Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design

3/29/2012

People who make their world

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

The New York Times Style website had a wonderful piece up today courtesy of Leslie Williamson, photographer and author of "Handcrafted Modern." Leslie tells the story of Charles Bello, Richard Neutra's former intern who also worked for architect Henry Hill and the landscape architect Robert Royston.

Charles Bello in his Parabolic House. Photo by: Leslie Williamson for NYTimes.
Bello was an accomplished architect with sophisticated ideas of form and space (all of which I am basing on Leslie's photographs), but instead of chasing after the glories of commissions, he bought 400 acres of redwood in Northern California and proceeded to build the world he wanted to see.

He founded the Redwood Forest Institute. In the organization's website, he recounts this monumental decision to buy 400 acres:
When we first came onto our land 42 years ago, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the land - the sand colored open meadows with spotted clumps of towering redwood trees reaching for the clear blue skies like huge perfect Christmas trees.  It was so serene and beautiful.  Then we saw the crystal clear waters of the North Fork of the Noyo River running through a primeval canyon right in the middle of the property which is a contained little 400 acre valley, at the end of the road, surrounded by steep forested mountains on all sides.  Unintentionally we found ourselves right in the middle of a major timber producing area. 
We were looking to purchase  20 acres at the time and here we were looking at 400.  The entire area was for sale but in large parcels.  We said to ourselves, "This is never going to happen - how can we or anyone own such timeless beauty"?  At this moment we pledged  ourselves that if we could, by some miracle,  become owners, that we would be good stewards.
Bello supported his wife and family by going in to the Christmas tree business. "We learned that  Christmas trees require intensive labor but practically no capitol so we became Christmas tree growers." It worked. "With a mom and pop Christmas tree operation we were able to pay off our debts, raise and home school our two boys, develop gardens, orchards and upgrade our living situation." Bello was also able to work, simply for the joy of it. He produced lyrical structures that swoop and curve in delightful ways without ever disturbing its surrounding beauty. (See more photos over the NYTimes.)

Bello's Parabolic House with a subterranean greenhouse for growing vegetables and solar power system. Photo by Leslie Williamson for NY Times Style.
His was a courageous decision, but also the right one. Based on my own experience, many of us wander through life wondering where our next step should be. Instead of asking ourselves what we truly want, we often look to our neighbors for wisdom. We wonder what everyone else is doing and, without noticing it, slip into a narrow definition of success.

Reading Bello's story, I wonder if he had ever wondered what it would be like if he had built his own practice in public? I also wonder, is there any way to visit this place? It sounds like a slice of paradise.

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