The Sawyer Retort

 The Sawyer Retort

Los Angeles CA based architect Robert Sawyer, AIA is the founder of Architectural Business Magazine, which is the home of the Edaburi Awards. ABM is among other things the first desktop publication to be printed commercially (Garner News, 1986.)  The publication, which originated in Raleigh, NC is now a member of Cision Media, and permanently online to a global audience. Edaburi is a Japanese term which means the formative arrangement of the patterns of the branches of a tree. There is no such word for this in English.



School’s Out


As an early hopeful XQ participant, “rebuilding high school” (which should have been called “rethinking high school student administration due to the pages of forms related to administration) I was eager to lend my talents to the grand scheme of original thinking regarding ergonomics as well as curb and gutter infrastructure. However, while uploading my competition final renderings and drawings – AT&T, my internet provider turned off my service by mistake, three times in the same day. Lesson learned: You can’t hand off an idea and expect it to take flight (especially when you can’t even hand off the idea, lol.) An idea is just an idea, it’s not going to go anywhere on its own.  But, recently it occurred to me that I still have a pretty good one.

For XQ, I envisioned a totally different high school. One designed by various California architects with Belizean tribal resort craftsmen and plant experts highlighting the eccentricities and notabilities of the natural world. Behind the ubiquitous exterior skin and aesthetic warmth was a completely new approach to school in general. The central core to this school was the Living Tree. This was an interconnected group of information matrices coupled with storage media, think military grade pumice discs, etc. These “systems” through various locker-based media interchanges would be with you throughout your school and subsequent life. Offering reviewable lesson plans contextualized by school year, intertwined with all sorts of relevant digital tidbits.

At 29, After losing my beach cottage to the Northridge earthquake, I retired to my Marina del Rey sailboat to live-aboard. 6 years later I led the life of Reilly, or so people said. But, while my friends were out partying and staying out until all hours of the night, I was studying for the California A.R.E. Architects Registration Exam. When I failed the structural engineering portion the first time I was perplexed that I didn’t realize what I didn’t know. That led me on a search for old lessons from college statics and strength of materials classes. Think Calculus on 4 years of steroids. I loved the incredibly long equations which to me were simple to solve. Everything resolves to 1 or 0.

It took 4-5 weeks just to locate the old textbooks I used in those classes. After running several problems, I narrowed down my own personal deficiency to basic trigonometry. I had forgotten the basics. During the XQ project there was an Ah – hah moment that I realized that to effect a real change on the infrastructure of learning, there had to be an introduction of a system – wide Google of learning if you will. We’ll call it Schuygle as a shout out to my New Jersey roots. This unlimited database would allow students to store all lesson plans in a pre-organized yearly transmogrification of events, lessons, textbooks, photos, videos, everything.

This so-called Living Tree would then allow more frequent access to learned data, and act as a permanent reference tool. It could be shared or blocked. It could be used to foster community and social justice equivalency. Think of it as an all encompassing data backup of your entire digital life. In fact, use your social security number. Implant it on your wrist. Introduce yourself by waving your wrist! Ok, well now the idea is starting to sound a bit like the beginning of a Stephen King novel. Some ideas may be hundreds of years before their time. Join me in rethinking high school as a wholistic approach, one that joins empathy with a deeper understanding. A school-wide system of tools at your fingertips, and one that joins those tools to your digital life with wacom-styled desks or tablets inside all working surfaces. One that doesn’t use paper. And, most importantly, one that uses the infrastructure to help aid the personal good.

After all, this is what’s lacking in the current context of public education. The valuable link to the past, and the ability to recall it in the future. As a matter of fact, why not use this idea outside the public sector as well? Well now, there’s a thought.



The cover of the first publication, which started it all. This was before the use of digital Linotype press and Aldus Pagemaker become usable for pre-press by about three months. Courtesy Robert Sawyer Architects & Construction Archives.



Originally published in the Spring 1986 Edaburi Journal of Modern Architecture, Raleigh, NC Note: the last paragraph was updated by the Editor.


Very often, Architects, Designers, and Engineers express a desire to do something “modern” in their work. We enjoy the looks of the “contemporary” style. We have a preconceived set of ideas on “modern” and “contemporary” that are formed through a process called standardization. Too often though, the very usefulness of that process is interrupted when standardization prohibits the natural selection process.The natural selection process being that by which the selection of materials is based. For example, imagine you’re building a set of exterior lamps and plan to integrate them into the context of your design. For convenience, let’s say they require two heavy, solderable metal plates about 6″x6″x1/8″. Machine and metal working shops would treat the job as a special order (because it is not a standard, in stock item) and either charge a ridiculous fee for the difference in price of your item and the whole sheet from which the pattern is cut. This type of circumscription is obviously a very expensive way to do business.

One of the latest buildings to suffer from poor selection of materials is a new building in Harrisburg, Pa. This new building is completely brick veneer. The brick is a red clay color and is totally incompatible with another building on an adjacent site. The reason is not because the architects had no master plan, actually the same architect designed both buildings. The reason is that the material that the architect had originally chosen was completely out of question; it was too expensive. Thus, the architect was forced to give in to the incompatibility of the two buildings.

In the future, there will be a new comprehensive account of the nature of building resources at our disposal. There has to be some kind of general redevelopment of the internal order that precedes the selection of new materials. People so often look approvingly towards packaged house plans and “designer” accessories. Likewise, building materials are contrary to the derivation of the integrity of the whole. Creative (practical) usage of brick, concrete, wood, glass, and steel (among others) are too often substituted out of convenience at the expense of time and effort for an easy solution like running brick all the way up fifteen stories of a building.

Let me argue the case of wood. In this instance, the material is often the medium of numerous so called “architectural” delineations: delineations of a form suited to a unique working order. It is important to realize that to strive for (and to be successful at) an architectural entity is not to delineate from a pertinent solution, the quickest means to an end. The other side being that to do so revives a particular smugness or an inherent recognition of contrived form. What is contrived form? Is it recognizable to all that see it? No, of course not, if it were more easily recognizable to the untrained, virgin eye than it is, the general populous would exercise far more restraint when commissioning so many vague, poor copies of traditional designs. The consequences of which provide their own reasoning. So in making an honest attempt at arriving at your own true-to-life architectural aspiration, you will find this: Beyond which is truth lies the path to true integrity in your design, which inevitably will be beautiful.

Have you ever asked yourself; what is beauty? Have you ever sat with sketching material in hand, hesitant to draw for lack of a feeling for a program or event? If you say “never” then I would be shy of entrusting you with my desires as a client. The see reason being that internally you probably have standardized yourself to refuse any new patterns to evolve from within themselves. You can no longer rely on the freedom of the plan because there is no “practical” or “cheap” execution. What then, is beautiful? Is it really beautiful because it is composed out of natural materials? No, and in the same fashion, neither is the building that is derived solely on usage without respect for the sheer nature of materials. Beauty is, in my opinion, simply the absence of contrived form.

With enough said, for the moment about the nature of materials, I introduce the next topic of discussion with this question; what role does plasticity play in the nature of materials? To answer that, we need to study the absolute integrity of a particular building itself, and to be wholly successful in our study, we should take into consideration that we are able to only scratch the surface, not dig-into specific on-site actualities as they relate to a buildings problem-solving relationships with it’s site. So, generally speaking, we can make this statement: plasticity is related to the nature of materials as it is the outer limitation or “envelope” of the material. Expanding on that idea we see that some materials are more plastic than others. For example, the envelope of wood differs for all diffrerent grades and sizes, depending on its moisture content etc. Steel and aluminum have their own coefficients on which to deal with plasticity. Newer more modern materials such as neolith and caesarstone also present their own counter-intuitive plasticity limitations.

Determining the envelope of new materials will play a vital part in the development of the new ideal, lighter, but yet more unified (homogenous) structures. These structures will need to be lighter and stronger, tighter and yet more breathable. BIM and LEED as well as Green code provisions have done a lot to bring plasticity of materials to the forefront of the design conversation. But, there are more insights to be gained from personal relationships with materials. Hopefully those insights will yield results which truly last, are renewable, and help to expand the dialog between nature and the selection of materials. I believe this conversation will result in deeper connections to our real world through architecture that is meaningful and concentric. Organic, naturally and timeless.

Get A Load of This


Recently, I had the opportunity to bid a job in the Los Angeles area. It was a fairly big job and it was drawn by a local architect, who was not the architect, and the architect who was the architect moved out of town. I was referred by another architect who saw my work and thought it would be a good idea to add a fourth architect to the mix.

After reviewing the plans as is usual and customary, I found my way to the job-site. Where, upon arrival I found a 1 year-old wreckage of a project. This did not look good. Generally, when this happens I take a look at the plans. The structural layout is a little perplexing. There are 7 different types of floor joists on no less than 10 moment frames. Some of the moment frames are interconnected at their mid-points to act like balance beams. Someone had the good idea to install these frames per plan but missed the part about priming the raw steel before it arrived on the site. Since the site is less than 10-15 blocks from the ocean you can imagine what the rusted hulk looks like. I’m afraid to ask for steel certs. Deputy? Maybe tomorrow!

To make matters worse somebody, anybody but the architect please, allowed the constructor to pad the steel webs with OSB. I called the architect who does live here and asked to have a job-walk inspection. The architect’s response was, “we don’t do job-walk inspections because our liability insurance carrier does not allow us to participate in construction activities.” This was going to be a long and arduous process. I’ve heard of hiding behind the badge of professionalism but not the exculpatory clause of General Liability. Who wins?

This is the classic coupe de grave´, where everyone stands around firing blanks at each other to prevent Liability. “I’m a professional, you’re a professional, so who gets anything done? Not me, I did my job, and I’m getting out while I still can.” Granted, I’m new to this game. But, I can still see the architect in shining armor coming to my clients’ fiduciary rescue. It is inevitable to find providers pointing fingers at un-professionals and the owner – who generally knows little or nothing – ends up with the bill. My impetus if there was one for starting my own firm was to be of more service and wade through these types of client-over-the-falls colossal shortcomings.

The young practitioner must provide a wide range of services to be of service where service is required. An old builder friend of mine, whom I ADMIRE GREATLY once yelled at me from across a Kitchen that I had to develop a relationship with my materials. He was talking about metal corner bead which I had apparently not installed perfectly enough. How can you be an architect and not have a relationship with the materials you’re specifying and working with? It is an essential dialogue. You have to be able to touch and feel the materials. You have to be one with the elements these materials are made with. You have to have an internal dialogue with yourself and admit you know nothing about materials and construction. Any General Contractor worth their salt would be more than willing to discuss these topics and may even show you something. But, definitely first print out a copy of your General Liability Insurance Certificate.


The Nature of Architecture



Frank Lloyd Wright used to say that his religion was nature or Nature with a capitol N. He observed it causally for its diorama of physical properties and kinetic wisdom. In Nature he found a road map of connections, relationships and “organic” principles. From it, I believe, he derived a great vision for architecture which was limitless. And, in this limitlessness he found that the great question about architecture isn’t what it is, but rather what it isn’t.

What you put in isn’t the right question, and what you leave out is more often the right answer.

Today, we see great works with refreshing details proliferating everywhere. Thanks to the Trump economy there appears to be a lot of work for architects and the commissions are seemingly endless. Cool details are picked up almost immediately and proliferated through the intra-sphere without regard to localization or vernacular. This means one cool building in San Francisco can be replicated, or parts of it, in any location around the world. This is neat from an aesthetic view but really idiotic when it comes to organic architecture. It’s like those ridiculous homes across the street from Taliesin West. Uncool as can be, literally and for good reason.

How often do architects observe the site prior to schematic design? What’s your takeaway from the program? How do you assimilate between the real and the unreal? How far do you go with the implementation? How much will the interpretation cost your client? Do you discuss innovation or do you follow it at all? These are just some questions that come to my mind about architecture.

Today with all of the opportunity that exists it’s too easy to forget about innovation, real innovation and proceed with the diatribe. Digital technology has brought modeling to our fingertips, but is this really a good thing? Only if that ability is handled with the respect that power deserves. Respect of conditions like wind, sun, air and water. All of these elements exist in kind everywhere in the world. However each of these are different for every site in every latitude and longitude. Much like the USGS publishes seismic response coefficients for each site, so there should be a study, officially or unofficial study of the site prior to design.

Camping out on the site? Great idea. Indigenous plant study? Yes. Solar and wind angles? Of course. What’s better than truly knowing your site? What’s better than creating a work of architecture on your own over copying some other details from some other project with zero relevance? The infusion of possibilities delivered to your screen via digital technology shouldn’t interrupt the practice of observation. It is the nature of architecture to observe and to have a relevance to the site. Creating that relevance is architecture. An architecture whose god may be Nature, or just nature. But, it’s organic and it’s of the site and not on it.

There are key inferences one could draw upon to make the paradigm shift to creative intellect versus cut and paste sobriety. It’s all still possible and just like the old days – all you have to do is look up.

It also seems clear that when the vernacular sense of architecture is derived – from whatever inspiration – there exists a predisposition of builders, owners and property managers to subscribe to that function and bring that vision to a collective whole. That collective soul of a project lends itself well to a better sense of place, time and execution. Identity is alive and well in architecture and shouldn’t be forgotten when planning each new project. It is possible to continue to push the bounds of architecture. When you find it let me know. I’ll be glad to feature it here in ABMonline.



Robert Sawyer is the Editor-in-Chief of Architectural Business Magazine.  He is the principal partner at Robert Sawyer Architects & Construction. The Sawyer Report is copyrighted and may not be quoted or used without written permission from ARCHITECTURAL BUSINESS MAGAZINE. © 2020 ABM