garage architecture II

fresh concreteWith the old garage gone, we’ve started work on the new one. The concrete subs came in a couple of weeks ago and poured the new slab, full of wire fabric and #4 rebar. The pour happened after a particularly rainy weekend, and the forms shifted slightly. This is concrete’s ultimate problem–having to hold thousands of pounds of liquid in place while it cures means that things often don’t end up where you expect or want them. In this case, though, it means only some bulging sides, which will be covered, soon enough, by dirt and grass. Only the chipmunks will notice.

Old Chicago skyscraper of the week–Woman’s Temple

Woman's Temple, Burnham & Root, 1892.  La Salle & Monroe, demolished, 1926.

Woman's Temple, Burnham & Root, 1892. La Salle & Monroe, demolished, 1926.

The Monadnock Building was the tallest bearing wall skyscraper in Chicago, at 17 stories, but it wasn’t the last.  John Root’s design for a headquarters and speculative development for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a look backward.  In a year of remarkable advances in steel construction, the twelve-story “Women’s Temple” relied on heavy masonry and stone walls to carry much of its weight.

The Union desired a meeting hall and related offices, but it also sought an investment that would provide it with a constant source of income.  Most of the offices and shops in the building were thus for rent, and this posed an interesting problem.  The Union’s clientele for its meetings were largely recovering alcoholics, whose very presence would have been off-putting to the higher end clients they sought for rental offices.  Thus, Root designed two entrances: a main one for the offices on La Salle, and an almost hidden one on Monroe that connected, via a long corridor, to the “Temperance Hall” in the back corner of the site.

Root’s design was aesthetically conservative, matching the building’s structure and, apparently, the tastes of the Union.  The building was never as popular with office clients as the Union had hoped, and by the 1920s it was functionally obsolete, the thick walls on the interior blocking any efforts at creating larger, open offices that were then becoming popular.  It was demolished in 1926.

The building was somewhat legendary in professional circles for John Root alleged comment at the end of its opening ceremony.  After a long-winded address by the Union’s president on temperance, he supposedly turned to a colleague on the reviewing stand and uttered, loud enough for much of the crowd to hear, “well, that’s done–let’s get a drink.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s obituary for Louis Sullivan

Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday was earlier this week.  Wright had an incredibly complicated relationship with his mentor and original employer, Louis Sullivan.  Fired by Sullivan for moonlighting in the early 1890s, Wright smoldered.  There is a widely circulated story that he had a drunken Sullivan thrown out of the Cliff Dwellers’ Club after being asked for change during Sullivan’s decline.  Once Sullivan died, in 1924, Wright’s tone changed, and with the father figure safely out of the way, he felt free to anoint him as America’s great lost hope.  

I came across the obituary for Sullivan that Wright penned for Architectural Record this week, and among the Whitmanesque language that both men were (in)famous for was this gem:

“Ah, that supreme, erotic, high adventure that was his ornament!  Often I would see him, his back bent over his drawing board, intent upon what?  I knew his symbolism—I caught his feelings as he worked.  A Casanova on his rounds?  Beside this sensuous master of adventure with tenuous, vibrant, plastic form, Casnova was a duffer…How often have I held his cloak and sword while he adventured in the realm within, to win his mistress; and while he wooed the mistress, I would woo the maid!  Those days!” 

Sullivan’s sexuality isn’t much of a mystery–his wife divorced him in 1916 for reasons that the Chicago Tribune declined to publish–but this quote does make you wonder whether 1) the office of Adler & Sullivan was more interesting than we’ve been led to believe, or 2) both mens’ private lives were far more boring.

“Creativity” in architecture

Want to raise the hackles of any practicing architect?  Let them know who the “1o most creative architects” practicing today are.

There’s a general stereotype that wacky or unusual form defines creativity, or ‘avant-garde’ architecture.  What’s lost in this, of course, is that problem-solving is the much larger part of what we do, and often the projects with the deepest thought are the ones that look effortless.  And, of course, the structures here also needed the efforts of ‘creative’–and tireless–engineers.  (At least those that are actually built.  Some of these haven’t passed that hurdle, which often de-wackifies things considerably).  

The well-presented solution to a complex problem is under-represented in most histories, which is one of the reasons I’m interested in going back and trying to find examples that were at the edge not of formal innovation, but rather of balancing functional issues with means available.  This is a quieter group of folks–Burnham in Chicago, but also Eames, Kahn, and SOM.  I’d throw the high-tech folks into both categories, since in some cases (the lower budget projects, mostly), this attitude prevails.  When the constraints are off, the designs often get worse.  Foster, interestingly, is in this list, but for a building (Beijing Airport) that had some pretty impressive budget, schedule, and performance issues.

Old Chicago Skyscraper of the week: 333 N. Michigan


View of 333 N. Michigan from north of the Chicago River

View of 333 N. Michigan from north of the Chicago River

Designed by Holabird & Root and finished in 1928.  333 stands at the southwest corner of what was then called the “Michigan Avenue Plaza,” a new intersection formed when the River was bridged here as part of the Wacker Drive reconstruction.  It’s best known as a knock-off of Eliel Saarinen’s 1922 Tribune Tower entry (a scheme that many felt should have won), but on its own it is a remarkable translation of Chicago’s new zoning code.  The site was particularly narrow (only 62 x 200 feet), and Holabird & Root responded by centralizing the elevator core and shifting it to the eastern edge of the lot.  This also allowed for a future expansion, which apparently never happened.


The tower facing the River was a literal translation of a provision in the zoning code that permitted buildings to rise above the 265 foot height limit within strict limitations–only 25% of the site plan could rise above this level, and it was subject to a 10% setback slope line from the street.  The tower here, which at just over 3000 square feet fit precisely within the 25% provision, extended an extra 11 stories above a 24 story slab, peaking at 426 feet.  The three stories at the base were fitted out as shops, each of which had storage and a dedicated truck entrance on Lower Wacker Drive.

Holabird & Root chose to relocate their offices to 333 N. Michigan while it was under construction.

Garage architecture

Old Garage

In his time-honored introduction, Experiencing Architecture (hands up how many were assigned this in their first design class), Steen Eiler Rasmussen offers one sure-fire clue to determining what is architecture and what isn’t.  Chartres Cathedral is architecture.  A bike shed is not.

Really?  When he wrote this, I think a sense of propriety would have led most practicing architects to agree.  But today, most of us have a wider view.  And with a recession on, it’s interesting to see what firms or designers will take on.  A bike shed?  How about a bike rack?

My ‘practice’ is at best a micro-business.  I find a project or two each year for a friend–a kitchen, a porch, front steps, etc.  These have, to date, never required the dusty licenses that I keep current, but they do keep my hands dirty.  The latest is for our own house, a new garage, to replace a ca. 1968 particleboard wonder that, frankly,  had seen better days when we bought the place in 2000.  It was built in an era of conspicuous consumption, large enough for 2.5 cars, but structurally capable of spanning, at most, 2.  This led to a rather serious smiley-faced profile, and over the last couple of years it had begun shedding bits.

The new garage will be smaller; it will be located closer to the street and to the lot line to give us more yard; it will match in proportions, roof line, and details the existing, 1926 Craftsman House.  Updates to follow, along with musings on just how small a project can be and still be architecture.  Or, at least, architectural.  Discuss that one amongst yourselves, in the meantime.

windows ca. 1931

One of the Chicago book’s major themes is the role of windows in responding to functional needs (lighting) while dealing with serious functional and material issues (glass is a notoriously poor insulator, its expensive to make and transport, and it breaks–a lot).  I read an article today by architect Albert Frey from 1931 on “Windows” (Architectural Record, February, 1931) that laid out these problems as they existed at the time.  This is late in the book’s chronology, but it’s interesting to see how these played out when glass was relatively cheap.  Frey suggests that a workplace can’t have too much daylight, and that office buildings and factories ought to adopt the continuous strip windows and cantilevered construction that maximized the amount of exposed glass area on a building facade.  

Frey, of course, practiced in California, where the environmental consequences of glass walls were significantly less than in Chicago.  He noted that these windows needed shade in the summer, and acknowledged the need for heat in the winter.  What’s interesting is that his formula did become the universal standard, but not until the 1940s and 1950s, by which time air conditioning was in widespread use.

One more interesting point.  Frey thought that factories had it right, with gigantic planes of glass opening directly in to work places.  He explained the typical use of quite small panes by pointing out that windows were much more likely to be broken in industrial environments.  Larger panes would have been more expensive to replace.  Never thought of that, but it makes sense.

What’s on student’s desks

A colleague who is heading back into academia recently asked what ten books she should catch up on if she wanted to be up to speed with what students were reading/talking about. Here’s a quick scan of student desks, with a couple thrown in that should be part of the discourse:

1. David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering
2. Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture
3. William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle
4. Bruce Mau, Massive Change
5. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman
6. Cecil Balmond, Informal
7. Farshid Moussavi, The Function of Ornament
8. Stephen Kieran, Refabricating Architecture
9. D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form
10. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture

I’m curious to hear what’s on student desks elsewhere–read, examined, or just serving as paperweights…