Sunday, July 31, 2005

Gehry Goes 2d

Tonight FOX reran The Simpsons episode with Frank Gehry and I must admit it's still hilarious. I grabbed my camera and took a few screenshots.

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Mr. Gehry receives the letter from Marge requesting his services. He's especially impressed by the Snoopy stationary. Nice mailbox.

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At first he crumples up the letter and throws is on the sidewalk, a sign of rejection, but when he sees the paper's form, Eureka! "Frank Gehry, you've done it again!"

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Erecting the steel frame, the building looks conventional, but then the cranes start swinging wrecking balls to whack the structure into shape.

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Upon opening, Mr. Gehry must thwack ruffians with his broom so they don't skateboard on his curvy creation. "Hey, Frank Gehry. Design curvilinear forms much?"

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But the Concert Hall isn't a success, as witnessed by these marquees. This must be about the fifth time the Simpsons has ripped on David Brenner.

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Mr. Burns buys the Concert Hall and turns it into its final incarnation, a prison. A commentary on contemporary architecture, perhaps?

Update 08.01: Looks like I'm not the only fan of this episosde. Check this page for screenshots of the whole episode. Thanks Alejandro!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Comic Book of the Moment

The New York Times reports on Manhattan Guardian, a comic book series set in the fictional city Cinderella City, an amalgam of real and imagined New York City. What sets it apart from other comic incarnations, like Gotham and Metropolis, is the overt inclusion of unbuilt projects for the city, beyond the usual grime and grit found in Superman, Batman, and the like. An issue from earlier this year featured a proposed hotel by Antoni Gaudi and an office building by Hans Hollein with a facade resembling the grill of a Rolls-Royce. This image from the forthcoming September release shows a design that Frank Lloyd Wright proposed for Ellis Island.

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Created and authored by Grant Morrison, he said "by embellishing on the existing New York he was tapping into his favorite comic book power: the ability to create alternative realities." I can only imagine, as the article indicates, that "after immersing yourself in Mr. Morrison's version of New York, it's a little hard to see the city in quite the same way."

Friday, July 29, 2005

Asian Historical Architecture

I just discovered the web page Asian Historical Architecture: A Photographic Survey and - WOW! - it's amazing. The pleasantly simple interface lists the various countries (nineteen) and buildings (a lot) on the left, with the images and other information displayed on the right. While the images aren't huge, the coverage is impressive and some helpful maps are used with some buildings to orient the viewer, like Japan's Himeji Castle (below). Most importantly, the images are quite beautiful.

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The Space of Light

At lunch yesterday I walked over to the MCA and zipped through the Dan Flavin Retrospective currently on view until October 30. The same show was on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth when I was down there for a wedding a couple months ago. Housed in a Tadao Ando design, the exhibition was a delight, breaking out of the typical "white box" galleries of many modern art museums to interact with the ground floor reflecting pool and the concrete walls so prevalent in Ando's architecture.

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So walking on over to the MCA, I couldn't help but anticipate how Flavin's multitude of fluorescent tubes would work in their new location, and not in a good way. It seemed like his pieces gained something in the unique spaces and textures of Fort Worth, but I was wrong. The colored glow of the tubes is not only amplified by the MCA's plethora of white walls but it is used to full effect by the museum in the placement of the pieces and the location of the exhibit's temporary walls.

The retrospective is housed in the museum's top floor, typically accessed by an elliptical stair located at the northwest corner. Before arrival at this floor, one senses the soft glow of the colored tubes, fading away ever-so-softly from its source. The small gallery atop the stairs houses Flavin's beginnings into what became an obsession for the rest of his life, his "icons". These first pieces seem crude in comparison, but nevertheless they are extremely important in the artist's development.

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The strongest presence at the top of the stairs is the green glow of the piece above, this time located in front of the MCA's bank of windows above its monumental stairs and plaza. This location makes for a striking view from the plaza and the park across the street, especially at night (makes me wonder if they "leave the lights on" after close).

Without going into details about the remaining parts of the exhibition, the white walls of the museum become canvases for Flavin's icons. Sometimes it's merely a corner that reflects the glow of a hidden, colored tube. Sometimes whole walls are bathed in blues, reds, yellows. The best situations come as one moves from room to room, slowly gaining a read on what's to come. The MCA sells a couple books to accompany the show, though his is an art that must be experienced to both understand and appreciate. And from my experience the more one can see his work in various places, the more one sees how his light shapes space and alters our experience of it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Spiraling On

Following up on the BIG NEWS in these parts, more and more people are weighing in on the plans for Fordham Spire, planned for Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood.

WTTW's Chicago Tonight had Adrian Smith of SOM, WBEZ's Edward Lifson, and the Sun-Times then-staff reporter-now architecture critic Kevin Nance on Tuesday discussing the proposal. I caught about the last half where Smith, the designer of the Trump Tower just down the river from the site, actually said the two skyscrapers would complement each other, unlike his client who strongly opposes the Spire. Lifson spoke about Calatrava's charisma being a help in actually getting the building off the ground, while Nance asserted that the building would not be a target for terrorists, since it's residential/hotel and therefore doesn't carry any symbolic meaning. They ended by giving their odds on the project's outcome: Smith giving it a 10% chance, Lifson thinking a Calatrava tower will rise but in a different form, and Nance giving it a 50% chance. Last night's show featured a discussion with the designer, though I missed that one. Too bad Chicago Tonight - ahem - doesn't archive their shows online.

Nance covers the press conference where Calatrava speaks but fails "to demonstrate why he is one of the world architecture scene's few genuine superstars," but then "Calatrava picks up a felt-tip pen, walks to a nearby easel, and starts to draw....It might as well be a magic wand."

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Calatrava stabilizes the Spire; the drama at night

The Tribune yesterday published not one but five articles on the project.

And finally Peter Slatin reports that Fordham Spire "signals that developers now believe that today's best-known architects not only sell condos, they sell financing." He illuminates us to the developer's previous buildings, and their problems, coming to the conclusion that "a great designer is commoditized, and a great city is caricatured."

6pm Update: Forgot to mention that the upcoming Hello Beautiful! will be a live call-in show revolving around the Fordham Spire, with Martha Thorne (Associate Curator of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago), Santiago Calatrava, Blair Kamin, Kevin Nance, and YOU. It airs at 10am CST and is also available as a live stream via the link above.

Update 07.29: Lynn Becker's head hurts from all the Calatrava commotion.

Update 08.01: A bunch more articles hit over the weekend:
:: Arcspace
:: More Kamin
:: More Nance
:: Ms. Gould
:: BugMeNot, for all those pesky news sites

Me Be Jammin'

With the taking off of Podcasting, it was just a matter of time before the mix tape found an online home. The Wooster Collective is one such repository, featuring the Vitamin_F Series curated by Vinnie Ray. The latest mix is compiled by Maya Huyak and is 74 minutes (35 mb) of quality "eclectica".

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My personal favorites are the starters by X-Ray Specs and Julie Ruin (of Le Tigre) and the 1-2-3 punch of Mellow Candle, Nanette Natal, and Olivia Tremor Control. And if you've never heard the Langley Schools Music Project, now's your chance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Listen Up

As a distraction from "The Calatrava", I offer the following tidbits:
:: Pamphlet Architecture announces its call for entries for issue #28. This is a great opportunity for "architects, designers, theorists, urbanists, and landscape architects to publish their designs, manifestos, ideas, theories, ruminations, hopes, and insights for the future of the designed and built world." Deadline is October 10. Click link above for more information.

:: Lynn Becker has a new blog, ArchitectureChicago Plus, "a place to find out what's going on in Chicago's architectural community, as well as for discussions on its current state and future potential."

and

:: Following on the heels of the recent archi-boom in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune now has a permanent outpost for architecture articles, titled cityscape. (Thanks to Lil'G for this head's up)

Oh My


2,000 feet.
115 stories.
920,000 s.f.
$500 million


The Chicago Tribune reports on the latest supertall tower planned for Chicago, Fordham Tower, designed by everybody's favorite Spanish architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava. According to the article, the tower would be
...utterly different from the boxy forms found elsewhere on the Chicago skyline: A skyscraper with gently curving, concave outer walls attached to a massive reinforced concrete core.

Each floor would rotate a little more than 2 degrees from the one below. The floors would turn 270 degrees around the core as they rise, making the building appear to twist.

A spire above would soar to roughly 2,000 feet...
Calatrava is quoted as saying this super-duper tall height (about 550-feet more than the Sears Tower) reflects his search for ideal proportions and that the goal "is not the highest, or the widest, but a building that wants to be special, a step beyond." Alderman Burton Natarus humorously said, "It's going to put Chicago on the map." Because Millennium Park (among many other architectural triumph's in the city's history) was a big failure, eh Alderman?

The Trib's coverage - evident in its subheader "Trump blasts iffy edifice that would put his in shadow" - finds a way to work in the Donald, who thinks the insanity limit for building tall is 1,360 feet - the height of Trump Tower now under construction. The Sun-Times coverage, on the other hand, takes a different approach, focusing on the femininity of the design that resembles a "tall, stately woman in a flowing, gauzy gown that swirls around her legs."

The proposed tower's location is about two blocks from where I work. If it existed now, I could see it out my window. I know you're happy for me, but no doubt the Streeterville community will have a fair number of people opposed to this looming presence and potential target in their midst.

The site is actually located at a dead end, at the terminus of Water Street which in this one-block stretch now serves two residential developments - one 3-story townhouses, the other two condo towers with townhouses - before it ends just east of Lake Shore Drive. This fact might be acceptable considering the developer is planning to fill the tower with less than 500 hotel and residential units combined, about 250 less than Trump.

The official unveiling of the proposal is Wednesday, so hopefully more - and better - images will follow. At the moment the design is being called a birthday candle and the like (licorice, perhaps?). These sort of analogies I don't find very helpful, though coming from Calatrava I find the design driven more by the 2-degree gimmick than any concerns of beauty and proportion, as he indicated. As well the spire is as dislocated as the one at Freedom Tower. But maybe new renderings will put a better twist on the design, no pun intended.

Update: The New York Times has a feature with a dramatic (yet tiny) nighttime skyline rendering.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Book Review: if...then

if...then: Architectural Speculations The Architectural League of New York
Princeton Architectural Press, 2005
Paperback, 176 pages



The sixth in an annual series of publications that features the winners of the Architectural League of New York's Young Architects competition has the rather vague-sounding theme "if...then". Referring to the binary programming of computers (if a then b), this does not translate into the six chosen architects being slaves to the computer, cranking out blobs and the like. Instead, each architect is grounded in the computer's importance to architectural practice - especially in design and production - with a variety of foci and results.

Fernando Romero (LCM) has built the most of the six winners, perhaps owing this trait to the inexpensive construction in Mexico City, his creative small-scale house designs having lead to a high-rise commission now under construction. Tom Wiscombe's EMERGENT won the Young Architects Program at PS 1 a couple years ago; his projects presented here are the most overtly computerized of the bunch. Studio Luz's focus appears to be small interiors, such as restaurants and bars, and other types where surface and skin are of the utmost importance. Another competition winner is Mitnick Roddier Hicks, whose design of the Spertus Institute for 2002's Burnham Prize is a tough act to follow. The Borden Partnership cranks out house designs like they're going out of style, many of them with strong concepts for alternative ways of living. And finally Miloby Ideasystem embraces branding as an integral component of architecture, something that sets them apart.

Beyond the computer analogy of "if...then", the projects presented broadly illustrate the importance of that sort of thinking (if I design this/that way, then what will happen?) towards what they design, what the organizers term architectural fictions. While if...then may have been more predictable in the time of Modernism, now it is a flexible idea that requires new ways of approaching design, something these architects share in their own unique ways.


Chameleon

Chameleon in Melbourne, Australia by Cassandra Complex

The following text and images are courtesy Cassandra Complex for their Chameleon project, "an inner-city residential warehouse conversion over three levels for a couple." Photographs are by John Gollings.

This project was indelibly influenced by its constrained context (physically, an internal space) conceptually (a private home) – it has restricted potential in a public sense. The site is a turn of the century industrial warehouse in a homogenous strip of six. It is located just north of the Queen Victoria Market, in a mixed use area. There is a Lexus Showroom, “a Junk Shop”, many developer driven menageries, and on market days the carparks are bread for the seagulls. There seems to be a lot of rubbish lying around often. Even the warehouse appears as a kind of “discarded object” and is only salvaged and transformed due to current market trends.

It sits hard up against the street metaphorically interpreting Walter Benjamin’s suggestion of culture being most dynamic when the veil is thinnest. There is no threshold here, no front yard. Thus a secondary internal veil was installed by way of a perforated gold door. It was formerly Davies Auto electrical and originally the “Allens Sweet Factory”. The new door suggests the beginning of a reimagined history embedded within the discarded object. The glowing core too, is visible from the street.

The Brief: To design and construct a space that is deliberate and uncertain. To interpret the client brief and extend private imperatives into a public domain - using architecture as the medium…Ultimately, to represent the client's desired autonomy in a spiralling world, whilst maintaining the physical integrity of the warehouse…Unfold private imperatives into public domain via glimpses, garbles, gratuitous, geshculations.

The Outcome: Taking a walk around, the kitchen can be viewed, from the main living space, through a slice of the glowing “ruby”. To your right is a store room, followed by the second bathroom (a combo of reflecting mirrors). To the left the bedroom wing and then finally the kitchen.

The bedroom occupies the south west corner, which links through to the main bathroom via a walk through dressing space with openings. A large rhomboid bath links the bathroom to the living space dissolving conventional separation whereby the shower screen is a large lightweight gate. The acute angle of the bedroom is negated by a mirrored wall with a window appearing to float in space.

Wander up to the mezzanine level. You are now perched up above the “ruby” within the cosy cinema space and a guest quarter, or you can keep on trekking up to the roof deck. A hammock, a spa, a barbie, and stunning views across the city of Melbourne.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Peak Oil Recognition

In a shocking move (to me), Chevron announced new "advertising [that] targets dialogue about global energy issues" in a press release on July 7. The first incarnation (PDF link) I've seen of these ads is a two-page spread in next month's Wired that basically admits "the era of easy oil is over" on one page while asking people to join them in a dialogue about the future of energy on the other.

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Their web page devoted to this dialogue touches on various issues (oil demand and supply, global population, geopolitics, and the environment) ever so lightly, though the admittance of a problem is definitely a start. Ultimately, the web page is a public relations campaign for one of the biggest oil companies in the world, though I do like the ticker on the main page:

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What might be a valuable tool is the discussion area, though in its current incarnation it does not work as well as most message boards. The biggest problem is that each opinion is separated from the initial post/topic as well as any other opinions. So rather than a true discussion, it's merely grab-bag of comments with no continuity or thread that would have a better chance of leading to something valuable.

Moving away from Chevron, Peak Oil is a theory proposed by geophysicist M. King Hubbert, hence the theory is also referred to as Hubbert's Peak. Hubbert correctly predicted the peak of U.S. oil production 15 years before it occurred, predicting it to within a span of a year or two. Basically he asserted that the U.S. would reach the halfway point of the available cheap oil in the early 1970s; after that point the oil supply would decline, it would not be able to meet demand, and it would be more expensive to extract. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 coincides with the peak oil of U.S oil.

His model was found to be sound and was applied to global oil production, with bodies like the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas locating that peak around 2007. The price of oil per barrel - around $60 now compared to $20 less than five years ago - is one indication that we're near that peak, as is our continued presence in the Middle East. Whatever the year for the actual peak, it's the after-effects that have people worried. Hubbert's theory uses a bell curve to illustrate the supply of cheap oil, showing a steep drop - or cliff.

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The Hubbert Curve

Some people agree with this steep slide into a post-oil future, most notably James Howard Kunstler - who chronicles the impending crisis in his Clusterf*ck Nation blog - and Matt Savinar, who predicts that, "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon." I find it hard to argue that, but it can be read in a multitude of ways, so my reading is different than someone else's or even the author's original intentions. I see that the U.S.'s selfish, gas-guzzling, suburban, long-commuting, NASCAR, SUV ways are going to change whether we like it or not. The degree to which that happens and how is what people and corporations like Chevron are trying to figure out.

Pardon my naivete and cynicism, but I think we should do more ourselves rather than sit back and let the government and corporations take care of everything, because we know who they'll take care of. Drive less. Walk to the store, the library, the movies. Live near where you work. Grow your own vegetables and herbs. Build with local materials. There's a multitude of things we can do ourselves that won't change the world but will at least make us less susceptible to the impacts of Peak Oil, while maybe even making our lives better.

State of the House

Walking about Lincoln Park during this weekend's Sheffield Garden Walk, I snapped the following pics of some rather interesting contemporary houses in the area.

A 1996 number by Schroeder Murchie Laya on Seminary:
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An unexciting yet decent house on Magnolia (architect unknown):
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A Peter Eisenman base with a swirl on top, on Webster (architect unknown):
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A general shot and a close-up of a brand new house on Webster by DeStefano + Partners:
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Friday, July 22, 2005

Lots O' Links

Getting over my negligence and finally sifting through my backlogged inbox, I re-discovered the following articles, projects, sites, etc. that people have suggested over the years months but I've never followed up on for one reason or another. It's a veritable grab bag of delights that I now pass on to you, dear reader.
:: The Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge
:: "Green-Based" Uban Growth
:: Frankfurt Lounge
:: Maderadisegno
:: Another Los Angeles (from Panos)
:: South Beach Architectural Photographs
:: MuNiMuLa
:: Manon Cafe New York
:: GaiDome3
:: Cinema Treasures
:: Krenneke: a blocked blog
:: Cyburbia
:: "Pioneers of Modern Design: From Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera"
:: Urbis
:: Time Capsule 21
:: iMage
:: Gallery 40000

Eyesore

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It lacks the dignity of even a common bowling trophy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Meier-palooza

A couple readers contacted me, within the span of a few days, about two Richard Meier projects, one built and one under construction, both Federal projects. I received an e-mail from "Mr. C" about the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building on Long Island that I featured on my weekly page about five years ago. Kiel e-mailed me about the San Jose City Hall, set to be in operation by August with finishing touches through October. Given thecoincidentall Meier messages, I thought I would address both in one post, a veritable Meier-palooza of the white-haired architect's white buildings.

Starting with the Federal Courthouse, Mr. C contested four points I made in my critique: 1. Formal - in this case elevation - considerations overriding practical concerns, 2. An ignorance of context via theprevalentt use of white aluminum panels, 3. The constant use of these white panels in Meier's buildings, and 4. The easy replication of Meier's signature style by his staff. Mr. C's experience working in Meier's office lends his argument some credence while potentially making it biased in his favor. Regardless, I'll briefly address each argument but, more importantly, try to continue the discussion (along with the San José City Hall) on the quality and merit of Meier's architecture.

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1. The image above illustrates what I referred to as "two-dimensional design considerations...evident in the courthouse's elevations", specifically the vertical stacking of four "balconies" that breaks up a rather expansive wall of glass and horizontal sun shades. Mr. C vehemently denies that Meier veers from the program, though he doesn't indicate what use these balconies serve. Without seeing any floor plans and going off my belief that the a lot of spaces in this building type, particularly the courtrooms themselves, do not require daylight, as well as judging from this image, I would say this exterior face is purely circulation. Therefore, I would guess the balconies are lookouts, in some ways appropriate considering the building towers above its surroundings. I would not argue that this gesture doesn't help the facade - it helps it greatly - but I would argue that it's functionally arbitrary. Perhaps Mr. C can illuminate the actual function of this vertical element.

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2/3. Richard Meier is most well known not only for his use of white aluminum (sometimes porcelain) panels, but also for his stubbornness in their application on nearly every project, apparent in the aptly-titled documentary on the making of the Getty Center, Concert of Wills. Mr. C does correctly point out that Meier has executed buildings in travertine and stainless steel, though I never said otherwise. Instead I asserted that "Meier constantly uses these white panels in any context," as he tried (unsuccessfully, though still used to a limited extent amongst the more-prevalant travertine) at the Getty and recently used at the Jubilee Church in Rome. My point was the architect's willingness to use the material anywhere, regardless of the surrounding buildings and landscape, not any limitation in his palette to only using white aluminum. The Crystal Cathedral project above is an example of Meier expanding his palette, this time to stainless steel, but to me it screams "I WANT TO BE WHITE ALUMINUM!" Even though he's using a different material, his formal vocabulary is the same, and it just doesn't work as well as the white surfaces that "[intensify] the perception of all other hues that exist in natural light and in nature." Here, that intensity is replaced with a dull shine, ironically one case where white should have prevailed.

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4. My assertion that Meier "wants to create easily replicated (by his staff) signature buildings" is a bit of an exaggeration, I'll admit. Given the size of his office and the number of projects going on simultaneously, a well-defined design structure is necessary within the firm to enable a lot of work to be accomplished by hands outside of Meier's. This is common in many offices, but not to the extent of his cookie cutter (another exaggeration...sorry) designs. My personal taste in architecture tends towards the eclectic when it comes to individual architects, so one of my favorites is Renzo Piano because of his seeming lack of repetition. Yes, Meier's designs are singular creations that are dictated by site features and program, but typically at the level of plan and elevation and primarily through geometry. They do achieve some beauty in the play of light and their contrast with nature, and some have impressive, soaring interior spaces. His reference to important features outside of the building site is one well-known device he uses to generate plans. On my first visit to the Crate & Barrel (image above) on Michigan Avenue in Chicago - with its skylight pointing at an angle directly towards the Hancock - I actually thought I was standing in a Richard Meier building; instead it was done by local firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

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Mr. C concluded his e-mail with the hope that I "will, through future experiences, open [my]self to the true beauty that is the architecture of Richard Meier and Partners." What better way than to take a glimpse at the soon-to-be-completed San Jose City Hall (image above and images below).

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Although my familiarity is limited to the text and images at the link above (no information is on Meier's web site), the City Hall is comprised of an 18-story office tower housing the city's various departments (from Mayor on down to Customer Service), a 3-story wing with the City Council Chambers, and the rotunda, City Hall's ceremonial entry and a public gallery. The decision to use the oft-used rotunda as a public space rather than, say, for the City Council, is an interesting one, strengthened all the more by its connection to a plaza.

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The design of the dome is somewhat of a departure for the architect more accustomed to flat roofs with the occasional cylinder and piano curve. Held in place by spider fittings, the glass dome recalls Norman Foster's Reichstag, though it remains to be seen what sort of environment will exist under the glass and the hot California sun.

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If he treats the rotunda like the tower, some solar shading may be in the works. In what appears to be the south face above, another layer is added to the glassy facade, its curve referencing the dome it faces and adding interest to the facade.

While it's too soon to pass any judgment on this building or say much more about it, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for the onslaught of images and words that will surely accompany its opening.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Red or White Wine?

Everybody's favorite Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey shares his wisdom and gripes about flying and the new Airbus A380 in an old KCRW DnA show. Skip ahead to 21:46 to hear my favorite part:
I find the idea of sitting on any big aircraft absolute misery. You're crammed in. You're squeezed in. You have the sky nannies coming along and bullying you:

(In high voice)"Chicken or fish? Red or white wine? And keep the seat in the upright position."

Always being bullied and having a horrible time.
And that, of course, truly is the future of flight:
Having a horrible time for as short a time as possible.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

In the Name of $

The always wonderful Things Magazine posted today about billboard advertising, spurred by the clever one below for a suntan lotion.



While I'm often dismayed by the fact so much creative effort is expended on something so fleeting as the always-reinventing-itself-to-give-the-consumer-something-new world of advertising, this billboard is reminiscent of a mural along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago titled Shadow Mural, commissioned by The Catholic Charities of Chicago. The mural is made from hundreds of uniquely-shaped metal strips cantilevered from structural panels to depict Jesus washing the feet of the disciples flanked by the heads of St. Vincent DePaul and Frederick Ozanam, the founder of the St. Vincent DePaul Society.



Things goes on to mention Delete!, "which stripped out all extraneous white noise from advertising in a single street in Vienna." A few years before Delete!, Pasi Kolhonen investigated the inverse, removing the context and leaving the advertising in photographs of the streets of Helsinki.

So we have a couple installations/proposals that deal with the pervasive overtaking of our visual landscape (particularly in cities) by advertising and two types of advertising that recognize this and respond with creative and comparatively subdued expressions. It's like an urban-scale tug-of-war without an end in sight. As long as there's something to sell (commercially or religiously), there will be advertising of some form, and as long as people look at billboards, advertisers will use them. Unfortunately, when advertisers come up with clever responses like this, it's hard not to look.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Book Review: Low Life

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
Paperback, 460 pages



Sante's book about lower Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a beloved account of the seedy side of the city. After setting up the urban landscape of those less fortunate, the author recounts stories of theater, booze, drugs, gambling, prostitution, gangs, crooked cops and politicians, orphans, homeless, those who were born in the gutter and stayed in the gutter. The geographical center of the book is the Bowery, a 1.5-mile stretch that runs from present-day Chinatown to the East Village, still home to the flophouses and saloons that began in the time of this book (though the impending destruction of McGurk's Suicide Hall is an unfortunate erasure of the city's history). Physically, the Bowery parallels Broadway and in Sante's mind this parallel was more than that, as the same vices gave rise to each thoroughfare, the former for the lower classes and the latter for the upper crusts of society.

Through extensive and diverse research, Sante paints a vivid picture of New York at a time that seems so remote but still exists today in the polarization of classes and the its seediness. It's a history that is many times glossed over in favor of stories of money and power. But to truly understand the city, one must know of its lows as well as its highs, and for the lows, Sante's unique book is the best yet.


Pedestrian Tunnel

Pedestrian Tunnel in Prague, Czech Republic by AP Atelier

The Prague Castle is the Czech Republic city's most popular tourist attraction, supposedly the largest ancient castle in the world with a history stretching back almost 1,200 years. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel envisioned a plan that would allow pedestrians to better use the castle and its surroundings, of particular concern here being the Deer Moat, a dry bed interrupted by a natural stream. While visitors to the castle typically traversed the moat via Powder Bridge, Havel's plan incorporated a pedestrian tunnel that would enable people to use the Deer Moat.

The commission for the tunnel was given to Josef Pleskot's AP Atelier. Their simple design funnels people on their way to the castle towards one of the two rectangular openings of the 84m (275 ft) long tunnel via retaining walls. Once inside, the rectangular opening gives way to an oval section that is stretched rather high, making the extremely long and narrow opening appear more generous in size and less claustrophobic for those passing through.

Besides the impressive shape and size of the tunnel, a few other design features give the project its unique and site-specific character: its construction, the presence of the Brusnice stream, and the preservation of an older bridge. The brick, load-bearing construction of the tunnel is a sensible choice, not only for the material's structural properties (good in compression with the forces following the curve of the continuous arch), but the size and scale of the bricks help reduce the overall impression of the space versus, say, a smooth concrete surface. The project has garnered at least one brick award for its creative use of the material.

The last two design features (stream and old bridge) are sensed as one moves through the space. Half of the floor (evident in the picture at left) is made up of steel grating, allowing the stream - located at about the halfway point of the tunnel - passing underneath to be seen and heard. Along the length of the tunnel also occurs a niche, housing a preserved portion of a Renaissance-era bridge, since replaced by the Powder Bridge. Rather than move the tunnel or remove the relic to another location, the architects revealed it as a layer of history, much like the Prague Castle itself.



Sunday, July 17, 2005

A Critical LINE

The latest issue of AIA San Francisco's design journal LINE is called THE CRITICAL ISSUE: Why Critical Dialogue Matters. With features, commentary, interviews, reviews, and portfolio, the online journal sets the standard for other AIA chapters, sharing with the world matters that pertain not only to its jurisdiction. This issues focus on a critical dialogue is especially timely as the role and importance of architectural criticism is questioned.

The fact an AIA chapter is taking on the topic of criticism is pretty amazing, apparent in Margie O' Driscoll's editorial where she says, "the resounding response from other AIA chapters was that it's not appropriate for a member-serving organization like the AIA to engage in critique, especially a negative critique of a member project," and "Why...should architects use their professional organization to scold their members?" Herein lies part of the problem: the "thumbs up-thumbs down" perception of criticism. In my mind - a definition learned in college that has stayed with me - criticism is the presentation of a point-of-view that enables the reader to form their own opinion and learn more through a (hopefully) informed take on the project at hand. By merely saying "this is bad" or "this is good" (even with expressed reason), the reader is absolved of forming their own opinion or of learning an alternate take on the subject at hand. And to me, educating the reader is more important than saying something's good or bad.

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That said, San Francisco is as great a place as any to explore this topic: the home of a liberal mindset is ironically the home of a very conservative public when it comes to the city's physical make-up. The gap between the architectural profession and the general public, like anywhere, needs to be bridged, a topic addressed by Mitchell Schwarzer. Other features address the decline of architectural criticism in Italy and France, critical design culture in the 90s, and public design reviews. With the interviews, reviews, and projects, in addition to the features, there's something here for everyody.

(via Archinect)

Book of the Moment

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Billed as a "product source guide, annual desk reference, and encyclopedic resource directory", Felder's Comprehensive is directed at architects, contractors, engineers, and interior designers. It aims to make finding information easier, falling somewhere between smaller, narrow-focused references and the vast world of the internet. Most importantly, it isn't driven by advertising so its more thorough, though less flashy, than other references and guides.

Broken into ten sections (Awards, Competitions, Design Centers, Education, Events, Media, Museums, Organizations, Trade Shows, Manufacturers), the last takes up close to half of the book. Unfortunately it is the 2005 Edition's only glaring weak point, as the list of manufacturers isn't cross referenced by product type, nor is there any indication in the huge listing what each manufacturer does. (Hopefully this will be addressed in future editions.) Otherwise it is a thorough and well-put-together aid for those in the architecture and design professions.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Trulli Endangered

Having finally have a chance to breeze through the World Monuments Fund's extensive List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, one in particular stands out to me: Murgia dei Trulli. The non-profit organization's list brings attention to individual buildings, archaeological sites, cities, and even countries, in order to raise money towards their preservation. In this case, it covers six towns in the Puglia region of Southern Italy that are home to numerous trulli.

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Simply defined, trulli are one-story limestone structures, typically with white-washed walls, that are capped by cone-, dome-, or pyramid-shaped roofs "fashioned from dry laid stone." Many feature distinctive caps atop the roofs, like below.

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Image by Bill Hocker

While WMF's web page doesn't indicate the six towns covered, already the trulli of Alberobello are a UNESCO World Heritage site, since they are "an exceptional example of a form of building construction deriving from prehistoric construction techniques that have survived intact and functioning into the modern world." But the modernization of this area of Italy is threatening these uniquely beautiful structures, according to the WMF. The top image (from WMF's page) shows a deteriorated collection of trulli, while Bill Hocker's images show ones in good shape that appear to still be a functioning part of Alberobello.

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Image by Bill Hocker

Hopefully some day I'll go back to Italy and see the trulli first hand, as well as the sassi of Matera, another distinctive form of prehistoric construction that has managed to survive into today.