Graduate School – GWU November 2012
Emphasizing sustainable design strategies
Anthony Stoppiello is an architect. He is also my dad. Not everyone believes that architecture is an art form but I do. It is perhaps because of my close proximity to the process of architectural design that leads me to believe it fits, or more specifically that Anthony Stoppiello designs, fit comfortably into the category of art. Deciding what makes something art is a long-standing question without a satisfying universal answer. One of my friends once said, “Art is when something is made better than it needs to be”. I can accept that answer as one way of defining art. Anthony Stoppiello’s buildings are made better than they need to be. He designs each building to fit the needs of the client but, guiding all of his designs are a set of core principles, an aesthetic, and preferred materials, all of which are part of an artist’s pallet.
Architecture is a visual art because we look at it. There are a variety of facades and interiors, some of which appeal and others that don’t. It takes a personal aesthetic to decide which is right for you. Architecture also has a performative element. People move around inside of this art. The design of the space choreographs the motion of its inhabitants. Architecture, unlike some other art mediums, must always function. The definition of “function” as it relates to organized space is as subjective as that of the definition of art in general.
Anthony Stoppiello’s overarching influence comes from the modernists. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ability to blow open interior spaces and reexamine the whole concept of a house; Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s simplicity of articulating space and their elimination of adornment were core aspects of the modernist movement that appealed to Stoppiello. The modernist architects were responsible for elevating function in relationship to form. An aesthetic was born that has evolved and developed but that still operates from its core principle: form follows function.
Anthony’s expertise is to examine function from the perspective of energy efficiency. Finding ways to harness energies that are already around us so that we can loosen our reliance on oil and other non-renewable energy sources have been a conversation in this country for many decades. Anthony has been a voice in that conversation since the early 1970s. His primary influence is another great artist, Buckminster Fuller. Reading Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in the late 1960s fundamentally shifted his perspective on everything. Ideas such as “there is no such thing as away”, “synergy” and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” were consciousness-raising ideas that impacted his lifestyle and subsequently his design work. These ideas directly governed his decision to make sustainability the essential function of his architecture. His form was soon to follow.
Anthony is from New Jersey, or “Joisey” as we say. He is a blue-collar kid from a blue-collar family. His cousin Eddy ran a construction site and it was here, in his early twenties, just out of high school and dating my mom, that Anthony first glimpsed a person called an architect. This man suggested to the curious Anthony that he go to night school to study architectural drafting. Off he went to night classes at Pratt Institute, College of Architecture. He was a night student there from 1964 – 1970. I was born in the middle of that time and the long nighttime drive from Orange, New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York had become exhausting to this young father. When he told a professor at Pratt that he would need to drop out, the professor told him about land-grant schools that were offering inexpensive tuition. A cousin in the family was a high school guidance counselor and guided him through the application process for a dozen schools.
It was literally a twist of fate that landed Anthony in a hotbed of innovation in sustainable architecture. Our little family of three was about to boldly leave New Jersey for a university in Lubbock, Texas when the call came saying that the student family housing, a feature that made the move financially possible, had been wiped out by a tornado. In an instant, my parents rerouted to another university that had the appropriate housing requirements: Arizona State University. This move was a real-life example of form following function. That tornado destroying our potential housing (function) was one of those fateful moments that put a career into motion (form). Unbeknownst to dad, he was about to join a youthful radical coalition that would bring new ideas about energy conservation off the university campus and into American cities.
ASU professor of mechanical and electrical engineering for architects, John Yellott was the first person to mention the term solar energy to Anthony. Soon after, design professor Jeff Cook was looking for volunteers to install a thermal mass floor in his passive solar house. Anthony signed up and that was that. It was 1971 and he had found the principles that would direct his craft for the next 40 years. The core values that would guide all of his work are a synthesis of modernism and sustainable energy. In our phone interview he said, “[for me] architecture is a manifestation of consciousness”. He meant his own consciousness and that of his client, “It’s not my building,” he says. However, if a client doesn’t want a modernist, energy-efficient house, he won’t take the job. It would be like asking Jackson Pollack to paint a crying clown on black velvet. Principally and aesthetically, not a good fit.
A brief definition of a passive solar building from Anthony’s website says, “As opposed to solar electric systems that require sunshine to be effective, “solar thermal,” meaning space heating or water heating, doesn’t require bright sunlight…just light, which is transformed into heat when it passes through glass.” It’s the “glass-passing” that makes it the essential part of a passive system in building design. The other part is insulation. His website states, “It is the principles underlying passive solar home design that turn a building into a heat source: the correct amount of glass to heat volume and a commensurate amount of thermal mass storage to hold that heat in the building. (http://www.stoppielloarchitecture.com/)
A site visit and analysis are critical first steps to determine how many hours and at what intensity the sun will reach the building location. Anthony Stoppiello watches the sun like a hawk, or rather like a person who has dedicated a lifetime to harnessing that built-in energy source that we have here on earth; an energy source that we don’t have to worry about losing. We all know that if the sun goes out there will be no need for us to find another source because our life here will no longer be sustainable.
Because the principles of passive solar guide his design, certain aspects must be considered from a functional perspective. However, the homeowner’s aesthetic preferences, the form, can be whatever they choose. His design process is holistic and collaborative. It begins with the evaluation of the site and a close examination of how the sun moves across it. He then considers the way the owners want to be inside of it. Window placement is always a leading aspect of the design as they are the portals of the sun’s energy. The insulating factors come next as this is what keeps that energy tightly contained. Anthony calls it an “environmentally sensitive” design process. Anthony’s signature is ‘day-lighting’, a major part of passive solar design. His style comes out of his core principles. He say’s, “I paint with light in three dimensions with the objective to never turn on a light in the daylight hours”.
When I was a kid he worked for the Wolf (no longer part of the firm), Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership – 1974-1978. I mostly remember this from the t-shirt I later inherited that had WZGF written in big bold letters across the front. After WZGF Anthony worked for Will Martin. The firm was Martin, Sodderstrom, and Matteson who eventually designed Portland’s beloved Pioneer Courthouse Square (http://www.thesquarepdx.org/). Anthony was the Portland coordinator for the first Sun Day, like Earth day but about the sun, which was a national event on May 3, 1978 (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=30559).
But he wasn’t long for working for a firm. He and two women friends, writers working at Willamette Week (the local rag), started Portland Sun, a non-profit that educated the public on the use of solar energy, wrote a passive solar manual, maintained a library, and gave talks and hands-on construction workshops on solar energy. They also educated other non-profits around the state on the benefits of energy-efficient building. This was also around the time that the construction began on our own home. A time when I bragged at school about having silver wallpaper. It was actually exposed insulation, but I still thought it was cool. When you live with an architect it can take a long while for your home to be complete. Like any good artist, their work is always “in-progress”.
Anthony started working in the area of “sustainable” energy way before it became the popular “green” movement that it is today. He was a pioneer in his field. He and I have often talked about being ahead of the curve on an idea, for him it was “green building”, for me it was what we will call “media-performance”.
We share a melancholic feeling for the excitement of the pioneers’ search, the fight for validation, the not knowing, and the seeking for the ways and means. We mourn with disappointment the moment when the rest of the mainstream actually catches up. Because they were not there for each step toward discovery, they miss much of the core reasoning behind why “it” was investigated in the first place. They miss some of the subtleties, aesthetics, and passion because all of the hard work has already been done for them. But this is the inevitable journey of a pioneer. An idea must leave its “geek ghetto” and join a mainstream consciousness in order to truly take off. But the transition sometimes leaves the pioneers cold. It might simply be that by the time the mainstream has caught up, the pioneers have already been working with their sleeves rolled up for 20+ years, they’ve understood and experienced certain pros and cons and have moved on to the next frontier. My dad and I now jokingly ask, when we hear the term “green”, “how green” we ask. True green is much more green than what the mainstream is willing to accept. Pioneers know that a buzzword is not as deep as it goes.
As is often part of pioneering, Anthony Stoppiello is an educator. Dad has been giving workshops on how to build solar water heaters, lecturing on sustainable building, and presenting papers on approaches to “alternative” energy at conferences regularly since the late 1970s. He’s also been a leader at The Oregon Country Fair’s Energy Park for thirty years. He and my stepmother Victoria are honored “elders” of this community (http://www.energypark.org). This is a link to Anthony’s description of Energy Park. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-8BOIKXCaQ
An endless innovator, Dad is currently trying not to use interior bearing walls. This saves materials but is also adaptive. If all bearing loads are on the outside you can modify the interior space to fit your needs over time. Imagine a family of five reduced to a family of two. You can reshape bedrooms into alternative living spaces or rental spaces. This is a sustainable act. He is trying to project adaptability, he says, “[Frank Lloyd] Wright was like that.”
You know how they say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?” It’s true in my case for sure. I believe that my interest in the ”living architecture of the body” came directly from my dad. I believe that my architectural approach to organizing movement came from him. These are procedural details that I can’t go into here. But genetically speaking, dad and I stand in the exact same posture when examining something of extreme interest. Arms akimbo, body slightly dropped into one hip, the other leg slightly out front and slightly turned out. We call it the “waving your arms around” stance, as it is how he stands when he is surveying a potential site or a great building. And it’s how I stand in rehearsal sometimes.
If I could go back and start a new career, not give up the one I have but have an alternate-reality career, it would be as an architect. I’m jealous because unlike creating dance-theater performances, they DO provide something that the world actually needs. They CAN make a living at their art. And an architect’s work can be seen by ANYONE who walks or drives or bikes or flies by.
To close, and accentuate my point about architecture being an art form, I will share a little story dad told me in our phone interview. When he left New Jersey to study architecture in 1970 his buddies all thought architecture was “bullshit”. They, unfortunately, all lost their pensions from ATT and other corporations in the late 1980s. But at dad’s 30th high school reunion a woman friend asked him what he was doing now. He said, “I am an architect”, the woman’s friend said, “that’s not surprising because you were always the best in art class.” Dad told me that at that moment he didn’t even remember taking art class let alone excelling in it. Slowly over time, he began to remember paintings and sculptures he had made back then. He had never considered himself an artist until that moment. Repressed because the cool guys thought art was “bullshit”. Maybe he’s an artisan? He says he doesn’t preconceive. He lets his mind creatively wander. At the end of our phone interview, he said that he makes, “sculptures that people live in”. What a great thing to do.
Anthony, my dad, told me that many architects, including him, are also painters, photographers, or have other artistic outlets so to eliminate their constraints. When designing a building for a client he is constrained by budget, site, and of course, function. The pencil is an architect’s tool, so in his painting practice, he only uses a pen and paint. A pencil means work.