option studio–dsm courthouse+


Des Moines Register

This semester’s studio is sticking close to home–we have 20 architects, landscape architects, and interior designers taking on one of the bigger urban and architectural questions facing Des Moines today.

Ordinarily, demolishing a 60-year old landmark of postwar modernism would be controversial enough–the city tore down the Wetherell and Harrison designed structure in October, 2015.  But a recent tussle involving the location of a new federal courthouse has added to the (still Iowa-polite) discussion ever since.  The GSA and the courts would like to build a replacement for their outdated 1928 building on the site.  It’s generous, it’s visible, and it relates well to Des Moines’ City Hall across the river, and to the Civic Center, diagonally to the southwest.  The city–equally understandably–wants commercial and residential development on the site, since it’s squarely between two very lively districts that have been crucial to the city’s renaissance.  The city has won so far, and the GSA is looking at a site about four blocks south, across the river in a formerly industrial area that is ripe for redevelopment but fairly far off the beaten path.  But even that’s not a final decision, at least not yet.


Last fall I found myself talking about the controversy with a prominent DSM architect (admittedly at a social event with an open bar) and wondering what would happen if you mashed-up the expectations that the city and the feds had–in other words, if you wedged a courthouse in between commercial and residential programs.  You’d have a pretty solid Integrated Studio program that presented some serious circulation and structural issues on an important civic site.  I’ve constantly looked for situations like this for our ARCH 403/603 studio, and it seemed worth trying out for an option studio this semester.


Van Ly, Nate McKewon

We’re three weeks in, now, and we’ve done a site visit, toured the existing courthouse with the help of their project architect and the Deputy U.S. Marshal for Des Moines, and heard from architects at Neumann Monson, the firm that will serve as the local architect for the new courthouse along with Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam about the precedents they’ve looked at, and the issues they’re facing in the new design.  Security is, as you’d guess, the biggest worry, and it’s the reason that the current generation of courts buildings have a reputation for fortress-like, anti-urban appearances.

“So,” one student asked after our courthouse tour, “the program is basically impossible, isn’t it?”  Yes and no.  It’s difficult, for sure, but even in this early stage we’re finding that there may be really interesting synergies between the urban programs of commercial and residential space, and the civic programs of the courts themselves.  Teams have settled into a couple of basic approaches–either wrapping the courthouse, geode-like, in a security blanket of apartments and shops that, we think, would present a less desirable target; or pulling the whole program in from the surrounding streets and building up instead of out.


Jen Hakala, Shawn Barron, and Kyla Peterson

I’m always impressed and slightly humbled at how diligently and seriously students take public projects like this, and yesterday’s pinup had plenty of animated discussion about not only the mechanics of getting judges, juries, defendants, and the public around safely and securely, but also what it means to build on so prominent a site, what the Des Moines River and the accompanying River Walk have done for downtown, and how best to relate to a collection of neighboring buildings ranging in scale and style from Beaux-Arts city beautiful structures (the old Public Library to the south, now the World Food Prize headquarters, or the aforementioned City Hall) to what I think of as the warm brutalism of Chick Herbert’s Civic Center, to two blocks of frankly suburban scale townhouses across the street.  We may, in fact, find that there are good reasons to segregate urban and civic programs, but I’m guessing that as teams get more and more fluent with their programming and circulation planning we’ll see some genuinely provocative schemes emerge.  And, we hope, some of this will leak out, and maybe help to influence the final decision about where to put the courthouse, and how to articulate it to the rest of the city…


jumbo architecture

spacious ageMy contribution to the new Histories of Postwar Architecture issue involves a longstanding interest in how technology gets expressed–usually inadvertently–in spaces relating to aviation.  “Jumbo Architecture” argues that designs for aviation have always been influenced by the scale and character of the aircraft themselves, and by the ways in which technology–building or aeronautical–conditions the experiences of flying, inside and out.  This applies to terminal design, sure, but also the interiors of aircraft themselves and the protoplasm of freeways, cleared landscapes under glide slopes, and tarmacs that turn airport themselves into urban precincts.  It’s a topic at the other end of building technology from where I usually sit, but one that’s provided tons of provocative examples since I started reading up for my grad thesis project back in the early 90s.

There was a particularly interesting moment in the late 1960s when the 747 first came into service, and the sheer size of the new planes themselves–and the number of passengers they discharged into terminals and cities designed for much smaller 707s and DC-8s–stressed airports almost to the point of breaking.  JFK in New York suffered agonizing traffic jams airside and landslide throughout the early 1970s because the scale of  the Jumbo Jets produced exponentially more complicated handling, and the numbers led to qualitative differences in how passengers had to be processed.  No longer could travelers simply drive up to the terminals and walk on–systems of passenger and baggage handling grew to massive proportions, and wedging these into existing sites led to architectural and vehicular contortions that proved to be utterly disorienting.

WorldportThe most striking example of this was the transformation of the glassy, parasoled canopy of JFK’s Pan Am Terminal into the “Worldport” in 1970–possibly the century’s most confusing and alienating piece of terminal architecture.  Pulling the guts of passenger, baggage, and automotive circulation out into the tarmac led to logic-defying twists of waiting areas, corridors, and elevators.  It was possible to deplane, circulate fully one lap of the terminal via elevator cores, immigration, and baggage claim, and find oneself hailing a taxi directly underneath the plane one had just disembarked.

pan am time selectorBut Worldport was just one piece of a continuum of spatial and temporal experiences that, for the first time, got beyond easy human comprehension.  The asensory nature of the aircraft cabins themselves, helped along by generous doses of sedating alcohol and movies, insulated passengers from any visceral sense that they were actually flying.  And the trans-oceanic nature of Jumbo travel meant that time itself was no longer a fixed, comprehensible element of the flying experience.  Pan Am’s “Time Selector” attests to the confusion involved in crossing so many time zones in one jump, and to the desire to somehow transcend the jet-lagged fogginess that came on arrival.

DFWAt the other end of the spectrum, building for the Jumbo Jets changed previously accepted truths about urbanism.  What to make, for example, of the Manhattan-sized Dallas-Fort Worth airport, designed not around monumental terminals, but instead around a looping, counterintuitive set of freeway offramps and thin, membrane like terminals?  Or terminals like Tampa’s, where monorails took the place of promenades?  The 747 eviscerated not only conventional architectural norms, it also quickly made the jet-age elegance of terminals like the original Pan Am building at JFK obsolete.

A380Poignant stuff, I think, especially with the news this week that Delta is retiring the last 747 to see commercial passenger service in the U.S.  The trend has been to smaller, twin-engined planes that are more agile and fuel efficient, thought the ultra-jumbo Airbus A380 has taken the place of the 747 on long haul flights.  And, needless to say, the disorienting and disquieting effects of air travel have hardly diminished as a result.

Glad to have HPA as a new venue for architectural publishing, and to have this diversion into the experiences of technology in the inaugural issue…

crate and barrel

Crate and BarrelPassing of an icon, sort of.

The Tribune reports today on the last days of Crate and Barrel’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue.  The 1990 building by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz is going to be converted into the world’s largest Starbucks, which means that the building’s crisp, white presence on the Magnificent Mile will be maintained, albeit accompanied by hundreds of gallons of Pike’s Place roast.

Like a lot of architecture graduates in 1992, I spent much of the summer under-employed, and when a city planning internship ran out (there’s a Home Depot in Tallahassee, Florida with an awesome parking lot, let’s just say), I had a few months to kill while waiting to hear about what turned out to be a job in London.   I needed a short-term gig, and I signed on in C&B’s barware and silverware department.  It wasn’t an ideal match–customer service ended up not being one of my strong suits–but the store was kind of a great place for a novice designer to hang out, full of Scandinavian-influenced housewares, pretty tastefully done retail displays, and permanent staff who knew a lot about what they were selling.  To this day I’m a flatware and barware snob, and I’ll complain about restaurants using stamped versus forged silverware if the occasion calls for it.  The building, too, was a particularly comfortable place to be even for hours at a time.  It definitely reflected the C&B ethos–functional, clean, elegant, and without a lot of wasted effort.  The rotunda at the corner even nodded, a bit, to Sullivan’s Carson’s store, and you could tell that shoppers from out of town genuinely enjoyed the escalator ride through it up to the furniture departments.

I lasted exactly one holiday season, which included helping a former (and so far un-indicted) state governor select candle holders, and then the London job came through. I handed in my sales apron without too much regret, but have bought plenty of C&B stuff ever since and felt pretty good about it.  And, knowing where the rest rooms in the building are with complete certainty, I’ll admit to marching a couple of toddlers in there during winter trips downtown more than once in the distant past.

Starbucks is kind of an ideal tenant for the building–apparently their CEO had approached Crate and Barrel years ago about opening up a counter in the store, and the vibe of both places is kind of similar–nothing outrageous or too fancy, but mostly tasteful product that gets the job done, stays out of its way, and offers a bit of style in the process (ignoring, for the moment, something like a pumpkin-spice latte).  I’m kind of looking forward to my first coffee overlooking Michigan Ave. from vaguely familiar haunts, and I’m assuming that the renovation won’t move the plumbing core, so that bit of important city knowledge will live on.  Kind of a refreshing change to see a nearly 30-year old building dodge obsolescence and get new life.

histories of postwar architecture

Delighted to report that the first issue (OK, the second issue, but vol. 1, no. 1…you’ll see why when you follow the link) of Histories of Postwar Architecture is online with a theme issue on “Histories of the Future.”  It features a paper of mine on aviation architecture in the 60s and 70s alongside a study of Japanese urbanism by the TU Delft’s Carola Hein, one on nuclear aesthetics by Stefano Setti, and a featured piece by French scholar Alain Musset on sociology, science fiction, and American urbanism in the era.

The journal nicely straddles online and print, as the papers are in .pdf format and can be read online or downloaded.  It’s beautifully designed and worth a look.  More on aviation architecture and my contribution over the weekend, but for now the entire issue would make for a good Friday lunchtime read…