The Inevitable March of Time and the Constant Seep of Entropy

This isn’t really a flying post, but I don’t have an architecture blog and my two projects in Las Vegas were one of the reasons I learned to fly. If you are here for the aviation, just skip ahead to the next post.

slammer-driveI did not choose architecture because I thought it would make me immortal. I never thought any of my creations would outlast me. When I saw the concrete being poured for one of our first projects, I did think it would probably last fifty years (at the same time we were renovating a farmhouse that was over a hundred years old and I had been down to look at the foundation, fifty years seemed conservative).

I also know that as a rule I tend to like my projects to be very carefully designed around the client and the particular way they are living their life at that moment. Obviously, people change, times change, and when I create a building that is perfect for someone focused on their career it might need some adjustments when they begin to slow down or retire.

Bob and I first worked together as Whitehead & Co. in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton. By the time we had graduated from Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning we already had two projects we had designed and his father had built. Well, one was really Bob’s, but I talked to him a little while he was working on it. By the time I moved to California and started some of the larger projects one of those first two had burned down. And while we were both here one of my favorite projects, Alan Silber’s law office, was dismantled. (It was a rented space and the firm broke up. The space was so custom that there was no one that was going to keep his office with the raw cherry shelving and the undulating cedar planks floating overhead.)

I realize none of it is permanent.

I did like hearing that the concrete sub-contractor who worked on Lance’s Castle came back a few times to look at the cylinder that he had poured. When the contractor asked if there was a reason he kept coming back he said, “That’s just the best thing I’ve built so far. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be here a hundred years. That or someone’s going to go broke trying to knock it down.” (That happened to two different demolition firms trying to demolish Frank Lloyd Wright designs.)

Today I flew to Las Vegas in the new plane. It was a treat. The new autopilot being installed at the end of the summer will make it even simpler, since it can climb at a constant airspeed. Still, in the cool, ocean air of early Sunday morning, the plane seemed to coast its way up to eleven thousand five hundred feet. I had the usual route through the pass and out over the desert set up. As I climbed out of the class charlie near Burbank I eliminated a couple of the navigation points. This is really just a game, since it only saves a minute or two. As my course straightened out and I headed right for some of the higher ridges of the mountains the controller asked, “Zero-tango-sierra, are you direct Henderson at this time?” That seemed a little funny to me, since as a single-engine pilot I never would have gone direct, it was so important to stay over airports and roads that I could glide down to if there were trouble. But there I was, thousands of feet higher than I would have been in the DA40 and already turning for the first fix way out in the desert. I have flown this city-pair many, many times now. It became a milk run for me.

approaching-vegas

Approach the “meadows” of Las Vegas

There was a twenty knot tailwind and it took an hour fifteen minutes to go from wheels up at Santa Monica to hopping out of the plane in Henderson. I felt great, since I had been on supplemental oxygen the whole time. Vegas has a habit of having whipping wind build up without warning, so I took out my chocks and used my tie-downs to get the plane very securely settled.

The rental car was waiting. The woman behind the counter at the city-owned FBO was really nice and didn’t charge the fifteen dollar ramp fee.

I used Waze to get out to The Slammer since it had been so long since I had been there. I am glad I did. The development in Las Vegas, even with the 2008 crash, is so rapid and pervasive that I had no idea where the old roads were that I used to take.

I had exchanged some email with Penn the day before and a few days prior. I knew that he would be recording his last Sunday School podcast that day, since the pump in the well had broken and to fix it was five thousand dollars that he didn’t want to put into the place. He wrote an email detailing some of the stuff that he would like to do to the house (let people smash it up, use it in a movie where they were trashing rooms) and I decided that I wanted to come in to see it before that.

When I got to the gate I sort of expected it to be open since there were production people there. The Slammer isn’t really high security, it’s a five foot high fence, but I wasn’t in the mood to climb chain link or leave my rental car at the side of the road. I didn’t have the four digit code to punch in and pressing the “doorbell” button didn’t raise anyone on the intercom. I called Glenn, Penn & Teller’s manager, who got someone inside the recording studio to come trigger the gates so I could get in.

courtyard

Debris

Penn pulled up behind me as I was going in. I got out and we said hello, but he was fifteen minutes from the start of the podcast’s streaming start and he needed to get to work. I figured I would poke around the place, take a few photos, see if there was a memento that I could ask Penn for that might sit on my desk, and I’d scram. Even just rounding the corner into the courtyard I realized that I had arrived a little too late. There was a screen door lying in the middle of the courtyard, debris scattered about, a bunch of the pieces of the koi pond were stacked next to it (because the family had returned to try to save the turtles and fish when the well stopped).

I called Nell as I walked around. It was really hard to describe why it was so depressing. It was still the house I designed and helped build. It was still the place where Penn had thrown a number of amazing parties and held his marathon “24” viewing sessions (where they watched entire seasons in twenty-four hours). But the place already had the vibe of something that nature was reclaiming. Part of it is that the desert is a really harsh environment, so no matter what you are constantly fighting that destructive force of the hundred twenty degree summers, the thirty degree winters, and the lack of humidity that makes using exterior wooden doors impossible. The Slammer is not in a housing development, so there is a little bit of trash that blows around in the immediate environs. When someone is living in the house that cares, the little bit of debris that comes over the fence will get picked up. There was fetid water on top of the pool cover and a Pepsi can floating in the little bit of exposed pool surface, which looked murky and green from what I could see.

Penn and his family had also moved out. And Penn had been back a bunch of times to record, so he obviously had the opportunity to go through the house and take any of the contents that he cared about. That meant that walking through, anything that remained was a castoff. These were the dregs. The inkjet printer that was working fine but wasn’t worth moving to the new house. The Dahlquist speakers, once the height of audiophile sound, still hanging in what became The Vinyl Room (once my studio space where I designed a lot of the details of the renovation).

There was apparently a guy that was being allowed to live at The Slammer for free, sort of house sitting. I have to say that if that were me, I would have been cleaning the place up a little more. There was all this debris which was obviously going to just stay there. Clean it out, organize a yard sale, vacuum the rooms, I don’t care, but make the place less sad and trashed. That’s none of my business, but I still thought about it while I picked my way through the rooms.

cinder-blocksThere was a door into one of the more recent spaces (a television viewing room off of the master bedroom). I guess the seal had gone bad, or it rattled. The current resident (I hope, I really hope it wasn’t Penn while he was still living there), had a few cinderblocks and a 2×4 set up to keep it tightly closed against the howling desert wind. Very post-apocalyptic for me. But the real thing is that there’s just constant work to keep things nice in that environment. I went up on the roof deck over the master bedroom and the railing was rusted (steel wool, spray paint enamel after taping off the area), the adirondack chairs were dried out (Teak oil, probably some sand paper first at this point), and the spinning vent was squeaking in the wind (oil). You could walk through the house and make a long list of things that needed attention. Some things wouldn’t be fixable, like whatever was happening under the kitchen floor that was stretching the custom-cut linoleum and pulling it apart at the seams. And to make the place really livable you would want to improve things. The keypads at each door felt low-end. Having been at a really well-appointed beach house in Carpinteria recently, I know that there are versions that quietly click with real authority. And there are probably some places that there should be a wind-break vestibule.

copper-counterWalking around the house I was reminded of so many of the interesting opportunities for design. In the original 1,200 square foot A-frame there was a mezzanine space that became a sort of communal office. Guests could use the computer and printer there. We made the counters a copper-finish formica, which was great when people used the place as a snack spot. The counter extended past the huge rafters of the A-frame and I remember as I drew the overhang using the Gwathmey Siegel trick with the rotation angle that is elsewhere in the plan showing up, but softened with the corner radii. The same sort of element can be seen in Gwathmey Siegel’s work at a much larger scale.

The plan of The Slammer was affected by the existing house. For whatever reason, the couple that built it happened to rotate it away from the north-south grid of the streets it was on and point it twenty-eight degrees toward the Las Vegas strip. There wasn’t really a view in that direction, they just seemed to want to turn the house. As I put together the program of spaces for Penn’s home, and started to use them to volumetrically separate the courtyard from the motor court and arrival area, those twenty-eight degrees turned into a series of seven degree shifts from the strict compass point orthogonal to a reference to The Strip, the thoroughfare where Penn was earning his living and a street that slashed through Las Vegas like a bolt of inspiration through an insipid gridded, planned desert outpost.

grid

The Strip and the grid

We were very conscious of budget and were trying to get maximum effect from every effort. Straight lines, especially boxes, are the least expensive thing to build, something I had learned by building a few houses with my own two hands. But architectural design is really a question of information management and there’s no reason that you need those straight lines to be at ninety degrees all of the time. In fact, most of the time that you want a ninety degree angle the builders are delivering something just a little bit off anyway. Why not an eighty-four degree angle? That’s a multiple of seven, which means that we can slowly step our way back to the shift that the original owners made which happened to line up exactly with the slash that The Strip made through the Las Vegas grid. Suddenly our little suburban house was connected to a large piece of fabric.

planAlthough The Slammer sat on the fringe, we expected the fabric to engulf it over the coming years. Eventually that did happen, but a lot more slowly than we had hoped. More importantly, when Penn had a family the people his children went to school with all appeared to be from Summerlin, gated communities to the north and west of his ten acres on West Wigwam Avenue. When the kids were old enough to really voice

filling-in

The Slammer in the center, the fabric filling in

their opinion, the family bought a nice place in one of those gated communities and now his son and daughter can run three blocks through manicured street landscapes and be at their friends’ houses without getting in the car. That’s really how kids should grow up, anyway. (Summerlin was the maiden name of Howard Hughes mother. He originally owned those tracts of land and was going to build a big aircraft factory there.)

In an ideal world, Penn would have been successful enough that the financial drain of carrying The Slammer would have been negligible. It would have been an amazing guest house to steer people to, the recording studio was being used every week, and it wound up being between where he lived and where Teller lived. But that’s a fantasy from someone that doesn’t have a weekend house, let alone a whole other daily operation sucking time, energy and money. So the desert will wind up reclaiming it. It already has, in ways I described and ways that are too sad to write about. It was depressing to witness it, since the home represents so much of my time with Penn and so many of my better ideas.

At dinner one night we talked about how strange it was that so few homes were really customized. Other than painting them and furnishing them, people mostly lived in boxes, something that drove Frank Lloyd Wright crazy. Or crazier, depending on your opinion of Wright. There were tiny little things we did, like the object elevators. Penn hates carrying things and he realized that there were places in the house that he would put things, meaning to bring them to the next room up the stairs, or the next room down the hall. Rather than having a little table there (as people often do just inside the door of their home), I designed small ledges, just big enough for a letter-sized piece of paper, which incorporated the geometry of the house with a seven degree truncation of the horizontal surface and a version of the structural fins from the courtyard as the support. They varied from room to room and the one in the entry vestibule, which held the camera for people to take their photo, was made of diamond plate.

During the last decade that it was inhabited The Slammer was not as successful as its first. It takes a lot of love and persistence to bend a customized space to a new function. While we did an addition for the family (Cellblock B), there was a sort of constant tweaking that Penn was willing to do for the rest of the house that was a bother for his wife (and eventually, kids). He would mention problems to me (“There doesn’t seem to be enough storage…” “The desert wind blows in through the new doors…”) which are solvable, but if it’s not fun being in a constant construction zone (it isn’t for most people), fiddling with the residential architecture solution you are trying to inhabit gets less and less comfortable. And nothing was going to ever change the location.

It was hard to be there, to feel the neglect of an edifice that was a culmination of so many conversations, so many lines drawn and little models built and fiddled with. It will happen to everything I have designed, and eventually I will be in the ground as well. Penn was busy recording his podcast, the door to the control room had been locked, so I climbed back into my rental car. Driving through a McDonald’s to grab a Coke, I had Waze direct me back to the Henderson airport. That was smart, since I saw as I got to the I-15 that the road I would have taken was nothing but red on the traffic display.

homewardWith a quick call to Nell to tell her I was headed back, I walked across the baking asphalt of the ramp to N510TS. In my head it is already N972RD, and I thought, “Time to take me home, Romeo Delta.”

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and feces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot "East Coker"

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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