Gray Columns

July 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Gray Column

JSAH readers will recognize the thing on the left as one of the most important structural innovations of the 1890s.  The Gray Column was the invention of New York engineer J. H. Gray, who patented the shape and then licensed it to engineers and builders (saving him the trouble of actually fabricating anything–pretty clever).  If you know your structural theory, you’ll remember that the ideal shape for a simple column is a hollow circle (or, almost as good, a square).  The column has to take an axial load, but because buildings sway in the wind it will also have to take some bending, and there’s no real way of knowing which direction that bending is going to come from.  So by putting all of the column material as far from the column center (or its neutral axis, for you SCI-TECH grads out there), you guarantee that the column will be reasonably efficient in bending no matter which direction the wind’s coming from.

There are two problems with a hollow round shape, though.  One is fabricational–it was difficult to either cast or bend steel to a consistent, tight radius and end up with a product that you could trust.  Hollow cast iron columns were notorious for being asymmetrical, as the mold that formed the void tended to float, rather than to remain in place.  Hollow steel pipe is still expensive today, as it involves rolling a sheet of steel around a hardened steel die.

The other problem was more critical in the 1890s.  Riveting was key to forming monolithic connections between girders and beams, which was in turn a key element of any good wind bracing scheme.  But there was no way to rivet to a hollow steel section, since hammering rivets required access to both the front and the back of the steel member.  The Phoenix Company produced quarter-round sections that could be combined with flat plates to provide room for riveted connections, but this was complex and needlessly heavy.

Gray’s innovation was to assemble a column section that approached a hollow round tube in its radius of gyration (a measure of how much of a shape’s cross section is a useful distance away from the center) by using standard steel shapes.  If you look at the cross section you can see that it’s really eight regular steel angles riveted to one another, with some intermittent diagonal pieces–sort of a chassis–that keeps them in place relative to one another.  Not only is there no material in the center, there are plenty of nice flat surfaces at the very edge where girders and joists can easily be attached.  Gray described the relationship of the shape to a successful wind bracing scheme in his 1896 catalogue:

“The primary result of the method of construction is an entirely independent steel structure, thoroughly braced and vertical, which does not need partitions or walls, either inside or out, to keep it in position, and capable of supporting all of the other materials used in the construction of the building.”

Fisher Building under construction

The catalogue (in the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s collection) contained all sorts of tables for safe loads given standard angle sections from Carnegie and other steel works, along with dimensional information for proprietary steel shapes and their resultant configuration as Gray columns.  This was just about contemporary with Carnegie’s first steel handbook, and it shows a steel industry on the verge of standardizing its shapes and testing.  The catalogue also shows a number of important skyscrapers of the era–the Guaranty in Buffalo and the Fisher and Reliance in Chicago–in construction.  Key to the columns’ light weight and strength are the hollows that read as dashed white lines in the center.  There’s no steel there, and because of the intermittent nature of the “chassis” pieces you can in fact look right through the column centers.

“Compared to Palladio, we are muppets.”

July 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

An article in this week’s Chicago Magazine on Harry Weese is worth reading, but it’s also troubling.

Weese was Chicago’s Louis Kahn–a passionate iconoclast who designed outstanding buildings while leading a personal life that was disastrous.  This post’s title is one of his more printable reflections on the state of Chicago Architecture, from the mid-1980s.  A new biography by Robert Bruegmann is scheduled for release in September, and from the tone of the article the book will dredge up details that have long been the stuff of Chicago legend–drinking binges, lost commissions, and a family–and firm–that functioned on denial for many years.

Like Kahn, these stories have often obscured a group of works that stand as some of the best of the late 20th century–the Washington Metro, alone, should put Weese in a pantheon that he’s never quite made (and, certainly, that he would have railed against).  Having spent five months living around the corner from the Cook County Jail, I had a daily reminder of just how well Weese understood cities–it’s a building that is both intimidating and urbane.  And his row houses on Kinzie Street, just west of the River, are a modest bird-flip to the 1920s neoclassical and 1950s textbook modernism that it faces.

Some of Weese’s later work wasn’t quite so good, and shows the signs of a figurehead who lost control, or who couldn’t give the same level of attention to big jobs.  The Marriott on north Michigan, for instance, is an awful building no matter how it’s dressed up.  But juicy biographical bits like the Chicago Magazine article allow us to reduce the complexities of a career like Weese’s to a one-liner; instead of trying to understand the pressure and difficulties that forged his best (and worst) works, we can simply dismiss all of this with a few words–“he was an alcoholic” in Weese’s case, or a philanderer in Kahn’s.  Bruegmann’s book is titled The Architecture of Harry Weese, so one hopes that the article has just picked out the more marketable bits and that the book will bring these buildings, and not just the personal life, to the wider audience they deserve.

L’International des Feux Loto-Québec

July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Montreal has hosted a sort of Olympics of pyrotechnics since 1985.  Saturday nights in June and July, one country picks its best fireworks artists to put on a 30-minute display from La Ronde, the amusement park on the old Expo ’67 island.  You can pay–a lot–to sit on the island, but they also shut down the Pont Jacques-Cartier to traffic and let the riff-raff walk across it.  So–for free–you can stand on the bridge and watch the fireworks go up from beneath you.

It’s a weekend, so I’ll leave aside any deep thoughts about the urban spectacle and simply report that last night the hometown team–Fireworks Spectaculars–put on a pretty great show.  K’s semi-time-lapse photo, above, doesn’t quite do it justice.  The finale was a good seven minutes of non-stop kabooms going off ten or twelve at a time.  And seeing it with a few thousand locals, from the top of a pretty great steel cantilever bridge, was awesome.  All of the teams set their displays to music (which the police cars rolling back and forth across the bridge helpfully blasted out of their radios), so there’s a real rhythm and art to the timing–this is not your typical 4th of July, set ’em all off kind of thing.  Montreal does festivals really well, and with winters like they have here you can understand why they take summer seriously.

Most telling was the line of cars waiting patiently on the on-ramp for the crowds to disperse so they could get across…

nicholas adams–goteborg law court addition

July 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

Stellar lecture last night  at CCA by Nicholas Adams, an art historian at Vassar who’s written, among other things, the definitive book on Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.  His current project looks at Gunnar Asplund’s Goteborg Law Courts Annex, a star-crossed project that went through numerous revisions before finally being built in 1936.  Architecture students in the 1980s (and you know who you are) will recognize this facade as one of the iconic forefathers of post-modernism, with all of the slipped grids, asymmetries, complexities and contradictions that occupied our drafting boards in studio.

Adams’ point, though, was that the exterior was something of a last minute hail-Mary pass, while the building’s interior didn’t change even as the elevations went from neo-classical to proto-postmodern (I can’t believe I just wrote that).  The entry sequence to the building passed through the existing courts building’s atrium, and then through an interior space that features evocative, though abstracted, symbols of community and justice.  This space, apparently, remained more or less consistent even as the facade went through its changes.

The result is a provocative discussion between a very abstracted facade and a very warm, emotionally charged interior, representing two very distinct perceptions of the courts system.  Adams made a strong case that these two were linked through the experience of walking past one and into the other, and that the seemingly competing messages–while unrelated in terms of tectonics or structure–were resolved in the actions of the courts and the lived perceptions of the people it represented.  That, he seemed to propose, should be Goteborg’s most important legacy, not the slipped grids and fragmentary facade that we all copied twenty-five years ago.

I know…

July 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

…you miss the grain silos. I wasn’t happy with the brown on black text with the original format and while dinking around I managed to lose the old header. So architecturefarm is in “Journalist” format, at least until I get back to my desktop in Ames. What WordPress really needs is an “Architect” format, all in Gill Sans (or Rotis?) The one vote for “Sweet Blossoms” (and fellow WordPress users may know what I’m talking about here) was not well received.

windowless buildings

July 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Tribune reported in May, 1934 that Sears would build the first “windowless department store” on the South Side, at 63rd and Halsted:

“In addition to being the first windowless department store building it probably will be the first ever equipped mechanically at the time of its erection in such a way as to insulate its interior from its physical environment.  Its air conditioning plant will control temperature, humidity, and air purification and movement.”

Al Chase, “Chicago to Have World’s First: Windowless Department Store.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  May 20, 1934.  26.

The windowless building was to the 1930s what the all-glass skyscraper was to the 1920s–a pipe dream, but one based in some technical realities.  The glass skins that marked Chicago’s skyscrapers in the 1890s and early 1900s provided plenty of useful daylight in an era of expensive electricity, but they came with terrific environmental penalties, making offices hot in the summer and frigid in winter.

Electric lighting solved part of this problem–by 1912, incandescent bulbs and cheap electricity from Chicago Edison meant that any office could be illuminated without using large, thermally inefficient plate glass windows.  But the need for ventilation persisted, and even massive blocks like the Civic Opera relied on narrow floor plates, transomed doorways, and operable windows to provide natural ventilation.

Mechanically ducted air and air conditioning gradually allowed larger floor plates and sealed building skins.  There is some question about which commercial building offered its tenants full air conditioning in Chicago first–the Field is often cited, but C. F. Murphy recalls that this was retrofit only in about 1944.  One North La Salle also claimed to offer its lower floor tenants the service in 1930, though there is little confirmation of this.

Department stores and movie theaters, however, jumped at the new technology as an amenity that would, on its own, attract summertime customers keen to get out of the heat.  Sears hired Nimmons, Carr, and Wright to design the store, and George Carr described the scheme in terms diametrically opposed to the light-seeking strategies that helped shape earlier commercial stores and offices:

“ ‘Such a negligible percentage of the total floor area is affected by daylight in the average building of this type that they are not worth considering as a source of light,’ he said.

“ ‘Otherwise, windows actually operate in conflict with a store’s lighting system, mixing daylight with artificial light in a confused and unpleasant way.  They also interfere with the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, setting up counter currents and counter influences that militate against the efficiency of these systems.

“ ‘To put the lighting issue more specifically—if the walls of a department store were entirely glass and if there were no obstructions to the passage of light, such as shelves, counters, and showcases, natural illumination would be effective only thirty feet from the wall.

“ ‘When one considers the barriers to the passage of light in the average store and also the small proportion of wall surface that actually is occupied by windows, one must conclude that daylight is an inconsequential factor in the average store.’”

The store was covered in Architectural Forum, which also described the windowless Simonds Saw and Steel Co. windowless plant at Fitchburg, Mass.  “The window,” Forum noted, “dies hard,” but the lack of glass in these buildings brought with it considerable savings in heating and cooling:

“Interesting by-product of the construction of a completely sealed building was discovered in a test of the air conditioning apparatus.  This showed that the building retained its heat at night, even in the coldest weather, for a much longer than normal time.  The natural corollary is that it will retain cool night temperatures much longer in hot weather.  In either case savings are indicated in operating costs even greater than those expected.”

The demise of the naturally illuminated and ventilated commercial block makes an important break in the history of the skyscraper in Chicago.  One of the most important distinctions between post-war and pre-war office blocks is the total provision for ducted, conditioned air in the former, making the operable window an anachronism.

Today, of course, the latest in energy-efficient towers is some form of natural ventilation, thin floor plates, and a high-tech version of transom windows…and the “windowless department store” is long since gone, demolished in the urban upheavals that have dogged the surrounding neighborhood.

BLDG BLOG–Geoff Manaugh Lecture

July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

A great lecture last night by Geoff Manaugh, who has curated the incomparable BLDG BLOG for the last six years.  (Check it out now, and I’ll see you back here in 2-3 hours).  CCA has brought him in for the summer as “blogger in residence,” which basically involves trolling their archives and blogging about interesting stuff he comes across.  Could there be a better day job?

He described his process and the blog’s history, admitting that it has always had a flavor of “isn’t this cool, and wouldn’t it be cooler if there were a thousand of them?  On the moon?” but making the case that blogging has untapped potential for bringing collaborative teams together both on the web and, more intriguingly, out in the world.  And he riffed on the intentional transience of this medium, noting that the week-long cycle of blogging (who ever reads anything after five days?) complemented the five year cycle of books, and the 50+ year cycle of archives quite well.

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