The Fires Next Time
Architect Barton Myers Wants Better Building in the Hot Zones
Barton Myers lives in a glass house and is quite prepared to throw stones. The internationally famed architect, who calls Toro Canyon home, is aiming brickbats at people who would hastily rebuild in our foothill fire-prone zone, where two recent blazes destroyed nearly 300 dwellings. Many of these homeowners are further enmeshed in bitter struggles with insurers and state and city agencies, as well, adding misery to tragedy. Myers is not a mean man and doesn’t want to heap on more woe, but he knows that it isn’t intelligent or safe to repeat the same mistakes in a place where we know bad things keep happening to good people.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s horrible that so many lost their houses in the Tea Fire,” he told me over dinner near his Westwood office in the spring of 2009, a few months after that blaze destroyed 210 homes and just before the Jesusita Fire took down 80 more. “All of this first occurred to me after the last big fire in San Diego, and everybody said they wanted to rebuild exactly what they had before. And who can blame them; I completely understand.” If he was in charge, though, Myers would never let fire victims go back to square one.
Following the Tea Fire, Myers — then in the midst of designing an entertainment mega-complex in Orlando, Florida — took time to make his vehement opinions clear. He was slated to speak at a UCSB conference, but that was ironically canceled due to the Jesusita Fire, so Myers has since been telling everyone who listens why he’s baffled that the state has not convened a blue ribbon panel on proper standards for building in wildfire-prone areas. Perhaps it would be expensive, he realizes, but it would certainly save a bundle in the long run.
“The fire code is good,” he admitted. “But what we have to do is encourage people when they rebuild to be smart. What you hear constantly is, ‘I just want to rebuild what I had.’ The pressure is on the politicians to just let them do it. So it takes real will. You have to build better now. You can’t just go back. The important thing about putting together some kind of panel is to find out what we know already. We almost always know more than we think we do. But if we could gather together all of our fire studies, who knows? How much data do we really have?”
Myers is aware of the impact that his opinion might have on the everyday homeowner. “I know people will hate me for this, but it has to be said,” he argued. “We can’t perpetuate this cycle.”
Living with Fire
Though respected worldwide for his urban design and performing arts center architecture, Myers is best known here for his own glass-and-steel home in the foothills overlooking the Carpinteria coast. In creating it, he paid astute attention to his surroundings and built with materials that don’t readily ignite — though his home is by no means invulnerable to a conflagration. In fact, one of the first homes consumed in the Jesusita Fire was also glass-and-steel, and it’s not like Myers believes in invincibility via construction materials or even that his rooftop pools will assure salvation.
Built in 1998 to reflect the “elegant warehouse” style pioneered by the American designers Charles and Ray Eames, the Myers compound is made up of four pavilions, which can be steel-shuttered swiftly and are laid out over three descending terraces. The recirculating pools atop the structures aren’t just reservoirs for firefighting; they are aesthetically pleasing to both eye and ear, provide insulation, and offer a place to swim laps. (To answer the most frequent question, Myers has no idea how much water evaporates. But it comes from his well, so the loss is financially negligible, and the pools are still better than sod, which can catch fire if not kept soggy wet.) They built it up Toro Canyon Road, an area perhaps scarier than Mission Canyon since only one road goes in and out. If a fire started below, Myers and spouse Victoria would likely be trapped, but they should be safe so long as they continue practicing what Barton preaches.
About a year ago, I escaped from the overheated frenzy of the Summer Solstice Parade and drove up the canyon, where a breeze whispered through the sycamores and eucalyptuses lining Toro Canyon Creek down toward the ocean below. Amid the serene grace of Myers’s Modernist outpost and its surrounding Mediterranean landscape with fruit trees and oaks, I forgot all about the parade. I’d been there once before when the house’s front wall was rolled down, but that day, the main house — which sits between a guest house, where S.B. “reindeer” artist Brad Nack once lived, and an archive — was wide open to the elements. Nobody was visible, and there was nothing to knock on besides girders.
After a few quavering yoo-hoos, Victoria emerged, followed by Barton, who explained that the place is left open most of the warmer months, except at night because he doesn’t want any “wildlife visitors.” His initial intent was to let nature and shelter inter-penetrate, but Myers is only open to a degree. “This is paradise,” he said. “But up here, we’ve got fires, earthquakes; we’ve got rattlesnakes; we’ve got scorpions; we’ve got black widow spiders, tarantulas; we’ve got mountain lions, bobcats, and foxes.” The drafty design does require heating in the winter months, but the summers are almost always cool. “We maybe have five days of real heat,” he explained. “We never have the air-conditioning on.”
An urbane 75-year-old who resembles the late New England novelist John Updike, Myers spends his days in his busy Westwood Boulevard office, which employs about 25 people, and he also teaches at UCLA, conveniently located a half-mile away. After decades of earning respect for his urban design, Myers is now being acclaimed for creating acoustically splendid concert halls and theaters, including performing arts centers in Portland, Oregon; New Jersey; and Cerritos, California. In 2008, he won the United States Institute for Theatre Technology Merit Award for his center in Tempe, Arizona; and in 2009, the institute gave him an award for overall excellence. His intricately developed buildings respect the seven kinds of architecture that performance centers demand, a code that stretches from the patron’s arrival to the world behind the scenes. (He was no fan of the Granada’s rebuild, wishing instead that the city built an entirely new performing arts hall.)
Myers was also instrumental in planning for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, securing the initial $50 million but being edged out at the last minute by the Disney family, who wanted Frank Gehry to design the site. “It’s a pretty rough world, architecture,” explained Myers. “You expect it from music-business people. They’ll stab you in the back. But the architects, well, they’ll come right out in front,” he said, comically swinging an invisible dagger. Architects work great together when needed, he explained, “but next day, the same six guys who collaborated are competing for the same job. I never know why I get chosen or why I don’t.”
Although people assume he’s Canadian due to his early works in Toronto, Myers’s pedigree is very American, with Southern gentility rooted in Norfolk, Virginia, a town of plazas and fine architecture where his ancestor Moses Myers was the first permanent Jewish resident and his grandfather Barton was once mayor. His formal education includes the U.S. Naval Academy, a stint in England as a fighter pilot, and a return to school, first at Cambridge and then at the University of Pennsylvania, for advanced architectural degrees. He worked with Louis Kahn, known for heavy, monumental structures, but Myers’s architectural sympathies are clear, for he often begins declarations with the phrase, “Being a good Modernist …” That’s reflected in his Toro Canyon home, which is very much a SoCal creekside-style recast in the international language of spare modernity. It encloses space within 20th-century forms and has minimalistic subtleties, but welcomes nature generously.
After espresso, we visited the den, which is hung with few paintings — there are no real walls — but surrounded in books, including the recently published American Masterworks: Houses of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Written by Kenneth Frampton, one of the East Coast’s reigning architectural gurus, the beautiful book features Myers’s home. “It seems like out here on the West Coast, we still need their approval, even though everything interesting’s happening on this coast,” laughed Myers. “But he picked my house as one of 50 American masterworks. I feel like I’ve finally been accepted in the academy.”
Safety on His Side
False modesty aside, Myers’s home has a paradoxical charm; it’s both dramatic and calming. The meditative, Zen-like austerities were achieved with the hardest Western utilities: factory-made steel and glass, elements that connote the assembly line. Yet the whole house seems as individualistic as any great public space intended to arrest our eyes. But underlying everything is the sense of safety in the precarious natural setting.
That safety is hard won, but Myers has a formula. Building materials matter, but the environment comes first. “The number-one problem is to reduce the heat,” he explained as we walked around his home. “Fire can get to be 3000 degrees, and even metal will melt at 1400.” So he clears away the underbrush and has planted the surrounding landscape in blood oranges, grapes, and olives, which the deer love, too. The cultivation breaks up the encroaching wilderness while furnishing his gourmet table. “This is where you live in a modern house — in the kitchen,” said Myers, who’s put a nice couch in his.
The second aspect of fire safety is obvious, but is the most abused. “Noncombustible materials: That means nothing that burns,” said Myers, who prefers glass and steel but also praises adobe (except for earthquakes), rammed earth, or — like Steve Martin’s home above Montecito Village — handsome concrete bunkers. But the stucco and tile roofs that now dominate Montecito’s multiplying Tuscan villas aren’t smart at all, said Myers, explaining that tiles were developed in hot climes to let a house breathe. “They’re wonderful for heat, but they’re dreadful for fire, because those embers get up in there and then the structure under there is all wood,” said Myers, who explained that now people grout their tiles to stop embers from coming in. “But then they can’t breathe, which defeats the purpose of having them anyways.”
A third rule of thumb is double-glazing on tempered glass, which keeps a wildfire’s heat outside. “That’s important,” said Myers. “If the heat inside gets up to 175 degrees, then the sprinklers come on and everything is destroyed by water anyways. So that’s a real mystery to me why people think the sprinklers will protect them.”
Perhaps most critically, though, is where to build your home. “Siting has a lot to do with how you survive in these canyons,” he said, explaining that he placed his home in a spot that’s protected from the canyon’s wild winds. “In an ideal world, if we could start all over again, I think you’d want to think about the certain areas that you would not build in because the winds are so tough. There are certain areas where we would recommend you don’t build.”
Location also involves the notion of density, of which the urban variety has been a hallmark of his career. But there’s a rural version, too, said Myers, arguing that those who dwell in the countryside should huddle together to increase the odds of surviving holocausts. “If you build cluster housing instead of individual houses, you’ll do much better,” he explained. “Let’s say I had 100 acres and let’s say I had 10 lots. Instead of putting one house on every acre, what if we put all ten houses fairly close together? Then we could make a defensive compound around those 10 houses. If we put one house in the wilderness, you make that house so isolated in that landscape. Not only would you have better fire protection together, but you’d have less impact on the ecology.”
Will the people, especially those with enough money to build nice homes in the Southern California foothills, ever listen to Myers? To do so, they’ll have to buck an observable behavior of the wealthy, in which more money equates to living in less secure environments — at the edge of the ocean, where tides and storms ravage homes, or up hillsides, where fires rage and landslides loom, risks presumably taken to avoid the hoi polloi.
However, due to crime rates in the cities, Myers believes that one is safer in the country, and that Southern California offers uniquely habitable nature. Of course, in his case, this kind of earthly architectural pleasure would be fishbowl living if it was downtown, creepy except for exhibitionists and voyeurs. Up here, the contrast makes for yet another charming paradox. Between the striking geometric constructs and the romantic weave of trees, boulders, and shrubs, it’s like landing a spaceship in a landscape painting by Rousseau.
To Myers, though, it is a special home. “When I stand here all alone looking around,” he told me one day as I climbed back into my tiny car to head down to my tract home in beachside suburbia, “I feel like I’m on something like sacred space.”
Preaching the Wildfire Gospel
Last December, Myers finally got to convene a public forum. It was a windy and cold night in downtown Santa Barbara, and, at first, it looked as if only a few souls would straggle into the capacious Modernist store, Design Within Reach, where an evening of confab and wine had been planned. Ten minutes after the allotted 6:30 p.m. starting time, however, the place was full with a crowd that included a wide variety of types and special interests: longtime mercantile baron Pierre Lafond, architect Matt Gradieff, Santa Barbara Seasons publisher Gregory Corso, the gracious UCSB husband-and-wife academic team Ann Bermingham and Mark Rose, and Santa Barbara Museum of Art education outreach person Jill Finsten, as well as a host of homeowners, writers, and even a pediatric physician.
Though he opened discussing his outline for burn zone safety, Myers spent an even longer time tracing the history of big fires, drawing conclusions based on the way historical cities like London chose to rebuild. Even though he spent considerable time in a later Q&A session discussing other fire strategies, such as sod roofs — too heavy when watered, pointless when left dry — he really seemed to launch into the virtues that underscored his own home. A natural pedant, Myers speaks in themes most of the time, and in front of an audience, he can be both assertive and understanding. With his graduate students, he’s almost indulgent until something strikes him as very wrong, and then his attacks are swift and all-encompassing.
“The steel house is still a revolutionary idea — it’s only about 70 years old,” explained Myers, who said that besides the fire and earthquake protection, the unlimited length of a steel girder frees house designers to obey fantasy rather than board length when creating habitable space. His only problem with the very democratic idea of prefab housing is that no two lots are ever the same, so the modules that would be rolled out identically must be constantly customized.
Hence Myers’s glass-and-steel model, which is apparently contagious — he called out three such structures located within a short drive from downtown, including the recently completed Gardner house up near the Vedanta Temple, which he inspired, designed, and built. “This is the capital city of glass-and-steel housing,” said Myers to the crowd.
During one of our afternoon talks about his disdain for the Tuscan villa, Myers pointed down the canyon to a rather large new home built in that now-ubiquitous fashion. “You know, steel houses aren’t terribly expensive,” he said. “I mean they’re not cheap, but they cost about the same to build as my house did. And they last forever.”
The Myerses have not been through a fire in their decade up Toro Canyon. When the last one came close, Barton was away and Victoria was there alone. “I was proud of her,” he said. “She got all the shutters down in no time.” He was glad, of course, that she did not have to live through a holocaust, but still feels very sure that the house as built could withstand a wildfire for about an hour, which is much longer than fires usually take to sweep through properties.
“The time has come when we must demand that people stop building so sloppily,” argued Myers, who’s ready to risk unpopularity, even anger, for opposing people’s natural desire to simply reset their lives and rebuild like before. “I don’t see any coherent policy coming out of the state or the city, so we must encourage them. Once you make good building a standard, it won’t seem expensive.”