flyover manifesto I–iowa and its architecture

June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Keynote Address to Building Technology Educators’ Society Annual Meeting,

Des Moines, IA, June 2017


iowa map

Iowa, 1842.  [Library of Congress]

There is evidence of human settlement in Iowa going back more than 13,000 years.  Corn has been a staple of agriculture here for the last millennium.  This area, where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers meet, was inhabited by Pawnee and Ioway people when French explorers led by Marquette and Joliet explored the Mississippi River in 1673.  Lead on that river’s banks, and furs from forests farther inland meant that European settlement here was about trading natural resources from its earliest days.  Briefly under Spanish control, Iowa was ceded back to France under Napoleon in 1800, and then sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  The state was mapped and plotted in 1805 and its flat geography has made it a paradigmatic example of the “Jeffersonian Grid’s” reach and relentlessness.  The state was opened to European-Americans in June, 1833. Those bound for California sought adventure and fortune, but Iowa’s settlers were the pragmatists who crossed the Mississippi, found tillable soil, abundant timber, and a more or less tolerable climate and sought nothing further.  If Utah’s foundation motto is “This is the Place,” and California’s is “Eureka,” Iowa’s might well be “This Will Do.”  (In fact, it’s “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” which is close).

grant wood

Grant Wood, Breaking the Prairie Sod.
Parks Library, Iowa State University.  1935-37. [Iowa State University Libraries].

Those founding pragmatists were Congregationalists and Puritans, and they brought with them a sensibility that saw good works not as a means of salvation, but rather as the fruits of it.  This spiritual value placed on work translated well in an environment that demanded constant effort and attention; with floods, tornadoes, and blizzards, Iowa has three deadly seasons that behoove an awareness of the horizon and preparation for the worst.  While Iowa’s soil is some of the world’s most fertile, the state’s vast size and sparse population meant that these settlers had to be self-reliant and fluent in carpentry, blacksmithing, animal husbandry, and other crafts.  Dwellings were plain but well-constructed, compact to keep heat in the house during winter, but able to open up to the warm summers and to brief but appreciated autumns and springs.  For Iowa’s first decades as a Territory and then, in 1846, as a state, there was little besides agriculture to drive the economy.  Subsistence farming soon gave way to commercial enterprise, though, due to progressive, scientifically-based county and state fairs that spread knowledge to the state’s far-flung population.  Education was promoted as the best route to improve agricultural practices and quality of life—Iowa was the first state to take advantage of the 1862 Morrill Act, which used a gift of federal land to expand “Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm” into what is now Iowa State University.  Iowans were also progressive regarding social issues.  The Territory’s first supreme court case, in 1839, established freedom for anyone who set foot in Iowa.  John Brown’s abolitionist March in 1859 received support across the state, and an Underground Railroad route through Iowa freed hundreds of enslaved Missourians.  Iowa sent more recruits per capita to the Union army than any other state, leading Ulysses S Grant referred to the state in 1864 as “the bright Radical star.”  Iowa’s emancipatory stance blended Lincoln-era Republican values—thrift, discipline, and a generosity and tolerance toward others—with those of the Progressive movement, which stressed modernization, equality, and a growing belief in science-based solutions to socio-economic problems.  While the state’s politics have shifted to the right, they are still defined by this tension between conservatism and progressivism, a tension moderated by our first-in-the-nation caucuses, where we cast our votes in public after open debate with our neighbors.

Iowa’s greatest boom came with the railroads, which provided the means to transport the state’s bounty to commodities markets in Chicago; our population doubled during the rail decades of the 1860s and 1870s, to over a million. This growth slowed in the early 20th century, and the Depression and the 1980s farm crisis both caused extensive damage to the agricultural economy here.  Today, agriculture accounts for just a quarter of the state’s economic output, trailing manufacturing, but it comprises over 90% of the state’s land area.  Agriculture is celebrated annually at our iconic State Fair, which boasts an attendance every year of roughly a million, a full one-third of all Iowans.  But the state has seen constant demographic shifts in the last decades that have eroded its farming population while building strong urban centers.  Rural counties in the south and west have seen precipitous drops in population as corporate agriculture has replaced family farms, but Des Moines has seen robust growth—indicative of Iowa’s changing economics, but also of a pragmatic city government here and partnerships between public and private entities that have transcended politics and built a genuine hub for the state.

dsm skyline

Des Moines Skyline
Des Moines Register, Nov. 25, 2015.

An aggressive masterplan begun in the 1990s rejuvenated Des Moines’ downtown, but where other cities “renewed” by displacing poorer residents, Des Moines displaced blocks of auto dealerships and light industry, creating an urban axis that has become the symbol of the city’s changing culture.  Along with healthy markets in insurance, finance, and agricultural industry, Des Moines has nurtured a community of designers and entrepreneurs who have in turn built an entertainment and arts culture that is homegrown and remarkable in its depth and quality.  The Des Moines Social Club, which opened in 2014 in a disused fire station on downtown’s southern edge, has been just one catalyst for this resurgence.  80/35, an annual music festival that takes over Western Gateway park for one weekend each summer, is another—after appearing in 2013, David Byrne returned to Des Moines often enough to become an honorary resident, and he’s blogged regularly about our bike paths, the Social Club, and how, in his words, Des Moines is a “hugely encouraging” example for arts and music communities nationwide.  Downtown’s population has gone from under 1000 twenty years ago to over 15,000, and the city, which has always made top ten lists for young families and retirees, now regularly sees itself being named one of the best cities for starting a career, for job opportunities per capita, for foodies, for LGBT-friendliness, for farmer’s markets, for general quality of life, and even for urban millennials:  “Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible,” advised The National Journal three years ago. “Move to Des Moines.”[i]


HABS Barnhard Farm


Iowa’s founding citizens built generations of serviceable but unpretentious structures during the state’s first decades.  “Putting on airs” has always seemed decadent and coastal, and farming does not often produce the capital required to build ornate palaces.  But among Iowa’s early carpenter’s gothic houses, commercial storefronts, barns, and monuments, the State Capitol, built in 1871-1874 to designs by Chicago architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, was a work of gilded excess that stamped Des Moines and Iowa with a sumptuous statement of political and cultural ambition; Piquenard asserted that the design was influenced by then-new wings for Paris’ Louvre Palace.


State Capitol, Des Moines, IA.  
John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, 1871-1874. [Library of Congress]

The Capitol was the first of many fine Beaux-Arts buildings throughout the state; the firm of Proudfoot and Bird designed high schools, government buildings, banks, and University buildings that imprinted Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, and other towns throughout Iowa with monuments that marked the importance of civic engagement and education.  These structures were erected alongside Iowa’s vernacular buildings, which relied on local materials, especially timber and a characteristic yellow sandstone, to produce more modest structures invested with care, attention to detail, efficient planning, and budgeted ornament.  While the Arts and Crafts “style” was endemic to California and Boston, actual craftsman houses were native to Iowa and to other states throughout the Midwest.  “American Four-” and “Six-square” homes still make up much of our historic town centers.


Woodbury County Courthouse, Des Moines, IA.  
Purcell and Elmslie, 1916-18. [HABS/HAER]

These two traditions, of Beaux-Arts monuments and restrained craftsman houses, were reflected in our 20th century architecture, which balanced tradition with progressive ideals.  In a region rooted in building crafts but with grand civic aspirations that inspired Proudfoot and Bird’s work, it is not surprising that the President of small merchant bank in Grinnell would have thought to call on Louis Sullivan, for instance, in 1914, resulting in a church-like building there that would prove to be one of Sullivan’s final and most detailed works.  Or that a developer in Mason City, a small though well-off town in northern Iowa, would hire Walter Burley Griffin to design houses for plots on a wooded site at the town’s edge, creating the largest collection of Prairie School houses in the country.  Iowa never embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s bombast and heroics—he built just a handful of buildings here.  But houses influenced by Wright can be found throughout the state, and our greatest Prairie School monument, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, designed by Purcell and Elmslie and completed in 1918 is a tribute to his style.


Des Moines Art Center
Eliel and Eero Saarinen (1949), I. M. Pei (1968), Richard Meier (1985). [DMAC]

The postwar era redefined Iowa’s approach to architectural design, and one complex in particular put Des Moines on the map and ushered in several decades of true Prairie modernism.  In 1946 the city was left substantial funds by local banker J.D. Edmundson for a new arts complex placed well outside the then-industrial downtown.  The city selected Greenwood Park, and hired Eliel Saarinen as the architect for what would become the Des Moines Art Center.  This building was not called a “Museum,” nor did Saarinen attempt to design a monument.  The Art Center instead adopted a rambling, S-shaped plan, aligned with the park’s terrain and enveloping an axial rose garden; Saarinen’s plan gestured toward the city and to Grand Avenue not with grand steps, but rather with a one-story “education wing” containing public classrooms and studios.  “Here is a building to be made use of,” the Museum’s opening announcement stated, while others noted that it was far from the “Sunday afternoon show place” that had characterized American museum design.[ii]  Clad in regional limestone that matched the city’s commercial and residential architecture, the Art Center was praised as “the finest designed small museum in the country” by Andrew Ritchie, director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.  It set a high bar for the architectural and cultural communities in Des Moines over the next decades.[iii]


Oreon Scott Chapel, Drake University
Eero Saarinen, 1955.  [substance architecture]

The Art Center itself saw a bold expansion by I. M. Pei in 1968 (and a less successful one by Richard Meier in 1984), creating an enclosed courtyard for the Carl Milles sculpture, “Pegasus and Bellerophon,” and framing the rose garden’s axis with a sculptural ‘vessel’ that remains one of Pei’s most compelling and underrated works.  Eliel and Eero Saarinen built a long, productive relationship with Drake University, designing two classroom buildings, a dormitory complex, and a dining hall in the 1940s; after Eliel’s death in 1950 Eero continued to work at Drake, designing the Theology School in 1952.  This project included the Oreon Scott Chapel, an intimate cylindrical sanctuary for ecumenical services that was contemporary with Saarinen’s larger chapel design for MIT.  Scott Chapel is much smaller, and it eschews the Cambridge project’s liturgical axis for a straightforward central plan focused on a toplit travertine altar—a stunning, resonant space that is enriched by a complex, seven-sided timber structure supporting its iconic oculus above.


Federal Home Loan and Savings
Mies van der Rohe,1962; 
renovation, Dirk Lohan/BNIM/Harboe Architects, 2018. [Library of Congress]

Other national figures working in Iowa included Mies van der Rohe, whose Home Federal Savings and Loan Building downtown is a distillation of his skyscraper principles into a humanely scaled, three-story structure that offers generous pedestrian space along with its uncompromising tectonics.  Mies’ office also designed Meredith Hall, a classroom building that emphasized Drake’s commitment to architecture.  Harry Weese contributed dormitories and classroom buildings to the campus in the 1960s and 1970s.  Gordon Bunshaft’s iconic American Republic Insurance Building exemplified SOM’s reputation for honed structural expression when it was completed in 1965—a six story, post-tensioned concrete “file cabinet” filled with comfortable office space and an impressive corporate art collection.  American Republic is the only structure to have won an AIA honor award twice—when it opened in 1967, and last year, for BNIM’s sensitive renovation.  Iowa City has built campus buildings by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Cesar Pelli.

kum n go

Kum’N’Go Headquarters
Renzo Piano Building Workshop/OPN Architects, 2018. [RPBW]

More recently, Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park, which we’re now in, was masterplanned by Agrest and Gandelsonas and has become an outdoor museum for sculpture and architecture; it includes the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and David Chipperfield’s Public Library, and it will soon see Renzo Piano’s new corporate headquarters for the iconic Iowa convenience store chain Kum’n’Go.


C.Y. Stephens Auditorium, Iowa State University
Ray Crites/Brooks, Borg, & Skiles, 1968. [Iowa State Center]

These nationally-recognized monuments have been paralleled by a local design culture that has developed a consistent regional approach as well as strong individual voices.  Two leading figures in our architectural history who deserve more attention in the 20th century canon—Ray Crites and Charles Herbert—were inspired by global movements to produce locally inflected interpretations of Case Study modernism and heroic Brutalism that grace our landscapes, cities, and college campuses.  Crites expanded on his modest residential practice to design C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State in the late 1960s, a building that spoke to the University’s desire to grow beyond its agricultural origins into a cultural center for the state.  The result, a 3,000 seat venue with near-perfect, hand-calculated acoustics and a diagrammatic plan and section expressed in an iconic flying roof, was named Iowa’s “Building of the Century” in 2004, beating out Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and others to honor a structure unknown outside the state.  Herbert’s work includes the monumental Des Moines Civic Center, a piece of lush concrete minimalism that forms the backdrop to Nollen Plaza’s urban stage.  In the 1990s Herbert’s firm was rebranded as HLKB, which designed the Meredith Corporation Headquarters in 2000—a literal gateway to downtown from the west—and the Pappajohn Center that we’re in now.  HLKB won AIA Firm of the Year in 2001, and its alumni have gone on to form substance, which for the last ten years has led Des Moines’ architectural resurgence.  Substance’s café and pump station, at the intersection of the Court Avenue district and the Des Moines River, have won awards for massaging two very different programs into an eastern downtown gateway, welcoming automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic while integrating heavy-duty flood control pumps and urban art by Jun Kaneko.  The hub connects to the Principal Riverwalk, a 1.2-mile promenade completed in 2013 that links to Iowa’s 2,000 miles of hiking and cycling trails.  Other firms have also produced thoughtful, integrative work here.  BNIM, whose Des Moines office is run by tomorrow’s keynote speaker Rod Kruse, has produced elegant and functional buildings for the state’s Utilities Board and Iowa State, among others, while winning AIA Firm of the Year in 2011.  Iowa City-based Neuman Monson has transformed that city’s downtown with new residential and commercial towers that have added crisp glass prisms to what can now be called Iowa City’s skyline.

pump station

Principal Riverwalk Pavilion and Pump Station,
substance architecture, 2013 [substance]

These projects all combine civic aspirations with thoughtful, nuanced solutions and a concern for building craft.  They focus on experiential depth rather than attention-grabbing visuals, and they exemplify this region’s traditions of modest, diligent, but nevertheless inspired and engaging design.  There’s a willingness throughout to let function, construction, materials, and space speak for themselves—plainly but elegantly—and to see what can be coaxed from these basic design elements.  That the results are often engaging, and that Iowa has developed a genuine appreciation for good architecture and urban design, suggests that there is an underlying philosophy here that is worth examining.


[i] The Atlantic, Oct. 16, 2014.  Online at:

[ii] Print ad, The Des Moines Register, June 1, 1948, and Print Ad, Des Moines Register, May 30, 1948, n.p. 6. “. . . the word museum is avoided . . .” “Art Center,” Architectural Forum, July 1949, 66-

[iii] “Praises Design at Art Center.” Undated, unsourced clipping. Scrapbook in box marked “1940-1950,” Archives of the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.



flyover manifesto II–pragmatism, givenness, and beauty

June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

[Continued from Part I]

iowa vernacular

Iowa’s vernacular architecture [HABS/HAER]

Lessons From Iowa—The Manifesto

What underlies this approach to design?  And what can we, as educators, building scientists, designers, and builders learn from this tradition?  To conclude, I want to talk about three ideas that I think describe Iowa’s relationship to our place, our way of building, and our outlook.  These are unfashionable ideas today—‘flyover’ philosophy to be sure—but I want to argue that, taken together, they offer a productive stance from which we might consider the relationships between thought and action, the ideals of usefulness and engagement that I think define this Society’s mission, and the rifts and controversies in our discipline that reflect dire issues in the rest of the world.  Pragmatism defines our baseline approach of focusing on the ‘real’ and the tangible.  Givenness suggests that we appreciate those quotidian aspects in a new light.  And, finally, Beauty is a realm that we have ceded to others too easily; it may be, instead, the term that describes what building scientists, engineers, crafters, and technologists do best—bringing hard facts together with our human capacity for curiosity, fascination and reverence.


Pragmatism has made a modest comeback in philosophy and design over the last generation, but it’s a founding tenet of Midwestern culture—that the meaning of a thing or proposition lies in its real world consequences, or what William James mischievously called its “cash value.”  Iowans share an allergy toward metaphysics, agreeing with the pragmatists’ maxim that any question divorced from our relationship to the world is meaningless.  Real questions, theories, or strategies are “instruments” for investigating and leveraging our relationship with that world, and common sense in the term’s philosophical meaning—that is, the shared, tacit agreement on what is more or less ‘real’ is reliable enough as a foundation for our work and relationships.  Hewing close to the world of things and consequences must have been a natural instinct for settlers, given the constraints and thin margins of farming here.  That disciplined familiarity and negotiation with the physical world is still the stated mission of the Midwest’s agricultural fairs and its land grant universities—Iowa State’s motto, “Science with Practice,” suggests both its roots in real-world farming and its continuing emphasis on application.

As designers, Pragmatism means acknowledging needs and constraints, and searching for the most effective purchase that our resources can have on our desire to re-shape our world.  This work to understand and to relate to the world has to involve a collective effort.  Our relationships and conversations with one another are critical to comprehension, to defining for ourselves what is true-enough, and to finding effective, ethical, and beneficial strategies for interacting with or altering our world.  Architecture, in this sense, must be a discipline of constant experimentation, collaboration, and tentative footholds of knowledge in an evolving realm of values, desires, and resources.  In our experimental cycles of making changes to our environment, assessing their results, and imagining ways to improve our efforts, we learn both the world and our abilities, and we develop knowledge and technology that is reliable and effective.  Neither theory nor praxis alone are enough—rather, they have to be integrated into a constant cycle of making and observing, and tempered with both skepticism and ingenuity, traits that would have served Iowa’s settlers well.

Put simply, Iowans have a well-deserved and teachable skill for detecting and calling bullshit.  I don’t use this word lightly, but rather in the sense that Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt used it in his thin but important 2005 book in which he defined the term not as the conscious attempt to deceive about facts, but rather as the attempt to deceive about the speaker—to deceive not about ‘correctness’ but about ‘sincerity.’  It is, surely, unnecessary to point out this idea’s resonance today.  Instead, I want to argue that this group, interested as we are in the establishment of useful knowledge, might regard our mission as the design world’s skeptical, innovative Iowa farmers, alert to self-serving bouts of those, in Frankfurt’s terms, “trying to get away with something,” or to convince of their sincerity instead of the reliability of what they’ve produced.[i]  As building technologists and scientists our intellectual capital is the fact, or piece of knowledge that is testable, falsifiable, and that best describes how an element or quality of the physical world works, or how we can relate ourselves or our constructions to it.  We should be champions of this knowledge and its importance, and we should be vocal skeptics of ‘alternative facts’ and specious theorizing, which both come from the same preference for easy self-interest over the difficult task of negotiating our way in the world.  This is vital as issues like renewable energy, climate change, and carbon emissions are held hostage to self-serving political and financial agendas, and presented with this concern for sincerity over facticity.


Set against this objective, ‘cash-value’ emphasis, givenness is a term used by the Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson to suggest how tentative our footholds on this knowledge can be, and to describe the gratitude we should feel for even this glancing level of consciousness and understanding.  Robinson is one of our state’s great literary heroes, a novelist of international stature, an essayist on the difficulties facing democracy in the 21st century, and a theologian of uncompromising insightHer dialogues with President Obama in the New York Review of Books last year focused on the fragility of our civic discourse and the frustrations of unfulfilled national promise, but they also covered issues of religion and ethics, and they showed a president enthralled by a conversation with one of his favorite authors.

For Robinson, the gift of both a universe and a conscious ability to understand it should inspire more humility and reflection than it does.  Substituting ‘tentative apprehension,’ for true certainty, and the notion that the “inexhaustible ordinary” should inspire “wonder” provides sure, common footing not only for writers, but also for artists, designers, and engineers.  That we are equipped to not only grapple physically with this ordinary, but also to extract from it sustenance and meaning, is for Robinson a profound gift, one that we take for granted and that suffers under our species’ limitless appetites, but also one that merits continuous acknowledgement and appreciation.  In this, she finds common ground with a long tradition of American philosophy and science, noting that writers from Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James all expressed astonishment at the fact that the universe is as intelligible as it is at every scale, that our knowledge of it seems to grow exponentially, and that what we have yet to discover seems boundless.[ii] One does not have to share Robinson’s religious views to find this acknowledgement of our understanding’s limits, and pleasure at those limits’ continuous expansion, to be profound, or to find in them inspiration for our work as explorers and curators of the interface between the physical world and our consciousness of it.  But one does, perhaps, have to share some sense of her enlightenment, her thoughtfulness, to commit to finding meaning within this gifted ordinary instead of searching beyond it. “There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference,” is one of her working theses, and I propose that it might well also serve as ours.[iii]

Robinson finds a strong alliance with physics, which seems more and more comfortable expressing reverence and awe at what it discovers—“The Universe,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson notes, “is under no obligation to make sense to you.”  Physics and religion, in Robinson’s words, both “explore and enact wonder and wondering.”  But she finds other scientific fields hubristic and grudging.  Cognitive science comes in for her withering critique.  In neuroscience’s emphasis on the brain’s physical structures and chemical processes, she finds “a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report.”[iv]  I think there is a parallel here with our fields’ fascination with optimization, tools, and data—that we risk seeing methods as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the ultimate goals of improving our relations with a complex world.  And just as we should be champions of applicable, critically reviewed facticity, we should also acknowledge the borders of that knowledge and appreciate the need to revel, when appropriate, in the limitations of science or technology to account for the fullness of human experience or our seemingly infinite curiosity and capacity for awe.


Can we reconcile these two very Midwestern poles of pragmatism and wonder?  Can we remain grounded in the facts before us while aspiring to larger questions of meaning?  Can we recognize our knowledge’s potential as well as the ineffable character of our most profound spaces and buildings?  Are we, in other words, technologists, designers, educators, the ones to forge links between pragmatics and poetics?  I’m going to propose that beauty is this meeting ground between the quotidian and the marvelous, and that as builders and teachers of architecture’s everyday, we have a particular stake in reclaiming the term and arguing for our work not only from the point of view of efficiency or performance, but also from that of architectural poetics, seen not in the perjorative sense of “merely” visual pleasure, but in the sense of embodying and communicating value and meaning in the experience of our designs.

Functional explanations of the emotional response that makes us refer to something as ‘beautiful’ abound.  Philosopher Denis Dutton suggested that beauty is “nature’s way of acting at a distance,” giving us an ingrained shortcut that makes us prefer visual signals of evolutionarily or environmentally beneficence—a wide open savanna, for instance, with a few trees and large swaths of grass promises both shelter and nourishment.  This evolutionary theory suggests that elements of classical visual beauty—clarity and distinctiveness of an object’s defining characteristics, pattern-based grouping or composition, contrast and symmetry—can also be explained as shortcuts that allow our minds to decide more quickly on value or threat.  Such a reductivist argument is the sort of know-it-all hubris that Robinson criticizes.  And yet she, too has come to a similar theory of beauty as a hidden depth or complexity in the mundane.  “Beauty” for her is a “strategy of emphasis,” a way to refine, clarify and make universal themes resonate in small moments or details.  Whether in nature or in the human realm, we take great pleasure in “things done well,” whether through consciousness or evolution, where details offer footholds toward comprehending greater complexity, and where elements are arranged, organized, and punctuated to grant us clear understanding and appreciation.

For philosopher Daniel Dennett, science’s constant ‘demystification’ is beauty’s source, not its corruptor:

“Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protectors of mystery ever conceived…”[v]

And Robinson seems to agree with this—science, after all, in its most enlightened moments offers us glimpses of just how rich the world we’ve been thrown into can be, and how sustaining and even nurturing.  “The mystery that compels science and the mystery that elevates religion seem very like one another,” she writes.  “In both cases the beauty of Being is acknowledged…”[vi]

science beauty quotes.001

Beauty has been a common concern of artists and scientists alike—from Augustine’s distinction between delight of the senses, which entertains us, and delight through the senses, which makes us wiser; through the Enlightenment notion of beauty as the revelation of the Universe’s laws; to today, when physicists talk about theories so beautiful that they must be true, there is a common theme that should resonate with us: beauty is not merely pleasurable, it is instead, the craftsman’s or designer’s distillation and intentional clarity that reveals, explains, and celebrates the inexhaustible ordinary.  Beauty, in this reading, is not so much Keats’ “splendor of truth,” but more the “pleasure of knowledge.”  This, I think, is a definition amenable to poets and neuroscientists alike.

So where does this leave us—humble building technologists, unacquainted in our daily work with the mysteries of religion or cosmology?  I think that we are, in fact, precisely poised at the tip of beauty’s knife edge, dealing as we do with building’s quantifiable performances and efficiencies and with their often-profound experiential impact.  Architects and designers constantly perform this dual citizenship, in the ‘hard’ knowledge of materials, systems, mathematics and economics, and in the ineffable, inexplicable satisfactions of perception, emotion, and spirit. Works by Kahn, Scarpa, Piano, or Zumthor, for example, connect these two realms of knowledge and pleasure, facts and spirit, and they do so in a way that leaves us appreciating the congruence between understanding and experience.  This is a gift of comprehension that arises from the simple competences of putting a building together, making “appearance accord with reality,” in the words of Viollet-le-Duc.[vii]  This effort to connect is a prescription for neither putting on airs nor concealing the difficult mechanisms that make a building stand or perform.  The former is, literally, sensational, the latter dissembling.  We may be entertained by the spectacular, but we are satisfied by that which reveals something about itself, or our world, and that in doing so makes us that much wiser.  What elevates the pragmatic into the poetic is, in these writers’ and architects’ thinking, the clear revelation of the real as simple, beneficial, and given.  For us as designers or builders this requires a fluency in building’s realities, a Midwestern familiarity with the resistant stuff that’s offered by the world and with the human necessities we have to house and shelter.  But it also requires an eye toward the richness that lies within those realities and an appreciation for the deep possibilities of human understanding and experience that they can provoke.

In the coming days we’ll listen to, question, discuss, and absorb papers from all across this spectrum, and I’ll suggest that we take it upon ourselves to seek out ways to connect the pragmatists’ hard data with Robinson’s broader spiritual interests, that we as technologists not shrink from the idea of the beautiful, but rather see it as our home turf; to see commodity, firmness, and delight not as three poles of our discipline, but rather as patterns in a woven fabric of science, practice, and beauty, in which these themes are inextricably, at their best even joyfully linked.  Integrating pragmatics and poetics has always been part of Iowa’s history and culture, and it has always been latent in architecture and engineering’s best works.

I’ll close with a line by Des Moines native Bill Bryson, who summarized these themes in his moving, funny, and very Iowan book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“we are awfully lucky to be here…to attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.”[viii]

[i] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[ii] Robinson, 24, 82.

[iii] Robinson, 5.

[iv] Robinson, 7.

[v] Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little & Co., 1991).  22, 25.

[vi] Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays (p. 152). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[vii] This construction is borrowed from Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again.

[viii] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  (New York: Broadway, 2003).

btes 2017

June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

DMAC 01That was the view from the final evening of BTES 2017, the biannual meeting of the Building Technology Educators’ Society.  Des Moines hosted it, the first time it’s been in ‘flyover country,’ and I enjoyed the chance to co-chair it with rock star colleagues Rob Whitehead and Shelby Doyle.  Over 70 faculty and students trekked to Iowa, and we heard papers ranging from studio and design-build pedagogy to solar analysis of historic buildings and more speculative thoughts on how Poetics and Pragmatism, the themes of the conference, relate to one another.

BNIM Des Moines principal Rod Kruse and ARUP principal Fiona Cousins both gave excellent keynotes on their practices and how they relate to these ideas, and I was honored to join them to give the introductory keynote.  Given the theme, and the fact that we had a large group who had, in the usual way, either just flown over or driven through my adopted state, I thought it was worth giving a bit of an overview of the state’s history and architecture, but also to probe a bit more deeply into what it means to work here, and how the unique history of the place has given us both traditions and writers who offer provocative perspectives on how the physical world and our lives within it interact.  This isn’t the sort of thing that has a natural outlet for publication, so for the record (and since I’ve been working on it for the last month instead of posting…), I thought it would go nicely on architecturefarm.  It follows in two parts [here and here] in the next two posts.

palladian building code

May 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

IMG_6439Reading Palladio on the flight home (because, really, why wouldn’t you).  His Quattro Libri have been excerpted to no end, and there are familiar passages that most course readers focus on (mine included).  But in the bits that usually get passed over, specifically the chapter with the fetching title of “Of stairs, and the various kinds of them; and of the number and size of the steps,” there’s this, which could have been pulled right from the International Building Code:

THE ſteps ought not to be made higher than ſix inches of a foot; and if they are made lower, particularly in long and continued ſtairs, it will make them the more eaſy, because in riſing one’s ſelf the foot will be leſs tired ; but they muſt never be made lower than four inches: the breadth of the ſteps ought not to be made leſs than one foot, nor more than one and a half.

THE antients obſerved to make the ſteps uneven in number, that beginning to go up with the right foot, one might end with the ſame ; which they look’d upon as a good omen, and of greater devotion when they entered the temple: The number of ſteps is not to exceed eleven, or thirteen at moſt, before you make a floor or reſting-place, that the weak and weary may find where to reſt themſelves, if obliged to go up higher, and be able more eaſily to ſtop any thing that ſhould happen to fall from above.

OK, not so much about the uneven steps, but with some minor adjustments to take into account the difference between a Vicenzan foot and an Imperial one, thirteen steps is still, five hundred years later, the maximum number of risers between landings for precisely those reasons; and he’s got the tread to riser ratio right in the sweet spot as well.


May 6, 2017 § 1 Comment

castelvecchio 04Nine years ago, when I was teaching in Iowa State’s Rome program with my colleague Pete Gochè, we took half of the students up to this part of Italy to see Vicenza and Verona.  Interspersed with Palladio, the other designer you go see here is Carlo Scarpa, who was based in Venice and, like Palladio, did most of his work in the immediate region.  His best-known masterpiece, the Brion Cemetery, is a drive outside of Vicenza, but the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, built into one of these Italian defensive structures that has an impossibly layered and complex history, is just as awe-inspiring.  Like Brion ,Castelvecchio took Scarpa years to complete, and it’s also a composition that’s based on total sensory immersion.  Pete and I were thinking on the fly when we took students around, but in talking through what we were seeing we sort of came to the conclusion that Palladio and Scarpa were perfect foils for one another.  Palladio’s buildings are based on an overall harmonic composition, in which the mathematics of the scheme trickle down and inform all of the details.  Scarpa’s begin with the details, with a very specific sensory experience of light, or touch, or with a focused idea about a material or how two elements come together.  His designs then work outward from those.  I remember looking at his work for the first time as an undergrad and just not getting it–his plans are often mysteriously composed, without any visible sense of composition.  But the first time I stood in the sculpture galleries of Castelvecchio, I remember feeling like there was something for the eye to rest on absolutely everywhere.  The satisfactions of this building come in a thousand different moments, while those of, say, Villa Rotonda come from walking around it, seeing it in perspective and starting to understand how the entire thing holds together as a self-contained piece.  Palladio built architectural fugues, Scarpa built architectural etudes.

castelvecchio 03In our first-year studio this semester, Andrew Gleeson and I talked a lot about architectural rhetoric, how every design problem boils down to an argument about something–materials, composition, light, experience, something.  Scarpa layers these arguments on top of one another, showing in a typical handrail detail, for instance, how the warm wood of the rail itself contrasts with the raw, cold edges of its steel support and with the cold, rough surfaces of the local Veronese stone behind it.  These moments are virtuosic–he’s clearly showing off–but they’re also instructive.  You know exactly where to put your hand, and you see instinctively how the rail is put together.  They’re also, of course, incredibly well composed.  Those elements could go together in a thousand different ways, but much of Scarpa’s notoriously slow process involved iterations, even on the job site, moving and re-composing until the detail not only was right, but also looked right.

castelvecchio 02I’m sure Palladio showed up on a job site or two and changed things around, but the rhetoric of his designs was almost entirely Platonic.  If you get the math right, his plans argue, then the details are inevitable.  This is what Jefferson complained about when designing his Palladian tribute, Monticello–when he changed the size of a window on one side of the house, the door frames on another had to change as well, because the basic argument of Palladian classicism is that the entire building is an integral system.  Scarpa’s rhetoric is exactly the opposite–the entire building is built up in literally hundreds of individual experiences that may be orchestrated, but that don’t depend upon one another in the abstract for their meaning.  Rather, they relate to one another in the way our senses are set up or prepared.  Lining up doorways in a Palladian villa is something you do because the rules of the composition tell you to do it, whereas lining up doorways for Scarpa is a way of hinting to your eyes about what they’re about to experience.

castelvecchio 01There are all sorts of dialogues in Castelvecchio–light vs. dark, new vs. old, honed vs. rough, etc., etc.  And the entire project set up a handful of important principles for historic preservation.  Everywhere the original fabric is treated as an artifact, and Scarpa’s interventions very carefully set themselves off from anything antique.  Concrete, iron, and stone are detailed with healthy shadow gaps that make it apparent what’s been added to the existing building, and the complex layering of old materials is presented at face value, which makes for amazing, lush backdrops like the one above, in the ‘knuckle’ between the sculpture and painting wings where you literally cross a bridge between the two buildings and are confronted with an array of materials and objects–including the heraldic statue with its own stairway and viewing platform, a little architectural gift that provides a break from the slew of galleries before and after.

A fine final jaunt on what’s been a full and inspiring five weeks…

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May 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

palladio“Vicenza, a city of no very large circumference, but full of moſt noble intellects, and abounding ſufficiently with riches ; and where I had firſt an opportunity to practiſe what I now publiſh for common utility, where a great number of very beautiful fabricks are to be ſeen…”

–Palladio, Andrea. The Four Books of Architecture (Dover Architecture) (Kindle Locations 574-576). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

Finishing up my time in Italy with some outright tourism, in particular getting up north to Vicenza, which is to Palladio what Oak Park is to Wright–an outdoor museum, and a lovely town to spend a couple of days.

Palladio is something of an obsession.  Teaching Renaissance architecture last semester, and coming back to it this semester in Big and Tall, there’s a moment in his career of synthesis, where the linguistic project of applying Roman architectural “quotes” and the systematic project of finding a deeper and richer architectural order came together into something that seems very much of the Renaissance and of the Enlightenment.  His treatise is almost entirely practical advice–very little hints at the complex system of musical ratios and proportions he employed to make spaces and elevations that feel literally ‘composed.’  But in blending much of the same practical and philological advice that Alberti and others had already published in his own work, Palladio added a deep rigor to his designs that seems to look ahead to the more complex mathematics of the 17th century.


Some of this, I think, comes from a near-perfect architectural education.  Until he was 30, Palladio was a stonemason–apparently a good one, but nonetheless a craftsman.  While working for the Vicenzan humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino, probably on the Villa Trissino in Cricoli (above, seen from across a rather jogger-unfriendly traffic circle), Palladio struck up a dialogue with his client and began a twelve-year friendship during which Trissino mentored him and brought him to Rome for the first time to study ancient and (then) modern architecture.  After Trissino’s death, Palladio enjoyed the support of the Barbaro family, who were his gateway into Vicenzan and Venetian society; he became something of the court architect for wealthy families in the Veneto, designing palazzos, villas, and eventually chapels and churches that are, fortunately for tourists on foot, clustered in and around Vicenza.

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The Basilica Palladiana (1549) is his one great civic work, a wrapper around a medieval basilica that, like Alberti’s wrapper around a gothic church in Rimini was an exercise in restyling and in finding a stylistically presentable facade for an existing, less-fashionable structure.  Palladio’s threefold bank of architectural knowledge is on full display here–he handled the technical challenge involved in attaching a rigorously ordered facade to a decidedly irregular chassis, every element of the facade is archaeologically correct (never mind the supposed influence of Michelangelo’s more histrionic inventions), and the composition is absolutely perfect–including adjustments to the corner bays that solve the dogged corner problem almost effortlessly.  By this point he was fluent in stonework, fluent in the proportions and details of classical precedent, and finding his way toward the mathematics that linked, to him and his contemporaries, architecture, music, and a divine celestial harmony.

basilica palladiana detail

What’s most interesting to me in his work, and in writers like Wittkower’s analysis of it, is that there is a different attitude toward this connection to the divine, and to an overarching universal order.  In Gothic building, you often here about the attempt to literally build the theology of Augustine–to replicate as nearly as possible the City of God in the cities of men.  This led to all sorts of numerological devices, and a rigorous order applied to cathedral planning that was based on three ratios–the square, the half-square, and rectangles with a ration of 1:1.414, or the square root of two.  Brunelleschi and early Renaissance architects continued these ordering principles, believing that whatever was numerically ordered would be beautiful and strong–Francesco di Giorgio wrote of this process as guaranteeing fortezza e bellezza.  But Palladio’s treatise has a different tone.  His family of proportions is much more complicated, using ratios that appear throughout the harmonic scale.  Which ratio to use?  While there are rules, there are often two sets of rules–geometric and harmonic (Wittkower explains these thoroughly…), and there’s an implied choice for those designing rooms.  One works best for small rooms, the other for large rooms, and it’s up to the designer to figure out which.   Palladio also appeals to architects to make their own judgments about whether a wall is thick enough to carry its load.  No longer were architects bound by rules that had simply been handed down by authority–either of the ancients, or the divine, or by custom.  Instead, there’s a porto-scientific sensibility to Palladio’s writing.  Try this, and that, and maybe this, he seems to advise.  Use your judgment to determine which one has the best outcome.

villa rotonda 2

That’s a libelous simplification, but it resonates with with the confidence and the thoroughness of his work.  Villa Rotonda is really a statement about the capacity for humans to actually instantiate a bit of the divine on earth–and not just in liturgical spaces.  This was a giant party house, and yet Palladio felt it was thoroughly deserving of all the interlocked proportions, the mathematical rigor, and the pitch-perfect execution of a temple–thus the dome and the pediments, among other things.

It’s the Palazzi, though, that are the most interesting to me, because they inevitably deal with imperfect sites, were rarely finished, and yet show how this combination of disciplined conception and composition, combined with an understanding of how buildings actually worked and were put together, could create stage sets of cosmic perfection and visual serenity out of the most chaotic urban situation.  Most of his work in Vicenza is on narrow streets, meaning you never get the big elevation view–instead, he used what little depth he had in the facades to create striking rhythms of shadows and highlights.  But the elevations are often perfect anyway (or, in some cases, imperfectly perfect, like where the existing courtyard wouldn’t allow a symmetrical entrance–here, he seemed unperturbed about violating the one cardinal rule of classical composition, and such violations seem to disappear in such narrow fields of view).


Here, on Palazzo Valmarana (1580), you can see that even he wasn’t against a few Mannerist games–look at the end pilasters and you can see that he’s replaced them with statuary.  But even here those games happen within such a fully detailed composition that they don’t seem jarring.  In fact, if you stare at this long enough (and there’s very helpfully a nice cafe across the street that will happily serve you a Campari and soda while you do this–note to architectural tourists) you start to realize that what he’s done here is to create two facades–one that’s the full breadth of the elevation, and one that is just the five bays framed by the giant order.  The two of them are compressed on to one another graphically, a trick he’d use in his to church facades in Venice–here’s San Giorgio Maggiore, note the way the two pediments here work like the two interlocked rectangles at Valmarana:


Anyway, this is all pretty foundational stuff, and to me the most interesting aspect of Palladio is that he bridges this gap between architecture as an aesthetic pursuit and as a purely technical one.  His approach is quasi-scientific, and certainly his compositions start to hint at an order based not in mysticism, but in mathematics.  He was exactly one generation younger than Copernicus, and one generation older than Galileo, and in the geometry and the rich mathematics that underlay his designs I think you can get a sense for the growing realization that a ‘cosmic order,’ far from being ethereal, was about to get very, very evident.

chiericati 02


cesena, ravenna

April 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

cesena interior b+wSlowly winding down a five-week fellowship at the Università di Bologna and catching up on some long overdue tourism.  I spent one day at Cesena, where the University’s Architecture department has a base, and lectured to a nicely enthusiastic crowd of students on our current CHiRG research, which has to do with the technical development of the ‘glass box’ in the 1950s.  In return, I got a fine day out in a small town that deserves more tourist action than it gets.  Cesena, like a lot of small cities in Romagna, was occupied variously by the French, the Lombards, the Papal States, and its own city-state government, and it’s a palimpsest of influences.  Including the oldest public library in Italy, maybe in the world–the Malatestiana Library, finished in 1452 and pretty clearly an influence on Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, which was started just 70 years later.    Ernesto Antonini, Professor of Architecture there, organized the lecture and generously indulged me with an afternoon at the library and around town.  The piadine in Cesena is, according to the locals, better than anywhere else in Italy, and I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary.  (Think love-child of a quesadilla and a pizza.  Nothing not to like, really).

But then there is also some pure tourism to do, including Ravenna, which I’ve never managed to get to on previous trips.  It’s slightly out of the way, which is why the last gasps of the Roman Empire found it to be a convenient hideout in the 6th century.  The mosaics, as advertised, are spectacular, but it was also fascinating to see well-preserved examples of early Christian architecture of two types–baptistery and basilica–in such close proximity.  Compared with the more vast construction achievements of the empire at its height, and with the more orderly and refined buildings of the Renaissance, this era has always seemed less interesting to me, but then I’ve never seen much of it first hand.  A day of immersion in San Vitale, Sant’Apollinare Nuova, and the Neoniano Baptistery were healthy doses of reconsideration for me, because you can see not only the struggle to match the scale of their predecessors (but without the benefit of concrete by this point, since supplies of pozzolan from Vesuvius were no longer politically possible, and knowledge of the technique seems to have withered entirely), but also to rival what was by then the far superior building culture of the Byzantines to the east.  San Vitale was started a decade before the Aya Sophia, and the similarities in form and structure are clear.  They’re poignant masterpieces–very little of consequence was built on the peninsula for another four centuries after these structures, and they really represent the tail end of Rome’s building culture.

And the mosaics, frankly, aren’t hard to look at, either.

ravenna battistero neoniano 2ravenna san vitale int 1