construction history in the news…pyramids and grain

November 7, 2015 § 1 Comment to get political, but this week one of the presidential candidates waded into architecturefarm territory by claiming that the Egyptian pyramids were built as grain storage by biblical figure Joseph to ensure his people would last through the mythic seven years of drought mentioned in Genesis.  There may, in his words, have been aliens or divine inspiration behind both the form and the construction of the Pyramids.  “The pyramids were made in a way that they had hermetically sealed compartments,” Carson said. “You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time.”, yes.  But if this theory was true you almost couldn’t find a dumber way to store grain.  The largest of the pyramids contains a well-documented 2.5 million cubic meters of limestone and an equally well-documented 340 or so cubic meters of actual space.  While we can argue about whether the dozens of artifacts found in the pyramids’ interior chambers represent burial rituals or carelessness on the part of granary employees who just happened to be carrying around religious artifacts, I think it’s pretty clear that 1/7400 is probably the worst net to gross ratio in the history of building.  If the pyramids were in fact divinely-inspired granaries, the designer was having a particularly bad day.

Some quick math.  There are about 640 calories in one cup of wheat berriesThere are 4227 cups in one cubic meter.   So the Great Pyramid could have held about 640 calories/cup x 4227 cups/cubic meter x 340 cubic meters/Great Pyramid, or about one billion calories of grain.

Sounds like a lot, until you do the math and realize that the average human consumes about a million calories a year.  Even accounting for famine conditions and assuming that each Egyptian could get by on half of that, that means that each of the divinely-inspired granaries could have supported 2000 Egyptians for a year, or about 285 of them for the full seven year famine.  Ok, ok, there were three “great” pyramids, but optimistically that means enough grain for roughly 900 Egyptians to get through a seven year famine.

Now, here’s the fun part.  This month’s Scientific American has a great article on the actual construction of the Pyramids.  In particular, it focuses on the work of archaeologists like Mark Lehner and Pierre Tallet, who have excavated the job site towns around the pyramids and discovered whole cities devoted to housing workers and laborers, and to managing the trade of metals, stones, and–yes–food to keep the construction sites going.  Their findings are really fascinating.  Among other things, there’s evidence that, far from being slave laborers, the workers who built the pyramids seem to have been ordinary citizens who may have been donating their labor out of religious devotion.  And they’ve tracked trade routes as far away as the Sinai peninsula, suggesting that the organization and trading relationships that were formed to get the pyramids built served to raise the Egyptian economy far above its neighbors.  The pyramids, according to Lehner, were more of a “sociological wonder” than a “technological wonder,” providing the economic and labor infrastructure that transformed the Egyptian state into a self-sustaining positive economic feedback loop that “not only created wealth for Egypt but also lifted the economies of its trading partners abroad.”

No surprise that this particular presidential candidate would scoff at that sort of Keynesian economic history.  But more to the point, Lehner and others estimate that the size of the town housing the pyramids’ workforce was something like 6,000–in other words, seven times the population the pyramids could have fed if they were in fact granaries.  And the towns had their own granaries to feed their residents that were far larger than the 340 cubic meters offered by the pyramids’ interiors.

In other words, the Pyramids as granaries would have been not only spatially inefficient, but not even as efficient as the warehouses in town used to feed the crews building them.

I don’t know about you, but this seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars to me.

figure 4-15

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Figure 4-15 thumbI’ve been abroad the last couple of weeks, taking advantage of a Visiting Scholar position at the American Academy in Rome to finish acquiring and producing illustrations for the forthcoming Nervi book–more or less officially titled Beauty’s Rigor: Patterns of Production in the Work of Pier Luigi Nervi.  I have a crack team of graduate students back home who are turning out the more interesting stuff–sequential images of components being fabricated and placed that really help to explain how these structures are all based on algorithmic methods as much as they are on structural principles.  (We’re calling them IKEA drawings…)  I’ve finalized the archival images with MAXXI, and this has given me time to sit in the Sid Bass studio up on the Academy’s fourth floor and just draw.  It’s not quite a Prix du Rome experience–all Illustrator instead of 18 shades of india ink and giant easels–but this is still an inspiring place.

Today’s completed effort above in low-res.  This is the Kursaal Restaurant in Ostia, one of my favorite excursions on an early reconnaissance trip in 2012.  It’s a tiny seaside pavilion that’s part of a beach resort, and it’s a total gem.  Nervi worked with Roman architect Attilio Lapadula on the design in 1950, which features a reverse dome tiled in his famous tavelloni.  The roof is supported on a concrete stalk–and little else.  A ring of columns and (originally) steel mullions did the work of balancing wind loads on the roof, which is an unusual sleight-of-hand for an engineer known for his adherence to “structural truth.”

Whatever.  It’s beautiful, and it plays with expectations of structure while flooding the room with daylight from the horizon and from a large cantilevered eyebrow and light shelf.  Fun to spend some time drawing through it and tracing Pier Luigi’s lines through the ceiling.

IMG_1128And when this is the view behind your laptop screen, drawing pretty much anything is a good day.

more houston, mark and mies

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_1025Some recreational architectural viewing after Tuesday’s lecture…brunch at the Menil, you know, the sort of thing you get to do when the amazing Donna Kacmar is your host.  Houston is secretly one of my favorite cities, in part because it’s downtown is really the raw id of American urbanism–lassez faire raised to mega-skyscraper height–but also because of the pockets of amazingly urbane neighborhoods and some of the finest cultural institutions in North America clustered just outside of its steroidal central business district.

It helps, of course, if those neighborhoods were the benefactors of the Menil family.  Piano’s museum is just the nucleus of a handful of buildings in the Museum district that were funded by the heirs to the Schlumberger oil fortune.  Money well spent–not only on the museum but also on the nearby Rothko chapel and Cy Twombly gallery.  The Museum is in great shape, having just been re-clad and cleaned up.

IMG_1017Rothko is very much of the moment in Houston, too, with a show at the Museum of Fine Arts that traces his development out of surprisingly derivative early work (he had a Dubuffet phase, an Ernst phase, etc., etc.,) into the ethereal color canvases that still stop me in my tracks wherever I see one.  Several rooms of them add a whole layer to his work–you start to see themes developing in the smallest details, like whether the lines dividing color fields are sharp or fuzzy, whether the borders are taped or solid, etc., etc.  Rothko was an architect’s painter…the details prove surprisingly influential in how you see his ghostly color figures.

So, one quibble.  The Museum of Fine Arts has three buildings–the well-known Mies wrapper to the original structure, and a crisp Moneo addition across the street.  The Rothko show is in the Moneo, which works well enough.  Well scaled galleries, good sequence, etc., etc., and it was nice to be able to wander in and out a bit.  But some of the show’s really important moments are sketches and originals for the murals he painted for the Seagram Building in 1958–ultimately abandoned but striking in the way they expanded formally and tonally on his better known works.  The scale of them, especially when paired as intended, is bigger than the Moneo galleries really permitted (no photographs, of course, but here they are on the website:

So…we don’t get to see what these would be like across the street in, if not the Seagram itself, at least a contemporaneous Mies building? small point.  The show, especially with a brief, head-space-inducing stop in the Rothko chapel, would have made the trip worth it alone.  But a well-attended lecture, good student work to review, and a full roster of local cuisine made this a great couple of days.  Any lecture invitation that includes tacos and a discussion of barbeque tectonics is going to be well-received.  And, for the record, if the char on your brisket deserves to be called “bark” instead of just “crust,” you’re doing it right.



October 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

In skyscraper city south for a lecture tonight at UH…hoping to catch up with a few friends and maybe some of the far flung ISU alumni tribe after.  6:00 at the University of Houston College of Architecture  and Design. 

northwestern lecture 13 october 2:30

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Thomas Leslie 10-13-2015Pleased to be giving what has become, happily, my annual lecture at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering tomorrow at 2:30 in TECH A230 (easy to remember…)  Unlike past years this won’t be on Chicago but rather on the recent Nervi research, in particular the roles of ferrocemento and prefabrication in his contracting business.  Hope to see some northsiders there…

atmospheres: juhani pallasmaa in iowa

October 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_3052A good week here.  Finnish architect and writer Juhani Pallasmaa, a neighbor during the Rome year, was kind enough to spend two days of his current U.S. visit with us in Ames and Des Moines, and it’s fair to say that the entire program is feeling its bar raised significantly after his lecture last night.

Pallasmaa’s theoretical work is usually labeled phenomenological, but it encompasses cognitive science, ethics, aesthetics, and tectonics in its scope.  He consistently argues for the importance of human experience in both making and occupying spaces, in particular the importance of the senses (all twelve…) and of craft.  Others have made similar pleas for such engagement and thoughtfulness, but Juhani’s writing comes across as more celebration than scold.  As frustrating as the continuing reign of the visual and the spectacular may be, the essays and books he’s written remind us that more fulfilling, more engaging architecture and design still occurs, and still offers us moments of pause and reflection–crucial headspace in a world that doesn’t offer much of it.

DSC02786Juhani is as generous a thinker as he is prolific, and it was a joy to listen to him talk with students about their work, about what he thinks architects who are just starting need to focus on (hint: drawing, lots) and what makes good design.  “The character of the maker” was his answer to the last one–it’s not brilliance or inspiration, but rather the diligence and thoughtfulness of the designer as they make the ten thousand little decisions that require patience, reflection, and persistence throughout a project.

We enticed him to Iowa, in part, by pointing out that the greatest collection of Saarinen buildings is in Des Moines.  “Saarinen never did a bad building, did he?” Juhani asked–rhetorically, of course–as we left Scott Chapel and headed to lunch in the Art Center’s courtyard.  We couldn’t come up with one.

Very grateful to all who made this happen, and of course to Juhani, who left us with an overview of twelve themes in his design work, ranging from color and material to staircases and light.  And with no shortage of bon mots to chew on.  “Science is how we confront the world in the third person,” he told our graduate students during a seminar (above).  “Art is how we confront the world in the first person.”

biennale skyscraper roundtable

October 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_3047 A quick but enjoyable trip to the south side over the weekend to take part in a roundtable discussion on skyscraper innovation as part of the Chicago Biennale.  IIT and the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat put together a great panel to discuss the idea that Chicago has been the “Silicon Valley of the Skyscraper,” a claim that certainly rings true.

So, is it?  The question dovetailed neatly with the discussions we had as part of my summer gig at Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas in Norfolk, VA.  There, the question was how firms could nurture a more innovative culture internally and externally–changing practices while changing cities–and the required reading was Walter Isaacson’s brilliant history of Silicon Valley, The Innovators.  Isaacson’s point was that the Valley happened because three things came together–creative ideas, engineering talent, and “business savvy plus deal-making moxie.”  In other words, the creation myth that billion-dollar companies simply sprang out of garages because of something in the water supply doesn’t tell half the story.  Indeed, not even a third of it.

Chicago certainly had all three of those things in the 1890s and the 1960s.  And it has them today, too.  Ideas, execution, and a healthy stash of money in the form of real estate investment flourish in the city (as reported earlier this week).  But there are more specific factors at work, too.  In addition to Isaacson’s book, Martin Kenney’s, Understanding Silicon Valley: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region, published in 2000, gave a recipe for how similarly innovative cultures might grow up:

“A leading role for local venture capital; a close relationship between local industry and the major research universities of the area; a product mix with a focus on electronic components, production equipment, advanced communications, instrumentation, and military electronics; an unusually high level of interfirm cooperation; a tolerance for spinoffs; and a keen awareness of the region as existing largely outside the purview of the large, ponderous, bureaucratic electronics firms and financial institutions of the East Coast.”

IIT certainly provided the research in the 1950s, though it was the farther-flung campuses in Urbana-Champaign and Madison that did the job in the 1890s.  Today, that research often happens in-house.  The product mix in previous generations was represented by the local steel industry, which allowed knowledge to flow back and forth between desks and fabrication floors.  Cooperation and spinoffs have always been hallmarks of the city’s structural design community–journals like Inland Architect and the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers were among the most ‘open-source’ outlets in the country (and the latter was among the first to take a publication-ready interest in the work being done by the Wright Brothers in 1903-5).

The final element of Kenney’s recipe, the healthy disregard for the traditions and bureaucracy of New York in particular, is one of the more common reasons given for Chicago’s culture at the turn of the century.  That’s harder to quantify, of course, but the freedom to innovate was certainly pushed by the frontier mentality of the era–with no need to satisfy the pretensions of clients, this argument goes, the stultifying aesthetics of the McKim, Mead, and White wing allowed far freer designs and thus more inspiration from the wide windows and narrow steel columns that new technologies offered.

As I’ve shown elsewhere, that wasn’t entirely true, but it’s close enough.  Chicago has always had a reputation, in some cases self-promoted, for defying convention and for being willing to explore more radical possibilities than its more traditional big brother out east.  That’s not so much the case today, when super-skinnies and other new typologies are emerging from offices in New York and throughout the world.  But Chicago’s home base–Thornton Tomasetti, Halvorson, SOM, and Smith/Gill among others–continue to find innovative ways to build tall, and to secure the city’s reputation as, if not the Silicon Valley of the skyscraper, at least one outpost of a global “Valley.”

IMG_3037And, as for creative centers?  IIT never disappoints.  The Biennale found ways to inhabit, highlight, and critique some of the city’s own sacred cows…


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