I would like to tell you a story.

Long ago and far away, a little girl sat by her father’s side as he worked in the skeletons of buildings. She asked him question after question: why did he do that, where does this go, how can you tell where things should be when it’s all done?

Sometimes, she sat by her mother’s side, while her mother painted or drew. She asked questions here, too: what do you call that color, how do you make a two-dimensional drawing look three-dimensional, how do you get it to look so realistic?

The little girl grew up, asking a lot of people a lot of questions. She read a lot of books, about a lot of different topics. Eventually, she fell in love… with the theatre. She went away to college, where she studied primarily theatre, but also film-making and sculpture and writing and computers.

When she graduated, fate did not place a job in front of her. But it did place an empty building in front of her, an old Fox Theatre, built in 1926 and renovated and gutted so many times that it was hard to see its original structure anymore.

But the girl could see it, and she could see that it could be great again some day. She wanted to be part of making it great again. She wanted to restore and preserve this architectural tribute to the theatre. So she joined a group of people who shared that same vision and worked very hard to bring about its return to greatness and beauty.

The theatre’s original plans had been lost, and only the barest of sketches and the grainiest of photos remained to show what it once had been. In fact, the local building authorities didn’t even have the drawings for its current configuration on file. So, armed with a tape measure and a sketchbook, a flashlight and a sense of adventure, she set about measuring and drawing the building as it stood. Like a foreman on a construction site, she sent her little worker ants scurrying into every nook and cranny, measuring and sketching, drawing and erasing. When she got stuck on complex geometry, or couldn’t find an answer on her own, she turned to an architect that worked with the group. Under his kind and experienced tutelage, the building took shape on paper.

When it was all done, the architect praised the girl and told her that she had a talent for this work, and it reminded her of the many days spent at her parents’ sides, asking them question after question. The theatre was purchased by an evil villian who was an uncultured, uncivilized man only concerned with making money, money, and more money, no matter the detriment to the historical and beautiful nature of the building. Though he ended up ripping off the marquee and tearing out much of what made the building unique and special and turning it all into a fitness center and apartments and shops, the architectural lessons learned on that project would stay with the girl for a long time.

Eventually, the girl realized that she had fallen in love again… this time, with architecture. And so she went back to school and studied, and asked a lot of questions. She asked more pointed questions of architects, artists, and construction crews. She knew that architecture would forever be a part of her life, and that she would always remember the love of a theatre that had lead her to it in the first place.

And that is the story of how I entered into the world of architecture.


Today, I went to the free day at SF MoMA. Very nice exhibits, decent building, even with the scary bridge you have to cross to access the fifth floor if you take the stairs up. (I know, I know, I should trust the engineers to know their jobs, but it’s hard with that little material between me and a five-story drop…) But mostly, it made me miss the museums I visited in Italy. Today, I was more interested in the BART station than in the museum building. That, to me, is a sad state of affairs.

Granted, most of the museums I visited in Italy were housed in beautiful, sprawling old buildings, usually a former palace of some sort, but really, is this the best we can offer in the U.S.? I’m a bit disheartened, after having visited a few museums since my return from Italy, to find that in the U.S., we seem to think “museum” is a synonym for “art warehouse.” Yes, some of them do have somewhat interesting buildings, or at least an interesting wing, but nowhere that I have visited so far do I spend more time looking at the building than the “art” on display! I believe that the building should be part of the art, not just a box to put it in. I realize that much of the building’s purpose is, in fact, to house art. But that does not preclude it being art. It can be an artistic container, or an innovative container. Even the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, England has more to recommend it than many museums in the U.S., and it is modeled after an airplane hangar, of all things! At least it has an innovative double-skin envelope with all the service areas contained between the two skins. That, at least, is something!

I will say this: I haven’t tried to design a museum yet, so maybe I do not understand fully the challenges that such a building presents. Maybe Americans just want empty white boxes to put their art in so as not to “upstage” the paintings and sculpture and whatever. But, I do believe we can give it the old college try. I am going to have to search for some truly fascinating museums in the States.

Almost universally, people want to make their mark on the world. They want to leave something behind so that future generations will remember them. Some people do this by having children. Then, their children and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, and so on and so forth, will always remember them… to some extent. Some people write great poems or novels, which are kept in our libraries and passed down. Some change the way we look at the world through math or science, and are in that way remembered. I? I want to leave buildings.

Now, truth be told, buildings aren’t what they used to be. I know that it is highly unlikely that in 2,000 years, someone will be walking through the ruins of a building I design and see built today. We don’t build buildings with such long lifespans anymore. The world moves too fast, and buildings have a lifespan closer to that of the average human nowadays. Of course, any building I design and see built today will be better documented than a building built 2,000 years ago. Sure, no one will be using the latest technology to reconstruct a model of what my buildings might have looked like, but they will have my drawings, my plans, my 3D computer models, my color studies, etc. They’ll have pictures, and possibly, if my building is good or important enough, interviews and commentary and research on it. They may have a far more complete image of what my building looked like and what the experience of it was than we do of our ancestors’ buildings.

Until we figure out that whole time travel thing, the best we can do is leave behind documentation, so that the future will know how we lived. And though we can leave behind so much more information now than we used to be able to, though we can paint a clearer and more complete picture for our descendants, we still only leave traces. I suppose that is the best we can ever hope to do. Even buildings that have survived for thousands of years, mostly intact, are changed.

Take the Pantheon, for example. Yes, the dome and its famous oculus are still there. But we are not seeing what the ancients saw. The inside of the dome is no longer gilded and decorated. The gods have been replaced by Christian saints. The exterior is no longer painted, and some of the interior paint is gone or damaged. We only can guess and assemble documents to approximate what someone might have seen all those years ago.

The world changes; our buildings must change, too, or be destroyed. How many local temples have been utterly demolished by invading armies? How many market squares ground into the mud? It is only the buildings that can adapt to the changing world that survive. Pompeii was once a thriving town; now it is a tourist attraction. St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican City may appear at first glance to be unchanged through the years, but look closer and find the wheelchair ramps, the security checkpoints, and other trappings of our era superimposed on the historical structure. Buildings that used to be single family homes, when single families were large and served by a sizable staff of servants are now apartment homes for several smaller families.

I suppose that the best architects can do is to build a solid foundation and walls and roof that will withstand the tests of time, and hope that the shape of the building is such that future generations will still find it aesthetically pleasing enough to alter it for their own purposes. And maybe, just maybe, the original use, or the original architect, will have been important enough to warrant a plaque describing the building’s history, thus passing our mark down through history, giving us just a sip of immortality.

I just watched a great documentary on Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. Would you believe it actually stood completely empty for about 2 years?!? And thousands of people went to it, just as it was, completely empty! Now, that’s what I call an amazing building.

And the symbolism built into it! Oh my goodness! You enter by going down a staircase from a completely separate building, down into the underground portion of the museum. There, you would encounter three hallways: the Path of the Holocaust, the Path of Exile, and the Path of Continuity. The Path of the Holocaust ends in a black door, through which you find the Holocaust Tower. From the outside, it has absolutely no visible connection to the main building, because the only entry/exit is below the ground. There is a little slit up at the top which lets daylight in, and the space is awesomely empty and oppressive. Returning back to the underground pathways, you could also opt for the Path of Exile. This one leads you outside to the Garden of Exile, which is 49 tall concrete pillars arranged in a perfect square with trees planted on top, and the whole square tipped downward 10 degrees at one corner. The effect is dizzying, disorienting, and if we usually talk about way-finding, well, this would be way-losing. Also, even though you are technically outside, there is no escape from the garden, as it is surrounded by a very large dry moat. This path, too, is a dead end, and you must return to the underground paths. The final path, the Path of Continuity, leads to a staircase. Here, the path itself is empty, whereas the other two contain exhibits. But even as this one leads you up out of the depths, you are still contained and confined. The only way out is up, and though Libeskind has opened up the space, you once again find yourself in a deep well. (Hey, at least there’s a staircase this time!)

Finally, you arrive in the museum itself. Many changes were made to the austere and often bizarre interior with the addition of museum exhibits, but the underlying idea remains. There are six Voids arranged throughout the space. If you looked at it from above with your X-ray glasses on, you would see that they are placed along a straight line that cuts through the meandering lighting-bolt-shape of the main structure, but inside, you would have no idea. They are lit from above with only daylight, and as their name suggests, they are void of any contents but that light. There are windows for patrons to gaze into the Voids, but no doors. Only one Void allows access, the Void of Memory, where you can walk across what appears to be thousands of small metal faces.

The last feature is the seemingly haphazard line configuration on the building’sĀ faces. These sometimes contain “windows” of sorts, though they had to be special made. The pattern was created by Libeskind drawing connecting lines between addresses, real or imagined, of importance in the Jewish German past. These connecting lines were then projected onto the surfaces of the main lightning-bolt, I mean, building.

I think I have an architect-crush on Daniel Libeskind.

This is an incredible experience of a building. I was getting a little misty-eyed at certain parts of the video, disoriented in the garden, and feeling the loss of those who either lost their lives or fled and lost their homeland, their memories, and much of their past. I can only imagine how powerful it must be to actually walk those halls, stare into the Voids, and follow the paths to their heart-wrenching ends. Someday, I will take that walk myself. Sadly, that day is not today.

Here are some links to sites with pictures of the Museum, and more information, so you too can be wowed:




I took a quiz on Facebook today, which was supposed to tell me which architect I am. I think that the quiz is inherently flawed.

First of all, it assumes that architects will all have wives, and leans towards the belief that architects are male. As a married female architect-to-be, I take exception to those notions. I think the world needs more female architects, and more good architects, for that matter. I also don’t understand how so many architects are married. Quite frankly, we can be a hard lot to put up with, and then you add the job on top of that, and it is a wonder that any of us are married, or stay that way for long. (I am fortunate enough to have a very patient and understanding husband, even though he does work in construction, a field that has typically been full of animosity towards architects.)

Secondly, my result was Frank Ghery. I also take exception to this. While his buildings are certainly very intriguing, I hope I never make a building like that. My hopes include the following as well: that I will never have a repetitious style, that I will achieve Ghery’s level of success though not necessarily his level of fame, and that I will not be a starchitect. I think buildings need to speak to the function they house, the surrounding area/style, and the narrative of the space. Each building should be a unique thing, and designing something that looks like a computerized, calculus-based representation of a crumpled piece of paper, no matter how many different ways you tweak it, just doesn’t cut it for me. There are so many things that architecture can do; why do the same thing again and again? Reinvent the wheel! It can be good for you! Who knows? You might actually come up with a better wheel. We’re not exactly rolling around in cars with Flinstones-esque rock wheels, are we?

Finally, I don’t believe I am any architect… yet. But I will be someday. And on that day, I will be the architect BJ Dietz Epstein. Though I certainly take inspiration (and anti-inspiration) from other architects, and other fields, I don’t want to be the next Frank Ghery, or Richard Meier, or even Norman Foster or Borromini or I.M. Pei or Shigeru Ban. I want to be me, and create my own great work. I don’t want to be a starchitect standalone. Architecture takes teamwork, and I am searching for the team I belong with.

And this is why you should never take Facebook quizzes too seriously.