Sunday, July 12, 2015

Architecture Big and Small

The Denver Post recently ran an article about the popularity of "tiny houses" while mentioning in passing the prevalence of "McMansions."  I wrote the following letter to the newspaper, published two days later.
Rebekah Paulson is building a Tiny Home for herself in
Fort Collins. The home is 20 feet long by 8 feet wide and 13'6" tall.
(Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Re: "Colorado woman's tiny house lets her live large on less," July 7 news story.

Your article about recent widespread interest in tiny houses contrasted them to so-called McMansions. These two phenomena are often compared, but important points about both tend to be obscured. 

Tiny houses are fun experiments in using resources wisely. However, a large part of their popularity comes from the fact that our economy is too broken to support home ownership for many who crave it. Increasingly, only the well-off can consider building a full-size home. 

Regarding McMansions, this term originally meant very large tract houses that pretend to be grander than their vapid finishes should allow. They are mass-produced like hamburgers with no understanding of taste or style.  Now McMansion has morphed into any big house no matter its utility or architectural worth. A funny criticism has turned into a spiteful slur. 

Contrasting tiny homes with McMansions conflates two unrelated issues and sets up a straw man for the advocates of tiny houses to attack. There is plenty to be said about tiny houses and much to criticize in awkward tract houses, but abusing metaphors only confuses both subjects. 

Michael Knorr, Architect

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Architecture of Two Cathedrals

Minneapolis and St. Paul are fun to compare (see previous blog entry) and nowhere is the temptation to compare more compelling than in their two major cathedrals. The Basilica of St. Mary is adjacent to the central business district of Minneapolis; the Cathedral of St. Paul sits on a promontory on the west edge of St. Paul. Both buildings have been hailed as among the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture anywhere in the United States. The St. Mary cathedral opened in 1914 and was designed by architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray. St. Paul cathedral opened a year later and was also designed by Masqueray. That's right: two spectacular edifices by the same architect at the same time in neighboring locations. What architect today would not salivate over such opportunities? Masqueray did not squander his professional good fortune, producing two masterful examples of beaux-arts architecture. They compare favorably to just about any European example of spectacular church design.

The arrangement of St. Mary's is straightforward. A truncated transept rapidly forces attention on the altar, bathed in light from above. Heavenly aspirations pull the viewer/audience/supplicant forward to glorious resolution. Light floods the space with heavenly grace.
1. The barrel-vaulted nave of St. Mary's focuses attention on the alter.
2. Hints of light. 
3. The dome above the alter at St. Mary's. 
4. The alter at St. Mary's. 
5. Exterior, Basilica of St. Mary's in Minneapolis.
Nobody does it better than the Catholics, of course, in manipulating emotions through architecture. They learned long ago that modulating space on a grandiose scale induces awe.

Across the river at the Cathedral of St. Paul, manipulation of interior volume is more obviously thematic with a hypnotic repetition of circles, arcs, and domes. If anything, it is even more spectacular than its sister in Minneapolis. The ambulatory unfolds with a stunning series of chapels, resplendent with monumental statues and some of the richest marble floor designs found anywhere. All culminates in a magnificent dome full center in the space.  Here the main upward thrust is over the nave, not the altar (though the altar is celebrated by a baldachin that rivals the Vatican's). The effect is uplifting - the spirit soars with the crescendo of the architecture. Man seems exalted - a theater-in-the round with the audience in the middle, blessed by glorious light.
6. The great dome over the nave of St. Paul's Cathedral.
7. Rose window at St. Paul's.
8. Central dome over the nave; secondary apse over the alter at St. Paul's. 
9. The benediction of heavenly light.
10. Space unfolding. 
11. Exterior, St. Paul's Cathedral in St. Paul.
12. Floor plan, St. Paul's.
The tale of two architectures at Minneapolis and St. Paul is a story of one architect squeezing as much theatrical energy out of classical forms as is humanly possible. Both are worthy of visits the next time you venture near the Twin Cities.

1-11. MJK
12. Minneapolis Star Tribune

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Tale of Two Architectures

I recently visited Minnesota at the invitation of Anderson Windows. The Anderson manufacturing and research facility (sixty-five acres under one roof!) is located in Bayport along the St. Croix river. Anderson was a gracious host and I learned a lot about their products. Afterwards I took a few extra days to reacquaint myself with nearby Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It has been over a decade since I've visited the Twin Cities. Changes to the metroplex were significant. Minneapolis and St. Paul may be twins, but they are not identical twins. The architecture of each city is very different and there are lessons to be learned from the differences.
Downtown Minneapolis posing as Houston.
New Minnesota Vikings stadium rising on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. 
Minneapolis seems like a combination of at least four cities:  Houston (enormous downtown buildings), Denver (a young and energetic demographic), Seattle (a sense of being on the creative edge), and Milwaukee (residential neighborhoods of wood frame construction).  In this melange Minneapolis has many attractions. An extensive network of designated trails, including a crosstown bike "freeway" with multiple lanes, makes it friendly to cyclists. It has the requisite number of professional sports teams for a major city. It is a center of commerce and industry with a highly qualified workforce. It has a coffee culture, live music, good restaurants. Its greatest asset is, perhaps, the string of lakes that grace the city with greenery, recreational opportunities, and natural beauty. However, if we are to judge the architectural bones of the city by its central business district, Minneapolis has some problems. Decades ago, the city began to mandate a skywalk system that links together all major downtown structures. The IDS center was an early example of this, creating a new sort of town square with shops, offices, and restaurants enclosed in a beautiful modern galleria (dubbed the Crystal Court). Architecturally it was a triumph and it still looks good today. (Phillip Johnson was lead architect in 1967.)  The skywalk system and IDS coincided with another major turn in the city: the creation of the Nicollet mall, converting the main downtown street into a pedestrian-friendly artery. This was part of a nationwide trend intending to attract people to urban centers in response to competing suburban development. This was executed with varying degrees of success in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Denver, Colorado, and even Las Vegas, Nevada on Freemont Street. In Minneapolis the effect was mixed. Businesses abandoned the streets as they moved up a level to the skywalks. Nicollet mall ended up as somewhat of a no-man's land. The whole downtown was turning inward, away from the streets and towards a network of bridges and hallways. The streets were left to street people, in the meanest sense of the phrase. To this day, there is a somewhat unsavory, almost menacing, air to downtown Minneapolis, despite the obvious success of the many climate controlled downtown gallerias that have since joined the IDS Crystal Court. Though these new climate-controlled urban spaces are lively, they are, intentionally or not, hardly inclusive. They repel non-shoppers and non-spenders by subtle design cues and are securely locked after 9 p.m. There are few alternatives, even for window shopping, on the streets. In a way, downtown has been turned into a gated community.
House designed by Purcell & Elmslie in Minneapolis.

The architecture of St. Paul is very different. Kinder and gentler, perhaps. The signs of a vibrant city are there: a renovated Union Station, a thriving farmers market, trendy restaurants, rail connections to the metroplex. At the same time St. Paul has managed to maintain a human scale to its downtown district.  Old buildings are preserved, even as shiny new ones fit between them. Brick facades, sidewalk cafes, and green space add texture. It possesses a friendliness that Minneapolis somehow lacks. It is not difficult to explore the streets of St. Paul. You do not feel you have to enter an air-conditioned mall to experience the city. St. Paul does have skywalks, for the same obvious reason as Minneapolis: the cold winter weather.  But in St. Paul they have not sucked the life out of the ground level. What is the difference?  Obviously, the scale of the two cities has something to do with it. St. Paul is a small town compared to its big brother. But there must be more to it than that. It must have something to do with the texture of the buildings. The architecture is simply softer in St. Paul. The materials, shapes, and scale are user-friendly.  Minneapolis has adopted an almost brutal architecture; facades tend to be featureless, the scale overwhelming. Not so in St. Paul. There are lessons to be learned here about the importance of human scale in architecture and urban planning.
St. Paul's refurbished Union Station.
Mickey's Diner, downtown St. Paul.
Street life in St. Paul.
Architectural texture in St. Paul. 
As a final word, it should be emphasized that two central business districts are being compared here. Outside of the downtown area, Minneapolis is every bit as pleasant as St. Paul, with inviting neighborhoods, parks, and entertainment. However, where the architectural rubber hits the road - downtown - St. Paul offers an easier ride.

All images MJK.