petroski’s Times article

Henry Petroski’s op-ed in the New York Times last week has made the rounds, and it’s the kind of thing that–on its surface–I’m all about:

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.


When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.


Hear, here, right?  Petroski is one of my heroes–his books on engineering and in particular on the role of failure in design have been inspirational, and I use his examples all the time in my teaching.  So the first few times I saw this in my inbox over the weekend I was smugly happy to see the culture of cheap, shoddy building that amortizes quickly and represents a “waste of resources” that “will not last” come in for a very public comeuppance.

But the more I’ve read this piece over the weekend, the more troubled I am about a couple of things.  First, Petroski goes right after “workmanship,” conflating “inferior products” with “less skilled labor” to describe the state of American construction today.  Anyone who’s worked on a job site knows that this is both totally true and totally untrue depending on the day of the week.  There’s no measure for “workmanship” that we can point to, but I’d argue that–compared to, say, the 19th century–the quality of building stock today is far better.  While I totally agree with Petroski’s lament about new residential construction (decaying vinyl siding and off gassing drywall, for instance), the well-crafted homes of the past that he refers to are examples of survivor’s bias; the really atrocious homes of those days are long-since gone.  Slum tenements, rural shacks, firetraps of apartment buildings in major cities–all of these have been replaced, while the best-crafted examples are the ones we look at today and imagine as standard housing from the past.  (See Jordan Ellenberg’s great How Not to be Wrong for a great explanation of survivor bias…)  Building codes and industry standards have ensured that the average house of today is better built, safer, and sturdier than the average house of 1900.

But the other problem, more serious, I think, with Petroski’s column is whom he blames.  In mixing up residential construction with infrastructure, he ends up calling on “homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike” to “call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.”  This, I think, unfairly blames builders for our problems with collapsing bridges, shabby housing, and potholes that reappear within weeks.  What Petroski fails to note is that all of these things cost money, and the budgets for quality construction in the public and private spheres have imploded over the last forty years.  Maintenance budgets, too, have been slashed by public institutions desperate to meet politically-minded budget cuts, donors fund new construction with no endowments to maintain their named buildings, and homeowners purchase more house than they can afford to buy, much less maintain.  It’s not that builders, contractors, or craftsmen are necessarily worse than a hundred years ago.  It’s that their clients, in particular public ones, have stopped asking for their best, and have stopped taking care of the things they make.

Blaming “cheaper labor” and “inferior new materials” sounds awfully grumpy, particularly when Petroski demands “almost maintenance-free” infrastructure.  There ain’t no such thing, and the unglamorous, unfunded task of keeping up the nice things we do have is just as big a problem.  It’s money, not a mythological lost “workmanship” that determines the quality of our infrastructure.  That lovely cedar siding he mentions needs a good coat of paint every twenty years…


IMG_3317Just a quick note…I’m on a two-week European coda, backpacking with my daughter through her choice of cities and enjoying the chance to be a tourist.  But along the way…

I listed off day trips from Berlin and Dresden sounded most interesting to her.  I was here about ten years ago doing a bit of writing for my old firm, and found the place utterly fascinating.  Her tastes run toward the historically complicated, too–we’ve seen a lot of Cold War and WWII sites in Berlin proper, and Dresden is all of that piled atop one another.  And atop a rich history of baroque architecture and urban design.

The Frauenkirche is the prime example of just how layered Dresden has become.  Built in the early 18th century, it was from the beginning a Lutheran church (there’s a statue of Martin Luther in front of it), but it was intended to rival anything the Catholics had built in Europe–at nearly 100m tall, its dome was 2/3 the height of St. Peter’s.  But its central plan was designed to emphasize the inclusiveness of the protestant liturgy, making it a unique example of neo-Italian baroque combined with the (relative) simplicity of plan and ornament of the north.

The church survived wars, riots, and serious doubts about its stability until February 1945, when along with everything else in Dresden it fell to Allied bombing.  After the war, the East German regime maintained the pile of rubble as a ‘peace memorial,’ but one with a clear subtext that kept memories of the British and American raid alive.  Popular sentiment for rebuilding the church only gained traction after reunification, and the church was painstakingly rebuilt–using volunteered wedding photographs where original documentation was missing–between 1989 and 2004.

IMG_3315The finished reconstruction uses a combination of charred original stone and clean new stone, which highlights the fact that what you’re looking at is essentially a new building while commemorating the losses from 1945.  Most of the exterior, in fact, is new stone, which makes the original pieces all the more compelling.  The interior is entirely new, of course, and its bright finishes and perhaps too-flawless faux marble have struck some as a bit slick given the intentionally blemished exterior.  The project remains dogged by controversy over its costs, its faithfulness or lack thereof to the original, and its status as a object of complicated blame–does its reconstruction read as an attempt to claim victimhood?  Is that appropriate given the massive civilian casualties of Dresden?  And how do we measure the impact of the bombing against that of German aggression?  Obama’s visit to Dresden in 2009–during which he lit a candle in the church–was a flash point for all of these issues.  Sixty years, it appears, is still too soon to really contextualize.


A finer balance between old and new, and commemoration and function takes place in Dresden’s train station, done by Foster’s and completed around the same time.  The arches of the original shed survived the fire, along with the head house’s structure and the undercroft that served as an ineffective bomb shelter for thousands.  Keeping all of those, but replacing the burned-out roof with a light shelter of translucent fabric created a bright but elegiac space, a fitting way to come into and to leave the city.

The whole day left me missing feedback from my colleague this year at AAR, Max Page, whose work focuses on preservation of difficult or complex sites.  He’s been studying fascist architecture and WWII sites in Italy, and Dresden offers the same sort of paradoxes at every turn…

glasgow school of art

Glasgow_School_of_Art_LibraryThe horrific news about the loss of Glasgow School of Art’s library in a fire last month is slowly becoming worse.  The School itself has praised firefighters for containing the blaze, pointing out that most of remaining building emerged with only minor damage.  But that is small comfort compared to the loss of “Scotland’s Sistine Chapel.”  And details have emerged over the last couple of weeks that make the incident all the more tragic and–depending on your point of view–scandalous.

Glasgowarchitecture reports that sprinklers were “weeks” away from being installed in the building, but had been delayed due to lack of funding.  That has struck many as odd, since the School topped out its new Steven Holl-designed £55m wing on May 8.  The anonymous architecture columnist for Private Eye (subscription needed) has gone so far as to accuse the School’s management of “complacent negligence” for waiting so long to address the very acute fire risk in the studio building while directing their attention to the new building.  The Eye further notes that the fire has allegedly been traced to a student installation that used flammable, expanding foam in the presence of a hot projector lamp–a similar source to the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island in February, 2003.  “Those in charge,” the column goes on, “failed to look after” the school and the activities within.

That’s a harsh judgment, but possibly a fair one–with the additional loss of a trove of paintings and furniture stored in an attic above the library, the loss to Scotland’s design culture is profound and ought to be investigated fully.  But the real issue here is the fact that the School had little difficulty in raising the money for the new building even as it “struggled to attract” the finance it needed to maintain its admittedly high-maintenance home base, according to Glasgowarchitecture.  Now, having suffered a very public disaster, donations and government support are flowing freely even as the debate over how to restore or rebuild the library kicks off (you can donate to the cause here).  The real debate to have, though, is why institutions are left chasing money for new projects when what’s desperately needed is funding to maintain what’s already there.  This isn’t unique to the School of Art–it’s rampant in an age where “charitable” donations come with giant naming rights attached.  Donors to the School’s new building probably wouldn’t have given to a sprinkler fund–there’s little opportunity for a donor plaque of sufficient scale there.  To pry loose cultural capital requires not just an honorable mission, but a publicly identified thing that can be named.

If donors aren’t willing to give to the core mission–maintaining, say, a national treasure against fire and daily use–I’m not sure their name belongs in 6″ letters anywhere near the institution as a whole.  Maybe the School of Art will be a catalyst for an important change in institutional giving.  This would be the single most productive thing to happen to preservation: finding ways to leverage reasonable maintenance, repair, and services upgrades out of donor’s generosity.  As it stands, the loss of Mackintosh’ masterpiece should be a humbling reminder that it takes money not just to build, but to maintain.

5ICCH–five days left to submit

…and a quick reminder that the Call for Abstracts for the 5th International Congress on Construction History in Chicago was extended to June 15…now five days away.  We’ve had a great response so far and are looking forward to the inevitable last minute rush.  

More information and the submittal link at:


IMG_2839Last post from Paris…Architecturefarm is going on a brief hiatus while my daughter shares my last couple of weeks in Europe with me. Musical theater? Yes. Obscure examples of early concrete? Not on the agenda.

Francois Hennebique was the greatest concrete contractor and innovator in Europe around the turn of the century—France’s Ernest Ransome and C.A.P. Turner put together. His patented system was used throughout the continent for warehouses, factories, and bridges—the Ponte Risorgimento in Rome was only his most famous.

The system of reinforcing and forming that he patented was largely comparable to how we build in concrete today. The reinforcing is in the tensile zones of slabs and girders throughout, and he recognized that the location switches in continuous beams—the tops of the beams are in tension over the supports, while the bottoms are in tension at mid-span. You can also see acknowledgement of shear issues toward supports, with rudimentary stirrups and wide caps between column and girder to distribute these forces and the increased amount of reinforcing. The formwork was all straightforward—proto-Perret in its flat detailing, but with chamfering in key locations to prevent chipping of fragile corners. The system’s regularity and repetition instilled some natural sense of order, rhythm, and proportion, and it’s possible to see in it precedents for both Perret’s work and (less apparently, but still latent) Corbusier’s.

IMG_2860But Hennebique’s work wasn’t limited to such a pragmatic, industrial system. He built two demonstration projects around Paris—his own house in Bourg-la-Reine and a development project that housed his offices in the middle of St. Michel, just across the river from Notre Dame. In both of these, he went out of his way to show off concrete’s plasticity. The house is an encyclopedic collection of concrete forms and techniques—most famous for the giant tower (under restoration—good for the house, bad for blog photos), but also full of eclectic forms and ideas throughout most of its fabric. The block in St. Michel is a long, slender plan, almost entirely façade, but that façade is as voluptuous as any art nouveau building in Paris—just done out of a material that had a reputation to earn, rather than stone or iron.

IMG_2855Like Coignet and Perret, Hennebique was a businessman first and a designer second—pretty apparent from the blocks of glorious self-promotion embedded into the façade announcing the building as Systeme Hennebique. And just in case you didn’t get it, the roundels at the roofline include an “SH” at their centers. Hennebique was justifiably proud—the Systeme was as close to a universal building system on the continent as anything since the Roman armies built their network of coordinated camps throughout their domain—and it would also be as influential as any single invention in Europe’s building world until mid-century.


IMG_2734Peter Collins’ 1959 book Concrete (republished in 2004) is well-known for its enthusiastic endorsement of August Perret’s pseudo-classical language as a default for the material—a judgment that seems to fade in and out as tastes change. But it should really be known as the best history of early European concrete. The first few chapters, before Perret, remain some of the best researched, most complete writings on a material that was barely accepted in construction until after 1900.

Among the unsung heroes that Collins brought to light was Francois Coignet, a builder whose own house in St. Denis was constructed in 1853 out of a combination of rammed earth (pìse), lime cement, and rubble brick and stone. Its floors were supported by timber and iron beams—not reinforced. In other words, concrete took the place of brick arches in traditional masonry construction, which rested on iron beams, but the iron itself wasn’t integrated into the concrete floors themselves. Collins likens the iron in particular to the tension bars that often formed the base of arcades, a far different mechanism than concrete actually embedded in, and thus monolithic with, concrete itself. Coignet patented his version of concrete in 1855, in time for the Universal Exhibition in Paris where he was awarded a bronze medal.

Coigent’s house, somewhat unbelievably given the crude nature of pìse, is still standing between the Quai de Saint-Ouen and Rue Charles-Michels, about a 20 minute walk south of the St. Denis RER station. Collins reported that it had been carved into tenements at the time of his writing, but it’s now long abandoned and in pretty grave condition. As a result you can see the matrix of the pìse where the outer layers have sloughed off, proving that it is in fact rubble held together with pretty rough lime cement.

1855 is incredibly early for such a large concrete building. Edison’s Ward House in New York wasn’t built for another twenty years, and Ransome’s work in California wouldn’t occur until the 1880s. Coignet wasn’t working in concrete exactly—but from looking at the house it’s obviously not just rammed earth, either. This is another one of those arguments where you can call anything a “first” depending on how you define it, but what’s really interesting about this house is that it’s proto-Perret in its molding of concrete into a classical language.

IMG_2818Which Coignet seems to have been very flexible about. In 1862 he was the contractor for the outer walls of this parish church in Le Vésinet, a suburb about 20 minutes west of Paris. It’s in a recognizably pastoral Victorian gothic, not far from Viollet-le-Duc’s parish church in St. Denis or really any number of churches of the same era. What’s surprising is that the exterior is all concrete—which you can see when you get close and see that the ‘joints’ between ‘stones’ are actually stylused into the concrete itself. Coignet had become adept at concrete ornament; the windows in particular show a pretty tight sense of detailing, not especially easy to achieve in molded concrete.

IMG_2769Even more surprising? The interior is entirely of cast and wrought iron. The first thing to come to mind is—of course—Henri Labrouste’s Ste. Genevieve Library, which wrapped a stone shell around a similarly proportioned set of iron vaults and arches. But there was apparently no such tectonic intent here. Collins wrote that Boileau, the architect who won the competition, was dead-set against concrete being used as the exterior, and when Coignet won the bid he simply refused to cooperate. The interior is thus, literally, a church within a church; the iron is entirely self-supporting and barely touches the exterior walls. How true is the story? Hard to say, but whatever the cause this is an interesting and rare example of a delineated set of material hierarchies actually built along the lines that Viollet-le-Duc had proposed in the Entretiens; his assembly hall shows a more elaborate program of detailing and distinguishing ornament, but it’s not all that different in terms of spatial effect.

IMG_2901Coignet was also an early example of the relationship between concrete and entrepreneurship, building this apartment block on the rue Miromesnil near Park Monceau as a speculative venture. Concrete would have a long history in Paris of being associated with builders who were also developers, and who kept trade secrets and patented their methods, leading up to Hennebique’s world-beating system in 1892.

Coignet practiced on a far smaller scale than Hennebique, but these were important steps on the road to a fully articulated building system of concrete strengthened with iron. As Collins would put it:

“Coignet can justly be regarded as the man who first brought mass concrete construction to the knowledge of the modern world, and who in his lifetime exploited it to its utmost capacity. His methods were far more scientific than those practiced elsewhere in his day, and although he never undertook laboratory experiments, or attempted to ascertain theoretically the economic dimensions of the material required, he spared no pains in making practical tests.”

IMG_2903Peter Collins: Concrete: The Vision of a New Architecture (reprint, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2004).

porte molitor

IMG_2503And then there’s Corbusier.  The UNESCO correspondence includes discussion about Corbusier’s involvement, including the remarks of one anonymous juror who noted–in 1951!–that Corb hadn’t actually built all that much by that point.  That seems incredible, but it wasn’t entirely untrue.  His CV had about sixteen houses (admittedly, some of them being the most important houses of the 1920s), the temporary Pavilion Esprit Nouveau, three apartment buildings, and the Centrosoyuz in Moscow.  He’d consulted on the Brazilian Ministry of Education with Niemeyer, and was working on what would become his most important projects–Ahmedebad, Chandigarh, the Unité d’Habitation, and Ronchamp.  But his reputation at that point, before the flood of acclaim that came with the projects then in progress, was largely as a writer and provocateur.

Still, those apartments.  In 1931 he completed this eight-story block near the Porte Molitor, turning the upper two stories into his own apartment and studio where he lived and painted for the next thirty-four years (the office itself was across the street from Le Bon Marche).  The apartment is open Saturdays from 10:00-1:00 and 1:30-5:00 to anyone brave enough to ring the doorbell and healthy enough to climb seven flights of stairs.  If you’re a complete idiot, you’ll go on the middle Saturday of the French Open and enjoy sharing the trip out with a few thousand tennis fans.

IMG_2446Corbusier, as my students will know, is a problem for me.  He was an ideas person, his philosophy really the Beaux-Arts in modern guise.  Once the form and space were worked out, he seemed to lose interest in what those forms were made of, and a lot of his buildings show the results of truly thoughtless execution.    Mies believed God was in the details; Corbusier was an atheist.

Still, the problem for me is that when he got it right, even I have to admit that I’m less interested in the crummy cladding junctions and more just blown away by what he could do with light and space and texture.  That’s his painting studio; the neighboring party wall became the interior surface that he looked at every day.  It’s easy to imagine him writing “space and light and order: people need these as much as bread and a place to sleep” while looking at this morning shaft of sunlight on his wall.

On his youthful “Journey to the East” Corbusier divided what he saw into three categories: “industrial,” “classical,” and “vernacular,” and you can see these three themes playing out in his dwellings.  They may have been “machines for living in,” but in this one, in particular, you can see him presenting industrial objects (that’s his bathroom sink–you can also see Corbusier’s shower, toilet, and bidet if you’re a completist), classical references (look at that ceiling vault, e.g.) and vernacular surfaces like the party wall in equal measure.  The dialogue between them defined what it meant to ‘dwell’ in the 20th century; to be comforted in three distinct ways that related to the physical, spiritual, and intellectual realms.  To stand in his studio is to feel this in a direct, tangible way.  Worth the morning, and even worth the tennis traffic.



IMG_2610Perret was just one of a great tradition of French constructeurs, entrepreneurs who not only designed but also built and patented construction systems.  There’s no real equivalent word in English, but it describes a tradition that Nervi was very much a part of, even though there isn’t really an Italian translation either, come to think of it.

Perret was the first French parallel I thought of to Nervi, but it occurred to me that an equal case might be made for Jean Prouvé, who was ten years younger.  He also worked in metal, almost exclusively, but his relationship to his material was as tightly-knit as Nervi’s was to concrete.

Prouve grew up in a metal-working family in Nancy, a town two hours east of Paris that feels like a different world.  The iron industry in that part of France has always been strong (think Belgium, or western Germany), and Prouvé’s father was a gifted artisan.  Prouvé’s early work followed suit, with Art Nouveau doors, gates, and windows for residential and businesses around the city.

IMG_0636Like those, there.  Nancy has done a good job of presenting the work of the Prouvés, including a walking tour (OK, actually more of a driving tour, as the helpful tourist officer pointed out, but if you have a good set of shoes and a whole day you’ll be fine) and two separate museum exhibits–one at the Musée des Beaux-Arts on the Place Stanislas and one a couple of miles south in Jarville at the Musée de l’Histoire du Fer, a museum that tells the story of the region’s iron-working industry.  Right there, that’s interesting.  Not many figures could have their work shown in an art museum and an industrial history museum.  This is the architectural history/construction history dilemma institutionalized–is architecture more art or more industry?  Prouvé makes this even more difficult, since he was an artisan more than he was either an architect or an engineer.  Nervi got around the question by calling himself a ‘builder,’ but Prouvé’s designs sprung even more directly from individual components–from the bottom up, as opposed to the Beaux-Arts ideal of design from the top down.  This is an entirely inductive, not deductive, approach.  Gradually, Prouvé moved beyond the ornamental ironwork that the family was famous for, and began working with steel as a mechanical material, finding ornament within the rolling, cutting, and bending processes of the fabrication shop and combining them with a very subtle lyricism; his building and furniture designs from the 1930s onward are all rigorously pragmatic but also stylish, a rare combination that was equaled only by Charles and Ray Eames.

IMG_0620Prouvé’s designs are at their clearest when the program is simple enough to get solved with a few well-chosen and integrated components.  A chair, for example–those are Prouvé’s designs for the “Standard” chair in the background and on the wall (“Standard” that will now set you back $995.00 at Design Within Reach.  Not that I’ve checked).  And in front of those is his prop-type design for a prefabricated elementary school.  Both designs use carefully honed components of steel (the family industry, remember) and timber (not quite as plentiful or as strong) to solve a very simple structural problem.  (That’s the Prouvé gallery in Nancy’s Musée des Beaux-Arts…funnily enough, they’re the ones with the more generous photography policy, go figure…)

IMG_0653But to Prouve’s credit, his residential work blends these finely crafted components with a thoughtful overall approach.  This is the Maison Dollander in Nancy, which was built in 1952.  It’s very obviously from Prouvé’s workshop–the door canopy is a signature piece–but it has enough brick and stone to be homey.  You get the sense that he was very much in love with his material but that he also knew when to stop, and where the limits of a fabricational approach were.  The Meudon Houses (top of the post), a subdivision in a southern Parisian suburb, are from the same era and show the same tempering of his super-rigorous steel detailing and component design with stone, concrete, timber, and brick that make these pre-fabricated houses feel comfortable and genuinely warm.  (Meudon is easy to get to from Pont des Sevres, and the houses are for the most part immaculately maintained.  They were supposed to be affordable housing that would be prototypes for a nationwide business–but they bankrupted Prouvé and are now definitely upper-middle-class properties judging from the cars in the driveways…)

IMG_2627The Prouvé house and factory in Nancy are also open to the public as museums…starting next week.  Which might be worth the return trip even though my time here is winding down.  Paris has a few examples of Prouvé’s work, in particular some railings and grilles for houses by Robert Mallet-Stevens, a late curtain wall for one of the early towers at La Defense, and this dalek-looking observatory in the park behind the larger Observatoire.  But his greatest contribution to the city was his passionate advocacy for the Piano and Rogers scheme as a juror for the Pompidou Center competition, a scheme that owed quite a bit to his own philosophy and style.

The Musée de l’Histoire du Fer, incidentally, has a full-scale reconstruction of the Maison Tropicale, maybe Prouvé’s most famous ‘building’, on display in its courtyard through the Fall, a vanishingly rare chance to see an iconic 20th century design that’s an interesting parallel to Bucky Fuller’s Wichita House.  Designed for French colonies in Africa, the Maison was designed to be flown to a site in pieces by helicopter and assembled by a crew of 3-4 people.  There’s a good video of the reconstruction that makes it look about that simple, and you get a sense for how the metal shading and double-skinned roof would have ventilated and cooled the building.