A San Francisco Bay Area firm deploys a minimal style to unsettle architectural expectations.
Douglas Burnham wants to quietly rewire your experiences. He cites perception-teasing installations by artists such as James Turrell, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer as major influences, and early in his career he created similarly destabilizing work with San Francisco Bay Area design provocateurs the Interim Office of Architecture (IOOA). “It was a little bit like a drug experience, where the normative frame just sort of disappears,” he says of IOOA's installation work in the 1990s. With his own firm, Envelope Architecture + Design, he creates simple geometries with restrained finishes, but uses an odd move or surprising material to coax those who encounter the work away from standard methods of reading or even perceiving architecture: “When we're working on projects, there is a kind of scraping clean of things—we try to strip away barriers between people and their experiences.”
The Wisconsin native landed at IOOA a few years after earning a B.Arch. at Cornell University and then working for another small San Francisco firm. He stuck around at IOOA for about six years until, he says, “the firm started to fall apart.” During its protracted breakup, Burnham took on the role of project architect on a house in Sonoma, California. That experience helped him land his first commission, another residential project, after he left the practice. Officially founded in 2002, his now 10-person firm has designed everything from restaurants to offices to urban interventions.
Where IOOA was known for technological experiments and industrial bricolage, Envelope's approach is subtler. “We have a modern, minimal hand,” says Burnham. “It's a style, but it comes from a series of tactics for removing barriers and things that aren't required.” The firm spikes its restraint with playful, sometimes jarring moves. Envelope turned a lot of heads with a 2007 renovation of a ramshackle Victorian duplex in San Francisco's Noe Valley (the Clipper Street House). The firm cleaned out a warren of partition walls from the interior. Outside, Envelope turned its minimalism into a big gesture. It painted the exterior almost entirely a deep blue-black. Clean, simple, but also confounding, their abstract treatment of the classic San Francisco “painted lady” still prompts passersby to reconsider its familiar architectural details.
One of the firm's new endeavors takes Burnham's penchant for reconfiguring expectations to an urban scale. In partnership with a local developer, Envelope won a competition to design and build a mixed-use residential project for a site in San Francisco's Hayes Valley, where a freeway had collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The recession stalled its building plans, but the city eventually granted a five-year lease to put two dormant lots next door to temporary use. Inspired by Archigram's Instant City, Envelope devised a series of modified shipping containers and other temporary structures to house a rotating cast of shops, restaurants, gallery spaces, gardens, and community facilities. “It's really a sideshow,” says Burnham. “But it's also a framework in which content can be fed and curated on an active basis.” Titled Proxy, the project has begun to transform a formerly gritty urban corridor into an ad hoc series of social and commercial spaces. Burnham believes the temporary project will be a model for a more nimble and responsive type of urbanism. “There needs to be a faster pace at which the city can change, because working on a 100-year time scale is no longer aligned with the pace of culture,” he says. “Proxy is quickly reframing the city and what people expect from it.” The project embodies Burnham's aim to make you rethink the building—or the entire neighborhood—with a simple but unexpected gesture.
DESIGN STAFF: 10
PRINCIPAL: Douglas Burnham
EDUCATION: Cornell University, B.Arch., 1989
WORK HISTORY: Sole practitioner, 1998–2001; Interim Office of Architecture, 1993–98; Allied Architects, 1989–91
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Hipstamatic, San Francisco, 2012; Urbach/Hartman Residence, San Francisco, 2012; Locanda Restaurant, San Francisco, 2011; Pier 24 Photography Warehouse, San Francisco, 2008–09
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Proxy, San Francisco, ongoing through 2015; John McNeil Studio, Berkeley, 2013; Oracle Racing, San Francisco, 2013
WEB SITE: www.envelopeAD.com