March 17, 2017 § 1 Comment
In 2004 I answered my kitchen phone to find George Braziller on the other end. After seeing Nat Kahn’s film, My Architect, he had called Penn’s Architectural Archives to find out whether there were any Louis Kahn projects in the works that might be worth publishing. As he put it to me, “We published the first book on Kahn in 1961, and we think it’s time we did another one.” Julia Moore Converse, then the head archivist at Penn, mentioned that a junior faculty member from Iowa had been spending a week or two at a time in Philadelphia over the last few summers, seemed diligent, and had what she thought was a unique take on Kahn’s architecture. Would I mind sending a prospectus, George asked? I did, and a few weeks later I found myself sitting in a midtown Manhattan bar with him and his editorial assistant talking about Kahn. Eventually we moved up to his wonderfully overflowing office, where he offered me my first book contract.
About a year later, Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science landed on shelves.
It was hardly George’s best seller–his original series of ten Masters of World Architecture books had been exceptionally popular in the sixties, and he was even better known for publishing American editions of European luminaries (I occasionally got away with saying I shared a publisher with Sartre). But sales weren’t the point. George was in publishing because he loved books. And along with literature, poetry, and fine art, he loved architecture. His 1961 book included a fantastically literate essay by Vincent Scully. The series’ book on Nervi (!) was authored by Ada Louise Huxtable. To say I barely felt up to the task is putting it mildly. But George had confidence in the book, and he put a stern editorial team on the project. I’ve never seen so much red ink, but every cut, every correction, honed the text and made my writing better. George arranged for a book launch at the National Building Museum, and for talks in Philadelphia and at Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago. I felt like a real author, and I could not have been happier with the book. It was very clear to me that it was good because he made sure it was something he could put his name on.
The New York Times reported tonight that George died yesterday, at the age of 101. It’s hard to feel sad about a life that was so long and that was responsible for bringing so much fine art, literature, and architecture to appreciative audiences, but it’s also hard not to feel like one of the last true believers in the power of words and images isn’t with us anymore. To have a first book published by a company so devoted to quality was an impossibly rare bit of luck, and every time I’ve heard praise for the book I’ve quietly thanked him and his editors and designers who made it what it was.
“His driving goal and ambition,” according to his son, Joel, was “to bring good writers and artists to the American public.” Twelve years later, it’s humbling to think that the Kahn book was a small part of that mission.
March 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s three fighter jets. Or the cost of putting up the POTUS’ family in New York instead of Washington for the next four years. Or 1/1000 of the U.S. military budget. For just slightly over a buck and a half per citizen per year, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities fund over 50,000 annual events throughout the country. They’ve made possible Ken Burns’ documentary on The Civil War. Sponsored publication of American classics in the Library of America series. Funded institutes on rural and urban design. Kept local theater alive in hundreds of communities. Helped teach kids to write, draw, and paint.
In 2006, the NEH also gave me a small summer grant to spend some time in Kokomo and Elwood, Indiana, researching a hunch about the American plate glass industry and its effects on Chicago architecture. Without that grant, Chicago Skyscrapers would never have happened. Admittedly, finding out that the largest plate glass factories in the world once graced the Indiana countryside isn’t the same thing as curing cancer. But multiply that by hundreds of scholars, artists, performers, and designers getting small boosts, being able to devote a few weeks here and there to questions about who we are as a country, or what it means to be an American, or even just to create in our world, and you get things that are of tangible value, even if they don’t immediately reflect a fiscal gain.
The difference between those two things is really one indicator of the depth of our political divide today. Do we even bother to spend 1/12,000 of our national budget on such questions? Some of us think that’s a good investment, and that rewarding the top 5% or so of scholars and artists practicing today (and yes, that’s how competitive the NEH and NEA grants are these days) is likely to pay off in new knowledge or meaningful experiences that will make us, if not immediately wealthier, more thoughtful and appreciative as citizens, and more aware of the complexity and depth of the world we find ourselves in. Today’s proposed elimination of these two agencies is another symptom of an epochal decline and fall in American culture.
We read the front page, the saying goes, to find out what our country has done wrong. We read the arts page to find out what our country is doing right. The balance between the two is being lost, and this is cause for genuine despair.
March 9, 2017 § 2 Comments
Just hanging out on Wall Street drinking coffee and fussing with slides for tomorrow’s New York/Chicago skyscraper debate with ace NYC preservation engineer Don Friedman. I thought it might be useful to start off with a history of the term–and what those who have tried to define “skyscraper” thought might constitute the first one. So, not to give too much away, but here’s what I’ve come up with. There’s a missing fifth column, and some of you may have a pretty good idea who and what goes in there. But no spoiler alerts–you can find out tomorrow morning at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City when Don and I unpack this and other complexities about the “first skyscraper.” See you there…
March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
A brilliant weekend last week in the big city, highlighted in part by this view from the hotel of the possibly doomed State of Illinois Center, more recently the James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and opened to wildly mixed reviews in 1985. The state is in year two of a fiscal meltdown, and Illinois’ governor has proposed selling the nearly 1 million square foot structure, which raises the possibility that a developer might buy the complex for its land and raze the building.
Which raises all kinds of interesting questions. 1985 is only 32 years old–far short of the 50-year cutoff that raises instant questions of historic preservation. And we’re still in the midst of battling the destruction of brutalist and late-modernist works from the 1960s and 1970s. Are we ready to talk about preserving post-modernism?
This is a particularly complicated question, because the Thompson Center is a failing building on many levels. Most notoriously, the structure is entirely single-glazed, which would have been a borderline choice in the early 1980s when energy was still relatively cheap, but today is absolutely insane, especially for a building with a 17-story, south-facing atrium. And those colors, “more suited to Acapulco than the Loop,” wrote Paul Gapp in 1985–in the midst of an era when what Jahn called “a return to optimism in architecture” was all the rage. Gapp went on to twist the knife:
It is above the level of the granite that the building falls apart esthetically. Jahn intended that the high-tech glass top convey a message of the less noble, more banal activities that are an inevitable part of everyday government activities. The bright blues, whites and silvers of the curtain wall were also to project the center’s symbolic optimism.
But it doesn’t work–not by half. To the building’s chunkiness is added the seeming quality of cheapness. Thirty feet above the ground on the LaSalle, Lake and Clark Street sides, the glass-walled center begins looking not simply out of context, but tawdry and vulgar. It is an embarrassment unredeemed by the greater integrity and glitter of the sloped setbacks facing the plaza. Much of Jahn’s highly abstract symbolism will go uncomprehended by anyone, including other architects.
Paul Gapp, “Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center is: 1. Breathtaking? 2. Impudent? 3. Outrageous? 4. Idiosyncratic? 5. All The Above?” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 17, 1985. Arts, p. 16.
Gapp noted, though, that the “vulgar” exterior was nearly redeemed by the amazing 17-story atrium, complete with futuristic glass elevators and a floor pattern that recalled Michelangelo’s Campidoglio–a classic piece of postmodern appropriation. Jahn’s inspiration, it was reported, was Henry Ives Cobb’s monumental, domed 1905 Post Office, which stood on the site of Mies’ current one-story structure. Cobb’s building, unfortunately, matched grand civic dignity with a total lack of functionality, and its replacement was planned within weeks of its opening.
The Thompson Center’s obsolescence has come more slowly. Initial reports found the interiors and furnishings cheap and flimsy. Occupants reported that the elevators left many with vertigo. By the building’s first summer it became apparent that the air conditioning system was no match for the 17-story greenhouse facing the morning sun, as well as the back end of the Daley Center. Cost cutting had eliminated doors on most offices, and the atrium’s hard surfaces made acoustics throughout the structure difficult. (Bonita Brodt, “Worker’s Eye View of the Building.” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1985. 1:1.). The air conditioning system was replaced in 1987, but the simple physics of the atrium have always made it difficult and expensive to heat and cool.
Coupled with benign neglect over the budget-plagued last few years, the building hasn’t aged well. The stone paneling at the base is chipped, colors have faded, and the retail and food court have gone steadily down market as other venues with better access to street traffic have taken higher-end merchants and restaurants away. So, what to do when such a flawed structure is threatened with sale and demolition?
The usual adaptive reuse arguments are problematic here. State of Illinois’ floor plates are gigantic–even with the atrium, there are spots on each floor that are more than 70 feet from windows or circulation. And the shapes of the floors themselves may make any of the traditional conversions–condominiums or a hotel–virtually impossible. So it’s hard to imagine anything other than offices moving in, meaning either a huge corporation that can best use acres of open floor space, or lots of renovation work to create lettable parcels inside and fix the acoustic problems that still persist. Even if those issues get solved, there’s the single-glazed skin itself and the cost of heating and cooling the building. Maybe the best hope for the building and for the city would be a complete re-skinning with materials that made sense with the city’s context (one tenet of post-modernism that Jahn seems to have missed entirely), and that worked with today’s energy concerns. The sloped top of the atrium, for instance, would benefit from some active solar panels, except of course that they’d be in the Daley Center’s shadow much of the morning.
So, die-hard preservation fan that I am, this is a really tough one to get behind. It’s easier to imagine buildings that extended the pedestrian scale of Lake Street, or the civic monumentality of the Daley Center, replacing Jahn’s infamous donut of a suburban Phoenix office park. The Thompson Center was ill-conceived and dysfunctional when it opened, and like its inspiration, Cobb’s Post Office, its urbane intentions shouldn’t be enough to save it on their own. Do the studies, figure out what might be able to re-inhabit the building’s 40,000 square foot floor plates, but given its youth and its remarkably early obsolescence, there may be other battles on which we should be focusing our preservation energies…
February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
This semester I’m chipping in to help teach our first year spring grad studio with ISU and Foster alumnus Andrew Gleeson. Andrew’s research (and design) interests have to do with order and ambiguity in 20th century modernism, so it’s been a chance to dive into the “ordering systems” and “use of precedents” NAAB criteria.
We’ve decided on a bread-and-butter approach, with an occasional slice of meaty prosciutto thrown in. The theme that Andrew suggested to connect the various charrette projects students are doing is “Grid/Grain,” asking them to investigate how the most tyrannical of ordering systems can actually be meaningful and even expressive. Their assignments have gone from taking a simple 20×20 grid and manipulating it to show various conditions—tension, rhythm, symmetry, disorder, etc.—up to the final assignment (yet to come), which will involve a small urban project in Des Moines. In between, they get a series of small residential projects, low-context to get them thinking inwardly about how architecture’s own referents are important ways of transmitting meaning and connecting to experience.
In one project, they were given a shipping container and told to design a studio apartment to fit inside. A pretty typical exercise these days, with the twist that we asked them to adhere, where possible, to a 2’ x 2’ grid. That matches the overall dimension of the shipping container, but it doesn’t match the interior dimensions, which offers a take on Alberti’s distinction between the lineaments of design—the pure, single lines of the diagram—and the mass of design, which are those lines represented in materials with actual thickness. There’s an inherent frustration in laying out a perfect grid and realizing that the material of the container itself basically mucks things up, and a good question then about whether you can establish a universal grid, or whether you’re better off thinking in terms of a module, and finding order where you can in a scheme where every inch has to count.
Other projects have been more straightforward; a nine-square grid house, which is an homage to the sort of thing we did as undergrads in the 1980s, for instance, and a pair of precedent studies with a gatehouse project at the end, asking them to distill one of their precedents into a smaller, condensed version that relates to the design principles of the original. But we’ve had fun with these, as well—the precedent studies asked them to simultaneously study a classical and a modern villa, looking for grids both latent and manifest in both, and seeing if they could tease out a dialogue between the two. Sometimes this was pretty easy—Palladio and Venturi, for example, speak to one another pretty fluently. Other times the luck of the draw produced something more difficult or intriguing—what Raphael and Peter Eisenman have to say to one another isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s also not unimaginable. The gatehouse project asks them to pick one of the two, but to continue the dialogue, so that Richard Neutra might have a gatehouse designed with just a bit of Inigo Jones in it.
Fun stuff, but with a serious agenda. We emphasize experiential qualities, conceptual thinking, and expression a lot in beginning design, and in the last generation or so this has come at the expense of those ordering systems and diligent precedent studies that NAAB still requires. Taking these seriously, instead of just throwing a copy of Frank Ching’s Form, Space, and Order on the desk, seems ripe for revival. Particularly since the tools we use today are so resistant to engaging with design minds—Ching compiled his book in an era when we still thought through every mark on the page and made our hands trace those shapes. Today, shapes are cheap, mental and physical labor-wise.
So we’ve proposed trying to instill some digital discipline as well. Assignments have to be finalized in Illustrator, and formatted on 20 x 30 sheets. This avoids the sloppy pinup technique of just slapping up whatever AutoCad or, god help us, SketchUp coughs up out of the printer. Each assignment demands a certain number of line weights and hatches, along with animation and thoughtfully placed text and grid lines. We’re sticking with black and white, too, and making rendering illegal. They’ll get plenty of practice with that in subsequent semesters.
A work in progress, but thus far a vaguely promising effort to develop the digital equivalent of eye-hand coordination while introducing some touchstones of composition and design, and talking about the rhetoric of architecture; how you form an argument, how you make that argument rigorous and evident, and how your drawings play a role in how convincing that argument is.
February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment
Very pleased to reprise a long-running debate with New York preservation engineer, George Post partisan, and regular ArchitectureFarm reader Don Friedman next month at Manhattan’s Skyscraper Museum. The intent, as always, is to throw some light on the rapid pace of innovation in the 19th century, and to show how technology was manifested in subtly different ways in the two cities. The ‘debate’ will take place at the Museum, 39 Battery Place on Friday morning, March 10 from 10:00-12:00. $10.00 for non-members, but really you should join the Museum and get in for free…
I’ll also be speaking at the Museum Wednesday, March 8, from 6:30-8:00 pm about the Chicago book. Free, but reservations required, RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org
January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
…every problem becomes a nail.
Bill McKibben’s excellent New York Times op-ed yesterday makes several points about the pipeline battles that have galvanized upper midwesterners and other environmentally- and culturally-minded citizens over the last couple of years. This hits close to home–the Dakota Access pipeline is scheduled to slice right across architecturefarm’s home county–but to me the most relevant paragraphs describes the outdated mindset behind these projects:
On questions of energy economics, Mr. Trump is stuck somewhere in the Reagan era, when energy independence at any cost was the watchword. He’s lost the plot of modern technological development. It’s sun and wind that are going to be our dominant sources of power as their prices continue to plummet. In fact, his approach may be even more antique: Fixating on Canada’s tar sands — where the economics of extracting low-quality crude have driven one big company after another out of that oil patch — is roughly equivalent, in its energy logic, to planning a sperm whale expedition.
There are many reasons why these projects have troubled activists, but this, to me, is the most symptomatic and worrying. I imagine future archaeologists looking at these projects–which, after all, aren’t even about supplying energy to North America, they’re about getting Canadian oil to shipping in the Gulf of Mexico so that it can be exported–and seeing them as one of two things. Either they portend the last gasps of a society so locked into its obsession with fossil fuels that they literally poisoned their groundwater and spent billions of dollars to suck the stuff out of tar sands in one of the most inhospitable and fragile ecosystems in the world. Or they’ll be seen as indicators of oil’s end game; in hindsight, I’d imagine these will be barometers of just how far we’ve passed peak oil, and how much more economic sense sources like solar, wind, and even nuclear are going to make in the next century or two. (Yes, it kills me to include nuclear. But in the interests of keeping open minds, let’s acknowledge that the damage it’s caused in the last sixty years pales in comparison to that caused by fossil fuels).
The most depressing thing about these pipeline projects is how they so totally ignore the design and production advances that have–for the first time–made solar and wind economically competitive. You don’t have to be a card-carrying progressive to feel disappointed that, just as the world’s design ingenuity seems to be paying off, and renewable energy seems not only feasible, but logical, these whaling expeditions are garnering so much attention, and so much support.