hanbury evans wright vlattas and what’s next for architecture

Coast to coast…delighted to be in Norfolk, VA for a two week residency as the Virginia Design Medalist in Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas’ offices.  HEWV invites a scholar in each year to address issues in the profession, and they’ve asked me to help them brainstorm about the future of architecture…and of architects.  As we’ve looked into our crystal balls, we’ve come up with four areas that are undergoing huge, productively disruptive change: design tools, materials and methods, organization and contractual relationships, and opportunities for engagement with social and urban networks.  All of this is fascinating enough, but we’re basing our discussions on ‘parables’ from my historical research–after all, the introduction of steel and plate glass in Chicago construction was nothing short of massively disruptive.

This, of course, would be a great gig anywhere.  But there’s this right down the street from the office…which we’re going to tour next week.  Full report to follow, obvs…


oh, this guy again…

  St. Mary’s Cathedral, by Nervi and Pietro Belluschi.  On the road, and by phone, so just these gorgeous images for the moment.   But this one plays a key role in the book,  as a bookend to Nervi’s career, a summation of the techniques he developed, and as a cautionary tale about working in new territories with unfamiliar problems to solve…


thermal aqua

bsi061_photo_01f_webA tip of the hat to alum and regular correspondent Grant, who pointed me to this enjoyable rant about the problem of thermal bridging in high rise design.

It’s author, Joseph Lstiburek, points out that Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago very effectively mimics a fin-tube radiator, as each of its curved balconies very effectively radiates indoor air temperature to the exterior.  The thermal image to the left shows, in Lstiburek’s words, “an 82-story heat exchanger” in the middle of Chicago.

This, of course, isn’t just Aqua’s problem, but the tower is certainly a paradigmatic example of thermal bridging.  Concrete’s density makes it a thermally massive material, meaning it not only stores heat well, it also conducts heat well.  Passive solar heating and ventilation, for instance, both rely on well-insulated thermal reservoirs of massive concrete to store heat–or the lack of it–that will dampen down the daily cycle of rapid heating and cooling of lighter building materials around them.

https://i0.wp.com/media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/04/05/70/a2/radisson-blu-aqua-hotel.jpgThe problem with high rise construction is that concrete also offers a great work platform from which to assemble and install building cladding.  Full curtain walls are draped outside of the building structure, but as you can see from a closeup of Aqua, a tall concrete frame suggests a much easier way to attach the building cladding–use single-story ‘storefront’ systems that just span between floor and ceiling slab at each story.  This eases the structural issues that wind causes for fully hung curtain walls by limiting spans to a single floor height, and by providing robust connections at each slab.  It also simplifies the labor involved in erecting cladding, since there is always easy access from the interior and since balconies can provide access (intermittently, in this case) from the outside face of the cladding.

The tradeoff, of course, is that if the slab is monolithic, it works as a very effective way to suck heat from one side of the cladding to the other.  If, say, you’re trying to heat your condo during the winter, what you end up doing is heating the air in the room, which then heats the floor and ceiling slabs, which then–because they have so much outdoor surface in addition to their indoor area–try to heat the entire atmosphere.

There are, as Lstiburek points out, details that can reduce or eliminate this.  By making a foam joint in the concrete and dramatically increasing the amount of rebar in the slab, you can essentially make a steel cantilever that’s wrapped in concrete–but concrete that isn’t continuous from inside to out.  This is as expensive as it looks, of course, and it gives structural engineers fits, since they really want concrete to be as monolithic as it can be.

Aqua, it’s often pointed out, was a super-tightly budgeted project–basically a very standard (if very tall) condo tower with the one super-clever balcony detail that enabled its wave-like forms.  There’s no chance that the developer didn’t do a full cost analysis on this balcony detail, and my guess is that this is evidence that we’re still really in a cheap-energy economy.  It’s pretty clear that the least expensive way to deal with the thermal bridge issue in an 82-story residential tower is–still–to just throw more energy at the detail than can flow through it in a given day, to accept and pay for the losses through conduction while sitting inside (sorry, inside joke here) bathed in soft light and listening to Dionne Warwick in heart-warming stereo.  Now, that may not be true fifty years from now, but that’s well past the developer’s involvement in the building, making this an economically-smart but legacy-dumb detail.

https://i0.wp.com/www.marinacity.org/history/image/dlv-03b.jpgIn fairness to Aqua, thermally-bridged concrete slabs have been the modus operandi for high-rise residential towers in Chicago since the 1920s.  Flat slab construction has been the most spatially efficient way to squeeze as many floors into as little height as possible–not a great approach for commercial construction, which relies on the hollow spaces in steel-framed floors for duct runs, but perfect for residential construction where all of those ducts are replaced by thinner pipes feeding radiators.  There is, sadly, no truth to the rumor that staff in Bertrand Goldberg’s office, located on the bottom floor of the raised office block in Marina City, had to wear winter boots during cold months to keep their feet from freezing on the concrete slab.  But that’s as good an illustration as any of the problem.

Details like this are troubling, of course, to anyone concerned with how efficiently our buildings will operate over the next fifty years as energy costs and consequences soar.  But to an historian, such details tend to reveal what the building culture of the time is actually responding to.  In this case, it’s clear that despite what we know is coming, energy is still cheaper than the labor and the materials that would have been needed to make this a more efficient detail.  I’ll leave the socio-political implications of that to the economists–to a developer that fact is a good piece of actionable data, but to humans in general it should be plenty sobering.

renzo does comp des

IMG_1898Back from something between a long weekend and a short week in New York, mostly for pleasure but including one stop by Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney in Chelsea.

Piano’s building has been the subject of the kind of ecstatic, billowing buzz that any architect would dream of.  In April, Michael Kimmelman of the Times wrote that

The new museum isn’t a masterpiece.

But it is a deft, serious achievement, a signal contribution to downtown and the city’s changing cultural landscape. Unlike so much big-name architecture, it’s not some weirdly shaped trophy building into which all the practical stuff of a working museum must be fitted.

It clearly evolved from the inside out, a servant to pragmatism and a few zoning anomalies.
Not so long ago, having the Times call your design a “servant to pragmatism” wouldn’t count as praise, but Kimmelman’s review (accompanied by some deftly integrated animations–a pretty signal contribution to architectural criticism itself) made the point that Piano’s building was so successful because it began from a fairly humble assessment of the urban situation and the required programmatic innards.  How these two often-competing forces meet up formed the basis for the building’s massing and inspired some of its more notable spaces, in particular the sheltered entry, tucked in under the bulk of the galleries above and the pyramidal form that offers a sort of cultural jungle gym on the outside that lets patrons wander up and down the building’s exterior while taking in views of the city and the High Line.


But the straightforward solution to the problem of circulating through a fairly narrow lot and the obvious setback restrictions also led to what Kimmelman described as a remarkably background approach to the building’s urban character.  The circulation tower on the north side relates to the lingering industrial quality of this part of the West Side Highway (though it’s likely to back up to a monster of a new development soon…) while the galleries and terraces to the east complement the human scale of the High Line’s southern end–a welcome that’s furthered by the carved out colonnade along Gansevoort Street.

https://i0.wp.com/www.inexhibit.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/new-whitney-museum-new-york-piano-12.jpgThe ‘elevation’ along Gansevoort is–to my mind–a tribute to Marcel Breuer’s famously stoic wall of stone and a single eyebrow window on Madison Avenue in the original Whitney. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it’s part of an overall strategy of stating simply what’s going on in each part of the building.  From the southwest, you can see plainly the lobby and bookstore at street level, the floors of enclosed gallery space above and, as the galleries get wedged into the zoning envelope, the circulation core along the northern edge.   Simple diagram, uncluttered and confidently expressed.
IMG_1897And, best of all, this being Piano, the whole thing is covered in immaculate detailing.  The cladding is a super-precise bent steel with a finish that doesn’t seem to have a single episode of oil-canning, or even any real variation in shade or tone.  Just like his terra cotta screens of the 1990s, Piano seems to be going back to old materials and seeing whether there’s anything to re-invent.  In this case, there’s a definite sensibility that comes from the ribbon buildings of the last decade, but if you compare the fluidity between ceiling and wall here to that of–oh, say–Diller and Scofidio’s elegantly conceived but clumsily executed Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston it’s clear that a more modest but crafted approach has its advantages.
The one complaint that seems common and fair is that the circulation–an undersized stair and far too few elevators–doesn’t work as fluidly as the rest of the building.  This, you could argue, is another tribute to Breuer’s building, where the wait for the elevators was legendary.
So, a cultural monument that negotiates a complex program with a rich but delicate urban setting, executed via a strong diagram and thoughtful detailing.  That pretty much sums up what’s been our approach to Comprehensive Design for the last ten years, and it really does feel like one of our better studio projects come to life.  The new Whitney has re-set the bar high–the last time I can remember so many people–critics, academics, but more importantly the public–being so engaged by a building like this–and having it live up to the hype (looking at you, Seattle Public Library)–was the Phoenix Library, which opened about 20 years ago.  It, too, was “hardly a masterpiece,” to borrow Kimmelman’s phrase, but maybe that’s the point–that we should stop praising buildings that so dramatically overshoot and instead recognize buildings that accept their programs and sites with all the limitations and opportunities that these bring, and that try to forge the best possible solution out of them.  Here, Piano’s shown what a building that tries to be really good instead of really dramatic can do.

That bodes well locally…while on our way to the Whitney the phone rang with news that Piano’s scheme for the new Des Moines headquarters for the regionally ubiquitous but unfortunately named Kum’n’Go convenience store chain had been announced.  Plans are sketchy but also straightforward, cleanly diagrammed, and promising…