curbed’s “most iconic chicago buildings”

November 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

hancock sofitelOh, this is fun.  Curbed Chicago has recently posted their 27 “famous buildings that every Chicagoan should know,” and it’s worked a treat in terms of stirring up the commentariat.  I’ve got my thoughts on their list, and on what should be on it, but just for grins, let’s poll the readership:  what are your top ten buildings, let’s say, that are iconic Chicago?  Curbed’s list includes a lot that come to mind right away, but also a good mix of buildings (and structures) that certainly speak to the city’s history and culture, but that aren’t necessarily well known….


renzo piano in des moines

November 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

IMG_8008Des Moines has a long history of hiring international-caliber architects and getting superb work out of them–there’s a standard tour of outstanding buildings by both Saarinen’s, I.M.Pei, Gordon Bunshaft, Mies van der Rohe, and David Chipperfield that never fails to impress.  And that’s alongside great work by homegrown talent, too.


A combination of international and local talent is building this elegant bit of flying steelwork at the moment.  When regional convenience store/gas station chain Kum’N’Go announced that Renzo Piano would be designing its headquarters in downtown Des Moines it made a huge splash here and, from the looks of things, it should make an equally big splash nationally when it’s finished.  Downtown Des Moines is a rare success story in contemporary American urbanism, and the decision to relocate their headquarters from the suburbs back to downtown by the chain is a huge vote of confidence that the core’s recent history of inspired development and civic engagement is likely to continue for a while.

IMG_8032Piano’s design will connect to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which has become not only a gateway to downtown but also a symbolic open space.  The massing of the Krause Center is going to be oriented toward that space, with a ground level plaza and public interior that will be complimented by terraces on upper levels that will offer raised outdoor space for employees, and views over the Raccoon River’s valley, south of downtown.  To emphasize these connections, most of the building is glass in the north-south direction, and Piano’s office has gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize the number of columns and walls that will support these upper floors–some of the lower floors’ corners are actually suspended from above to maximize the building’s transparency.  The top floor is skewed, reflecting the change in grid from the city’s general E-W axis to one that’s perpendicular to the Des Moines River, a few blocks east.  Here, too, the structure has been packed into long-span girders and a few dense columns to open up views along both axes.  The result, even in the jumble of a busy construction site, is remarkably airy and open.

IMG_8031That glass is being set in place by local cladding company Architectural Wall Systems, sort of an MVP of a business here.  A few weeks ago I ran into ISU grad Ryan Smart, who’s working for AWS on the project, and he suggested that we organize a field trip of the job site for our grad students.  Which we did, and I think the afternoon was as inspiring as it was cold.  Two other ISU alums–Ryan Larson and Joe Feldman, who work for the contractor, Ryan Companies, and the local architect, OPN–joined the tour, and treated us to an in-depth look at some of the structural gymnastics it’s taking to realize the airiness of Piano’s vision.  The rigor and discipline is evident, too, and they described the challenges of realizing 28-foot tall insulated glass panels without intermediate supports, packing steel and mechanical systems into a vanishingly thin floor sandwich, and finding precasting companies who could pour monolithic corner pieces up to 6′ x 6′.  (Hint: you have to go to Canada).

IMG_8015Whenever a small city like Des Moines gets an opportunity like this, the questions are always whether they’ll get the superstar architect’s best work and whether the local team can keep up with the expectations of that architect.  We saw ample evidence–both in the construction so far and in the warehouse full of interior mockups–that Krause Center is going to be an extraordinary building–“the job of a lifetime,” as one of our alums told me, grinning wildly.  What’s interesting is that it’s definitely going to be a Piano building, but it looks to be unusual in that rather than the details and materials driving the design, it really appears to be the sense of the wide open spaces that will connect to the city around it that have driven it.  And that means that the structural discipline that we’re used to seeing in Piano’s work has been replaced by some truly breathtaking spans and spaces–something pretty new in his oeuvre, and exciting to see in its nascent form.


Many thanks to AWS, Ryan Companies, and OPN for showing us around.  An inspiring afternoon, both for the architecture and for the chance to see former students out in the world and doing really amazing work.


skyscrapers on the BBC

November 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Honored to join Carol Willis and Benjamin Flowers to discuss skyscrapers past, present, and future on the BBC World Service program (or, really, programme) The Forum this weekend.  Good discussion, and an excellent set of questions.

Beauty’s Rigor

October 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

LeslieF17Available today, at least according to the printer’s schedule.  Very happy to formally announce that Beauty’s Rigor: Patterns of Production in the Work of Pier Luigi Nervi is out in the world after five very enjoyable years of research, travel, writing, and editing.

Longtime readers will know much of its contents.  The book makes the argument that, while Nervi has long been appreciated as a structural engineer, his ‘other’ career, as a contractor who actually built most of his projects, played an important role in his building’s aesthetics, and particularly in the striking patterns that impart such a fine grain and scale to his roofs.  Nervi worked with small teams of laborers, often unskilled, and had to adopt what I call algorithmic processes–carefully coordinated sequences of simple, easily repeated actions–to actually construct his designs.  The discipline this instilled in his forms, and the grids and spirals that this imprinted on his buildings, distinguished his work from other thin-shell builders of the 1950s and 1960s.

Many, many people to thank for their support, advice, and enthusiasm over the course of this project, in particular colleagues who shared time and space with me at the American Academy in Rome during 2013-2014, the many Nervi scholars in Italy and elsewhere who generously shared ideas and research with me, the Department of Architecture and the College of Design here at Iowa State who supported a year-long sabbatical to do the research and site visits, and the staff of our Rome Program who let me sleep in the attic of our studio there during a preliminary visit in 2012.

Figure 4-15 thumb


October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment


A fine looking family of high-rise models there.  Iowa State Interior Design Chair Lee Cagley and I are closing in on 2/3 of the way through another interdisciplinary integrated design studio (how’s that for architectural education buzzwords…), again focusing on a former U.S. military site at the mouth of the Panama Canal.  We have teams of architects and interior designers working together to navigate the contradictions and possibilities of building in a city that’s both profoundly global, and at the same time very tied to its specific geography, climate, and culture.

IMG_7812The Amador Peninsula is one of the most intriguing and oddest sites I’ve based a studio on.  It’s a long, flat piece of land that extends east into the Pacific Ocean (yep–east into the Pacific Ocean, a consequence of Panama’s twisting shape) and tapers off to a three-mile long causeway connecting three islands.  It’s a great morning run, especially before the sun comes up and makes everything hot, but it’s also a spot with impressive views of the daily choreography of ships maneuvering into the Canal, and of Panama’s exploding skyline.  There’s a Frank Gehry museum at the junction between the actual land and the causeway, and a gigantic convention center under construction.  Our studio is developing ideas for three sites that would complement the convention center, along programs for a microtel, a nightclub hotel, and a spa hotel.  In each case, students have to develop designs that respond to the local climate, cater to guests who we assume will be attending international scale conventions, and take advantage of views that are literally 360°.

IMG_7885About 20 of us spent the better part of a week there last month, watching the container ship ballet at Miraflores Locks, communing with spider and night monkeys in the Gamboa Rainforest center, and getting lost in traffic.  The major drawback of traveling to Panama City is its total lack of mass transit, something that’s probably scotching future trips as the interdisciplinary nature of the studio has made it increasingly popular–coordinating three minivans made for a logistically fascinating trip.  But the payoffs were utterly worth it–a building culture exemplified by stone and stucco buildings in Casco Viejo, sublime views of the rainforest canopy, and hikes up surrounding hills that let students understand the layers of colonial and contemporary growth in Central America’s fastest-growing economy.

IMG_7999Yesterday’s mid-review went well, with input from interior design, architecture, and landscape architecture faculty and practitioners.  The range of responses, even with tightly delineated program, zoning, and code requirements, has been remarkable, and we’re looking forward to seeing some strong schemes get developed over the last five weeks of the term.  Also hoping to live up to last year’s sweep of the Hospitality Design student awards…

rethinking pei

October 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

everson stair viewThis year marks  I.M. Pei’s 100th birthday, and next week I’m taking part in the first half of a trans-pacific celebration of his career.  Pei isn’t totally a new research topic for me–Jason Alread and I wrote about his extraordinary sculpture gallery at the Des Moines Art Center (1966-68) in a 2007 article in the Journal of Architectural Education, and Pei played at least a background role in Kahn’s career, consulting with him on the concrete formwork systems he used for his early high-rises while Kahn was working on the Salk Institute.

So the invitation to contribute to Rethinking Pei’s first session, in Cambridge, MA, was a welcome one, as it has given me an opportunity to dive more deeply in to his work in Des Moines, and also the context to that building, in particular the almost simultaneous Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (1962-68), New York.  This project started earlier than the one in Des Moines, and it was Pei’s first foray into large scale cultural work after an early career as a strictly development architect.

pei elevation

The Everson was to have been the anchor project to a masterplan for Syracuse’s downtown designed by shopping mall designer Victor Gruen–a masterplan that was never implemented.  Pei, realizing that the museum would have to hold its own while other elements were constructed, created an intentionally closed building–four cantilevered galleries rooted to the ground by circulatory and structural stalks, all rendered in corrugated, rough concrete.  The resulting minimalist sculpture was striking on Syracuse’s admittedly banal downtown urbanscape, and it created a sublime central courtyard, which Pei graced with the first of his many spiral concrete and travertine staircase.

dmac courtyard

Four years later, in the midst of seemingly interminable delays, Pei began work in Des Moines, extending the rambling plan of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s original limestone building (1946-48) by linking one end of its S-shaped plan with a link between its gallery and education wings.  This was a brave scheme, as it enclosed a much-loved courtyard that had been designed to terminate a long garden axis and rose garden.  But Pei did not so much block this axis as punctuate it.  Through his careful placement of glass and concrete, he ensured that the building was largely transparent along the axis, and that it matched the gradual drop of the site with a double-level gallery.  Again, he used rough-hewn, corrugated concrete as a structural and finish material, all aligned with the original axis and rising to a soaring, butterfly-shaped skylight.

dmac sculpture gallery interior

The conference includes some pretty luminous names–Leslie Robertson, who has always been one of the office’s most valued engineering collaborators, and William Pedersen, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, among them.  There are also a number of academics who will be covering Pei’s extensive career, from the National Council for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to the Louvre Pyramid–possibly the most recognizable piece of postwar architecture on the planet.  I’ve often made the case informally that Pei’s work at the Art Center deserves to be included among his best, and I’m looking forward to making that case in Cambridge next week.  The second half takes place in Hong Kong in December–for better or worse I’ll be listening in by web to that one.

chicago architecture foundation moving on up…

September 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Solid news this morning from the Blair Kamin in the Tribune–the Chicago Architecture Foundation is moving from its long-time home in Burnham’s Railway Exchange Building to more spacious and visible digs in 111 E. Wacker. The story reports that CAF will bring its city model with it, along with new models and exhibits on the history of the skyscraper. 111 is part of the Mies-designed Illinois Center (or, really, Mies-office-designed…), and plans call for a new, glass-enclosed gallery that will look out over the docks that serve the world-famous River Cruise. It will also face the Tribune Tower and the new Foster-designed Apple Store, adding to the city’s spiritual crossroads at the Michigan Avenue bridge. Great to see them gaining visibility and emphasizing the connection to their river tour–accept no substitutes!