define your terms

March 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

Just hanging out on Wall Street drinking coffee and fussing with slides for tomorrow’s New York/Chicago skyscraper debate with ace NYC preservation engineer Don Friedman.  I thought it might be useful to start off with a history of the term–and what those who have tried to define “skyscraper” thought might constitute the first one.  So, not to give too much away, but here’s what I’ve come up with.  There’s a missing fifth column, and some of you may have a pretty good idea who and what goes in there.  But no spoiler alerts–you can find out tomorrow morning at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City when Don and I unpack this and other complexities about the “first skyscraper.”  See you there…

save the thompson center?

March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_4747A brilliant weekend last week in the big city, highlighted in part by this view from the hotel of the possibly doomed State of Illinois Center, more recently the James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and opened to wildly mixed reviews in 1985.  The state is in year two of a fiscal meltdown, and Illinois’ governor has proposed selling the nearly 1 million square foot structure, which raises the possibility that a developer might buy the complex for its land and raze the building.

Which raises all kinds of interesting questions.  1985 is only 32 years old–far short of the 50-year cutoff that raises instant questions of historic preservation.  And we’re still in the midst of battling the destruction of brutalist and late-modernist works from the 1960s and 1970s.  Are we ready to talk about preserving post-modernism?

This is a particularly complicated question, because the Thompson Center is a failing building on many levels.  Most notoriously, the structure is entirely single-glazed, which would have been a borderline choice in the early 1980s when energy was still relatively cheap, but today is absolutely insane, especially for a building with a 17-story, south-facing atrium.  And those colors, “more suited to Acapulco than the Loop,” wrote Paul Gapp in 1985–in the midst of an era when what Jahn called “a return to optimism in architecture” was all the rage.  Gapp went on to twist the knife:

It is above the level of the granite that the building falls apart esthetically. Jahn intended that the high-tech glass top convey a message of the less noble, more banal activities that are an inevitable part of everyday government activities. The bright blues, whites and silvers of the curtain wall were also to project the center’s symbolic optimism.

But it doesn’t work–not by half. To the building’s chunkiness is added the seeming quality of cheapness. Thirty feet above the ground on the LaSalle, Lake and Clark Street sides, the glass-walled center begins looking not simply out of context, but tawdry and vulgar. It is an embarrassment unredeemed by the greater integrity and glitter of the sloped setbacks facing the plaza. Much of Jahn’s highly abstract symbolism will go uncomprehended by anyone, including other architects.

Paul Gapp, “Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center is: 1. Breathtaking? 2. Impudent? 3. Outrageous? 4. Idiosyncratic? 5. All The Above?”  Chicago Tribune, Feb.  17, 1985.  Arts, p. 16.

Gapp noted, though, that the “vulgar” exterior was nearly redeemed by the amazing 17-story atrium, complete with futuristic glass elevators and a floor pattern that recalled Michelangelo’s Campidoglio–a classic piece of postmodern appropriation.  Jahn’s inspiration, it was reported, was Henry Ives Cobb’s monumental, domed 1905 Post Office, which stood on the site of Mies’ current one-story structure.  Cobb’s building, unfortunately, matched grand civic dignity with a total lack of functionality, and its replacement was planned within weeks of its opening.

The Thompson Center’s obsolescence has come more slowly.  Initial reports found the interiors and furnishings cheap and flimsy.  Occupants reported that the elevators left many with vertigo.  By the building’s first summer it became apparent that the air conditioning system was no match for the 17-story greenhouse facing the morning sun, as well as the back end of the Daley Center.  Cost cutting had eliminated doors on most offices, and the atrium’s hard surfaces made acoustics throughout the structure difficult.  (Bonita Brodt, “Worker’s Eye View of the Building.”  Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1985.  1:1.).  The air conditioning system was replaced in 1987, but the simple physics of the atrium have always made it difficult and expensive to heat and cool.

Coupled with benign neglect over the budget-plagued last few years, the building hasn’t aged well.  The stone paneling at the base is chipped, colors have faded, and the retail and food court have gone steadily down market as other venues with better access to street traffic have taken higher-end merchants and restaurants away.  So, what to do when such a flawed structure is threatened with sale and demolition?

The usual adaptive reuse arguments are problematic here.  State of Illinois’ floor plates are gigantic–even with the atrium, there are spots on each floor that are more than 70 feet from windows or circulation.  And the shapes of the floors themselves may make any of the traditional conversions–condominiums or a hotel–virtually impossible.  So it’s hard to imagine anything other than offices moving in, meaning either a huge corporation that can best use acres of open floor space, or lots of renovation work to create lettable parcels inside and fix the acoustic problems that still persist.  Even if those issues get solved, there’s the single-glazed skin itself and the cost of heating and cooling the building.  Maybe the best hope for the building and for the city would be a complete re-skinning with materials that made sense with the city’s context (one tenet of post-modernism that Jahn seems to have missed entirely), and that worked with today’s energy concerns.  The sloped top of the atrium, for instance, would benefit from some active solar panels, except of course that they’d be in the Daley Center’s shadow much of the morning.

So, die-hard preservation fan that I am, this is a really tough one to get behind.  It’s easier to imagine buildings that extended the pedestrian scale of Lake Street, or the civic monumentality of the Daley Center, replacing Jahn’s infamous donut of a suburban Phoenix office park.  The Thompson Center was ill-conceived and dysfunctional when it opened, and like its inspiration, Cobb’s Post Office, its urbane intentions shouldn’t be enough to save it on their own.  Do the studies, figure out what might be able to re-inhabit the building’s 40,000 square foot floor plates, but given its youth and its remarkably early obsolescence, there may be other battles on which we should be focusing our preservation energies…


February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment



Precedent Analysis: Villa Farnesina, Rome.  Wade Vollink

This semester I’m chipping in to help teach our first year spring grad studio with ISU and Foster alumnus Andrew Gleeson.  Andrew’s research (and design) interests have to do with order and ambiguity in 20th century modernism, so it’s been a chance to dive into the “ordering systems” and “use of precedents” NAAB criteria.


We’ve decided on a bread-and-butter approach, with an occasional slice of meaty prosciutto thrown in.  The theme that Andrew suggested to connect the various charrette projects students are doing is “Grid/Grain,” asking them to investigate how the most tyrannical of ordering systems can actually be meaningful and even expressive.  Their assignments have gone from taking a simple 20×20 grid and manipulating it to show various conditions—tension, rhythm, symmetry, disorder, etc.—up to the final assignment (yet to come), which will involve a small urban project in Des Moines.  In between, they get a series of small residential projects, low-context to get them thinking inwardly about how architecture’s own referents are important ways of transmitting meaning and connecting to experience.

In one project, they were given a shipping container and told to design a studio apartment to fit inside.  A pretty typical exercise these days, with the twist that we asked them to adhere, where possible, to a 2’ x 2’ grid.  That matches the overall dimension of the shipping container, but it doesn’t match the interior dimensions, which offers a take on Alberti’s distinction between the lineaments of design—the pure, single lines of the diagram—and the mass of design, which are those lines represented in materials with actual thickness.  There’s an inherent frustration in laying out a perfect grid and realizing that the material of the container itself basically mucks things up, and a good question then about whether you can establish a universal grid, or whether you’re better off thinking in terms of a module, and finding order where you can in a scheme where every inch has to count.


Nine-Square House.  Raymond Nurse

Other projects have been more straightforward; a nine-square grid house, which is an homage to the sort of thing we did as undergrads in the 1980s, for instance, and a pair of precedent studies with a gatehouse project at the end, asking them to distill one of their precedents into a smaller, condensed version that relates to the design principles of the original.  But we’ve had fun with these, as well—the precedent studies asked them to simultaneously study a classical and a modern villa, looking for grids both latent and manifest in both, and seeing if they could tease out a dialogue between the two.  Sometimes this was pretty easy—Palladio and Venturi, for example, speak to one another pretty fluently.  Other times the luck of the draw produced something more difficult or intriguing—what Raphael and Peter Eisenman have to say to one another isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s also not unimaginable.  The gatehouse project asks them to pick one of the two, but to continue the dialogue, so that Richard Neutra might have a gatehouse designed with just a bit of Inigo Jones in it.


Precedent Study: Robert Venturi, Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, PA.  Jen Hakala

Fun stuff, but with a serious agenda.  We emphasize experiential qualities, conceptual thinking, and expression a lot in beginning design, and in the last generation or so this has come at the expense of those ordering systems and diligent precedent studies that NAAB still requires.  Taking these seriously, instead of just throwing a copy of Frank Ching’s Form, Space, and Order on the desk, seems ripe for revival.  Particularly since the tools we use today are so resistant to engaging with design minds—Ching compiled his book in an era when we still thought through every mark on the page and made our hands trace those shapes.  Today, shapes are cheap, mental and physical labor-wise.

Precedent Wade Vollink_Page_1.jpg

Precedent Study: Peter Eisenman, House IV.  Wade Vollink

So we’ve proposed trying to instill some digital discipline as well.  Assignments have to be finalized in Illustrator, and formatted on 20 x 30 sheets.  This avoids the sloppy pinup technique of just slapping up whatever AutoCad or, god help us, SketchUp coughs up out of the printer.  Each assignment demands a certain number of line weights and hatches, along with animation and thoughtfully placed text and grid lines.  We’re sticking with black and white, too, and making rendering illegal.  They’ll get plenty of practice with that in subsequent semesters.


20 x 20 Grid Exercise: Tension.  Jen Hakala

A work in progress, but thus far a vaguely promising effort to develop the digital equivalent of eye-hand coordination while introducing some touchstones of composition and design, and talking about the rhetoric of architecture; how you form an argument, how you make that argument rigorous and evident, and how your drawings play a role in how convincing that argument is.

chicago/new york debate march 10 at the skyscraper museum

February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

Very pleased to reprise a long-running debate with New York preservation engineer, George Post partisan, and regular ArchitectureFarm reader Don Friedman next month at Manhattan’s Skyscraper Museum.  The intent, as always, is to throw some light on the rapid pace of innovation in the 19th century, and to show how technology was manifested in subtly different ways in the two cities.  The ‘debate’ will take place at the Museum, 39 Battery Place on Friday morning, March 10 from 10:00-12:00.  $10.00 for non-members, but really you should join the Museum and get in for free…

I’ll also be speaking at the Museum Wednesday, March 8, from 6:30-8:00 pm about the Chicago book.  Free, but reservations required, RSVP at

More information here, and at the Skyscraper Museum’s main website.  Thanks to Carol Willis for the invitations, looking forward to making Chicago’s case out east…Final Second

when your tool is a hammer…

January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment


…every problem becomes a nail.

Bill McKibben’s excellent New York Times op-ed yesterday makes several points about the pipeline battles that have galvanized upper midwesterners and other environmentally- and culturally-minded citizens over the last couple of years.  This hits close to home–the Dakota Access pipeline is scheduled to slice right across architecturefarm’s home county–but to me the most relevant paragraphs describes the outdated mindset behind these projects:

On questions of energy economics, Mr. Trump is stuck somewhere in the Reagan era, when energy independence at any cost was the watchword. He’s lost the plot of modern technological development. It’s sun and wind that are going to be our dominant sources of power as their prices continue to plummet. In fact, his approach may be even more antique: Fixating on Canada’s tar sands — where the economics of extracting low-quality crude have driven one big company after another out of that oil patch — is roughly equivalent, in its energy logic, to planning a sperm whale expedition.

There are many reasons why these projects have troubled activists, but this, to me, is the most symptomatic and worrying.  I imagine future archaeologists looking at these projects–which, after all, aren’t even about supplying energy to North America, they’re about getting Canadian oil to shipping in the Gulf of Mexico so that it can be exported–and seeing them as one of two things.  Either they portend the last gasps of a society so locked into its obsession with fossil fuels that they literally poisoned their groundwater and spent billions of dollars to suck the stuff out of tar sands in one of the most inhospitable and fragile ecosystems in the world.  Or they’ll be seen as indicators of oil’s end game; in hindsight, I’d imagine these will be barometers of just how far we’ve passed peak oil, and how much more economic sense sources like solar, wind, and even nuclear are going to make in the next century or two.  (Yes, it kills me to include nuclear.  But in the interests of keeping open minds, let’s acknowledge that the damage it’s caused in the last sixty years pales in comparison to that caused by fossil fuels).

The most depressing thing about these pipeline projects is how they so totally ignore the design and production advances that have–for the first time–made solar and wind economically competitive.  You don’t have to be a card-carrying progressive to feel disappointed that, just as the world’s design ingenuity seems to be paying off, and renewable energy seems not only feasible, but logical, these whaling expeditions are garnering so much attention, and so much support.

panama studio

January 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Winter break hasn’t been all detective work in classic postwar skyscrapers and picking on  morally challenged partners at international design firms.  Iowa State’s annual CSI Prize Jury closed out a great studio semester by awarding Catie Mcclurg and Connor Yocum first place in this year’s competition.  They were in the interdisciplinary Panama Hospitality Studio that I taught with Interior Design Chair Lee Cagley, and deserved the recognition.  Our project, for an ecologically-oriented hotel along the entry to the Canal on the Amador Peninsula, was intentionally tough–how do you create a comfortable, international quality hotel that engages a rainforest reclamation project, is low embodied and life cycle energy, and makes a statement about urbanism in one of the fastest growing cities in the hemisphere?  Catie and Connor took all aspects of the challenge on board, starting with a section based on the varied flora and fauna in the rainforest canopy.  This idea came from our tours of Gamboa, the forest just outside the city, where towers give visitors access to the incredibly diversity that changes every few vertical feet.  This project oriented rooms and public areas according to the heights of various trees, including a restaurant and bar at treetop level, and upper stories that took advantage of views back to the main bulk of the city, to the north.

(Anastasia Sysoeva and Weicheng Chan)

Collaborative teams are one of the hallmarks of our approach to the NAAB Integrated Design requirement, and I jumped at the chance to expand on this by having Lee’s students join us.  Almost every team in our studio combined architecture and interior design students, and the results were impressive–we’re used to seeing architectural schemes that take structure, circulation, environmental response, and cladding seriously, but these dovetailed with space designs that focused on guests’ experiences and the fine-grained functionality of a complex program.  Any worries we might have had about adding too much range to the teams’ plates were pretty well dashed in the final review, where we saw projects that fluently pulled together all of these requirements.  Glad that the CSI Jury agreed…congrats to C+C, and to all of our students, for a great semester.  I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it again next Fall.  This time, I’ll know my way around the freeways well enough that we maybe won’t miss an exit and end up on the wrong continent…

(Britt Schenck, Melissa Brooks, Allie Shindoll)


on architectural bullsh*t

December 28, 2016 § 3 Comments

Late to this fray, but the Patrik Schumacher debacle from last month can’t pass without comment…especially given that we’ve tangled before.

Schumacher, either still a partner or an ex-partner with Zaha Hadid Architects, depending on which gossip mill you believe, used the podium at last month’s World Architecture Forum in Berlin to declaim eight ‘points’ that would, he argued, revitalize London and help alleviate the city’s affordable housing crisis.  His plan, which dezeen helpfully published in full, amounted to scrapping public housing, eliminating planning regulations, and privatizing public spaces in the city.  These suggestions, to put it mildly, caused a bit of a stir.

Surely, the Forum knew exactly what it was getting.  Schumacher has been throwing these sorts of ideas around for several years, pointing out that if the poor and middle classes were gentrified out of cities, then the urban housing crisis would be solved.  This sort of jaw-dropping tautology is a key tenet of the fringe economic theory known as Anarcho-Capitalism, a free-market fundamentalism that, among other things, argues for a privatized justice system, so that the market can then sort out which forms of justice are most efficient.  In celebrating that sort of optimization it doesn’t worry about what happens to those who, for instance, can’t afford premium justice plans, or a subscription to private police or fire departments—one way or another the market will ‘take care’ of them.  It’s the sort of disingenuous philosophy that makes even hard-right critics blush—“Marxism of the Right,” as one journal put it.  When a movement’s devotees point to Somalia in the 1990s as a model you should, maybe, be skeptical, but Schumacher has become one of Anarcho-Capitalism’s leading voices, speaking earlier this month at a forum in London devoted to socially Darwinian ideas that resonate with his urban theory—calls to deregulate genetic engineering of humans and the sale of organs, and to rely on IQ testing for social and economic benefits among them.

So, how does this trans-Randian world view square with his architecture?  In his writings, he’s called for a paradoxical—and anything but anarchic—“hegemonic parametricism” that would do away with the “garbage spill” of existing cities’ architectural, urban, and (one assumes) social diversity by imposing a parametrically-controlled optimization of urban form.  The market, “determined by architecture’s private clients within a market process that allocates land resources to the most valued uses,” would clean up “garbage spill” cities, rationalizing uses and massing into a “legible urban order and identity;” great, swooping curves and smoothly-surfaced structures that would produce a “variegated, information-rich urban order.”  This new urban order would reduce the neural strain that diverse cities impose on their residents, who would now be able to apply the cognitive energy thus saved to be more efficient and productive.  It’s a strange combination of social and economic Darwinism with the sort of stylistic authoritarianism that Anarcho-Capitalists might revolt against—his images of antiseptic, gleaming white, ‘gradient swarm’ urban formations suggest nothing less than sets from an ill-conceived remake of Logan’s Run.

Schumacher’s most telling quote, however, comes not from his voluminous writing, but rather from an interview done in the wake of his Forum talk with Phineas Harper, Deputy Director of London’s Architecture Foundation.  Stung by the backlash his comments brought, he seemed to not exactly backtrack, but to cloak his long-held beliefs in what has become a standard social media apologia:  “I’m not certain about what I’m saying…but I think these arguments are worth floating.”  Americans will recognize this as a strategy borrowed from the Trump campaign—“I’m not sure, but some are saying…” This formulation succeeded in disseminating damaging, wildly untrue rumors while keeping its speaker at an apparent critical distance, damaging opponents while elevating Trump above the fray.  The campaign used it to the point of self-parody, but with devastating effect on an electorate more gullible than anyone thought possible.  Schumacher has used it, somewhat less successfully, to propagate a caustic socio-economic theory in which he clearly believes while presenting himself as intellectually disciplined, disinterested, and open to all possible solutions.  (Hint: he hasn’t written extensively on any others).

“I’m not certain, but these arguments are worth floating” is, in the sense that Harry Frankfurt defined the term, pure bullshit.  Frankfurt’s 1986 essay on the topic saw a surge in popularity when it was released as a short book in 2005.  “On Bullshit” bears continued reading in an age where, as he says in his opening, a “salient feature of our culture” is that “there is so much” of it.  Frankfurt distinguished “bullshit” from outright lying, or making statements that are intentionally false.  Bullshit, for Frankfurt, requires instead a total disregard for factuality.  Whereas lying requires “falsity,” bullshit requires “fakery.”  It’s deployed not to deceive someone about a fact, but rather to deceive someone about the speaker; either that speaker’s qualifications, intentions, or “enterprise.”  Bullshit is, in other words, self-serving, without even the attention paid to truth by liars.  The bullshitter seeks to convince us not of their “correctness,” but rather of their “sincerity.”    Schumacher’s writing parses in these terms, and Frankfurt’s further discussion of bullshit as something “produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner…never finely crafted” applies to much else that passes for urban and architectural theory—heavy with undefined but arcane buzzwords, run-on sentences, and errors evidencing a complete lack of care or editing, keen to give the appearance of evidentiary strength and rhetorical depth on the part of the author, while unbothered by the disciplined research and craft needed to actually achieve these.

Frankfurt’s comments on craft as an antidote to bullshit are, I think, the crux of his argument for architects.  Like any good philosopher, he pulls in an architectural metaphor (via Longfellow and Wittgenstein) to make his point:

“In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the Gods are everywhere.”

For Frankfurt, the values associated with craft in art’s ‘elder days’—self-discipline, thoughtfulness, care—aren’t necessarily antithetical to bullshit.  There is, after all, the “finely wrought” and sophisticated bullshit of advertising, public relations, and politics (not to mention social media—remember that Frankfurt is here writing in 1986).  It is, instead, the laxity that accompanies bullshit, the sense of a “slovenly craftsman” who is “trying to get away with something,” that rings true when we think about the bulk of work produced in what Schumacher calls the “parametric style.”  For as much as this could be defined by its compelling, digitally-generated forms, such a style could also be identified by the lack of care dedicated to its execution, (engineers and contractors are usually the ones to pick up the slack of making the ‘parametric style’ stand and keep out the rain).  The bluffing that comes with staged and composed digital renderings—finely wrought, to be sure—will do the job of convincing the public that the buildings in question are as impressively built as they are conceived.  But ‘calling bullshit’ on them by showing up and experiencing them firsthand calls that bluff in extraordinary fashion.  In this sense, Calatrava’s designs might be the paradigm of architectural bullshit, in that their histrionic structural forms have nothing to do with how buildings are stand up—I’ve flogged this horse enough elsewhere.  What links Calatrava and Schumacher—and, for that matter, OMA, BIG, and any number of other digitally-savvy firms producing visually captivating and experientially disappointing work is the bluff of architectural sincerity.

This is a state of affairs in which images can be staged, enhanced, or even digitally altered (i.e., to remove inconvenient mechanical plant in one notorious recent example).  Ideas about urban planning can be floated purely for their page views without regard for their political and social consequences.  Revolutionary constructivist aesthetics can be deployed for a (decidedly reactionary) spa and health club for plutrocrats.   When Frankfurt wrote about “so much bullshit” being a “salient feature of our culture” in 1986 he was dealing with amateurs.  Thirty years has increased the torrent and the pace of it exponentially, and architecture has done more its part.  Does Schumacher think that creating millions of economic refugees and clearing the world’s urban centers of their messy diversity is a viable way of revitalizing (already vital) cities?  That ‘hegemonic parametricism’ is the messianic optimization tool that will best serve his fellow genetically engineered, IQ-tested, capitalist ultra-elite?  Who knows, and who cares?  Schumacher isn’t a fascist, as some have argued.  He’s a textbook bullshit artist.  And, I’d argue that, as with any of Frankfurt’s ‘bullshit artists,’ we ought to ignore the content of his statements and focus instead on his delivery.  “Since,” Frankfurt concludes, “it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts,” the bullshitter “must therefore try instead to be true to himself,” i.e., immune to the veracity or consequences of whatever he says, as long as it serves his interests.  Anarcho-capitalism?  More like the first marketing salvo in the 2021 Trump Presidential Library competition.

That argument is “worth floating,” anyway.