Last July at the Pacific Coast Builders' Conference (PCBC) Gold Nugget awards, a very happy 69-year-old architect kept trotting up to the stage to pick up one Lucite-encased hunk of "gold" after another. Fisher-Friedman Associates won five awards that night—four Gold and one Merit. It was especially gratifying for the veteran firm because it did so in front of its peers—an audience full of competing firms and past, current, and future developer and builder clients—and it did so in its hometown of San Francisco. Rodney Friedman, FAIA, was the happy architect, and his firm of 38 years was a big winner that night.

Twenty or 30 years ago it would have come as no surprise to see Friedman, Bob Geering, and their now-retired partner, Bob Fisher, hogging the limelight. They were part of housing's all-star team back then, turning Irvine Ranch land and San Francisco Bay Area quicksand into good-life subdivisions. But it's been a long time since Friedman's folk were on the builders' A-List of architects. The firm no longer bursts at the seams with 100 architects in downtown San Francisco. Now it's down to a lean and mean 35 across the bay in Emeryville's warehouse district. "But, hey," says Friedman, "It's a Park Avenue address."

lemons into lemonade

True, Friedman does have a Park Avenue address in Emeryville, an emerging high-tech town just north of Oakland, and his quarters in the warehouse district are quite swanky. Best of all, he's having a great time doing much more than the merchant housing that built his career. "I haven't done a single-family-detached subdivision in 10 years," he says. Not that he wouldn't like to, it's just the production builders seldom call anymore. But lemons into lemonade, Friedman has found a new customer base: university and college housing. And for the militant Modernist who cringes at the idea of doing Mediterranean-style patio homes, it's a great new outlet for interesting design. He nabbed three of those five Gold Nuggets for his campus housing work.

Although student and faculty housing design is frequently handcuffed to its context, Friedman sometimes grabs the commission for connective-tissue buildings as well---dining halls, common buildings. He has a freer hand with these, which fuels his creativity. What's more, his buildings often weave in among the superstar architects' work that our centers of higher education are so fond of collecting, and this feeds his ego. On the campus of Stanford University, for instance, his Manzanita II dorm completes a quad anchored by a Ricardo Legorreta-designed dorm.

In some ways, Friedman relishes his current status as a desirable, hirable, workhorse architect. Star architects can, apparently, glow too brightly for the firmament. "If you get a high-profile job everyone loves, then the school thinks, okay, we've got a Legorreta," he explains. "Meanwhile, we do 10 jobs." It's a delicate balance. You've got to be on the radar without overwhelming it.

So how did Friedman get from merchant housing to campus housing? By moving sideways and full circle. Trained as a Mid-Century Modernist at the University of California, Berkeley, he learned from a who's who of residential architecture. William W. Wurster had just returned to the Bay Area as dean of the architecture school and had just swapped Bauhaus for the dusty Beaux Arts curriculum. Fresh from his position as dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Wurster had a portfolio of celebrity connections. So, one by one, he marched his amazing peers through his students' lecture halls.

Friedman soaked up cutting-edge wisdom from Buckminster Fuller, Eric Mendelsohn, Richard Neutra, Paul Rudolph, and Joseph Esherick. He was a teaching assistant to Charles Eames. Not only were these great innovative architects, they were great house architects. In their view, there was nothing humble about the housing profession. In fact, it was possibly the best laboratory for experimenting with the new building techniques and materials emerging after World War II. They all made history designing their own and others' houses. "Housing was not something relegated to the also-rans of architecture," says Friedman. "Every studio we had dealt with some kind of housing."

grid goodbye After a tour of duty in the Air Force during the Korean War and an apprenticeship designing mega commercial buildings in the San Francisco office of Welton Becket and Associates (now Ellerbe Becket), one of the largest firms in the country at the time, Friedman and Becket colleagues Bob Fisher and Bob Geering started their own firm. Among their early clients were builders trying to compete with Joseph Eichler, popularizer of the Modern tract house. What Friedman learned from Sea Ranch, another cutting-edge project across the Golden Gate bridge and about 2 1 2 hours up the Pacific Coast Highway, gave him the bag of tricks he needed.

"When Joe Esherick, Charles Moore, and Bill Turnbull did Sea Ranch in the late '60s, it changed everything," Friedman contends. Oddly enough, it wasn't their single-family houses that inspired him; it was the condos. Here, he says, the architects broke the 12x12x12 post-and-beam grid that had everyone boxed in: "Suddenly, you could have an 8 foot room or 10 foot one, one with no walls; ceilings could be any height. You could bump out and cantilever; you could poke holes for windows anywhere. You could react to the site.

"So we abandoned the module. But they were carefully dimensioned houses. No cut plywood, beams a certain length, lots of glass, four corners," he continues. "They took 48 hours to frame and cost $8.95 a foot in the '70s." His builder clients were, consequently, very happy--not only were the houses cheaper to build, they could charge a premium for them. And the buyers loved the cathedral ceilings and soaring staircase volumes. Their 1,200-square-foot houses suddenly felt large and grand.

In those days, there was a market for Modern design--at least in forward-thinking California. "No one was excited about Mission-style," recalls Friedman. "Our career is full of design firsts. But we could only do this with the right clients--cowboy entrepreneurs, not MBAs. Guys who took risks." stern thoughts

Friedman doesn't see many risk-takers in the merchant housing profession these days. Indeed, he thinks the industry teems with scaredy cats. He's most bitter about what happened down in Orange County, Calif., where he did some of this best early work. Everyone still admires Promontory Point, a 520-unit townhouse and apartment development overlooking the bay in Newport Beach that he designed in 1976. When his client, Berkeley-trained architect Ray Watson left The Irvine Company and Don Bren bought it from the Irvine family, contemporary design eventually bit the dust. Bren's preferred style is Spanish Mission, and that's what he's commissioned for acre after acre of subsequent Irvine development. And the architects who wished to continue working in the hottest market in California gave him what he wanted. "That's why I hate these guys," says Friedman. "They're my friends, but I hate them."

"They got scared," he postulates. "If someone walks in, they fill their expectations. They're happy providing a service. Is it architecture? No, it's trivial."

He blames Post-Modern architects for repopularizing traditional styles and squelching the public's tolerance for Modern architecture. He thinks architects like Robert Stern, Philip Johnson, and Michael Graves cost him much of his housing practice. "Someone asked me recently, do you want to get out of housing?" he recalls. "I said, no, I want everyone else to get out of housing. Cleanse the profession."

Still, Friedman knows you have to please your client to pay the bills. Not all the work he takes nowadays would delight the Bauhaus boys. But he finds a way to tweak each building to make himself happy and elicit a smile from other closet Modernists. "We always leave traces for the trained eye. The window detailing on many of our more traditional dorm buildings, for instance, is clearly not evocative of their period style. They still fit in. Clients can't tell the difference," he says.

corbu for you

Best of all, the work underwrites the jobs he's most excited to land--the civic buildings for small California cities. He's done one for Redwood City, and one for Emeryville that's just a few blocks up Park Avenue from his office. It won a 2002 Gold Nugget Grand award for best office/professional building under 50,000 square feet. It's a handsome building, one that would make any Modern architect proud. It's also got one of his "traces for the trained eye": "From the rear, it looks like Villa Savoye," says Friedman.

He doing a few custom homes, some large-scale mixed-used projects, top-notch attached and multifamily housing, office buildings, and of course all of that campus housing. "We've expanded the menu of things we can do. When we started, we had knowledge of commercial work and knew nothing about housing. Now we're relearning the institutional and commercial skills," he says. "But the work is no more or less rigorous than the first houses we did."