Almanac

News - February 17, 2010

Ceramic tiles proposed for exterior of community hall in Portola Valley

by Dave Boyce

As examples of elegance in municipal architecture in San Mateo County, there are likely few worthy competitors to the simplicity of line, artful fenestration and subordination to the natural surroundings of the new complex at Portola Valley's Town Center.

The Town Hall, library and community hall, completed in 2008, have won Emeryville architects Larry Strain and Jim Straja 10 awards, so far, for architecture and sustainable design. Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the complex its highest rating.

But as with all artists who work for money, an architect's work, once sold, is subject to the intents and purposes of the owner — in this case, the residents of Portola Valley.

The Town Council on Wednesday, Feb. 10, heard from a group of residents on the town's Cultural Arts Committee who want to add bits of local history to the community hall's redwood exterior: specifically, ceramic tiles depicting local wildflowers and other scenes and designed by Portola Valley school kids in the 1960s, some of whom still live in town.

"We're just trying to, like, build more community here," committee co-chair Dierdre Clark told the council. "We're not just putting art on the walls."

Added Susan Thomas, the committee's other co-chair: "I personally think that the way they're made, they look wonderful on the natural wood of the building."

The tiles "are a tradition that enriches rather than takes away from any part of the building," former Portola Valley School teacher Robin Toews said. Some of the original artists remain appreciative, she added. "They were really delighted to see how lovely their work was, and still is."

The architects are not delighted. In an e-mail to Councilman Ted Driscoll and Town Manager Angie Howard, lead architect Larry Strain described the tiles as "pretty cool," but suggested that they be mounted near the playground or inside where children's art and science classes are held.

"As you know," he continued, "a lot of thought went into the design of the buildings. ... Elements on the facades — windows, doors, vents, signs — were carefully organized and arranged to create simple, clear facades that contribute to the overall design of each building and the town center as a whole.

"We think it would be a mistake to mount the tiles on the exterior of the buildings, especially as currently configured."

At the suggestion of Mayor Steve Toben, the council handed off the proposal to a group that will include members of the Town Center design team, the Cultural Arts Committee and Mr. Strain, if he is willing. One meeting should be enough to reach a consensus, Mr. Toben said.

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