Gray Columns

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.”

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

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

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…

…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

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

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.

“Chicago Shocks British Writer,” 1902

I’m always up for a good report back to the civilized readers on the amoral cesspit that was Chicago–at least to many writers.  Here’s Yorkshire Post correspondent John Foster Fraser, writing in 1902 and quoted with relish in the Chicago Daily:

“Chicago is too busy money making to attend to civic improvements.  And here is where Chicago stands apart from other cities.  The people of other cities hunt the dollar as hard as they know how.  But they do not like to be regarded merely as money makers: they like you to think, at any rate, they have a passive if not a platonic admiration for worthier things.

“Chicago, however, is out and out pagan….Chicago people are really on earth to make money.  And they make it.

“It is the most interesting of all dramas to watch Chicago at this money making.  Commercial morality, such as old fashioned British business men believe in, does not exist.  Here is a town where it is no disgrace to be a swindler, no disgrace to have been in prison—provided you still have plenty of money.  To start a bogus company and defraud the public is smart.  To invite a man to dinner at a restaurant and to slip away and leave him to pay the bill is cute.  Young girls, supposed to be well reared, pocket every silver spoon on the table, not secretly but with a laugh.  To steal a spoon on a railway dining car is a girlish foible.”

Happy Bucky day!

Montreal from inside Bucky's Expo '67 dome

Jackie Craven’s blog just reminded me that it’s Buckminster Fuller’s birthday today–he would have been 115, and would have been seriously ticked off at the state of the planet.  (Oil spill in the gulf?  You’re still burning that stuff?  Don’t you realize that the interest on the energy debt for a gallon of crude oil is…)

Bucky’s career was proof that one great idea can make up for hundreds of poor ones.  Just to remind you of the litany of woes–he dropped out of Harvard, went bankrupt twice (nearly taking down his father-in-law once), developed a serious drinking problem and had a nervous breakdown all before he turned 50.  Most of us might have packed it in at that point, but during WWII he published a novel–if not new–map of the globe in Life and got a second career going.  The failure of the Wichita House, an attempt to re-jig the aircraft industry into providing homes, nearly stopped him again, but after a summer of teaching at Black Mountain College, his interpretation of student Kenneth Snelson’s idea for a structure composed of discrete tensile and compressive members, combined with the geometry of the Life “airocean” map led to the first crude geodesic dome.

That, of course, made his fortune and gave him a global platform for his developing ecological philosophy.  The dome’s sprouted up everywhere–as housing for DEW radar systems in the arctic, as do-it-yourself shelter in hippie communes in the desert, and as housing for cold war propaganda courtesy of the U. S. State Department.  That route is how a gigantic dome sprouted up in the middle of the St. Lawrence River as part of Expo ’67.  It’s now, appropriately, a museum of ecology and home of the best view of Montreal’s downtown.  We happened to be there yesterday.

The most telling story about the dome is its intriguing foundation problem.  The structure was originally clad in lightweight acrylic, and midway through the design process one of Bucky’s associates realized that the temperature differential between the inside air and the outside environment on a hot day would be enough to lift the lightweight dome off the ground.  The foundations, therefore, had to be designed for tension, in addition to compression.  Bucky, of course, thought this was fantastic, and later proposed floating geodesic cities using solar energy to create uplift.

So Happy Birthday, Bucky–it may be another hundred years or so before we catch up.

Vanity Fair’s Poll…

Vanity Fair asked 52 leading architects and critics to name the most important buildings of the last thirty years, and the results were posted earlier this week.  Perhaps more interesting than the winners, though, is the voting.  (It’s OK, perhaps, to vote for one of your own buildings, but really, two?)

It’s interesting to me to see one of my former teachers nominate a building by my former employer, and to see that former employer nominate Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, which you might not have guessed.  When it opened, Bilbao convinced a lot of folks in our office that we had some catching up to do, and if you look at the firm’s work after 1997, a lot of complex curves start to show up.

So I won’t disagree with that being on the list, but I’m not sure I’d put it at the top, (and these days Gehry is anything but a “renegade” as the somewhat fawning article claims–he’s a well-tended brand.)  Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection would be high on my list, though, and the Phoenix Public Library by Will Bruder, which seems to have disappeared from the radar screens, would have been in the top five, too.

But, uh, the most influential building of the last 30 years?  How about this one.  Occidental Chemical Company headquarters in Niagara Falls, NY, by Cannon Design.  A passively ventilated double skin facade that beat its closest European competitor by a good dozen years.