423 gothic, renaissance, enlightenment

August 21, 2016 § 2 Comments

santa maria degli angeli plan 1434 murray.jpgCircle of life…summer’s end, new grad students in town, and I’m on both ends of the new student orientation week this year.  Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and all that.

The big excitement for me this fall will be the re-birth (see what I did there?) of Architecture 423, our department’s Renaissance class.  For decades, this was taught by John Maves, much loved but now well into retirement.  We haven’t taught the course ever since, and last spring I’d mentioned in a meeting with our Chair that it was a shame to send students off to Rome without having some coursework beforehand that let them know what they’d be looking at.  So, guess who’s teaching it now?

My qualifications are pretty much that I’ve spent a good amount of time in Rome, and that I’ve enjoyed this particular era ever since taking the awe-inspiring class at Illinois taught by Richard Betts.  So I dove in over the summer and started thinking about how you might teach Renaissance from someplace that encompassed traditional, art historical methods, the history of construction position that I teach from when I include the Renaissance in Big and Tall, and a broader sense of the social, political, and economic contexts that I think are important to any era.

IMG_0641Along the way, I picked up and read Robert Friedel’s A Culture of Improvement, a brilliant 2007 history of technology that makes the case that Europe’s defining moment came with the realization around the Carolingian Renaissance that society could in fact elevate itself–that while the Dark Ages had been a devastating period of decline, it was possible, step by step, to build a better society, economy, etc.  Friedel, interestingly, uses Abbot Suger’s reconstruction of St. Denis as a paradigmatic moment in this progressive movement, and this made me think that perhaps the course should include the broadest possible definition of “Renaissance.”  So, we’re going to start with Charlemagne and see the Italian Renaissance as a middle chapter in three “rebirths:” the economic and cultural rebirth of northern France and southern England in the 11th-14th century, the Florentine and eventually Italian rebirth in the 15th-17th century, and the English and French rebirth that coincided with the Reformation and the scientific revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Fortunately, the class title is “Topics in Renaissance to Mid-Eighteenth Century Architecture”–I owe Prof. Maves for the all-encompassing title that’s going to allow us to see Gervase of Canterbury and Jacques-Germain Soufflot as part of a continuum of technically progressive and aesthetically critical work over the course of 800 years or so.

IMG_3042We start Tuesday, so I’m frantically scanning excerpts of everything from Augustine to Alberti.  And in the interest of peer review, I’ll include this year’s syllabus for anyone who wants to follow/read along…

Syllabus Fall 2016

Christian Menn: Brücken

July 25, 2016 § Leave a comment


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Ganter Bridge at Ried-Brig, 1977–1980.  Photo © Ralph Feiner

Every so often something really interesting shows up in the inbox.  A few months ago the journal Built Environment asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a new monograph on the bridge designs of Christian Menn.  Needless to say, I was willing, and enjoyed the chance to dive into the career of one of the 20th century’s most prolific and thoughtful bridge engineers.

The formal review comes out later this Fall, but in the meantime there are some gorgeous images and a few paragraphs at Blogged Environment that will lend a nice structures-geek vibe to a Monday afternoon…

chippendale ottoman

June 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

IMG_2558Just to make the point that 432 Park Avenue is really tall and really skinny, here’s the view from Rockefeller Center’s observation deck (in the rain, which is by far the best time to hit these things since it keeps the crowd down…nothing but skyscraper nerds and their immediate family members, who may have been coerced into the whole adventure).  Philip Johnson’s AT&T Tower sits comfortably at its feet.

Nothing, I think, could more clearly contrast the tenor of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a building that blew up a piece of Chippendale furniture to cartoon-like proportions ended up on the cover of Time, and now, when the yardstick proportions of Rafael Vinoly’s ludicrously tall attempt at minimalism seems to make daily internet headlines because its bathrooms have ended up in the wrong place and its window frames have proved to be unworkably big…

Just for the record, at 37 stories, AT&T is actually a pretty tall piece of furniture.  But from 70 floors up it does kind of look like a misguided attempt at a footstool for 432 Park, doesn’t it?

point clouds

June 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Summer studio has always been a mix of finishing off our grad students’ first year with a combination of skills exercises and some deeper probing of what, exactly, we’re doing when we make spaces for people.  This summer I’m co-teaching it with Leslie Forehand, one of our brilliant new digital production hires, and we’ve brought in a mix of curious upper-level undergrads.  That combination means we have a great mix of backgrounds and skills in studio, and watching students raise the bar for one another is always its own reward.

Usually I teach a studio called “perfect works of architecture” in this course, asking students to study an extant piece of civic or sacred architecture in Iowa and to analyze it in terms of its formal structure and its material experience.  I’ve given them three readings, by Mircea Eliade, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Kenneth Frampton, that touch on issues of essence and meaning.  Eliade’s Sacred and Profane suggests that there are formal universals that humans recognize when we build particularly meaningful buildings, typically with vertical axes mundi that connect earth and heavens.  Pallasmaa offers the most legible insight into the phenomenological world of experience, suggesting that we be mindful of the range of sensory inputs that space, materials, and detailing provide.  And Frampton, of course, looks at the way materials are put together as a way of adding meaning to the actual built conditions that we create.

So, with Prof. Forehand on board, we’re reframing this with a digital emphasis.  What’s gained or lost when we record or design spaces with digital techniques?  She’s taken on board the College of Design’s point cloud scanner as a technique and analogy.  The scanner works by shooting out thousands of tiny laser bursts and measuring the distance they travel before bouncing off of something back to the scanner.  It literally scans a space in three dimensions and returns a ghostly and wildly complex digital model that can then be used to create drawings and models of uncanny precision.  Needless to say, it’s the anti-Eliade, the anti-Pallasmaa, and the anti-Frampton, at least at first glance.  The scans it returns are pretty antiseptic, and they’re full of accidental inclusions and omissions that are sometimes only apparent after the scan’s complete.  (For instance, if someone walks in front of it while it’s recording, you get a few blips that look like a transporter from Star Trek malfunctioned.  And if you put it on the wrong side of a tree, or a rock, or a piece of furniture, it obviously can’t figure out what’s behind that).

Still, it’s a fascinating process, and the results are both incredibly useful and fascinating in their own right.  So we’ve had students combining data from the scanner with their own hand drawings to try to reconcile the crunchy, analogue experience of being inside a space like Drake’s Scott Chapel, or ISU’s own Beaux-Arts monument, Beardshear Hall with the millions of geometrically perfect but sensually mute points that we’re recording.  To make the argument clear we’ve had them sketching while the machine is doing its thing, and we’ve thrown in a presentation assignment on Prix du Rome drawings from the 18th century to try to make the case for drawing as a recording and as an experiential act.  The word “versimilitude” has come up more than once.

Very much a work in progress…students present their final projects, re-conceptions or re-detailing of Scott Chapel using hybrid drawings, next Wednesday.  Drop by if you’re in town and want to take part in the discussion of how we think about space versus how we feel about it, or if you just want to see some really engaging drawings and experiments…

gertrude kerbis

June 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sad to hear of the passing of one of Chicago’s unsung architectural heroes.  In 2001, flailing around with a research agenda, I sent Gertrude Kerbis a letter asking if she’d have a few minutes to talk about her time at SOM and C.F. Murphy.  Kerbis was a U of I and Harvard grad who designed two of the truly great long span spaces of the postwar era–the dining hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the (sadly marred) rotunda at O’Hare airport.  Both of them took basic structural principles–a space frame and a cable truss–and made architecture out of them.  I had been curious about the history of longspan structures in offices that were better known for high rises, and she very graciously made me a cup of coffee in her Old Town townhouse one afternoon and talked about those projects and what it was like to be one of just thirty-nine women architects in the entire state of Illinois.

Not great, as you’d imagine.  Much of what she told me she asked me not to write down, but it involved big names and boorish behavior.  Her colleagues at SOM, for instance, wouldn’t let her travel to the job site to see the dining hall’s roof lifted up on hydraulic cranes, fearing that their reputation would be compromised if the client saw that their building had been designed by a woman.

She told me these stories in between totally lucid explanations of the projects and a genuine interest in why an architecture professor would be interested in postwar Chicago.  It was a great–if somewhat sobering–chat, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time or the stories.  Or the coffee.

Kerbis was featured in the Chicago Tribune in 1967, in an article so full of backhanded compliments and microaggresions that it could stand as exhibit A in how badly the profession treated some of its best.  That she was able to create some truly remarkable buildings despite those headwinds is a tribute indeed to someone who, even in just an afternoon conversation, was a totally impressive, immensely likeable, and somewhat intimidating personality.  She deserved more recognition than she had during her career, and I make it a point to show her work–fully credited–in my structures lectures.  That interview will, I hope, finally get its day as and when Chicago II comes out.

woman architect kerbis 12 jan 1967 2-E2

reynolds aluminum

May 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

track renderingPresenting this lovely thing (modeled and rendered by co-author and recent M.Arch. grad Ben Kruse, simulated and obsessively calculated by co-author and recent M.Arch. grad Kyle Vansice) for the first time in public in about two hours at CHSA Austin.  Nervi’s unbuilt project for Reynolds Aluminum–an indoor horse racing track that, had it been built, would have been the largest building in the world by volume, and the second longest single-span arch in the world.  Not to mention the largest piece of aluminum construction anywhere.  Would it have stood up?  Could it have been built?  And what happens when you leave what’s basically a giant aluminum pop can out in the hot summer sun of Richmond, Virginia, its purported site?  Looking forward to revealing all, and to others’ papers on plywood homes, plans for a ship railway in Panama,  all sorts of stone vaulting, etc…

high rise

May 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

high-rise-movie-poster-4In which the skyscraper gets a blazing critique, class warfare ensues, and no dog is safe…

J.G. Ballard was a grad school discovery for me.  Best known for his memoir of survival and escape as a British child in wartime Shanghai, Empire of the Sun, the bulk of his work was insanely well-crafted dystopian science fiction, always set in a plausible future and almost invariably obsessed with ruined–or ruinous–technology gone awry.  His short stories were masterful set pieces that dug deep into the psychology of the space-age, perfect stuff as a cool-down to seminar reading lists full of Frederic Jameson on hyperspace, and evidence aplenty for a master’s thesis on airport design and culture in the late 20th century.  Crash, his most infamous work, took place on the service and access roads around Heathrow, making it required (if, given its subject matter, tough) reading…

Ah, memories.  Ballard shows up in class whenever we get talking about critiques of technology in the 60s and 70s, along with McLuhan and drop-out culture.  And I dive back into Memories of the Space Age whenever a good, weird hit of Burroughs-esque decadence with ruinous scenery seems appropriate–“At dusk Sheppard was still sitting in the cockpit of the stranded aircraft, unconcerned by the evening tide that advanced toward him across the beach” is a great opening line, and I can’t imagine anyone not reading further.  (And if you do keep reading “Myths of the Near Future” there’s a dead spouse, an abandoned launch complex and motel, and an epidemic of a psychosomatic ‘space sickness’ to keep you going).

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQfAAAAJGNlYTZlOTNlLWRjYmItNDY2NS1hMDYwLWQ1NGZhYTRjZTYwNABallard took on megastructural architecture in 1975’s High Rise, a novel that, like Crash, revealed a psychic horror show beneath the promises of mechanical efficiency, automatic servicing, and the engineering of human emotions and desires implicit in post-industrial technology.  His target was pretty clearly the Brutalist housing towers that had risen in his adopted hometown of London; Erno Goldfinger’s brilliant, unapologetic, and hugely despised Trellick Tower had been completed in 1972.  Ballard was both appalled and fascinated by the phenomenon, and examined the  implications of such a massive piece of social engineering in excruciating detail.  In his scenario, the tower is stratified by class–subsidized tenants live on the lower floors, market-rate-paying professionals on the upper.  At the top is the architect himself, Anthony Royal.  Told through the eyes of a physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing, the novel traces the slow decline of the enforced community as the building malfunctions.  Tenants begin fighting one another for increasingly scarce services and amenities, and eventually the high rise becomes contested territory for a civil war in miniature.  It’s a good story, well-told, and chilling to anyone who’s stood in an apartment elevator wondering if their fellow passenger is the one who left the rotting vegetables out next to the jammed trash chute…

high-rise-novelBallard’s writing is incredibly cinematic, but difficult to translate to the screen–a film version of Crash by David Cronenberg in 1997 got reviews ranging from luke warm to scathingly appalled.  The studio almost refused to release it for its literal renditions of Ballard’s admittedly twisted mashup of sex, violence, and trauma.  So when I saw posters for the film version of High Rise in the London Tube a couple of months ago I was both thrilled–and skeptical.

The film is out in America now, not so much in theaters but all over streaming services.  And it’s worth a look.  It definitely captures Ballard’s full-throated ambivalence about the megastructure, with lingering and beautiful shots of its grotesque, raked profile on a smog-filled skyline and obsessive art direction that gives the interiors a lush, threatening atmosphere somewhere between the shag carpets and angular, bush-hammered concrete of the early 1970s and an imagined future of razor-sharp haircuts and post-modern costume parties.  Tom Hiddleston stars as Laing, but he could be any number of Ballard’s characters–utterly without affect, often at a loss to understand the forces compelling and influencing him, but fashionable, cool, and only intermittently the conscience of the film.  Jeremy Irons stars as Anthony Royal, and he’s all film-villain architect, compulsively manipulating the lives of the building’s tenants, spouting utopian theories that are totally at odds with the crude, gesturing profiles of his towers and–Mies, anyone?–inhabiting a penthouse apartment where the decoration goes as far as it can to contradict and soften the otherwise unyielding hardness of the rest of the building.

4262High-Rise has had generally good reviews–the Telegraph called it “coolly immaculate,” which is about right.  It stays true to Ballard’s tightrope walk between the horror and thrills that come with any confrontation with the technological sublime, all the while finding moments of lush beauty and disgust in the violent and erotic connotations of a society in which the rules gradually disappear, in which anything goes, and in which the very architecture seems to eviscerate any sense of morality or ethics.  Ben Wheatley’s direction veers toward understanding the psychology of such a wartime situation in shockingly domestic surroundings, but ultimately it makes the disturbing decision to revel in the weird decadence that emerges in the apocalyptic society that forms out of the building’s filth and decay.  Think Mad Max meets Clockwork Orange, with a touch of Reyner Banham thrown in.  It’s not quite a substantive architectural critique, but it’s a pretty good ride, and the queasy beauty its production design lends it is weirdly convincing.

Perhaps most laudable is Wheatley’s decision to start the film just as the novel starts, with another of Ballard’s incomparable openings:

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

That’s a pretty good indicator of the grotesque but compelling action to come, and the film is, for better or for worse, super true to the tone and (ahem) the events Ballard conjured up.  Recommended?  Sure, but only if you can make it through that first scene intact…


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