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Artisanal Recycling by Leger Wanaselja

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View from Martin Luther King Jr. Street

First floor plans

Second floor plans

When you walk or drive around Berkeley’s flatland neighborhoods, the buildings that line the grid of streets are not likely to attract your attention. A few large turn-of-the-19th century houses that once occupied outsized lots indicate that this is former farmland. Their neighboring houses are usually modest and were built later when the original parcel of land was subdivided and sold. Neither the lots nor the buildings are large. So unless you are looking for a particular address, you would not pay attention to the passing scene. Nor would anything about the houses attract your gaze

View of the new building

But if you arrive at the intersection of Dwight Way and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way from either of those two streets, a complex of two buildings on the northwest corner is likely to catch your eye. Not because the buildings–the corner one is a renovated two-story structure of circa 1900 and the other is a new 2-story apartment building–have unusual shapes,  but because they seem to have sprouted pieces of cars that either look like strange carbuncles or are recognizable as the windshields of hatchbacks that once belonged to Mazdas and Porsches.

That is what they are. The railings, awnings, fences and gates of the complex’s buildings and grounds are made from discarded car parts and street signs which Karl Wanaselja, one of the design/build firm’s two partners, has avidly collected over a period of years.

Stair railing in the courtyard wrapped with street signs

At the very early age of three Karl was introduced to cars because his parents participated as amateurs in car races, and their brief career imprinted their son with a passion for automobiles that found expression, not in racing, but in preserving and rehabilitating used cars in his architectural career. In his practice, which combines design and construction, he has salvaged parts from over 250 cars for use on 7 different projects.

Easier said than done. Indeed, if he were not a skilled craftsman with an extensive knowledge of materials and a determination to convert these agents of environmental pollution into green materials, we might not detect any morality in his madness. He explains that, “he was motivated to explore using car parts in buildings as a way of merging my seemingly contradictory interests in automobiles and environmental stewardship.”

Karl and his partner and wife, Cate Leger, who is also a staunch environmentalist, have devoted much of their design energies to salvaging and restoring tons of wood and metal for use in their projects.

The Dwight Way complex was the firm’s 30th and most visible in 20 years of residential projects to explore a full range of energy-saving strategies,  but three measures alone saved the two buildings the cost of a year’s worth of energy. They were: using blown-in cellulose insulation made from old telephone books and newspapers instead of fiberglass; substituting 50% of the cement in the concrete with fly ash,  an industrial by-product of burning coal, and leaving the aluminum siding on the existing corner building instead of replacing it with wood or stucco.

In addition to adopting the recognized means of recycling materials and saving energy, Karl and Cate have practiced what I propose calling Artisanal Recycling, a craft-oriented approach to reusing materials and objects. Examples of this kind of recycling in the Dwight Way complex begin with the two gated entrances to the landscaped court between the buildings, which was formerly a large side yard of the corner building. The first gate, visible in the photograph above is a two-tier assemblage of the rear ends of  eight Volvos operated electronically.

The pedestrian gate to the courtyard. Photograph by Scott McGlashan.



The second gate between the two buildings, shown above, is made of recycled street signs. The gate’s design raises the issue of how this reuse, which completely changed the signs’ original function, should be classified.

An assessment of the original function of these standard-issue signs makes it clear that information, not wit, was their message. That their color, format, and font are repeated without variation except for the length determined by the words, reassures those traveling in cars on these roads that the sign they see some distance ahead, but cannot read, will give them the information they need to follow their chosen route. Were they upended, as these signs are, their function would be destroyed. Yet we are entertained by this change of meaning which, under other circumstance, could be labeled vandalism and a violation of the law.

Above, the courtyard’s interior. The stair railing to the upper floor, shown above, is wrapped with street signs. Photograph by Cesar Rubio.

Projecting from the corner of the second floor is a carbuncular bay window clad in aluminum plates which, it turns out, are salvaged street signs which have been flipped over. Its underside is clad with California highway signs. Two other such bay windows projects from the rear corners of the building. The roof overhang is also composed of reversed aluminum street signs and define a balcony railing above a shallow bay on the building’s south side. Mazda and Porsche glass hatchbacks were used on the exterior and interior. Shown below is a Porsche rear window converted to an awning above the entrance to the apartment building.

Below it is a view of part of an interior stair railing on the second floor level, which also shows the connection of the window to the floor.

Unless otherwise noted, the photographs are by Leger Wanasalja Architects.

While the mass-produced articles that make up much of the content of our daily lives may seem to have only the one use determined by the time of their creation, their life span is even more determined by our only seeing them through the lens that led to their creation. If they cannot surprise us by suggesting other uses, they must be replaced by new devices while the previous ones are consigned to the scrap heap. Today’s challenge is to cleanse the windows and doors of our perception and reanimate these artifacts, as Leger Wanaselja have done.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for commenting on this post! Having someone testify that a building they see on a regular basis continues to attract their attention
    affirms the importance of thoughtful design.


  2. Elizabeth Meyer says:

    I am a neighbor and pass by both of these buildings on an almost daily basis. And yet, there is much I had not noticed until reading your essays, Sally. Thank you for opening my eyes. I am especially a fan of the house (we call it the ship house). I covet their garden and bark siding. So interesting to know it is a waste product of furniture-making.

  3. I once put this project up for an an award by a Berkeley design advocate group and was told it was too weird. The recycling theme was even more appropriate when there was a recycling center across the street at the corner. My only problem is that there is never parking when I drive by and I can’t revel in the details on a regular basis. Sally has called out elements that I still had not noticed after several planned visits. Thanks for deepening my sense of how truly creative this building is.

  4. Dan Gregory says:

    I am a fan of their work — one of thier projects won a Western Home Award when I was at Sunset magazine. I think Artisanal Recycling is an apt term — another might be Road Style: The Remix!

  1. August 10, 2013

    […] Their work will change your point of view.  Berkeley architecture historian Sally Woodbridge has written about the couple and this house.  The couple’s website is stunning, and their description of […]

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