Bring out your Dead! But use the Little Door, Please.

Gubbio, Italy

A quaint hill town in Italy called Gubbio sports a mystery. Why do many of the ancient houses lining the narrow, twisting streets have two front doors? Not a single double door, mind you, but two sets of doors, side by side, one diminutive.

The town is ancient, and the reason is long forgotten. Not even the town barber knows. I’m certain he doesn’t, because I asked him (although my Italian was a bit rusty, so I might have asked if his dog wears high heals while dancing in the refrigerator). To be honest, the only Italian I know is spaghetti, and that may be Chinese.

Some speculate these doors were used only when there was a death in the home, to carry out the body, an aporta dei morti (door of the dead). More likely there was a special on doors at the local Home Depotelli too good to pass up. “Well, I really need a window… but you just can’t beat the price of this door!”

Knowing a little about buildings, I personally think the first house built with an extra door was simply a construction error and the clever contractor convinced his client it was all the rage in Rome. Then the neighbors felt the need to keep up with the Jonesetti’s, and the fad caught on.

Doors for the Dead

Gubbio, Italy

Who’s Up for Some Math?

I’ll start you off easy, with a problem from one of Beck’s 2nd grade, weekly math quizzes.

{You haven’t even read it, and I can see your eyes have already glazed over! Go on, give it a try.}

2nd Grade Math Problem

The solution:
For those disinclined to math, the key is actually logic. You must first realize that with only five coins, Sue cannot have more than a dollar unless she has all four of the quarters.

Knowing that Sue has an even dollar (four quarters) plus one more coin, we can then intuit that for Sue to have twice as much money as Julian, her last coin must be an even denomination (divisible by 2). The only coin that fits the bill (even though it’s not a bill) is a dime. Therefore, Sue has one dollar and ten cents. Julian has 55 cents. I know, it’s not fair, but I’m sure they will redistribute the money later.

For what it’s worth, Beck’s answer was incorrect. He was distraught and mopey for months and hasn’t been allowed dessert since (unless you include candy, cake, ice cream, cookies, pie and brochelli). That’ll learn him.

Beck and Robyn Bjella - Miniature Golf
Beck and his mom, both clearly devastated over failing the above math problem – it was his last chance to become an astronaut. I guess all that’s left for him is superhero crime fighter or Chippendale dancer.

Sorta Makes Me Want to Live in a Monastery

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

The island of Le Mont Saint Michel, France, leads the pack of the world’s most picturesque monasteries. I’ll have to add sketching the others to my bucket list. Hmm… never been to Tibet.

Can’t Get Enough Monastery Humor…

A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks copy the old canons and laws by hand. He notices that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript.

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint MichelSo, the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone had made even a small error in the first copy, it would never have been noticed! In fact, that error would be replicated in all of the subsequent copies.

The head monk, says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery where the original manuscripts are archived in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot. The young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing, “We missed the “R” ! , we missed the “R” !” He is crying uncontrollably. The young monk asks the old abbot, “What’s wrong, father?” With a choking voice, the old abbot replies, “The word was… CELEBRATE !!!

Le Mont Saint Michel Sunset

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

Sometimes Lazy Works

The sketch above was my second attempt to capture the essence of this extraordinary place. Partway through I downshifted into lazy gear and decided to skip drawing the foreground. Laziness is apparently a virtue as it resulted in an unexpectedly dynamic composition. Compare this sketch to my earlier one at the top of the page. That sketch emphasizes the charming, scenic character of the place, whereas the latter sketch captures the architectural spirit. Same pencil, two different interpretations of the same subject. I wish I could say that that was my intent. Lesson learned: What you leave out is as important as what you put in.

I needed more time here. Maybe not a lifetime as a monk, but at least enough for a few more sketches. Or, maybe Haiku?

Off to an abbey,
For a life, calm and serene,
Live it up now, boy!

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel
A one minute speed-sketch of Le Mont Saint Michel
Remember when men's shorts were shorter than women's? Let's hope we never see those days again.
Remember when men’s shorts were shorter than women’s? Let’s hope we never see those days again. Robyn and Tim Bjella at Le Mont Saint Michel, 1990.

Family Hour at the Jobsite

Here are a couple of old photos courtesy of Bring Your Parents to Work Day. The family doesn’t make it to our jobsites very often these days, probably because they are scattered around the country (both the houses and the family), but it’s always nice when they can drop by.

We would never have made it this far without their love and support and cannot thank them enough. Thank you. Love you all!

Russell Bjella on Arteriors Architects Construction Site
Russell Bjella (My Dad)
Harold and Delila Schaible on Arteriors Architects Construction Site
Delila and Harold Schaible (Robyn Bjella’s Parents)

Say Hi, Dad!

Curvilinear Minnesota Bathroom – Subtle Curves, Big Impact.

Minnesota Modern Bathroom - Arteriors Architects

Rookie mistake. Curves drawn on a floor plan look cool, but rarely translate into beautiful buildings. Here’s an example of curves used judiciously in elevation rather than plan. A little creates a big impact. I have designed many buildings with curvy floorplans and have found they mostly cause construction problems and add cost without adding much to the aesthetic. Unless… as I discovered early on, the curves also manifest in the third dimension, not simply as extrusions of the floorplans.

I originally conceived this bathroom vanity as concrete, a material relatively easy to form into any shape, including curves. At the last minute, it was decided to construct it out of stone. Not so easy anymore. It may look like a thick chunk of stone with sinks carved into it, but it is actually constructed from 3 cm thick stone slabs, cut, mitred and glued together. Simply amazing craftsmanship.

Australian Lacewood and stainless steel complete the modern styling.

We Built Robots. That Battle. Out of Legos

The Story

Lego MotorIt all started with this. A single motor.

My six year old boy, Beck, was rummaging through his cousins’ old Legos and came across this motor.

“What’s this, dad?”

“Looks like a motor… Hmm…” I grumbled. “I didn’t know Lego made motors. They didn’t in my day.” I wish I had taken a picture. I have rarely seen his eyes so wide, and his eyes are always wide.

“You mean, I can motorize my Legos?!!!”

“Uh, no son, you don’t have any motors.”

Well… not yet…”, he said.

Now seemed like as good a time as any to finally dash those bright eyes and squash that relentless enthusiasm, once and for all – toughen him up for the real world ahead.

“Never. We will never have motors. Ever. Don’t ask again.”

So here we are, three years later, with not just motors, but color, infrared, gyroscopic, touch and ultrasonic sensors, all computer controlled. I could have purchased an entire car with the money this stuff cost, and I have Lego to thank for it (I may be exaggerating, I could only have purchased part of a new car, maybe the doors. Or, an entire old, rusted Yugo).

Lego Sumo Robot

Honestly, though, I can’t think of a better use for hard-earned money (except feeding the poor, and maybe not even that). I hope the Lego people are filthy rich and drive Jaguars (or whatever it is they drive in Denmark. Trains, maybe?) They deserve it.

Some may argue who was the greatest, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. About this, there is no argument: there is no better toy than Legos. Period.

To give you an idea of the capabilities of Lego’s robotics gear, a couple of years ago Beck built a machine using plans he downloaded from the web that solved a Rubik’s cube. Pretty impressive.

Even so, we felt we weren’t embracing the robotic’s full potential. It virtually cried out for combat and mayhem. So, we set about creating autonomous battlebots.

The Challenge

The format we decided upon was Sumo wrestling. Each robot must autonomously search within a ring drawn on the floor, find the opponent, and push it out of the ring. Easy enough.

Beck wanted to include flame throwers and buzz saws, but I convinced him that he wouldn’t enjoy being grounded, for life. He’s a smart kid. However, If one robot ‘accidentally’ smashed the other robot into its fundamental atomic elements, so be it. We could write that off as a chemistry lesson.

Lego Sumo Robot - Beck and TIm Bjella

Robot Design

To be fair, Beck and I used identical motors and sensors. Beyond that, any design features were allowable as long as they were built from Legos and didn’t remove skin, set hair on fire or result in profuse bleeding (all the good stuff, really).

The problem with both robots having identical motors was that they would have equal pushing power. Neither would have a mechanical advantage. I suggested that to be fair, the old guy should get an extra motor, which Beck agreed to, if I could find it. Sneaky kid. We may never find that motor.

To gain the upper hand, we both devised a lifting arm, an offensive weapon to reduce the traction of the opposing robot. Beck’s was more straightforward, while mine relied on gears and rubber bands. We are still not sure which had the greater power and leverage.

Lego Sumo Robot

Lego Sumo Robots
Here are the two designs. They are similar, but have some not-so-obvious distinctions.

Advantages of my design:

  • Wheels in back. If Beck’s robot lifts the front of my robot (most likely scenario), it will help my robot by putting more weight on its wheels, thus providing more traction (unless he flips over my robot, in which case he’s grounded for two lifetimes).
  • Pretty plume of feathers on top to appeal to the judges and possibly distract Beck’s robot (even robots have a softer side).

Advantages of Beck’s design:

  • Lower center of gravity and wider wheelbase
  • Direct lifter connection to motors. Possibly stronger lifting force. Mine relies on a rotating gear for leverage.
  • Looks meaner

Programming the Robots

Sumobot Programming - Beck Bjella 2016
Screenshot of Program

Both robots have the same basic programming. We programmed them together. My program includes an additional piece of code, however, that runs only at the beginning of the match. I call it the Sneak Attack.

Main Program:

  1. Search for opponent (repeat until ultrasonic sensor detects opponent, then proceed to Charge)
    1. Spin clockwise for 1 second
    2. Spin counterclockwise for 2 seconds
    3. Move forward for 1 second
  2. Charge opponent (continue until ultrasonic sensor loses sight of opponent, then return to Search)

Sensor Subroutines:

  1. Ultrasonic sensor: When the opponent is within range, raise lifting arm. Lower the arm if opponent moves out of range
  2. Color Sensor: Scan for out-of-bounds border. If detected, reverse robot then return to the start of the search program

Sneak Attack (the Feint):

If you watch the video closely, you may notice at the start of the match, my robot does not act exactly like Beck’s. While my robot spins and locates his, just like his does mine, instead of immediately charging, it stops and waits, facing Beck’s robot {insert wild west gunfight showdown music here}. It waits until it detects his robot moving toward it. Then it turns and races diagonally away from the other robot. Finally, it spins back toward it and charges. The idea is to catch the robot on its side, rather than the front, where (in theory) it is more vulnerable.

Skills for Life (or Twenty Years to Life)

Steel Mask Art by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Robyn and Tim BjellaRobyn and I attended a welding class at the local art center – because you never know when you might need to weld some steel. It was between that or a course on CPR. I think we made the right choice. I can’t tell you how many times we have been out for a nice dinner and regretted leaving our welding torch at home. Worse, not knowing how to use it.

But now…

  • If an axle breaks on our way to the bank heist, we’re covered.
  • If we have the wrong combination to the safe, no problem. That steel doesn’t look all that tough.
  • If law enforcement finally catches up with us, an arc welder baked into a cake and we’re outta there.

With my newly acquired skulduggery skills, some spare time and extra loot, I welded the metal mask shown in the photo below (ski masks are just so passe). I’m not as skinny as I used to be, and it didn’t fit. That sad fact somehow lessened the blow when I accidently left it out in the rain after a big job (Robyn usually reminds me to bring in my toys). Well, it rusted. The only thing it’s good for now is covering up the bullet holes in the wall.

Steel Mask Closeup Detail by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Masks and abstract faces have always fascinated me, and not just for their usefulness evading the law. I suspect it’s because I prefer art that’s relatable to people. People are interesting. Much pure abstract art isn’t (I’m thinking of you, Pollock). I also prefer art that requires skill and talent over shock and awe. Call me old fashioned. Now, where did I leave my Tommy gun?

Rugged Luxury – Mountain Timber House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana – Arteriors Architects

Modern Mountain House Yellowstone Club Montana Arteriors Architects

What was the driving factor in the design of this mountain home? Context.

I designed this modern, rustic mountain home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana with an aesthetic of rugged luxury specifically to integrate with the other mountain homes in the area. In many ways it is unique, but it has underlying characteristics that allow it to blend, to fit in, yet retain its own identity.

  • Heavy wood timbers
  • Rough textured, natural materials
  • Hand crafted details
  • Solid, heavy metal connections
  • Large windows comprised of many smaller windows
  • Strong connection to the earth via stone base and walls
Cotswolds, England
Cotswolds, England

Why was context the driving force behind this design? Because all communities, towns, and neighborhoods have a sense of place, sometimes distinctly good, sometimes awful, but most often unremarkable. Some, however, are extraordinary, like the Cotswolds, England. We cherish these places, and for good reason. They have a fabric that ties them together which is based in large part on architecture. Most are not the children of forethought and planning, but came into being spontaneously and were nurtured over many years.

While many are resilient, some are fragile. Sometimes one thoughtless building can rip the fabric. Imagine a modern, white building in the middle of the Cotswolds. I bet it wouldn’t last a week before an angry mob with pitchforks and torches descended upon it. I’d be the one carrying the gasoline.

See more of my work at Arteriors Architecture.

Sketched and Sketching in Firenze

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait
Robyn Bjella, Firenze, Italy

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a street artist in Firenze, Italy. And because of some warp in space-time, both “yes” and “no” mean “si” – and “si” means, “I’ll pay anything you ask, if you would only sketch me. Please, please sketch me.”

All the while, in the back of your mind you are thinking, “Is he going to draw a portrait or caricature? But, of course you do it anyway, knowing your loving and supportive husband will be watching in the background, along with hordes of passing strangers, definitely not pointing and sniggering.

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait

Twenty minutes of pretending to be whomever it is the artist is sketching, and it is fini.

As you can see, the portrait turned out not entirely unlike Robyn, but not quite like her either. The artist was very talented, but portraits are unforgiving. I believe ‘portrait’ in French means ‘perfect subtlety’. If a single line is slightly off or a curve is a bit pronounced, voila, the subject is someone else. I guess that explains all the hoopla over the Mona Lisa, a painting I never (gasp) really appreciated, even after seeing it in person.

image

Well, technically I saw it, about as well as Helen Keller. It’s a tiny painting, much smaller than you imagine. See if you can spot it in the photo above. The painting is shielded behind bulletproof glass, reflecting just enough glare to obscure the painting’s finer detail (all of its detail, really). No worries, though. You won’t be bothered by the glorious detail because you are kept back ten feet by a wood railing (undoubtedly to protect the bulletproof glass), and then another ten feet by stanchions that protect the wood railing that protects the bulletproof glass that protects the painting. I think Dr. Seuss wrote a book about that. Or was it a song?

But it doesn’t end there. There’s still the throng of tourists, likely paid by the museum to keep you away from the lovely stanchions. I think there are guard dogs and lasers, too, but I couldn’t get close enough to see. Remember to bring binoculars and a ladder. And, a sharp stick to prod the crowd.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre
Mona Lisa at the Louvre – Look ma, it’s so close I can almost touch it!

It goes to show the French have a sublime sense of humor. Notice in the photo above how they tease you with a beautiful lunch table right beneath the painting, but you can’t eat there. I bet when lunchtime rolls around, the curators plop their brown bags on the table and gaze into Mona’s eyes for an hour, to the melodious background music of “Down in front!” Incidentally, the designers of this display are also renowned for their abattoirs.

imageDon’t be dismayed, however. The louvre is filled with other great, yet more accessible, art. Quite frankly, the Mona Lisa is just not that much of a babe anyway (you know you were thinking it. I just said it). Some experts believe it’s a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, with longer hair. If you visit Paris, you could safely give her/him a miss. Spend an hour with a croissant and a Sports Illustrated outside a cafe instead. Time better spent.

If you disregard my advice, at least don’t miss my favorite painting. We stumbled upon it on our first trip to Paris. I have never been the same since. See kids, museums can be fun!

Louvre Painting

Sorry about the detour. This post was about Firenze, right? OK, back to Italy…

We thanked the nice artist for the future memory, more so than the portrait (somehow it got lost on the way home), and went off to do some sketching of our own. What better subject than the picturesque Ponte Vecchio – much easier than sketching portraits. It almost sketches itself. Robyn’s sketch turned out better than mine, but at least I didn’t have to sit for half an hour with good posture.

Robyn Bjella - Sketching Firenze

Robyn Bjella Sketch - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Robyn Bjella
Tim Bjella Sketches - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Tim Bjella

Less is more. More calm. More Serenity. Less clutter.

Minimal Bathroom Tub - Arteriors Architects - Tim Bjella
I restricted this home in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a simple color palette of greys and whites and introduced texture with striated porcelain tile. The emphasis is on romance and drama.

I sometimes daydream about the minimalist spaces I could create if my clients would do without furniture

Minimalism is about simplicity, stripping away ornamentation, leaving only the functional. Well, almost. It’s about much more than that. A space may be functional and simple, yet still not attain the moniker of minimal. Sometimes it’s just simplistic.

Think Goldilocks. Minimalism is all about finding the point of “just right.” It only succeeds via interesting spacial design (that’s spacial, not special, although I suppose special works, too), refined details, thoughtful lighting and sumptuous materials. Without these, it’s just blah.

Notice the linear shower drain along the wall that eliminates the inconvenient drain always under your feet while creating a minimal environment
Notice the linear shower drain along the wall that eliminates the inconvenient drain one normally is forced to stand upon in a shower

The key is restraint. Ironically, a whole lot of ‘design’ goes into creating a space that looks like it has less.

If it helps, recite my mantra: “If everything is special, nothing is.” (That’s special, not spacial.)

Minimalism doesn’t work for everybody, though. It is inherently antithetical to everyday life. The slightest bit of clutter destroys the aesthetic. Even furniture can get in the way of the ideal.

I sometimes daydream about the minimalist spaces I could create if my clients would do without furniture (we sit too much, anyway). If only they could learn to sleep standing, like horses. I suppose shipping off the children and their toys to live with their grandparents is out of the question? You can visit them on weekends… Someday, you know I’m going to suggest it. Keep your fingers crossed while I look for a new job.

The project shown here is a departure from much of my work, where my philosophy is to create spaces rich with color and detail – spaces that stand on their own even without furniture and furnishings, but are still accepting of them. It just goes to show, there is more than one way to skin a fish, or bake a cake, or design a home.

Minimal Bathroom Vanity - Arteriors Architects - Tim Bjella
Moody, concealed lighting contributes to a romantic, spa-like aesthetic