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Zen Master

Paul Discoe’s design is grounded in Eastern Philosophy.


Photograph by Diablo Imaging

If you’d never met Paul Discoe, you might expect him to be formal, maybe a bit stuffy. After all, he is a world-renowned architect whose projects have included a “royal Japanese estate” for Larry Ellison, restaurants such as San Francisco’s Greens and Berkeley’s Ippuku, and the Brower Center at UC Berkeley. He’s even done the lovely front desk and benches at the California Academy of Sciences.

But when I met Discoe, 67, at the Oakland office of his company, Joinery Structures, he showed up wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt, and driving an old pickup truck. He took me on a tour of his warehouse, showing me the wood he uses in his projects—much of it salvaged lumber from Oakland. When at last we sat down, he talked about his Zen Buddhist philosophy, which explains, among other things, his
down-to-earth nature and fondness for found and sustainable materials.

“When my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, went to the grocery store, he would pick out the vegetables that were crooked or somewhat deformed, because other people might not buy them,” Discoe says. “And then there’s just the general philosophy, a Japanese philosophy that comes from Buddhism way back, called mottainai, which means not to waste.”

Discoe’s work is deeply entwined with such philosophical ideas. Raised in Berkeley in a family that boasts a long line of contractors, Discoe studied Eastern philosophy, art, and literature at a small liberal arts college in Monterey. After graduating, he studied Zen with Suzuki at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, east of Big Sur. Suzuki later sent him to Japan, where Discoe had a five-year apprenticeship building temples.

When he returned home, however, he discovered that American Buddhists were often uninterested in traditional temple designs. He began to build houses, restaurants, and furnishings, instead, but he still applies Zen ideas to these projects. (Discoe is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.) For example, at Ippuku, he poured the concrete floor in small individual pieces rather than in one “huge, monolithic slab” because he saw it as a way to help people open their minds to new possibilities.

“I tried to do things with the restaurant that would make people see the world a little differently,” he says. “We poured [the floor] in individual places so it gives the feeling of being homogeneous but separate, which for me, is a sort of life statement. To be homogeneous, we’re all human beings; we work together, but we’re all separate.”

Discoe tends to speak circuitously when describing his work, almost as if he’s reciting a Zen koan, or paradox. For example, when you ask about unifying themes in his work, he says, “Whatever you say, it’s only half the picture. It’s very easy to misunderstand and draw a square and say, ‘This is it,’ but everything outside the square is it, too. I wrote a whole book trying to express it, to walk around the idea, so that you can see it from many different points of view, and thereby get a glimpse of what the shape is. But if you say, ‘This is the shape,’ then you missed the point. Once you’ve defined it, you’ve killed it.”

His book, Zen Architecture, illustrates some of what makes Discoe’s work unique. For example, while he was designing a guesthouse in Sonoma County, he found a large fallen walnut tree on the property. He split the log and used it to create a gorgeous symmetrical doorway that showcases the wood in a form similar to the original.

“It’s letting things tell you what they are,” he says, “rather than you bringing your ideas of what they are to them.”

There are, of course, challenges in building Japanese-style in the United States. Discoe explains one major roadblock he encountered when working on Oracle founder Ellison’s complex in Woodside.

“[In] Asian engineering, the concept is to be loose so it rocks with the earthquake; it moves. The Western way is to be rigid, to hold on tight and ride it out. So, that was a big challenge, to do buildings that looked like they’re soft and they sway, and at the same time meet all of the codes and all of the requirements of Western engineering.”

The contrast in cultural perspectives may make it seem as if Asian architecture would be incompatible with our society. But Discoe sees them as complementary.

“Asian philosophy and understanding is sort of like the other half of the yin and the yang,” he says. “Western philosophy and understanding is very outward reaching. It’s not very deep, but it’s broad. Asian philosophy is very narrow but deep. The two go together. In my mind the two are kind of made for each other.”   ■


Clockwise from top left: An outdoor kitchen of a house in a Woodside complex has a stone sink from China; this ornamental log holds up the lower ridge of an Occidental home; this door in a Penngrove guesthouse is made from the spalted wood of a fallen walnut tree found on the property; the frame of the Woodside roof uses wild natural rounds; materials move from earth to stone to wood to clay on the Woodside project; the exposed wood in the ceiling in this Napa home is a typical Discoe touch.


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