Interview by Stefanos Papadimitriou
It is such a rare feeling when you discover an architectural language that is meaningful and poetic. This is the case with S^A | Schwartz and Architecture, winner of a 2023 American Architecture Award, as well as five American Architecture honorable mentions.
Their winning project, the Mourning Dovecote, located in Sonoma, California, is a perfect example of an architecture that is the result of critical thinking and a graceful dialogue between the interior and the exterior. For instance, the building’s façade, inspired by the traditional dovecotes, encourages the birds to make it their home. A delightful idea that blends the house with the nature that surrounds it.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Neal J. Z. Schwartz, the founder and principal of the studio, about the Mourning Dovecote, and the philosophy of his work. He is an architect who values ethos. He is committed to teaching, most recently as a Professor at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and his studio does significant pro bono work with local non-profits.
GDN: Your work emits a serene and insightful, almost stoic, perception of space. Would you like to share a few things about your creative process regarding the conceptualization of space?
Neal J. Z. Schwartz: As our work evolves, my hope is that it becomes more ‘abstract’, and, although I dislike this word in general, ‘timeless’. The more we focus on movement through space, and the way natural light and views can guide that movement, the less it relies on surface applications to achieve its power. We always start with a more abstract quality of space we are trying to foster and then build from there. We want your experience of the space to be fluid from inside to outside, room to room so that the project reads as a holistic thought.
I came to architecture through public policy and history, which means the foundations of my interest are based on community and culture
GDN: The buildings that you design are in open dialogue with their environment. There is an interconnection with the nature that surrounds them. How do you approach this connection between the inside and the outside?
N. S.: Our work is deeply rooted in place. We embrace the unique qualities of each site to create designs tailored to, and in tune with, their environments. This is not only a more sustainable approach, but also one that understands that the primary goal of building in the landscape is to reveal and foster the beauty of what is already there.
When we are lucky enough to work in nature, we first look to the qualities that are already present to inspire our designs. This may be the movement of grassland, the draping lichen in old Oak trees, or the coos of Mourning Doves, for example.
We try to remain aware that we are coming second to the site, supplementing it rather than dominating it. Particularly in the varied California landscape with mild climates, the pull to erase the line between indoor or out is strong. This often blurs the line between architecture and landscape architecture and between exterior and interior design.
GDN: The Mourning Dovecote won an American Architecture Award this year, a delightful project that perfectly translates this connection with nature. Would you like to tell us a little bit about it?
N. S.: This 390 sq ft studio addition onto the owner/architect’s existing Sonoma home takes inspiration from the site’s abundant pairs of Mourning Doves.
A traditional country ‘dovecote’ houses pigeons or doves, sometimes freestanding but often built into the ends of houses or barns. We researched the most advantageous height, orientation, proportion, and ventilation to encourage nesting doves –a process that informed both the shape of the exterior and interior space.
The Mourning Dove, one of the most widespread of all North American birds, is typically monogamous and is a prolific breeder, raising up to six broods a year. Both sexes take turns incubating, the male from morning to afternoon, and the female the rest of the day and night.
We always start with a more abstract quality of space we are trying to foster and then build from there
Here, although hidden from the interior, twelve nesting boxes are built into the angled exterior façade, encouraging the bird’s co-habitation of the space as in more traditional dovecote structures. A lower bird-watching window focuses on the doves as they ground-feed and serves as a convenient viewing spot for the owner’s two Spinone Italiano, the Italian bird-dogs. A custom silk sheer panel divides the new space from the old with an image of a murmuration of swallows flocking.
This highly personal and customized project by the architect-owner became a site for exploration and play. We followed every intuition about details that might contribute to the space, hoping to stay just this side of ‘too-much.’ What unites the disparate details of this addition is a sense of movement, craft, and nature.
the primary goal of building in the landscape is to reveal and foster the beauty of what is already there.
The pandemic, the passing of loved ones, and the realization that this second home would become a forever home, all inspired the chapel-like atmosphere and details –and the comfort of hearing coos of Mourning Doves just outside with their soft, drawn-out calls sounding like laments.
GDN: S^A | Schwartz and Architecture is committed to significant pro bono work with local non-profits, such as Cocina, Larkin Street Youth Services, and the Children’s Creativity Museum. Would you like to tell us a few things about this aspect of your work?
N.S.: I came to architecture through public policy and history, which means the foundations of my interest are based on community and culture. Given this, the studio feels a responsibility to use our skills to help insert thoughtful design into communities even where one may not traditionally see it. We don’t see design as an afterthought or applique –we have great faith in its ability to engage with the world regardless of cost.
Our work is deeply rooted in place
GDN: You are also a professor of Architecture at the California College of the Arts. In your opinion, what would be the one lesson that every aspiring architect should learn well and never forget?
N.S.: I came to architecture directly into a Masters program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design after studying history at a liberal arts college. My very first studio instructor was the Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect Raphael Moneo. One day, when I was getting frustrated about a studio problem, he turned to me and said that architecture was a new language for me –one I was struggling to learn just as he was struggling to learn English as a teacher. I always remember that bit of empathy and the analogy. The discipline is about learning to communicate your ideas in a formal language and that takes patience, creativity, iteration, and time. I wish for my students that long-term view of the beauty of the discipline.