After ten years, things have cycled around to give my colleague Rob Whitehead and me half-course elective slots at the same time, so we’ve pooled our resources and put together what we’ve always talked about as our ideal structures class–one long session every Friday morning dedicated to hands-on structures labs. These have always been our favorite parts of teaching structures and, we think, the most effective since they get concepts off of the whiteboards and out of the textbooks and put them into the real world. Breaking stuff and getting students to talk about how and why failures happen is inherently messy and something of a tightrope act, but that mimics the real world, where nothing is ever quite as pure as the formulas make it seem.
Structures Zoo has been colossal fun to scope out and start to put together. We had our first class yesterday, which was basically our thesis statement–that structural knowledge and awareness comes from our interaction with the actual world, and that we make the most progress (as a species and/or as students of the discipline) when we take a rigorous approach to assessing what works and how. We set the first class up as a structured set of four labs, each tied into the history of the deflection formula. Starting with Archtyras and Archimedes, there’s a very neat history-of-science approach to how we understand the deformation of a beam under load–I’ve written before about using this as a way of showing that structures has always been a scientific enterprise, subject to revision and addition as new technology (including Arabic numerals, algebra, calculus, etc.) has come on-line.
The final lab of the day tried to drive home how efficient the scientific method can be, and how quickly it can produce actionable and testable knowledge. The “E” in the formula above is Modulus of Elasticity or a numerical measure of stiffness (also called Young’s Modulus). That’s an intimidating name, but it’s really just a simple ratio of stress to strain–in other words, how much a material deforms under a given load.
In column theory this is most useful in helping to understand how a “long” column will buckle–you want a stiff material that will resist the tendency to get out of the way of a load and start a death spiral of deflection, increased bending forces, further deflection because of those forces, and failure. But in “short” columns–those not vulnerable to buckling because of their stout, hockey-puck-like proportions–“E” is really simple to measure if you have an accurate enough rig.
Or a squishy enough material. If you’re trying to do deflection calculations on steel, you’re dealing with a Young’s Modulus of something like 29,000,000psi. Here at Big State U., we do not have testing rigs in the Architecture department that can impart millions of pounds of pressure, so we have to scale things down. As it happens, there’s a very convenient kitchen staple that can put us in the desktop range of deflections and loads quite easily:
Jello’s natural squishiness (or, in technical terms, very low Modulus of Elasticity) means that it deflects enough to assess with a tape measure and some light weights. We fabricated columns with various concentrations of gelatin (Disclaimer: actual Jell-O is engineered for a much softer mouthfeel, making for an unworkable column, so we switched it up and went with Knox unflavored gelatin instead), all using high-tech formwork (yogurt tubs with the surfaces oiled for easy removal) that produced nice round columns of equal diameter:
To test them, we simply placed one-pound (ish) cans on a bearing plate that let us measure the height of the columns before and after loading. Adding weights one at a time let us plot a rudimentary stress/strain curve. In an ideal world, the slope of that curve is equal to the Modulus of Elasticity, and a simple calculation lets us put a number to that figure.
And, of course, we loaded them to failure, giving us a yield stress that marks the top of the curve:
Depending on the quantity of gelatin in the column, we got Modulus of Elasticity figures ranging from .8 psito 5.4 psi*, but the shape of the curve was interesting–those figures were the average of a slope that changes from a shallow slope to a steeper one. What that means is that the columns deformed more under the initial load, and underwent some kind of “strain-hardening” as loads increased–they got stiffer under higher loads. We hypothesized that this was due to the colloid nature of the gelatin, since the initial loading pressed excess water out of the material. As that water was pressed out, the material consolidated a bit and got tougher to compress. Further research may be necessary.
Doubling the quantity of gelatin made for a pretty stiff column (relatively speaking), but also a strong one–in addition to deflecting the least, it held the final test weight of 15 pounds without failing. Generic blueberry “gelatin dessert” didn’t do much as an additive, as you can see on the right.
All good fun, but with a point. The math behind our most common structural situations can get pretty simple, and the same forces that govern our largest structures can be observed and played around with at any scale. Similarly, we’re able to change any number of variables when we’re building–shape, scale, and material–but we only know how those changes impact what we’re trying to do by testing them out. And, finally, we’re firm believers that while knowledge can come out of textbooks and formulae, wisdom only comes out of taking those ideas into the real world and seeing where they work and what their limitations are. Hoping to take those principles into our weekly Friday sessions each week this semester…
*When we first thought of jell-o columns we were convinced it was an original idea, but a quick online literature search turns up numerous other efforts at determining the material properties of gelatinous desserts. We’re pleased to report that our measurements support conclusions reached by other squishy-column researchers…we stand on the shoulders of giants, etc., etc.
There aren’t many figures who span both of Chicago’s great historic skyscraper eras. The twenty-year commercial hiatus between 1934 and 1955 meant that lots of careers ended, or got their start, between the Field Building and the Prudential–few figures had the longevity or the timing to design in both.
Except for Al Shaw (1895-1970). Shaw was a Boston native, educated at the Boston Architectural Club. After serving in the Army Signal Corps during WWI he worked in Boston before coming to Chicago, where he joined Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White in the mid-1920s. Shaw was a formidable draftsman and designer, and he immediately took on some of the firm’s largest works in the wake of longtime chief designer Peirce Anderson’s death; he was chief designer for the Pittsfield Building, the Civic Opera, the Merchandise Mart, and the Field Building, as well as Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, all of which featured sharply delineated vertical patterns ornamented in styles ranging from Beaux-Arts classical to moderne. He relied in part on the expertise of the more senior Sigurd Naess (1886-1970) to develop these. After Ernest Graham and Howard White died within weeks of each other in 1936, Naess and Shaw teamed up with the firm’s managing partner, Charles Murphy, to start Shaw, Naess, and Murphy, which rode out the last years of the Depression with industrial and institutional work, including DePaul’s O’Connell Hall and a three-story “taxpayer” building on the site of Burnham and Root’s demolished Masonic Temple, at Randolph and State–an early project of developer Arthur Rubloff.
The trio lasted for ten years, finally splitting up in 1947–in large part due to Shaw’s tempestuous personality, according to Murphy’s later recollection. Shaw was well-connected to Chicago’s art and social circles, though, having married Rue Winterbotham, heir to a barrel-making fortune and a major figure in the city’s cultural scene, in 1932. Shaw joined forces with structural engineer Carl Metz and mechanical engineer John Dolio, debuting with the moderne Florsheim Shoe Factory, on the block just north of Union Station.
The new firm designed industrial and retail buildings in its early years, including the Woolworth store on State Street downtown, which borrowed the vertical limestone striations of the Field Building, albeit at a far more modest scale. Like many fledgling Chicago firms in the late 1940s, though, Shaw, Metz, and Dolio concentrated on the surging residential market, designing seven walkup apartment blocks at Cottage Grove and 84th sts. that took advantage of a new FHA mortgage insurance program and designing a demonstration house in Lincolnwood that highlighted the battle between building trades in the Chicago Building Code debacle that occupied much of the late 1940s.
The firm’s growing residential expertise led to three commissions for apartment buildings along Sheridan Road in Lakeview East, all developed by John Mack and Raymond Sher with financing from Prudential, which like many insurance firms was pouring the proceeds from the postwar demographic boom into real estate and commercial properties through American cities. The first of these, at 3100 N. Sheridan, set the model for the firm’s early high-rise residential design, featuring long, horizontal strip windows set between simple brick spandrel walls, while the last–just two blocks north, between Sheridan and Lake Shore Drive at Belmont, arranged units around short, stub corridors and multiple elevator cores that allowed every unit to occupy the slab’s full width and, thus, to have both lake and city views.
Mack and Sher built on the success of this residential cluster, ultimately hiring Shaw, Metz, and Dolio for four large complexes that punctuate Lake Shore Drive today. The first of these, at Irving Park (3950 N. Lake Shore), adopted the horizontal strip windows of the earlier slabs, but for the subsequent projects Shaw adopted his earlier preference for stark verticality, rendering these in contrasting stripes of white face brick and windows with dark spandrel panels. 3600 N. Lake Shore, at Addison, was the paradigm of this approach, employing newly available low-profile air conditioning units to allow for larger window units in two parallel slabs set–counter-intuitively to some–perpendicular to the lakefront. This arrangement allowed Mack and Sher to claim lake views for all of the complex’ units, even if only the end apartments actually faced the lake itself.
More immediately recognizable were the two single slabs the firm designed for Mack and Sher along the Drive in 1962, at Belmont (3950 N. Lake Shore Dr.) and North (1550 N. Lake Shore Dr.). These were, again, set perpendicular to the Lake, and each one featured a signature metal enclosure around its rooftop mechanical plant, along with emphatic vertical striping.
These projects appealed to singles and families alike—3950 N. Lake Shore housed “mostly” families when it opened, drawing tenants for its “ranch house” like units and its location, just “10 to 15 minutes” from the Loop by car. But the firm also began drawing larger commercial clients, in particular United Insurance, a family-owned Chicago company that had found a niche by offering weekly premium plans to working-class clients. Shaw designed a 40-story tower for United’s highly visible site, at State and Wacker, that featured continuous stripes Georgia marble and recessed, black Vitrolite spandrels–repeating, more or less, the aesthetic formula of the later apartment buildings and making the building the “tallest marble structure in the world” when it opened in 1962.
The firm’s now trademark, gleaming white version of Shaw’s earlier moderne styling found its way to apartment buildings and commercial structures throughout downtown and along the Drive: the Continental Hotel and 777 N. Michigan, at the north end of the Magnificent Mile, were just two of the most visible examples of this formula (and they were–nearly–joined by a third Shaw building between them in an unrealized scheme for the site that became the John Hancock Center).
But the firm’s success was tempered by failure and calamity. The firm’s design for the first McCormick Place, finished in 1960, was widely seen as a grotesque intrusion on the lakefront; its lack of sprinklers contributed to its destruction by fire in 1967. Worse, Shaw took on public housing projects for the CHA that proved disastrous, including the Robert Taylor Homes. Their track record with CHA projects had already been mixed; their designs for the Grace Abbott Homes, at 14th and Loomis, were compromised by shoddy workmanship. The Taylor Homes were beset by budget cuts that made for grossly inadequate elevator service and a program that called for an unrealistically large percentage of large family units. As a result, the towers’ plans were too deep to provide the ‘eyes on the street’ that had made an earlier generation of gallery apartment projects workable. Long wait times and a lack of visibility made the elevators magnets for petty crime and, eventually, assaults.
Dolio left the firm in 1959 and Metz in 1966. Shaw’s son, Patrick, joined the renamed Alfred Shaw & Associates, and carried on work that continued to translate the father’s trademark vertical striation in new materials–55 E. Monroe, for instance, which employed a block-long facade of aluminum mullions that produce that building’s corduroy-like effect along Wacker. Alfred Shaw died in 1970, ending a career that had spanned styles, building types, and eras, a spread that was equaled only by his former partner, Charles Murphy.
AIA Directory of Architects, 1962.
“Architect Alfred P. Shaw Dies.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Dec 02, 1970, pp. 5.
Chappell, Sally A. Kitt, Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1912-1936: Transforming Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 259-281.
“Florsheim Shoe Will Construct 7 Story Plant: Output Facilities, Offices to be Included.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 12, 1947, pp. 1-nwB.
Ernest Fuller, “Turn Ground This Week For 640 Flat Unit: Building To Cost 12 1/2 Millions.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 19, 1959, pp. 1-a9.
Gavin, James M. “Shaw Metz Ledger Compiled in 18 Years: Shaw Metz Achievement Ledger Big.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 26, 1964, pp. 2-f1.
Charles Gotthart, “Unions, Realty Men Test New Home Methods: Model House to Aid Community Fund.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 23, 1949, pp. 1-b9.
“Redesign, Loop’s Newest “Taxpayer”.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 21, 1939, pp. 1-b8.
“Reveal Shoddy Work On New Housing Units: Two Contracting Firms, Architects Blamed.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep 15, 1953, pp. 7.
“Three Form a New Firm of Architects.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 13, 1936, pp. 1.
Architecture Twitter has been ablaze this week with news that billionaire Charlie Munger has solved UCSB’s housing crunch with a proposal for a 1.68 million square foot largely windowless dormitory that will house 4096 students and that he, wait for it, designed himself. The campus’ Chancellor called it “inspired and revolutionary.” An architect on the University’s design review committee resigned in protest.
It has been pointed out that the Unite, like most housing, was subject to code regulations about light and air. Most cities have requirements that all living spaces have direct access to natural daylight and ventilation–which explains the walls in many apartment conversions that don’t go all the way to the ceiling, “borrowing” light and air from adjacent, windowed spaces. Technically, you could argue that these are outdated. They’re mostly from an era of tenement reform, when cities were finally cracking down on landlords who carved existing buildings into dangerous rat’s warrens of corridors and dark rooms that were fire hazards as well as being genuine public health problems–stale, unmoving air in crowded apartments during an era when tuberculosis was rampant was a recipe for contagion.
Dirty little secret: many state universities are actually exempt from local building codes since municipalities generally can’t override state regulations. Instead, campus buildings are often subject to less stringent state codes. So even if Santa Barbara does have light and air requirements, the University may not have to follow them. There’s still plenty of good research that shows correlations between connections with outside and mental health–of particular concern among college students these days. Munger’s response? “We want to keep the suicide rate low.”
So, that’s OK then.
Still, some have wondered, isn’t this a firetrap? Those long corridors, and, according to initial press reports, only two entrance doors? Well, eyeballing the plans, it looks like this would be code-legal. The two general principles of life safety are providing two exits from significantly occupied spaces (often portion of a building occupied by more than fifty people) and having exits or protected fire stairs no more than 300 feet from any space (in a building with sprinklers–much less in one without). Munger’s plan divides the floors into eight “houses” of eight suites, each with eight rooms (I have a suspicion there’s some amateur numerology at work here, but that’s for another post…). Each suite can exit in two directions through the long E/W corridors, which feed into the common rooms on the exterior and the “Main Building Corridor” in the center. Fire stairs in both locations lead to exit doors that open directly outside.
Code legal? Quite possibly. But there’s meeting the code, and then there’s good life safety design. Panicking humans are notoriously bad at finding exits, even clearly-marked, logically-placed ones. In general, we try to spread fire stairs out so that they’re at the extreme corners of a building so that once you’ve blindly run as far as you can, you’re taken care of. The stairs in the center corridor do that, but the ones on the exterior leave large open spaces in the common room that you can imagine filling up with confused, panicking students. But, OK, let’s give Munger that one. If he can sleep at night knowing that the fire exiting strategy meets minimum standards, great.
What I haven’t seen any analysis on, though, is the other big circulation oncern in multi-story buildings. This “monster” would have 4,096 bedrooms/occupants. All of them would be college students, getting up and going to class at more or less the same time every morning. How do eight floors of students, all rushing to class, get out of the building?
Hotel design has a well-known standard for elevator provisions–one cab for every 75-80 rooms. That’s for a building full of people on vacation, getting up at various times during the day, or a very gentle “peak load.” The number of cabs is the driving factor in wait and trip time. What slows elevators down are trips with multiple stops, since the time it takes for doors to open, passengers to embark or disembark, and doors to close is fixed, and usually more than the travel time from floor to floor. More cabs mean more single trips, which means more efficient operations in terms of wait time. What’s an acceptable wait time? Studies have shown that for Americans, 45 seconds is intolerably long to wait for an elevator.
That provision is confirmed by a rabbit hole I went down doing the latest skyscraper research. The social failure of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes was often blamed, at least in part, on their incredibly sparse elevator provisioning. Originally designed with three shafts for each tower of 450 bedrooms, that was cut at the last minute to just two, which led to wait times of up to five minutes–when both were actually working. Residents heading out–often with cash on them to go shopping–became easy targets for muggers and, eventually, gangs. That ratio, of 225 bedrooms to one elevator, was nearly three times that of typical Lake Shore Drive apartment towers, which had a hotel-like 80-85 bedrooms for every cab.
Munger Hall? Well, the plan above shows 12 elevators, which makes for a bedroom/cab ratio of 341:1, more than 50% greater than the failed Taylor Homes and suggesting wait times of 7-1/2 minutes under normal circumstances. Add the morning class rush and that could be even higher.
The punch line? Munger proposes a full-fledged shopping center on the dorm’s top floor–Costco and all. Retail populations are typically spread out during the day, but they’d add to that already unprecedented elevator load. Worse, if you look closely you can see that two of those twelve elevators are actually larger–the only freight elevators in the complex. I’m not clear on how trucks would unload their palettes of 5-gallon Costco mayonnaise barrels into those, but having to haul a full shopping center’s worth of freight up a single pair of what look like Class-A elevators would take a good couple of hours. Multiply that by a full complement of stores and those two would be in use all day during the week, leaving students and customers to just the ten regular passenger elevators.
There’s a good reason that we put retail and entertainment facilities on ground floors–it takes a lot of elevator capacity to move crowds and freight up in the air. Munger may well be correct in his opinion that “architects don’t know sh*t,” but at least a few of us have been in that meeting with an elevator consultant where the physics of vertical transportation and the impatient emotional DNA that underlies the typical American passenger collide…
Taking a bit of a break from Chicago to read up on some early 19th century wrought and cast iron reading, and finally decided to plow through Peter Berlyn and Charles Fowler’s account of the design and construction of the Crystal Palace, an exhaustive (and exhausting) monograph put out just after the structure’s opening in 1851. I’d been curious about the trusses that spanned the relentless 24 foot planning module–they were cast iron, with connections to the columns made with pegs and shims (!). The longer spanning girders over the main nave, however, were wrought iron, which checks out–the 1840s saw that material come on line as a viable solution to spanning structures. (You can tell the difference in the engraving above if you look closely–the trussed girders to the left are clearly cast iron, bulky in proportion, while the high girder on the right, where the transept vault sits, is made up of thinner elements that could only be rolled, not cast).
Anyway, the Crystal Palace is sort of a running joke in Construction History as the “first everything,” at least if you’re British. First curtain wall? Crystal Palace. First fully industrialized building? Crystal Palace. First skyscraper? Crystal Palace. But it certainly earned its accolades–there are legitimate arguments to be made for all of those, even that last one. One way that I’d never thought of the structure being modern, though, is described brilliantly by Berlyn and Fowler early on in their design history. Joseph Paxton, after touting his idea for a mass-produced filigree of iron and glass in the London Illustrated News, joined forces with contractors Fox and Henderson just days before tenders were due for the project. While his basic scheme was as simple as it could be–just a handful of components repeated hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of times across the sixteen acre site–having confidence in the abilities of iron, glass, and timber manufactures to produce that much material in northern factories, deliver it to London in time to construct the building in just a few months, and to price it reliably, relied on technology of a far different sort:
“It was now Saturday, and only a few days more were allowed for receiving tenders. Yet before an approximate estimate of expense could be formed, the great glass-manufacturers and iron-masters of the north had to be consulted….But in a country of electric telegraphs, and of indomitable energy, time and difficulties are annihilated; and it is not the least of the marvels wrought in connexion with the great edifice that, by aid of railway-parcels and the electric telegraph, not only did all the gentlemen summoned out of Warwickshire and Staffordshire appear on Monday morning at Messrs. Fox and Henderson’s office in Spring Gardens, London, to contribute their several estimates to the tender for the whole, but within a week the contractors had prepared every working drawing, and had calculated the cost of every pound of iron, every inch of wood, and of every pane of glass.”
A first instance of Building Information Modeling? I’ll let a U.K. partisan make that argument, but it’s clear from that description that, without the telegraph and railways annihilating “time and difficulties” Paxton’s scheme could never have come together in the time it did. The railway required and inspired development in the iron industry, but easing the flow of information between manufacturer, designer, and contractor isn’t one I’d thought of before…
It was a great thrill yesterday to take part in a Construction History Society of America webinar (credit-free learning!) with David Macaulay, one of my all-time heroes and the author/artist behind many great books that shaped my childhood. Many thanks to Peter Hilger, Melanie Feerst, and the staff at the University of Minnesota for hosting.
My contribution was a quick preview of one emerging theme in the new Chicago book–the “secret history” of SOM’s tube structures. The standard story is fairly well documented–Fazlur Khan is credited with naming the structural type, if not exactly inventing it, and there’s a very clear progression of the idea from the Brunswick and DeWitt-Chestnut buildings of 1961-65 through the world-beating Hancock and Sears Towers a few years later. The basic idea is to think of high rise structures as “super-columns,” pushing all of the structural material to the perimeter of the floor plate so that it gains maximum resisting leverage over wind forces. The analogy I use in class is a paper towel roll. It will take far more axial compressive load in when intact than if you slice it down the side and roll it up into a tighter cylinder, since shortening the resisting moment arm makes it far more vulnerable to buckling.
Brunswick was a cautious step in that direction, but it paired perimeter structure with a traditional shear-core (the green walls in the model above by ace undergrad research assistant Jack Strait). One key to its performance is that the perimeter columns in plane with the shear walls (red in the model) are deeper than their neighbors, reflecting the concentration of loads being transferred from the sail-like exterior walls to the upturned-beam like interior core. Dewitt-Chestnut, on the other hand, was a pure tube structure, with irregularly-placed columns in the center of its floor plate that handled gravity loads only, leaving the perimeter to carry the entire wind load:
I’ve posted elsewhere about I.M.Pei’s proto-tube structures in New York and Chicago–the precursors to Brunswick, according to Bruce Graham. I made that point, and showed how construction improvements led to another set of tube structures that enclosed apartment and condominium buildings throughout Chicago, by the firm of Dubin, Dubin, Black, and Moutoussamy that deserve far more attention than they’ve typically received. But a friendly email from a regular Architecturefarm correspondent this morning points out that I didn’t get to one of Chicago’s biggest–and purest–tube structures, one with a legacy that stems directly from SOM’s work.
Standard Oil was designed by a pair of firms–Edward Durrell Stone from New York and Chicago’s own Perkins + Will. After the Hancock was completed, P+W hired away one of SOM’s lead engineering partners, Al Picardi. At the time of the Hancock, Fazlur Khan was still a relatively junior member of SOM’s office, having joined in 1955. Picardi was more senior and was in fact the lead engineer on Hancock–Khan reported to him. He switched firms, apparently, to lead the engineering of Standard Oil, which from its inception was intended to be colossal, at over two million square feet (far larger, incidentally, than the original masterplan for Illinois Center, which at first included Standard Oil’s site…)
Picardi’s structural system is a clear adaptation of the tube structure to Stone’s heavy-handed massing. The perimeter is composed of hollow, triangular steel columns tied into deep edge girders, while the interior structure is gravity-only columns concentrated in the core. The result is clear span office space and–a Stone trademark–narrow slit windows with starkly vertical proportions.
In addition to the large, clear span floors, the structural advantage to this was a core unconstrained by large shear walls and a lightweight spanning structure. With the building’s stiffness taken up entirely by the exterior, the interior structure could be made of light, open-web steel joists:
Standard Oil’s structure was a successful application of the tube to another tall building–Leslie Robertson engineered a similar pairing of stiff, tightly spaced exterior columns with long span open web joists for New York’s World Trade Center at around the same time, which was further proof-of concept. But the building was an architectural disaster–in addition to being wildly overscaled for the emerging Illinois Center district, Stone’s trademark vertical style struck many as alien to Chicago, where skyscraper facades were known more for their rich interplay of verticals and horizontals. Like many other tube structures, Standard Oil hit the ground with a thud–the need to bring so many tightly spaced columns all the way to the ground proved difficult for nearly every architect, but many got the sense that here, Stone didn’t even try, simply filling in the narrow interstices with glass revolving doors that proved treacherous during downdraft winds.
Stone himself gave the building a luke-warm reaction, remarking only that “it’s good looking” on seeing the project firsthand. The Tribune’s Paul Gapp, on the other hand,was furious. “The Standard Oil Building,” he wrote, “is perhaps the worst thing that has happened to Chicago’s skyline in the last 30 years.” The Prudential’s “headstone by the Lake” was now matched, in Gapp’s view, by Stone’s scale-less, “unbroken verticality.” Its blazing contrast between brilliant white marble and the narrow, dark recesses hid any sense of floor-to-floor rhythm or Picardi’s ingenious structural fabric behind facile elevational stripes. “If you stare at the building from a short distance for more than 15 seconds,” Gapp complained, “it is almost disorienting.”[i]
[i] Paul Gapp, “Ambiguous Statement Snarls Center Debate.” Chicago Tribune, June 30, 1974. 1-e3.
The Chicago project is taking a breather while I get ready for the semester, and in the spirit of constant improvement, I’ve been rewriting the syllabus for Big and Tall: A History of Construction from the Pyramids to the Burj, which I’m teaching this Fall for the first time in a couple of years. The first couple of thematic lectures, on ancient timber and stone construction, have always relied on Vitruvius and the Yingzao Fashi, a 12th century Chinese treatise that was a combination of Sweet’s Catalogue, MasterSpec, and the International Building Code.
Inspired to dig a little deeper into Roman sources, though, I’ve discovered Pliny the Elder, whose Naturalis Historiais a thorough (and gloriously grumpy) chronicle of, well, the whole known world in 70 CE or so. Among his thoughts on building is a recognizable plea for a more sustainable approach to construction and an agonized accounting of the widespread pillaging caused by quarrying:
“Nature made mountains for herself as a type of bond for compressing the bowels of the earth and at the same time for holding in check the rushing strength of rivers and breaking the waves of the sea and to restrain with her hardest substance her least quiet parts. We quarry these mountains and drag them away for no other reason than that our pleasure dictates it—mountains which it was once astonishing even to cross. Our ancestors considered it almost a portent that the Alps were climbed by Hannibal and later by the Cimbri: now these very peaks are quarried into 1000 types of marble. Promontories are laid open to the sea, and nature is made flat. We carry away features, which were meant to serve as barriers for keeping nations apart. Ships are built for the sake of transporting marble, and so here and there over the waves, the wildest portions of nature, are carried mountain peaks….Each of us who hears the price of these items and sees the massive quantities, which are being dragged around should meditate on how much better life would be without them. Oh, that men should do these things—or rather, endure them—on account of no other purpose or pleasure than to recline surrounded by varicolored stones!”
–Pliny, Natural History, 31.1-3
The hubris that went into laying promontories open to the sea and the call for simplifying, downsizing, and thinking about whether the ability to topple mountains means that one should do so rings pretty true today.
But Pliny also found quotidian examples of the corruption inherent in Imperial construction. Not only were the mountains being pillaged, but client’s budgets were, as well. Here he is describing the process of fabricating marble slabs out of those Hannibal-trod blocks of stone:
“But whoever first discovered how to cut marble and split luxury into sheets showed harmful ingenuity. This seems to be effected by iron but actually is done by sand, as the saw presses the sand on a very narrow line and brings about the cutting by its very passage back and forth. Sand from Ethiopia is rated most highly….Later, a no less esteemed sand was found on a certain shoal in the Adriatic Sea, uncovered by low tide and not easy to spot. But now, deceitful workmen have dared to cut marble with any sort of sand from any river, a source of waste, which very few notice. For the coarser sand cuts less accurate slices, wears away more of the marble, and by its rough finish increases the work of polishing. Consequently, the revetment slabs are thinner. Again, Theban sand is suitable for polishing, and a compound made form limestone or pumice.”
–Pliny, Natural History, 36.51-53
Thinner slabs from cheaper sand…those ‘deceitful workmen’ were basically proposing an unapproved substitution, and I’m guessing that Roman practice and current AIA contract documents both took a dim view of those sorts of shenanigans. You can totally imagine the equivalent of the email to the client: “We have reviewed the proposed substitution of sand from the Tiber and find it unacceptable. The project specifications upon which the workmen’s bid was submitted clearly call for Theban sand, and…”
Architects of my generation have two things in common that drove us to our professional choices–Legos (of course) and David Macaulay’s books. Castle was my first, followed very quickly by Cathedral, City, and several others. His unbelievable drafting skill has always been matched by clear, often very wry texts, and the feeling of slowly understanding a really complicated building through his guidance and storytelling is a sense that I still find myself chasing whenever I’m doing research.
Anyway. CHSA has landed him for a conversation with our eminent President Emeritus, Brian Bowen (who himself has a new book out later this month on the history of American contracting…) and they’ve invited me to present some new research on the evolution of Fazlur Khan’s tube structures as a sort of opening act. To say that I’m honored by this is an understatement, and I promise to keep things short but to have a couple of surprises, like a guest appearance in the slides by August Komendant and I.M. Pei.
I’ve been immersed in a pandemic-delayed trawl through the Mies van der Rohe papers in the Library of Congress this week. A few finds that merit publication (forthcoming), but also no small amount of joy. I get the sense that his taciturn, grumpy reputation was mostly fictional; he comes across as incredibly warm and (occasionally) funny. But terse, definitely terse.
Sometime in the late 1950s he delivered a “lecture” to the Architectural League of New York City, but–never confident in his English ability, he asked that it be all questions and answers. The conversation mostly focused on the Seagram’s building, but the crowd got in plenty of larger issues as well. The typescript in the archives hasn’t, I think, ever been published, and given Mies’ reluctance to speak or write very much it’s an important collection of his thought.
It ends with an anonymous questioner tossing up a classic softball…and Mies hitting it out of the park:
QUESTION: Now there are a lot of young people here tonight and I wonder, Mr. van der Rohe, if you would like to give them some advice. Some of us probably are well along and saying we are not going to contribute much to architecture, but these youngsters might like to hear some advice about how they should approach their first commission, or what they should think about—certain clarities that you’ve mentioned. Perhaps you’d like to repeat them or….
VAN DER ROHE: I think there is one thing what I would do—I would work very hard.
Typescript titled “Architectural League,” in folder “Interviews with Mies, Box 62, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Roo
Architect and engineer Twitter has been busy this week speculating about the cause(s) of the building collapse north of Miami. The best summary I’ve seen yet is in this morning’s Washington Post and deserves a full read by anyone curious/concerned, including reasons why a foundation failure or sinkhole seems increasingly unlikely.
Elsewhere, the truly chilling document from the president of the building’s HOA and associated engineer’s report emphasize just how pervasive the building’s deterioration had become. Deferred maintenance and short-term financial decisions are their own post/book idea, but this is a prime example of how primed we are to ignore risks of long-term catastrophe when faced with difficult short-term decisions.
The burst of apartment building in the early 1960s that rebuilt much of Lake Shore Drive was matched by a new high-rise type that revolutionized residential financing in Chicago and, eventually, throughout the country. While rental apartments found a consistent, nearly-insatiable market among young professionals and couples, Chicago—like many American cities—found itself losing young families to the suburbs as rentals for multi-bedroom units soared. The attractiveness of new developments in the 1950s, along with the promise of new connecting expressways made for a natural migration out of the city for white families with children. Mortgage assistance for new, single-family homes from the FHA encouraged this, as did the inherent wealth-building potential that stemmed from home ownership, which transformed funds previously expended on monthly rent into equity. While this out-migration was a windfall for homebuilders and developers outside of Chicago, it sapped tax dollars and much of the city’s skilled workforce; because of the restrictive covenants and the intransigent, often violent racism that continued to mark the city’s white middle class neighborhoods, this trend further cemented segregationist tendencies throughout the city.
It was clear to many stakeholders—city builders, financiers, and the Daley administration—that encouraging home ownership within the city limits was a necessary step to combatting this endemic white flight. But the city was largely built-out by this point, with little room to annex new territory and limited land on which to build developments that could compete with the sylvan lawns and sprawling ranch houses offered by new expressway suburbs like Oak Lawn or Arlington Heights. Urban renewal had offered limited possibilities and, to this point, had necessarily been aimed at lower middle class and Black families with apartment projects that could not provide the benefits of equity that suburban home ownership promised. And the city’s most desirable sites and neighborhoods came with land costs that demanded dense occupation and, thus, multi-story development.
But Illinois’ laws through the 1950s made integration between home ownership and skyscraper construction difficult and risky. Like most states, real estate law in Illinois had always been based on English common law, which assumed physical ownership of land itself as the basis for all property rights; title to a particular plot of land also came with rights to the ground below and the air above.[i] Defining a single unit in a high-rise in legal terms was, if not impossible, at least such a byzantine process that developers had come up with the co-operative system to get around it. Since the 1920s, this method gave owners a share in the corporate ownership of an entire building and the right to rent a single, specified unit within. This came with quirks and risks—among them, residents of a development were legally and fiscally responsible for the defaults of their fellow, corporately-bound neighbors. If one resident fell behind on their monthly payments, the remaining residents had to make up the difference for the corporation’s property taxes, mortgage payments, and maintenance costs. Co-ops gave residents inordinate power over sales and purchases; boards had the right to approve or deny new buyers, which was often a de facto segregationist power, and they could in extreme situations force residents out for cause—though this could be arbitrary and brought with it an uncertainty that home ownership typically avoided. The system continued to be popular through the 1950s—Herbert Greenwald’s developments in particular often championed the co-op arrangement—but it was clearly an outdated and potentially discriminatory structure that was, by 1963, not providing a robust enough alternative to suburban home ownership.
A consortium of Chicago real estate lawyers approached the State legislature in 1963 with proposed legislation, inspired by new laws passed in Puerto Rico and Hawaii in 1958, that would allow ‘fee-simple’ ownership of individual units in a high-rise by specifically designating a process for dividing a project’s volume into legally defined parcels.[ii] They argued that this idea was, in fact, well-proven—“the idea dates from ancient Rome” was a common refrain—and that it had encouraged construction and found eager markets among both young families and older couples in the states that had passed similar laws.[iii] Shared ownership—or, from the Latin, “con dominium” offered a way to cut through the legal mess that came with defining air rights in a land-based system. Herbert Rosenthal, president of Dunbar Builders, which had managed to construct low-rise shared-ownership developments under the old laws in 1962, explained the benefits to the Tribune, noting that a condominium arrangement offered exactly the elusive “best of both apartment living and home ownership”:
“Condominium buyers have the security of ownership, along with its financial and tax advantages, as well as the convenience and freedom of an apartment dweller, he said.
“In a condominium project, buyers own their own apartment, while hallways, roof and other structural portions of the building, are owned in common with the other residents. Owners have individual title to their units and are responsible only for their own mortgages and taxes, and a small fee to maintain the grounds and common areas.
“The condominium plan differs from the cooperative in that individual dwelling units can be sold, exchanged, or rented by the owners independently of their neighbors. Co-operatives are owned by stockholder tenants, and permission is required from a governing body to sell or buy an apartment.”[iv]
But the new arrangement also offered developers an important benefit, in that it allowed them to walk away from a project once all of its units had been sold, leaving management to entities that could be formed by the owners themselves and eliminating the difficulties that came with collecting rent or running projects as corporations—a new class of developer emerged that focused on quicker turnarounds, rapid sales, and speed of construction as priorities.
Passage of Illinois’ condominium law, in June, 1963, did not on its own spawn the next decade’s extraordinary burst of condominium construction.[v] Rather, it took acceptance from the orbit of financial institutions and a healthy dose of marketing to establish condominiums as rivals to both co-ops and rental apartments. The FHA provided much of the groundwork for this, though, extending its mortgage insurance programs to condominium projects nationwide in 1961, and with that security the city saw its first high-rise condominium announced three weeks before the law was even passed. 339 W. Barry, between Sheridan Road and Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview East, was an immediate ratification of the concept. Developed and built by F&S Construction, one of the suburbs’ largest homeowners, 339 Barry reflected a hunch by the company’s owner, Jack Hoffman, that there was a “move back to urban living.”[vi] Hoffman, namesake of one suburb where the firm had built nearly 2000 houses, had seen homebuilding slow and recognized that the new laws opened up an entirely new market, laying out the advantages to the press and pointing out that here, finally, was that elusive combination of ownership with “the benefits of living in a luxury apartment on Lake Shore Drive.”[vii]
Hoffman’s efforts to replicate the perceived comforts and conveniences of the suburbs along Lake Shore Drive led to a building designed by Fridstein and Fitch, a firm opened by Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett partner Marvin Fitch in 1951. Their site on a suburban-sounding “quiet, shaded street” offered unrestricted views to Lincoln Park and the lake, and Fridstein and Fitch arranged the building’s massing accordingly, with an exposed core on the building’s west side that allowed every apartment eastward-looking views and balconies. Each unit was larger than standard north side apartments, at between 1000 and 2000 square feet, with large living rooms and separate dining rooms; each floor of the 26-story structure had just two or three units, which sold for between $25,000 and $58,000. Taking cues from Mies’ Commonwealth Apartments, just to the southwest, they developed the building’s curtain wall with grey-tinted glass to mitigate bright morning sunshine, set into aluminum mullions that replicated the now-established Miesian idiom.
But Fitch, interviewed on the building’s announcement, argued that the building’s sleek exterior was less important than its robust construction and its amenities. “The renter,” he thought, was more concerned with these “exterior or visible details.” Purchasers, on the other hand, were more concerned with the longer-term durability of “details of construction…plumbing, heating, wiring” and other equipment.[viii] Hoffman pointed out the building’s ‘double climate control system,’ which adopted the zoned system of commercial towers, but without ducted air. One baseboard circuit provided heat during winter to eliminate condensation from the apartments’ floor-to-ceiling windows, while fan coil units provided “individual heating and air conditioning” for each room.[ix] Other amenities that, according to Fitch and Hoffman, distinguished the condominiums from rental apartments included dine-in kitchens, more sophisticated appliances including garbage disposers and ovens with ranges, optional dishwashers, and improved finishes, in particular parquet flooring in entrance halls.[x] Unit plans also included three times the amount of closet space recommended by the FHA—an acknowledgement that the stability that came with ownership rather than renting would inevitably lead to greater accumulation.[xi] These upgrades were combined with marble tubs, rosewood-paneled public areas, and “elegant details everywhere.” Perhaps most tellingly, Fridstein and Fitch specified improved acoustic construction for walls between units, with laminated sheets of 5/8” drywall on one side, single layers of drywall resilient furring channels on the other to absorb transmitting vibrations, and 3-5/8” thick blankets of fiberglass insulation between. Combined, these improvements, developed by U.S. Gypsum, gave walls a 51dB rating, more than 10% greater than FHA apartment standards and a crucial selling point to buyers used to the relative isolation of suburban homes. “You can play your hi-fi or television, have an argument…sneeze, and snore to your heart’s content and the people in the next apartment home won’t hear you,’ claimed F&S’ vice president, William Griffin, on the building’s opening.[xii] These innovations, the units’ larger floor sizes, and Hoffman’s gamble on drawing suburbanites back to the city were dependent on financing, of course, but the project received enthusiastic support from St. Paul Savings and Loan, while Chicago Title and Trust signed on to guarantee mortgages, supported by the FHA, to individual buyers.[xiii]
After the first condominium sale in the city was celebrated in August, 1964—to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Eastline, both of whom worked at sales and marketing in the Loop—buyers were initially wary.[xiv] Five units remained unsold by January, 1966, a year and a half after its opening[xv]—but as the first year’s operating costs proved to be within Hoffman’s estimates the building filled with owners, predominantly professionals between 35 and 45 years old, about a quarter of whom were families with children, and were split between those who had tired of renting and those who had returned from suburbs, citing maintenance and yard work as major reasons they had given up on home ownership.[xvi] F&S launched an ad campaign based largely on snob appeal and economic logic—pointing out, in a 1964 ad, the art collection of one resident and describing his tenth floor unit as “appropriate to his social and economic position” while being a financially advantageous investment.”[xvii] But they also instituted a buy-back program, offering to purchase would-be condominium buyers’ homes at market rates, creating a “simple and foolproof way to trade in a house on a condominium unit.”[xviii] Through state legislation and aggressive marketing, Chicago’s battle with its suburbs for population and tax base was engaged.
[i] “Begin More Condominium Apartments.” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1963. N_B10.
[ii] “Condominium Co-Op Bill is Introduced.” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14, 1963. F9.
[iii] “Condominiums Take a Firm Foothold in the Chicago Area.” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 3, 1967. D1.
[iv] “Condo Idea Catches on Across U.S.” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 17, 1964. N11.
[v] “Illinois Sets Up New Form of Condominium.” Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1963. 4.
[vi] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.” Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963. C5.
[vii] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964. W_A5.
[viii] “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963. N_B5.
[ix] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964. W_A5.
[x] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964. W_A5; and “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963. N_B5.
[xi] “House Hunter Cautioned: Be Sure Closets are Adequate.” Chicago Tribune, Jul. 11, 1964, pp. 1-s_b5.
[xii] “New Soundproof Technique Applied in Skyscraper Condo. [339 Barry]” Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1964. N15.
[xiii] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.” Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963. C5.
[xiv] “Family Acquires Condo Home; First in Lakefront Skyscraper.” Chicago Tribune, Aug 29, 1964. 1-n12.
[xv] “Year of Operation Verifies Estimate of Condo Expenses.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 8, 1966. 1-n_a3.
[xvi] “Sell 30 of 67 Condo Homes in Skyscraper on the Lake.” Chicago Tribune, Nov 14, 1964. 1-w5. See, too, “Condo Attracts Prospects from the North Shore.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), May 16, 1964, pp. 1-n_a12.
[xvii] Display ad, “339 Barry Condominium.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 25, 1964. 1-w8.
[xviii] “Purchase-Offer Plan Announced for Condo Units.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 16, 1965. 1-w_a10.