eisler on grasshopper


My colleague, Rob Whitehead, has been in and out of the grad studio all semester, brimming with even more enthusiasm than usual.  Two grad students have been doing an independent study project with him that marries digital methods with Heinz Eisler’s intuitive form finding with fabric and shells.

The results, as you can see there, are pretty spectacular.  One of Eisler’s methods was to basically take Gaudi’s trick (or, OK, Hooke’s) of hanging a tensile element like a chain, tracing its shape, and then inverting it and constructing it out of a compressive material.  This gives you a pure compression structure, and it’s as simple a form-finding exercise as it gets.

Eisler, of course, used fabric and concrete instead of chains and stone.  His shell structures were complicated to build, though, since they still required complex formwork to achieve the geometrically complicated curves that created such pure structure.


Which is where the digital stuff comes in.  What these guys managed was a form-finding exercise that was then translated into a CNC-cutting exercise that produced several dozen of these light polycarbonate panels, complete with foldable ribs that, when attached to one another, created structural ribs.  At just under 200 pounds, the resulting structure now occupies–temporarily–our building’s back yard, and its snuffleupagus-like massing and intuitively strong shape has drawn all sorts of approving stares.


Polycarbonate was, of course, something that Eisler didn’t have for most of his career, but it’s the digital process that is most interesting here.  For a while now, there’s been a tendency to see the new tools as a way to make any form the architect wants.  But there’s a growing body of research like this, that looks at making efficient structural or acoustic forms.  Both the shape-finding and the digital fabrication are important advances that let us figure out the lightest possible shape for a given loading configuration, and then let us build it fairly easily.  This went up over a weekend, and while Bart and Nate are pretty skillful folks, there’s nothing to say this couldn’t have been built by far less competent builders.

Rob points out that this is the first large-scale iteration of several.  They want to refine the process a bit to take care of more effective load paths at the base (if you squint, you can see that there are a couple of props down by the paws).  And the detailing could stand some refinement–the zip ties are charming in a sort of first-try sort of way, but down the road this wants to be a bit slicker, no?

Eisler, famously, had exactly one computer in his office.  It was used, exclusively, by the office secretary for word processing….

Dhaka factory collapse

Sorry to bring the house down, but having just sat in on our ‘rookie’ structures prof (sorry, Chuck..!) delivering an introductory concrete lecture to our first year grad students, the collapse of a reinforced concrete frame structure in Dhaka early this week was especially sobering.

Chuck made the point that reinforced concrete has to be designed so that the steel reinforcing fails first, since it will fail slowly, in tension.  If the reinforcing is too strong, the concrete itself will crush in compression, which is a more violent and sudden occurrence.  Reinforcement failures give you time to notice that the structure is sagging and cracking, which in theory gives you time to evacuate the structure.

And, from news reports, that’s exactly what happened.  The Rana Plaza apparently began failing a full 24 hours before its collapse, and there are reports that workers notified various factory managers of cracks in walls and girders.  Unbelievably, several of the factories housed in the structure opened for business the next day despite these cracks, apparently forcing workers to go back into the building.

The Times this morning suggests that these managers were acting under tremendous financial pressure to continue business as usual, and there are obvious parallels here with the fire in a Dhaka factory last November in which workers died in part because they were locked in to dangerous workshop rooms.  In both cases, clothing in the wreckage has revealed that firms ranging from Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap, and Children’s Place may have been among the brands whose price points these managers were trying to meet.

It’s unconscionable that, given everything we know about structural and life safety design, these disasters can happen in some parts of the world and not others.  Being born in Dhaka shouldn’t mean that your surroundings are any less well-designed or engineered, or monitored, than anywhere else in the world.  It’s hard to imagine engineers and architects tossing out their standard-issue Gap button-downs, and I’m as guilty as anyone of taking advantage of off-the-rack brands’ affordability, but given what our professions know about failures like these, we surely owe the world a better situation than these workers faced…

third studebaker building to be converted…

IMG_0199In the “I don’t think you know what you have” category, word from ChicagoRealEstateDaily.com today that 2036 S. Michigan Ave. has been purchsed by Marc Realty and is slated for conversion into apartments.  The article notes that the building was “once home to a Studebaker showroom…”

Well, and how.  This was actually the third downtown building occupied by Studebaker–the first, designed by S. S. Beman and finished in 1885 was converted in the early 20th century into what’s now the Fine Arts Building.  And the Second Studebaker Building, also by Beman and finished in 1896, is now part of Columbia College.  Both of these were designed as showrooms, offices, and repair facilities, and they show pretty clearly the difference between loft-style buildings built in the 1880s (lots of stone, relatively small windows), and those built during the glass glut of the 1890s (windows and, um, not much else…in this case some fairly narrow cast iron spandrels and mullions).

The history books all know both of these, but it was this third Studebaker building, completed in 1910 and designed by William Walker, that may have represented the most radical construction of the three.  Concrete construction had infiltrated Chicago by this point, but it had mostly been used in column-and-girder construction that really mimicked steel framing.  Here, engineer Theodore Condron expanded the idea of a “paneled slab,” or a flat slab with shallow drop panels along girder lines and mushroom caps that transferred loads to hybrid columns of steel and concrete below.  This had been explored in a fertilizer plant in Hammond, Indiana, but at seven stories the Third Studebaker represented the tallest experiment in such construction to date.

studebaker III 1909_Page_12Flat slab construction implies a significant problem in transferring the dead weight of very heavy concrete slabs into relatively thin columns; while the column’s cross section itself may be enough to bear such a load, there is always a tendency for the column to punch through the thin slab above it.  This shear condition was addressed in early construction with very large mushroom caps, or with concrete girders that effectively spread the shear load out throughout a deeper section.  Both of these took up space and were difficult to form, however.  Robert Maillart developed early advances in flat plate construction in Switzerland that relied on reinforcing and more tightly defined mushroom caps around 1910-1912–the third Studebaker represents a slightly cruder, but more immediately soluble approach that sought instead to minimize the depth of bearing girders with extra reinforcing.  Not, in the eyes of modernist historians, the major leap toward the Corbusian dom-ino slab, perhaps, but an approach that eased the minds of building authorities in Chicago, at any rate.

Perhaps even more interesting, however, is the fact that the shallow girders in these panelized slabs were conceived not as individual girders spanning from column to column, but as continuous elements that spanned over each column.  This made their actual loading, as well as that of the columns below, far more difficult to calculate, but it contributed to the overall stiffness of the frame, an advantage that eventually made concrete a viable alternative to steel in tall construction.  While steel elements had been detailed with moment connections at the columns, the inability to splice beam flanges to one another across columns meant that they still behaved, in part, as simply supported elements.  With continuous steel reinforcing over the top of columns, however, the paneled slab system was less prone to deflection, and more naturally resisted lateral loading.

Writing in 1907 as the design was being completed, Condron noted that there were several advantages to the “paneled slab,” advantages that would prove important in the coming decades:

“The advantages gained by this paneled slab design are:

1) An improved form of construction whereby great strength and carrying capacity are attained with an economical expenditure for material and labor.

2)  A construction in which the stresses due to dead weight and all applied loads can be accurately determined.

3) A minimum depth of floor and a consequent reduction in the height of the building.

4) An improvement of the illumination of the rooms by the elimination of dark ceiling shadows; and

5)  A reduction in the expense of installing a sprinkler system.”

These last three were particularly important in the wholesale adoption of flat plate (with occasional drop panel) construction in high-rise residential construction.  Concrete dominated the burst of apartment building in the 1920s for precisely these reasons–with minimal ducted services, ceilings could tightly hug the floor slabs above in apartments, and this gain in sectional efficiency promised extra daylight and shorter floor-to-floor heights.

Condron also explained the system as basically a deep slab construction with a layer of concrete in the middle removed, where it would do the least work structurally.  Thinking of it this way, he estimated that the Third Studebaker design saved roughly 3.5 million pounds of material–a straight cost savings, but also a reduction that allowed smaller columns and caissons.

studebaker III 1909_Page_08The planned conversion into residential units makes sense in terms of the city’s material history–one hopes that it might also provide a means to restore the original showroom at the base, at least on the facade…

Quotes and illustrations from Theodore L. Condron, M.W.S.E.  “A Unique Type of Reinforced Concrete Construction.”  Journal of the Western Society of Engineers.  Vol. XIV, no. 6.  Dec., 1909.  824-864.

ritorno a Roma


The American Academy in Rome announced the list of the 2013-2014 Rome Prize recipients this past week, and I could not be happier to be this years’s recipient of the Booth Family Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation. I’ll be in residence there from September to March, continuing research on Nervi’s work with a particular eye toward preservation of his works. I have a small army of colleagues, friends, and family who have all supported the application process and who will be helping to get all of the logistics in order, and could not be more grateful for the team effort.

As I posted last year, the 1961 Palazzo Lavoro is in particularly grave condition, but Nervi’s work as a whole presents a good opportunity to make the case for preserving the more recent past. We think of works like his as being fundamentally “modern,” but the Palazzo, alongside the Rome Olympic works and most of Nervi’s built oeuvre is now well past the 50 year mark that used to automatically signal historic status, and still creeping up on the current 75 year mark. The debacle in Chicago over Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is closer to home, and more dramatic, but the gradual transformation of many buildings from this era into hulking ruins is, to my mind, no less pressing than their potential demolition or replacement.

Anyway, that’s the activist portion of the project. I will also be putting together a set of essays that I hope will eventually become a book–a case study of Nervi’s designs as paradigm cases of the fluid integration of engineering, construction, and aesthetics. Commodity, firmness, and delight, anyone?

Thursday night’s award ceremony and reception was amazing–it is, of course, a fascinating group of scholars and artists, and I am looking forward to sharing quarters and mind space with them. And with a short extension through the weekend, we got to (finally!) see another quite brilliant example of art, science, and experience all woven elegantly into one:

20130421-110450.jpgupdate:  Iowa State has put up a nice article here that offers a bit more detail, and some (prob. familiar to this crowd) Nervi images…

museum of folk art, rip?


The rather astonishing news out of New York that the Museum of Modern Art is on the verge of demolishing–rather than curating–a genuinely important piece of 21st century sculpture is one of the more disheartening pieces of preservation news this month.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Museum of Folk Art, just down the street from the MoMA conglomerate, has in its short eleven-year lifespan added a touch of textural brilliance to West 53rd Street.  As MoMA has expanded with a series of under-inspired buildings (Philip Johnson’s original extension, Cesar Pelli’s tower, and more recently Yoshio Taniguchi’s transformation of the original Stone building into a slick, seven-story vertical mall), the short, quirky but rapturous cast metal facade of the Museum of Folk Art has seemed like a perfect rebuttal.  The Folk Museum itself never quite lived up to the impact that the facade had, decamping for smaller quarters near Lincoln Center several years ago and leaving its ambitious 53rd street location empty.  MoMA moving in seemed like an obivous next step, but the Museum has instead claimed that negotiating the differences in floor heights would be too difficult.  The New York Times reports, too, that the Museum finds the solid facade “not in keeping” with MoMA’s glass aesthetic.  Debatable, since Edward Stone’s facade for MoMA’s original building is, um, mostly opaque.

What strikes me as really unfortunate, however, is that Williams and Tsien’s facade for this building was (is?) truly innovative.  I was lucky to hear Tsien talk about the process at a conference in 2001, as the building was being finished.  The design involved close work with a metal foundry, intense collaboration, and a hand-on understanding of the processes and results.  Tsien talked about how they spent days casting samples so they could understand the inherent textural properties of the panels they were proposing, and altering both their design and their expectations on the fly.  This sort of interest in fabrication has become more common over the ensuing decade, but this building is one of the reasons why that’s been so.

And that, I think, makes MoMA’s plans doubly baffling.  While preservationists are used to stepping in only once the 25, or 50, or 75 year trigger points come around, the impending demise of this influential structure after just over eleven years should really inspire a preservation battle of its own.  The past decade’s increasing emphasis on materiality, on fabrication, and on craft certainly owes something to the incredibly warm reception this building–and especially its facade–received.  It’s likely to be seen, in hindsight, as a truly groundbreaking and influential experiment, one that broke new ground in marrying architecture to industrial craft while also winning widespread praise for its human scale and texture.  Surely the facade deserves saving, even if the spaces behind are replaced?  That seems unlikely at this point, and of course there’s no legal recourse due to the building’s youth.

The Museum of Folk Art is also important as a watershed moment in the growth of Williams/Tsien as a firm.  They were well known before this, of course, but this was among their larger projects at the time, and helped make their name globally.  (Full disclosure: Tod Williams referred to a grad school project of mine as a “turtle” on a jury.  I’m still a fan).  MoMA has announced that it is interviewing architects to design the replacement, and while one can hope for the best their track record suggests that this artisainally crafted piece will be replaced with another addition that feels like high-end retail.

Chicago skyscrapers–the movie…


..trailer, that is. University of Illinois Press has just released the promo video for Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934, and it’s full of illustrations from the book and some stunning shots of the leading characters today (in addition to the talking head…): Very excited to have this out there to spread the word…Please share!

We’re scheduled to be on bookstore shelves in early June. Many thanks to Michael Roux at the Press and to Sam Ambler at Prairie Production Group for putting this together…

iowa architecture foundation–many thanks!


master map

A really fun evening last night lecturing for the Iowa Architecture Foundation’s celebration of Architecture Month.  Their theme this year is Skyscrapers in the Tall Corn State, so it was a welcome invitation, indeed…Paula Mohr and Kristin McHugh-Johnston put a good evening together.

I convinced them to let me talk about skyscrapers and the midwest region, instead–admittedly kind of a dodge, but this let me go back to some of the earliest ideas for the project.  William Cronon’s 1992 book, Nature’s Metropolis, inspired me to start thinking about Chicago’s buildings as products of their region and not just of the architects ad engineers who designed them.  His thesis (as I understand it), is that the city came about because of its location at the confluence of trade routes–first water-borne, and eventually rail–and that the abundance of natural materials within the resulting transportation network influenced and to some extent determined the scale and culture of the city’s economic growth.

It’s a powerful argument, especially when it’s paired with the maps in Cronon’s book.  And while the skyscraper project has expanded beyond the influence of the region’s natural resources, this lecture gave me an excuse to go back to some of my first notes.  One of the ideas buried in there was to recreate Cronon’s geographic argument using similar maps, but showing where the city’s building materials came from.  That’s the master map above, and while it’s not quite as clear as the argument for grain or timber, I think it does suggest how the city drew resources and industry into its sphere.  Particularly important were the locations of energy resources–coal from southern Illinois and (for a time) natural gas from Indiana.

Anyway, fun to put this together, and a good reminder that there’s a “you are what you eat” argument to Chicago’s building history.  And it was great to lecture to a ‘home crowd,’ which included a number of ISU grads, good friends, and even family–a rare treat.

Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934 is on schedule to ship in mid-May, and it looks like there will be a handful of events around its release (watch this space).  Still some free dates in late May and early June, though, so if your organization or office is interested in seeing more, by all means get in touch…

from this week’s Chronicle

A really good piece on getting an academic book out there by Steven Michaels.  I can’t really lay claim to the angst that a lot of writers seem to have–actually typing away is the fun part of the gig.  But the article does have this quote from Thomas Mann that probably applies to architects, auto mechanics, anyone else who is charged with setting their own standards:

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

I’ll put that in the same league as a quote variously attributed to Hemingway, Joan Didion, and Kurt Vonnegut:

“The secret to writing?  Typing.  Sitting your *ss in the chair and typing.”

Truer words and all that.  Happy Architecture Month…