Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Architectural Symbolism and the Sacking of the Capitol

In the past I have criticized the architectural merits of the United States Capitol. In playing architectural critic, I cited the bloated nature of the building: numerous additions have resulted in muddy (at best) proportions and a structure that no architect in his right mind would have created from scratch. But I also acknowledge that it is impossible to offer a fair critique of the Capitol architecture because the symbolism of the building overwhelms objective architectural criticism. The Capitol has long symbolized freedom, democracy, homeland, patriotism, truth, justice, and the American way. Architectural values have little relevance next to the abstract power of the Capitol of the United States of America as an icon. Whether on network news or the letterhead of a congress member, the mere outline of the Capitol Dome instantly communicates the high value people have attached to it -- all architectural criticism aside.  

This symbolic nature of the Capitol is only more clear after the 6th of January day of infamy. The sacking of the United States Capitol carries more weight than any run-of-the-mill riot or building defacement. It was an attack on every value that our democracy is. That is why, in the aftermath of the insurrection, shocked politicians and citizens expressed their dismay about the attack using words usually reserved for religious feelings. It was an assault on the "hallowed halls" of democracy. The building is described as "a sacred space" or "a revered sanctuary" or "a shrine of democracy."  None of this, of course, has anything to do with the physical architecture of the place. It has everything to do with the architectural symbolism of the building. 

During the Civil War, President Lincoln was urged by Congress to stop construction work on the new United States Capitol building. War funds were depleting the treasury and many saw the construction project as unnecessary spending in dire times. Lincoln saw things differently. He knew that the American people needed the symbolism of a completed Capitol. Construction continued. Lincoln, of course, was right. He knew what leaders have always known: people need a tangible representation of their most valued beliefs. The Catholic Church understood this in its ascendancy and used mammoth cathedrals to attract and impress the masses. Queen Victoria understood this when she moved her seat of power to Buckingham Palace where it would be visible to all Londoners. The pharaohs certainly understood this when ordering monuments big enough to ensure their influence even after death. Architecture can be a lasting and powerful tool around which to organize ideas and inspire devotion or -- at least -- respect. 

From TV reporting and a flood of video images, the average American now has more architectural understanding of the Capitol than ever before. We have seen how Officer Eugene Goodman, with his knowledge of the Capitol floor plan, deliberately led marauders away from the Senate chamber. Away from Vice President Pence as the mob frothed with "hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence..."  We have seen numerous replays of angry white males bursting into the senate chamber, invading private offices, and smashing doors and windows with abandon. All within the gravitas of marble halls, colonnades, and classical details that we recognize as our United States Capitol. 

Is there some other form of architecture that could carry the weight of all this symbolism other than the Classical Revival building that has been bequeathed to us by history? Of course. Had the Capitol been designed in the twentieth century with modernist materials and details we would probably be in thrall by whatever that building looked and felt like. Or, perhaps, some Art Nouveau confection would be our inheritance. Or maybe a late-Gothic, spire-encrusted building like the British Parliament. Whatever it might have been, if it housed our government it would eventually grow into a symbol of our government and a symbol of who we are as a people. A symbol beyond the reach of architectural criticism. But our founding fathers and subsequent leaders decided that the proper receptacle for a democratic government was Greco-Roman architecture because the Greeks invented democracy. So there we have it. That architecture has been established, repeated, and embellished over the years. As a powerful and rich nation we have had the resources to build and maintain the Capitol architecture in top-notch form. What we see today on TV is a legacy from the past that is alive today.

 All buildings have a spirit in some sense. We have warm feelings about home, religious devotion in church, feelings of excitement in an arena. Under the best circumstances, architecture supports and encourages such feelings. That is the purpose of architecture, as opposed to merely encasing these functions in an ordinary building. For any architect fortunate enough to author a major public building, one hopes they are up to the honor. The symbolism they establish with architecture can be long lasting and very serious. And perhaps it would be good to remember that any outrage we may feel about the January 6th sacking of the Capitol, any fondness we may have about the lavish architectural details, and any heartbreak we have about the desecration of that building is not about the physical construct at all. Our outrage is about the defilement of the ideas which that building symbolizes after centuries of standing unmarred by internal political strife. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Trump Thinks He Knows Architecture and Design

Architect Greg Walke sent us this meme circulating on the web.  'Nuff said. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Architect Walter Weberhofer

Casa Fernandini by Walter Weberhofer (1957).

I don't know why I have never heard of Walter Weberhofer (1923-2002) at some time during my architectural education. Weberhofer was a prolific modernist architect working in Peru. I recently stumbled across images of his Casa Fernandini (1957) built on the beach at Santa Maria del Mar, Peru. I am embarrassed to admit this design eluded my awareness for so long. It is a dramatic and romantic architectural work of art — worthy of inclusion in any history of Mid Century Modern design. 
Casa Fernandini.

Casa Fernandini, with its cantilevered decks and horizontal emphasis, is obviously influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (1939) at Bear Run, Pennsylvania. However, it is not just a knock-off of Wright's work. Casa Fernandini hints at the New Brutalism movement about to emerge as well as being extremely vigorous with angular tension and structural panache. The house also reminds me of sets for the film version of  Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (Warner Brothers, 1949.) The set designs by Edward Carrere were panned at the time by the architectural press as a perversion of modern architectural principles. Admittedly they were cartoonish and hyperbolic, but also viscerally enjoyable. Weberhofer's work is like that. Over the top, but fun. 

Set design for The Fountainhead.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Architecture in the Mountains (Grand Lake, CO)

Working in the mountains is inspiring. It can also be challenging. Out latest high country project is set on a steep site at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, overlooking the town of Grand Lake, Colorado. An inspiring site, but, with a daunting grade change, a worthy challenge. Throw in a megalithic rock and a strict budget and the challenges multiply.
House by the Rock, Grand Lake, Colorado. 

The rock, about the size of a "tiny house", sits partially in the building envelope and partially in the setback area. Incorporating it into the structure was a tempting option, but its position was not amenable to that approach. Instead, we used the geographical feature to form a sort of entry court at the front door. Our name for the design, House by the Rock, embraces the rock as a welcome natural element. It also pays homage to one of our favorite renegade works of architecture, Alex Jordan's House on the Rock. Also in mind was a project by Frank Lloyd Wright we have always admired: the Hardy House.  
Front and rear elevations.

The rear of the house is stabilized by a series of retaining walls and terraces with a cantilevered balcony above. Three levels of outdoor living "rooms" (the upper deck, lower terrace, and hot tub patio) look out on the primary views.  All major interior spaces also focus on the panorama of mountains, lakes, and forest. 
Groundbreaking is scheduled for the spring of 2021. 

The eponymous rock.
Surveying the site. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's Hardy House, located in Racine, WI.
Illustration by Marion Mahoney. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

LaVerne Lantz Architectural Biography Now Available on iBooks

My updated and expanded monograph, LaVerne Lantz -- An Architectural Biography, is now available on iBooks. This is Apple's book ap, also known as Apple Books or Books. If you have an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, Mac) the ap is available for free in the ap store. Find this book by searching Michael Knorr or LaVerne Lantz

This monograph was originally inspired by a tour of architecture in southeastern Wisconsin by Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, Inc. The tour, dubbed Wright and Like -- Driving Mr. Wright, was held in June of 2014 and is an annual event. The 2014 tour featured two Frank Lloyd Wright homes as well as projects by other architects who are "like" Wright. Included were five homes by a relatively unknown home designer, LaVerne Lantz. 

The current version of this "architectural biography" has been expanded with additional text as well as more photographs and drawings. 

The mid-twentieth century saw an effusion of modern architecture. Mid-Century Modern design was in the air across America when LaVerne Lantz started to become aware of architecture. After completing a few fledgeling projects, his commissions came to him by word-of-mouth referrals. He never compromised his design philosophy; as a result, every Lantz design is a clear testament to his well-developed sense of what a house should and ought to be. Every Lantz home is a confident expression of internally consistent design principles and coherent themes. Despite the high quality and integrity of LaVerne Lantz's body of work, it is largely undocumented. This monograph serves to remedy that omission in architectural history. Any fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and aficionados of Mid-Century Modern design will appreciate LaVerne Lantz's original take on the principles of organic architecture. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sacred Architecture

I have been spending some time recently on ecclesiastical designs and sacred architecture. I will be posting the results from time to time. Here is a church design for 500 people.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Roy Horn, 1945-2020

This week we lost Roy Horn of the Las Vegas entertainment team of Siegfried and Roy. He was a victim of Covid-19.

As readers of this blog may remember, Siegfried and Roy provided my office with one of our most interesting architectural opportunities: designing a compound on forty acres they owned on the north side of Las Vegas. We had already been working on a large addition to their Jungle Palace complex for fund raising events and entertainment. In 2003 that project was suddenly brought to a halt when Roy was seriously injured during a performance at the Mirage resort. Roy experienced a stroke on stage; one of their white tigers, Montecore, rescued him and dragged him to safety. According to Roy, the tiger saved his life.
Cabana and pool. 
We heard again from Roy a year later. Facing a lengthy recovery, Roy decided he needed a new retreat on one level and Siegfried wanted to live close by to supervise his care. We designed a series of pavilions clustered around an existing weekend cabin. The compound consisted of a cottage for Roy, another for Siegfried, a commons building for entertainment, and a chapel. All was connected by vine-covered trellises and surrounded by fountains, waterfalls, and a spring-fed lake. Over the years, our work also included a poolside cabana, storage facilities for their stage productions, a ten-car garage and entrance gate, and a wild animal habitat. I mention all of this because when I think of Roy Horn I am flooded with memories of this extraordinary project and the many meetings we had with him and his staff of talented people. It was also an opportunity to work with my friend Mickey Akerman and his team at Amirob Studios who created the interior design themes for the project.
Roy's pavilion with chapel in background. 
Roy was a demanding client, but his creative talents inspired and encouraged the best work from all those who surrounded him. The experience of working with him is something never to be forgotten and never to be repeated. We will miss Roy Horn. The world is diminished without his presence.
Commons pavilion. 
West water feature.  
Chapel bell tower. 
Complex connected with vine-covered trellises and surrounded by water.