Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category


January 18, 2014

Ceres Chair

Went to the movies the other night and saw August-Osage County which I just learned was nominated for several Oscars this year.  Hmmm.  Interesting performances, but I just couldn’t relate.  Never interacted with a family so rife with dysfunction.  Film starts off with senior male member of the clan, played by Sam Shepard, taking his own life.  Mother, played by Meryl Streep, drops the f-bomb with great frequency.    If I ever heard my mom utter that epithet I’d know the end to be near.

Sitting there attempting to get comfortable I thought a bit about Shepard.  He’s good in everything and makes memorable the smallest bits of a role.  There’s a personaI connection: I always think of his crooked teeth when I look in the mirror.  Anyway, as you may know he’s also a playwright and something he said about the craft came to mind.  “For me, playwriting is and always has been like making a chair.  Your concerns are balance, form, timing, lights, space, music.  If you don’t have these essentials you might as well be writing a theoretical essay, not a play.”

Well, for me, those concerns weren’t well addressed in that film, but as luck would have it, I got a new chair for Christmas and thus have been given to think about Shepard’s metaphor in relation to the gift and my way in the world.   Visitors to this space will know that I’m a world class daydreamer and should thus expect that facilitation thereof to be important to these ruminations.  Call me VP in charge of staring off into space.

The factors Shepard mentions are all important, but for me light and music stand out. In a chair you ask?  They’re not important for mushroom theory of management* sorts, but reign supreme wherever creativity is important.  And where is it not? I read an article in the Harvard Business Review a while back that described an incipient trend in which job candidates with an MFA were hired over those with an MBA.  They’re better equipped to develop ‘over the horizon’ scenarios.

Light and music in a well wrought play might refer to the manner in which truth about a character, or the plot, or life is revealed.  Think about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid maybe.  Ya, remember when they’re in Bolivia and Strother Martin asks The Kid to demonstrate his marksmanship?  The Redford character first misses the block of wood Martin’d tossed out, Newman winces, but the Kid then says “Can I move?” and with speed, agility, and grace destroys it.

I’m gonna quote myself to bring in a bit of science: “Recent article in the Boston Globe and WSJ describe new research into the emerging field of embodied cognition.  Investigators do indeed believe that movement and gesticulation enhance cerebration.  ‘People think with their bodies, not just their brains… arm movements can affect language comprehension… children are more likely to solve math problems if they are told to gesture with their hands….’”**

Ya gotta move and I can in this new seat like in none before.  I lean forward to type and then back to look at the ceiling or out the window and feel like I’m getting a massage as I stretch.  I think about Dad telling me not to lean back and rock in my chair, and then an article in the New Yorker about how those with Aspergers like to rock and then one in the same issue about how Bill Gates does too.

I quickly became so fond of my new perch that I traced its designer to Germany.    Guy by the name of Wolfgang Deisig.  “A chair should be like a comfortable jacket, you slip into it and it feels good” he says.  Interestingly, for me anyway,  Deisig has had a long relationship with the famed German Vitra firm.  At the Vitra Design Museum near Basel Switzerland recently launched an exhibition about the life and work of architect Louis I Kahn prominent in which is work by his collaborator Anne Tyng about whom I’m deeply engaged in research.

Tyng was fond of psychiatrist Carl Jung who coined the term synchronicity and amazingly enough, that’s just what we have here.    I’ve a long way to go, but look forward to a pirouette from time to time for inspiration and/or celebration.  My chair and I will see this project through to the end together.

Ceres Chair 2

*Keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em shit

** See post of January 24, 2008

***Chair is the Ceres by Hon

****Speaking of synchronicity, Ceres is the Roman Goddess of Agriculture-Perfect for this site, no?

Less is a bore…

October 5, 2012


  Spent last week in the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania working on a research project.  Found that the investigation of a particular archive is fortunately facilitated by a document called a ‘Finding Aid’ which presents its contents in outline form.  Personal papers, professional papers, drawings, photographs, models, etc.

  The archive of my interest consists of thirty-one cubic feet of boxed files and I estimate that I examined about a third of the material contained therein and look forward to returning to complete this phase of the my endeavor.  It is unbelievably fascinating because of the punctuation of the expected provided by the un-.

  My concentration never waned from open to close due to the nature of the subject (details down the road) as well as that of the professional staff and others with whom I met.  Nonetheless, I did take a break from time to time and often visited other spaces in the Fisher Fine Arts Library.  You see the main reading room above.  Isn’t the fall of the early morning light on the wall wonderful? 

  The brick and terra-cotta building was designed by the acclaimed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness and opened in 1891. Programmatic evolution and misguided modifications took a toll.  However, a six year sixteen million dollar renovation (1986-1991) led by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates gave way to renaissance and rave reviews.

  Indeed, with its singular amalgam of scale, styles, and materials, this building is  Venturi’s seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture made manifest.  “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture… [an] architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience… I am for messy vitality over obvious unity…More is not less…Less is a bore.”

  Interestingly, in a footnote sort of way, VSB added a bit of complexity and contradiction to the building through the FF&E (fixtures, furnishings, and equipment) budget.  Look at the non period overstuffed chairs at the bottom of the photo above and close up below.  Footnote on footnote, the chairs remind me of the columns in their Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London…

*Check out  Brother recommended I employ the site to find an apartment for the week.  Worked out well.  Great location, fine accommodations and arrangements.  Facility instructions prohibited tobacco, but marijuana would be ok.  Nice touch.  Informal conversations in the archives with folks of several different nationalities attested to the widespread use of airbnb.  Especially amongst those half my age and younger.

beats museums all to hell

August 10, 2012


  OK.  I’m really good at shopping for women’s clothing.  Scratch that.  Really good at accompanying roommate and/or daughters while they’re on the hunt.  It’s great.  They’re not the least bit interested in my opinions so I’m free to occupy myself as I see fit.  If you’re still with me, take note:  The nature of the particular venue makes all of the difference. 

  The trick for outlet malls and other similarly dismal points of the built environment – in which everything seems bland, temporary, and, well, cheap – is to take along reading material.  Given the opportunity to plan ahead, I usually take a copy of Le Monde and a small dictionary.  My rudimentary French draws broadsheet perusal out over several hours and at day’s end I’m left with interesting insights.

  By contrast, a visit to an establishment characterized by considered sensitive design can be more than pleasant.  Take the above for example.  That is the entrance to Anthropologie’s flagship store in Philadelphia.  It was designed by the prominent Boston firm of Peabody and Sterns as a townhouse for a member of the Drexel family in about 1898.

  Sarah Drexel Van Rensselaer and her husband Alex were wealthy, active, and generous members of Philadelphia high society.  During a 1901 circumnavigation, they were received by the Japanese Royal family, The Court of St James, The Viceroy of India, and the Rajah of Singapore.  A contemporary account of the housewarming for this pied-a-terre at 18th and Walnut said that they wore $10 million in jewelry*.

  Anyway, as I’ve indicated (and you can see), the place has been repurposed and gloriously so.  As Sir David Chipperfield said of another great spot: “…people need to go inside and be there for a while before realizing that, you know, this is actually quite a nice place to be…”**    

  It is indeed wonderfully generous space in which to simply move about.  And the opportunity therein to watch loved ones – and others – preen makes for a singular emotionally tumescent experience.  No one in my family will believe this, but I think it beats museums all to hell.

*From the Drexel University Archives

**As quoted in the August 2012 United Airlines Hemispheres in-flight magazine describing his Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

***During a recent visit I attempted to photograph a few lovely young birds adjusting their feathers, but was advised that a few of Philadephia’s finest were on their way.  I decided to leave and allow them to enjoy the experience on their own…


Invisible Driving Force

May 4, 2012


  Years ago on kids’ first trip to the beach I noticed that the shells in which they found great interest were not whole or colorful, but in fact the most sun bleached pieces – especially those with some intricacy.  Furthermore, that observation reminded me that I’d been the same and even had some ‘originals’ in a dusty collection at my folks’ house.

  It was the shape, not the color.

  Thus it was interesting for me to read in the Science Times section of the 5/1/12 NYT that “Babies are born Euclideans” and that they “use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space”.  And not color.  Isn’t that interesting given all of the information provided by our eyes?

  The article was about a researcher at Harvard – Elizabeth Spelke – investigating the innate characteristics of our brains by means of  close observation of infants.  “…Identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.”

  Very young babies would notice if the room in which they were was triangular or rectangular in plan.  They’d remember whether an object had been by a short or long wall.  Much to the surprise to Prof Spelke it was not until the age of five or six that color provided much help in infant navigation.

  Made me think.  First, that the ability to discern even light and dark let alone how to read a map came long after, well, the ability to swim in the primordial soup.  And that even earlier all that stuff moved (moves!) through the cosmos just fine without even being alive.

  The design of our universe is all math.  It is incredible to realize, in the words of architect and theorist Anne Tyng, how completely “we inhabit geometry”.  She showed that “the building blocks of nature are demonstrated as geometry in pure motion”* and that the “power of geometry is the invisible driving force in natural forms”**. 

  Too bad I have to take off my shoes and socks to get past ten…

* ** The comments were from the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Ms Tyng. The first was from an essay by Jenny Sabin: “Geometry in Transformation – Computing Mind and Matter”.  The second from the essay “Dynamic Symmetries” by Alicia Imperiale.

What Else Am I Gonna Do?

April 13, 2012


  Ok.  This is what happens when nearly sixty and attempting to switch gears.  You’re no longer in charge at work, have a great idea about what to do next – one in which you’re fully invested, and for which would spare no effort – but gotta wait for pieces to fall into place. 


  What else are you gonna do?  Nobody wants your opinion and you can’t just sit there… Origami requires concentration, dexterity, three dimensional thinking, and is endlessly rewarding.  No two of even the simplest forms end up exactly alike.  Challenge and difficulty accrete with desire.

  The word origami is Japanese and does mean fold paper. Japanis a resource poor country with trees being one of few in abundance.  Wood thus came to be the focus of Japanese creativity as raw material for many things made very differently in other parts of the world. 

  Paper came to be regarded as sacred and an important element of the national religion – Shinto.  Secular folded objects evolved therefrom.  The first known set of origami objects available for sale appeared in 1728.  The first book of techniques was written in 1797.

  I prefer projects not requisite of tools beyond one’s digits, but might make an exception for one I just found.  It’s a replica* of Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s Architecture Museum on the island of Omishima which opened last fall.

  The building is “built to resemble a ship’s deck carrying a cargo of dreams of architecture for the future”.  Some find a formal resemblance of it to Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng’s City Tower project.  Their influence can certainly be seen in other Ito buildings. 

  No surprise then that several years ago Ito visited UPENN to meet with Dept Chair Detlef Mertins who later initiated a retrospective of Ms Tyngs oeuvre entitled Inhabiting Geometry and to whom the catalogue is dedicated.  Have the catalogue and wish I’d seen the show.


**More on Ito at post of February 10, 2010

Go Figure

March 30, 2012


 Frank Lloyd Wright once said that: “a doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only plant vines”. I’m sure that he’d agree though that plantings can also enhance good and great architecture.  After all, it was he who first used the word “organic” in a design related context.

  “Garden and Building may now be one.  In any good organic structure it is difficult to say where the garden ends and where the house begins or where the house begins and the garden ends… I am really an emissary of the ground…”*

  Well, in the photo above it is clear where building ends, but the effusion of color is all the more effective for that fact.  It’s a Canadian Redbud in front of the Public Library in Davenport, Iowa just a few blocks north of theMississippi River.  Yep, north.  The river flows east to west there for a stretch.

  The building was designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1969 and clearly recalls his Kennedy Center inWashington DC which went up in 1962.  I’ve always figured that DC’s cherry blossoms prefigured the DPL’s  redbuds.  Whatever, they look marvelous for a few days each spring.

  Furthermore, the ephemeration of twig and color before the geometrical background pattern brings to mind first how short will be our visit upon this bit of the cosmos and then just how incredibly it is all underpinned by mathematics.  Go figure.

*Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, 1953

Davenport Public Library

Kennedy Center


December 23, 2011


  Yesterday I was reading an article* about Carlos Jimenez, a young (52 which is younger than I am anyway) architect in Houston and remembered visiting him in his office about a decade ago.  Looking back through my notes, I remembered that he introduced me to the concept of generosity in architecture – its power to enhance the quality of one’s living.

He had entertained thoughts of entering the priesthood.  Those thoughts had long ago left him but, “my Catholic background was very beneficial because I learned a lot about human qualities that have a kind of transformative power.  And as I do architecture, I realize that one has a duty to transform certain realities.  Any project calls forth an occasion to solve its problems and aspire beyond them.  That is when a work of architecture arises…”

As opposed to a thoughtless agglomeration of rooms.  There are differences both subtle and not so.  It is no surprise that great architects relish opportunities to design places of worship whether they be churches or museum.  People visit those building types hoping to be moved spiritually and are thus prized consumers of finely wrought spaces.

All makes me think of the off quoted notion (here and elsewhere) that “architecture is nothing but frozen music” and am sure that many folks more quickly recall being moved by music than by moving through built space.  It is universal.  Incredibly so.

A few months ago on NPR’s Fresh Air I heard a researcher describe a situation involving a profoundly handicapped young woman.  She had been born with only the most ancient components of a brain enabling only the most basic physiological systems.

There had never been any concern for her experience of life because no one figured there was awareness.  One day, for some reason, someone brought in a music box, wound it up, and pushed go.  It was immediately apparent that there was register as she turned toward the device ever so slowly in a process reminiscent of a slow motion take of a flower turning toward the sun.  There were gasps all around.

Those of us more fortunate can notice differing effects of the differing permutations of particular arrangements of notes or rooms.  Take the exact same sets of either, rearrange them, and voila – something new, but generative of very different emotion.

Like this for example:

  Or this:

*Architect, December 2011

**Jimenez was on the shortlist for the design of a new art museum in a city by the Mississippi.  Here is what he said about the site: “I am struck by the rich potential of the chosen site…challenge will be to address these two compelling forces (urban grid and the river) in a building that bridges and filters one and the other.  The collection, the galleries, light, space, flows, views, landscape, all must merge”.    His aesthetic is similar to the one selected, but method of delivery more sensual.

Sunlight and Socks

September 23, 2011


  Next time you’re trying to match a pair of dark socks and fold them up into one of those little balls, go to the trouble of holding them next to each other in direct sunlight.  Don’t be surprised if two first thought to be mates turn out not to be when smiled upon by the sun.

  Sunlight of course is a natural cause of degradation – stuff fades.  But it also is by far the best source of illumination with which to regale an object’s reflection toward perception by a visual system human or otherwise. 

  That quality is behind the motivation of some architects to go to great and expensive lengths to incorporate natural light into special spaces by means of skylights and elaborate translucent roofing systems.

Though such design elements can be problematic (leak), their effects upon objects below can be magnificent.

  Italian architect Renzo Piano established his career with series of museums exploring such possibilities with first the Menil, then Twombly* in Houston, the Beyeler in Basel, and lately the top floor of the new addition to the Art Institute in Chicago.

  Andy Sedgwick of Arup was the engineer of several of those solutions and it is his sketch of the light boxes for the Figge Art Museum that you see above.  Though rough, it is conceptually demonstrative of the finished product. 

  Their several components begin with the glass lights (panes) on top, then mechanical louvers to allow for modulation, then on the sides supplemental fluorescent tubes (cloudy days, night), and finally “stretched diffusing fabric”.  This last, in the end, turned out to be special scrim imported from France.

  Louvers opened, the finished product exudes the sort of generosity that Abbott Suger referred to during the early stages of gothic architecture as the “metaphysics of light”.  Standing below one once on a sunny summer afternoon, I looked down from Chase’s Mrs. Chase in Pink **to watch shadows of huge Midwestern cumulus roll across the floor.  Sent shivers up and down my spine.

*The light in the Twombly reminded me of a near death experience: cf 3/4/11 below.

**And Mrs Chase and I go way back: cf 4/10/09

Joe, Joe, and Joe

August 26, 2011


  Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto did a series of black and white photographs of Richard Serra’s Joe, a sculpture which sits in an outside courtyard at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.  Sugimoto’s work is interesting for a variety of reasons not least because of Serra’s own surprise: “This is not about me”.

  The several ton piece was Serra’s first torqued spiral and he was shocked that the Japanese photographer had not undertaken a documentary style project.  Instead, Sugimoto used the opportunity to create a work  of his own and with it a more effective conveyance of the sense of Serra’s ideals than a more literal interpretation ever could. 

   The images abstract and cerebrate the unexpectedly complex physical experience of the huge hot rolled steel spiral.  The two dimensional representations are thus elemental forms manifested and manipulated by Serra and returned to the Platonic realm by Sugimoto.

  Furthermore, fascinatingly, Sugimoto doesn’t see Joe as relating to its namesake, Joseph Pulitzer.  “I see it as related to my seascape series as a metaphor of human memory.”  He tells us that a seascape is likely the least changed vista since the rise of consciousness.  A gaze upon one thus shares an ethereal resonance with those of our earliest ancestors as well as all those between.

  An early product of this awareness was remembrance of the dead.  The first proto-human efforts beyond feeding, fighting, fleeing, or f______ (making babies) were the creation of graves, tombs, and then cenotaphs.  Sugimoto calls Joe a “metaphor and system of remembrance”.  Seems to me that the relationship between Joe and Photographs of Joe is a metaphor for the evolution of consciousness.

*Quotes from the exhibition brochure “Hiroshi Sugimoto – Photographs of Joe; edited by Matthias Waschek; published by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; 2006.

**cf “Conquistadors of the Useless” 1/21/08

… the ongoing danger of collectively creating scapegoats

August 6, 2011


  Last week one lone deranged man killed seventy-three young people on an island near Oslo, Norway.  That terrible event was sort of an inverted reflection of another horror that took place in the far north of that country many years before.  During the course of the seventeen century,  the 3,000 citizens of county Finnmark convicted ninety-one men, women, and young girls of witchcraft and burned them at the stake.

  If you’re with me so far, you’ll find it quite the coincidence that a memorial for the earlier event opened just this past June.  It is the Steilneset Memorial To The Victims Of The Witch Trials and was a collaboration between Swiss architect  Peter Zumthor* and the late great nonagenarian Louise Bourgeois.  During the ceremony, presided over by Queen Sonja, general secretary of the Vardo Church City Mission Sturla Stalsett that “the memorial is meant to remind us of the ongoing danger of collectively creating scapegoats”.**

   Zumthor designed two structures for the barren rocky site.  Of the first, pictured above he said: “I didn’t want an aggressive massive monument.  Creating a light delicate structure was best for this rough space”.  It is 410 feet long, narrow, and has ninety-one randomly placed windows.  Behind each is suspended a single light bulb.  “The feeling is like being in the stomach of some prehistoric creature…except there is a glimmer of light”.

  At the south end a gangplank leads into the other glass and Cor-Ten cubiform volume housing Bourgeois’ work pictured below.  It is comprised of an aluminum chair with flames emanating from the seat and is encircled by seven oval mirrors.  “…like judges circling the condemned”.

  The location is remote, but not off of the beaten path.  The Varanger National Tourist Route program consists of eighteen major routes to facilitate interesting travel while punctuating the country’s magnificent geography with integrated points of interest.  It is overseen by the Norwegian Public Road Authorities and is scheduled to be complete in 2020.  Phew.  Guess don’t need to hurry

 *For more about Zumthor read post of 4/24/09 “Reading about Reincarnation is not the same thing as being reborn”

**Much of the information above was drawn from an article by Suzanne Stephens in the August 2011 edition of Architectural Record.