Monday, June 16, 2014

OCTOGENARIAN ARCHITECTURE (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

“The four stages of man,” Art Linkletter once observed, “are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.” 

While this bromide may well describe the lives of media stars and child prodigies, I’m happy to report that it seldom applies to architects. While many may grow old, few, it seems, grow irrelevant. In fact, most great architects hadn’t even hit their stride until midlife, and many kept going strong into their nineties.

Frank Lloyd Wright, still dapper at 91
Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the poster child for architectural longevity, yet there were surely times in Wright’s life when he doubted his own relevance. He’d begun his career with a bang, devising his brilliant Prairie Houses during the first decade of the 1900s, while he was still in his thirties. But by the time he completed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1923, his commissions had tapered off considerably. By normal career standards Wright, by then in his late fifties, should have been contemplating retirement. In any case, by the mid-1930s, his organic architecture was already being eclipsed by a younger generation of modernists, whose sleek International Style creations seemed even more advanced than Wright’s work had been. 

Yet it was just at this seeming twilight in his career that Wright staged a spectacular comeback. In 1937 he completed  the Edgar Kaufmann house (Fallingwater), a lyrical conception seemingly meant to outdo the International Style modernists at their own game. It was Bauhaus modernism with a heart and soul. Acclaimed worldwide, Fallingwater relaunched Wright’s career in the seventh decade of his life, unleashing a creative flurry that continued unabated until his death at 91.

Wright’s late-life renaissance isn’t at all unusual among architects, however. The first generation of International Style architects also had lengthy careers marked by equally late triumphs. After his famous stint as director of the Bauhaus, for example, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) came to the United States and, in 1945, when he was already in his sixties, founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC). It was soon to become one of the world’s most successful and respected architecture firms. Moreover, Gropius was nearly eighty when he completed New York’s Pan Am building with Pietro Belluschi (he lived to be 86). 

Le Corbusier's astonishing chapel at Ronchamp,
one of his latest and greatest works...
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) completed New York’s Seagram Building--a work often ranked among the pinnacle achievements of modern architecture--when he was in his early seventies. 

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 18887-1965) had a long and influential career, but arguably his greatest work--the lyrical chapel he designed at Ronchamp--was completed only when he was in his late sixties.  No doubt Le Corbusier, too, might have remained productive into his eighties, had he not ignored his doctor’s orders and gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, where he apparently suffered a heart attack and drowned at age 77.

---and the architect in his seventies: We wish he'd listened
to his doctor.
Curiously, while the first-generation modernists recounted above held fast to their convictions for the duration of their long and distinguished careers, some of their equally venerable successors renounced modernism in their later years--refuting the idea that old age breeds inflexibility. We’ll look at some of those long careers next time, as well as a few others that were cut tragically short.

Monday, June 2, 2014

NO THINKING ALLOWED


A while back, I was half-listening to a radio talk show when a guest’s comment struck me like a bolt from the blue. New York Times Magazine columnist Lisa Sanders, a practicing physician, was talking about the basic problem with America’s health care system. What caught my attention was the following statement:

“Thinking, which is really what a doctor does--thinking, examining, questioning-- is not valued by the system. We value doing rather than thinking.” 

At a single stroke, her words solved a mystery most architects grapple with for the whole of their professional careers: Why so few people understand what architects do, and why it takes us so long to do it. 

Citing an example in her own profession, Sanders described a day during which she’d seen a slew of patients with very complex medical issues, capped by a routine, twenty-minute procedure to remedy an ingrown toenail.  Later, to her surprise, she found that the medical insurers had paid her more money for the toenail procedure than for any of the more complex cases. This , Sanders believes, is because those cases required less action but lots of thought--time the insurance company didn’t value and wasn’t willing to pay her for.

Architects are a far cry from doctors, but we do face a similar problem. Most people envision us sitting rapt at drafting tables or computers, busily drawing blueprints. But the fact is that the most valuable part of our service is when we sit around and do nothing. That’s right--we don’t draw, we don’t research, we don’t talk: we just plain think. And, as Sanders notes, that’s the problem: We’re not used to putting much value on thinking. 

We Americans are a take-charge bunch, after all, and we’re leery of people who think too much. As that corporate clothing giant is always urging us: Just do it. Don’t waste time thinking, in other words--just go and buy gobs of our products. The danger of this viewpoint is self evident, since most of the stupid and tragic things we experience in our lives, whether car accidents, wars, or recessions, are precisely because someone “just did it” instead of thinking first. 

Unfortunately, the amorphous process of mulling over a problem is just the part of our work people aren’t too keen to pay for. Once, when I delivered a set of plans to a client along with my bill, he turned to me with unconcealed annoyance and asked: “So these two sheets of paper cost me three thousand dollars?” No doubt there have been many more folks who kept the same thought politely to themselves.

Faced with such reactions over the years, I’ve always hoped to explain how the real work was not in the roll of paper itself, but in the thought behind it--in the hours upon hours spent evaluating countless possibilities to close in on the one best solution. This never really seemed to register, and after hearing Dr. Sanders exclaim, “Thinking is not valued,” I guess I  know why.

Monday, May 19, 2014

THE NICK OF TIME


In architecture, the surest way to achieve a timeless design is to use materials that are familiar, durable, and that become more beautiful the older they get. Not surprisingly, most of the materials that qualify have been around for ages.

Brick is a classic example. It’s among the most ancient building materials--the oldest known bricks, found in the upper Tigris region of what is now Turkey, date back to around 7500 BC. In all the intervening millenia, not much about brick has changed, either: Even here in twenty-first century America, where nothing happens fast enough, genuine brick is still installed at a relative snail’s pace, one little piece at a time. 

Other common examples of timeless materials include stone, heavy timber, and metals with so-called “living finishes”, such as copper, brass, and bronze. All of these can shrug off decades and sometimes even centuries of abuse without losing any of their visual appeal. In fact, most people find them more beautiful when they’re old and weathered--”patinated”, in the parlance of the trade--than when they’re brand new:  

The value of a patina shouldn’t be underestimated, either: we’ve all seen episodes of Antiques Road Show in which an expert tells the hopeful owner something like: “Well, if you hadn’t polished this 17th century bronze door knocker, I’d have valued it at six thousand dollars, but all shined up like this it’s worth about $17.50.” That’ll teach a guy to keep his hands off the Brasso. 

The funny thing is that, while almost everybody finds the greenish patina of an old copper gutter beautiful, almost nobody feels that way about a weathered plastic gutter. The reason, I think, is that no matter how old the copper gutter gets, we know that it will still serves its purpose perfectly. On the other hand, we can also presume that a weathered plastic gutter has already bought a one-way ticket to the Dumpster. We’ve learned to associate visual cues of aging with intrinsic durability. We see beauty in the aging of certain materials, and just plain failure in others.

At the larger scale of architecture, though, there’s more to a timeless finishe than just aging gracefully. The appeal of a brick wall, for example, has just as much to do with its ability to reflect the human being who created it. Flaws and all, the wall becomes a compelling record of the mason’s skill and personality, frozen in time right before our eyes.

Other largely handcrafted finishes such as wrought iron, stucco, shingle, shake, and tile, all of which have been around for thousands of years, can also provide this sort of snapshot in time, precisely because they’re never perfect. The telltale flaws of hand workmanship are so integral to a timeless finish, in fact, that the manufacturers of mass produced wannabe products such as artificial brick and imitation slate routinely design in fake defects, straining mightily to evoke the charm of the real thing. 

Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it wrong enough eventually.

Monday, May 5, 2014

LOFTY MARKETING


A while back, I got a solicitation from a local real estate agent whose client was ostensibly in the market for a loft. The agent described her buyer’s ideal “loft”--apparently without irony--as having “at least 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, (and) 1500+ square feet.”

I wondered why the agent bothered using the term “loft” when it sounded more like her client was really in the market for a huge condo apartment, if not a fair-sized house.
Webster defines loft as “an upper room or floor” or “one of the upper floors of a warehouse or business building, especially when not partitioned.” The real estate and development industries, on the other hand, seem to define loft as “a chic new label that can be applied at will to a standard housing formula.”

Initially, the entire point of developing lofts--and perhaps we should be precise and call them commercial or industrial lofts or live/work spaces--was to utilize America’s growing stock of disused but often architecturally praiseworthy commercial and industrial buildings. Artists, musicians, and other people seeking wide-open, rough-and-tumble interior spaces were the first to occupy such buildings, often illegally. They were soon followed by other independent minded occupants of all kinds. 

Despite staunch early resistance from staid city governments and code-thumping building departments, it soon became clear that intelligent rehabbing of nonresidential buildings for living made perfect sense: It put substantial and often ruggedly beautiful structures to good use instead of consigning them to the wreckers. It offered inexpensive living space--initially, at least--along with unparalleled interior flexibility. And at the same time, it revitalized declining industrial areas by introducing a lively, round-the-clock population. 

So, despite bureaucratic opposition by the usual suspects, the loft movement became tremendously successful. Too successful for its own good, alas: It wasn’t long before a certain stripe of developer learned to exploit the profit potential inherent in this formula, while at the same time neatly circumventing the apparent annoyance of having to actually rehab old buildings. Instead, they simply started erecting new ones and tarting them up in quasi-industrial costume. Corrugated siding, metal windows, and a few exposed steel beams suddenly qualified a run-of-the-mill condo development as a “loft” or a “live-work” project.

Well, so what? Who cares what a building is called as long as it serves its purpose? You might as well ask the difference between apples and Apple Jacks. Calling an ordinary, new-from-the-ground-up condo development a “loft” simply plunders the most salable aspects of a valid and environmentally responsible concept without providing any of the social benefits in return. 

Like the US auto industry with its oxymoronic “hybrid SUV” offerings, developers who apply the term “loft” to otherwise unremarkable new projects kill two birds with one stone: They makes buyers--like that lady pining for a two-bedroom, two bath “loft”--feel warm and fuzzy about supporting the same old paradigm. At the same time, they sidestep the bother and expense of genuine innovation, conveniently ignoring the fact that true lofts are a lifestyle, not just a label.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A VISIT TO FADSVILLE


The other day I was rummaging through a local architectural salvage yard when, way out in one corner, past the rows of forlorn toilets and racks sagging with old sinks, I came across a depressing sight. It was a literal mountain of fancy whirlpool tubs, each of which some home buying couple had once considered absolutely indispensable to their master bathroom. In reality, these tubs had been unused, unloved, and finally ripped out and given away. And here they were, a moldering monument to a silly but ubiquitous fad that’s still with us today.

Dubious building fads are certainly nothing new. In tract houses of the 1920s, for instance, a separate breakfast room was deemed a must, even if many of them were barely big enough to fit a table, let alone four chairs. Upscale ranch houses of the 1950s, on the other hand, frequently boasted an indoor barbecue, a patently impractical feature that was almost immediately covered over to net more counter space. 

During the technology-mad 1960s, home intercoms were the deluxe gimmick of choice. Visitors were supposed to announce themselves at the front entrance, and through the miracle of the transistor, their greeting would be transmitted as an unintelligible garble to the “master station” inside--usually located next to the front door, where one might just as easily have spoken to the visitor face to face. 

Topnotch tract houses of the 70s offered buyers the “conversation pit”--a sunken area ringed with upholstered seating, and often equipped with a fireplace as well. Here, guests would presumably chat it up while lounging around in polyester suits. Alas, nothing kills natural conversation like being urged to engage in it, and the conversation pit barely outlived the Carter administration.

I could go on citing such examples--cavernous master bedrooms, gigantic master baths, living room wet bars, multiple fireplaces--but you get the point. What makes home buyers covet such features--often at no small cost--when in retrospect they seem so obviously impractical? Some people blame developers for pushing extravagant gimmicks to spur sales. If this is the case, the strategy has generally been been right on target. For decades prior to the Great Recession, they were rewarded for peddling gimmicks by selling gobs and gobs of houses. Given this history, it seems that home buyers are at least complicit in creating demand for useless bells and whistles. 

In fact, until the housing market finally collapsed under its own weight, we material-mad consumers were still lusting after restaurant-style ranges and refrigerators, dual dishwashers, three- and four-car garages, and yes, even those ever-more-ostentatious bathrooms with their whirlpool tubs. When it comes to buying houses, we’re as susceptible to gimmicks as we are in buying all those other overwrought consumer items we’ve been snapping up by the armload. 

One would hope that our recent economic troubles would sharpen our discernment for what is useful and what is not. If it doesn’t, some of us will be finding great deals on used whirlpool tubs.

Monday, March 31, 2014

STORIES IN STEEL


For millennia, the only way to build to build a strong building was to pile up lots and lots of stone or brick, forming massive masonry walls that could hold up the weight of the floors and roof. This ancient approach worked well enough as long as buildings weren’t more than six stories tall or so. If they were, the lower walls had to be made impractically thick in order to carry the weight of all that masonry above them--the more stories, the thicker the walls. 

By the late nineteenth century, when American engineers and architects began contemplating structures of ten, fifteen, or even more stories, the limitations of masonry construction reached a critical point. One of the tallest masonry buildings of this era, Chicago’s Monadnock Building of 1891, carried its seventeen stories of brick on ground floor walls six feet thick. Such a ponderous system simply wouldn’t do if tall buildings were to become practical. Fortunately, a new building material--steel--solved this problem just in time. 

Steel’s earliest ancestors date back at least four thousand years, but it was the invention of the Bessemer process in 1855 that first allowed it to be mass produced. Steel’s structural advantages were immediately obvious: Pound for pound, it was many times stronger than masonry, and just as important, it was equally strong under both compression and tension. Steel was also ductile and would bend under a heavy load rather than cracking. These attributes meant that a steel beam could support heavy loads and span long distances much more efficiently than any type of masonry, allowing even the tallest building to be supported by a relatively light “skeleton frame” of girders rather than by hundreds of tons of stone or brick. 

Steel members--including the familiar though now little-used “I-beam”--were typically riveted together (and later, bolted or welded) into a cage-like structure that carried the entire building load. Since the outer walls no longer had to support the weight of the stories above, they could be very light enclosures of glass, metal, or some decorative veneer--hence the term “curtain wall”.

The first tall building with a load-bearing steel frame was Chicago’s ten-story Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney and completed in 1885. Engineers and architects quickly followed Jenney’s lead over the next few years. So sweeping was this change that, while the aforementioned Monadnock Building had marked the apogee of load-bearing masonry construction, an addition to it built just two years later was already being framed in steel.

Meanwhile, the price of downtown land in large cities all over America was beginning to skyrocket, putting pressure on developers to pack more volume into the same amount of real estate. That meant just one thing: ever-taller buildings. By the late 1890s, the new possibilities inherent in the steel skeleton frame, spurred by rising urban real estate prices and enabled by the invention of the safety elevator, had set off a national skyscraper boom that, for better or worse, is still with us today.

Monday, March 17, 2014

THE AGE OF IRON


For millenia, the only way to create a strong, durable, and fireproof structure was to build it out of stone or brick. Needless to say, this required plenty of time, material, and effort, not to mention a lordly budget. But for most of man’s history, this tried-and-true ancient method had to suffice. 

There was finally a tantalizing glimmer of change in this situation toward the end of the 18th century, when a material long in use for other items--cast iron--began to be used in building. Pound for pound, cast iron was much stronger than stone or brick. Since it was cast in molds, it could be cheaply mass produced. And lastly, cast iron wouldn’t burn.

Among the first structural uses of cast iron was the celebrated Coalbrookdale Bridge across the river Severn in Shropshire, England, built by one Abraham Darby III in 1879, and still standing today. Darby came from a storied dynasty of English ironmongers who had cast cooking pots and like paraphenalia for generations. Darby reasoned that the same process might serve very well to produce repetitive structural members such as girders--and not incidentally create a vast new market for his products. 

Knowingly or not, Darby opened a whole new chapter in the history of building. Most of the structural innovations using cast iron came from engineers rather than architects, and most of these advances were made in Britain, the cradle of the ongoing Industrial Revolution. 

At first, cast iron appeared to be the greatest building breakthrough since ancient times. It began to be widely used in bridge structures and other civil engineering works. In architecture, cast iron columns and beams became common in factory and commercial buildings. Slender, delicately ornamented cast iron columns even appeared in a few large English manor houses. 

Alas, this promising future clouded over on May 24, 1847, when a brand new cast iron bridge across the river Dee in Chester, England collapsed. An inquiry determined that one of the cast-iron girders had snapped under the load of a crossing train.  England saw subsequent cast iron failures of the Bull Bridge in 1860, the Woolton Bridge in 1861, and finally the catastrophic collapse of the Tay Bridge in 1879, which killed sixty, including the bridge engineer’s son in law. In architecture, too, iron proved vulnerable. Unlike wood, which visibly bends when overloaded, cast iron could appear sound in one moment and shatter in the next. Most--er, ironic--it turned out that while cast iron wouldn’t burn, fire could still weaken it to the point of collapse.

After yet another bridge failure in 1891, it was determined that all cast iron bridges in the United Kingdom should be replaced. Future bridges were supposed to utilize wrought iron—a tougher, more malleable metal that unfortunately lacked cast iron’s ability to be molded. 

However, as so often happens in history, new developments soon rendered these plans moot. By the end of the 19th century, steel--a newly perfected material that was both strong and extremely malleable--was poised to revolutionize building. Cast iron continued to be used on occasion for prefabricated store fronts and the like, but engineering’s age of iron had ended.