Monday, September 23, 2013

Architectural Images

Occasionally my friend, Lucille, forwards stunning photographs harvested on the Internet. Sometimes they include images of architecture, caught in moments of sublime beauty. Here are a few worth passing along.
Abandoned New York City subway tunnel. 

Castle in Werfen, Austria.

Tambian Lake, Indonesia.

Terra forming the Palm Islands, Dubai.

A house on a rock.


Dubai at night.

Manarola, Italy.

Buddhist monks, lantern lighting ceremony.

Morning in Tuscany.

Neuschwanstein Caste, Germany.

St. Stephen Island, Norway.

Cliff side village.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Architectural Sketches

My office was recently awarded a contract for the redesign of a high-rise condominium unit. We will demolish all remnants of the previous floor plan and start from scratch within the demising walls. We could not locate an existing computer aided drafting (CAD) file for the original project, so we are forced to create a new Autocad file from measurements for our "base" drawings. No big deal, except that our client is in a hurry to get started with the design and asked if we could move forward with "freehand sketches on tracing paper."
Freehand sketches! Who does such a thing? The days of hand-drafted architectural sketches are nearly gone. Certainly, we don't dare present an unpolished, manually-drafted sketch to a client. Today we produce crisp, clean, seemingly perfect images using our CAD programs. But something is missing from these perfectly pretty images. (I hesitate to call them drawings. Are electrons arranged on a screen, or reproductions from ink jet printers, really drawings?)
Sketch for a condominium. 
Years ago I went to a museum exhibit in Dallas of Frank Lloyd Wright's hand-drafted plans, elevations, and perspectives. Many of them were rough, colored pencil scrawls where you could see that the image in the architect's mind had directly connected to his moving hand and been impressed upon the paper. These were drawings I had seen reproduced in books many times, but that was nothing like being in the presence of the actual, full-scale drawings. You could smell the paper they were drawn upon. You could see the thick pencil lines, the smudges, the erasures, the overlay of multiple ideas in different colors. You could see the birth of ideas. I felt that I had to touch these drawings and be connected to them. Against all well-known museum rules, I did touch one.  No alarms sounded and I felt a direct link to my architectural patrimony.
Today I pull out my Prismacolors (the same brand of colored pencils used many decades ago by Wright) and begin sketches for our new project. It is a large condo unit, 4000 square feet. Multiple ideas spill out, and the hand moves as rapidly as the mind. No computer modeling is yet as quick as the mind/hand connection.  I have not seen an ap or a program that allows for the uncertainties of the design process as does freehand sketching. The sketchy line holds multiple meanings and suggestions that do not reside in the mathematics of a CAD-generated line.  Don't get me wrong. I embrace the brave new world of electronica. There is much to be said about melding our brains -- as we are doing -- with electrons in a box.  But we are not yet at the point of loving these electrons in the same visceral way we can love a hand-drawn sketch. Perhaps we will be soon. But, for now, human touch, whether from one human to another or from a human intelligence to paper, is a richly deep and unique experience. It may not be irreplaceable, but it is incomparable.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Amorphous Architecture

Gehry and Cohorts

This blog has, for the most part, highlighted architecture (both good and bad) that follows standard rules of geometry and sits on the ground without challenging gravity -- architecture that is created with orthogonal projection and follows tested rules.
1. Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry.
2. Denver Art Museum by Daniel Liebeskind.

The time has come to talk about amorphous architecture.  It is a class of architecture that follows no rules of form, proportion, symmetry -- architecture that seems to spring from nothing, with arbitrary shapes and capricious flourishes. Think Frank Gehry. His buildings would be all but impossible without computer modeling to engineer the irregular geometry. In interviews, Gehry has indicated that his buildings are sculpted for interesting shapes. Their underlying function is a secondary consideration. The result is amorphous architecture.  We can lump into this category some of Gehry's contemporaries like Daniel Liebeskind and Rem Koolhaas.

The amorphous movement - if a movement it is - did not emerge from whole cloth in the last few years.  Gehry's Bilbao museum is not the first building that has eschewed parallel lines. It has antecedents. To evaluate amorphous architecture it is helpful and interesting to look at its previous incarnations.

Frederick Kiesler and the Endless House

In 1958 Frederick Kiesler designed a house with curved walls, looking much like a hornet's nest. He called his design the Endless House.  It existed as a large-scale model and was extensively documented in his book The Endless House. Kiesler was more artist than architect. His unbuilt house might be taken as a metaphor for life and art: no beginning, no end; process over form; journey above destination. Kiesler never led an architectural movement, but his ideas about space without boundaries permeate modern architectural thought.
3. Frederick Kiesler with his model of the Endless House.

4. One of Kiesler's many drawings
of the Endless House. 
5. Plan and elevations for the Endless House.

Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy

Another architect with a limited body of work (about seventeen buildings) but far-reaching influence was Rudolf Steiner. (Austria, 1861-1925.) He is better known as a philosopher, writer, and creator of the Waldorf system of education. His architectural works are vehicles for his philosophical/spiritual theories. Steiner's buildings deliberately ignore the usual ideas of structure in the physical world to express an underlying spiritual world. Steiner's spiritual world was one of imprecise form. His architectural connections to the spirit world were deliberately (stubbornly) unfocused. Steiner's world was seen through a gauzy veil. The development of steel-reinforced concrete was perfect for his designs. However, like his spiritual philosophy and his art, his buildings had a woozy quality. And, because his spiritualism included both evil and good, his buildings, at times, seem heavy and dark. Steiner's version of amorphous architecture appears to have been a dead end, even though (particularly within the Waldorf movement) some architects still experiment with his ideas.
6. The Second Goetheanum by Rudolf Steiner.
7. The Stuttgart Eurythmeum by Steiner. 

The Metabolists

8. Pompideu Center in Paris. 
The late twentieth century saw a lot of experiments within the broader context of modern architecture. A briefly popular (but widespread) fad was metabolism. (It blended with high tech, which is another discussion.) Japan, Europe, and the United States all had champions for metabolism. The metabolist idea, as the name suggests, is that buildings are like living organisms. As such, they might morph and change over time and the proper way to address this is to treat a building as a kit of parts that can be replaced or augmented as needed. Like Tinker Toys. The Pompidou Center, opened in 1977 in Paris (Renzo Piano, architect), is a prime example.  Where a traditional building will go to great lengths to conceal stairs, HVAC pipes, and other practical necessities, the Pompidou Center celebrates all its parts by expressing them at every opportunity. It is a kind of mechanical organic-ism. Another notable example is John Johannsen's Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (1970). The metabolists considered  Pompidou Center and Mummers Theater honest architecture. Critics said these buildings were wearing their insides on their outsides... and why would you do that? Curved forms and sculptural shapes were not a particular hallmark of metabolism as with Gehry or Steiner. However, because proportion and symmetry were irrelevant to the metabolism, it is a type of amorphous architecture.
9. Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City. 


Amorphous architecture is not new. The impulse toward it reflects deeper urges for independence, invention, and liberation. Liberation from what? Old ideas.

This invites other questions. Does it take extreme forms to make the case for a new attitude toward our understanding of space? Or is it an immature rebellion -- equivalent to shock radio or anarchistic demonstrations? There are many reasons to question amorphous architecture, even as examples of it continue to parade across the architectural stage. Other architects and philosophies seem able to develop ideas that are reformative without grandstanding. It will be interesting to follow the course of amorphous architecture to see where it goes and what parts of it have lasting power.

1. Rob Munger
2. Frank Vanbetlehem
3 thru 9.  Unknown

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Architecture and the Art of the Fugue

1. Contrepunctus XIV.
A fugue is a complex, multi-layered musical form. Typically, multiple melodies are introduced which are progressively overlaid and interlocked. This is similar to counterpoint, but a fugue is a more sophisticated convergence of musical themes.  Merriam Webster defines a fugue as a "musical composition characterized by systematic imitation of one or more themes in counterpoint."
2. Johann Sebastian Bach.
Great architecture can often be appreciated by thinking of it as analogous to a fugue. Interwoven in the fabric of architecture can be multiple layers of interest. Materials or spaces or structural forms (sometimes all three) can play in counterpoint. Architecture is most satisfying when it richly challenges our senses. Creating an architectural fugue is one way to accomplish this. This is not to say that great architecture is a puzzle to decipher. Like classical music, it is most enjoyable when its complexity is revealed logically and simply. We need not analyze it to appreciate it. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote numerous fugues and is the best-known exponent of the form. Bach's fugues roll over the listener like bubbles in a jacuzzi. You don't have to think about the multiple layers of complexity in his fugues to enjoy them. You just have to let them envelope you. So it is with great architecture.  Let the unfolding of space envelope you in its own particular themes. Enjoy the richness of materials as they interplay with each other.  Let time carry you through multiple layers of space in architecture in the same way a Bach fugue allows you to simultaneously experience multiple lines of musical notes.  
Above is a fragment of musical notation from a Bach fugue. If you are an accomplished musician you might be able to hear this music in your head, but most of us must wait for it to be expressed in sound. Architecture is a spatial experience. The flat pictures on this screen only hint at the depth of riches available in the actual experience of architecture. These pictures are like musical notation. The real thing is a higher level of experience. 
3. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Japanese Pavilion.
Designed by Bruce Goff, this building intertwines numerous themes,
including rooftop "horizon finders", rhythmic translucent screens, stone
towers, undulating roofs, and spiraling floors. 
4. Detail, LACMA Japanese Pavilion.

5. Cathedrale di San Lorenzo a Genoa. An interior
fugue of columns, arches, frescoes, clerestories, culminating 
with a symphony of form and light around the alter.
6. House by Michael Knorr Architect. A fugue of interlocking
forms and voids.
7. Thorncrown Chapel by Faye Jones. A beautifully simple weaving
of multiple themes in wood, glass, and decorative light fixtures. 
8. Monreale Cathedral, Monreale, Sicily, Italy. A complex
fugue where colors and materials work with shapes
and spaces to create a unified whole. 
9. Unbuilt project for a German national cathedral by Prussian
architect Karl Friederich Schinkel. This drawing clearly shows
vertical themes (spires, dome, steeple) working with horizontal
themes (foundation, bands of windows, sill coursing)
to shape a three-dimensional, fugue-like architecture. 

10. Walkway at University of Melbourne by Walter Burley Griffin. Simple
and direct, rich counterpoint is layered with battered walls, columns turned
at forty-five degrees, rythmic fenestration, and a folded ceiling plane.

11. German Warehouse by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richland Center, Wisconsin.
A deceptively simple building with contrapunctal themes almost too numerous
to itemize. (It is possible to identify at least eleven.)

12. Photochrome print of Milan Cathedral. Spires, windows, arches,
finials, stone coursing, planar layering... it's all here in a wonderful
Gothic/renaissance fugue. 
1. Bach
2. Unknown
3. Joe Mabel
4. Chad K.
5. W. Domenichini
6. Virtuance
7. Bobak Ha"Eri
8. M. Osmenda
9. Schinkel
10. Pfctdayelise
11. Lowell Bolleau
12. Detroit Publishing Co.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

God's Architect: Antonio Gaudi

Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi has been mentioned several times in this blog. He worked in Barcelona a century ago, creating sensuous buildings with undulating walls, colorful mosaics, and unconventional spaces.  His work is variously categorized as art nouveau, modernist, or uniquely Catalonian. Gaudi's masterwork is the Sagrada Familia basilica. Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed the ornate forms of Sagrada Familia as "architecture with a laxative." I believe Gaudi was the last great Gothic architect: structurally disciplined but unaffected by tradition. View the video at this link to judge for yourself: God's Architect: Antonio Gaudi's Glorious Vision - 60 Minutes - CBS News. The thirteen minute video reveals the splendor in Gaudi's mind that is gradually being realized after 130 years of construction. It reveals his genius more than is possible with static photographs. Some believe Gaudi's total vision for Sagrada Familia may actually be completed in another thirteen years. But we can already see what God's architect had in mind.
One of four main facades at Sagrada Familia.

Columns and ceiling.

Organic engineering.
Images:  R. Munger

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Architecture is Like the Movies

One of the best architecture magazines on the market today is Hospitality Design, published by Nielson Business Media. It is a trade publication that specializes in hotels, restaurants, resorts, and spas, intended for professionals who design or manage such venues. While not specifically an architecture magazine, it features architecture and interior design regularly and lavishly.

The hospitality industry is highly competitive. To stay on top, popular venues are revamped every few years. The half-life for architecture and interior design in the hospitality game is short. New ideas are introduced at lightening speed and creativity thrives in this environment. At top restaurants in New York and L.A. and big resorts on the Vegas strip, there are ample funds to support leading edge ideas. Good design is used as a marketing tool without hesitation - in fact, with a sense of obligation. For these reasons, Hospitality Design features exciting architectural concepts in nearly every issue. It is a "must read" for me.

I was struck by a statement in a recent issue by hotelier Grace Leo: I see myself as a movie producer - but I produce hotels. I orchestrate everybody's efforts to make the vision a reality.

Comparing the creation of a hotel to making movies strikes close to home.  I have often used the simile, aarchitecture is like the movies.

Architecture is a complex art. It interweaves the talents of many different professions, trades, and consultants. Like the movies, all of these entities must work in concert at top capacity to produce a hit. A great movie must have a great script (the design) but also a willing client (the producer), talented actors (craftsmen), and a capable director (the builder). Add to this the many extras, bit players, FX artists, etc. that are necessary to make a movie and to make architecture. If any part of this assemblage falls short, a movie will be less than a blockbuster and a work of architecture will scar the landscape.  The movie world does not want another Water World. The built
Victor Emmanuel Monument. A study in architectural excess.
environment does not need another Victor Emmanuel Monument.

When Hollywood has a premier, everybody notices, but nobody has to watch.
When a building has a premier, it is hard to avoid and
it tends to stick around for a long time.
The simile is also something of a plea for tolerance for those works of architecture that fall short. Sometimes good architects produce bad works, but it is not always the architect's fault. Interior design can make a a good building look bad or a bad building look good. Landscape architecture can do the same. The budget has to be sufficient. The client must be willing and, sometimes, brave. This is not an excuse for architectural misfires, but a recognition of the importance of assembling the right team. Quality, talent, commitment go a long way in making good movies. They are requirements for good architecture. 

It is tempting to think of architectural successes as a brilliant tours de force that spring from the minds of lone auteurs. Certainly, credit should be given to great talents when it is due. In reality, however, the list of credits is usually quite long. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Architecture and Living in the Future

Yesterday my business networking group met at the showroom of Exquisite Kitchen Designs. We were dazzled by the way technology has insinuated itself into the design, manufacture, and utility of kitchens.  The new kitchens we are installing in luxury homes are glimpses of a science-fiction future that ultimately will filter down to the average residence. 

It often feels like we are living in the future we imagined decades ago. In many respects we have surpsassed our imperfectly imagined future. Disneyland's World of Tomorrow exhibit  has long been dismantled because it couldn't keep up with the real future that was happening around us.

Today I ran across this video - an extended ad for Corning Glass. This glimpse of a techno-friendly future (all of the technology shown in the video is possible right now) is worth a look. Pay attention to the backgrounds as well as the products. This is a future of sumptuously modern architecture.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Architect's Lecture

1. Light streaming into Grand Central station, New York.
One of the great things about living in a large metropolitan area is the opportunity for cultural events that just don't happen often enough in smaller places. Yesterday I rode the train into downtown Denver to take advantage of one of those events: a lecture by Finish architect Juhani Pallasamaa. (I blogged about Pallasamaa May 21, 2009, citing his book The Eyes of the Skin as one of the great theoretical books about architecture.) Not exactly a household name, Pallasamaa is one of the most influential architects you've probably never heard of. His books have somewhat of a cult following among students. He is certainly well-connected to the world of architecture. He is currently in the United States after being invited to live at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West for a season. And he allowed in his opening remarks that he was pleased to be speaking at the Denver Art Museum because Daniel Liebskind, architect for the DAM, is his son's godfather.
His lecture last night was "Materiality and Light." He spoke passionately about the life that light brings to architecture. We can't see anything without light, of course. To Pallasamaa, light has a nurturing quality that more than aids vision. It shapes, changes, and establishes architecture. In a sense, light feeds architecture just as it does plants, landscapes, and people.
Coincidently, I just finished reading Grand Central by Sam Roberts. It is a facinating story about the architecture of Grand Central station in New York as well as the engineering, financial, and social influences that shaped it. A photograph that stands out in the book shows light streaming through lofty arched windows over the main waiting room. It is a classic effect of light making space palpable. Sadly, this is an effect that no longer exists at Grand Central. Construction across 42nd Street has forever blocked the sun. This fact, pointed out in Grand Central, had me thinking about light and architecture. I was primed for Pallasamaa's lecture. He did not disappoint.
2. Light modulating color. Casa Gilardi by Luis Barragan, Mexico City.

3. Light creating contrast. Salk Institute by Louis Kahn, La Jolla, California.
One of the interesting things about attending a lecture that you don't get from reading a speaker's books (Pallassamaa has authored thirty) are the little anecdotes that emerge. During the Q&A a member  of the audience asked Pallasamaa for his thoughts about the building we were in. After railing against the penchant of modern architects to be too enthralled with novelty and too frenetic with form, it would be interesting to hear his answer. After all, Liebskind is about as novel and frenetic as architects can get. But, still, this architect was his son's godfather.
4. Light and shadow. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 
"Daniel," he said, "is a very good friend. When we first met in 1979 I knew, after exchanging a few sentences, that this man was a genius. But I didn't know in what field." The audience wondered if it should chuckle at this.
"Now, after more than thirty years knowing him and seeing his work" he continued, "I still think Daniel is a genius. And I still don't know in what field."  At this observation, delivered dryly,  the audience let our a real laugh.
5. Light, shape, novelty. Daniel Liebskind's DAM (left) and his
Museum Lofts (right).
6. Dappled light. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.
Pallasamaa was equally perspicacious when asked about living in the Frank Lloyd Wright studio.
"When I visited this country for the first time years ago, I loved the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I thought he was a genius. But I didn't know why. Now, after living at Taliesin for four months, I still think he was a genius. But I still don't know why. He had a natural genius, unforced by grand theories. He just created naturally, without apparent effort."
7. Light, color, and depth. Ronchamp chapel by Le Corbusier.
Pallasamaa interprets architecture through a lens of feelings, emotions, and metaphysics. If you haven't yet discovered him, find a copy of The Eyes of the Skin and see architecture in a new way.

1. AP
2. Ulises00
3. TheNose
4. Osvaldo Gago
5. Frank Vanbetlehem
6. John Fowler
7. Sanyambahga