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February 13, 2015 / Robert Ross

linguistic drama

Sign at spec building site

Sign at spec building site

Every day as I drive to the gym and back I pass a construction site for a new home. Of course I notice it, after all creating homes is the major part of my business and I enjoy keeping up with what is going on in the various neighborhoods around me. This one looks like a nice contemporary. A more frequent occurrence these days. What really gets my blood going is the sign out in front announcing “Custom home for sale”.

According to Webster’s dictionary custom is defined as something made to order. A custom home, much like a custom suit, would be defined as one built for and to the specific needs of a particular client. The house I pass is definitely being built on speculation. I imagine that if it is sold while under construction, the builder might let the new owner make some finish selections. That is about as much opportunity for customization that is left. As it sits right now, most of the decisions surrounding style and layout have already passed the point of no return!

This misuse of the language is something that I see on a regular basis, especially in the real estate profession. There is a lack of precision that really drives me crazy. Neighborhood boundaries are routinely stretched to try to attract buyers or artificially raise value. Styles are totally misrepresented. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen colonial cottages referred to as craftsman classics, standard brick ranches are elevated in marketing to mid century modern.

These are just a couple of examples. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that are in the real estate business who I like a lot. They are typically charming and outgoing individuals. I just wish they would exercise a little more care when it comes to using the English language in their marketing efforts. English is an incredibly rich and nuanced language. Rather than relying on what they think needs to be written to attract buyers, using a little more care might actually do it!

Beyond these examples, I everyday see and hear horrendous misuses of the language. The news stations have dumbed down their reporting to the point of being insulting to those of us with any type of education. Twitter with it’s 140 character limit and Facebook with its constant feed have also led to the decay.

Because I have early teens, I’ve been engaging in reading some young adult novels. I usually like to read the book before I see the movie. A few months ago I went back and re-read Dickens’s David Copperfield. The use of language in that book blew me away.

On television, I also tend to enjoy series on the BBC. The Brits don’t seem to rely on special effects for drama as much as we Americans do and the quality of the dialogue and how it moves the plot is far superior than what passes as quality TV on this side of the pond.

As far as today’s music goes, I am reminded of the current meme of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit”. Let’s all try to enrich our world by relying expanding our vocabulary and really think about what we are trying to communicate.

Off to work!

January 1, 2015 / Robert Ross

Happy New Year!

Happy 2015!!!

This past year I’ve enjoyed becoming acquainted with several other architects through social media. We share ideas, articles projects and sources via twitter and facebook. One of the activities I’ve particularly found myself looking forward to is our Monday scavenger hunt resulting in several posts of contemporary residential design from each of the 50 states.

Each Monday a state is randomly chosen by the child of one of the participants and posted. We all then scour the internet and try to come up with unique examples of what we consider good design and make a comment about why we selected it. Invariably someone misses, and there are the occasional, although rare, duplicate entries. For the most part what ensues is a the creation of a collection of good design that most of us would not otherwise be aware of.

Equally amazing to me is that we all tend to search for the livable and attainable. What is posted are not the pristine, museum pieces that so often adorn the pages of numerous publications. We all tend to gravitate toward real life examples that display rich and unexpected pairings of materials,explore the relationships of interior and exterior space or pay attention to the larger contextual relationship of the designs. As one participant (I think it was Lee) lamented about our recent trip to Florida…It was challenging to find something that didn’t fall into the standard white stucco model or look like a hospital!

So as 2015 starts I would like to thank my fellow participants on this quest
Marica McKeel, Studio MM – New York, NY
Nicholas Renard, Cote Renard Architects – Jacksonville FL
Lee Calisti, Lee CALISTI architecture+design – Greensburg, PA
Sean J. Tobin, Architect – Raleigh, NC
Keith Palma, Cogitate Design– Raleigh, NC
Jess Stafford, Modus Operandi Design– Asheville, NC
Dan Rider, Cline Design Associates– Raleigh and Chapel Hill, NC

and any others that I may have missed. It is an ever evolving group and I definitely look forward to the Monday challenge. Thank you all for reminding me that good design does not occur in a vacuum and reawakening my design awareness. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the mundane tasks of running a business and you have definitely helped brush away the resulting cobwebs of my mind. I truly appreciate our interactions and may we continue to grow in 2015!

exterior-modern-residence-carney-logan-burke-architects 2

And now a look back at one of my favorite finds – Wyoming!

August 13, 2014 / Robert Ross

position filled

Sometimes, when you go out on a limb it gets results! My new letter writing intern starts Monday!

August 10, 2014 / Robert Ross


Untitleddocument(1)After the last few years, things have really picked up for my practice. I’ve gotten to the point where I find myself working 6 days a week, including morning and evening overtime and I still struggle to meet deadlines. Looking ahead, I don’t see this slowing. I would rather not put people off for 2 months before meeting with them, so the only solution I can see is to take the plunge and hire a full time person! Yikes! Having been the person at a previous firm whose duty it was to do the initial sort through submitted resumes, I am not looking forward to the task. From my perspective, this first hire is going to be critical in moving forward and it has got to be right!

The good news is that this step is on my strategic plan to grow the business, but it is scary all the same. Since I work from home and they will, after all, have access to my personal zone, a good match is doubly important. For this reason, I’m taking a low key approach to advertising the position and trying to find someone through personal connections rather than message boards and such.

So far I’ve had a couple of interviews. The first was with a graduate from Southern Polytechnic State University. He blindly emailed me in June looking for a job. I told him that a spot would probably be opening up in mid August. Not surprisingly, his recent resume indicated that he had experience as a chalkboard artist for a restaurant. He followed up and we met. The interview went well and he hasn’t been totally ruled out, I just need to see more than one choice.

The second person I interviewed, happened to be a student that I was mentoring through the AIA mentor program. Also from SPSU, I was very impressed with his studio work and the thought process behind it. To be honest, I would have hired him on the spot. Unfortunately, he is still in school and his schedule for the upcoming fall semester was not flexible enough to allow it. That did not totally throw him out of the running. I still plan on mentoring him and hope he will join the firm in the future. I imagine he will, as he also shared the information with a friend.

Late Thursday I received an email that began

I decided to write a letter to introduce myself. Normally I would attach a resume, but in the past this has seemed to prove ineffective. I am still learning how to write more succinctly, but in the attempt to communicate clearly this is the best way that I know how. If time is an issue, then I believe skimming through this will give you an adequate read of my character and level of experience…..

Needless to say, I was caught by the unexpectedly creative approach and the attached work. I am in the process of setting up an interview.  I am looking forward to seeing if he matches up in person to the promise outlined in the letter…..

I will keep everyone posted, but in the meantime I am looking for an entry level graduate of an architectural school with an interest in exploring the design challenges inherent in a residential practice. I can promise a wide range of solid work experience!

July 6, 2014 / Robert Ross

missing the lyrical

Crepe Myrtles

Crepe Myrtles

I find it hard to believe that it has been just over a year since I last posted, so forgive me if I’m a little rusty!  I have mapped out a couple of entries in advance, so hopefully you will hear from me once a month or so.  As is often the case, this topic was not on the list! Enjoy.

This 4th of July weekend was marked by the coolest weather I can remember for this time of year.  I took advantage of it to complete a few long overdue yard projects. As I am not a total luddite, I slipped my i phone in my pocket using the Spotify app to set the soundtrack for the day.  It is a far cry from the transistor radio of my youth. Back then you had a choice of channels- mostly am- and took what they gave you. Commercials and all. The idea of customized playlists was far in the future. Needless to say, most of my playlist consisted of older music. Story telling songs from my youth. Usually sung by the composers accompanying themselves on simpler instruments, they were accessible but by no means simple arrangements.

These days I usually listen to current music in the car when David changes the Sirius to a station of his choosing. He alternates between two and three presets, depending on whether he likes the song or not. What struck me yesterday was that one of the biggest differences between today’s music and that of the past is the loss of the whole genre of what I’ll term “make-out music” from the top 20 play list. Another big difference is the loss of complicated ideas and poetic construction that seems to have been replaced by utterly inane rhymes set to a pre-fab beat. Maybe its a mark of our current culture that everyone seems to need their 15 minutes of fame. Love and romance have been replaced by hook-ups set to a frenetic and unsustainable beat. I often find myself asking David if he thinks anyone will be singing these hits 30 or 40 years from now? I don’t see it. The art of songwriting has been replaced by an auto tuned soundtrack lacking emotion, nuance and relevance.

Pathe Foundation

Pathe Foundation

Architecture seems to be at a similar juncture. I recently saw the new Pathe Foundation Building in Paris by Renzo Piano, one of the current “stars” of the profession. The interior was strikingly beautiful. but the exterior made me think of a giant slug consuming the city in its path. There is no apparent respect for context, no attempt to relate to human scale. If I lived in one of the neighboring structures, I would be royally pissed. A vast silver blob intruding into and consuming the cityscape. In fact, some of the most celebrated structures of the past 20 years share this trait. The new towers twist and turn like contortionists because the design software allows them to happen. There is nothing beautiful or soaring about them. Nothing that speaks to the soul. The one common trait among them is that they are always photographed from a distance and you rarely get the view of how they meet the ground. Maybe we are rapidly heading for that world portrayed in the futuristic Bladerunner and Batman movies.


Weisman Art Museum

Frank Gehry’s work, to a large extent has been made possible by this exploitation of software capabilities. It is possible to turn a sketch into a built form. I was in Minneapolis and able to experience his Weisman Art Museum firsthand. Approached by bridge the west elevation is a remarkable assemblage of shapes overlooking the Mississippi River. It is also set apart from it’s context and shields the view of the rest of the building, a mundane brick box which was his contextual response to the surrounding campus. The entrance from the street felt awkward and unimportant. An afterthought. The interior did not live up to the exuberance of the facade , feeling rather cheap and pedestrian by comparison.

We are rapidly becoming a world where the mundane and mediocre are glorified as the exceptional. Suburbs filled with row after row of McMansions and the homogenization of American culture are flattening and eroding the regional urban experience. Atlantans flock to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle with the expectation that whey will have the same services and stores and restaurants that they experience in their suburban homes. The only difference being the presence of an overcrowded beach. The truly authentic is being lost.


Milwaukee Art Museum

There are exceptions. but they tend to happen at the fringes and have to be sought out. Santiago Calatrava rises above the crowd and produces lyrical work blending architecture and engineering, much like Gustave Eiffel. His work is transformational because it derives its forms from the larger context and cultural setting. The end result enriches the urban experience. His Milwaukee Art Museum exemplifies what is possible when this approach is taken. The experience of these spaces are transformational as well as they allow us to view the expected from an unexpected vantage.

Similarly, the Richard Meier addition to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is a great space.  Prior to the recent Renzo Piano renovation of the complex, you entered the soaring atrium space with it’s circulation ramp and internal balconies knowing you had entered some place special. The Piano addition and unfortunate relegation of the entry experience to a side courtyard leaves much to be desired. It totally abandoned the Meir entry in favor of an uninspired flat box. The courtyard is an underutilized plaza.

It is interesting, and unintentional,  that all of these examples are art museum settings. I am lucky that I am beginning a couple of residential projects that will allow me the opportunity to explore the poetic and lyrical in very special settings. It should be possible to provide a structure for living that is both yet highly functional. I am looking forward to the challenge! Maybe the music industry will find its way back as well.


June 13, 2013 / Robert Ross

Past is Present….

tumblr_m3yije0YSp1qlf642o1_1280This time of year, I have no need for an alarm clock. The birds awaken as the sky begins to light and there is no sleeping through their cacophonous greeting of the day. It is odd that in a world where most city dwellers are awakened by traffic noises, I am awakened by birds!

My neighborhood, Ormewood Park, was one of the original trolley suburbs of Atlanta, and still lies moments from downtown. It was carved out of farmland at the turn of the 1900’s as the city was resurrecting and recreating itself following the Civil War. The landscape surrounding the neighborhood figured heavily in the Battle of Atlanta. It experienced several layers of development from the 1910’s on which resulted in a comfortable neighborhood mixture of Craftsman bungalows, WWII era starter homes, a few ranch homes and even a dash of the new contemporary homes exemplified by Dwell! It also is a neighborhood of old trees, which explains the birds.

Another wonderful feature of the neighborhood is that it in many ways hearkens back to the halcyon time of the fictional Mayberry.  People know each other throughout the community. The teachers that work in our schools live in the neighborhood. As do the Policemen and Firefighter’s. Kid’s ride their bikes and walk to to and from school. Neighbors stop in the street to talk and visit as they work in their yards. There are many houses with chickens. In fact, across the street they have goats. Not your typical slice of suburbia!

Happy-Hour---Website-400pixelWhat I believe contributed to the development and preservation of this neighborhood and it’s adjacent sisters, was the imposition of Interstate 20 on the landscape of the city in the 1960’s. This man-made feature acts with all the presence of a river, cutting the neighborhoods from the rest of the city and living limited access points north. Streets that bear the same name occupy both sides of the concrete ribbon. Those portions of the neighborhoods to the north of the interstate languished and fell into a greater state of disrepair than those south.

As a result, we are very lucky to be able to share some of my favorite childhood memories with our children! We are around the corner from a Zesto’s. A local chain of restaurants that still serve soft ice cream cones. Twelve inches of swirled sweetness hand dipped in chocolate and then rolled in nuts. The famous Nut Brown Crown! And yes you can get it half vanilla and half chocolate!

Another vanishing feature from the national landscape of my childhood is the drive-in theater! We have the Starlight Drive-in a quick five minutes from the house. Opening in 1949 and now a multiplex with 6 screens, the Starlight shows first run films and always tries to have a family friendly screen. The last day  of school was celebrated by going to see the new Star Trek flick under the stars. We went with one set of friends and happily discovered about 30 other families from the school had the same idea! You can go to the drive-in 364 nights of the year. In our climate it is comfortable to sit in your folding camp chair from April into October. We have watched movies wrapped in blankets while drinking hot chocolate! As an added treat, the snack bar has also managed to maintain 1980’s pricing!the-last-drive-inn-starlight-six-drive-inn-corky-willis-and-associates-atlanta-photography

For the 4th of July we avoid some of the larger attractions that pull in thousands of people from the suburbs. We choose to drive to nearby Decatur to watch their fireworks in the town square. Families picnic and there is an orchestra that plays the requisite combination of movie themes and patriotic music in the bandstand prior to the show. Of course the peak is the 1812 Overture.

A recent addition to the neighborhood is the Sonic drive-in restaurant. It is a treat for the kids to go and have the food brought to your car! While they don’t have the window trays, it is a novel enough experience. If we are feeling the need for the real thing, and the trays, we can always go the the iconic Varsity, 10 minutes a way on Sunday!

I feel very lucky to be able to re-live these childhood memories with my children. They are gaining first hand knowledge of a vanishing America in the heart of a modern urban landscape.

March 28, 2013 / Robert Ross

The Living and the Dead

Main entrance to Oakland

On a warm February afternoon, while much of the northeast was digging out from a major snowstorm, the family and I went to visit one of our favorite local parks. Oakland Cemetery. This trip was prompted by a glorious day, with temperatures in the upper 60’s and the posting of a game called Cluetown, that showed up in my Facebook feed. Cluetown is a a scavenger hunt puzzle game where you solve the riddles to move to the next point on the map. It was a nice diversion.

For those of you who don’t know Oakland Cemetery, it is Atlanta’s oldest Park. Surrounded by former factories converted into restaurant and loft space and bordering the revitalized neighborhoods of Grant Park and Cabbagetown it is located less than 1 mile from the tall towers of downtown.  It is perhaps Atlanta’s greatest living history park and home to the final resting place of 70.000 souls. Thousands of people drive by it’s red brick enclosure daily not fully realizing the range of activity that goes on there. Oakland is anything but a quiet resting ground.

Founded in 1850 as Atlanta Cemetery on a 6 acre plot at the Southwest corner, by 1872 it had expanded to the current 48 acres and was renamed Oakland in honor of the many oak trees in the area. While the last plots were sold in the 1880’s, burials are stilled regularly performed. Because of this an incredible history of the last 150 years of funerary monuments and practices are on display ranging from simple stones to elaborate Gothic mausoleums including Tiffany Stained glass windows.IMG_1130IMG_1133IMG_1132

Oakland is a living example of the Victorian garden cemetery and laid out as a landscaped park. As such, plots were prized for their location and obelisks, mausoleums, and monuments were designed to take advantage of their location. In keeping with Victorian era customs, the cemetery also hosted family picnics and Sunday visits to Grandma, during which the families would maintain their plots. Each October these practices are remembered in the celebrated “Sunday in the Park” which benefits the Historic Oakland Foundation. Volunteers dress in period costume, vendors and musicians set up their booths, and the city shows up for a great outdoor event. In addition to Sunday in the Park, are the June “Tunes from the Tombs” and sell out nighttime Halloween Tours. There are also weekly guided tours of the grounds. Being a public park, there are also daily dog walkers, joggers, and bicyclists that take advantage of the winding paths and picturesque grounds. It also still hosts burials on a regular basis. It has also hosted weddings.

The city of the living rises behind and merges with the city of the dead. The tops of the Georgia Pacific Building, 191 Peachtree and the Westin Peachtree Plaza
blend seamlessly into the tombscape.

Founded in 1976, the same year the Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Historic Oakland Foundation has been instrumental in saving and preserving the park. It has worked with the city to repair and replace portions of the brick enclosing wall and the adjacent sidewalk. It has recently celebrated the completion of the restoration of the damage caused by a tornado passing through 5 years ago that uprooted 100 old trees and toppled over 300 monuments.

Oakland is steeped in Atlanta history. It includes the best know names in the city’s history including mayors, governors, business owners. It includes the grave of Martha Lumpkin that Atlanta was once named for. It also includes the graves of author Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and golf great Bobby Jones. It’s very layout serves to remind us of the segregated society that was the past. There is the Jewish section, a section of contiguous plots purchased by the city’s oldest temples for the use of its members. There is a slave section (relocated once as the cemetery expanded) and an African American Section. There is even a beautifully serene potters field in the low lying part of the cemetery.

The Jewish Section

The Jewish Section

Visually striking is the Confederate Memorial section that provided the final resting ground for 6,900 known and 3,000 unknown soldiers.  These graves are marked by uniform rows of simple markers that lay in stark contrast to the more exuberant civilian tombs. The Confederate section is marked by the tall white marble Confederate Memorial and one of Oakland’s most photographed monuments, the Lion of Atlanta. This section also holds the remains of three Confederate Generals – John Brown Gordon, Alfred Iverson, Jr.,  and Clement Anselm Evans. Generals Lucius Gartrell and William Stephen Walker are buried elsewhere on the grounds in personal family plots. There are also the graves of 16 Union soldiers who died of wounds in the local hospitals.

Far from quiet, Oakland Cemetery is very much a living monument to a great city. After a busy afternoon, it is an easy step across the street to one of our favorite restaurants. Serving seafood, it is the aptly named Six Feet Under. The roof deck with it’s exceptional views of the skyline and the cemetery is one of the most popular spots in the city for lunch or dinner.

View from Rooftop deck of Six Feet Under

View from Rooftop deck of Six Feet Under

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