Improvisation and Common Sense: the Architecture of Doug Rucker

David Plick — 

“Stone likes to be on the ground. It gets nervous and unsettled the higher it gets. Wood loves to be high too, because it was once a tree. Wood does not like to be painted. It likes natural finishes. Brick does not like to be painted. It wants to be brick. Lay brick as a patio and it will thank you every time you walk on it. Stucco and drywall love to be painted. They are unhappy and incomplete when they are not. They mate with the paint for life, like ducks and geese.”

Doug Rucker

Speaking to the architect Doug Rucker is an artistic, spiritual experience. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I would say it’s like speaking to a guru. Rucker, whose homes have been on the AIA Los Angeles Home Tour alongside Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright John Lautner, and company, has a senstive, holistic approach to design. He believes that “good lines make good shapes”, that “a good line starts decisively, goes somewhere, and stops decisively”, and that “nail on windows are a way of forgetting architecture.” He is a man of convictions, and he applies these convictions wholly and unapologetically to his houses, which have brought joy and comfort to many in Southern California.

Like any guru, Doug Rucker is much deeper than his career accomplishments. In addition to being an accomplished midcentury modern architect, he’s published ten books, has had art galleries featuring his photography, was an improvisational dancer, and a singer in a renaissance group. The Value of Architecture had the privilege of speaking to him about his upcoming book My Midcentury, his approach to designing houses, art, photography, and how all these different art forms construct the fabric of his life.

TVOA: As much as you’re an accomplished architect, you’re also a writer with ten books, and an artist, a dancer and singer. How do these different art forms influence one another? How are your artistic processes similar?

Doug Rucker: I do have a strong background in art. I had the privilege of studying at the Chicago Art Institute. At the architecture school at the University of Illinois we studied art two days a week for four and a half years. Recently, since my retirement, I’ve had my abstract photography in about 100 art shows. I love shooting photos of junk I pick up on the highway: background junk, foreground junk, things that are shiny and reflect light. I photograph the junk in boxes and have shadows move across them.

I’d say that all these art forms are related in that I have a mind that looks to make things completely different. I love improvisational dance. When you get in the habit of improvising, you can do it in any artistic activity.

Curiosity is another thing. I could tell you a quick story. Years ago I almost had a small stroke. It’s called a transient ischemic attack, which is when a small blood vessel in your brain breaks. I wasn’t affected in my thinking except that I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t add or subtract. I was very tired for three or four months. I laid down a lot and I realized reading helped me get my speech back, so I started reading a 700 page book about the history of Russia. I read that whole damn thing. Then I picked up another book and another book. Then by the end of the year I had read about 30 books. I discovered that after 20 years I had read over 500 books: Stegner, Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, all that stuff. And I found that reading all that stuff allowed me to consider all these different things that I hadn’t before. I read about the cosmos, religion, atheism. My mind expanded.

I think the transferable qualities in all forms, from philosophy to sports, all come down to this curiosity. And you need the passion and the caring and the motivation to keep learning. That’s the connection between all those things.

TVOA: You mentioned improvisation before. How do you use improvisation in architecture?

Doug Rucker: Any kind of creation is improvisational. In architecture it comes out in the way the architect uses ingenuity to find solutions to problems that arise while building the house. In another sense though, improvisation doesn’t come into play because there are many rules you have to stick to. They have to do with truthfulness and integrity. There are also zoning laws and building codes. Also, the house can’t be so hard to build. Finding a way to make the house work with the rules, though, involves improvisation.

In one sense, architecture is all improvisation. In others, it’s just common sense and logic. For example, the driveway in a house should be close to the door to the kitchen. That way you don’t have to walk so far to carry your groceries. That’s just logic. If an architect finds a way to be improvisational and come up with something original amidst all the rules and regulations, that’s a form of genius right there.

You have to know what the contractor needs, the building department needs, the client needs. And most important: how you want to live your life.

TVOA: What are some problems you see arise in contemporary architecture?

Doug Rucker: There’s been this question of whether or not architecture should be economical or not. Frank Gehry, of course, designs innovative structures with curves and angles, but it doesn’t fit. It’s hard to build and not economical. It doesn’t take into account heating ducts, or economy of any kind. It’s a big waste of money.

I think it’s sacrilegious to see two or three people living in a 20,000 square foot house today. It’s one of the reasons why we have global warming. We have 3 billion people living underneath the poverty level, who don’t have access to water or electricity. How can anyone live in a house that big in this world? It’s horrible. Architecture needs to be more economical than that.

The ego shouldn’t be involved. We shouldn’t be destroying redwood trees or birch trees, cutting down redwood trees to build a house. It just galls me. You have to take into account the world we live in, and the fact that the world is our home. Otherwise, the earth will not sustain itself.

TVOA: It’s very exciting you have a new book coming out. What’s it about?

Doug Rucker: I’ve done about 90 midcentury modern houses, and about 50 remodeling jobs, mostly in the Malibu area, but also in Kauai, Greece, Denver, and Santa Barbara. The book is about what should and shouldn’t be done in midcentury modern architecture.

This form of design had a philosophy behind it. And no architecture styles before it or after had a contemporary philosophy. There was a lot of copying during this time period of colonial styles, Cape Cod styles, etc., but there wasn’t any philosophy behind it. The book is about the role of harmony, the purpose of a house, and the motivation for building a house.

In a midcentury modern, post and beam house, what you see is what you get. We were bringing the outdoors in and the indoors out. We had communication between inside and outside.

The motivation behind it is to make a good house. We live in a house. It’s a home. It’s a place to go to relax. We should love our homes. How can you love it when it’s a piece of junk like a tract house?

Midcentury people wanted to build a good house, and good houses come from what people like. Well, what do people like? As it turns out, they like clouds. They like windstorms. They like soft rain. They like fog as long as it’s not too much fog. They like to see trees and when the wind blows, they like to see the leaves rattle. They like water, not only to swim in, but the sound of it running over pebbles. They love the outside, particularly in California.

By: David Plick

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