Sunday, May 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Thinking Inside The Box

The elements of a studio that inspires ideas

Raw materials: Cast-in-place concrete; hot-rolled steel; off-the-shelf warehouse windows; culled black walnut flooring.

Props: Studio veil lights; factory lightbulbs on power lifts; firehouse pole; medical exam chair.

Collections: Books; camera bodies; movie posters; circus throwing knives.

IN ONE MTV 10-second film, a man in a moving pickup points to the windshield and turns, grinning, to the camera. "Up there," he says, "is the future."

"My philosopher brother, Buck," says director David Wild, who focuses on ordinary people to make short films, from commercial spots to documentaries. For Wild, ideas take shape in the front end of his North Seattle studio. From tables in back of the free-standing concrete building, he faces a two-story wall. Instead of Buck's roaring truck motor, he listens to the "roar of silence," where the voices of his subjects can emerge. Wild calls his studio "The Brain."

It's quiet inside. Like sitting on an empty stage in the best concert hall, there's an expectant hush. It's open to possibility, a space where the imagination can freely play.

The Brain is essentially a factory loft — in the forest. At close range, it's a powerful, enigmatic companion to the '50s-era lap-sided house Wild shares with his wife and occasional collaborator, Lulu Gargiulo, daughter, Michiko, and dog, Oscar.

Architect Tom Kundig of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen calls it "a big vessel for things to happen." It all seems simple enough — a longish concrete box, roughly 20 feet by 40 feet, with two big factory windows on opposite sides. But it's actually a finely tuned acoustic environment, where none of the sides meets at right angles. And like a stringed instrument or a real brain, The Brain is symmetrical. It has a front and a back, with two sides converging slightly and a ceiling sloping almost imperceptibly down to the solid wall at the front end — the "business end," where Wild experiments with staging, lighting and photography.

Spanning the back end, a sheet of raw steel supports a mezzanine office. Bookshelves, darkroom and storage are tucked in below. Factory lights hang from power lifts, to be raised and lowered for the desired ambience.

Just like ears, The Brain has side windows that seem to be more about taking in the wooded setting than staking out a view. Through the windows, Kundig sought "a balanced light." This is a serious commitment. If a long window had been cut along the top of the front end, Wild would get a fine view of the Olympic Mountains.

"We weren't interested in the view," Wild says. "It's a think tank. That sort of discipline is important. You make a few decisions along the way, and then you just stick with them."

Kundig quotes Zen philosophy: "When it's simple, it's complex." There is a raw honesty to the building, but also the kind of obsessive refinement that goes along with a work of sculpture.

Concrete is less a material than a medium here. The 8-inch-thick, poured-in-place walls are pierced by a long, vertical slit in the middle of the back end. A grid of holes left over from the fasteners through the form work were left open. Wild had an artist make some clear-glass spheres for him to insert, with the help of Aezja Munson of Boone Construction. Like lenses, they admit streams of light at different times of day and emit sparkling pinpoints at night.

Architect and client share a respect for the creative process. After their initial meetings, Wild knew not to ask "what" and "when" too often, because important work is often going on while the creative type seems to be procrastinating.

Now the creative circle has widened around The Brain. Since it was finished in 2001, The Brain has been visited by several celebrated architects, including Steven Holl, Glenn Murcutt and Tadao Ando.

Television is Wild's medium. But he doesn't watch. "I listen to a lot of music," he says. Not the cerebral stuff you might imagine goes along with distinguished architecture. Often, it's a dance tune or a pop standard, looping hypnotically for hours as he moves around, rearranging objects collected on nearly every surface. He's not procrastinating; it's just a stage in the creative process.

"It's like a playhouse," says Wild, who shares the space at less intense times with family and friends. But underneath his play is a hardened work ethic. Etched into the steel treads of the stairway ascending to his new studio's mezzanine are his father's words: "You'll have lots of time to rest when you're six feet under."

Clair Enlow is a freelance journalist and design critic in Seattle. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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