that trump sign…

July 24, 2014 § 6 Comments

IMG_3437[2016 REPOST:  While architecturefarm maintains a policy of strict political neutrality, we are unstinting in our belief that proper kerning should be a baseline qualification for just about any public office.  In honor of this week’s historic election, we are pleased to repost the following from 2014.]

So, this has been the cause celebre in Chicago’s architectural blogosphere the last couple of months.  I’ve enjoyed the snark–in particular Blair Kamin’s takedown of the “five-letter ego trip,”   and the random Curbed commenter who referred to it as the “Trump Stamp.”  That, I think, is now its official name.

Trump has a long history of getting the graphics utterly wrong–witness the bronze Rockwell Bold on New York’s Trump Tower, a font somewhere just above Copperplate in its subtlety.  And this one is no exception.  Critics and even Mayor Emanuel have complained about just how tacky the thing looks.  The position of the sign, at the lower mechanical floor, makes the building look like its pants have fallen down a bit, drawing your eyes to the lower third when what you really want to do is to follow the building’s vertical lines and massing to the (very elegant) top.

But why, exactly, is the sign itself so bad?   I think it’s not just the size of the letters, which even at something around 20′ seem tiny compared to the overall mass of the tower.  (For the record, the largest building sign in history was Citroen’s electric signage that ran the full height of the Eiffel Tower, which must have been incredible).  Kamin points out that the font is all wrong for the tower–it’s a serif font on a sleek curtain wall that’s the architectonic essence of sans serif modern (For the record, the SOM-designed interior signage is in Futura Light).  That’s undoubtedly true, and I think it’s worsened by the fact that the font–god knows what it actually is, but it looks like a bastardized version of, yes, Trump Medieval, which is what his company’s website uses–is both pumped up on boldness steroids and outlined.  The effect is like wearing a shirt that’s tailored a size too large and then wearing an overly padded suit jacket.  Bigness upon bigness, set against one of the most elegant, pinstriped curtain walls in the city.  It’s the sort of graphic mistake that would get one of my design students sent back to the drawing board (OK, back to the Illustrator file) to re-do the final boards.

But there’s another issue here.  Even if the signage designers can claim that the font choice and the pumped-up boldness of the letters came down to them from Trump himself (my guess), couldn’t they have at least taken ten minutes to explain kerning to him?  Font nerds will recognize this immediately, but for laypersons unencumbered by graphic obsession, let me ruin the rest of your life for you:  take this quiz (I’ll wait the two or three hours you’ll spend adjusting letters…)

The human eye is exquisitely sensitive to visual balance and proportion, and what typeface designers spend a huge amount of their time doing is designing not just the shapes of letters themselves, but the spaces between those letters.  Nearly all fonts have a wide range of spacing between their letters depending on stroke width, serifs, solid/void percentage, etc.  You can adjust the kerning in most word processing software, and what’s immediately apparent is that small changes in letter spacing make huge differences in readability–too wide or too tight and our eyes get strained quickly.

In the case of the Trump sign, it’s like the designer didn’t even try to kern the letters properly.  There’s about half again as much space between them as there would be in a properly kerned line of type, and the spacing isn’t visually even–it looks like “TR  U M P” to my eyes, anyway.

In fairness, it may be that the signage fabricators had to work to the cladding grid–in other words, since the sign wasn’t part of the original SOM design, they may have been left with trying to fix the letters to existing mullions.  Typeface never works on an even grid, though, and this might explain why the letters seem so unevenly placed–because, in fact, they are evenly placed, and with the combination of serifs and letter widths, the ‘U” ends up looking lonely.

It’s a free country, of course, and as some supporters have pointed out (in tweets that are invariably retweeted on The Donald’s legendary Twitter feed), the sign is well within Chicago’s regulations for the area.  You can’t legislate taste, of course, or even graphic literacy.  It may be that only font snobs have had their Wabash Ave. vista truly wrecked while the rest of the world seems perfectly capable of getting on with their lives.  But if just one architect starts paying attention to kerning, then the human tragedy that is the Trump sign may well end up having a silver lining.  And maybe the anti-Trump signage movement will gain momentum, and a tasteful Futura Light version of the sign will replace this one  On the upper mechanical levels, where your eyes want it to be…

nervi in venice

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

nervi-slide-show_page_01Catching up after a busy month, highlighted by a symposium on the forthcoming re-issue of Aesthetics and Technology in Building that featured almost all of the authors contributing essays to the project in Venice.  Hosted by Venice International University, we were also fortunate to have Francesco Dal Co, from IUAV, offer some remarks on Nervi and the culture of technology and architecture prevalent in the postwar era.

The book is scheduled for publication in Fall, 2017, so this was the first in what we’re hoping will be something of a world tour over the next year.  We’ve just submitted the final final texts and illustrations, and couldn’t be more excited about bringing a classic text back to the bookshelves–or, at least, the affordable bookshelves.  My own first edition set me back $300 or so about 20 years ago.


Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi, Thomas Leslie, Jo Abram, and Francesco Dal Co.  Photo by Roberto and Karin Einaudi

The roster of authors is a construction history and Nervi scholarship list of all stars.  It’s also nicely international.  Alberto Bologna has contributed an essay on Nervi’s relationship with America, which was a uniquely apropos market and also a source of great inspiration.  Gabriele Neri has written a biographical essay that will reintroduce Nervi and his career to the English-speaking world, and Jo Abram has written a concluding essay that places Nervi in the context of postwar progressive thought and technology.  Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi, president of the PLN Foundation, Cristiana Chorino from the Polytechnic University of Turin, and I have essays that frame the project and the original Aesthetics and Technology in Building, the results of Nervi’s invitation to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in Poetry at Harvard in 1961.


But I think we’re all in agreement that the centerpiece of the new book (aside, of course, from Nervi’s brilliant four chapters) will be Roberto Einaudi’s historical essay on how the Norton Lectures and the book came to be.  Einaudi was an undergraduate student at Cornell when he took a semester off to travel to Rome and to sit in on Nervi’s lecture classes (this after spending a summer working for Louis Kahn.  He and I have had a lot to discuss).  His transcriptions of those lectures have been published in Italy and give a rare insight into Nervi’s philosophy–and standing as a teacher.  For this project, Einaudi has written about being drafted into translating Nervi’s lectures (as a graduate student at MIT in 1961, Einaudi was again in the right place at the right time) and then working with him to refine those into ATB’s essays.  This will be an important document in its own right, but it’s also a great story, and very much a portrait of the sophisticated but very down-to-earth person that Nervi was.

img_4334img_4339The day was highlighted by a visit to the Cassa di Risparmio, a branch bank designed by Nervi and Scottolino that features a large isostatic-shaped slab (top photo in the post) over the banking hall.  It’s a building that’s practically hidden in plain sight–just a short walk from St. Mark’s but deeply embedded in the daily life of the city and not on any obvious tourist trail.  Seeing it in such esteemed company was a rare treat, but of course the chance to travel to Venice is its own reward, especially at moon high tide.



October 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

Here at APT’s annual conference in San Antonio presenting progress on what we’re now calling “Deep Plan, Thin Skins,” on the evolution of the glass box, to a friendly crowd of preservationists.  Today was tour day, in particular of the 1928 Milan Building, the first fully air conditioned high rise.  Pleased to report that a trip to the basement confirmed that bits of Willis Carrier’s original equipment are still there and still churning away.  Sacred ground…

fly the w

October 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

screen_20shot_202016-10-24_20at_2010-01-53_20am-0The Art Institute lions look pretty good in Cubbie blue, don’t they?

I could go into great detail about Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge’s building behind those be-capped cats, or about Zachary Taylor Davis’ riveted steel masterpiece at the corner of Addison and Clark (he, by the way, is going to be recognized by the new hotel being planned for Wrigleyville…well deserved), or about how Kyle Hendricks, hero pitcher of Game 6, played college ball for Dartmouth and thus spent winters practicing that pennant-winning changeup under a rather nice Nervi roof in Hanover.

But I’ll just leave it at this: I’ll be radically unavailable for the next few evenings, hoping for an outcome that last happened the year this Loop landmark opened for business:


nervi symposium at Venice International University 11 Nov 2016

October 19, 2016 § Leave a comment


Happy to announce the first pre-publication event for both Beauty’s Rigor and the 50th anniversary reprint of Aesthetics and Technology in Building.  Both book projects will be the subject of a day-long presentation associated with the Venice Biennale on Friday, 11 November at Isola di San Servolo.  I’ll be helping to moderate and to place Nervi and these projects in context, but the day will be highlighted by presentations by scholars and architects who have contributed critical essays to the ATB reprint.  If you’re in Venice, or anywhere nearby, this should be a great day of Nervi scholarship, the first in a series of events that will surround the books’ hitting the street sometime next Fall.

putting the ‘brut’ in brutalism

October 15, 2016 § 3 Comments


Boston City Hall.  New York Times, 6 Oct 2016

Here we go again…a piece in last week’s Sunday New York Times, while proclaiming that “brutalism is back” nevertheless pitched it as a style intended to “brutalize” its occupants:

IN THE RANK OF UNFLATTERING monikers for an artistic style, “Brutalism” has got to score near the top. Like the much kinder-sounding “Fauvism” or “Impressionism,” it was a term of abuse for the work of architects whose buildings confronted their users — brutalized them — with hulking, piled-up slabs of raw, unfinished concrete. These same architects, centered on the British couple Alison and Peter Smithson, enthusiastically took up Brutalism as the name for their movement with a kind of pride, as if to say: That’s right, we are brutal. We do want to shove your face in cement. For a world still climbing gingerly out of the ruins of World War II, in need of plain dealing and powerful messages, this brand of architectural honesty was refreshing.

Nikil Saval, “Brutalism is Back,” New York Times T Magazine, Oct. 6, 2016.

So, just for the record, here’s the same newspaper, back in 1969, explaining the origins of the term:

“The ‘brut’ in brutalism is a play upon ‘bèton brut,’ Le Corbusier’s description of his own reinforced concrete work. ‘New brutalism’ is, therefore, a definition of an esthetic approach, coined by Reyner Banham in an article about the influence of Le Corbusier upon certain English architects. A building of bèton brut, like a bottle of champagne brut, is to be judged on its own merits, rather than the imagery of its nomenclature.”

Francis Booth, “The Brut in Brutalism,” The New York Times, Jan. 10, 1969. 46.

To Saval’s credit, the article goes on to talk about the straightforward expression of materials as a key to the ethic and aesthetic of Brutalism, quoting its patron saint and fiercest critic, Reyner Banham:

“Whatever has been said about honest use of materials,” Banham wrote in a 1955 article, “most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash or patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel.” The Smithsons’ project at Hunstanton, by contrast, “appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and is in fact made of glass, brick, steel and concrete.”

What isn’t quoted is Banham’s two-word definition of the style: “bloody mindedness,” which suggests much more the intellectual reach and overreach that led to buildings as rigorous and sublime as Kahn’s Kimbell, and as baffling and alienating as Netsch’s Art and Architecture building at Illinois-Chicago.

 “Brutalism” came out of expressing the processes of making and constructing a building–the “brut” of “beton brut,” and not an evil conspiracy to distress and discomfort the public at large…and a simple keyword search on the writer’s part here would have made that apparent.

Mythbusting Saturday morning…

floating foundations out west

September 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

millenniumtowersfThis is pretty unbelievable, but multiple sources report that San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, finished in 2009 and at 58 stories the tallest residential tower in the city, is experiencing potentially grave problems with settlement–the building as a whole has settled more than 10 inches farther into its site than originally calculated, and it’s done so unevenly, so much so that the tower now has a supposedly noticeable lean.

The problems with settlement were first reported a few weeks ago, but the national media (and several friends, family, and SCI-TECH alumni) have now caught wind of the problem and it’s making headlines for the potentially explosive political consequences, if in fact the owners received an overly generous assessment from the city.  Inspectors were aware of the problems as early as August, 2009, according to some reports, but approved the building anyway.

Politics aside, any building that tall that leans that much is going to attract attention, especially mine.  So what’s up?  (Disclaimer–all of the following is pure speculation, researched lightly with whatever’s available on line.  Take with a grain of salt).

The New York Times yesterday had a particularly misleading take on this, one that SCI-TECH alums should be able to parse out pretty easily:

Mark Garay, one of the lawyers for the apartment owners, says it is too early to pinpoint the precise causes for the building sinking, but that it had already begun significantly before work on the transport terminal started.

“What we do know is that the foundation of this building does not go into bedrock,” he said. “It’s all landfill. It used to be part of the bay.”

That sounds terrifying.  After all, shallow foundations on landfill were major factors in the collapse of several much smaller building in the Marina District in the 1989 earthquake.  As the earth shook, the soil under the water table liquified (exactly like shaking up a french press full of settled coffee grounds), setting the buildings above afloat.

Garay’s quote makes it sound like Millennium Tower is a big version of the same problem.  The excavation for the tower goes 75 feet underground, but bedrock in SOMA is more than 200′ below ground level.  The basement is tanked to prevent water infiltration, so there’s a displacement force, but nothing close to the weight of the tower above.


But Garay’s quote doesn’t address the actual system in use here.  Millennium Tower’s designers relied on an old-school foundation technique, friction piles, to support the weight of the tower (there’s also a 12-story mid-rise and a three-story connector…more on those shortly).  Friction piles work by surface resistance with surrounding fluid soil.  Imagine driving a broomstick into beach sand–you can only go so far before there’s enough broomstick in contact with the sand to put up fearsome resistance.  This has always been a standard technique for building in liquid soil, and it’s why coastal construction always comes with the dulcet tones of a pile driver.  Chicago builders used these to support the dozens of grain elevators that used to line the River, and Dankmar Adler was on record as wondering why building engineers didn’t use friction piles when designing skyscrapers–a foreshadowing of his eventual development of caissons for architectural applications.

According to  a case study by the Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute, Millennium Tower’s core is supported by 950 square piles, each of them 14″ x 14″.  The loads from the surrounding building are apparently transferred to these piles, in part, by a 10-foot deep pile cap (with, CRSI, notes a fair dose of “vertical shear reinforcing.”  No kidding.)  The number of piles, the case study notes, was “governed by gravity design” and not “overturning due to earthquake.”fullsizerender

So that’s the section, at least as I understand it (happy to be corrected by anyone who knows more).  This looks like it could be a classic vertical vs. rotational equilibrium problem.  If you remember your elementary beam statics, we’re worried about structure moving through space (usually the problem is down) and providing enough resistance to prevent its translational movement.  But we’re also worried about things rotating (beams in particular, but bear with me).  Rotational equilibrium means providing enough resisting leverage to keep elements from spinning around one point or another.  Where that resistance goes is critical–the larger the lever arm, the better able a support is able to push back and resist an unbalanced load.  While the piles under Millennium Tower are designed to resist the translational load of the tower against gravity, they’re not in the most efficient place to resist rotation.  So the lean could have something to do with this.

The larger-than-expected settlement in general–something like 15″ vs. an expected 5″–may not be that big a problem.  Buildings in poor soil settle more or less than expected all the time, and the Chicago experience shows that guessing how much a fluid soil will compress is at best an art more than a science.  There’s discussion of adjacent construction at the Transbay Terminal that may have exacerbated the gradual movement of the building down through the soil.

It’s the uneven settlement that’s more worrying.  The lean itself isn’t such a big deal–the Fisher Building in Chicago leans a good 6-8″ out over the street, and has done for 120 years now–but the small changes to the building’s structural geometry could have all sorts off serviceability issues, from doors that won’t fully close because their frames are racked to pens that roll across the floor when they’re dropped.  If one segment of the building is settling more than another, that can also put unanticipated stress on structural connections.

What happens in an earthquake?  That’s a bigger question.  Friction pile foundations can have problems with horizontal shear in large seismic events as the momentum of the building above works out of phase with the movement of the liquid soil below, but assuming they’re designed for this force they present a pretty solid keel for a tall building that suddenly finds itself afloat, and the resistance of the 950 piles will theoretically prevent the building from moving or rotating laterally.  No building on the planet is “earthquake proof,” but a slight lean doesn’t necessarily make the building any more vulnerable.

What’s to be done?  All kinds of possibilities.  Adding piles under whatever part is experiencing greater settlement is one.  Soil remediation with concrete is another, but unlikely given the surrounding soil.  It’s possible that doing nothing is the best option–as long as the settlement is slow it may be that the building is entirely habitable for generations before things get too far out of hand.

But my favorite solution is the one finally employed in 1907 at the Fisher Building.  The owners bought the lot to the immediate north of the leaning tower and constructed a slightly taller, heaver structure there, rigidly connected to the existing building’s steel frame.  The new structure is tiny, but it balances out the lean of the older structure and literally helps to keep it upright.  Sort of like the designated driver (left, below) walking a drunk friend (right, below) home from a late night…


a man, a plan, a canal…

September 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Well, that’s certainly one of the most attractive Integrated Studio sites we’ve ever had…

Some longtime readers may recall a particularly successful run of option studios at ISU several years ago that combined Interior Design and Architecture students on teams that produced award-winning schemes for high rise hotels in Chicago (when I taught it) and Miami Beach, when it was taught by Jason Alread.  After a fortunate elevator conversation in June with our Interior Design chair, Lee Cagley, the two of us decided to revive theidea in the Fall, when I actually teach studio, and to re-cast it as an Integrated Design studio–full of technical requirements like structure, wind bracing, exiting stairs, and climate response, but still  exciting, design-wise.  Lee had planned to do an ecologically-themed resort in Panama City this fall, and we used that as the basis for a hotel program on a site in Amador, formerly one of several US military installations around the Pacific end of the canal.  We had a great response from students in both disciplines, and we’re just finishing up four days of site visits, precedent studies, and empanadas consumption in Panama City.

Lee orchestrated a great trip, one that started with a morning at the Miraflores Locks, where an eight-story visitors center gives you a stadium seating view of the daily ballet of ships inching through locks that are at most a meter or so wider than they are.  The scale of the operation is literally unbelievable, and the fact that the locks themselves are a century old makes them that much more impressive (built, let’s remember, by many of the same people and machines that built the Sanitary and Ship Canal outside of Chicago…)
We stayed in university dorms right across the road from the locks, so this was a daily drama.  But the competing drama, even just a couple of miles outside Panama City, was the rainforest that occupies every available square inch of this part of the world.  And Lee made sure we saw plenty of that, too.  An aerial tram and tower at Gamboa was a good introduction, but a more informal–and much more immersive–chance to see Panama’s biodiversity in action came in the form of a drenching morning at Canopy Tower, a defunct and lightly re-occupied radar tower a few miles inland.  A couple of hours atop that, and walking through the dense, stratified forest, was a really intense blast of what the climate and land here are capable of, and the forces that are very obviously taking back whatever we’ve borrowed from them.  Every road we drove on outside of the city was edged in an impatient tangle of vines, grasses, and trees, reminding you that everything we’ve built here is temporary–even that big slice through the Isthmus.

So that is kind of the theme for the fall–can you create an environment that lets guests have a real connection to the power and beauty of the natural forces at work in this place while also fitting in to a city that is seeing phenomenal growth, that is connected to the whole world through its unique infrastructure and its financial industry, and that respects the complicated natural and political history of this place?

We’ll see, but this seems like a fearless, clever group, and we have lucked into a site that seems to embody all of these contradictions.  The Amador Peninsula was one of the most strategic points at the mouth of the canal, and its redevelopment into a convnention and entertainment center comes with all kinds of tough questions about how your remediate land that was aggressively clear cut, and then poisoned by a fuel tank farm.  

One answer is to gloss over all of that with something shiny, and one of the really good debates we’ve had is over Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo, a museum of Panama’s natural history that is about half a mile down the peninsula from our site.  It has a relentlessly upbeat message–this place is special, and we can do a better job of conserving it–but the building itself, designed to mimic a rainforest canopy with concrete and sheet metal “trees,” is a powder-coated monument to profligate embodied energy.  Couldn’t you “raise awareness” (always a signature cop out line) by making your building an analogue of natural processes  instead of a metaphorical nod to its mere forms?

I know, show don’t tell, coach don’t preach.  But the more I see it (and, FBOW, you can see the damn thing everywhere in Panama City)’ the more this latest Gehry’s crumpled hut strikes me as a dramatic ethical failing and a missed opportunity to do something that really with the experience of fragile relentlessness that we saw in Canopy Tower.  Is it possible for human and natural habitats to support one another in ways that are also rich with experience and connections?  Good questions to ask, especially over covina alla plancha at Mer e Terra, the official fish shack of Arch 403/603 & ID 668, Fall, 2016.