first skyscrapers panel at 10th CTBUH world congress

March 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

Figure 04

Not this one.

Oh, this is going to be good.  CTBUH has announced that, as part of its 10th World Congress next year in Chicago, it will host a symposium on “first skyscrapers.”  I’ve been part of a consultant team that’s helped them formulate the discussion–they’ve wisely decided to open it up to a Call for Abstracts, inviting anyone with a theory on how the term should be defined (or not) and/or what we should think about when claiming any tall building as a ‘first.’

From the call:

CTBUH is thus issuing a Call for Abstracts to all scholars of history and colleagues with an expertise in this field (including architecture, architectural history, construction, economics, engineering, and beyond) to answer the prompt, “What skyscraper could be considered a ‘first’ in a particular technological field or other dimension?” and to state upon what criteria this assertion is based.

More information on the symposium, and the official Call for Abstracts, here:

Deadline is 26 March, abstract length limited to 300 words.  Regular readers may have some idea of what I’m going to propose…and how tough it’s going to be for me to limit myself to that.

Start your engines…


sutherland lecture online

February 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Very pleased to note that the Institution of Structural Engineers in London has uploaded video of the James Sutherland History Lecture that I was invited to give earlier this month there.  On “Pier Luigi Nervi and the Role of Structure in Architectural Beauty,” anyone who’s seen me talk on Nervi will be familiar with the first half, but there are some newly jotted-down thoughts toward the end that are fresher.  Many thanks to Rachel Doran, Jane Entwistle, Andrew Smith, et al for putting on such a fine evening…



February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Tyler Vincent

Tyler Vincent

What would gothic cathedrals have looked like if the groin vault had, like concrete, been lost as a technology at the end of the Roman Empire?  That was last week’s discussion question in my Big and Tall seminar, and the class responded with some intriguing possibilities.

The alternate history has been a go-to question in the course since I started teaching it, since it highlights the evolutionary nature of building.  Developments such as the groin vault, or wrought iron, or plate glass, all solved individual problems, but there would, undoubtedly, have been work-arounds that would have produced viable buildings solving functional issues in other ways.  (Somewhere, in an alternate universe, a Big and Tall course is wondering whether humans would have built sky-dwellings without the discovery of Unobtanium.  Submit your answers in the comments below).

Phil Hess

Phil Hess

Lots of good thoughts, including souped-up barrel vaults like those above.  In the first case the assumption is that the flying buttress still develops, but it turns into a thicker element that can absorb more of the distributed thrust of the barrel vault, instead of just taking the point loads of a groin vault.  The solution just above uses barrel vaults to thrust against one another (or, at least, against the supporting walls), and cleverly steps them down toward the ground to create a pyramid of perpendicular buttressing.

Obishek Mandal

Obishek Mandal

Less spectacular but perhaps more viable, a number of solutions involved more elaborate timber structures, trusses that adopted the pointed arch (imported from the middle east via Norman conquest and diffusion through the Mediterranean) and the availability of heavy timber in northern Europe.  This makes perfect sense–if the groin vault never develops, just don’t build the groin vaults, but let the truss work that supports the tall timber roof express itself to the nave below.

Jeffrey Klynsma

Jeffrey Klynsma

OR, build simple trusses over masonry walls, but then find a way to build the Aya Sophia’s dome over the crossing–focusing your constructive energy on the church’s most sacred point.  I like this one a lot–even though it would have been asking quite a bit of medieval carpenters to figure out that junction between dome and truss (something, let’s face it, that even Palladio couldn’t quite handle).

Thanks to Tyler Vincent, Jeffrey Klynsma, Obishek Mandal, and Phil Hess for some particularly striking suggestions.  More alt-SciTech when we hit the age of iron…

cathedrals of a sort + poetics

February 6, 2019 § 2 Comments

(Warning: somewhat hifalutin’.)

Subtly different vibe this week. In London for a pair of lectures, one organized by the good folks at Foster + Partners, my old stomping grounds, and the other the James Sutherland Lecture to the Institution of Structural Engineers, the latter an event that honors a truly great historian of engineering with an annual talk on an historic subject.

Both talks were on the Nervi book, with slightly varying takes. Nervi was, of course a name that floated around the studios at Foster’s often, and the links between fabrication, structural performance, and assembly certainly live on in that firm’s work. There’s a natural interest in the constraints faced by him as a builder, and also in the geometries that proved to be a link between the structural forms his engineering demanded and the largely unskilled labor force that his contracting firm had at its disposal. Break the problem down into a long series of repetitive, manageable tasks, and you can build for less than your competitors.

In my talk to the ISE, I expanded on this a bit. Nervi was always described as a “poet in concrete,” and I’ve gotten a fair bit of mileage out of showing how, far from the airy niceties of poetry, Nervi’s career was based in the muddy realities of job sites and fabrication yards. But the results are, of course, uncannily ‘poetic,’ and being mildly interested in such things I tried to show that, rather than that description making us think differently about Nervi, it might make us think differently about poetry. We often use the term as a shorthand for anything that strikes us emotionally, but even a short delve into debates over what poetry really is takes you to discussions about form, meter, rhythm, and rules. Common definitions talk about emotional content being distilled into rigorously developed forms–sonnets, e.g.–that require the poet not only to express an emotion or sensibility, but to do so within an intentionally limiting set of constraints.

Well, now.

Nervi’s best work does exactly that. His structural shapes, like those of many of his contemporaries, are breathtaking leaps, but they’re inevitably achieved within a tight set of restrictions–economic ones, of course, but also material, labor, schedule, etc.–that refined those shapes into patterns and rhythms that relate to a very different set of rules than the pure structural ones with which he’s most commonly associated. Constraint creates design, as the Eames’ said. It’s to be embraced, not bemoaned. Working this up into a larger paper for the ISE’s Journal, but this seems to me what separates Nervi’s shells from other contemporaries–their realization is filtered through the limited means Nervi had, and this dialogue between structural ambition and the difficult circumstances of the job site is imprinted in the roof forms themselves–patterns that Nervi recognized as visually important and worth celebrating.

What poet, after all, complains about the number of syllables in a haiku?

As you can see, I managed to get out for a day or two as well. London cooperated with a gorgeous Sunday, and I took the opportunity to see Richard Turner’s Palm House at Kew, a wrought-iron and glass cathedral that is a foundational text of sorts. Cluttered up with plants, of course, but still compelling almost 170 years after it was built. The trick of a single radius throughout is another example of how functional ambitions–structural and solar, in this case–get filtered through the constraints of, in this case, bending metal to consistent shapes. Build one jig and use it to bend every single framing member and every piece of glass in the entire structure, and you’ve saved a considerable amount on fabrication–in addition to which you’ve broken down the process of making the building into repetitive, relatively simple tasks that remove the expensive, skilled labor (building the jig) from the bulk of the work (heating up the iron members and bending them around said jig). The result, if not wholly poetic, is nevertheless compelling, especially on a sunny February afternoon.

As is this one, which is another story about structure and fabrication altogether:

Thanks to all, esp. ace ISU alum Kristi, for the invites and logistical help.

Gothic Day Out

January 28, 2019 § 1 Comment

OK, a decidedly smaller group that decided to take the day and go to Chartres…I’ll chalk that up to the 90 minute train ride and associated ticket price rather than any lack of interest in what Eero Saarinen called, when asked, his favorite interior. The Cathedral is just over halfway through a hugely controversial restoration project that involves cleaning and re-plastering the entire interior, and the effect is striking–the space feels even more weightless and bright than it did when it was covered in seven centuries of grime. I understand missing the “gothic” character that went with that, but there’s something to be said for seeing the space as it was–probably?–originally intended.

As I’ve taught Big and Tall and the Three Renaissances courses, Chartres’ position in history has seemed more and more important to me, since it’s so pivotal in taking Gothic structure from a technique to a style. We use that term perjoratively all the time, but I’ve come to see it as more and more vital, in the sense that Violet-le-Duc used it to describe the sense we get when a set of competing systems and elements are integrated into something that makes cognitive sense as a unified whole, which is arguably what we as architects strive for all the time. “Style is the manifestation of an ideal based on a principle,” he wrote, and the so-called High Gothic, from Chartres through Beauvais, was for him the ultimate example of this. The subtle changes that the builders here made to the formula that underlay early Gothic structures like Notre Dame were critical to how the spaces are perceived. The changed to simpler vault structures that are matched one-to-one with the side bays (four-part vaults instead of flower-like six-part vaults) means that the roofs and the walls feel like they spring from one idea. Consolidating the traditional four layers of openings along the side walls into three makes for taller arcades, more light, and a more pronounced vertical emphasis. And, finally, moving the round windows from lower in the side walls to the top and pairing them with two lancet windows makes the entire top story feel like its genuinely tracery–no longer a wall, per se. Later builders would push these ideas further, and they’d extend their naves higher than here. They would also correct some elements of Chartres’ design that proved not to make much sense (those circular flying buttresses!). But knowing this you can–almost–sense the striving of the builders here to realize something that wasn’t merely impressive, but that was also somehow more satisfying than any of the earlier structures. Amiens and Reims are more impressive, and in terms of Violet-le-Duc’s criteria they’re certainly more refined, but there’s some drama in the flaws here that makes Chartres that much more intriguing.

The RER back drops you off in the labyrinth of Gare Montparnasse, where the one brave student who joined me for the day finally split–headed to the Pantheon for an 18th century take. It’s just a quick ride on the #4 to St. Michel-Notre Dame, though, and from there you can take a shorter chronological leap to the Rayonnant Gothic of Ste. Chappelle, which makes for a good conclusion to any cathedral trip–nothing but light, tracery, vaults, and piping. If Chartres feels like it’s just barely supported by its buttresses, Ste. Chappelle feels like it must be held up from above–a dramatic and satisfying an integration of light and structure and maybe, pace Eero, a candidate for my favorite interior on the planet. If you get there right at 4:30 and have a Museum Pass, they’ll let you be the last person in, and then if you wait patiently, you can get 30 seconds alone in the space before the security guard gently tells you, for the fourth time, that they close at 5 and you really, really need to head for the exits.

Ordeal by Corb

January 27, 2019 § 2 Comments

So, that’s about half of our intrepid band of DSN 546 students on a shortened but still lengthy Corb Death March, stop number 3. Rainy week, and cold, but this bunch has been enthusiastic, and they’ve taken advantage of small crowds and five-day Metro passes to get way out.

There’s a pretty well-worn path of Corbusier sites that you can almost do chronologically–starting with Perret’s Rue Franklin Apartments to get the background, and then hitting the Maisons La Roche and Jeanneret before trekking out to Poissy to see the Villa Savoye, and then back south to see the later Pavilion Suisse and/or the Cite du Refuge. A five-zone metro pass gets you everywhere, and there are convenient pastry shops and public toilets at each stop…critical planning for a field trip day out.

I keep a light touch for these things–I think it’s important for students to see things that they’ve seen in history classes first hand and to make up their own minds, so I try to give a little background to start, turn them loose, and then collect them after each stop to hear what they think. Particularly interesting to have one brave interior design student who chose this over the greatest fabric archive on the planet. She was able to talk about the Maison LaRoche on a different level, in particular the color palette that Corbusier developed here and elsewhere that, in her words, makes no sense from a color theory point of view. (FWIW, we agreed that theory doesn’t always translate to practice…)

Villa Savoye is such an icon that to see it in person for the first time is always stunning–it has a Mona Lisa-level aura among architecture students, and after the half hour walk from the train station the whole group just stopped dead when we turned the corner and saw that first elevation. Everyone found something surprising (the level of detailing–or, really, its total absence–is always a shocker), and the famous bathroom made an impression. Lots of conversation about it as somewhere between architecture, interior design, and furniture design, and (I hope) a good point of comparison as we try to get to that level of integration in hotel designs.

To everyone’s credit, the whole group made it to Cite Universitaire, fueled by railway station sandwiches and sharing umbrellas. The contrast there to the early villas is fascinating–we talked a lot about how Villa Savoye is actually a brick and concrete building, with the brick completely hidden by stucco, as if Corbusier was embarrassed by such a 19th century material. But at the Pavilion Suisse, the materials are all expressed–stone, rough concrete, timber, and glass. One student noted that seems like the kind of confidence you gain after a good couple of decades building, and I think that’s probably right.

Lots of talk, too, about how everything we saw was designed for a pretty high level of wealth. The last time I saw Villa Savoye there was an exhibit on the history of it as an actual house–which was short-lived. The original clients spent very little time there, and it eventually proved unliveably cold and damp. The ability to make a beautiful, uninhabitable house is a privilege most of us don’t have as designers, and I’d pointed out earlier in the day that Maison Jeanneret was designed for a wealthy cousin. It helps to have those sorts of clients–there’s plenty to learn from these for the rest of us, but I think it’s important to point out that the buildings we think of as iconic come from such a different set of circumstances that most of us are used to that we ought to be taking them with a significant grain of salt.

Drenched and tired from seven hours on the road, my offer to walk two hours from the Pavilion Suisse to the Cite du Refuge was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, though I secretly suspect that one pair marched over to it after we broke up. That’s a pretty good endorsement of the strategy of keeping the troops continually well fed, something that’s not hard in Paris:

Site visit

January 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

January in Paris, anyone?

25 intrepid studenti have joined my colleague Lee Cagley and me for a frigid week of studio research and general architectural tourism. We’ve adapted our now-standard hotel program for interior design, architecture, and landscape architecture students to a site just south of the Eiffel Tower, on Quai Branly, where the views are as inspirational as the logistics will be tricky. The site now is a sports center, with a low brutalist building on the south end and an athletics field to the north–but the surrounding neighborhood has grown into a mix of hotel and office buildings that suggest other uses. (Yes, that’s Seidler’s Australian Embassy to the right, complete with fan pier “by” Pier Luigi Nervi…)

During our site visit today, the wallpaper in a neighboring cafe gave an interesting hint to the parcel’s past–in the 19th century it served as the freight yard for the 1878 and 1889 exhibitions–so every piece of wrought iron that went into the Tower was offloaded there. Later, the yard was developed into a full rail station, the Gare du Champ de Mars, which still exists in truncated form as the RER station that you can see sliding under the roadway.

It’s been a cold, snowy week here, which made for an espresso-laden site reconnaissance this morning. Without which we might not have been up on to the site’s history quite so soon. Whether that turns into any architectural or site ideas or not, it’s an interesting piece of logistics history. How do you ship a 900-foot tall tower into central Paris?

Tourism the rest of the week. Versailles tomorrow, which should be interesting to see in the company of both architects and interior designers, and a planned Corbusier death march and Chartres pilgrimage scheduled for the weekend…