sah, u of i, blackwell on the state of architectural education today…

April 22, 2015 § Leave a comment thanks to Marci Uihlein, design and structures capomaestro at UIUC, for inviting me to speak earlier this week on home turf…great to see what folks at the alma mater are up to and to catch up with a group of faculty who were far more influential than I realized at the time.  The talk there capped off a week at the SAH annual meeting in Chicago, where in between long stretches of watching Cesar Pelli’s Wolf Point Towers grow skyward from the best seats in the house (one of the Mart Center’s rare redeeming qualities) I took part in a panel on environmental technologies in Chicago.  An honor, indeed, to share the podium with Joseph Siry from Wesleyan and Ellen Grimes from SAIC, who talked about the surprising source of Frank Lloyd Wright’s inspiration for the ducting in the Larkin Building and the even more surprising history of privy vaults in Chicago housing. paper I gave there, on the transformation of light courts in the interwar years, matched a slightly new take on the Chicago story that I tried out in Urbana that explicitly looked at how frame and skin separated during the steel and terra cotta era in the city.  Both of these points are covered in the skyscraper book, but in looking a bit further ahead I’m thinking about how what’s become known as the “obvious sequel” might develop–skyscrapers in the city from the end of World War II through (depending on how ambitious things get) either the Sears Tower or, perhaps, the State of Illinois Center.  The story of the pre-WWII buildings is complicated but boils down to a handful of factors–real estate, structural innovation, material development, and illumination and environmental response.  The story of the post-WWII buildings seems to me even more complicated–real estate, structure and steel, and plate glass and aluminum, for sure, but added to that mix is a strong socio-political climate in Chicago that pushed development in the Loop in very particular ways, and developments in environmental control that led to very different formal and component development than environmental response had earlier.  Light courts turning ‘inside out’ to form dumbell and h-shaped plans in the 30s are just the opening shots in the story of how ducted air and mechanically controlled temperature and humidity removed (possibly productive) constraints from architects’ and builders’ ambitions.

We’ll see where that goes…all rather far off in the future.  But having the chance to throw some ideas around in front of smart, querying audiences was a good opportunity to see where this all might go next.

Should also shout out to the Structural Engineering Association of Illinois, which hosted me for their regular lecture series downtown last month.  That Q&A was fantastic–talk about a knowledgeable crowd.

And, finally, in my mailbox this morning was The Architect’s Newspaper: Southwest Edition, which was a surprise.  My best guess is that I got this version this month instead of the Midwest edition for the following quote from Arkansas architect and general all-around sage Marlon Blackwell:

I’m just dismayed at the level of talent that comes out of schools and runs through the profession.  I’ve never had a client come to me and say, ‘what I want is an ill-proportioned, unresolved, expediently delivered project that underperforms, and I’ll pay you for that.’  I’ve never had anybody say that.  I would doubt that most people cranking out this shit have either.  What are we doing in schools that permits that?

Right on.  Blackwell stepped down from chairing the Arkansas program this year, which is a loss for the profession there and in general.  As he described his philosophy to our state AIA convention last year, good design requires being resolute at the level of the city, the building, and the hand.  Same philosophy distilled differently, I think…

Breaking News–AIA COTE Top Ten for Students

April 22, 2015 § Leave a comment news this morning from the AIA Committee on the Environment…the top ten award winners in the COTE for Students annual competition has just been announced, and I’m really pleased to say that my colleagues Ulrike Pass and Kris Nelson have outdone themselves–three of our ARCH 601 student teams placed in the top 10, along with projects from studios at MIT, Oregon, Maryland, and elsewhere.

Anyone who saw these projects develop over the Fall semester won’t be surprised by this–the studio was a great example of  intensely data-driven design coupled with rigorous computational modeling and, crucially, no letup in terms of architectural quality or social relevance.  The final results were engaging and rich as architecture, but also backed up by a huge amount of no-nonsense number-crunching.

Congrats to the three teams, and everyone who took part in the studio…great work!  Project images and links below, all worth checking out in-depth…

[Re] Sustaining Old North St. Louis:  Kyle C. Vansice & Brandon Fettes North Bikes: Human Powered Revitalization in Old North St. Louis: Stephen Danielson & Benjamin Kruse

HRR: Harvest, Recycle, Reuse: Heidi Reburn & Sean Wittmeyer

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


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.


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