corn dogs

March 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

coverAbout ten years ago I put together a short project on the history of Iowa’s State Fair.  It’s the only book published by Princeton Architectural Press to feature a corn dog recipe, and it’s been a regular seller every August when fair time rolls around.  (And how do pork chops and deep fried twinkles on a stick relate to the day job?  I got interested in the Fair’s animal barns and how their agricultural interiors were dressed up by locally produced brick and terra cotta when they were built from 1902-1927).

Anyway, there’s a great new book of State Fair images and essays out by Iowa photographer Kurt Ullrich, and this week an exhibition of his photos opened at Simpson College.  Kurt, myself, and historian Chris Rasmussen were invited by the Iowa History Center there to do an evening panel on the Fair’s history, and it was a great chance to revisit some of this ‘research’ (some of which, I’ll admit, was done with said pork chops on a stick firmly in hand in 2004).

stock pavilion pcThe Fair remains an iconic Iowa event, and it encapsulates our state’s split between rural and urban.  Something like 90% of Iowa’s land is agricultural, but more than a third of Iowans live within metropolitan areas.  And out of a total state population of three million, average Fair attendance is over one million every year–so nearly a third of us attend regularly.  I can’t think of another state that has a single event that pulls such a huge percentage of its population together annually (OK, maybe Packer’s games if you count Wisconsinites watching on TV…?)A

birds eye pcA truly fun evening–a good crowd, and between the panelists I think we covered the range of ways that the Fair remains a meaningful institution.  Kurt’s photographs are extraordinary, Rasmussen has a more complete overview of the Fair’s history coming out this Fall, and the exhibit will travel after its run at Simpson…I’ll be lecturing at the Dubuque Art Museum on 13 September (tentatively) to celebrate Kurt’s show there.

final 1

UMass

March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_1492_2   Mad, crazy thanks to Max Page and Sanjay Arwade from UMass’ Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering Departments for putting together my jointly-sponsored lecture there last night.  A good crowd, good discussion before and afterwards, and a tour of Massachusetts’ only Frank Lloyd Wright house thrown in (most people, when they go to Amherst, see Emily Dickinson’s house.  Not me…).

IMG_1493UMass is known for its collection of postwar architecture–“brutalist,” sure, but it’s a particularly fine collection of work by architects like Breuer, Stubbins, and Roche all on their best behavior.  I stayed in the Breuer building, part of which is the University’s hotel, which was a genuine treat–all gorgeous concrete, mostly still exposed even after some renovations to warm the thing up.  The building has a large meeting hall that features a UNESCO-like folded plate roof, which naturally led us to talk about the influence of Nervi and Breuer on one another.  As I’ve suggested before, I think there was a billiard ball effect when these two met–both careers were forever changed by that project, and UMass shows Breuer’s Nervi-inspired love of sculptural, maybe “neb-structural’ concrete.

IMG_1495And facing Breuer across the quad-like pond is 500+ feet of Kevin Roche at his best in the mid-1970s.  The Architecture department is one of several housed in this gargantuan but really humane building, a monument of exposed concrete with a single line of studios marked by the north-facing skylight up above.  A simple move, but one that recalls colonnades and cornices, pediments and arcades without being too explicit. Uh, that Ed Stone library in the background?  OK, you can ignore that one.

IMG_1497_2Fun few days.  Back to Iowa tonight, lecturing tomorrow at 5:30 at Simpson College on the history of the State Fair buildings with other historians and photographers.  A change of gears, to be sure…

super skinny

March 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

IMG_1484New York’s skyline has been in the news lately due to a handful of reed-thin additions.  Rafael Viñoly’s astonishingly slender tower at 432 Park Avenue is on the jogging route between the hotel and Central Park this week, so it’s been a daily source of amazement.

As reported this week by Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books432 Park is just one of a number of residential towers either going up or on the books that are exploiting a handful of loopholes in New York’s zoning code and (perhaps more crucially) a seemingly limitless source of funds from the %0.01 fueling the luxury high rise market.  The code has always allowed transferring air rights from one property to another, and has also permitted unlimited height for any tower not occupying more than 25% of its overall site.  What’s new is the incredibly financial pressure being exerted by land values and the market for ultra-high end residences.  These have pushed developers to exploit small sites with prestigious addresses to unheard-of heights.  (There is, of course, a giant socio-economic story behind this that was addressed last month in the New York Times–also well worth the read).

432 Park is 1,397 feet tall–Sears territory–but its floor plates are each just 65’ square.  This gives it a slenderness ratio of just over 21.5, quite literally pencil-thin.  In the 1890s, a slenderness ratio of 7 was enough to give engineers fits because of lateral loading from wind.  432 Park and most other planned towers in its slenderness territory handle the loading by using super-stiff moment frames, the same principle that Sears uses for its bundled tubes.  That accounts for the rigorous checkerboard pattern of windows on its facades; what you’re seeing is literally the structure, filled in with glass, and nothing more.  The columns and girders are all thicker than they’d need to be for gravity loads alone so that they can make large, rigid connections to one another.  Rigid connections, in turn, make the structure behave like a network, with every element being ‘recruited’ into resisting any sudden gusts of wind.

Empire State Plaza_ PanoramaAll fine and good, but the simple scale of wind loading isn’t the only problem.  As architects Harrison and Abramowitz discovered when the then ultra-slim-looking Empire State Plaza buildings opened in Albany in  1966, buildings sway when subjected to constant lateral loading, and eventually they resonate.  As buildings get deflected and spring back into place, they accelerate because of the constant force of wind (f=Ma, no matter what).  At the right wind speed, they’ll keep going with surprising velocity.  The repetitive motion isn’t necessarily a structural problem (though it can be–this was what brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge), but it’s a person problem.  We get seasick with repetitive, lulling motions.  The legend of the Empire State Plaza is that Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, experienced this with predictably disastrous results upon moving in.

The standard solution for this kind of harmonic motion is a tuned mass damper–a huge weight in the upper stories of a slender skyscraper that’s allowed to slide back and forth, but that is tied to the building structure by massive springs.  The inertia of the weight keeps it more or less in the same place while the building sways around it, and the springs dampen any excessive movement.  Tuned mass dampers sound crazy, but they stabilize buildings ranging from the Citicorp Tower in New York to Taipei 101.  (And, yes, in a retrofit, the Empire State Plaza).

What’s particularly problematic about this new generation of super-talls (can we go ahead and call them ludicrously-talls?) is that the upper floors are so small that there isn’t room for the large, massive dampers and surrounding space for them to move.  One Madison Park, a mere 621’ residential tower that opened in 2010, solved this by using a “slosh tank” filled with fluid that takes the place (and space) of the springs.  Other planned towers, like SHoP’s design for 111 W. 57th, tuck a tuned mass damper below setbacks and spires that narrowly taper to the advertised height–but of course this means access above the damper is next to impossible.  Almost 300 feet of 111 W. 57th will be unoccupied.

So, what’s a structural engineer to do?  One trend that’s utterly counterintuitive is to make these buildings heavier at their tops–to increase slab depths and column thicknesses to give the tops of towers more inertia on their own.  This goes against two thousand years of conventional wisdom–after all, the Pantheon’s builders took great pains to incorporate pumice and empty clay jars in the topmost strata of its concrete to lighten the weight of the roof.  But with high-strength concrete the norm, and larger column sizes in lower floors based on moment connections instead of dead load anyway, there’s no real reason not to do this.  Think of an apple on the end of a yardstick–it takes a lot more effort to shake it back and forth than if you shake the yardstick alone.

IMG_1486Weird, right?  Weird and hardly resource-efficient.  But intuition only works for so long–new economic pressures, code loopholes, and material science have always combined to create uncanny structural forms; after all, many Chicagoans thought the ‘super skinny’ Reliance Building would blow over in the first good windstorm.  So it’s just possible that super-skinny will be the new norm, and that we’ll continue to see reed-thin skyscrapers that conceal giant weights at their tops–whether these weights are built into the structure, or whether they’re sliding around on an upper floor.  But there’s also a lot of Rube-Goldbergian cleverness to getting these towers to hold still, and there are rumors about more than one of them that even with the best-intentioned dampers and stiffness the motion at the top–the most expensive units, of course–is more than what was hoped for.  F=Ma has a sneaky way of winning out.

(hat tip to argz for some good background ‘skinny’ on this topic today).

foster ny

March 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_1456There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing former colleagues and former students working together–except maybe to have lunch with all of them in a truly amazing space.  Thanks to Andrew, Chris, Alissa, Zoe, and Beau for taking the time to show me around Foster + Partners’ NY HQ this week.  Lunch in the ‘canteen’ downstairs in the space of the old Armory, and with the Hearst Tower floating overhead, was extraordinary.  A far cry, indeed, from burritos in the job trailer at Stanford, once Fosters’ HQ for the, erm, entire western hemisphere….

prouve, bucky…

March 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

A tough week for the profession, losing two great figures.  You almost couldn’t get designers who were further apart in spirit than Frei Otto and Michael Graves, but both seemed to have in common that they were genuinely likable human beings, in addition to being so widely known.  The news about both of them came via texts while leaving classes this week.  Otto gets a role in an upcoming lecture on shell and membrane structures, natch; Graves, well…I’ll leave his work to another faculty member’s course, but I will say that I did a quick inventory in the kitchen last night as a modest tribute and I certainly own more Graves’ designs than I do Otto’s.

bucky prouveAnyway.  Two other titans in yesterday’s class.  Jean Prouvé and Buckminster Fuller don’t, on the surface, seem to have much in common, but it’s been a longstanding trope of mine to pair them up in lectures.  They were almost exact contemporaries–Fuller was born in 1895, Prouvé in 1901, and they died within a few months of one another in 1983-84.  Both experienced enormous wins and losses in business, both were obsessed with industrializing housing, and both looked obsessively to aircraft and ship design to critique architecture.  The fact that one of them was from a wealthy New England family and the other the son of painters from northeastern France?  Minor details.

What’s fascinating to me about the two of them considered together, though, is that they approached the same ideal–factory production of housing–from opposite directions.  Prouvé grew into the idea from a start as a blacksmith–his early work was very much bespoke, art nouveau wrought-iron production.  Fuller, on the other hand, ended up working with Beechcraft in Wichita as part of what he always saw as a strategy for redesigning not just the house, but human society.  While Prouvé was making gorgeous, stylized doors in Nancy, Fuller was sketching out a global distribution scheme for the airship-deliverable, omni-inhabitable 4-D tower.  If they’d run into each other in 1927, they would hardly have had a word to say to one another.

But WWII focused both of their careers; Fuller’s grandiose schemes came to focus on the idea of adapting the pace and achievement of wartime aluminum fabrication to the impending postwar housing surge, while Prouvé had gradually built his atelier up into a genuine industry.  Fuller’s Wichita House was essentially an aircraft fuselage blown out to residential proportions, while Prouve’s Meudon Houses can be seen as taking his principles of furniture design to the scale of building.  Both were successfully prototyped; both fizzled as the prospect of taking the ideas to market loomed.  And both stand today as far more influential moments than they were at the time, or even for a generation afterwards.

meudon wichitaTheir careers after these houses went in opposite directions: Fuller re-invented himself as a guru of geodesics and, eventually, of world-gaming.  Prouvé, after splitting with his corporate investors, enjoyed a second career as consulting engineer and designer, brainstorming some of the most brilliant curtain walls of the 1950s and 1960s but being frustrated by his alienation from the factory and workshop floors.  Neither looked back at the idea of industrializing residential construction.  One gets the sense that for Fuller the problem had become too small, and for Prouvé too large.  Instead, both reflected on their experiences with occasionally caustic observations on the state of architecture and building in the 1970s.  Fuller famously noted that he “urged boys [always boys, with Fuller…] graduating in architecture to go into the aircraft industry” instead of into building design (“The Comprehensive Man,” 1959).  Prouvé, meanwhile, lamented that architects had become “distanced from technical considerations and even further from the actual execution of the work.”  They were, sadly, now “attorneys” and “administrators” and only rarely “originators” (“The Organization of Building Construction,” 1964).

pompidou fosterNonetheless, they both stuck with the profession, as gadflies and consultants if nothing else.  And both of them lived long enough to see their ideas and values–in particular the idea that good design can be teased from the rigors and patterns of scientific and industrial inquiry–form the foundation for a generation of designers.  Norman Foster’s debt to Bucky has always been a large part of his office’s ethic and history.  Fuller played a huge role in the office’s early direction, serving as a consultant and collaborator on several projects and–more importantly–being a constant presence in the firm’s discussions.  Prouvé?  That’s him with the glasses in the photo on the right, along with Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson, judging entries to the 1971 competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou.  Prouvé chaired the jury and championed the winning scheme by Piano and Rogers.  Ultimately that building’s celebration of metal fabrication was as powerful a statement of Prouvé’s beliefs as anything his own atelier had produced.

errors and omissions

March 4, 2015 § 5 Comments

reliance.jpgA somewhat overdue correction…in Chapter 5 of Chicago Skyscrapers, I cited a contemporary source stating that the Reliance Building’s skin was “nearly 90 percent glass.”  Sharp-eyed CAF docent Chuck McLaughlin sent me the attached photo along with a guess that the actual percentage was more like 75%.

True enough.

The Reliance’s windows are about 9′ in height.  Its terra cotta spandrels are 4’-6” deep (from Freitag’s 1904 book–which gives a total floor to floor height of 13’-6”).  So the total glass-to-solid ratio is 66% not counting the vertical mullions.  This sounds too low, but I think it’s right if you count the horizontal sills at the base and top of each window as solid.

From the inside, of course, 9’ windows with a 2’-0” upstand for the spandrel (again, from the detail published in Freitag) still gives only 81%, which is “nearly” 90% only in the language of the era’s breathless newspaper editing.  I suspect this is where the claim may have come from, and the “70%” claim for the Fisher is, likely, based again on its interior dimensions.

Thanks to Chuck for sending this in–I think it’s critical to get details like this one correct, and as and when a second edition comes out (fondest hopes…) I’ll make sure this gets fixed…

fire escapes

February 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

classic-iron-fire-escape-chicago-il-christine-tillThe best part about lecturing to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s docent class is that the talk itself is kind of a formality–the Q&A afterwards has always been extensive and tons of fun.  Their questions are invariably either tough ones (can we even say that the Monadnock is a “masonry” skyscraper?  That one occupied us for a good fifteen minutes.  Answer: sure, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s a transitional one that uses a hybrid of masonry and steel to stand up against both gravity and wind).

One question that touched on a serious life safety issue came up: why do some period buildings have exterior steel fire escapes but others don’t?  The answer is a pretty gruesome one (and as CAF’s Hallie Rosen pointed out, starting off any answer with “the answer is a pretty gruesome one” is a GREAT way to ensure the audience is all ears).

In March, 1898, a fire broke out in the Ayer building, a seven-story, heavy timber-framed building on Wabash St.  The fire’s spread was rapid and intense–it shattered plate glass windows across the street–and it occurred in the middle of the day when the structure was fully occupied.  More than a dozen occupants lost their lives.

While most of the press coverage focused on the shoddy construction of the building and a small light court that formed an effective chimney, a subsequent fire in the Shoreman building, between the Manhattan and Old Colony buildings on Dearborn Street, highlighted a fire escape itself as the cause of several deaths.  Occupants leaving the upper floors via a narrow iron ladder attached to the rear of the building were forced to descend past windows on the fire-engulfed lower floors.  The ladder had become “a skeleton of red hot iron,” forcing people to jump or burn to death.  Those in the Shoreman–which burned on a weekend–had been luckier:

““Had all the usual occupants of the Shoneman Building been at work, it is probable many would have found themselves in the same predicament as the hapless tenants of the Ayer Building… The fire escapes in both cases consisted of a narrow iron platform at a window on each floor and an iron ladder close to the window and scarcely twelve inches from the wall, where the flames made it red hot in an instant after they broke through the window. Luckily, most of the tenants of the Shoneman Building had an opportunity to get down the iron ladder before the flames got at it. (“Fire Ruin at Noon.” Chicago. Mar. 22, 1898, 5).

Subsequent agitation for improved fire escapes inspired code provisions that made minor adjustments to requirements for exterior stairs, requiring them to be moved “far enough away from the window to prevent its heating even after the flames break through the windows,” (ibid.).  But cold weather, rain, water from firefighters hoses, and lingering exposure to heat, smoke, and flame made these escapes dangerous enough that by 1907 architect F. W. Fitzpatrick made a radical suggestion covered by Inland Architect:

“A valuable suggestion for the preservation of life and property comes from Architect F. W. Fitzpatrick. This refers to the main stairway which as usually planned and constructed affords great facility for the spread of flames throughout the building. This danger point it is suggested should be made of incombustible materials, and be used as the fire escape of the building. The fact that it could be made to perfectly serve as the fire escape would be a strong argument with the owner to consent to the construction of the main stairs with enclosures being of fire-resisting materials. The enclosure would need to be provided with self-closing fire doors at each landing. The stairway should lead directly to the street or into a fire-proof corridor opening to the outside, and having no openings not protected against fire. The stairway enclosure so built would constitute a bulwark against the spread of fire from floor to floor, and on this account alone would justify its fire-proof construction. The added advantage that it would form the best possible fire escape, and save the expense of any other, would be a further strong factor in favor of its being made incombustible. Changes are urged in municipal ordinances to require such construction. The advantages are so great and direct that the movement should meet with little opposition.”  (“Fireproof Stairways as Fire Escapes.” The Inland Architect and News Record. Vol. L, no. 2. August, 1907. 14).

This suggestion lingered for a long time–as late as 1927 the AIA and state fire marshal were agitating for internal fire escapes only, following New York City’s lead.  (“Calls Outside Fire Escapes Public Menace,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 4, 1927.  C1).  Enclosed fire escapes, surrounded by fire-resisting walls, were finally made mandatory in the city in 1938, though older buildings were grandfathered in.  This means that iron fire escapes still provide last-resort exiting on older buildings throughout the city, but they’re also one more building element that marks the change between pre-Depression and post-war skyscraper construction.

Two final interesting notes: in both the Shoreman and Ayer fires, many survivors successfully rode building elevators to safety, albeit with crowding and stampeding for the cars reported in both cases.  And the Ayer building’s site, after being cleared of the rubble, served as the site for a replacement that is an exemplar of the “expressed frame” and Chicago window formula that would dominate the coming decade…and yes, that’s a patently hazardous steel fire escape hanging off of the southernmost window bay.  Some lessons took a long, long time to be fully learned…

ayer ext 1 copy

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