My recent posts at World-Architects


Sunday, February 29, 2004

"My Architect" Goes for the Gold

In a couple hours I'll be one of over 25 million people glued to their television sets to see how many Oscars Lord of the Rings is going to win in the 76th Academy Awards. But I'll admit that the Best Picture contest doesn't hold my attention this year - though my vote would go to Lost In Translation if I were a member of the Academy, partly because it's an underdog film, but also because it's an independent film, which I guess is what makes it an underdog. Instead I'll be waiting patiently through the enormous amounts of filler that occupy the ceremony every year for the Best Documentary category.

And the nominees are:

Balseros, the story of seven Cuban refugees in 1994,
Capturing the Friedmans, following the Friedman family after the father and son are charged with child molestation,
The Fog of War, Errol Morris's portrayal of Robert McNamara re-examining his role in the Vietnam War,
The Weather Underground, about a radical group in the late 1960s called The Weathermen,
My Architect: A Son's Journey, Nathanial Kahn's five-year voyage to discover his father Louis I. Kahn's legacy, the subject of this post.

View of water surrounding National Assembly Building
National Assembly Building. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

On a recent trip to New York City I caught My Architect at the Film Forum. The sold-out crowd, like me, seemed to find the film amusing and touching, as Nathanial Kahn traveled from one Kahn building to another, talking with people who worked with his father before his death in 1974. Instead of going into the well-known circumstances behind Louis I. Kahn's death (found in a Pennsylvania Station bathroom and unknown for three days) or his made-for-TV-like personal life (three children from three women), I just wanted to comment on the film's portrayal of Kahn's architecture and the implications of the film's success, although the personal life of the architect is an inseparable part of his architecture and vice-versa.

First, Kahn presents his father's buildings, from the Trenton Bath House to the National Assembly in Bangladesh with many in-between, in a way I can only describe as loving. His fondness for his father comes across in the photography and circumstances, especially as Nathanial roller blades in the Salk Institute's plaza as he tries to find a way to get in touch with his father, even if he experiences the space in a manner potentially unsuitable from its intention. The only questionable presentation of one of his father's buildings is when the Kimbell Art Museum is unfortunately filmed with a fish-eye lens, betraying its classical symmetry, repetition and the contrast of the vertical lines with the barrel vaults.

Secondly, the popularity of the film among the general public may have repercussions in the public's taste in architecture. Kahn's dramatic buildings touch a nerve in people, particularly when they are surrounded by the blandness of much of the American built landscape. Aside from the obvious contrast between Kahn's architecture and the norm, his buildings stand in stark contrast to much quality contemporary architecture. Kahn's work has a weight that is missing today, as architects strive for lightness in their designs. If My Architect has any effect on current practice, it would be to change the tastes of clients. Not to say that no architect today values mass over transparency and lightness, but there is clearly a trend away from architecture poetically rooted in its place as strongly as Kahn's buildings do.

As I noted earlier I'll be rooting for My Architect, which I believe will win, not just because I'm biased as an architect, but because Kahn's film stands out among the other four. Three films deal politically with the 1960s and one deals with a subject (child molestation) that might turn off most Academy voters. What is left is the story of a man trying to discover his father by experiencing his life, his architecture.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Lee Bontecou at the MCA

On display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until the end of May is a retrospective of sculptor Lee Bontecou. Her sculptures and drawings were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but since she has rarely exhibited and has existed in a way that works for her but not necessarily for the art world that admires her. Teaching art in Brooklyn, Bontecou can spend years on individual works, immersing herself at times, but without rushing to finish a piece to appease curators, gallery owners or sellers.

Untitled, 1966 by Lee Bontecou
Untitled, 1966. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

When I viewed the exhibition on its opening night in early February I was primarily impressed by the intricacy of each piece. Each sculpture works at both the macro and micro scales, in other words from across the room and close-up to the viewer. Nature is a definite influence in her work but also is engineering and, in particular, war machines. The last gives her art a (unintended, perhaps) political resonance that seems just as appropriate now as it must have been in the early 1970s.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Significance, or Why I Love Chaco Canyon

Due to a recent fire at a CTA substation, this morning I was able to start and finish an essay while on the train from Places, titled, "Fixing Historic Preservation: A Constructive Critique of 'Significance'" by Randall Mason. While the essay's main points (lack of critically thinking about a place's meaning by preservationists needs to change, significance is not fixed but evolves over time, and multiple voices need to be heard concerning preservation decisions) were not lost on me, I framed these points through one example in particular that the author briefly mentioned: Chaco Canyon.

Ever since I happened upon a local PBS presentation of "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon" I have developed an interest in the Anasazi (Pueblo ancestors) and a greater interest in ancient architecture. Effectively narrated by Robert Redford, the short film was preceded by "The Sun Dagger", both masterminded by Anna Sofaer, an artist whose life was changed upon her discoveries in Chaco Canyon. In the earlier film, Sofaer rigorously documented astronomical markings that she discovered on Fajada Butte, itself a solar marker in the otherwise flat landscape around Chaco. Through papers and presentations, she proved the markings to be both solar and lunar markers, finding the Solstice Project to help and further the study. The later film picks up where the first left off, attempting to show that the Anasazi used solar and lunar cycles to locate pueblos in and around the Canyon.

I highly recommend reading the research papers featured on the Solstice Project's web page, but returning to Mason's essay, he uses Chaco Canyon as an example of how meaning is subjective and may create problems with significance. Originally made a historical monument because of the historical ruins - particularly Pueblo Bonito - and scientific research into the Anasazi, the place has become a sacred place for descendents of the builders and a hot spot for New Age worshippers drawn to the locations supposedly powerful aura (Needless to say I have yet to travel to Chaco but plan to sometime in the next year or two, if anything to experience the place and to draw my own conclusions). Chaco is unique in that these three meanings are in favor of preserving the site, but other places definitely won't be so lucky, as values of preservation need to be weighed against economics, politics, and other interests.

An additional piece of information not present in the essay is the atypical preservation of Chaco Canyon. Since scientific digs were harming the ruins it was decided that the site would be left as is, in effect allowing time and nature to have its effect upon the structures. Given that the Anasazi built the structure as if they grew from the ground, I find this fitting, regardless of the fact that stone was brought from miles away.

In 1988, Chaco Canyon became one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, one of only twenty sites in the United States. Click here for more information and links.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

WTC Memorial Competition Show-and-Tell

A couple nights ago I attended an exhibition of local entries to the World Trade Center Memorial Design Competition at the Graham Foundation. From the 5,201 entries submitted (less than half of the original 13,000+ registrations), 135 entries came from Illinois, as indicated by the LMDC's web page which recently posted all the submissions (accessible by link above), browseable by country and state or searchable by name. Roughly 70 of the 135 Illinois entries came from the Chicago and its metropolitan area, with about 20 entrants agreeing to show their submitted designs in a one-night-only exhibit. Notable names included local architects Stanley Tigerman and John Vinci and the Graham Foundation's director Richard Solomon.

Two things struck me as I looked at the designs, both concerning the difficulty of the endeavor: first, the difficulty of the jury deciding between 5,201 entries and second, the difficulty of each entrant, or team, as they tried to create a physical response to the grief and terror of the 9/11 events with extremely tight programmatic restrictions (these restrictions became even tighter during the duration of the memorial selection process and will continue in the same direction as all the interested parties try to sort out the future of the site). These thoughts were reiterated by people I talked to that night and (to a lesser extent) by finalists Brian Strawn and Karla Sierralta as they gave a brief presentation on their design, Dual Memory. Although young (they are both graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago), their sincerity in trying to find an appropriate solution to an event that didn't affect them directly but reached them - like much of the country and world - mainly through images and words was refreshing. Explicating the subsequent seven-week process illuminated some much-aligned facts: the $100,000 stipend each entry received divvied up 3/4 equally amongst the model builder, renderer and animation artist, with the remaining 1/4 to the competitors. These facts help to explain the consistency in presentation among the eight finalists.

Consistency in presentation was not limited to the finalists' submissions, though, as I learned from my friend Brandon that the design guidelines dictated the exact sizes, locations and orientations of required drawings and text. These guidelines achieved two intentions: first, to allow members of the jury not versed in reading architectural drawings a means of comparison that would lead to comprehension and second, to allow the jury to handle the 5,201 entries in a timely fashion. Furthermore, I believe the required consistency played down the role of presentation that can win or lose a competition, focusing the jury's reading of the submissions to their ideas, something else refreshing.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Oslo School of Architecture

Oslo School of Architecture in Oslo, Norway by Jarmund/Vigsnæs AS

Located near the Akerselva River in the eastern part of Oslo, Norway, the Oslo School of Architecture conducted an open design competition in 1998 for the renovation and expansion of an existing, 1938 building won by local architect Jarmund/Vigsnæs AS. Given the existing building's conservation status on its exterior, the architects focused their attention on the interior, a sunken courtyard and a new block of classrooms competing the courtyard.

To signal the entry and bring daylight to the first floor, an access court was created by removing part of the first floor. Coupled with the courtyard beyond the opening ties the School to the river while creating a communal outdoor room for social interaction and teaching. A cafe, auditorium, exhibition space, a library, design studios and workshops occupy the ground floor with offices and other administrative uses on the floor above.

Inside, the character of the building is a mixture of rough, industrial surfaces (exposed, chalk-blasted concrete structure) and contrasting materials (polished concrete, linoleum flooring, ash in the auditorium and glass partitions predominant). The new exterior walls are comprised of different color insulated glass systems, giving varying characteristics to each space through incoming light.

The appeal of JVA's design for the Oslo School of Architecture lies in how the well-scaled spaces interact with the materiality of the palette the architects use. Details like the suspended mesh ceiling below the fluorescent lighting in the library (in lieu of the standard acoustical tile ceiling with lay-in light fixtures) and the use of the same in the stairwells add to this appeal. More so the exterior spaces extend this thinking, creating equally well-proportioned outdoor spaces for circulation, learning and enjoyment.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Book Review: Tower and Office

Tower and Office: From Modernist Theory to Contemporary Practice by Inaki Abalos & Juan Herreros
MIT Press, 2003
Hardcover, 305 pages

Spanish architects Abalos & Herreros finished a Spanish-language book in 1992 titled Técnica y arquitectura en la ciudad contemporánea that lead to a fellowship at Columbia University for additional research. Published eleven years after its predecessor, Tower and Office naturally focuses on the technology of high rise construction and its relationship to the office environment, though in the end the book also stands as an intelligent critique of contemporary architecture and urbanity. Starting with mid-20th-century Modernism, the duo uses Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe's influential work in high-rise construction to eventually point out Modernism's limits. Not to say that the movement failed or does not have relevance; advances in technology since World War II have created problems, and subsequently ones that were out of reach or unthinkable with the Modernist approach.

The second part of the book traces structural, mechanical and curtain wall development in these years leading up to the present. The third, and last, part deals with the changing office environment and the evolution of the mixed-use skyscraper. This last subject gives the book a potentially broader impact beyond its historical critique of the office skyscraper. The current incarnation of tall buildings vertically layers what was previously spread out horizontally across the urban fabric, necessitating a change in the idea of the city, of building types and the meaning of public and private space.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Earthworks Center

Earthworks Center in Hiroshima, Japan by Archipro Architects, 2002
The Haizuka Dam near Hiroshima, Japan is currently under construction, with completion expected in 2005. Although research on the project began in 1965, new towns needed to be built to house the displaced residents of Soryo, Kisa and Mirasaka, towns soon to be underwater once the dam is complete. Given the additional time and the enormous scale of the undertaking, the Haizuka Earthworks Projects were created in 1994 to "minimize the damage to the environment by incorporating ideas which involve ecological, biological and human resources." Members include artists, architects, engineers and scientists, all contributing their skills to a collaboration that involves the local government and residents. The Earthworks Center, designed by Archipro Architects, creates a base for the Projects, allowing the different parties a meeting place.

The Earthworks Projects include Summer Camp programs that invite artists and scientists from all over the world to "interpret and incorporate the local culture and nature into art activities." Called Art Sphere since 1998, these programs are predicated on the notion that "environment is a cultural inheritance" where environment includes artworks created by people. It is difficult to argue with this thinking, where care and understanding for the environment help to insure the places we live in aren't tarnished for future generations.

Archipro Architects created a 35 square meter meeting space on a site 150 times as large. The architects recognized the small structure would become an object in the larger site, so they clad the building in a translucent film of corrugated polycarbonate. Therefore it would stand as a strong, opaque object during the day, while at night the film would allow light from inside to seep out. Structurally, gate-shaped frames are arranged in a row and covered inside with plywood for lateral stability. Gaps were kept at the top and bottom to allow light into the meeting room at the floor and ceiling, while allowing light out in two bands at night, as mentioned.

In addition to creating an object suited to its location, the architects needed to provide maximum volume with minimal cost, not an uncommon task for any architect. By providing a simple structure and reversing the placement of structure and finish, a simple yet elegant building was created. Beyond the practical and aesthetic concerns, the almost meditative space is perfectly aligned with the thinking of the Earthworks Projects, where thoughtful decisions can be made on the outcome of humans intervening with nature.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Chelsea Court Apartments

Chelsea Court Apartments in New York, NY by Louise Braverman Architect, 2003

The following images and text are courtesy Louise Braverman for her design of the Chelsea Court Apartments in New York City.

In the early 1990's Chelsea Court, a SRO on the brink of collapse, was used as a crack den. Over time, the neighborhood grew weary of the street crime which goes hand in hand with a neglected building. Frustrated with the city's lack of response to the problem, Block Association members finally called former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on his weekly radio show. That call turned the tide and the city took possession of the building, mandating that the property be developed into affordable housing for New York City's disadvantaged residents. The 17th Street Block Association invited Palladia (then Project Return Foundation) to develop the building into supportive permanent housing for previously homeless and low-income tenants.

The design of Chelsea Court, an affordable housing project specifically planned for 18 previously homeless and low-income New York City tenants, is a tribute to the belief that aesthetic environments enhance the lives of all people, rich or poor. Community facilities including a lounge, conference room, laundry and offices complement the layout of studio apartments. Today after a total gut renovation where every square inch has been designed with an economy of means, Chelsea Court is an environment where tenants can live comfortably and seamlessly become part of their new neighborhood.

The lives of the inhabitants are open to the street, the internal garden and to the community around them. The "blue ribbon" of translucent glass on the streetfront travels inside the skewed public corridor in the form of metallic blue display niches, past a cubic metallic blue and green security desk and up the chromatically sequenced glazed concrete masonry blocks of the stairwells. Indoors and outdoors merge; the roof garden is part of the apartments and the street is part of the office. An art wall displaying a 2'x 25' photomural of an outdoor image of Coney Island runs through the interior public corridor.

In 2003 Louise Braverman, Architect received an AIA New York State Design Award for the design of Chelsea Court. It is also the only low-income housing project from the New York metropolitan area to be included among the 18 projects selected to be in the Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. The show will run from February 28 to August 8, 2004.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Book Review: The Historical Atlas of New York City

The Historical Atlas of New York City by Eric Homberger
Holt, 1998
Paperback, 192 pages

Similar to Mayer and Wade's Chicago: Growth of A Metropolis, Homberger's book tells the story of a great city through images, photographs, maps and diagrams. Subtitled A Visual Celebration of Nearly 400 Year's of New York City's History, the book starts in 1609 when Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a northern route to China, and ends in 1994 with the writer lamenting over Broadway's decline but optimistic for its future. Each chapter in between deals with a roughly 50-year span of time, defining the important events for the city in the respective period and then using primarily maps and diagrams to elucidate particular aspects. It is through these graphics - with Alice Hudson's cartographic assistance - that the book finds its saving grace, as the book is not as thorough historically, as in Burrow and Wallace's pre-1900 account Gotham, or physically, as in Stern and others' New York 1880, 1930 and 1960 tomes. Those books have their place, as does Homberger's slimmer "atlas", which uses maps and other diagrams to add a perspective and understanding that cannot be grasped by words and photographs alone.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Salt Lake City Public Library

Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City, Utah by Moshe Safdie and Associates, 2003

On January 6, the American Institute of Architects announced the recipients of twenty-nine Honor Awards, recognizing excellence in architecture, interior design and urban design. One of the sixteen buildings in the architecture category is the Salt Lake City Public Library by Moshe Safdie and Associates, known for his Habitat housing project in Montreal, Canada for Expo '67. While the quality of Safdie's architecture has definitely not waned in the years since that innovative design, his exposure has been more limited, though the library in Salt Lake City, Utah may change this.

International architect Safdie - with offices in Boston, Toronto and Jerusalem - beat finalists Moore Ruble Yudell, Will Bruder and Gwathmey Siegel in a competition four years ago. Except for Siegel's design, each entry placed an importance upon the civic character of the building, creating generous outdoor spaces as front doors for the city's main library. What may have won the competition for Safdie is the clean composition - a five-story administration block next to the main triangular stacks with a curved "urban room and public piazza" formed by a curved wall that embraces the outdoor plaza while allowing views through to the Wasach mountains beyond.

The building contains many dramatic features, primarily the glass-covered curved street that borders the stacks and contains vertical circulation. Interestingly, opposite the stacks sit reading areas for patrons, accessible by bridges, remote places for study with views of the mountains. In the space immediately adjacent to the outdoor plaza is a grand, five-story space, a continuation of the first-floor stacks. Formed by two glass walls, the space acts as a thermal barrier for the stacks on the floors above and as a monumental continuation of the space outside.

Safdie's design recognizes the civic importance of the library through its siting, composition and in its grand interior spaces, something missing from libraries like the Harold Washington Library in Chicago which neglect to balance function with civic appropriateness. Instead, the Salt Lake City Public Library, like Will Bruder's Phoenix Public Library, creates a variety of scales of spaces, from small and intimate reading areas to the grand spaces required for navigation and the recognition of the library's role in city life.