boston field trip–saarinen

IMG_2791IMG_2802In addition to site and precedent visits, it’s inevitable that we take students to MIT and Harvard when we go to Boston.  The collection of buildings on the two campuses is museum-like, and the architects who’ve worked at MIT in particular have generally risen to the occasion–I.M. Pei, Alvar Aalto, and in particular Eero Saarinen did some of their best work within a few minutes’ walk of one another.

The two Saarinen buildings–a chapel and a lecture hall–are always a good stop.  Both buildings are simple, quiet, immaculately detailed, and fearless in their expression of a basic idea.  The chapel is a simple brick cylinder, with a small skylight above the altar and a carefully orchestrated entry sequence involving an intentionally under-sized corridor and a changingperspective that gradually reveals the interior and altar.  The group never fails to wander in total silence, which I think Saarinen would have liked.  The lecture hall echoes some of the chapel’s geometry; it’s a segmental spheroid shell that rests on three nimble supports, and it has an early steel curtain wall that’s suspended between the shell and the ground.  The detailing isn’t as precise as aluminum later allowed, but it shows how the wall was made, and how it stands up against wind in particular.

After these two, we take our group to Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, leaking and falling to bits after being open for three years.  After seeing the subtle competence of the two Saarinen buildings, we don’t have to say a word.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–home insurance building


CAD Model by Ryan Risse

Happy Birthday to William Le Baron Jenney, whose career included a stint as an engineer on Sherman’s March.  When he returned to Chicago after the Civil War, he quickly gained a reputation as an innovative structural designer and a questionable stylist.

The Home Insurance Company hired Jenney in 1883 after a competition to design new headquarters and speculative office space downtown.  The Company had earned a reputation in the west after its prompt settlement of claims arising from the 1871 and 1874 Chicago fires, and it sought to capitalize on this with a new, prominent outpost.  In discussions with Jenney, they specifically asked that he give thought to maximizing daylight in the offices, and Jenney responded by developing a hybrid structural system in brick and iron.

His earlier buildings, in particular the Leiter Store of 1879, had used iron columns to reinforce masonry piers. This allowed the piers to be smaller, and thus allowed windows to be larger.  He adopted a similar strategy in the Home Insurance, but with one additional detail–cast iron lintels connected directly to the columns and spanning the windows–that carried a small but significant portion of the exterior walls’ weight.  To later generations, this detail suggested the beginnings of the “curtain wall,” that is, an exterior wall that was carried by an interior metal structure, rather than one that carried the weight of the interior floors.

Just how important this distinction was has been debated ever since.  Jenney, writing about the Home Insurance for the Sanitary Engineer in 1888, barely mentioned the building’s superstructure, concentrating instead on its spread foundations, which were also relatively new for the time.  It was not until the 1890s that the debate began in earnest over who could claim the title of “inventor of the skyscraper,” and that the Home Insurance was seen as such a key innovation.  On its demolition in 1932, two committee’s examined the frame as it was being dismantled and disagreed on the building’s status as a ‘first.’  One group claimed that the iron frame had carried nearly all the weight of the masonry, but an independent group of engineers noted that the iron and brick must have worked in concert, and that the provision of heavy masonry shear walls on the building’s rear elevations negated many advantages of the more skeletal fronts.

I’ll save my own opinion for the book (now tentatively titled A Great Architectural Problem: The Technical Evolution of the Chicago Skyscraper and out, I hope, sometime in 2012) but the above diagram by Ryan Risse, a recently graduated Iowa State student, gives a fairly clear idea of how the frame and brick may have worked together.  This model and others will allow readers to see more clearly the importance of details like this, and to appreciate how building skins and structures were gradually separated for reasons both functional and material.


Diller & Scofidio's Boston ICAMcKim, Mead & White's Boston Public LibraryJust back from the Boston field trip, highlighted by a day’s tour of two relevant precedents–the Institute of Contemporary Art on Fan Pier, and the Boston Public Library on Copley Square.  Between these two, we think the idea of a digital media library gets pretty well covered, and these tours are both good chances to see approaches to public space, civic design, and the mechanics of information storage, retrieval, and viewing.

Last year, this group went to Seattle, and many said they had been disappointed by OMA’s Public Library there–poor detailing and difficulty navigating the admittedly provocative organization scheme trumped, for many, the spatial and visual thrills of the place.  ICA presents a different set of problems.  It’s well detailed, for the most part, and it has a great relationship to the waterfront; the main gallery has an auxiliary space that offers views through a double-story glass wall, and there’s an outdoor amphitheater under this cantilevered space that is structurally and spatially amazing.  But students were slightly appalled by the approach (see above).  The building literally turns its back on the city and the approach to get this relationship to the water.  Likewise, the circulation isn’t always intuitive, and it relies heavily on a giant elevator to do the work of moving up and down.

Boston Public is all about civic presence, on the other hand, and it solves a vertical circulation problem with a really elegant main staircase.  The piano nobile approach, derived from Italian palazzi that raised their public rooms above the din and threat of the street, relies on stairs like this that often turn back on themselves to deposit you precisely above the entrance.  It’s entirely intuitive and fantastically well-crafted.  And, of course, impossible to replicate in materials that are affordable today.

So, is it possible to create something as relevant as ICA and as urban as BPL?  Watch this space…

Field Trip–Boston

Boston dining at its finest

Boston dining at its finest

Off to Boston for four days.  My day job involves teaching Comprehensive Design studio–a studio that is supposed to wrap up three years of technology, history, and design coursework in a single project.  For the past six years, we’ve asked students to design a “Mediatheque,” or a library with a dedicated digital component.  We make the program intentionally complex, asking them to integrate cinemas, shelving, public areas, and offices into a single, coherent building.

We try to make the point that just solving the problem isn’t enough, so we have always looked for sites that are also challenging and, we hope, inspiring.  Boston has made a good place for this.  It’s a completely different context from the midwestern cities our students are used to, and it has enough urban variety to provide plenty of interesting sites.

This year, our students have been working with three sites, all along or near the Big Dig.  We head out this morning for a site visit.  Seventy-five students changing planes at O’Hare usually goes better than you would think.  We have tours of the Boston Public Library and Diller + Scofidio’s ICA scheduled, along with walking tours of Harvard, MIT, and Back Bay.  We’ll come back with one site and, hopefully, a lobster or two.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–the Auditorium

The Auditorium's eighteen-story towerHappy birthday, Louis Sullivan!  Chicago’s patron saint of architecture, and the author of, perhaps, the most widely quoted modernist axiom of all time, turns 154 today.

The Auditorium was the greatest of his works with his longtime business partner, Dankmar Adler.  Conceived as a cultural center to replace a temporary Exposition in Grant Park, it combined the largest theater in the West at the time with commercial office space and a hotel. It was often said that Chicagoans never combined business and culture, but here is a good refutation of that myth.

The tower was the tallest structure in Chicago at the time.  It was designed to house water tanks that powered the theater’s hydraulic lifts, but Adler and Sullivan wisely included office space that offered stunning views of the lake and the city.

For all its advances, though, the Auditorium employed a decidedly conservative structure; the entire building was supported by bearing walls that wrapped around the central auditorium.  On the exterior, Sullivan settled on an ornamental scheme that clearly owed a lot to H. H. Richardson’s work of the 1880s.  While the theater used wrought iron trusses extensively, its commercial ‘wrapper’ was, along with the Monadnock and the Woman’s Temple, among the last of the great bearing wall buildings.

The differing weights of the tower and the surrounding building led to a quite noticeable foundation failure.  Adler was unable to spread the load of the tower out adequately over the soft clay of Chicago’s soil, and as a result the tower has sunk further than the surrounding structure.  Patrons entering the theater lobby, directly under the tower, walk down several steps from the street as a result.

Adler and Sullivan wisely took offices on one of the tower’s top floors, the one behind the colonnade.  Sullivan’s office was in the southeast corner, looking out over the lake, and it was in this office that he fired a precocious draftsman for persistent moonlighting.  In addition to hosting political conventions, full opera, and thousands of classical, jazz, and rock concerts, the Auditorium thus also saw the beginning of Frank Lloyd Wright’s solo career.

garage architecture–almost done

the new garage undergoes testing

the new garage undergoes testing

So the summer project is almost done.  A bit late, and still missing a door and some landscape, but as you can see it’s functioning.  My contractor and I finally decided that this project was really about the basketball, and that the garage was more or less a support for the backboard.

Steel Eiler Rasmussen famously said that the difference between architecture and building was diffuse–but that Chartres Cathedral was definitely architecture, while a bike shed was definitely not.  Needless to say, I disagree.  In the words of one of my former students, we “architected the &$*%” out of this project, with lots of design sketches, some serious proportional studies, and some back and forth on site about what the finished product would look like.  All of that certainly felt like architectural work.  So here’s a proposed comeback to Rasmussen: architecture is any built object in which function, construction, and expression have been carefully balanced against one another.