Kimbell Art Museum–Renzo Piano Addition

May 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Site Plan with Piano addition at the top (west) (c) Kimbell Art Museum

Big news out of Texas today detailing plans by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to–finally–extend Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum.  Images are here.

Loyal readers will know that I wrote a book on Kahn a few years ago, looking at his working relationships with engineers and contractors and how these influenced his designs.  The Kimbell was the greatest example of this–a museum that sprang entirely from Director Richard Brown’s desires, which evolved as Kahn explored options with him, but whose execution was influenced by Kahn’s willingness to listen (albeit sometimes testily) to local contractors and to his very pragmatically-minded engineer, August Komendant.  Anyone who has read the book (there must be a couple of you out there) will know that I think the Kimbell is by far his best work, at least in America.

Past proposals to extend the Museum’s rather modest gallery spaces have met with extraordinary resistance.  A 1989 plan by Kahn alumni firm Mitchell/Giurgola was widely panned, because it rather thoughtlessly extended the building’s famous cycloid vaults into the landscape without recognizing the proportions of the original.  Kahn’s original scheme, in their defense, was supposed to be much larger, but the building as constructed boasted a particularly fine garden to its south, which would have been swallowed by the extrusion of the building’s structure.  Piano’s selection last year was an inspired choice–not only is he the world’s top museum architect at the moment, he spent a brief period in Kahn’s office in 1966 and has always been something of a Kahn disciple.  His designs for the Menil Collection in Houston and for the Nasher Sculpture Gallery in Dallas are both subtle tributes to Kahn’s skillful work with precisely filtered daylight at the Kimbell, albeit rendered in a much more technically expressive language.

South Elevation (c) Kimbell Art MuseumThe new scheme solves the one widely acknowledged major problem with the existing structure.  Kahn never drove a car, and the Kimbell’s main entrance opens from the center of a more or less suburban park.  Almost everyone arrives at the museum through the amazingly detailed–but clearly secondary–parking lot at the Museum’s rear, and the Piano building’s siting and underground car park will allow visitors to approach the Kahn building as he intended.  There are a couple of obvious nods toward the original building–a tripartite division into three 100-foot bays that mirror exactly (maybe too exactly?) the Kahn parti, and a series of covered walkways and colonnades that look like clear references to one of Kahn’s earlier schemes for the Museum.  Mostly, however, Piano’s acknowledgement of the masterpiece his structure will face seems like it will come through in the materials, details, and rhythm of the new building’s structure.  Kahn believed in an all-pervasive order that would organize function, structure, and details, and this is reflected in all of Piano’s work.

Building next to anything as iconic as the Kimbell is bound to generate debate and argument, but to me this looks like a strong start.


old chicago skyscraper of the week–trustees system services

May 27, 2010 § 7 Comments

Here’s a candidate for least-known skyscraper in the Loop that deserves a bit more.  Trustees System Services was a mid-sized industrial bank that sought both headquarters and speculative office space, and in 1929 they hired the relatively new firm of Thielbar and Fugard to design a thirty-story tower on the northeast corner of Lake and Wells.

Despite being recently founded, Thilebar and Fugard had an impressive pedigree.  John Reed Fugard had been a partner in a residential firm that had constructed several high-end apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive (and he was a native of Newton, Iowa).  Frederick Thielbar was older, and had been superintendent of construction for Holabird and Roche for many years–he was credited with the design of the Chicago Temple.  Together, the firm aided Giaver and Dinkelberg during the construction of the Jewelers’ Building, but along with the McGraw-Hill building on North Michigan the Trustees System Services was their first major work.

Faced with a site of only 85′ x 150′, Thielbar and Fugard had little room to maneuver within the city’s setback code.  They divided the building’s mass into two elements, a block that filled the city’s 264′ height limit and a tower, delimited by setbacks and volume restrictions, that reached to 337 feet.  Like Holabird & Roche’s tower at 333 N. Michigan, the Trustees System Services had its tower pushed to the most public edge of the site, in this case along Lake Street, but Thielbar & Fugard capped theirs with a pyramid similar to that of GAPW’s Straus Building, concealing elevator machinery and mechanical systems in a rooftop penthouse.

Two innovations marked the building–one visible and one not.  To emphasize the building’s vertical thrust, and to unify the block and tower, Thielbar and Fugard chose enameled brick with curved surfaces for the building’s piers, adding texture and a subtle vertical grain.  They also specified brick that became progressively lighter from the base to the top, adding to the sense of height and upward reach.  Structurally, the building employed reinforced concrete and steel, a hybrid that was not, by this point, unusual.  But the building’s columns employed a new patented system that used tapering cast iron cylinders for reinforcing concrete columns.  This co-called “Emperger” system revived cast iron for its formidable compressive strength, but used concrete as both fireproofing and to enable monolithic connections, and thus wind bracing, with adjacent girders.

Much of the building has been converted into apartments, but the exterior has been faithfully preserved.  And while it has merited barely a mention in standard architectural histories, commuters from the north and west sides go past it every day as it forms one corner of the El’s downtown loop.

CHSA 2nd Biennial Meeting

May 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Wrapping up a good couple of days at Penn.  Our second biennial meeting was a good one, with attendance up and lots of good papers ranging from the replacement of the U.N. curtain wall in New York to the archaeology of brick privies here in Philadelphia.  Not sure there are that many other organizations that can span that.

I particularly enjoyed David Billington’s keynote.  Billington is one of the great names in engineering and structural history in the U.S., and he gave a great overview of the history of structural concrete, tying in some obvious figures (Maillart, Turner, Tedesko) and some who deserve more study–Gustave Magnel, anyone?  I had never seen him lecture before, so this was a real opportunity.

I got to spend almost three hours yesterday touring the Eastern State Penitentiary, an encyclopedia of prison design, masonry construction techniques, and building decay.  This is one of those buildings you read about in history class but don’t really have any clue about just how impressive it is until you can stand in it.  You can actually see the evolution of the block design from one wing to the next, and also see them making mistakes (oh, really–you didn’t think you needed to flash that stone wall?) and correcting them a generation later.  Highly recommended, and apparently they put on a heck of a haunted house each halloween.

Plans are afoot for future meetings in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis–gearhead historians and fans of centuries-old mortar mixes can keep up to speed on the Construction History Society of America’s website.

Thanks to everyone who attended, particularly those who gave papers.  Look forward to seeing you all in Boston and/or Paris for the 2012 meetings.

Construction History Society of America Biennial Meeting

May 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Off to Philadelphia for the 2nd bi-annual CHSA meeting…some good papers on tap, and David Billington is one of the keynote speakers, so it should be a good couple of days.

summer studio–gearhead architecture

May 19, 2010 § 3 Comments

After a relaxing three-day summer break, I’ve been back at ISU getting the summer studio kicked off.  Nine brave souls will be tackling an age-old problem–how do you design architecture for automobiles?

The site (above) is the local dirt track–the Boone Speedway, about twelve miles west of Ames.  “Iowa’s Action Track” is about 40 years old and hosts a weekly series of amateur racing in several categories.  Every September, about 40,000 racers and fans from all over North America show up for the IMCA Supernationals, making it the largest town in Boone County by a factor of four.

The studio proposes that the track has won a television contract to broadcast the Supernationals, and is using these funds to double in size.  A new grandstand is the focus, and students will face the question of how to provide a functional, expressive piece of architecture that does justice to the speed and “boss-ness” of the cars while maintaining the rural character of the site.  “We don’t serve salads at the concession stands,” according to the Speedway’s promoter and our “client.”

We have one reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft by Michael Crawford, which examines the mechanical arts as a forgotten source of mindful engagement with the world.  It’s an outstanding book, and even though Crawford mentions architecture only once (and that pretty dismissively), its suggestion that nuts and bolts are a legitimate form of intellectual “work” is an important argument for designers of all stripes.

Watch this space…

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Reliance

May 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

The image is another one by ace 3dmax artist Ryan Risse, and it’s the cover image for the current Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians issue, which includes the article on wind bracing that I presented at Northwestern last month.  (Fans of riveting, or those interested in how metallurgy can influence building form and planning can download the paper on my home page–the download is free but U of C Press copyright restrictions apply).

The Reliance is one of the city’s best known skyscrapers, but it was almost accidental in its conception and design.  William Hale, a former elevator entrepreneur, commissioned Burnham & Root to design a fourteen-story building in 1890, but leases in the existing four-story building ran through 1894.  Hale, undeterred, paid for the top three stories to be held in the air by jackscrews while new foundations and a new ground floor shop (first occupied by Carson, Pirie, Scott).  The existing tenants were thus “undisturbed,” though the sensation of doing business above an open excavation must have shaded things a bit.

In 1894, of course, the city was in the midst of a depression, and the original scheme was abandoned.  Hale instead asked Burnham and Root’s replacement, Charles Bowler Atwood, to design a tower to compete with the Columbus Memorial Building, completed in 1893, directly across the street.  Rather than rely on commercial tenants, the Columbus offered examination and consultation space to doctors on its upper floors, and Hale conceived the Reliance, in large part, as a downtown clinic, to be rented hourly, by suburban doctors who could more easily see their patients closer to their place of work.

Contemporary postcard view--note the message, which hints at the Reliance's medical program

The radical composition of the Reliance’s skin suggests a neat parallel between the collapse of glass prices in the mid-1890s and the need for such medical space to provide huge quantities of daylight.  Atwood specified 6′-0″ square lights of plate glass flanked by operable, double hung windows in cantilevered oriels, making the exterior of the building something over 85% glass.  “The windows,” Scientific American noted, “were made as large as the situation of the columns would allow.  In the skin’s interstices, he specified white enameled terra cotta, which Burnham and Root had used, experimentally, on the Rand-McNally Building of 1890.  Here, it offered the promise of washability, in line with the hygienic aims of the building’s medical program.

The Reliance’s extraordinarily narrow proportions led Burnham’s engineer, E. C. Shankland, to design a frame with moment-resisting connections between girders and beams throughout the building’s perimeter.  These connections represented one of the first installations of a laterally-resistant steel frame that did not require cross- or knee-bracing, and it relied on Gray columns, riveted connections, and deep girders to ensure that any wind forces were carried from girder to column on what Shankland termed the “table leg principle.”  The stiff connections ensured that any axial forces carried through the girders would be resisted by the columns’ ability to absorb bending.  This eliminated the planning problems of shear walls or truss panels internally.

The Reliance's steel frame. Note the lack of cross bracing and (if you look closely) the open spaces within the Gray columns

While generations of later modernists would claim the Reliance’s glassy skin and thinly veiled steel skeleton as forebears, the building met with stiff criticism in its day.  Writing for Inland Architect in 1896, New York critic Barr Ferree claimed that its strict adherence to the tenacious proportions of its steel frame–exactly what makes it seem so prescient today–was not only ugly, but actually disturbing:

“Not only are there structural reasons prohibiting the direct employment of the metal frame as a basis in the design of high buildings, but those structures in which the architectural framework has been reduced to the smallest limit, so that the building is little more than a skeleton of brick or terra cotta, show how unsatisfactory such a treatment is aesthetically.  The Reliance building, in Chicago, is, perhaps, the most notable attempt yet made to reduce the amount of the inclosing material to a minimum, and the design is scarcely more than a huge house of glass divided by horizontal and vertical lines of white-enameled brick.  The Fisher building, in the same city, and the Mabley building, in Detroit, are other examples illustrating the same tendency, though in not quite so pronounced a fashion as in the first instance.  It is a good principle in architecture that a building should not only be firm and strong, but that it should seem so.  This reasonable requirement is not fulfilled in these designs.”

Along with the Fisher, the Reliance shows the rapid acceptance of the divorce between self-braced frame and thin, curtain-like skin that would come to dominate skyscraper construction in the twentieth century.  While it was not quite as great a structural achievement as the Fisher (its party-line walls offered considerable lateral resistance, too, whether Shankland designed them this way or not), it enjoyed a significantly greater afterlife as historians and architects sought early hints of modernism.  After a stellar restoration by Antunovich Associates and T. Gunny Harboe of McClier Corp , the Reliance is now the Hotel Burnham, whose restaurant is named after Atwood.

Not exactly the CAF River Tour…

May 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s my final week on sabbatical, and my brother-in-law came up with a good celebratory research activity last weekend.  He has a 17′ bass fishing boat, and after calling around, he discovered that the boat ramp at Burnham Harbor (behind Soldier Field, for those of you who want to replicate this bit of urban bushwhacking) is free.  So the logical question was this: can you put in at Burnham Harbor, motor around Meigs Field, across Chicago Harbor, and get into the river through the locks?

The answer, as you can see, is yes.  And the view of the city from the River is pretty spectacular.  The top two are from around Goose Island, with some shots of the Loop below.

The River, of course, is still a working industrial river for much of its length–certainly to the south, where it connects through the Illinois River to the Mississippi.  But it also has the occasional boatyard, still full of shrink-wrapped sail and motorboats waiting for warmer weather (it was pretty chilly this weekend…)  Downtown, of course, it was utterly transformed in the late 1920s by Wacker Drive and a dozen or so new bridges, all done up in a Second Empire style, and the contrast between those two short stretches and the miles of warehouses, piers, rail yards and factories along the rest of the river is pretty telling.

OK, you ask, so these are nice shots of the city from the river.  But what about the lake?  Didn’t you take any shots of the skyline from the lake?  Well, it was a brisk day, and there was a pretty consistent 15-knot wind blowing across us.  A 17-foot bass boat in 3-foot seas is sort of barely stable, and we were mostly holding on and willing the boat to stay upright.  Possible to navigate into the River from Burnham Harbor on a small fishing boat?  Yes.  Wise? Not so much.

Anyway, many thanks to everyone in Chicago who’s made this semester so productive and so enjoyable.  I start teaching back in Ames on Monday, but hope to be back and forth over the next year getting illustrations prepared.

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