in America.

Cover of The Independent showing Berkeley’s “Wheelchair Route” designers: from right, Hale Zukas; his attendant and collaborator Eric Dibner; community organizer Kitty Cone; and an unidentified helper. COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING.

Berkeley was host to a growing populace with disabilities in the 1960s, including people with significant paralysis due to spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, and polio. This community centered around a small group of students who lived in a special dormitory within Cowell Hospital, the only building on the University campus that could accommodate wheelchair users. In an era before government requirements for “accessible” design, these students made their own ways through the hilly terrain of campus and city. They rumbled through town on hefty, rudimentary motorized wheelchairs, wheeling in the street or relying on friends to drag them up steps and over curbs.

For these young people, the rebellious spirit of Berkeley in the Sixties was infectious. The Cowell residents banded together, lobbying for greater accessibility on campus, more housing options and their own wheelchair repair shop. By the end of the decade, recalled one student, “everything began happening at once.” The campus was charged with political spirit as protesters clashed with authorities on campus and in the city. In this historical moment, Berkeley’s disabled community sought a space for themselves in the broader cityscape.

Center for Independent Living director Phil Draper at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Blake Street in 1984, Going Where You Wheel on Telegraph Avenue (op. cit.).

The first move to build curb cuts on Berkeley sidewalks came out of a coincidence of 1960s politics. In 1969, Berkeley erupted in riots over the University’s plans to build on an untended lot near campus that functioned as a “People’s Park.” After riots that brought the National Guard to town, the City renovated the Telegraph Avenue business district, widening sidewalks in a gesture towards local street life. In keeping with a brand new building code, these renovations included wide, flat curb “ramps” positioned at the corner of the sidewalk.

Curb cut diagrams by Yoshiaki Imafuku, in Going Where You Wheel on Telegraph Avenue (Berkeley, CA: Center for Independent Living, 1984).

While Berkeley’s wheelchair users greeted the new cuts with pleasure, they also noted concerns about accommodating a range of disabled persons. The wide, flat curve where the sidewalk flattened into the street caused problems for blind pedestrians who relied on a sharp curb to detect the edge of the sidewalk. Even for wheelchair users, the cuts’ diagonal position caused a conflict with turning cars. A visiting Japanese student, himself a wheelchair user, sketched the pros and cons of various curb cut designs, showing how the curb cut that angles into the street can push wheelchair users into traffic.

For a second round of curb renovations, the disabled community of Berkeley took an active design role, mapping more than 100 sites for cuts along Telegraph south of campus, and along Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. They also offered a new design: a steep, sharp cut set outside of the main pedestrian intersection. These new cuts were steep for wheelchair users, but represented a compromise for a range of pedestrian needs—foreshadowing the “universal” ideal of later planning and design projects.

Berkeley’s Wheelchair Route, drafted by Ruth Grimes. Dots indicate the location of 125 new curb cuts. Map from City of Berkeley, Resolution No. 45,605-N.S. (February 13, 1973).

The early changes on Telegraph and the surrounding area were the first in a series of design projects to accommodate Berkeley’s large disabled population. Since the 1970s, Telegraph has been renovated and resurfaced many times over. In place of the original flat “ramps” are curbs with textured concrete slabs to identify the change in surface for the blind, often marked with bright yellow inserts with bumps. Designed decades before recent projects such as the Ed Roberts Campus (see article by David Serlin), these curb cuts were low-profile, but nonetheless important elements of an accessible city.

Raised curb cuts at Telegraph and Dwight avenues, 2011. PHOTO BY AUTHOR.


Stewart Brand

by Stuart Kendall

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

On Governments, Guilds, and Getting Things Done

The Whole Earth Catalog, Fall 1968

Stewart Brand is arguably best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, but he’s been an activist for environmental and related causes for over forty years. His book How Buildings Learn addressed architectural reuse and longevity, something he’s also explored in his work with the Long Now Foundation. His latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, explores the science and the social science behind the challenges of climate change. Stuart Kendall recently spoke with Brand for Boom.

SK: You are well known for your advocacy of amateur innovations and personal technologies, but in Whole Earth Discipline, you aren’t as distrustful of the government or of large-scale, multinational corporations as many of your fellow environmental activists might like. Was there a change in your thinking at some point? Why are you willing to work with government agencies and corporations when so many of your colleagues in the environmental movement are not?

Brand: I’ve done work for the government, a fair amount through Global Business Network, primarily with national security and intelligence people. I like very much working with them because they are serious people who take the long term seriously. They study to learn things about any event that they are a part of, and they often apply the lessons they learn, and I enjoy that.

I think I’m useful to them because partly I’m outside the beltway. The Global Business Network is intentionally based on the West Coast where we can draw upon the whole gamut of creative stuff going on here. That’s one of the things that we’re valued for by companies all over the world and other governments, like Singapore, as well as our own government in Washington and indeed here in Sacramento.


But personally, I prefer a bottom up solution to problems because I think it is much more appropriate to the situation since it is close to it. In Whole Earth Discipline, I pay a good deal of attention to squatter cities and slums where people are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. I guess it’s no accident that I live in a former squatter community in Sausalito, in the houseboat area, where again a bunch of relatively impoverished maritime artisans and artists and riffraff got themselves a place to live and defended it until it got gentrified and became a legal part of the town. That’s happening all over the world to people by the billion.

SK: You write that most innovation comes from amateurs, since enthusiastic amateurs who aren’t bound by institutional limitations often have a great deal of freedom.

Brand: Yes, that’s exactly right. Hackers have always interested me. In another part of Whole Earth Discipline, I try to encourage bio-hacking. I would like to see the same thing in biotech that happened with computer hackers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and on to this day with cell phone or smartphone hacking or web hacking.

More broadly, there is now set in motion, partly by Tim O’Reilly, this whole Maker phenomenon, Maker Faires, Maker magazine, etc. Some of the same thing is going on in science from iGEM gatherings [International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition], which are MIT-based and the FIRST robotic competitions that Dean Kamen set in motion, he’s also East Coast-based. Tim O’Reilly though is very Californian in orientation and his publications are coder empowering with Whole Earth Catalog-like access to tools kind of stuff, access to techniques in most cases there. Grassroots is abounding.

Of course, that’s not the only story. There’s lots of stuff that is done by proper well-paid engineers in proper profitable corporations and I think the combination is part of what makes everything go forward.

SK: Many of your projects over the years have involved working with groups of close friends or collaborators, several of whom have been consistent even as the projects have changed.

Brand: [Laughs] Yeah.

SK: One the one hand, from a managerial standpoint, a lesson in teambuilding might be gleaned from those experiences, but on the other hand, they might just evidence the importance of friendship in community-building, in life and in work. Have you been trying to balance friendship and work or maybe familiarity and reliability of insight with a diversity of opinions in these groups?

Brand: I put my theory of guilds up on John Brockman’s World Question Center. I said that the most effective people I know have a close cadre of people whose work and thoughts they pay close attention to and who pay close attention to them. I got to looking around and indeed discovered that there were six or seven people whose thoughts I always want to know.

And sometimes we publically collaborate on projects. Kevin Kelly and I have started several things, starting back with the Hackers Conference and the WELL [the Whole Earth Electronic Link, several things with the Long Now Foundation where he is very thickly involved. A while ago we did an All Species Inventory project. My wife was also involved with that one, as she had been with the Hackers Conference. As you point out these are very different subjects but we knew how to work together and there is no greater shortcut to getting things done than a few people who know how to work together.

There are other people I pay attention to all the time. One of whom I seldom see physically is Brian Eno. We exchange email practically daily and have been for twelve years or so. Peter Schwartz is a formal co-founder at Global Business Network. Alexander Rose and Danny Hillis are in the thick of the Long Now Foundation, as I am. And I’m married to one of my guild, Ryan Phelan, so we’re basically conspiring all of the time.

Whether this is common or in any way Californian, I don’t know. But I think it is more common than has been noticed and it is probably something worth drawing out when you talk to people about their design life: who are the non-direct reports that they work with?

There are a lot us who are not interested in a lot of people’s opinions but rather in a few people’s opinions.

Storm system in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: In that sense, you would describe yourself as an elitist?

Brand: Oh yeah, absolutely. My feeling is that elite is how things used to get done in the world and it’s all over the place. Hackers were an elite. Beat poets were an elite. An elite is a kind of self-selecting meritocracy that gets a sense of itself as a group, a flock or something, birds of a feather of some sort. The individuals within the group give each other permission to be better than they already are and sometimes they rise to amazing heights. So I’m all in favor of elites.

SK: The subtitle of Whole Earth Discipline, in its hardcover edition, was an eco-pragmatist manifesto. What is eco-pragmatism?

Brand: Desperation. I had more trouble subtitling that book … in fact, I changed the subtitle for the paperback edition because the book was not doing all that well. The publisher and the agent expected the book to be a huge bestseller and they were shocked that it wasn’t, so we made adjustments in the paperback.

With the term eco-pragmatism, I was trying to do something similar to what I did with the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a counter-counter-culture publication. I was immersed enough in the counter-culture to see that there were some things that I thought were not being perceived properly, mainly just practical, how to do things. So the Whole Earth Catalog was technology friendly, and technique friendly, and had no politics at all. I was partly following Buckminster Fuller’s lead in that respect.

Whole Earth Discipline was me trying to bring environmentalists to a problem-solving mode rather than a mode of endless complaint, of slowing everything down, to get them away from the Romantic notions that we had gotten into partly from the successes that we’d had in the 70s and 80s, and the moral leadership that we elected to follow, and so on. All of that was proving to be completely inadequate to thinking about or actually dealing with things like climate change. So Whole Earth Discipline was in a sense a counter-environmental publication trying to bring practicality and pragmatism to a movement that had let itself become non-, even anti-pragmatic, almost.

There’s been some success in that direction. I’ve heard the leadership of the Nature Conservancy has adopted the book as a guide and I see it surfacing in funny places in funny ways. But it has not sold quite as well as Silent Spring.

Saharan dust crosses Western Europe. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: [Laughs] Give it time.

Brand: We’ll see. There are other books coming along in the same vein. Mark Lynas’ book The God Species is very much in the same frame and better in some respects. Both books are intended to be green programs for this century.

SK: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline presents the notion of geo-engineering, effecting large-scale positive change to the earth over long periods of time.

Brand: The basic environmental project really is managing the commons. The commons is the oceans and the atmosphere and biodiversity and so on, all that was here before us. We can bang on it pretty hard, a lot of it is extremely robust but it goes better if we back off half a turn and don’t hit natural systems quite as hard, quite as often. But some of this stuff has been bashed on so long that it is headed over a cliff. Greenhouse gases and global temperature are one area. Acidification of the oceans may be another. In those cases, it is not just a matter of protecting but of repairing.

When the damage is at a global atmospheric scale and you want to repair it, your actions need to be at a global atmospheric scale. To the extent that you can do that by just cutting back on greenhouse gases, on carbon, bio-char, whatever, those solutions are best, but if that is not enough, then you need to think about taking action to undo the previous action.

We’ve been terra-forming Earth badly. We don’t have the choice of stopping. We only have the choice of doing it well. And we’re in the process of learning what that means. Just because we don’t know enough now doesn’t mean that we won’t know enough soon. And the only way to get there is to do the research.

SK: It’s less a question of backing off or setting protection as our limit and more of thinking in terms of repairing and indeed building something that can flourish.

Brand: Also, in terms of protection, here I’m following Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, protection becomes a little illusory when you tell yourself that what you are protecting is pristine, pristine forest, pristine tundra or whatever. Telling yourself that you have to protect it very assiduously because it is very fragile. Both of those things are wrong. Nothing is pristine and it hasn’t been for a long time. And few things are fragile.

Alien invasive species, for example, which I have developed the aesthetic of being against … I used to be against eucalyptus trees, in California, but time went by, and by and by, I saw what the wind does to the leaves and that they are green all year long, which is rather nice, and full moonlight on a eucalyptus tree is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and they seem to be prospering here and they aren’t really doing that much harm. It’s time they got their green card.

But there are forms of alien invasives that are tremendously harmful. One of them, especially on remote islands, is any new kind of predator, like the brown tree snake in Guam, which can wreak total havoc. Goats and rats on islands. Take the goats off and a lot of biodiversity comes back.

So nothing is across the board.

Nothing is quite pristine, so don’t bother to protect that. And alien invasives are not the spawn of the devil, so don’t get too worked up about that. And then basically it’s gardening and negotiating. Neither of those things is particularly romantic, but it’s the reality. Our impact on natural systems is increasingly a gardener’s role. And we’ve got to negotiate with each other on how to make that go forward in a way that gets better over time rather than worse over time.

Dust storm in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: It seems like friendship matters here as well, in the role of the gardener, who needs to know the garden best, what to trust and what not to.

Brand: One of the things gardeners learn is distrust. Plants never do quite what you had in mind. You can hammer on them until they do, then you wind up with bonsai. But by and large it’s a comic dialogue between species that goes on in the garden. Michael Pollan said that and he’s right.

In terms of design, and this is maybe a design aesthetic that we are talking about here, the total design approach is that one is going to dominate every single aspect of the designed entity. I suppose that is one of the things that I was inveighing against in my book How Buildings Learn. When that happens you have an unlivable building. To make it livable, the occupants and remodelers are going to have to undermine the purity that the signature architect wrought. The architect will go away all pissed off and that’s just too bad. Hopefully the building is forgiving enough that the people who are living and working there find it to be a place they can feel pretty good about. A theme that is emerging here is suspicion of purity in all its forms.

SK: And along with that, a more measured approach: there you have the eco-pragmatist.

Brand: Yeah, the eco-pragmatist is aware of theories and agendas but is really an engineer who is just looking for what works.

SK: Rather than seeing things in black and white, us and them, as was fairly common in the 1960s, the approach that you’ve taken more recently has been more synthetic, appropriately suspicious but not absolutely against anything, not ruling anything out too quickly, but not accepting anything too quickly either. Being willing to change your mind.

Brand: Yeah, I expect that’s right. There are two heuristics going on there. One I quoted in Whole Earth Discipline: I wonder how many things I’m dead wrong about. And then, the opposite version of that: you never know who is going to be right. For all I know, there’s some Tea Partier out there, who I generally disapprove of, who has actually got something right. We gotta keep an eye out for that.


Constructing the Edge

by Anthony Raynsford

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Architecture in a Turbulent Age

Book Review: Design on the Edge, A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, edited by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell, College of Environmental Design, Berkeley, 2009.

In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)

This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.

This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?

Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.

The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)

Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.

During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)

Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.

Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.

At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.

Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.

It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.

Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.


War Furniture

by Jason Weems

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body

The influence of husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames is ubiquitous in American culture and encompasses an array of expressive forms from architecture, interior design and furniture to the graphic arts, cinema, photography and educational exhibitions. Most well known, the Eameses’ chairs with their smooth surfaces and biomorphic contours have become signature forms of postwar California culture and icons of modern design.

Photograph of Eames Splint in Use, circa 1943. (Source: Donald Albrecht, World War Two and The American Dream, 1995, P. 60) Image Courtesy Of The Library Of Congress.

Surprisingly, the roots for these objects lay not in the sleek and optimistic postwar aesthetic that shaped the corporate office, airport, or suburban home, but rather in the carnage and injury of World War Two. Although Charles Eames had first experimented with molded plywood construction under the tutelage of Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the late Thirties, it was in wartime Los Angeles that the design duo embarked upon their first large-scale fabrication in that medium. 1 Their product was not furniture but leg splints. In 1942 the United States Navy commissioned the Eameses to produce lightweight plywood traction splints for use on warships. The splints needed to be strong and durable enough to hold up under stress, yet also sufficiently light and nimble to facilitate easy navigation of confined shipboard spaces. Most important, they needed to provide a stable armature for the wounded human body—whose integrity and function had been compromised by laceration, fracture, burn, and other physical traumas. Like their later furniture, the Eameses married their technological innovations in compound molding to their organic and functionalist design aesthetic in order to craft a splint whose support surfaces conformed to the natural shape and composition of the human body. By war’s end, over 150,000 leg splints had been produced.

Treated too often as a footnote in the narrative of their contribution to modern design, the splint in fact played a seminal role in shaping the Eameses’ design philosophy. 2 The splint project required the designers not only to focus on the human figure in a conventional way, but also to reframe their consideration of it in terms of damage and dysfunction. If modern design had heretofore treated the human body as an idealized abstraction, these conventions appeared suddenly inadequate in face of the raw corporeality of rendered flesh, shattered bones, and ruptured psyches. Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised—a task that included Charles’s use of his own body in modeling and testing the splint—pushed the Eameses into a new mindset. If healthy bodies were culturally inoffensive, wounded and disabled physiques (then and still today) invoked feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, pity, distrust, and even humiliation and shame. The etiology of broken bodies, in other words, was as much cultural and psychological as it was physical.

Charles and Ray Eames (Evans Products Company, Molded Plywood Division, Manufacturer). Leg Splint. 1942. Plywood, 3 7/8″ × 42″ × 7 7/8″ Image Courtesy Of San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Designing for these circumstances required the Eameses to bolster their usual attention to functionality and aesthetics with a new consideration: empathy. The Eames splint became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices, not only because of its innovation in materials and artistry, but also for the way that its anthropomorphized contours made it feel and look like an organic extension of the limb to which it attached. Just as the physical act of pulling traction returned the disfigured limb to normal form, the splint’s visual and tactile naturalism provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit. Unlike other splints that made little effort to deflect the artificiality of their materials and structure, and thereby mediate the divide between natural body and industrial prosthetic, the Eames design pursued the possibility of a more organic and empathetic interconnection of subject and armature. Cutting a new path through the technophilism of wartime research, their splint positioned the body—and more importantly, the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam.


When the Eameses returned to peacetime projects at war’s end, they continued their concern for the needs of both mind and body. Though they did not pursue further design work with splints and prosthetics, their postwar furniture retained the substance of wartime lessons. Designed for normative (and idealized) bodies and standard spaces, the Eames chairs and lounges nonetheless retained an ethos of empathy. The Eames chair, for example, became a paragon of effective design precisely because of its deep adaptability to needs of the weary body. Its celebrated visual aesthetic, though rarely discussed in these terms, is perhaps best understood to be an outgrowth of this compassionate functionality.

Charles And Ray Eames Lounge Chair And Ottoman, Introduced In 1956. Photograph By Casey Marshall.

While there are limits to the correlations to be drawn between the desecration of wartime injury and the weariness of middle class bodies, the Eameses’ practices also have important implications for more contemporary understandings of disability design. In privileging the integrity of the body as their foremost criterion, they inverted a tendency in disability engineering to think primarily to the conditions of the technology rather than those of the human form and psyche. Likewise, their application of lessons learned from devising leg splints to designing furniture challenged the hierarchies, distances, and divergences that American culture usually asserts between normative and differently constituted bodies.

1. The literature on Charles and Ray Eames is too extensive to list here. The most thorough scholarly discussion on the topic is: Patricia Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). For more focused consideration of the Eames chair, see the recent anthology: Martin Eidelberg, Patricia Kirkham, et al., The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (New York: Merrill Press, 2006).

2. One account that does consider the splint’s production history in detail is the comprehensive Eames chronology: John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (New York: Henry Abrams, 1989), 27–35 passim. I also discuss the culture of wartime research in Los Angeles and its impact on the Eameses’ design philosophy in my forthcoming essay: Jason Weems, “Vision at California Scale: Charles and Ray Eames, Systems Thinking, and the Diminishing Status of the Human Body After World War Two” in Where Minds and Matters Meet: Technology in California and the West, ed. Volker Janssen (Berkeley: Huntington Library/University of California Press, forthcoming).