big and tall finals

May 20, 2015 § 1 Comment


Dueling Pianos

A rousing end to the semester with good independent projects (more later) and a host of analytic studies for Big and Tall.  No shortage of interpretations on various monuments from the last 3000 years, and seeing them presented in sequence left a nice panorama of building sciences and arts…Hagia Sophia, meet Tjiabou Cultural Center.  (And, about that: year after year this project gets the most interest from students.  Three separate analyses this time around, as you can see, all with slightly different takes on it–construction using local and imported materials, structure relying on shell principles in laminated timber, and ventilation…awesome).

Sears Tower(Yifeng Guo,HanWei Fan)

Yifeng Guo and Hanwei Fan

The idea behind the analytics is to delve deeply into the principles of assembly and performance for one significant structure.  I provide a long list of possibilities, and students pick from that and go to work.  The one rule is that the final presentations have to be all their own drawings or models–they can’t rely on anything downloaded from the internet or scanned (although these days even a scanner seems like a prehistoric piece of equipment).  So the results are often approximations, sometimes with details that are worked out rather than copied, and that’s when the projects are at their most interesting.  For Sears, these two students relied on construction photos to figure out the configuration of the shop-welded steel components that make up the nine tubes of the tower’s structure, e.g.


Samprati Jain and Ayo Iyanalu

There were a couple of awe-inspiring performance pieces, as well.  Taking the course’s general philosophy that the actions of building are as meaningful as their outcomes, one group demonstrated the inflation-based assembly of Grimshaw’s Eden Project, and managed to not pass out.  And a similarly anthropomorphic demonstration showed how air actually moves through those spaces at Tjiabou.  These, folks, are state university budget versions of some awesome digital CFD work.

zoet 1

Lana Zoet

And, of course, there are always one or two of these that seem incredibly self-indulgent.  Any student who comes to me and asks for suggestions is very likely to end up working on a current project.  In this case, I have always wondered what Nervi and Belluschi’s original design for St. Mary’s Cathedral–before the seismic calculations made it clear that the whole roof could shear off in a big earthquake.  And here it is, sans travertine-clad shear walls…

NewCaledoniaCulturalCenter Pacheco ViegasA rogue’s gallery of great buildings, thoughfully studied and presented.  This class was an absolute blast to teach, and I couldn’t be more grateful for such an enthusiastic (and forgiving!) bunch of students for its test run.  If all the stars align, Big and Tall will return next Spring…

American History TV lecture

May 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

…and here’s the video from last night’s C-SPAN broadcast from Big and Tall.  Thanks to Russell Logan at C-SPAN, Teddi Baron at ISU’s News Service, and the amazing class who put up with camera crews and all kinds of setting up this past February…

Chicago Skyscrapers on C-SPAN this Saturday at 8pm eastern

May 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

20130410-085621.jpgAmerican History TV will feature the Chicago Skyscraper lecture from my Iowa State course, “Big and Tall,” this Saturday, 16 May at 8pm and midnight EDT.  Set those TiVOs, or catch a preview here.  More info at, and I’ll post the full video once it’s up.

And more on Big and Tall shortly…grades handed in, a whole office full of analytic models and boards to keep me company over the summer….

5icch program

May 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

5ICCH logo smallShould note that the full program for the Fifth International Congress on Construction History–now less than four weeks away!–is now online at  It’s the usual mind-blowing array of topics ranging from ancient Roman vaulting to South American high rise construction in the 1950s.  And throughout there’s a great mix of CH all-stars and new faces.  Tours are filling up, as are rooms at the Palmer House.

There will be single-day registrations available at the event for Chicagoans interested in dropping in–see information here.

final exam

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

The semester’s winding down, and the “Big and Tall” take home final’s due tomorrow…It won’t surprise anyone that I’m not a big slide identification fan.  Instead, two essay questions, and two weeks to think about them.  I’ll post some of the better answers once I’ve digested and graded them, but in the meantime, for general consumption, here they are.  ArchFarm regulars are encouraged to submit their answers, but be forewarned that I can only change grades for seven years after they were originally given, so any alums seeking extra credit ought to do some quick math first.  Bonus point if you can identify the source of the quote in question 2; it ought to sound familiar to one regular subscriber in particular.


Big and Tall: Construction History from the Pyramids to the Burj


Due 5PM Thursday, 7 May via Blackboard.

Answer BOTH questions:

1) Given the patterns and examples of the past that we’ve studied in class, provide ‘lecture notes’ for a ‘Big and Tall’ class to be given in 2050. The subject is “New Challenges, New Tools: How Design Transformed in the 2020s.” What problems did this generation face and what were its most pressing social, environmental, and economic issues? What tools did it have that its predecessors did not? And were these tools enough to meet the challenges? Include at least four sketches of new construction techniques, materials, building systems, cladding, or anything else that you think was relevant in this critical decade.

2) “The question any researcher must answer in their conclusion is this: so what?

The thesis of this course has been that the technology designers have to hand—whether that’s stone and axes, aluminum and extrusion presses, or digital software and custom-fabricated materials—influences the form and appearance of what we build, and that this connection between what we construct and how we construct it is worth studying.

Well, is it? Does building technology influence aesthetics in ways that mean something? Surely there are plenty of buildings that do their job well, that people like, but that don’t have the pretensions toward structural or tectonic ‘honesty’ that we’ve highlighted in the course. Does it matter if our designs express the forces that shape them, and/or the forces they resist or work with? Give examples of designs or structures that support and challenge the course’s premises—that are structurally or constructionally ‘honest’ but that don’t move you or compel you, and buildings that do not adhere as closely to the rigors of statics or assembly but that still strike you as compelling and logical. Why do you think this is?

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


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