David Stark Wilson: Design rooted in the great outdoors

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Of the juxtaposition of images of homes and nature in his new book “Houses: Origins”, Wilson says: “The influence is not literal, but the pairings illustrate the influence of natural form, texture and color on our work.” Photos: courtesy David Stark Wilson

David Stark Wilson began designing homes when he was still very young, and the first one he built, with the help of friends and family, was for his mother. Now a sought-after Bay Area designer, Wilson is also a serious mountaineer and accomplished photographer. Broad similarities in form, color and texture between the built environment and the natural world have always permeated Wilson’s architecture. A new book about his work,“Houses: Origins,” explores how emotional responses to a building are similar to those to the natural world by pairing images of some of Wilson’s projects next to photographs of nature. Wilson lives in Berkeley, and the Berkeley hills boast several of the striking homes created by his firm, WA Design, which operates from a building he designed on Folger Avenue. Berkeleyside caught up with Wilson before he is scheduled to give a talk and sign copies of the book at Berkeley Mills on 7th Street on July 14th.

Your new book is called “Houses: Origins”. Why did you choose that title?

The design process for a given project begins with the site and the clients, but also involves the  vision of the architect/designer. That vision is developed in a large part through personal experience. My earliest and strongest experiences were all rooted in the outdoors. I realized over time that my experiences in nature had informed my design work.

How long have you been designing homes and what led you there?

I studied mathematics as an undergraduate at Berkeley and did small design and construction projects while in school. When I graduated in 1984, one project rapidly led to another, and I designed and built my first home for my mother in 1987.

Wilson’s Berkeley Courtyard house features on the AIA East Bay Tour on August 11. Photo: courtesy David Stark Wilson

You talk about the influence of the outdoor on your architecture, and you have climbed mountains since a young age. How has that impacted your work?

I think the influence of nature on my work is diffuse, not literal. I was initially  hesitant to present the pairings because it’s not as if I saw something in nature and tried to recreate it in built work. Rather, I came to appreciate there was an emotional response to the most successful moments in my buildings that was similar to the emotional response to isolated and expressive moments in nature. Several years ago, while preparing for a talk on my work, I reviewed dozens of photographs I had taken of my built projects. As I bent over the slides, I began noting similarities between the architectural forms and textures and natural shapes, textures and landscapes of my mind’s eye. My family is oriented towards the outdoors, and from a young age I have found wonder and meaning in places such as the high mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada and the sandstone desert of the Colorado plateau. I pulled out my photographs from these wild places and began comparing them with the photographs of my buildings. The influence of my outdoor experiences on my architecture burst forth on the light table.

David Stark Wilson: “The influence of nature on my work is diffuse, not literal”

Would your work be different/more constrained had you pursued the traditional architecture route in academia?

I think my influences would be more academic certainly.

You have a fascination for agrarian buildings: Quonset sheds, grain elevators, tank houses. How have these influenced your work?

These vernacular structures have had a profound influence on my work. Here’s how I put it in the 2003 book “Structures of Utility”:

“I became captivated by the agricultural buildings that punctuate the landscape of the Central Valley. The vertical forms of grain elevators, like erratics deposited by a long-receded glacier, interrupt the valley’s level terrain… The elevators are equaled in eccentricity by oversized storage sheds housing lanky, intricately evolved agricultural machinery. In the foothills, long-abandoned mines reveal only their head frames, an extension of the mines’ subterranean architecture. “Structures I encountered began to inform my own work. Designing a buildingI labored for the very qualities they embodied effortlessly —purity and lack of pretense. Their origins were in simple utility, in adaptation to functional requirements, yet they had attained an elusive and austere elegance. The structures haunted me, and their forms filtered into the morphology of my work.”

Do you see yourself as a Bay Area designer? If so what does that mean to you?

Yes I do see myself as a Bay Area designer. I was strongly influenced by Bernard Maybeck’s work. It was in his buildings, for instance the studio on Ridge Road or the Mathewson House on La Loma and Buena Vista, that I was struck with how he surprisingly oversized the windows to address specific views. His buildings were expressive and active and these are primary goals in our work.

The qualities of agrarian buildings — their purity and lack of pretense — hold a special appeal. Photos: courtesy David Stark Wilson

How long have you lived in Berkeley? Does Berkeley present some particular challenges/delights as a location in which to design/build homes?

I grew up in North Berkeley on  Arlington Avenue. In Berkeley we have an amazing Mediterranean climate that proves very forgiving in designing homes. You really can live indoors/outdoors for much of the year. We are also fortunate to have enough mid-century buildings as precedents to help move the architectural dialog in a more contemporary direction. Berkeley is a wonderful and diverse place to live.

For more information about the presentation of “Houses: Origins” at Berkeley Mills on July 14th, visit Berkeley Mills. Wilson’s Berkeley Courtyard House will feature on the AIA’s East Bay Home Tour on August 11. Visit AIA for details.

Originally published in berkeleyside.com