Sunday, April 30, 2017

Architecture & Shelter: All Architecture is Shelter

hunter-gatherer type shelter
It is universally understood that the fundamental basic human needs are food, shelter, and clothing. History offers numerous examples of peoples that have that have been deprived of one, or a combination of these needs. Whatever that causes, the results were, and are still, pretty bleak - starvation, exposure, disease. The importance of these basic human needs should not be underestimated. Although these basic needs are all interconnected, I am attempting to remove one of the needs, shelter, for further examination. 

On to the connection with architecture. Conventional wisdom is that while architecture shelters, that is only part of the story. The late architect and theoretician Philip Johnson was quoted as saying "All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space." 

Ziggurat at Ur
Architecture has obvious connections to shelter. Architecture shelters. It protects us from the elements. Early hunter-gatherers viewed their shelters quite simply. They were quickly-built temporary constructs of easily gathered materials that allowed an escape rain, snow, and wind. When the berries were picked or the wild herds moved on, so did the hunter-gatherers, there shelters simply abandoned.

As agrarinan societies developed it was no longer necessary for shelter to be temporary. Early societies began to grow well beyond small tribes and the shelters that were constructed could be more perminent. These new societies permitted specialized roles for its citizens which led to specialized buildings. Agricultural buildings, Sacred buildings, civic buildings and palaces emerged. They began to understand that these buildings could do more that provide shelter. If manipulated in the correct manner, they could raise their spirits. These new building types began to take on increasing importance to their societies. They still sheltered, but they did much more. At some point they became, in Johnson's words, "great architecture." 

The Wynn, LasVega
At some point architects began to all but abandon the need for shelter in their desire to design "great architecture." The need for basic shelter, however, still exists. While the $3.3 billion Wynn hotel is an example of great architecture, according to Johnson's definition, but we must not kid ourselves into thinking that it is an appropriate type of shelter for humanity. It is shelter for the 1%. For architects to truly impact the world, we must address the basic need for shelter for the other 99%. I do believe that we are starting to make inroads. This first became apparent to me after the profession's general embrace of Cameron's Sinclair's book "Design Like You Give a Damn." It also seems to me that the newest members of our profession have a deeper understanding of the power of architecture, and a desire to use it, than most of our form obsessed starchitects. We are starting to see examples of interesting examples of basic shelter coming out of creative design firms around the world. It is to humanity's betterment to see that trend continue and accelerate.


Reflecting on my writing of this post, it seemed somewhat ironic that I am only now writing about the connection to the basic need that is most closely akin to architecture. I have written several posts on the connections between food and architecture and a couple on the connection between clothing and architecture. Another seemingly obvious topic about which I have failed to write is of the connection between architecture and space. That will be the topic of the next post, Shaping Space.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Architecture & the Grid: Stick to It


Manhattan Street Grid
Architecture is not created through happenstance. It is planned. It contains a sense of order. The grid is a proven tool used by architects to achieve order. This post examines the connection between architecture and the grid.

As an ordering devise, the grid is not a unique to architecture. One need simply look out the window to the orthogonal pattern of the street grid in our cities or to observe green blocks of crops in the fields of the countryside. The grid as an ordering devise is pervasive. It is recurrent in mathematics, science, technology, art, and architecture.

Architecture is initially conceived in the brain, as a collection of concepts, thoughts and ideas. At this stage the architecture is chaotic. Despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, this chaos cannot simply be regurgitated into a fully formed work of architecture. There is a process. Those concepts, thoughts, and ideas have to make it to paper and the architect must employ his or her creative arsenal at the project. He must convert that chaos to order. Enter...the grid.

Parthenon, 432 BCE
I am not certain of the earliest use of the grid in architecture but the analytical Greeks were certainly advocates. A good architectural definition of the grid comes from architect and educator Francis D.K. Ching - "A rectangular system of lines and coordinates serving as a reference for locating and regulating the elements of a plan.The success of the Parthenon can be contributed to more than its form. It is also derived from its order. The underpinnings of the Parthenon, like many buildings that followed, is the grid. 

I would embrace Ching's definition even more if he were to omit from it the word "rectangular". It is certainly true that the grid is normally rectangular, but that does not have to be the case. Take for example I.M. Pei's East Wing Addition to the National Gallery. Here a triangular grid is used to great effect. As the visitor enters the east wing and overlooks the balcony, it becomes obvious that Pei has extruded the grid from the floor plane and superimposed it in three dimensional space. This is a skill possessed by our great practitioners. Wright was known for his use of grids, which included virtually any geometric pattern that could be construed with a 45 or 30-60-90 triangle.

At some early point in my career I ran across a book by Charles Woods, A Natural System of House Design, which makes an eloquent case for architects not to use the grid simply as a rough guide, but to really stick to it. Woods uses his own excellent residential projects to demonstrate the versatility and flexability of the grid. He speaks of the module, a sort of three dimensional grid, stating, "The module is the identity, form, essence, and being of the design in contrast to the becoming of matter of the built structure."

Since this blog is all about connections, I thought it might be interesting to close by passing along a connection between the use of the grid by two great designers - the late great graphic designer Massimo Vignetti and the talented architect Richard Meier.

letterhead design example by Vignetti
The Vignetti canon advocates the use of grids in the layout of everything from letterheads and business cards to books. Vignetti has been quoted, tongue in cheek, as saying that the grid is the "underwear" of the book. Vignetti's clean, minimalist design approach to book and magazine layouts did not go unnoticed by Meier, who retained Vignetti to document his works of architecture for his monographs. Flipping through the books is fascinating. As in Meier's architecture, the grid is not immediately conspicuous, but is definitely there. Once one detects and examines the grid, it presence and power becomes obvious. The text boxes and image boxed makes sense. Even the white spaces make sense. As in Meier's buildings, the grid serves as the underpinning of a project that really works!

Rochofsky Residence, Meier & Partners, 1996 
Rochofsky Residence, Meier & Partners, 1996 
Next month we will step back to look at the big picture of architecture, investigating how architecture fits with humanity's basic needs.  Join me for All architecture is shelter.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Architecture & Steel: The Impact of Steel

"The versatility of steel gives architects the freedom to achieve their most ambitious visions."
-Unknown

For decades after carbon was first added to iron, steel in architecture was used primarily as the bones of the building. Other materials were the skin. This was revealed in the previous post. The work of Mies' builidngs, where the structure was an essential part of the facade,  provided a segue for steel's transformation from bone to skin. This post explores the versatility of steel.

History often repeats itself. Just as Eiffel's tower had done almost ninety years earlier, Piano and Rogers' Centre Pompidou was initially despised and rejected, before becoming accepted then loved, by the Parisians. This building ushered in a new word to the architectural lexicon - high tech. It also launched the careers of two young architects who are among the greats practicing today, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The building was completely unapolagetic in its use of steel ... exposed ...  inside and out. What made Centre Pompidou different was not that it was being used, but how it was used. It was expressed, and not only the structure but also the pipes, conduits, cables, and grates. It is as if the skin was peeled away.
Centre Pompidou, Piano & Rogers, 1977
Some architects such as Richard Meier chose to use steel in a more subtle way. Meiers' late modern projects featured painted steel beams and columns, steel window and door frames, and sleek nautical railings. The exterior voids are filled with large expanses of glass and the exterior walls are clad in porcelain steel panels, now part of the Meier brand.
The Athenium, Richard Meier, 1979
Shortly after Centre Pompidou opened its doors, Piano and Rogers went their separate ways. One of Richard Rogers first masterworks was a new headquarters building for Lloyd's of London. The building is enclosed with prefabricated stainless steel panels, which are connected to the exposed steel frame, like a giant erector set.
Lloyd's of London, Richard Rogers, 1986
In the case of the Lofts at Cherokee Stadium, there is no steel frame. The building is a fairly simple block of lofts. What sets this building apart it the metal scrim which is pulled away from the body of the building. In terms of function, the operable scrim opens up at strategic locations. They open up views, provide shade and privacy, and channel breezes. In terms of form, they create an interesting and dynamic facade, always changing.
Lofts at Cherokee Stadium, Pugh + Scarpa, 2009
 is also used in conjunction with other materials as well. 
The strength, durability, and versatility of steel, as a structural and cladding material, ensure that it will remain a preferred material among architects. A common ordering devise also used by architects for organizing building components, such as steel, is the grid. In the next post, Stick To It, we'll examine the grid and its connections and design.  

Monday, December 26, 2016

Architecture & Steel: Add Carbon

As discussed in the first post on glass, Architecture is one of those words that is difficult to define. It is the creation of form which evokes emotion through its composition of materials. Some of these materials are structural and some are cladding. Steel is a versatile material which can be both. I would like to explore two areas - the evolution of the material and the manner it is used today. This post addresses the former while the next post will address the latter.  

BC Pyramids at Giza, 2580
For thousands of years concrete and masonry were the materials of choice in architecture. The Egyptians, Roman, and virtually all subsequent civilizations embraced these materials. These materials were strong in compression but weak in tension, resulting in visually solid and heavy structures. In tall buildings, the distribution of the loads meant that the walls on lower floors were very thick and widows were used very sparingly.


Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, 1889

It must have been something truly extraordinary when Gustuv Eiffel's tower soared into the Paris sky. Despite its magnificent size, the wrought iron structure was so light and airy. This identifying monument of the 1889 World's Fair was many years in the making. In fact, the Tower was the last monumental structure made from wrought iron. Even as its properties were being pushed to the limits in France, they were being fundamentally changed across the ocean in America.






Willam LeBaron Jenny was a leading Chicago architect, trained as an engineer. The wrought iron frame of his ten story Home Insurance Building had already reached six stories when he learned of an amazing discovery. Carbon added to iron resulted in a much stronger material - steel. Jenny immediately made the switch to steel, even using it on the remaining four floors. The use of steel for the skeletal frame of the building had obvious benefits. It allowed for quicker construction, thinner walls and thus more efficient space planning. It allowed for the curtain wall, where virtually any material could be hung on the frame - terra cotta, masonry, granite, and glass. It permitted more light into the depths of the buildings and allowed developers to build ever taller buildings. The race to the skies was on.

Home Insurance Building, William LeBaron Jenny, 1884
Steel proved to be a very versatile building material. Not only could it be formed into shapes that mimicked wrought iron, it could be formed into new shapes or combined with other materials, taking  advantage of its unique characteristics. The mid-century architect Ludwig Meis van der Rohe viewed steel differently than his predecessors or most of his contemporaries. In his desire to boil architecture down to only its most basic components, Meis chose to use only steel and glass as the curtain wall to many of his buildings. The Seagram Building is an ideal example of his minimalist approach.

Seagram Building, Meis van der Rohe, 1958
Steel has continued to be used in building frames and facades in increasingly interesting ways. We'll continue our exploration of this versatile building material in the next post ...... The Impact of Steel.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Architecture and Politics: All Politics is Local

With a monumental presidential election just days away, I thought it would be appropriate to defer my post on steel and wade into the churning water of politics. But not too far! While we like to think of politics as something clear and distinct, that one can choose to participate in or not; I believed that politics is inescapable and saturates our very lives, whether we like it or not. Architecture and politics share this connection.



America's citizens depend on the political process to institute our values, to maintain our standard of living, and to provide for our security. While we tend to automatically associate politics with high profile politicians (witness the twenty or so politicians vying for the presidency), real political action most often occurs at the local level. Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said that "All politics is local."  That is only a slight exaggeration. How and where our children are eduacated, how much we pay in property or sales taxes, and which roads and parks get constructed, these are all handled at the local level.

Huntsville, AL
In the world of architecture, most associate architecture with the works of a few high profile architects (the so called Starchitects). While this architecture is in some ways influential, its impact on the local level is not significant. The charm and character of the place in which I practice, like a lot of places, has been formed by local architects doing good solid work. No starchitect monuments here.

Just as architecture and politics share commonalities, so too do architects and politicians. When we think of famous politicians or high profile architects, we tend to think of a single powerful individual. For example, the last two elections were won by candidate, then President, Obama. While this statement is technically true, I think that he would be the first to tell you that his accomplishments are not the work of just one man. They are the collective work of a team behind him. Candidate Obama had his campaign staff and President Obama has his cabinet. Though all of these people have roles to play, it is the president's role set the tone for his administration and to layout policy positions.

President Obama and his 2004 Cabinet
Pivoting to architecture - let's face it, very few people understand what architects do, nor do they appreciate the technical skill and sheer quantity of time required to fully design and document a project. For that reason, many still believe in the stereotypical lone architect slaving away in his ivory tower. In fact, most high profile architects employ a team of professionals. So Bjanke Ingles, for example, has 200 people in his New York office. What Ingles does is to set the tone for the type of work his firm accepts, and works with his designers and architects to edit their work until it aligns with his view of what architecture should be.

Bjarke Ingles and his New York principal architects
Architecture and politics differ is that politics is a democratic process while architecture is more egalitarian. While not everyone can leave their mark on society through the design or construction of architectural works, everyone can vote.  So, no matter who you are or what you do,  go out and cast your ballot on November eighth. And next month we'll resume our exploration of materials.