paris hotel studio

May 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

Wunghee Lee, Chad Moklestad, and Sharissa Stansberry

This spring’s studio was a self-interested stroke of genius that I’m proud to say I shared with Lee Cagley, Chair of our Interior Design department. After two years of dealing with traffic and mis-directions in Panama (one of two places where you can–easily–make a wrong turn and end up on the wrong continent), Lee mentioned to me that he usually takes a group of students to Maison Objet, one of the largest design trade shows on the planet, every January. That’s in Paris, not Panama, and it took us about a second and a half to figure out that Paris would be logistically simpler. So we found a site about 300m from the Eiffel Tower, a hotel close to that, and spent a week with the better part of our mixed interiors/architecture/landscape studio there in January.

Hang Gao, Wan Wei, Tianling Xu, and Zhuoqi Xu

Our final review took place earlier this month, and the results showed a pretty inspired group. We asked them to place a 500-room hotel that straddled convention and tourism functions, to relate to the Tower in its siting and in the experiences of its public and private spaces, and to fit into what proved to be a nicely challenging site–adjacent to Nervi and Seidler’s Australian Embassy but in a mixed neighborhood, Grenelle, that includes residential, commercial, entertainment, and tourism functions in a mid-rise scale urban fabric. The site itself, now occupied by an athletics ground and an aging gymnasium, seems ripe for reconsideration and redevelopment–the former site of rail yards that brought the pieces of the Tower into the city, so resonant for all kinds of reasons.

Grant Bauermeister, Nastassja Degarmo, Colton Howell, and Mark Ramirez

I’ll let the work speak for itself–an inspired, and inspiring, group, and thoughtful but also provocative work…Hire these folks!

Debanjana Chatterjee, Seyedeh-Sahar Nazarkardeh, and Kayley Tuchek
Erendira Gonzalez, Elham Mohammadrezaei, and David Phan
Courtney Fisher, Sung Park, and Tyler Vincent
Paloma Chapman, Hayden Cole, and Sushmitha Rayasam
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brick vs. steel in the monadnock

May 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

This one again…The Monadnock continues to surprise. Elsewhere I’ve written about John Root’s towering mass of brick as a hybrid structure–a steel frame trapped within a brick building–and this past weekend it was again the subject of much discussion and many questions during a lecture to the Chicago Architecture Center’s new docent class (always a favorite date on my calendar).

Part of the building’s mythology involves Root’s minimalist detailing. Its history includes two design campaigns–one in the mid-1880s that produced a fairly standard set of elevations similar in some ways to the Home Insurance’s facades, and then a rush to redesign and actually build the structure in 1890-91. Correspondence during the latter phase between Root and the Brooks Brothers, through their Chicago agent Owen Aldis, discusses the building’s lack of ornament directly, including this classic rationale:

… So tall and narrow a building must have some ornament in so conspicuous a situation… [but] projections mean dirt, nor do they add strength to the building … one great nuisance is the lodgment of pigeons and sparrows 


quoted in Donald Hoffmann, “John Root’s Monadnock Building,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Dec., 1967). 269-177.

Pigeons may have influenced Root’s detailing, or–as Hoffman suggests–it may be that he was inspired by Egyptian papyrus plants. But none of the correspondence gets to the Monadnock’s really fundamental question: with buildings like the Tacoma (Holabird and Roche, ….) already pioneering the idea of a lightweight, terra cotta and glass skin, why make the apparently retrograde choice of massive, light-blocking masonry walls for the building’s exterior?

This choice is often attributed to the Brooks’ inherent conservatism–the assumption is that they were concerned about a new-fangled technology like steel, and wanted the reassurance of time-tested masonry for the majority of the building’s structure. I’ve suggested that rationale myself, and it makes for a clean narrative–the new, still somewhat untried structural system on the inside, being braced and assisted by the last great set of bearing masonry walls (or, as you can see in the model above, piers) to support one of the city’s skyscrapers.

Well, some digging on another question after the lecture turned up an article in the Chicago Tribune that provides another, more cogent reason for the choice of brick. The Brookses seem to have been fine with the structural capabilities of steel, but their choice of brick had more to do with building fires than building structures:

Tho contracts for this work are already let and call for a structure with a core of steel and walls of brick and terra cotta. The Boston people say that they have seen granite crumble to dust under the influence or fire, and that nothing but material fire-tried and proven by fire shall enter
into the construction of the new block.

“Another Sky-Scraper: The Brooks Estate Will Put Up an Enormous Office Building.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr. 3, 1890. 1.

This makes sense. Boston suffered a devastating fire in 1872, which destroyed buildings of timber and stone, would have been on the Brooks’ mind, but closer to home the brothers had suffered the loss of the Grannis Block, a Burnham and Root building constructed in 1881, sold to the brothers in 1884, and promptly consumed by fire in 1885. The building’s timber floors were destroyed, but its pressed-brick front wall survived, as did its interior iron columns, protected by terra cotta fireproofing. That formula, adjusted to take advantage of steel and supplemented by terra cotta floor arches instead of timber beams, was precisely that of the Monadnock. If their preference for brick as a fireproof material extended to even the slightest suspicions regarding the light terra cotta skin of the Tacoma, it might also explain somewhat the lack of ornament–while both materials proved themselves to be fire-resistant over the next decade, brick certainly had a longer track record.

All of which is to say that the Monadnock, rather than representing a definitive type or approach, was conceived at the very cusp of several developments in structure, fireproofing, wind bracing, and real estate. It continues to be one of the richest and most perplexing of Chicago’s early skyscrapers.

860-880 ground breaking guest list…

May 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

Compiling notes from a recent Chicago Tribune trawl on 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and came across an article covering the buildings’ groundbreaking ceremony. Mies was, of course, in attendance, along with the local alderman and the sales agent from McCormick Managment, Robert McCormick, who would commission a house from van der Rohe in 1952. But these A-listers were, apparently, topped by another visitor, who made a tellingly dramatic entrance. According to the Tribune, Dec. 17, 1949:

“Part of the program will be the arrival of ‘Santa Claus’ by helicopter to present a six foot model of the proposed structures to Gordon Lang, president of the North Michigan Avenue association.

That’s a detail you don’t see in the history books very often, now, do you?

toward the glass box–skyscraper museum lecture online

April 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

Home after a solid week of conferences and lectures. Last Monday I spoke on the enabling technologies of the postwar “glass box” at the Skyscraper Museum in New York–many thanks to Carol Willis for the invitation and the hospitality, and for keeping up a solid archive of their lectures. Need a quick summary of Charles L. Amick’s 1942 Fluorescent Lighting Manual and its impact on glass skins? The Skyscraper Museum has you covered:

notre dame–some background

April 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

The news that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is on fire has come with an understandable uncertainty and concern about the demise of the entire structure. There are a couple of key points that haven’t yet made any of the major news coverage that are worth pointing out…

What’s been burning the last couple of hours is the timber roof that had rested on top of the cathedral’s stone vaults. Initial reports are that there was renovation being done in the structure’s attic, which makes sense given the presence of scaffolding in much of the footage, and it’s possible/likely that this activity led to the blaze. At least some of the roof, including the spire that collapsed, was actually part of the 19th century ‘restoration’ by Viollet-le-Duc. Its loss is catastrophic, but it would not be the first cathedral roof to be destroyed by fire–Rheims’ timber roof was destroyed in a conflagration caused by shelling during WWI.

Scientific American, August, 1926

That incident may provide some modest hope. Reims’ stone vaulting survived the shelling, though it was heavily damaged. The lost roof over Notre Dame, like those of the other great cathedrals, was primarily a weather covering, to keep rain and snow off of the vulnerable limestone vaults and mortar that form the main spaces of the cathedral below. It wasn’t structural, in that the vaults, piers, and flying buttresses that structure and surround those spaces below have functioned as support on their own–and, in fact, one of the major structural problems with gothic vaults was absorbing the thrust from the pitched timber roofs above them.

All of that structure–what we think of as the space of the cathedral–is stone, which doesn’t burn. So those news reports that have breathlessly reported on the ‘spread’ of the fire to these elements don’t have things quite right. Limestone does calcine and deteriorate under high heat, and the fragile vaults are vulnerable to falling debris from the burning roof. The quantity of water being used to extinguish the fire is, too, potentially damaging. So collapse is a real danger, but not necessarily inevitable.

Three possible outcomes. One, like Rheims, the cathedral could survive the roof’s burning damaged but intact, requiring a new roof (probably of lighter lumber or metal–like the repair of Reims) and repair to damaged but surviving vaults below. Two, falling timbers and the spire may have collapsed significant portions of the vaults below, which would require extensive new structural work involving scaffolding and years of craft-intensive labor. The collapse of choir vaults at Beauvais in 1284 was devastating but only partial. The worst case would involve weakened stone and mortar from the heat of the fire and the water from attempts to extinguish it and a broader collapse. If, for instance, the main towers were compromised, their ‘bookend’ effect on the vaults behind them would leave the nave without adequate buttressing in the long direction.

Update 7:45pm: From the first images of the interior it looks like at least one vault has partially collapsed, but most of the structure remained intact:

We’re getting to see some of the first images from inside Notre Dame Cathedral. President Macron: “‘I say to you very solemnly this evening, this cathedral will be rebuilt.” https://t.co/9D4jdaIsod pic.twitter.com/ZJ7ug4FUYt— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) April 15, 2019

ponte morandi demolition

April 4, 2019 § Leave a comment

screen-shot-2019-04-04-at-7.37.25-am

Stunning footage of the surviving spans of Genoa’s Ponte Morandi being gently demolished and hauled off, via La Repubblica on line today.  Seeing the viaduct portions standing alone on their point-supported piers is particularly eerie, and there are rare  lessons throughout–sad ones, albeit–on structural form and shape.

john hancock on WBEZ’s Curious City

March 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

hancock sofitelWBEZ’s Curious City is a brilliant segment that answers listener’s questions about Chicago–if you want to know why steak and lemonade is a thing, or are curious about why certain street names are pronounced the way they are,  they’ve got your back.  Warning: the archive is addictive.

This week they cover the history of the John Hancock Tower (I know, 875 North Michigan is its official title, but come on).  I was happy to throw in some thoughts about why you’d build a 100-story building a mile north of the Loop in the 1960s, how a hollow tube structure helped it become the most efficient tall building on the planet, and how one tall building can be better than two shorter ones.  They also speak with Yasmin Khan, Fazlur’s daughter and also a structural engineer, about Khan’s career and his inspiring but far too short career with SOM.  Her story about her father quietly lurking on north Michigan Avenue to hear passers-by talk about the Hancock is worth a listen on its own.

UPDATE:  There’s a video version, too..

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