Sunday, December 9, 2012

Oscar Niemeyer ARCHITECT

Oscar Niemeyer died last week at 104 years of age. He actively practiced architecture past the age of 100, reinforcing the phenomenon that famous architects continue to work well into their later years. (I'm not sure if that is true for not-so-famous architects.) His career began in the mid-1930s, including the Brasilian pavilion for the New York World's Fair in 1939 (with Lucio Costa).

Oscar Niemeyer was instrumental in my career path. I vividly remember being aware of his spectacular work when I was about 12 years old. I wrote a homework assignment that had something to do with the president of Brasil, Juscelino Kubitschek. I don't remember anything about Kubitschek's politics or why I wrote the paper. I do remember he hired Oscar Niemeyer to design a new capitol for Brasil: Brasilia. It was carved out of the jungle in a fearlessly modern style that employed bold shapes and sensuous curves. Unlike the austere boxes of most modernists, Niemeyer was unabashedly sensuous in his approach to architecture. He likened his work to the curves of the beautiful women on Rio's Copacabana beach. He was a Brasilian modern architect, not of the prevailing "international" style. His beautiful buildings directly influenced my decision to become an architect.

1. National Congress of Brasil.

2. Museo Nacional.

3. Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasil.

4. Presidential Palace

5. Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasil. 
6. Auditorium.

7. Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasil, interior.
"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves....
Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Even today, five decades later, Niemeyer's work in Brasilia appears fresh and modern. His more recent projects are as vigorous and inventive as his earlier ones.  Oscar Niemeyer deserves to be remembered as one of the great architects of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

1. Marcelo Jorge Viera
2. Pub. Dom.
3. Victor Soares
4. Pub. Dom.
5. Joau Felipe
6. Jesus giez lago
7. Javier Gil

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Half-A-Cup of Architecture

There is a shopping center near my house that is nice enough, as shopping centers go. It has a quasi-prairie style demeanor with hip roofs and broad overhangs. It supports a useful assortment of shops: Pier One, Petsmart, a couple of banks, and the obligatory Starbucks.
A neighborhood shopping center.
The architecture softens a big box venue, Office Max, as well as can be done. But every time I visit the center I'm disappointed by a potentially good design that has dropped the ball. The hip roof motif looks great from certain angles (head on) but from other vantage points the hip roofs are severed like useless appendages. Worse: when viewed from the rear, the hips turn into aluminum-paneled gables.
Phantom hip, above.  Details, below.

Some people view things as a cup half full and others as a cup half empty. Either way, these chopped-off hip roofs are half-a-cup of architecture. They are incomplete; fake; deceptive. Obviously, these phantom roofs are a way to simplify (cheapen) the design. The architects probably thought we would never notice. They appear to have succumbed to a common pitfall amongst architects and developers: designing a building from the front, forgetting that we live in a three-dimensional world. This shopping center sprawls over three city blocks, surrounded on four sides by busy streets. It is impossible not to see the architecture from all sides.
Main street in an old west town.
The set for Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles.
We are constantly exposed to this type of facade-ism: buildings designed like storefronts in a western movie. A Flatland world where a building is imagined to exist only in one dimension. Then we turn the corner and realize half of it is fake. A pretentious facade designed to make us think the building is more important than it really is.

A "spec" house under construction.
We are inundated with this attitude in residential architecture. Many houses are built with brick facades facing the street and cheaper materials around the sides. This is so common we don't think much about it anymore. It has almost become a style in itself. Maligned by thinking architects over the years,  facade-ism is sometimes addressed (somewhat defensively) by taking a wee bit of brick around the corner (see, we really are three-dimensional) but then suddenly quitting the more expensive material for something cheaper. This strategy can work only if the expensive material ends in a graceful way, such as at a jog in the building or by completing a column. All too often it is an empty gesture that only emphasizes the haplessness of the architect and/or the developer. Better to leave the brick off altogether than expose the vacuity of style in a half-hearted attempt at three-dimensional thinking.

Kinda makes you thirsty for a full cup of architecture.
Reductio ad absurdum: a storage shed in facade-ism style.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Would You Like Some Architecture With Your Fries?

Have you noticed that McDonalds has been upping its image lately with newly-mod architecture?
The kitsch of yore is gone, replaced with Starbuckian elevations and furnishings. I don't quite know what to make of it. Seeing a stylish McDonalds is like meeting a monkey in a tuxedo. Will I have a more rewarding experience just because the packaging has improved?

Of course, McDonalds was never not modern. It's just that now it has moved from naive and corny to aspiring sophistication (of a sort).
Here's the dilemma: I am always an advocate of better design in any context, but when good design filters down to McDonalds is it trivialized?  Have the semi-curved roof shapes and organic interiors favored by so many contemporary architects become so common that McDonalds - the lowest common denominator of pop culture - can use them with impunity?
McDonalds is still the same old McDonalds, trying to disguise itself as something better. Plus ce change, plus ce le meme chose. I am still looking for the "McCafe" I see in their ads: cool people drinking customized coffee drinks to the soothing saxaphone of a jazz musician. It doesn't exist, and I'm frustrated every time I search for it.
When you travel across the country every McDonalds menu is still predictable. The restrooms have the same fixtures, the order counter never changes, the ketchup bars are identical. Of course, the food is unvarying. We will never be disappointed at a McDonalds because it always delivers exactly what we expect it to. And now we are gently being offered the same repetitive mod look across the country and we are not offended. It is the pink slime of architecture: a processed filler that keeps us in a numb state of acceptance. None of this new design imagery at McDonalds is in any way challenging or inventive. It lacks the most important quality of good architecture: spatial experience. The new McDonalds architecture is surface treatment with no substance. Just like the food.

Images: MJK

Friday, October 12, 2012

Architecture and Energy: dasHAUS

Acclaimed Energy Efficient Building Pavilion, dasHAUS,
Announces Final North American Tour Stop in Denver

DENVER – The final stop of the North American dasHAUS tour, an innovative solar energy and green building exhibit from Germany, will shortly commence in Denver. The German American Chambers of Commerce have announced the dasHAUS tour will make its last stop on the 14-city tour, which began in October 2011, at the Denver Sustainability Park, 2500 Lawrence Street from October 14-23.  The pavilion is an internationally acclaimed exhibition that demonstrates advanced renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions from Germany, educating the community and opening a dialogue among industry professionals. 

“Through its commitment to the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency, Germany has emerged as a global leader in advanced and sustainable building design,” says Mark Tomkins, Vice President of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest (GACCoM). 
“On this side of the Atlantic, the city of Denver has taken on a leadership role in this area.  With our partner and local host, the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, our goal is to foster an international dialogue and know-how exchange on energy efficiency and renewable energies between Germany and Denver. The dasHAUS project is the perfect platform and rallying point for that exchange.”
dasHAUS is an integrated, multifaceted structure that demonstrates real-world technologies and solutions for meeting ultra-low energy building standards. It draws inspiration from the Technical University of Darmstadt’s 2007 and 2009 first-place entries in the Solar Decathlon, an international solar house competition presented by the US Department of Energy

“dasHAUS offers compelling proof that we can improve the comfort and affordability of our homes even while reducing the demands that those homes place on our energy and natural systems,” says Jerry Tinianow, Chief Sustainability Officer for Denver. “dasHAUS will serve as an inspiration to Denver as it works to foster sustainability by moving to a more affordable housing system in which the full cost of home ownership – including the energy cost – can come within reach of all of our residents.”  

Several special events and presentations will be part of the dasHAUS pavilion, featuring presentations by thought leaders on sustainability, green building and new methods of integration for ultra-low energy buildings.

Visitors of dasHAUS can learn about a multitude of sustainability technologies including:
  • Thin film photovoltaic roof, facade and louvered panel systems
  • Heat-recovery climate control and ventilation systems, Passive House Standard triple-pane windows
  • Solar-powered LED lighting systems and high-efficiency appliances
  • Vacuum insulated panel systems
  • VRLA battery systems
  • Advanced wall construction materials and methods

For more information on dasHAUS including an up-to-date schedule of events, visit

dasHAUS is a traveling pavilion, a North American tour and an ongoing international dialogue about advanced technologies for home construction and solar energy use. The purpose – to share German innovations that have achieved sustainable construction and operational energy savings. Attendees will represent leading organizations and businesses in building materials, architecture, engineering, renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as university representatives and public officials.

The German American Chambers of Commerce (GACCs) is one of the largest bilateral trade organizations worldwide. With 2,500 member companies and office locations in Atlanta, Chicago and New York as well as branch offices in Houston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, the GACC offers experience in facilitating connections and services between German industry and its partners in the U.S. 

For more information about the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest and its 800+ members, visit

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Forgotten Architectural Jewel

1. Temple Hoyne Buell's Mullen Nurses Home, 1933.
Buried on a side street in Denver's flourishing Uptown neighborhood is an overlooked art deco masterpiece: the Mullen Nurses Home designed by Temple Hoyne Buell in 1933. (Now part of St. Joseph Hospital.)
2. Entrance to Mullen Nurses Home.
Though in reasonably good condition (and on the state register of historic places) the building is subsumed by the massive medical campus around it. No one seems to notice the gaudy loveliness of this gem amidst all the parking structures, doctors blocks, and patient accommodations that comprise a modern hospital.
3. Brick detailing.
Buell was an immensely creative architect who worked in a variety of styles. He is credited by some as inventing the modern shopping mall and is known nationally for his philanthropy. I remember seeing him at charity events in the 1980s as an octogenarian with jet black hair and a Snidely Whiplash mustache.  But he should be remembered most of all for the astonishing art deco buildings produced early in his career. Best among these is the Mullen Nurses Home. The effulgent brickwork on this building is an astonishing exercise in decorative detailing and craftsmanship. The depth and complexity of the red brick designs against a plain field of beige brick is reminiscent of seventeenth century Churrigueresque architecture. This is excess fighting against restraint. In the twentieth century, only Gaudi had the audacity to play with forms as lush as these. 
4. Churrigueresque revival at San Diego's Panama-California Exposition, 1915.
Perhaps Buell's work is misclassified as art deco. Art deco contained its decoration in streamlined shapes and disciplined curves. The decorative bricks in Buell's architecture ooze out of the structure and refuse to be confined by convenient definitions. That is what makes this one-of-a-kind structure really good architecture and not just a building
5. Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. 
1thru 4, MJK.
5, R. Munger.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Women in Architecture

When I entered architecture school at the University of Oklahoma there was one woman in my class. During our freshman year she was taken aside by a professor/advisor and told "there is no place for women in architecture." She was advised to drop out or change her major.  This seemed shocking to me, but it was Oklahoma. And it was a long time ago.
Fast forward to the twentyfirst century and times have changed. Women are underrepresented in the field of architecture, but they are certainly not a rarity. However, young women considering a career in architecture still need role models and inspiration. For those reasons, I am pleased to post the following news release of a lecture by a very talented architect, Stephanie Forsythe. 

Annual event to be held Wednesday, September 26th 2012 with a reception starting at 5:30 p.m.
DENVER – September 12, 2012 – Women in Design (WiD), a Denver-based non-profit dedicated to improving opportunities for women in professions serving the built environment, welcomes Stephanie Forsythe, owner and principal of molo studio as the featured speaker at its fall lecture. The lecture will be held the evening of September 26th at the Dikeou Collection Pop-up Space located at 1321 Bannock Street in the Golden Triangle neighborhood.

Softwall #1.
Forsythe is an internationally recognized and award-winning designer and Canadian architect who incorporates research of materials into the exploration of space making. As a design and manufacturing studio, molo’s goal is to create objects that “define intimate temporal spaces”. Based in Vancouver, molo's high-profile projects include The Northern Sky Circle, an outdoor room made from snow in Anchorage Alaska and the Aomori Nebuta House, a cultural building inspired by the craftsmanship and spirit of the Aomori Nebuta Festival in Japan. In addition to these architectural collaborations, molo designs and creates products that house people and enhance our spaces, such as softseating, made from 50% recycled fiber kraft paper and softwall, which provides a tactile experience to defined spaces. Though designed for long-term use, softseating is 100% recyclable and has magnetic ends, allowing it to be adjusted to fit to various spaces and needs, or connect to itself to form a cylindrical stool or low table or long winding benches. Made of tissue paper, softwall uses a honeycomb structure that expands to create a completely freestanding wall, hundreds of times larger than its compressed form. It provides translucent light or a more “cocooning” experience depending on the choice of white or black tissue paper. More information on molo’s projects and products can be found at

“WiD is thrilled to have Forsythe speak at our premier event. She’ll share her unique perspective of product design and space making by presenting work created for clients around the world. It’s a rare opportunity to see such a presentation in Denver,” said Cheryl Bicknell, co-chair of WiD. WiD will host a reception starting at 5:30 p.m. with the lecture to follow at 6:30 p.m.
Nebuta House.
Tickets are $20 for WiD members and $35 for non-members. Members must log on to to receive the discount.

Event sponsorship opportunities are available, with additional details on WiD’s website or from the contacts listed below.

Founded in 2005, WiD is a network nearly 200-members strong and growing. For more information about Women in Design, please visit or contact Executive Co-Chairs Cheryl Bicknell or Jennifer Gray at or 
Nebuta House.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Architecture Redux

Original front entry, now undergoing reconstruction.
Life seldom offers a second chance. Unless you hang around long enough in the world of architecture. Lately, I have had the pleasure of reworking several of my earliest projects. Some are for new owners who have different needs. Others are for original clients whose families have grown and now have a different program for their architectural environment. And some properties are simply in need of a twenty-first century facelift. It is a honor to be involved in all of these. There is probably not an architect alive who wouldn't welcome the chance to rethink aspects of any project the moment it is completed. That is why Frank Lloyd Wright always answered, "The next one," when asked which project was his favorite. One of my "second chances" is an extensive remodel and additions for a project I designed twenty years ago in the mountains outside of Denver. The new owners want to expand the floor plan with larger terraces, a new atrium, and a guest house. This was also an opportune moment for new windows, new exterior cladding, and interior updating. The kitchen and baths, in particular, were ready for a fresh look. These changes led to rethinking the fireplaces, flooring, and ceiling treatments. As a result the structure is now stripped to its bones and on its way to a completely different look. It became an opportunity to introduce new materials (Wisconsin limestone), new products (patio doors that pocket into the walls), and a new attitude to the interior design. Since most of the structure had to be stripped bare to implement the new design, the owner also decided to replace the mechanical and electrical systems. We are adding air conditioning and in-floor radiant heat. Light fixtures are being replaced with products that didn't exist when the house was built. In the end, this will not be a remodeled house, but a new one. The original owners were ideal clients, encouraging creativity and innovation. The new owners have been equally enthusiastic about producing a quality project. Their goal is to have a living environment that feels like a destination vacation spot. I am as excited about this new incarnation as I was about the original design.

The house looked like this when built:
Original rear decks.
Long view of original west elevation.
Here is what it looks like today with work in progress:
Stucco is removed; decks and original greenhouse are gone.
Plywood protects openings that led to original greenhouse.
Orignal multi-level decks are removed.
Here are our drawings for the redesigned project:
Perspective showing original house in background, new atrium (replacing greenhouse) on left,
new guest house on right., new deck in foreground.
New exterior elevations. Completed house will be Wisconsin limestone and stucco.
Main level floor plan with new additions shaded.
The original house won a MAME award for House of the Year and was published in The Rocky Mountain News
The Rocky Mountain News. 
We are aided in this effort by interior architect Claus Ranemacher, New York City. The structural engineer is Foothills Engineering, Boulder, Colorado. The builder is Mark Manley, Golden, Colorado. 

Updates of the finished project will appear on this blog in 2013.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Renaissance Architecture of the Air

Renaissance architects manipulated architecture for sensory pleasure and intellectual delight.
Filippo Brunelleschi, architect.
One of the intents of Renaissance architecture was to control the perception of space through the arrangement of mass.The key word here is perception. To Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Palladio, architecture was not about picture-perfect images. It was about the perception of space in real life.
Brunelleschi's dome, Florence, Italy.
A recent article by Gregory Karp in the Chicago Tribune indicates this philosophy of space - dating to at least the renaissance in architecture - is now understood by those who design the interiors of airplanes. 
Boeing Sky Interior.
New airplanes are being outfitted with interiors that address the perception of space in environments normally perceived as cramped and claustrophobic. Even in coach, the new Boeing 737 planes, for example, "are likely to have the Boeing Sky Interior," reports Karp, "which evokes a greater sense of space." Boeing's regional director in Chicago, Kent Craver, cites this as "a step change in our interior philosophy" because passengers have an emotional reaction to the airplane simply based on the way it looks. BINGO! That is what Renaissance architects knew about space five centuries ago. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

New York Architecture

Soaring and very minimalist for the times.
Certain cities have their image inextricably woven into a particular architectural style and time. Paris with the belle epoch. Los Angeles with mid-century modern. Chicago with prairie style. With New York it is the art deco period -- the style of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center. This is also the style of the jazz age, Nick and Nora Charles, and innumerable movie sets. It persists to this day as shorthand for the city. If a marketing campaign wants to be New Yorky it will likely employ art deco lettering and architectural icons from the period.
Rockefeller Center is a suite of buildings that form an
outdoor living room for New York City.
On a recent visit to New York I delighted once again in the apogee of late art deco indulgence: Rockefeller Center. It may be one of the most under-appreciated achievements in modern architecture; its lessons have been so widely disseminated that we take them for granted. Rockefeller Center is remarkable for its unremarkablness. But at the time of its construction it was a marvel of modernity. A miracle, really, in stone and steel.
The least possible amount of decoration....
...executed in the simplest manner.
Its non-architectural position as a pioneering broadcast center, a theatrical extravaganza, a marketing triumph, a high society soap opera, and a real estate developer's masterstroke are stories in themselves. However, Rockefeller Center's contributions to architecture are its lasting legacy.  In this arena, Rockefeller Center is as much about what it is not as what it is. It is not, for example, a Gothic (the favored style of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) extravaganza of spires and flying buttresses as was the near-contemporary Chicago Tribune Tower by the same architect. It is not overbearingly commercial; much of Rockefeller Center feels like a public square rather than a privately owned and operated commercial enterprise. Nor is it a strident polemic for the architectural style it espouses, as much modern architecture tends to be. Rockefeller Center seems to exist happily as a background for daily activities while simultaneously occupying the forefront of excellence. And therein lies its significance. Rockefeller Center is a perfectly executed work of modern architecture. It balances effortlessly between not too much and not too little.
Public art is as critical to the success of Rock Center as the architecture.  
Structurally, Rockefeller Center is like a three-dimensional chess game with interwoven functions and services. But the building designs are cannily simple. They escape the starkness of later day skyscrapers with subtle setbacks that yield barely a square inch of rentable space yet add an essential dimension of style and grace. Not to mention a breathtaking verticality that says skyscraper. Decoration is eschewed except for the most minimal gestures in a few finials here and a subtle terrazzo pattern there. The finest (and in many cases, the newest) materials were used in a manner that seems to bestow dignity upon visitors and occupants. The underground retail concourse, all black granite and brass accents, is dark, subtle, sensuous. It does better by its subtlety than most modern shopping centers with their bright lights and overly cheery aspect.
The main plaza is the beating heart
of New York both day and night. 

Rockefeller Center is, simultaneously, New York's living room, back yard, and symbolic heart. It cannot be duplicated (they tried and failed with the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco) because it is uniquely, unambiguously of New York. In all its late art deco splendor.

Rockefeller Center was designed by a team of architects, but the heavy lifting, by all accounts, was done by Raymond Hood. Numerous artists and interior designers were responsible for the period details, not least of whom were Donald Desky (Radio City Music Hall) and Elena Bachman Schmidt (Rainbow Room).

All photos on iPhone by MJK.

Monday, June 11, 2012

VIDEO: Architecture by Michael Knorr

A video of work by Michael Knorr has been created by our photographer, Rob Munger. It's a ten minute look at our contemporary projects put together for the Denver Modern Home Tour. Ten minutes is a bit long for YouTube attention spans. We'll try to get a short version posted later. Thanks for viewing:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Denver Modern Architecture INTERVIEW

Next Saturday, June 2nd, is the second annual Denver Modern Home Tour. Click on this INTERVIEW link for brief comments on my entry. Contact me or the tour WEB SITE for more information and tickets.
Tour entry: 3300 South Dahlia, Denver, CO.
Patio and fireplace.

Great room.

Photos: Rob Munger