high rise

May 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

high-rise-movie-poster-4In which the skyscraper gets a blazing critique, class warfare ensues, and no dog is safe…

J.G. Ballard was a grad school discovery for me.  Best known for his memoir of survival and escape as a British child in wartime Shanghai, Empire of the Sun, the bulk of his work was insanely well-crafted dystopian science fiction, always set in a plausible future and almost invariably obsessed with ruined–or ruinous–technology gone awry.  His short stories were masterful set pieces that dug deep into the psychology of the space-age, perfect stuff as a cool-down to seminar reading lists full of Frederic Jameson on hyperspace, and evidence aplenty for a master’s thesis on airport design and culture in the late 20th century.  Crash, his most infamous work, took place on the service and access roads around Heathrow, making it required (if, given its subject matter, tough) reading…

Ah, memories.  Ballard shows up in class whenever we get talking about critiques of technology in the 60s and 70s, along with McLuhan and drop-out culture.  And I dive back into Memories of the Space Age whenever a good, weird hit of Burroughs-esque decadence with ruinous scenery seems appropriate–“At dusk Sheppard was still sitting in the cockpit of the stranded aircraft, unconcerned by the evening tide that advanced toward him across the beach” is a great opening line, and I can’t imagine anyone not reading further.  (And if you do keep reading “Myths of the Near Future” there’s a dead spouse, an abandoned launch complex and motel, and an epidemic of a psychosomatic ‘space sickness’ to keep you going).

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQfAAAAJGNlYTZlOTNlLWRjYmItNDY2NS1hMDYwLWQ1NGZhYTRjZTYwNABallard took on megastructural architecture in 1975’s High Rise, a novel that, like Crash, revealed a psychic horror show beneath the promises of mechanical efficiency, automatic servicing, and the engineering of human emotions and desires implicit in post-industrial technology.  His target was pretty clearly the Brutalist housing towers that had risen in his adopted hometown of London; Erno Goldfinger’s brilliant, unapologetic, and hugely despised Trellick Tower had been completed in 1972.  Ballard was both appalled and fascinated by the phenomenon, and examined the  implications of such a massive piece of social engineering in excruciating detail.  In his scenario, the tower is stratified by class–subsidized tenants live on the lower floors, market-rate-paying professionals on the upper.  At the top is the architect himself, Anthony Royal.  Told through the eyes of a physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing, the novel traces the slow decline of the enforced community as the building malfunctions.  Tenants begin fighting one another for increasingly scarce services and amenities, and eventually the high rise becomes contested territory for a civil war in miniature.  It’s a good story, well-told, and chilling to anyone who’s stood in an apartment elevator wondering if their fellow passenger is the one who left the rotting vegetables out next to the jammed trash chute…

high-rise-novelBallard’s writing is incredibly cinematic, but difficult to translate to the screen–a film version of Crash by David Cronenberg in 1997 got reviews ranging from luke warm to scathingly appalled.  The studio almost refused to release it for its literal renditions of Ballard’s admittedly twisted mashup of sex, violence, and trauma.  So when I saw posters for the film version of High Rise in the London Tube a couple of months ago I was both thrilled–and skeptical.

The film is out in America now, not so much in theaters but all over streaming services.  And it’s worth a look.  It definitely captures Ballard’s full-throated ambivalence about the megastructure, with lingering and beautiful shots of its grotesque, raked profile on a smog-filled skyline and obsessive art direction that gives the interiors a lush, threatening atmosphere somewhere between the shag carpets and angular, bush-hammered concrete of the early 1970s and an imagined future of razor-sharp haircuts and post-modern costume parties.  Tom Hiddleston stars as Laing, but he could be any number of Ballard’s characters–utterly without affect, often at a loss to understand the forces compelling and influencing him, but fashionable, cool, and only intermittently the conscience of the film.  Jeremy Irons stars as Anthony Royal, and he’s all film-villain architect, compulsively manipulating the lives of the building’s tenants, spouting utopian theories that are totally at odds with the crude, gesturing profiles of his towers and–Mies, anyone?–inhabiting a penthouse apartment where the decoration goes as far as it can to contradict and soften the otherwise unyielding hardness of the rest of the building.

4262High-Rise has had generally good reviews–the Telegraph called it “coolly immaculate,” which is about right.  It stays true to Ballard’s tightrope walk between the horror and thrills that come with any confrontation with the technological sublime, all the while finding moments of lush beauty and disgust in the violent and erotic connotations of a society in which the rules gradually disappear, in which anything goes, and in which the very architecture seems to eviscerate any sense of morality or ethics.  Ben Wheatley’s direction veers toward understanding the psychology of such a wartime situation in shockingly domestic surroundings, but ultimately it makes the disturbing decision to revel in the weird decadence that emerges in the apocalyptic society that forms out of the building’s filth and decay.  Think Mad Max meets Clockwork Orange, with a touch of Reyner Banham thrown in.  It’s not quite a substantive architectural critique, but it’s a pretty good ride, and the queasy beauty its production design lends it is weirdly convincing.

Perhaps most laudable is Wheatley’s decision to start the film just as the novel starts, with another of Ballard’s incomparable openings:

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

That’s a pretty good indicator of the grotesque but compelling action to come, and the film is, for better or for worse, super true to the tone and (ahem) the events Ballard conjured up.  Recommended?  Sure, but only if you can make it through that first scene intact…

big and tall final analytic projects

May 3, 2016 § 2 Comments

A solid afternoon yesterday reviewing analytic projects for ARCH 517x, Big and Tall.  Students chose one of about 30 curated projects ranging from Karnak to the Burj Khaliffa.  The assignment was to build a model, either digital or analog, that went beyond “what the building looks like” (metaphor, for you alums) and got into “what the building is made of,” “how the building was put together,” or “how the building performs” (analogy, universally more intersting).   Always kind of thrilled when students get it, and when models get away from the visuals and into the joinery and statics of real construction.  Thanks to Ulrike, Rob, and Jelena for showing up and enriching the afternoon with their comments, and to a great bunch of students who really dove into the class and the challenge of telling the stories behind these structures…

the history of sustainability…

April 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 1.45.01 PM…in three lines.  That’s a Google Ngram of every time the words “solar energy,” “insulation,” and “sustainability” were mentioned in a Google-scanned book between 1945 and 2010.

What’s it show?

I’d argue that it shows the difference between tactical thinking in response to the energy shocks of 1973 and 1979, and strategic thinking after the implications of those sank in.  Between 1975 and 1980 there was an increasing interest in how you actually change building components–Trombe walls, anyone?–without really changing much about bigger picture issues.

But starting in the late 1980s thinking about buildings as integrated materials and systems moved out of the hippies-only, build-a-dome-in-the-desert realm and (gradually) into mainstream architectural thinking.  By 2000 there were serious books out there about how the networks of transportation and commerce that those buildings found themselves in were if anything an even bigger part of the problem, and as the limits of changing individual elements became apparent designers and clients started thinking more and more about how design strategy might address growing energy costs.  [Disclaimer: Ngrams are notorious for showing exactly what you want them to show, and yes, this clean history only emerged after messing around a bit with the terms.  An illustration, not hard evidence].  [And no, my students are still not allowed to use the word “sustainable” in studio, but since the rest of the world uses it as a shorthand for “energy efficient” we’ll go with it for the moment].

And by “I’d argue” I mean “what I’m about to say in class is…”  Last day of Big and Tall this afternoon, looking at issues of final and motive causation in practice today and beyond…

aia cote back to back

April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

25889_01-19-16_11-28pmCongratulations to ISU M.Arch. students Mengwei Liu and Anastasia Sysoeva (and to their rock star studio critic Ulrike Passe) for snagging a spot in the AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Awards for architecture students.  The official announcement is now up on the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture website, and their project is here.

This is the second year in a row that our ARCH 601 studio has been recognized, and it’s a good indication of both how seriously our faculty take the challenge to make environmental response a key part of not just architectural education, but also part of a design approach in general.

So now I’m feeling the pressure to  have students repeat in the ACSA/AISC Steel competition, due in a couple of weeks.  Glad to have colleagues and students here who keep re-setting the bar higher and higher…

quite a week

April 17, 2016 § Leave a comment


From left: Addis, Carvais, Rosoman, Wouters, Campbell, Huerta, Heyman, McLean, Fitzgerald, Yeomans, ??, Tutton, Driver, Baker, Thorne, Bertels, Bill.  As one attendee put it when the kitchen smoke alarm went off, “if it’s a real fire, the field of Construction History may cease to exist right here…”

Any week that starts in a 15th century dining hall in Cambridge at a table full of Construction History all-stars and ends watching the Blackhawks win a playoff game in the company of Chicago preservation engineers and contractors is, by definition, a good week.  Last Saturday I was honored to give a keynote address to the Third Annual Conference on Construction History at Queens College, a now-regular UK event that draws a consistently good crowd from throughout Europe.  The topics were, as always, varied and fascinating, ranging from stone architecture in Petra to inflatable formwork for concrete domes in the 1970s, and from medieval nails to the organization of the contracting industry countrywide throughout Europe.  I am no longer surprised, but always consistently happy, that these conferences manage the difficult tasks of depth and breadth in their papers.

poleniOne or two highlights.  I always find myself drawn to the sessions on vaulting at CH events, in part because there is always a good debate about the fine-grained performance of medieval and renaissance structures.  The two sides, as I understand it, generally disagree about whether masonry structures are best understood as solid shells, which lend themselves to analysis fairly easily, or as more ductile structures that move and adjust constantly by cracking and settling–a more difficult process to understand, but an idea that is attractive in that it allows us to look at a cracked structure and to relax a bit (depending on where the cracks are and whether they’re getting larger or not); in the words of Jacques Heyman, “it’s actually quite difficult to design a masonry arch that won’t stand,” since an arch that thrusts or settles will usually find, at some point, a configuration that permits equilibrium.  (Don’t try this at home).  In this context, a paper by Danilo Capecchi and Cesare Tocci, from Università di Roma and the Politecnico di Torino, was our version of a lighting rod, as it took the famously confident analysis of St. Peter’s dome by Giovanni Poleni and contrasted it with the lesser-known but somewhat more accurate report by R.G. Boscovich.  Poleni argued that the shape of St. Peter’s was near enough to the curve of a catenary, and that the dome had sufficient double curvature, that the cracks that had developed in it by the early 1700s were not as worrying as they appeared.  Boscovich, however, pointed out that the cracks indicated more serious problems in the lack of thrust resistance offered by the relatively tall drum, and that the double curvature assumed by Poleni only worked if the dome and drum were monolithic.  In fact, because of the division of the drum into sixteen sections by windows, this couldn’t quite be assumed. Poleni, according to a slightly mythological history, capitulated to the desire to do something, and suggested additional iron hoops to contain the dome’s thrust above the drum.  Capecchi and Tocci’s conclusions are that these hoops were, in fact, critical and that the addition of a hoop placed at the base of the dome that restrains the top of the drum, may have been the intervention that has kept the dome intact.

IMG_2074Back to Iowa earlier this week (after a visit to the Foster mothership in London to see former colleagues and students…) and then to Chicago and Northbrook yesterday for the annual meeting of the Western Great Lakes chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology.  Wiss, Janney, Elstner hosted the session in their Northbrook offices, which are attached to their testing lab.  WJE does a ton of preservation and forensic work all over the country, from the Washington Monument to Wrigley Field, and they do much of their own materials testing, which they showed off during the afternoon break.  That’s a piece of steel rebar in the rig in back, wired up to show a picture-perfect stress-strain curve on the screens in front.  Did it get tested to failure?  Oh, yes, it did.  WJE engineer, Iowa State alum, and loyal architecturefarm subscriber Rachel Will suggested I take advantage of the knowledgeable crowd to test out some new ideas about the postwar Chicago project, and I was grateful for an audience who was willing to sit out the first really great spring day in the city to talk about air conditioning, double glazing, and heat-rejecting glass during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

thermopane ad

So, about 10,000 miles logged this week, 2000 years of history, a couple of good meals in good company, and just over 80 kips of tension on that rebar before it gave way.

anuual CH meeting, cambridge

April 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

IMG_2017Scenes from a morning run…In Cambridge this weekend for the Third Annual Construction History Conference, a European gathering that’s been hosted by Queens College here each year.  Queens is becoming something of a sacred ground in CH, having hosted the triennial Congress in 2006 that was an important gathering for many of us, and it’s always provided a warm welcome as CHS has begun annual meetings here.  I’m giving a keynote on Chicago tomorrow afternoon, in the meantime today’s agenda includes medieval brick staircases, post-tensioned floors in the 20th century, Roman building techniques, 19th century South American plumbing, and late gothic vaulting, among others.  Feeling a bit like a kid heading into a LEGO store, further reports as conditions warrant…

modernism, vernacular, grottos…

April 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

IMG_1963Enjoyed hosting IIT Professor and director of the Ph.D. program Michelangelo Sabatino this week for a lecture at ISU on New Harmony, Indiana and the collision of utopian thought, vernacular building, and the efforts to reconcile modernism and monumentality after World War II.  Michelangelo’s lecture and a seminar he led afterwards on the “secret history” of IIT were brilliant, as anticipated, showing how the histories we tell usually tidy things up in ways that ignore the more interesting and difficult realities of building.  IIT’s history in particular is bound up with all of the racial and urban politics of the 1940s and 1950s–a theme that is becoming increasingly dominant in the preliminary research I’m doing on Chicago’s postwar skyscrapers–but even in so neat a story of New Harmony and the role of Philip Johnson and the patroness of the “Roofless Church” the relationship between architectural and social history is always richer and more complex than we can even realize.

Anyway, what does all that have to do with the rather impressive scene above?  Well, usually when colleagues come to Ames to lecture there’s  a deal we strike that involves either food or architectural sites.  Usually that’s ribs (or grill-your-own-steak) and a tour of Grinnell, Drake University, and the Des Moines Art Center, but Michelangelo asked immediately if we could go to West Bend to see the Grotto of the Redemption, a city-block-sized piece of devotional folk art constructed by a Catholic priest from 1912-1959.  It is a really dramatic piece of vernacular architecture, and well worth the afternoon in the car and a pork tenderloin lunch (see?  Food is always part of the deal) at Community Tavern in Fort Dodge.  (Also famous for having a bit part in David Lynch’s The Straight Story and in Rome colleague Dan Hurlin’s opera Lawnmower Man.)

IMG_1954It lived up to its billing as an overwhelming experience–sort of like being pulled headlong into a Howard Finster painting for an hour or so–and utterly immersive.  The artist, Father Paul Dobberstein, was clearly enthralled by the Renaissance ideal of the garden grotto as a manifestation of both sacred place and sensual atmosphere.  His work is literally encrusted with stones and gems donated from all over the planet and with sculptures of Carrara marble that make direct references to the Italian traditions of grottoes and figurative religious art.

IMG_1965All a bit much for someone raised with a Presbyterian preference for plain, slightly uncomfortable church interiors?  Sure, but there is an absolutely impressive scale of time if not space to the place, and the sheer quantity of labor involved makes it a sacred place no matter what you think of its architecturally.  It’s an odd thing to think of places like this as ‘pure,’ but they’re certainly unencumbered by the weight of any sort of academic theory, which made this a particularly refreshing jolt to the visual cortex.  The Grotto is visited by something like 100,000 people every year (two others while we were there, probably not the most auspicious weather to view the glittering stones in), suggesting that there’s something here that academics often give short shrift.


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