Friday, July 29, 2011

Architecture: Bringing Light to Darkness

Perception requires light over darkness. Without light we cannot see. Architects use light to reveal space. As much as we might say that architecture is a pile of building materials we could also say that it is the manipulation of light to reveal form. The architect's palette consists of light, shadows, and revelations of color.
1. U-Bahn station, Munich.

Understanding space (architecture) is no different than understanding the manifestation of any other thing.

The following examples may shed light on the subject.

2. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright.
3. Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand.
John Scott, architect.
4. AIG Tower, Hong Kong.

5. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
6. Grand Central terminal, New York.
7. Pan American Exposition, Temple of Music.
8. Ohare neon walkway, Chicago.
9. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.
10. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.
11. Pennsylvania station, New York. (Demolished.)
1. Guido Worlein
2. Kaschkawalturist
3. Craig Martin
4. Chow Meisy
6. Mark Estabrook
7. C.D. Arnold
8. Chicago at Night
9. Jean-Christophe Benoist
10. Didier B
11. Unknown

Monday, July 25, 2011

Architecture Redux: Shops by Libeskind

Many superstar architects use the same forms repeatedly. Frank Gehry has done his Bilbao art museum as a music museum (Seattle Center) a concert venue (Disney Hall, L.A.) and a band shell (Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago). Daniel Libeskind has recycled his characteristic angular shapes as an art museum (Denver), a media center (Hong Kong) and an educational building (London Metropolitan University).
Libeskind's Las Vegas mall. Rumor has it that
the entrance was modified to avoid bad
feng shui. Chinese customers perceived
the aggressive angular shapes as jaws of death.
A recent Libeskind work is a shopping mall in Las Vegas. The City Center project could be a museum or a concert hall, but, apparently, the same forms serve well as a mall. It is impossible to deny his signature style and it makes a fine space for upscale vendors.
Mall interior: the sculpture is not by Libeskind.
Mall interior: easily remodeled as a museum if the mall fails.
All architects work with evolving leitmotifs, so it is not surprising or detrimental that the current crop of superstars explores similarities within their respective bodies of work. The public responds favorably (or the designs would not be repeated) and boundaries are expanded for all architects. What bothers me - just a little bit - is the haphazard way these signature buildings seem to be thrown together. Jumbled angles with no organizing theme. Interior volumes that often defy function. Like Michael Brady (the fictitious architect who headed The Brady Bunch) every building comes out looking the same in a one-size-fits-all approach to design. These computer-generated chunks of architecture make amusing sculptures. But their willfulness seems to say, "We exist simply because we can."

Is anyone else getting weary of these one note sambas?

All photos:
Wm. T. McDonough

Friday, July 8, 2011

Architecture in Downtown LA - Part III

You Can't Fight City Hall

The most prominent building in downtown Los Angeles used to be the city hall. Gleaming white against the sky (at 454 feet), it has stood as a powerful symbol of the city since 1928. The structure has appeared innumerable times in movies and TV.  It has been destroyed in several disaster movies and was a stand-in for The Daily Planet in the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman.
Los Angeles city hall.
Prior to 1964, concerns about seismic design made it impossible for any building in Los Angles to exceed the height of city hall. With changes in engineering technology and public policy, it is dwarfed today by the U.S. Bank Tower (73 stories), Aon Center (64 floors) and many other banal office blocks. (At present, there are 509 high-rises in the city of Los Angeles.)

One might think that the city hall would be a weak relic amidst powerful downtown towers twice its height. The surprising thing is that it still dominates the part of downtown in which it stands. Set back in a landscaped buffer from the streets that surround it, starkly white against the sky, and rigidly art deco in profile: this building makes a big impression. The city hall is distanced a few blocks from the massive towers of "new downtown." It is not buried in Manhattanesque redevelopment and, for this reason, stands as proudly as it must have in 1928. For architecture buffs it is a worthy historic site.

Travel by Train

In fact, there are several survivors of old Los Angles that still grace the downtown district. A previous blog entry mentioned the well-preserved Bradley Building. There is also the original and venerable Catholic church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles, founded in 1814 and rebuilt in 1861. (Not to be confused with the architectural massif of Our Lady of the Angels.)  However, the crown of old buildings in downtown Los Angeles must rest on Union Station. Opened in May 1939, it is small compared to central stations in other major cities. It is, nevertheless, a grand example of transportation architecture. Today it is a hub for long-distance trains and for the city's commuter rail system.
Union Station.
The Future of Downtown LA

Well-preserved and still employed in its original purpose, Union Station is a fitting emblem for Los Angeles. Its Spanish-revival architecture recalls local history. The crowds in its great hall indicate a re-energized central city. This building is a perfect place to conclude our series on downtown Los Angeles. There could be plenty more to examine: Disney concert hall by Frank Gehry, the towers of new downtown, various condo restorations on Spring Street. However, Union Station is a positive note on which to close. It symbolizes the old and new coming together. It offers hope that no longer is Los Angeles "72 suburbs in search of a city," as Dorothy Parker famously quipped. It is, instead, a city striving to create a center for its far-flung suburbs. At first, in my little investigation of downtown LA, I ambled down Broadway and thought nothing has changed after decades of decrepitude. But one need only walk a little longer and a little further to discover that the core is still alive and there is hope for a fully viable center for the sprawl that is Los Angeles.
Union Station central waiting room.
All by MJK.

Architecture in Downtown LA - Part II

1. Figueroa Hotel.
My explorations of downtown Los Angeles took me past the Figueroa Hotel, 939 Figueroa Street. Surrounded by parking lots, it is a lonely survivor from old Los Angeles. Built in 1925, it is lavishly Moorish in a movie-set sort of way. It looks like a place that would be fun to stay in, however, on-line reviews on various travel sites are tepid at best. Do your own research if the place looks tempting.

2. Lobby, Figueroa Hotel.
If you are looking for more serious historic architecture downtown, the Bradbury building is the place to check out. It is impeccably maintained and fully occupied, a rarity on Broadway. I made a pilgrimage to this site when I was in architecture school. It is admired by architecture buffs for its light-flooded atrium, fine iron work, and forward-thinking interiors. This is advanced architecture for the year it was built, 1893. In the meantime, film buffs became aware of the building through its frequent use in movies and TV. Most memorably, the building is the setting for several scenes in the dystopian cult classic Blade Runner with Harrison Ford.
3. Bradbury building at 304 Broadway.
Local architect Sumner Hunt was first hired to design the building. He was unable to fulfil the lofty aspirations of the developer, Lewis L. Bradbury. The commission then fell to Hunt's draftsman, George Wyman who is credited as author of the building.
4. Bradbury building entrance.

5. Bradbury building atrium.

6. Historic American Buildings photograph.
The main floor of the Bradbury building is open to the public without charge.

Photo credits:
1. MJK
2. MJK
3. MJK
4. MJK
5. MJK
 6. Historic American Buildings Survey

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Architecture in Downtown LA - Part I

One can visit Los Angeles and never go downtown. Other attractions beckon louder. The beaches, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood, the Sunset strip. Looking for architecture, you're more likely to ferret-out Gehry in Venice, Wright in the hills, and the Greene brothers in Pasadena. What reasons are there to go downtown? Well, I attended a conference sponsored by Dwell magazine at the downtown Marriott and was forced to go downtown for the first time in decades. I carved out some free time to revisit old sites and see what was new and what, if anything, had changed. The self-guided walking tour was full of discoveries.
1. One of many forlorn theaters.
My first impression was that nothing has changed. That was because I walked down Broadway and found the same derelict theaters, discount stores, and joyerias ("se venda oro!") that have dominated the street as long as anyone can remember. It was unchanged and uninviting. Sure, there were obvious attempts to revitalize downtown with new anchors at its extremities.  There are the cultural icons of the Chandler Pavilion and Disney Concert Hall on the north. On the south side of downtown are Staples Center, the convention hall, and L.A. Live. This includes the Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels. Like plates on a dumbbell, these are weighty ends to downtown, but the stuff in between is light in juxtaposition to these renewal efforts. However -- and this is a strong however -- there are signs of new life. Go a block off  Broadway to Spring Street and find many old financial buildings reborn as lofts. Sprinkled on the edges of the district are new contemporary loft-style buildings as well. Downtown L.A. is tentatively participating in the urban renaissance that has swept many inner cities. Trendy shops and restaurants have not have followed, yet. But that may happen with a little more time. It is still a dicey proposition. Between the lofts are handsome, but abandoned, buildings that teeter between life and death. Some sport marquees that plead for a cameo in a movie, re-mindful of the would-be starlets that parade their assets on Sunset Boulevard a few miles up town.

2. On Broadway.

3. Derelict deco.

A big-time contribution to the possible salvation of downtown Los Angeles cannot be ignored: the new metro system. Actually, it is not all that new. Comprising five lines and 79 miles of track, the bulk of the system debuted in the 1990s. Today Metro Rail carries a ridership of 350,000 daily weekday boardings. To my mind, this is what makes downtown L.A. ultimately viable. I have visited the city many times since the rails were inaugurated, but had no idea how extensive it is. From downtown you can easily get to Hollywood, Long Beach, Pasadena, and elsewhere. It would even be possible to make a viable tourist trip to L.A. without ever renting a car (surprise!) and it is possible to live downtown without feeling isolated. In my explorations I used the downtown subway lines several times. It was cheap and clean.
4. The five lines of Metro Rail.
As it turns out, my first impression of today's downtown was wrong. Broadway may be it shabby, but there are signs of renewal and hope pressing in. My previous blog entry explored one new work of architecture in downtown L.A.: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The next few entries will explore more architecture in downtown Los Angeles. In sum, they make downtown a not-so-bad place to visit and a possible place to actually live. Stay tuned.
5. Auditioning for a role.

Photo credits:

1. MJK
2. MJK
3. MJK
4. RickyCourtney
5. MJK

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Architecture of a Cathedral

Church architecture is a recurring theme in this blog. The reason is simple: churches (and synagogues and temples) are pure architecture. Aside from the obvious purpose of providing a spiritual meeting place, the main function of an ecclesiastical building is to enclose space in a beautiful manner. What better assignment could an architect ask for?
1. Entry plaza, Our Lady of the Angels.
Our Lady of the Angels is one such space. As the main Catholic cathedral serving the Los Angeles diocese, the building was controversial when built. Replacing a venerated historic building damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, its non-traditional architecture is an affront to some.  An intern of mine visited the cathedral not long after it opened in 2002. He did not like its aggressive modernity. I had seen published photos of the cathedral (uninspiring) but wanted to reserve judgement until experiencing it in person. That finally happened last week.
2. The Virgin Mary marks the cathedral's main entrance.
The cathedral was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. Jumbled-looking in photographs, the hands-on experience is exhilarating. If you are a traditionalist, of course your opinion would differ. There is nothing traditional about this building. Right from the get-go, the main entrance is off-center and backwards. Unlike any cathedral of which I'm aware, you enter from behind the altar and are required to traverse an austere side aisle to the rear. From there you make a right term and an about-face before the glory of Our Lady of the Angels is fully revealed. In any standard cathedral the nave is exposed at once. Not so here. This is a fresh and daring strategy that makes perfect sense. The main space becomes the worthy goal of an architectural pilgrimage.
3. The nave.
But, wait, it gets better. Moneo uses the long entry aisle to organize a series of side chapels. Chapels are standard fare in Roman Catholic churches, but here they are starkly modern, as well as prominent, features in the sequence of events. The most remarkable thing about these side chapels is the way natural light is introduced from a hidden source.  This happens because the chapels slip underneath the nave's higher volume so natural light can be borrowed from large, unseen windows. This is a fresh version of the old Renaissance magic trick of flooding the focal point of a space with hidden clerestory windows. It makes the object of veneration appear other-worldly. Roman Catholic architects have been at this for a long time and it is reinterpreted anew in Our Lady of the Angels.
4. Side chapel.

All told, the overall impression made by this edifice is one of strength, austerity, and high drama. Does this fulfill the architectural assignment of being a good religious space? I think so. It is, certainly, not beautiful in the conventional sense. There is no comfort here from the familiar. But there is a certainty of purpose that seems appropriate for an (authoritarian) religion. It is a job well done.
5. Nave windows.
Our Lady of the Angels is theatrical, calculated to awe. Some readers may wonder why I am less critical of this space than I was with another theatrically religious building: the Mormon Temple in San Diego. (See previous blog entry November 14, 2009.) Both exhort towards religious emotions. But this Catholic version somehow carries more gravitas. It is architecturally savvy. It is much less of a cardboard stage set than the Mormon version. Perhaps the weight of centuries of architectural expertise has paid off for the Catholics. I also appreciate the fact that Catholics let you roam freely through their architecture whereas Mormons restrict access. (The only other religion that has given me a more difficult time with access to holy spots is Hindu. But that's another story.)

If you want to make your own evaluation, this site at Grand Avenue and the Hollywood Freeway is worth a visit. I offer the accompanying pictures for your consumption, but, remember: two dimensional representations are never the same as experiencing the real thing in living three dimensions. Bon apetit.

Photo credits:

1. Los Angeles
2. MJK
3. Kjetil Ree
4. MJK
5. MJK