Ceramic tiles proposed for exterior of community hall in Portola Valley


■ View all seven tiles. Click on a thumbnail to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

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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Like this comment
Posted by narnia
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 16, 2010 at 10:04 am

The article is wrong* to suggest that "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 fact, there have been court cases on this subject.
An architect's work is his/her intellectual property. It's not work for hire in this case because the architects (or their firm) were not employees of Portola Valley. That is why the architects, Larry Strain and Jim Straja won the awards. Portola Valley didn't, though it owns the building. Portola Valey didn't create it.
The architects encountered a very tough problem: if they resist too much the idea, perhaps they risk future commissions, if they don't they dilute the essence of their work. Portola Valley would do well to respect the architects' creation and not add elements that alter their work. Why can't such tiles be placed where they would meddle less with the cohesion of the building architecture and therefore minimizing the harm to the architects' work?
Presumably, if the proponents of this injury on the integrity of the design knew how to design award winning buildings with the inclusion of the tiles, they should have done so, or at least suggest or impose by contract that the tiles would be used. And what else are they going to discover that they think it's "nice" to append to the facade, thereby rendering the strength of the design moot?
As for the children's work, do they own it or is it not subject to the same intellectual property rights as the architects?

ps. No doubt the article's writer will want to learn about the legal aspects regarding intellectual property ownership, copyright, patent and other such laws designed to protect the results of work product.

Like this comment
Posted by Jackrabbit
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Feb 16, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Next, what will it be? Maybe some old "antique" asbestos siding over the whole place? STOP.
This is just what Detroit did with their cars in the fifties and then into the sixties --fins then ridiculous-looking growths from all sides. Add, add, add ...
Leave the Town Hall alone like the architects intended. Holy mother of god. Tattoos "seemed like a good idea at the time" too.

Like this comment
Posted by Lee
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Feb 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm

No doubt the tiles are charming, but that does not mean they are appropriate to mount on the exterior of the building. I really hope they leave the exterior as is.

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