Marc Yeber has some reservations about the airy boathouse he’s designed for a class project. Are the generous skylight and west-facing glass wall too exposed, the second-year architecture student wonders. He’s about to see the light. In a cramped workshop in the basement of Watt Hall, Yeber places a delicate scale model of his boathouse in a heliodon — a wooden machine that simulates the sun’s rays at any hour of the day during any season of the year. With the flick of a switch, bright light pours through the boathouse’s Plexiglas skylight and west wall, vividly illustrating how uncomfortably hot the space would be on a summer afternoon.
Welcome to the Natural Forces Laboratory of Distinguished Professor of Architecture Pierre Koenig, where students learn to leave no stone unturned in the sometimes ancient, sometimes futuristic art of building in tune with nature. Armed with handmade machinery, complicated formulas and highly detailed climatic data, they discover how to make the best use of Southern California’s benign weather while fortifying against the region’s worst foe: earthquakes.
In their quest for sustainable architecture, the students will test their designs not only in a heliodon but also in a 30-foot-long wind tunnel — the only one on the West Coast available to architecture students. They also have use of a shake table, an instrument that assesses a structure’s ability to withstand earthquakes.
As a bonus, Koenig’s students gain a unique perspective on their legendary teacher, arguably the most famous living member of a group of Southern California Modern architects who transformed residential design in the years following World War II.
In more than 1,000 magazine articles, Pierre Koenig has been celebrated for his high-tech, steel-and-glass residential designs. Time magazine recently described his work as “sleekly glamorous.” Last fall, the 73-year-old architect was elevated to “distinguished professor” after 35 years on USC’s faculty.
“Pierre Koenig,” writes associate professor of architecture James Steele in a new book chronicling the minimalist icon’s career, “is one of the major figures of the Modern movement in America.”
But the Koenig who emerges during his Natural Forces class isn’t so much a living legend as a man on a mission to eradicate utility hogs. Students may worship his structures, but Koenig has little interest in enshrining his aesthetic legacy. He has an altogether higher goal: he wants to pass down his awe for the highly adjustable passive-ventilation systems found in the teepees of Plains Indians.
“That is prefabrication and conforming to the environment at a small cost!” Koenig told his class last fall. “We haven’t yet been able to achieve this in modern technology.”
To a generation that takes air conditioning and central heating for granted, Koenig’s claim that Southern Californian buildings don’t need climate control seems startling. But skepticism melts as Koenig demonstrates how radiant heat — the strength of the sun as it pours through windows — is actually stronger during Southland winters than at any other time of year. He draws diagrams illustrating how, in the cold months, the sun streams all day long through south-facing windows. He points out that natural breezes blow at all hours in Los Angeles and explains why they blow even harder when temperatures soar. These natural phenomena open the door to unique chances for passive solar heating and natural cooling, he says.
The architect who last year nabbed the Maybeck Award for lifetime achieve-ment from the American Institute of Architects’ California chapter has always had “an ecological ethic about his work,” says Victor Regnier, a USC architecture professor who includes Koenig’s designs in his “Great Houses of L.A.” course. “These ideas are probably better to implement in a benign climate like Southern California, but surprisingly few architects have taken it as seriously as Pierre,” he says. “One reason other people haven’t utilized these techniques is that it takes careful study and discipline.”
Koenig drills that discipline into his students. The graduates and undergraduates who take Natural Forces spend weeks poring over slides that illustrate how a range of natural forces behave in experimental conditions. While studying time-lapse photography of sand dunes in wind tunnels, they feverishly jot notes. They listen intently as Koenig warns them against generalizing from climatic conditions for an entire region: “First, you’ll have to find out what your microclimate is like,” he cautions.
At his bidding, the students explore minutely detailed weather data collected by various branches of the government, including the CIA. Squinting over sliding tables that went out of production in 1964, they learn to use a job site’s latitude and azimuth (the horizontal angle from true north) to calculate how much heat the sun will give off in different seasons.
Behind Koenig’s back, the students grumble that on a “real” commission they would use an engineer or a computer program rather than wrestle with such technicalities. But by the end of the semester, they all mouth his mantra: Don’t put too much confidence in mechanical systems. They fail. Far better to build in concert with nature in the first place.
“These are the architects of tomorrow,” Koenig says. “There’s every reason to expect that natural resources will be even more constrained in the future than they are now. I want to show what’s possible if you really try to take advantage of passive heating and cooling and the stability of the steel frame. I figure I have a unique opportunity with Southern California’s climate to show how far you can go.”
That Koenig would be so dogged about living with nature might strike his admirers as a little strange. After all, the Modernist is probably best known for defying nature.
A USC graduate himself (BARCH ’52), Koenig first gained widespread attention in 1959 and 1960 with his minimalist contributions to the Case Study House Program — a project that assembled pioneering architects to apply in-dustrial materials to residential design.
He anchored Case Study House #22 on a Hollywood Hills lot that was then considered unbuildable. The house — now said to be the most frequently published Modernist home ever — still dazzles visitors, seeming to dangle from the crest of a hill above a 270-degree view of Los Angeles.
Most people don’t realize, Regnier says, that Buck and Carlotta Stahl — the couple who commissioned the house nearly 40 years ago — still live there today. Both beautiful and functional, the house has remained unscathed by earthquakes; it is cooled by prevailing breezes and heated mostly by sun streaming through copious windows.
“I remember [the Stahls] saying there are winters when they never turn on the heat at all,” says Regnier, who each year visits the house with his class.
Another feat of passive climate control is Koenig’s Case Study House #21. The home perches over a pond that, combined with a fountain, creates cooling breezes. Koenig recently restored the 1959 steel-frame masterpiece to its original spare elegance for a new owner.
“Even though a series of owners had made numerous changes over the years, no one felt the need to install an air conditioner,” Koenig notes.
Yet the renowned architect admits he didn’t really understand how to build with nature at the time he designed Case Study Houses #21 and #22.
“I was working on instinct,” he says.
Koenig credits professor emeritus Ralph Knowles with opening his eyes to the intricacies of sustainable architecture. The environmentally enlightened architect now considers his 1985 Koenig House #2 a model for successfully harnessing natural forces.
Koenig had lived in an existing house on the Brentwood site for 25 years when he decided to replace it with one of his own design. Before tearing down his old home, though, Koenig carefully studied the movement of light and air on the site and incorporated these observations into his plan. The results are superb.
“Sun penetration is minimal in the summer and maximum in the winter,” writes Steele in Pierre Koenig (Phaidon, 1998). “Cool wind ventilation is introduced through a special ‘wind’ door on the ground floor with exhaust exits located throughout, especially at [a] third-level atrium.”
When the Northridge quake struck in 1994, not a single picture fell from the West Los Angeles home’s steel-reinforced walls.
“This is what we need in the world — people paying attention to natural forces,” Koenig tells his students. “Many times it’s a disaster if you don’t.”
Jaws drop as Koenig recounts the harrowing tales of projects whose architects violated this sage advice: The roofs that flew off a Northern California oceanfront development because its architect failed to take into account strong coastal breezes. The mold that infested every nook and cranny of a city hall in Florida because the Massachusetts-based architects failed to consider the area’s high humidity. The reflecting pools in the tropics that don’t lower the temperatures of the buildings they grace but rather contribute to the misery index by boosting humidity.
“He’s one of the few professors who talks to you about architecture like it really is,” says Reza Fazel, a student in Koenig’s class. “It’s not conceptual, it’s real.”