On Building

Pulling Ideas into Reality
(Part 3 in a Series)

This article appeared in the August 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

San Francisco architect Donald MacDonald told me, “I don’t like total order, and I don’t like total chaos. It’s the mixture that makes ideas develop.” One could say the same of the fine line where his down-to-earth mind meets his off-the-wall imagination. Among many other projects, MacDonald has designed both the new Bay Bridge span (an eminently practical structure) and playful infill housing projects. I’ve never met anyone who shifts so fluidly between the artist’s and businessperson’s mind-sets. In one instant he’ll explain how he primes the pump by sketching unbuildable structures. In the next instant he’ll say, “Anytime you do what I do, you have to have a strategy for how you’re going to sell it.”

He learned to work with both states of mind after his fantastical college education. For architecture students influenced by Bruce Goff at the University of Oklahoma, reintegrating into normal life after graduation was a rare feat. “Most of his students never really made it,” says MacDonald, laughing. “They were so far out that they had a terrible time adjusting. I’m one of the guys who adjusted.” Even so, “It took me five years to get into reality.” He accomplished this with the guidance of Victor Christ-Janer, a philosophical architect who helped MacDonald verbalize his intuitive ideas about architecture. Having exercised such skills for decades now, he finds that he is rare among his colleagues in being able to explain his work effectively.

When he starts a design, he generally puts realistic concerns aside. “I have a free-for-all with myself. I’ll just have a blast with it,” he says. At a later stage, “I start to mull it down, eliminate, bring it to order. I pull it into reality.” In other words, he figures out everything from the locations of windows to waterproofing. As he explains in his down-to-earth way, “No matter how far out you go, you gotta make it so you don’t have to run a mile to get to the toilet.”

There’s plenty of reality for MacDonald to face. Because he often designs San Francisco projects, he must contend with some of the country’s toughest planning and zoning restrictions, as well as hard-to-please neighborhood groups. “It’s just a bitch to do this kind of stuff,” he says. “You can intuitively go through it—organically, you might say—and then the public can whack at it. The idea is to put enough bones in it that when they’re done, they haven’t wrecked it. If you can pull off a beautiful building, it’s a bloody miracle.”

Because of those pressures, not to mention budget constraints and site restrictions, MacDonald hasn’t built anything like his free-form drawings. He says, “I’ve never been able to pull it off where I’ve gone from this really wild poetic sketch to reality.”

If he’s to design something like a low-cost housing project, he tends not to start at the wackiest possible point but rather in a more realistic place. With the Cypress Ridge Village housing development in Santa Rosa, he knew the developer could never afford to build curvilinear structures. MacDonald therefore “played outside the unit,” positioning homes along the contours of hills, which made the houses “more livable and not like military barracks.” He thereby found a cheaper way to be creative without fully acquiescing to dull practicality: “You still have the freedom, but it’s at a different level.”

Working at this midpoint doesn’t feel remotely like a sacrifice to MacDonald: “You make compromises, and the compromises are the invention of it. You invent ways to make it work.” That is, although reality is indeed a constraint, it’s one that provides a fruitful creative challenge.

MacDonald neither regrets having to scale down his wild imaginings nor kicks himself for indulging in such whimsy in the first place. Each process has its place. Motioning to his crazy sketch of an unbuilt dune house, he says, “You can do stuff like this, but it’s antigravity! It’s got all kinds of problems!” Nevertheless, such sketches serve a valuable purpose. When “you’re not working out too many problems,” he says, “you have tremendous freedom to fantasize.” And you can bring along that sense of freedom “when you go back to reality.”

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.