big and tall finals


Dueling Pianos

A rousing end to the semester with good independent projects (more later) and a host of analytic studies for Big and Tall.  No shortage of interpretations on various monuments from the last 3000 years, and seeing them presented in sequence left a nice panorama of building sciences and arts…Hagia Sophia, meet Tjiabou Cultural Center.  (And, about that: year after year this project gets the most interest from students.  Three separate analyses this time around, as you can see, all with slightly different takes on it–construction using local and imported materials, structure relying on shell principles in laminated timber, and ventilation…awesome).

Sears Tower(Yifeng Guo,HanWei Fan)

Yifeng Guo and Hanwei Fan

The idea behind the analytics is to delve deeply into the principles of assembly and performance for one significant structure.  I provide a long list of possibilities, and students pick from that and go to work.  The one rule is that the final presentations have to be all their own drawings or models–they can’t rely on anything downloaded from the internet or scanned (although these days even a scanner seems like a prehistoric piece of equipment).  So the results are often approximations, sometimes with details that are worked out rather than copied, and that’s when the projects are at their most interesting.  For Sears, these two students relied on construction photos to figure out the configuration of the shop-welded steel components that make up the nine tubes of the tower’s structure, e.g.


Samprati Jain and Ayo Iyanalu

There were a couple of awe-inspiring performance pieces, as well.  Taking the course’s general philosophy that the actions of building are as meaningful as their outcomes, one group demonstrated the inflation-based assembly of Grimshaw’s Eden Project, and managed to not pass out.  And a similarly anthropomorphic demonstration showed how air actually moves through those spaces at Tjiabou.  These, folks, are state university budget versions of some awesome digital CFD work.

zoet 1

Lana Zoet

And, of course, there are always one or two of these that seem incredibly self-indulgent.  Any student who comes to me and asks for suggestions is very likely to end up working on a current project.  In this case, I have always wondered what Nervi and Belluschi’s original design for St. Mary’s Cathedral–before the seismic calculations made it clear that the whole roof could shear off in a big earthquake.  And here it is, sans travertine-clad shear walls…

NewCaledoniaCulturalCenter Pacheco ViegasA rogue’s gallery of great buildings, thoughfully studied and presented.  This class was an absolute blast to teach, and I couldn’t be more grateful for such an enthusiastic (and forgiving!) bunch of students for its test run.  If all the stars align, Big and Tall will return next Spring…

Chicago Skyscrapers on C-SPAN this Saturday at 8pm eastern

20130410-085621.jpgAmerican History TV will feature the Chicago Skyscraper lecture from my Iowa State course, “Big and Tall,” this Saturday, 16 May at 8pm and midnight EDT.  Set those TiVOs, or catch a preview here.  More info at, and I’ll post the full video once it’s up.

And more on Big and Tall shortly…grades handed in, a whole office full of analytic models and boards to keep me company over the summer….

5icch program

5ICCH logo smallShould note that the full program for the Fifth International Congress on Construction History–now less than four weeks away!–is now online at  It’s the usual mind-blowing array of topics ranging from ancient Roman vaulting to South American high rise construction in the 1950s.  And throughout there’s a great mix of CH all-stars and new faces.  Tours are filling up, as are rooms at the Palmer House.

There will be single-day registrations available at the event for Chicagoans interested in dropping in–see information here.

final exam

The semester’s winding down, and the “Big and Tall” take home final’s due tomorrow…It won’t surprise anyone that I’m not a big slide identification fan.  Instead, two essay questions, and two weeks to think about them.  I’ll post some of the better answers once I’ve digested and graded them, but in the meantime, for general consumption, here they are.  ArchFarm regulars are encouraged to submit their answers, but be forewarned that I can only change grades for seven years after they were originally given, so any alums seeking extra credit ought to do some quick math first.  Bonus point if you can identify the source of the quote in question 2; it ought to sound familiar to one regular subscriber in particular.


Big and Tall: Construction History from the Pyramids to the Burj


Due 5PM Thursday, 7 May via Blackboard.

Answer BOTH questions:

1) Given the patterns and examples of the past that we’ve studied in class, provide ‘lecture notes’ for a ‘Big and Tall’ class to be given in 2050. The subject is “New Challenges, New Tools: How Design Transformed in the 2020s.” What problems did this generation face and what were its most pressing social, environmental, and economic issues? What tools did it have that its predecessors did not? And were these tools enough to meet the challenges? Include at least four sketches of new construction techniques, materials, building systems, cladding, or anything else that you think was relevant in this critical decade.

2) “The question any researcher must answer in their conclusion is this: so what?

The thesis of this course has been that the technology designers have to hand—whether that’s stone and axes, aluminum and extrusion presses, or digital software and custom-fabricated materials—influences the form and appearance of what we build, and that this connection between what we construct and how we construct it is worth studying.

Well, is it? Does building technology influence aesthetics in ways that mean something? Surely there are plenty of buildings that do their job well, that people like, but that don’t have the pretensions toward structural or tectonic ‘honesty’ that we’ve highlighted in the course. Does it matter if our designs express the forces that shape them, and/or the forces they resist or work with? Give examples of designs or structures that support and challenge the course’s premises—that are structurally or constructionally ‘honest’ but that don’t move you or compel you, and buildings that do not adhere as closely to the rigors of statics or assembly but that still strike you as compelling and logical. Why do you think this is?