skyscrapers on the BBC

November 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Honored to join Carol Willis and Benjamin Flowers to discuss skyscrapers past, present, and future on the BBC World Service program (or, really, programme) The Forum this weekend.  Good discussion, and an excellent set of questions.


Beauty’s Rigor

October 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

LeslieF17Available today, at least according to the printer’s schedule.  Very happy to formally announce that Beauty’s Rigor: Patterns of Production in the Work of Pier Luigi Nervi is out in the world after five very enjoyable years of research, travel, writing, and editing.

Longtime readers will know much of its contents.  The book makes the argument that, while Nervi has long been appreciated as a structural engineer, his ‘other’ career, as a contractor who actually built most of his projects, played an important role in his building’s aesthetics, and particularly in the striking patterns that impart such a fine grain and scale to his roofs.  Nervi worked with small teams of laborers, often unskilled, and had to adopt what I call algorithmic processes–carefully coordinated sequences of simple, easily repeated actions–to actually construct his designs.  The discipline this instilled in his forms, and the grids and spirals that this imprinted on his buildings, distinguished his work from other thin-shell builders of the 1950s and 1960s.

Many, many people to thank for their support, advice, and enthusiasm over the course of this project, in particular colleagues who shared time and space with me at the American Academy in Rome during 2013-2014, the many Nervi scholars in Italy and elsewhere who generously shared ideas and research with me, the Department of Architecture and the College of Design here at Iowa State who supported a year-long sabbatical to do the research and site visits, and the staff of our Rome Program who let me sleep in the attic of our studio there during a preliminary visit in 2012.

Figure 4-15 thumb


October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment


A fine looking family of high-rise models there.  Iowa State Interior Design Chair Lee Cagley and I are closing in on 2/3 of the way through another interdisciplinary integrated design studio (how’s that for architectural education buzzwords…), again focusing on a former U.S. military site at the mouth of the Panama Canal.  We have teams of architects and interior designers working together to navigate the contradictions and possibilities of building in a city that’s both profoundly global, and at the same time very tied to its specific geography, climate, and culture.

IMG_7812The Amador Peninsula is one of the most intriguing and oddest sites I’ve based a studio on.  It’s a long, flat piece of land that extends east into the Pacific Ocean (yep–east into the Pacific Ocean, a consequence of Panama’s twisting shape) and tapers off to a three-mile long causeway connecting three islands.  It’s a great morning run, especially before the sun comes up and makes everything hot, but it’s also a spot with impressive views of the daily choreography of ships maneuvering into the Canal, and of Panama’s exploding skyline.  There’s a Frank Gehry museum at the junction between the actual land and the causeway, and a gigantic convention center under construction.  Our studio is developing ideas for three sites that would complement the convention center, along programs for a microtel, a nightclub hotel, and a spa hotel.  In each case, students have to develop designs that respond to the local climate, cater to guests who we assume will be attending international scale conventions, and take advantage of views that are literally 360°.

IMG_7885About 20 of us spent the better part of a week there last month, watching the container ship ballet at Miraflores Locks, communing with spider and night monkeys in the Gamboa Rainforest center, and getting lost in traffic.  The major drawback of traveling to Panama City is its total lack of mass transit, something that’s probably scotching future trips as the interdisciplinary nature of the studio has made it increasingly popular–coordinating three minivans made for a logistically fascinating trip.  But the payoffs were utterly worth it–a building culture exemplified by stone and stucco buildings in Casco Viejo, sublime views of the rainforest canopy, and hikes up surrounding hills that let students understand the layers of colonial and contemporary growth in Central America’s fastest-growing economy.

IMG_7999Yesterday’s mid-review went well, with input from interior design, architecture, and landscape architecture faculty and practitioners.  The range of responses, even with tightly delineated program, zoning, and code requirements, has been remarkable, and we’re looking forward to seeing some strong schemes get developed over the last five weeks of the term.  Also hoping to live up to last year’s sweep of the Hospitality Design student awards…

rethinking pei

October 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

everson stair viewThis year marks  I.M. Pei’s 100th birthday, and next week I’m taking part in the first half of a trans-pacific celebration of his career.  Pei isn’t totally a new research topic for me–Jason Alread and I wrote about his extraordinary sculpture gallery at the Des Moines Art Center (1966-68) in a 2007 article in the Journal of Architectural Education, and Pei played at least a background role in Kahn’s career, consulting with him on the concrete formwork systems he used for his early high-rises while Kahn was working on the Salk Institute.

So the invitation to contribute to Rethinking Pei’s first session, in Cambridge, MA, was a welcome one, as it has given me an opportunity to dive more deeply in to his work in Des Moines, and also the context to that building, in particular the almost simultaneous Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (1962-68), New York.  This project started earlier than the one in Des Moines, and it was Pei’s first foray into large scale cultural work after an early career as a strictly development architect.

pei elevation

The Everson was to have been the anchor project to a masterplan for Syracuse’s downtown designed by shopping mall designer Victor Gruen–a masterplan that was never implemented.  Pei, realizing that the museum would have to hold its own while other elements were constructed, created an intentionally closed building–four cantilevered galleries rooted to the ground by circulatory and structural stalks, all rendered in corrugated, rough concrete.  The resulting minimalist sculpture was striking on Syracuse’s admittedly banal downtown urbanscape, and it created a sublime central courtyard, which Pei graced with the first of his many spiral concrete and travertine staircase.

dmac courtyard

Four years later, in the midst of seemingly interminable delays, Pei began work in Des Moines, extending the rambling plan of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s original limestone building (1946-48) by linking one end of its S-shaped plan with a link between its gallery and education wings.  This was a brave scheme, as it enclosed a much-loved courtyard that had been designed to terminate a long garden axis and rose garden.  But Pei did not so much block this axis as punctuate it.  Through his careful placement of glass and concrete, he ensured that the building was largely transparent along the axis, and that it matched the gradual drop of the site with a double-level gallery.  Again, he used rough-hewn, corrugated concrete as a structural and finish material, all aligned with the original axis and rising to a soaring, butterfly-shaped skylight.

dmac sculpture gallery interior

The conference includes some pretty luminous names–Leslie Robertson, who has always been one of the office’s most valued engineering collaborators, and William Pedersen, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, among them.  There are also a number of academics who will be covering Pei’s extensive career, from the National Council for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to the Louvre Pyramid–possibly the most recognizable piece of postwar architecture on the planet.  I’ve often made the case informally that Pei’s work at the Art Center deserves to be included among his best, and I’m looking forward to making that case in Cambridge next week.  The second half takes place in Hong Kong in December–for better or worse I’ll be listening in by web to that one.

chicago architecture foundation moving on up…

September 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Solid news this morning from the Blair Kamin in the Tribune–the Chicago Architecture Foundation is moving from its long-time home in Burnham’s Railway Exchange Building to more spacious and visible digs in 111 E. Wacker. The story reports that CAF will bring its city model with it, along with new models and exhibits on the history of the skyscraper. 111 is part of the Mies-designed Illinois Center (or, really, Mies-office-designed…), and plans call for a new, glass-enclosed gallery that will look out over the docks that serve the world-famous River Cruise. It will also face the Tribune Tower and the new Foster-designed Apple Store, adding to the city’s spiritual crossroads at the Michigan Avenue bridge. Great to see them gaining visibility and emphasizing the connection to their river tour–accept no substitutes!

elevators and infrastructure

August 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

Elisha Otis Demonstrating ElevatorYou can catch me talking about elevators and elevator history with Dr. Joseph Schofer, Professor of Civil Engineering & Transportation and Associate Dean of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, on the latest episode of The Infrastructure Show, a monthly podcast covering issues of transportation and other systems and networks that make cities and economies go.  Good conversation, and interesting to talk about vertical transportation in a much larger context…

nervi in new hampshire

July 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

c and nerviTechnically on vacation, but part of the travels this month include college visits for my son, who by happy coincidence has Dartmouth on his shortlist.

Hanover, New Hampshire is an unlikely answer to the question of which American city has more Nervi projects than any other, thanks to a progressive campus leadership that commissioned two sports arenas from him in the 1960s and 1970s.  Leverone Field House, finished in 1965, was covered extensively in Aesthetics and Technology in Building, but his second arena, the Rupert Thompson Ice Arena, has never received as much attention.  But as a pair they’re fascinating as a comparison of Nervi’s techniques, literally across the street from one another.

leverone exterior

Leverone Field House reflects an evolution of Nervi’s Turin Exposition Hall–it’s a shallow-vaulted, thin-shell roof supported by ranks of beautifully simple buttresses at its base.  You can see the three-part buttress to the left in the photo, with a diagonal that takes most of the vault’s thrust, a vertical that resolves a portion of the gravity load, and the cantilevered roof that also acts as a horizontal beam, forcing the roof to hold its shape between buttresses.  The main facade has vertical wind braces that are shaped to reflect that they’re primarily bending elements, designed to hold the curtain wall on to the end arch and to its foundations.  A similar system would have stayed the enormous glass facades of the Reynolds Aluminum project, which Nervi had designed a few years prior.

leverone interiorInside, though, the roof is a very different system than the one at Turin.  Instead of that hall’s folded plate construction, Leverone adopted the diamond-shaped lamella pattern of Nervi’s 1939 Orbetello Hangars and the ferrocemento formwork he’d perfected in Rome’s Palazetto dello Sport in 1957.  The result is a fine grain imprinted on a long span, but also an incredibly lightweight concrete roof–the diagonal ribs form both the gravity and the lateral system for the roof, and they ‘trick’ the roof into behaving like a shell with the depth of the ribs, while removing most of the roof’s weight by scooping out the dead weight of the diamond-shaped voids.  It’s a simpler roof than Turin, and the geometry is one-dimensional, so it’s missing the dramatic spirals of the Palazetto.  But it’s still a masterful space (even with all the accouterments of a college athletics facility hanging from it…)

thompson buttress closeThe Thompson Arena (1973-75) wasn’t quite as open as the field house (long story), but its most dramatic elements are on its exterior–these twisting, curving buttresses that collect the thrusts and gravity loads of this arena’s roof into point supports at ground level.  These are trademark Nervi ruled surfaces, using a technique of twisted boards that he’d first worked with on his collaboration with Marcel Breuer at UNESCO in Paris.  Here, the buttresses are paired as they are at the edges of the Scope Arena in Norfolk, which was built from 1968-71.  The concrete on Thompson is similarly flawless–we looked but couldn’t find the nail holes that would have held the twisted boards in place, which are readily apparent on Nervi’s earlier ruled surfaces.  The interior is a similar lamella-patterned set of ribs formed with ferrocemento formwork, but the difference between Laverne’s simple buttresses and these is dramatic.

Both of the Dartmouth buildings are covered well in Alberto Bologna’s book on Nervi’s work in America–in terms of innovation they’re important primarily for the fact that they translated some of Nervi’s most innovative techniques into an American market.  These didn’t prove as economical as they had back home, and the fact that Nervi built only a handful of major projects in the U.S. shows in part how tied to Italy’s unique labor market and material economics.

For me, though, these were vital projects.  Growing up, my grandparents lived just outside of Hanover, and on rainy days while I was staying with them a trip to run around inside Leverone was often on the agenda.  Formative experience, definitely–I’ve said more than once that the Nervi book (due in November, 2017!) is something like forty years in the making…