chippendale ottoman

IMG_2558Just to make the point that 432 Park Avenue is really tall and really skinny, here’s the view from Rockefeller Center’s observation deck (in the rain, which is by far the best time to hit these things since it keeps the crowd down…nothing but skyscraper nerds and their immediate family members, who may have been coerced into the whole adventure).  Philip Johnson’s AT&T Tower sits comfortably at its feet.

Nothing, I think, could more clearly contrast the tenor of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a building that blew up a piece of Chippendale furniture to cartoon-like proportions ended up on the cover of Time, and now, when the yardstick proportions of Rafael Vinoly’s ludicrously tall attempt at minimalism seems to make daily internet headlines because its bathrooms have ended up in the wrong place and its window frames have proved to be unworkably big…

Just for the record, at 37 stories, AT&T is actually a pretty tall piece of furniture.  But from 70 floors up it does kind of look like a misguided attempt at a footstool for 432 Park, doesn’t it?

point clouds

Summer studio has always been a mix of finishing off our grad students’ first year with a combination of skills exercises and some deeper probing of what, exactly, we’re doing when we make spaces for people.  This summer I’m co-teaching it with Leslie Forehand, one of our brilliant new digital production hires, and we’ve brought in a mix of curious upper-level undergrads.  That combination means we have a great mix of backgrounds and skills in studio, and watching students raise the bar for one another is always its own reward.

Usually I teach a studio called “perfect works of architecture” in this course, asking students to study an extant piece of civic or sacred architecture in Iowa and to analyze it in terms of its formal structure and its material experience.  I’ve given them three readings, by Mircea Eliade, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Kenneth Frampton, that touch on issues of essence and meaning.  Eliade’s Sacred and Profane suggests that there are formal universals that humans recognize when we build particularly meaningful buildings, typically with vertical axes mundi that connect earth and heavens.  Pallasmaa offers the most legible insight into the phenomenological world of experience, suggesting that we be mindful of the range of sensory inputs that space, materials, and detailing provide.  And Frampton, of course, looks at the way materials are put together as a way of adding meaning to the actual built conditions that we create.

So, with Prof. Forehand on board, we’re reframing this with a digital emphasis.  What’s gained or lost when we record or design spaces with digital techniques?  She’s taken on board the College of Design’s point cloud scanner as a technique and analogy.  The scanner works by shooting out thousands of tiny laser bursts and measuring the distance they travel before bouncing off of something back to the scanner.  It literally scans a space in three dimensions and returns a ghostly and wildly complex digital model that can then be used to create drawings and models of uncanny precision.  Needless to say, it’s the anti-Eliade, the anti-Pallasmaa, and the anti-Frampton, at least at first glance.  The scans it returns are pretty antiseptic, and they’re full of accidental inclusions and omissions that are sometimes only apparent after the scan’s complete.  (For instance, if someone walks in front of it while it’s recording, you get a few blips that look like a transporter from Star Trek malfunctioned.  And if you put it on the wrong side of a tree, or a rock, or a piece of furniture, it obviously can’t figure out what’s behind that).

Still, it’s a fascinating process, and the results are both incredibly useful and fascinating in their own right.  So we’ve had students combining data from the scanner with their own hand drawings to try to reconcile the crunchy, analogue experience of being inside a space like Drake’s Scott Chapel, or ISU’s own Beaux-Arts monument, Beardshear Hall with the millions of geometrically perfect but sensually mute points that we’re recording.  To make the argument clear we’ve had them sketching while the machine is doing its thing, and we’ve thrown in a presentation assignment on Prix du Rome drawings from the 18th century to try to make the case for drawing as a recording and as an experiential act.  The word “versimilitude” has come up more than once.

Very much a work in progress…students present their final projects, re-conceptions or re-detailing of Scott Chapel using hybrid drawings, next Wednesday.  Drop by if you’re in town and want to take part in the discussion of how we think about space versus how we feel about it, or if you just want to see some really engaging drawings and experiments…

gertrude kerbis

Sad to hear of the passing of one of Chicago’s unsung architectural heroes.  In 2001, flailing around with a research agenda, I sent Gertrude Kerbis a letter asking if she’d have a few minutes to talk about her time at SOM and C.F. Murphy.  Kerbis was a U of I and Harvard grad who designed two of the truly great long span spaces of the postwar era–the dining hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the (sadly marred) rotunda at O’Hare airport.  Both of them took basic structural principles–a space frame and a cable truss–and made architecture out of them.  I had been curious about the history of longspan structures in offices that were better known for high rises, and she very graciously made me a cup of coffee in her Old Town townhouse one afternoon and talked about those projects and what it was like to be one of just thirty-nine women architects in the entire state of Illinois.

Not great, as you’d imagine.  Much of what she told me she asked me not to write down, but it involved big names and boorish behavior.  Her colleagues at SOM, for instance, wouldn’t let her travel to the job site to see the dining hall’s roof lifted up on hydraulic cranes, fearing that their reputation would be compromised if the client saw that their building had been designed by a woman.

She told me these stories in between totally lucid explanations of the projects and a genuine interest in why an architecture professor would be interested in postwar Chicago.  It was a great–if somewhat sobering–chat, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time or the stories.  Or the coffee.

Kerbis was featured in the Chicago Tribune in 1967, in an article so full of backhanded compliments and microaggresions that it could stand as exhibit A in how badly the profession treated some of its best.  That she was able to create some truly remarkable buildings despite those headwinds is a tribute indeed to someone who, even in just an afternoon conversation, was a totally impressive, immensely likeable, and somewhat intimidating personality.  She deserved more recognition than she had during her career, and I make it a point to show her work–fully credited–in my structures lectures.  That interview will, I hope, finally get its day as and when Chicago II comes out.

woman architect kerbis 12 jan 1967 2-E2