The beauty of utility

Times Staff Writer

They stand mostly forgotten -- in fields or on sides of mountains -- as silent as the past. Like shadows, they are easy to overlook, and David Stark Wilson had driven past the old farm and mine structures all his life without noticing them. Then, one day about six years ago, he pulled to the side of the road.

A building and furniture designer-photographer with a love for adventure, Wilson became intrigued by the old barns, sheds and other ghostlike structures throughout the Central Valley and Sierra foothills. In particular, a grain elevator outside Vacaville caught his attention.

Wilson was struck by its odd and quirky proportions and the manner in which it reflected some of the same fundamental qualities he was searching for in his work as a building designer, “purity and lack of pretense,” rare in modern buildings and modern life. He took a snapshot and began searching for more such buildings.

Without knowing why, he started to build a body of work, but even as he found other structures, he kept thinking about the grain elevator in Vacaville. A year after photographing it, he returned to take more pictures but discovered it was gone, replaced by a parking lot.


Once Wilson realized such structures were disappearing, his work took on a sense of urgency, culminating in June with the release of his first book, “Structures of Utility,” published by Heyday Books.

In nearly 100 black-and-white photographs, Wilson, 41, presents the idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and diversity of old agricultural and mine structures built for function and never intended to be beautiful, which, in Wilson’s eyes, gave them a richness uncommon in new buildings.

There is an image of a Quonset hut, added upon so that it looked like a Volkswagen Beetle, stamping plants used by miners to crush ore into slurry. Many of the structures convey feelings of stillness and silence in contrast to backgrounds of clouds, tumbling and seething swells, or mare’s tails hinting of wind.

Colors were distracting, so Wilson chose black-and-white, shooting with a large-format view camera. To increase depth of field, exposures lasted up to three minutes. Prints were carefully composed to direct attention to what Wilson felt was the essence of each image. On one level, it’s a book about design, on another it’s about photography. More important, perhaps, it’s a book about learning to see.


Around the time Wilson started photographing the structures, his design work was taking on new sensibilities, utilization of materials that expressed their raw form, suggesting an unfinished quality. The structures he found in the countryside were just that, somehow honest, simple and accessible. As Wilson puts it, “They expose their bones.”

He was trying to step away from well-traveled paths and, instead, create his own by drawing upon his sensibilities of the outdoors and the unique nature of each site. Finding solutions had always been what he loved most about the work, assessing the limitations and unique offerings of each site and creating organic designs to meet the individual needs of the client. It’s the challenge that drives him.

The same is true of climbing a mountain. Once, in Patagonia, Wilson was with a noted nature photographer, the late Galen Rowell, and Los Angeles cinematographer Michael Graber, climbing Mt. Fitzroy. It was to be a one-day trip, but as darkness came, they found themselves still below the summit without overnight gear.

They carved out a ledge in the ice and stayed up all night stomping their feet to stay warm. Graber was a good distraction, singing off-key renditions of Tina Turner songs. The night was still, adding to the feeling of isolation. When morning came the sky was clear, and the sunrise was beautiful. As they reached the top of Fitzroy, there was a sense of accomplishment in enduring.

“That’s what most endeavors in the outside are about,” Wilson says. “There’s a grim component to almost all of them.”

There’s also simplicity. Goals are clearly defined: to begin at the bottom and reach the top, to go from Point A to Point B with ultimate efficiency, carrying as little gear and weight as possible, which adds to the challenge.

“Simple clarity of process and goal, so elusive in an urban existence, is the hallmark of most endeavors in the outdoors,” Wilson writes.

“Structures of Utility” combines Wilson’s passion for design, photography and adventure. The “purity and lack of pretense” he saw in the structures are qualities he seeks in his designs and his life. It is deepened each time he enters wilderness.


“These buildings, designed only for function, are tools as surely as the wrench or screwdriver -- forms uncluttered by fickle gesture,” he writes. “Working structures scaled to the landscape and people around them, they enrich the fabric of our built environment and, by contrast, call into question the value of current development.” For Wilson, designing a building is like designing a life, knowing what is vital and what isn’t, facing challenges, finding solutions. Learning to see.

When Friday came, Wilson would climb into the back seat of the family car with his brother and sister as the family headed to the Sierra Nevada. It was from his father, a retired software programmer, that he learned about the outdoors and felt the pull of the mountain.

In high school, he became interested in photography and incorporated it into his travels and adventures. Later, he began photographing buildings for publications such as Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens.

Wilson studied math at UC Berkeley, suspecting he would go to graduate school and, in time, teach. At Cal, however, his interest shifted to designing furniture and buildings. He graduated in 1984, and by 1987, he had founded Wilson Associates, a design/build firm in Berkeley. He later incorporated furniture design and production into the business.

As a designer, he often draws from feelings of being outdoors. Why should there be such a drastic difference when one enters a building? With straightforward materials such as truss joists, galvanized sheet metal and concrete, he incorporates concepts and colors from nature in his designs.

He also has been influence by utility itself. Among his commercial buildings is one based on “the forthright utility of an industrial shed.” In his home overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives with his wife, Stacia Cronin, and their two children, he has built two climbing walls.

In many ways, “Structures of Utility” is an ode to a time when people were required to be resourceful in order to survive, when farmers had more resolve and resilience than land and money, when miners in a race to uncover riches built their dreams with picks and hammers and native lumber.

Such resourcefulness is reflected in a building Wilson found with siding made of tin cans, split apart and pounded into strips. A photo taken near Willows shows the symmetry of railroad tracks, power lines and silos lined up like soldiers. And next to them is havoc in the form of a grain dryer and elevator, expanded over time as determined by need, top-heavy like a sack of grocery with the watermelon on top. But still standing.


Compare that to the Costco building down the street, or the Blockbuster Video building around the corner.

The old structures, says Wilson, “were probably the least expensive buildings they could put up that would do the job at hand, and yet they have so much character. They tell a story of the land and how they were used, and we can learn something from them design-wise, whereas the buildings we’re building today, 50 years from now, I just don’t think we’re going to see that kind of richness or that kind of value in them.”

Fifty years from now, his son, Chase, and daughter, Kai, likely will recall the hours spent driving through austere countryside with their father. Perhaps they will laugh at all the times they pulled to the side of the road “just for a few minutes,” so their father could set up his camera gear, test angles and wait and wait for the light to change and for the clouds to drift into the frame.

Chase might recall the time he and his father went back-country skiing as described in the book. It was a 50-mile journey. On the first night of their trip they fell short of their destination and Chase, 10 at the time, ate two-thirds of the food they had rationed for the day. By the third night, they had to stop, fearing a storm. So they decided to build an igloo rather than sleep in their tent.

“We awoke awash in muted blue gray light,” Wilson wrote. “We had experienced the essence of design, construction, shelter, development and planning, all in the short life span of our temporary structure

One is unlikely to spot an igloo in California, but there are many structures like those Wilson hunted down. The point of “Structures of Utility” is to promote an awareness and appreciation for the past as reflected in weathered boards, rusted metal and unique designs -- buildings sleeping, perhaps, never to awaken.

Life is more than what it appears in the city or from the top of a mountain. There is much to see between the two for those learn to see.

“I hope people will look out their car windows a little harder,” Wilson says, “and maybe even stop and look at some of these old buildings and maybe think about what their value is.”


‘Structures of Utility’

Author: David Stark Wilson

Background: Now 41, Wilson graduated from UC Berkeley in 1984; founded design firm Wilson Associated in Berkeley in 1987.

Publisher: Heyday Books (June 2003)

Info: 144 pp.; $45