dsm courthouse studio final review

April 28, 2018 § 1 Comment

IMG_9173We finished a strong semester yesterday in truly noble surroundings, celebrating the end of the Des Moines Courthouse Studio project by holding our review in the lobby of the Mies van der Rohe Home Savings and Loan (now the Catholic Diocese) building downtown.  Recently restored, the Mies space looks fantastic, and six interdisciplinary teams did it justice with schemes for a truly difficult mash-up program of federal courthouse and mixed commercial and residential uses on the riverfront site of the former YMCA building.

IMG_9151I posted about the studio at the start of the semester, but basically we were exploring the possibility of putting a new Federal Courthouse on a site that the City of Des Moines would prefer to have developed commercially.  Could you, we wondered, do both?  Could you put a truly monumental Federal building on a site and still have room for apartments, restaurants, coffee shops and bars that would keep the life of the city going?  Or, as one student put it in the run up to our mid-review, can a building be urban and civic at the same time?

IMG_9161I’d say that our answer, after fifteen weeks of exploration and development, would be a qualified “maybe.”  Not surprisingly, the security considerations that go into a courthouse really mitigate against the open, pedestrian nature of a downtown mixed-use structure.  Still, student teams of interior designers, architects, and landscape architects came up with some clever strategies of separating court functions from the surrounding streets with buffers of mixed-use development, and they tackled the notoriously difficult circulation requirements that come with prisoner, judicial, and jury circulation with equally sophisticated elevatoring and logistic strategies.  What do you do with criminal defendants when the fire alarms go off?  These sorts of questions have real consequences for building design, and they make it obvious why so much courthouse design in the post-Oklahoma City bombing era have tended toward fortresses more than engagement.


IMG_9194The Courthouse controversy in Des Moines is ongoing–the Federal Courts and the City are still discussing where it will go, and it’s one of the biggest questions the resurgent downtown will face in the coming years.  We held the review in the middle of downtown on purpose, and were really happy to have a steady stream of architects and designers stop in throughout the afternoon.  That speaks well to the commitment that Des Moines’ design community feels toward the city’s development, and we’re hoping that this studio, in a small way, helps keep the conversation going.

Babafemi Hang Zheyou aerial

Babafemi Ade Aina (ARCH), Hang Gao (ARCH), Zheyu Zhang (ARCH)

Chaniara McKewon Ly river view

Deep Chaniara (ARCH), Nate McKewon (ARCH), Van Ly (ARCH)

Dobbins Niepceron Stoyanova Tegeler view from 2nd

Mimi Dobbins (ID), Madeleine Niepceron (ARCH), Alba Stoyanova (ARCH), Brice Tegeler (LA)

Hakala Peterson Barron library

Shawn Barron (ARCH), Jennifer Hakala (ARCH), Kyla Peterson (ID)

Hakala Peterson Barron river view

Shawn Barron (ARCH), Jennifer Hakala (ARCH), Kyla Peterson (ID)


nervi, star del cinema

April 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Monica Vitti in L’Avventura, 1962

Putting the finishing touches on a paper that will help celebrate the launch of Aesthetics and Technology in Building: The Twenty-First Century Edition later this summer.  Part of our job is to show how Nervi’s work was embedded in the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular that his buildings were part of the global fascination with the design products of the “Italian Miracle,” the surging economy that was based in part on the country’s reputation for artisanal production, translated into industrial scale.  Think Pininfarina car design or Olivetti’s typewriters.

Nervi’s work was published widely–Time and the New Yorker both ran laudatory profile pieces around the 1960 Olympics, when his arenas served as the backdrop for the worldwide broadcast of the Games.  But that was only one medium.  Nervi’s buildings also served as backdrops for scenes in some of Italy’s best-known films of the decades, too.  The Palazzo dello Sport, for instance, was practically a character in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1962), where it served as an elegant backdrop for Monica Vitti’s foray into suburban alienation (and the hunt for a lost black poodle).

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Opening scene, La Notte (1961)

Antonioni also used Nervi and Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower in Milan in a similar way–as a backdrop establishing the scene for another emotionally taut drama in La Notte.  Pirelli is in the very first shot (above), and the opening credits roll while the camera descends in its window-washing machine, reflecting the rest of Milan in its glassy curtain wall.  The contrast with the 19th century fabric around it is obvious and intentional–Antonioni’s films always dealt with the cultural and social changes brought by the ‘Miracle,’ and Nervi’s sleek buildings are easy to interpret as architectural metaphors.

You’d think that the greatest of these films–Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) would have been all over Nervi.  Despite multiple viewings and a constant effort, though, I’ve never noticed even a bit role for him.  The opening scene, with a prefabricated sculpture of Jesus being carried by helicopter over the ancient monuments and new housing blocks of Rome, would have been perfect–the Palazzo from above would have been a great target.  But no such luck.

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Riccardo Fellini in his brother’s I Vitelloni (1953)

Fellini did use Nervi as a backdrop in an earlier film, though.  The Kursaal Ostia pavilion is the backdrop for the opening scene of I Vitelloni, a 1953 film about a group of ragazzi bored with their lives in suburban Ostia, but seemingly incapable of moving on.  The long eyebrow of the pavilion is mostly just eye candy in this one, I think, but pretty good eye candy at that.  And it would have been brand new–a rare bit of urbane design in a seaside resort town known more for its beach culture than its architectural sophistication.

Vogue 1 Apr 1964

And, lest anyone think that Nervi’s celebrity was confined to film, here’s another find–a fashion spread from Vogue in April, 1964, set among the piers and curtain wall of the Palazzo dello Sport.  Nervi’s tastes ran more to conservative suits than to anything that would show up in Vogue, but there’s definitely something to the elegant proportions of his forms that made this spread work…


off to the printers

April 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

Nervi_CoverSamplesV5[2]_Page_2 copyAfter five years of collaboration, pleased to report that my co-editors and I have just sent off the final proofs for a critical edition of Nervi’s classic, Aesthetics and Technology in Building.  We’re hoping it hits the streets this summer, and yes, there will be an event (details to follow).

Nervi was invited to deliver one-third of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in Poetry at Harvard in 1961-62, along with fellow designer/engineers Felix Candela and Buckminster Fuller.  The Norton Lectures had a long tradition of inviting both traditional poets, and artists whose work evoked poetry, but that year’s invitees were particularly striking.  Could engineers be considered poets?  In an era of profound optimism about technology’s prospects, this was an inspired choice.

Nervi did not disappoint.  He delivered four lectures: one on a general philosophy and history of structural architecture (borrowed, I think, directly from Viollet-le-Duc’s writing), one on the formal possibilities of concrete poured in place, one on the more intricate potential for prefabricated concrete (especially ferrocemento), and one on the future of architecture and his suggestions for architectural education.  Taken together, the lectures were a prescription for structure and construction as an architectural grammar, and Nervi was something of a Strunk and White, laying down ironclad principles but also noting that great architecture required an aesthetic sensibility that, famously, “welcomed” the possibilities offered by those principles.  While critics generally found Nervi’s recommendations conservative (he was, at the time of publication, in his mid-70s and there were far more radical ideas bubbling up in the architectural world in 1965), his essays–especially the first one–have stood up well and have plenty to offer designers, students and engineers today.

In addition to Nervi’s texts, we’ve commissioned several essays by leading scholars–Gabriele Neri, Alberto Bologna, and Jo Abram–that frame Nervi’s words and the event of the lectures themselves within his career and in the architectural culture of the day.  A center spread of new images by German photographer Hans-Christian Schink shows Nervi’s roof patterns in a new light, and an essay by Roberto Einaudi, who served as Nervi’s translator for the lectures, offers previously unpublished details about how these came about and how they became Aesthetics and Technology in Building.  It has been a particular honor to work with Einaudi, who has also combed through the original texts–in addition to Nervi, he worked in Kahn’s office, so our discussions have been wide-ranging, to say the least.

Happy to have sent this off in the midst of a quick trip to Rome–seems only too appropriate.  The first discussions about bringing this edition out took place during a long lunch at the American Academy in 2014, so hitting the ‘send’ button in close proximity has been apt.

Looking forward to seeing Nervi’s words and images out in the world, as always.


sprinklers in high rises

April 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

There’s likely to be a lot of press about this in the next few days–a resident dies in a luxury high-rise apartment building that was constructed before sprinklers were mandatory, but whose owner lobbied the local authorities to keep a grandfather clause in the code.

Chicago failed to get rid  of its grandfathering exemption for residential high rises after the Cook County Administration Fire in 2003, and Grenfell Tower, infamously, was unsprinklered, so New York isn’t alone.  Chicago has put an alert requirement into their code, but news reports note that in the recent New York incident the only residents told to evacuate were told via texts from the building owner’s attorney (!).  

But no matter where this is happening, it’s unconscionable.  Published news reports note that the cost of retrofitting this tower with fire sprinklers would have come to about $4.00 per square foot.  Given this building’s rental costs of somewhere around $2000.00 per square foot, this seems like a ludicrously small investment–the building owner’s other notable Manhattan property was, in fact, retrofitted to ease tenant concerns in 1999.

Fire sprinklers are one of the great success stories of 20th century building technology–no multiple deaths have ever occurred in a skyscraper due to fire where the sprinkler system was working properly.  The fact that this landmark building isn’t sprinklered says a lot about its famous owner’s priorities, which should frankly trouble all of us.

nervi walk

April 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

An honor today to help lead the Friday morning Fellows’ Walk at the American Academy, along with Director John Ochsendorf and Roma Tre faculty member Annalissa Metta.  We looked at the Via Flaminio Olympic sites, and it was particularly revealing to see Nervi’s Palzetto and Stadio Flaminio in the context of the Olympic Village to the north–Prof. Metta’s research on its history and design shows how planners thought about the whole development in terms of Roman traditions and a (largely unrealized) vision for the future.  I was happy to add bits of the Nervi story to the walk–quite a thing to be able to see the Olympic structures together, thanks to the tireless work of AAR staff and the Comune di Roma personnel who spent the morning unlocking several dozen gates.  (Some of which I’ve–just maybe–jumped in previous lives).  Nothing more to add, other than some glorious eye candy, thanks to a perfect spring morning here.


fiu bridge collapse–what happened? [Updated]

March 16, 2018 § 17 Comments

collapse getty

Getty Images

One consequence of having taught structures for years using failures as examples is that whenever something big comes down my twitter feed and email erupt.  Yesterday’s news that a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed brought a bunch of links and questions, so with the usual caveats (I don’t know anything about its design or construction process, not a licensed engineer, investigations will need to be done thoroughly, etc.), here are some thoughts…


Florida International University

Only a few media outlets reported at first that the bridge was, in fact, under construction when it collapsed–the fatalities appear to have been people in cars underneath it, and workers on it.  What was there was only part of a cable-stayed bridge, and that’s the first clue.  The picture above is from an FIU press release when the design was first announced, and you can see that–when finished–the structure would be a fairly traditional cable-stayed one, with a compression mast and tension cables connected to raking diagonals below.  These have been popular since WWII, when cable-stayed designs were used to quickly replace bridges in central Europe that had been destroyed by bombing raids–Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway bridge and the Millau Viaduct in France are two archetypal cable-stayed designs.

These work by translating the load of the bridge deck into diagonal tension members.  This has a couple of consequences.  First, the ‘pull’ required in each of these cables isn’t just vertical–it’s also horizontal, meaning that the bridge deck has to be designed to withstand huge compression loads along its length.  Second, unlike suspension bridges, there’s no good way to build a cable-stayed span piecemeal.  Large sections of the deck have to be brought in at once so that each of the cables has something to pull back against.

construction fiu

Florida International University

And that is exactly what occurred over the weekend, when one whole span of the FIU bridge was brought to the site in one piece and raised into place.  Seeing this, a couple of things make sense.  First, the shape of the deck itself was probably designed for two conditions: one when the cables were all in place and working with the tower and the deck, and second, when the deck was in place before the tower and cables could be erected to hold it up.  That explains the cross section of the bridge, which includes a heavy concrete roof.  This, I suspect, was designed to work as one of two flanges in a rough I-beam shape.  The floor of the bridge deck would have worked as the other flange, and the raking diagonals that would eventually have continued the lines of the cables were supplemented by more vertical members to create a truss-like web.  In other words, the deck appears to have been designed as a giant beam that could self-support until the tower and cables were in place.

This is also a common feature of cable-stayed design–decks that can support themselves before cables are connected.  Why put in the cables at all?  The decks can be designed to just barely hold themselves up, but often with enormous deflections that would make the bridge unserviceable, and margins of safety that are less than would be required for a fully occupied bridge.


Millau is a great example of this–in this famous shot you can see the deck sagging before the cables were tightened.  They’re self-supporting, but you wouldn’t want to drive on such a bridge…yet.

There are a couple of clues in the images above that suggest possible reasons for the FIU collapse.  First, you can see that the collapse seems to have happened at joints in the web truss–in other words, the two end triangles seem to be intact, albeit rotated, while the other panels of the truss are smashed.  This is evidence for a failure in bending.  In some recent collapses, we’ve seen evidence that the cross section twisted or bent in ways that reduced the bridge’s section modulus (the 2004 I-70 collapse in Colorado is the paradigm of this).  But here it looks like the top flange fell directly on center and didn’t ‘twist’ out of the way.  Failure in bending, as SCI-TECH alums will recall, results when one of the flanges actually fails–either in tension along the bottom edge or in compression along the top edge.

If you look at the image of the deck being placed, you can see that the end of the bottom ‘flange’ has a line of small gray cylinders sticking out of it.  These are ducts for post-tensioning cables, ‘super-reinforcing’ that, once tightened, would take the huge tensile force in a bridge deck acting, temporarily, as a beam across its span.  These may have been tightened before the deck was put in place, or the bridge may have been waiting for the tower and backspan to be installed, so that cables could be run through the entire length of the bridge and tightened at once, holding all of the pieces together.  If that’s the case, then the deck would have been particularly vulnerable to failure along its bottom, tensile flange.  Another possibility is that the top flange could have failed in compression.  From the images of the collapse, there appears to have been buckling there, but it’s hard to tell whether this occurred before or after the deck impacted the ground.

Collapses like this are always shocking, but invariably contain some lessons within them.  Very often they highlight not only structural principles, but also problems of actually constructing such large spans, and this may well be an important example of how the two phases of bridge structures–under construction and in service–present very different static issues.

Update, 17 Mar 2018:  Two updates in this morning’s news:  1) There are reports that an engineer saw cracks in the span soon after it was put into place.  Depending on where these cracks were (haven’t been able to find more details), this would be consistent with greater-than-anticipated deflection in the lower (tensile) deck.  2) More interesting are reports that the deck was being ‘stress-tested’ when the collapse occurred, and that ‘cables were being tightened.’  Here, I think there’s some confusion–much of what I’ve read assumes that the ‘cables’ mentioned were the stays attached to the tower, but it’s clear that the tower hadn’t been erected yet.  More likely they were the post-tensioning cables mentioned above.  At least one report mentions a loud ‘pop’ a few minutes prior to the collapse, which would be consistent with a cable (or its anchorage) breaking while being tensioned.

option studio–dsm courthouse+

January 27, 2018 § Leave a comment


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…


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