Everybody talks about what Santa Cruz should be. Mark Primack decided to build it
Santa Cruz architect Mark Primack has spent the past 30 years avoiding style cliches and obvious historical influences. Instead, he has gradually visualized and shaped something recognizable as our collective sense of place, our unique “mixed use” Santa Cruz. Our Town, if you will.
“I’ve done one of everything,” says Primack. Restaurants (La Posta, Soif), offices (NextSpace, Rainbow Light), studios (on Swift Street), homes (Silver Birches), wineries (Bonny Doon tasting room, Vine Hill), cafes (Lulu’s Octagon), even a church (Shrine of St. Joseph)—he’s worked on them all.
Most recently, the Rhode Island transplant has set about reshaping and repurposing the look and texture of Santa Cruz’s Westside – first with his insistently pragmatic Swift Street live/work spaces, and now with the industrial aggregate of entrepreneurial spaces he’s transforming into the Delaware Addition. It’s nothing less than an entire LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) neighborhood.
The office he shares with his partner, landscape architect Janet Pollock, and three associates is a customized slice of the work/live complex he designed 15 years ago on Swift Street.
“This is my postcard collection,” he says, waving toward a full wall of vintage images of no particular organizational theme. At once inviting and sophisticated, the space brings together diagonal structural details, salvaged windows, earth-toned walls as smooth as marble, and generous amounts of light. “I’m a bookaholic—I love reading architecture books,” he admits, walking through to an adjoining office hung with enormous racks of antlers from the flea market, styrofoam horseleg forms from the old Horseman’s shop, drawings, maps and architectural renderings.
“I’m always studying architecture,” he says. “LeCorbusier said we’re all working in the same tradition.”
Near a photo of the legendary marble quarry of Carrara are photos of Primack’s enduring passion— botanical architecture. Specifically, the former Tree Circus that was once upon a time an eccentric attraction of Scotts Valley. Every surface sprouts its collection of seductive textures—stone, textile, metal, wood.
“I furnish everything—my family, my home, and my office— from the flea market. I used to call it our church. Every Sunday morning we went to ‘church.’” Experience taught Primack “if you go to the flea market with a shopping list, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re patient and learn to keep your eyes open to the unexpected, then eventually anything and everything will show up.”
Being an architect in Santa Cruz means being open to what Santa Cruz has to offer, Primack tells me, echoing his attitude toward flea-market discoveries.
“Ideally, I would only work in Santa Cruz. I have worked in San Francisco, the Sierras, Vermont, Ojai, St. Helena—but they were all Santa Cruz people. I have made a commitment to Santa Cruz,” he says. “When you step outside the myopic boundaries of politicians and bureaucrats, you find an openness and willingness that, for me, has inspired loyalty and service to this place.”
Continuing the office tour, Primack points out how small adjustments help break the generic square of a room. “I insert an angle, expose the beams, make a loft for a private conference space. I maintain some creative control.” He points to a long wedge of inset skylights high above. “I want to experience the daylight. Even on rainy days, it’s pleasant.” Inside what is externally a corrugated metal box, we’re in Spanish California. “It leads somewhere—your eyes go up to the light. Enlarging the sense of the space you’re in,” he says.
He points to the sign in the front office —Amor Fati, “love of one’s fate.” “That’s my motto. My fate is Santa Cruz.”
A headquarters for Rainbow Light is his current work in progress. The LEED building lacks only its “green” sod roof to lend elegance and vitality to what Primack proudly calls the Delaware Addition. When completed, the project will be one of the first LEED-certified neighborhoods in the country. The coveted certification means that a building utilizes environmentally friendly materials— for example, recycled materials—and uses water and energy in a sustainable manner. Primack is essentially designing an entire neighborhood in which can flourish a diversity of entrepreneurs and small businesses working and living in a network of sustainable spaces. “People could see me on weekends preparing the textures for the concrete walls of Rainbow Light, or on a ladder paint- ing those surfaces. That’s the thrill— being part of the life of my buildings. I like being local.”
He seems not to mind the occasional comment about hard surfaces and “loud” interiors.
“You sacrifice for a feel,” he says, running his hands over a satin-smooth cement wall, “as well as a look.” Comfort level is based on more than sound, he contends, in response to those who argue about noise level in his restaurant interiors. For example, “for Soif it was, ‘let’s build a space with a high ceiling, a terrazzo floor.’”
He shrugs. “Of course acoustics are always an issue. Too quiet is also deadly.” He reminds me, “noise means it’s full, it’s successful.”
Primack says interesting clients make for interesting projects.
“You want to know their needs, all about them,” he says, showing me a residence in progress. “My clients wanted a live/work space that was essentially a New York loft. So the downstairs is a big space—60 feet deep, 50 feet wide.” Upstairs are bedrooms and a kitchen. Skylights and another stairway lead to the third level.
Primack is a firm believer in mixed use for his urban projects. He made an adventurous bid for the Delaware construction project.
“I knew the territory. I live here, had built here, and my proposal offered twice the use space as the other architects. It was everything Santa Cruz says it wants,” he says with a grin. “So, even though they were against it at first, nobody sued.”
There has to be a rapport with the client to make it work, Primack insists. “Rainbow Light gave me lots of leeway. I need to like the peo- ple I’m working for, and the project to be challenging.”
The building he made for their headquarters is confident, angular, and loaded with textural sex appeal. “The walls were poured in the dirt, and I laid in little bits of plastic, and found items, and added some painted detailing.” Glass insets, industrial brick details. “I was just enjoying myself with this exciting project.”
Be Here Now
It’s hard to be in Primack’s company for very long and not be impressed. An architect determined to woo planning boards and city councils must be part lobbyist, part alchemist, and part lawyer. Primack plays all those roles with confidence. He once admonished his city planning colleagues on the City Council: “Can we just be here now? Just for a minute?”
We all came here from somewhere else, he reasons, so what does Santa Cruz architecture look like?
“I wanted to understand this place,” he says. “Most of what I’ve done is to figure out what this place is about.”
In this respect, he looks to Bernard Maybeck, the Berkeley architect who did many key buildings in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Maybeck was an inspiration, but not a model.
“You couldn’t build what he did today,” Primack says with a chuckle. “It wouldn’t meet code.” He cites the Kitchen Brothers and their Yogi Temple as an example of idiosyncratically local vision. “At some point, you realize that a variety of circumstances yields a certain style. The Delaware Addition is a ‘visionary’ project, but it grew directly from the adventurous- ness and openness of this community. You can see that in the people and businesses that are moving in.”
Buckminster Fuller advised young people not to worry about making a living, but to look instead for what needed to be done in this world.
“I heard him say that when I was 22,” Primack says. “I was already on that path. I was designing trees to live in.”
The Transplant and the Tree Circus
After his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design, Primack went to London and studied at the Architectural Association, thanks to a simpatico interview in which potential teacher and prospec- tive student discovered they shared a crush on the Baths of Caracalla.
“I wanted to do a thesis that wasn’t simply an academic project—rather one that would be worthy of a life’s work. So I asked myself, what’s the perfect environment? The Garden of Eden! All needs met, a perfect environment.”
Utopian? You bet. He’s been aiming at that his entire professional life. “I saw the forest as ally, the tree as dwelling. ‘What if we simply grew the architecture?’” he asked himself. “I spent my first four to five months in London just researching, and drawing.” The drawings were noticed, and he lucked into a career-changing exhibit.
“A collector bought the work, so suddenly I had some money,” he says.
Welcome to Santa Cruz
His sister Sara had already moved to Santa Cruz, “so in 1975, I had $1,500 and a two-week vacation. I figured I could draw anywhere so I bought a Chevy and drove across the country with my British girlfriend.” Primack arrived in Santa Cruz armed with three names given to him by a London associate: Paul Lee, Alan Chadwick and Page Smith. The influential network led to more names.
“They introduced me to Roy Rydell, and I started working with him,” he says.
Money was tight, but Rydell was a potent mentor, and his home at Pine Flat an inspirational fantasy for Primack. “He helped me get involved in things,” Primack says of the Pacific Garden Mall designer. “Pretty soon the Abbott Square plan was being hatched. Then there was the battle over the restoration of the Mission.” He pauses to smile. “That introduced me to the thick of Santa Cruz politics.”
Then the Tree Circus entered Primack’s radar. “Two women who had the Tree Circus in Scotts Valley contacted me. When I saw it, I realized that here it was—botanic architecture!” Axel Erlandson had trained trees into a utopian vision of habitable space. “It was unique in horticultural history. Living spiral staircases, geometric forms, spiral staircases, just sitting there, rotting.”
Primack began feverishly drawing, measuring, and documenting the weird world of living architecture thanks to a California Arts Council grant. “I began photographing all the trees from all sides—61 remained by the time I got there— adding a yardstick for calibration purposes. Then I drew grids on the photos. I drew the entire population of trees, in photorealistic images—to scale.”
Contending that he never intended to be an architect, Primack was trained as an artist. After his grant was over, he was hired as a draftsman, a carpenter. He met other builders, and wood workers. “Suddenly my drawings became real objects. I could actually hold the lines I’d drawn. I fell in love with architecture right then. I could know how much my building weighs.” Today, the Tree Circus documentation, like his more recent book about Santa Cruz, Divisible Cities, “sits quietly waiting for something or someone to kick it into action.”
A Place Called Home
Off Western Drive, the Primack residence summarizes the architect’s enduring passions. Extravagant canyon views; espaliered trees of apple, pear, and citrus; reclaimed beauty; and rooftop gardens—mixed use made intimate. Primack signatures. Bits of embedded pottery, glass, special rocks from the family collection dance across the front of the house.
“We planted 60 trees when we began,” he says, his eyes caressing the former saplings now soaring above second story balconies. “No one thought this lot was even buildable.”
The walls are steel troweled into a marble finish. A Carrara quote. Window screens out of printed circuits. “Last year we grew winter wheat on the rooftop,” says Primack.
Plane trees arch into natural bridges—Primack couldn’t resist a touch of Tree Circus. Original Cooper House bricks pave the front stoop. “After we spent our savings getting the house built, I told my wife that we were going to be poor for a while. So we spent three years gardening.”
The results are immediately appealing. Succulents and artichokes hug the tiled terraces. Fruit and flowers encircle sunny walls and sudden sculpture. Inside are multiple levels, unexpected windows and angles, and layers of visual seduction. Flea market textures, open beams, repurposed doors, more antlers. Primack is tireless in his acquisition of pruning shears and hose nozzles, as his enormous and surprisingly beautiful collections of both attest.
During his time with Rydell, Primack’s co-worker Janet Pollock became his sweetheart, then wife. Amor fati.
“The house I built for my family is the most beautiful house in Santa Cruz,” he says. “And I hope all my clients feel the same way about their homes. I wish everyone could know what it’s like to create a secure home and garden of one’s own.”
Running his hands along a burnished banister, Mark Primack radiates satisfaction. He’s home.