Sunday, December 28, 2014

Architecture & Construction Technology: Race to the Sky

Steel workers enjoying lunch
on an early skyscraper project

As we've learned in the last post, William LeBarron Jenny's Home Insurance Building of 1885 combined, for the first time, the use of the steel frame and the safety elevator. These   technologies ushered in a new era of construction. No longer were buildings limited in height by the practical limitations of structural efficiency or physical practicalities. Now, the sky was the limit! 

1903  Flatiron Building
Daniel Burnham
Spurred on by the industrial revolution, the western world embraced these new technologies. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States. Its cities were much younger than cities in other regions of the world, and its existing building stock was less revered. Real estate prices were escalating rapidly, particularly in the downtown areas of its major cities. The oilfields, railroads, and industry resulted in great wealth by a small industrious class and the emergence of a middle class. All this combined to make the United States, and Chicago and New York in particular, the perfect setting for the race to the sky. In the early experimental years, Chicago led the way, but in the classic age of the skyscraper, New York reigned supreme. Daniel Burnham's Flatiron Building caused both awe and fear among New Yorkers, many whom feared that it might topple with a big wind gust!

1911 Equitable Building
Earnest R. Graham
1913  Woolworth Building
Cass Gilbert
As skyscrapers grew taller and more prevalent, some of their negative consequences became obvious. Tall buildings cast long shadows and generate wind currents. This became painfully obvious with the construction of the Equitable Building. Zoning restrictions were passed to address such concerns and resulted in the "wedding cake" form of later skyscrapers, such as the Woolworth Building, then the world's tallest building.

The Roaring 20s hosted an amazing race between three teams of ambitious developers, contractors, and architects - the race to become the world's tallest building. This "race to the sky" is well documented in Neal Bascomb's brilliant and entertaining book entitled "Higher".  Following is brief synopsis of some to the high points.

1930  Manhattan Company Building
Craig Severance
Both the Manhattan Company Building, designed by Craig Severance, and the Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Allen, began construction in 1928. The Manhattan Company Building, with an original planned height of 840 feet, was first out of the blocks. The Chrysler Building, originally designed an unfortunate two feet shorter, was quickly on the its heels. Both buildings rose at the amazing clip of about four stories a week - steel frame first, then curtain walls, followed by everything else. During the race, Severance, paranoid that the Chrysler Building might leapfrog his building at the last minute, announced the addition of three floors to the Manhattan Company Building. His building crossed the line first and became the world's tallest building, at 71 stories, or 927 feet.
1930 Chrysler Building
William Van Allen

Severance's paranoia proved to be well founded and his record was short lived. Van Allen had a surprise up his sleeve. He and his team had designed an elaborate 125 foot spire, which it secretly constructed and then erected to great fanfare. The final height of the Chrysler building was 77 stories or, more importantly 1,046 feet. Van Allen's celebration, like Severances' before him, was short lived.

While Severance and Van Allen were fighting it out, a new competitor entered the race. William Lamb of the firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon designed a building that would unquestionably eclipse both the Manhattan Company Building and the Chrysler Building. In 1929 the Empire State Building sprang from the bedrock and toward the sky. Unfortunately the construction coincided with the Great Depression. The project pushed forward, overcame a host of obstacles, and was completed in 1931, just a few months after the completion of the Chrysler building. At 103 stories and 1,454 feet, the Empire State Building took the prize for the world's tallest building. Not until the completion of the Twin Towers in 1970 was the height of the Empire State Building surpassed.
1931  Empire State Building
Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon
The tallest buildings in the world are no longer in New York, or Chicago, or even in the United States, though we still retain a large stock of beautiful and creative high rise buildings. Our classic skyscrapers are perhaps America's greatest contribution to the canon of architectural history. 

While skyscapers are indeed high profile structures in the public eye, very few architects ever have the opportunity to work on anything so large and complex. In fact many of us started by designing houses. There is an interesting commonality in these types of projects which we'll investigate in the next post.....Hi Mom!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Architecture & Art: First Impressions

Mankind's innate desire to create reveals a unique connection between architecture and art. They are trails through the wilderness; they fork, only to run parallel, reconnect for a while, then diverge again. The changes of direction from these creative endeavors result from any number of things, which the layman may incorrectly construe as minor technological advances.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872
A group of Paris based artists shunned the Beaux-Arts establishment and began painting everyday scenes, often in bright colors painted with short and quick brushstrokes. The movement they began was named after an early painting by the leader of the movement, Claude Monet. For these artists, capturing the fleeting impression of their subject matter took priority over realism. The entire movement would not have been possible had it not been for the simple invention of the now common paint tube. Prior to this invention, artists were confined to their studio, where they had to carefully mix their paints. The Impressionists recognized the newly invented paint tube not only as a convenience but also as an opportunity to venture outside of the studio, set up their easel wherever their subject was located, and paint however they liked, paying particular attention to the colors of the rising or setting sun, and how they reflect off their subject at various times of day.

mixing paint in the Studio
pre-mixed paint in a tube

The architecture that surrounded the Impressionists in Paris was typical of that of other major cities throughout Europe and the United States. The buildings were designed in the traditional Beaux Arts style and were normally seven stories or less in height. That changed in many cities, with the design and construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885. The architect William LeBarron Jenny designed this building using a couple of new, but now commonplace, inventions - the now common safety elevator and the steel frame. The elevator allowed the building to contain extra floors without tiring out or wasting the time of the building's occupants. The steel frame allowed the walls to be thinner than masonry construction. It also allowed the spaces to be designed more efficiently, especially on the lower floors. This building ushered in a new type of architecture, the skyscraper.

Home Insurance Building, William LeBarron Jenny, 1885
The paint tube changed the history of art just as the elevator and steel frame changed the history of architecture. Jenny's skyscraper introduced a new type of building that was embraced by a country of growing cities, the United States. We'll explore this in greater detail in the next post. Please join me next time for Race for the Sky.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Architecture & Packaging: Wrigley's Spearmint Gum

I am not sure what this means, but I'm a sucker for good product packaging. Apple products get my admiration for many reasons, in part because they are so cleverly packaged and such a thrill to open. After much thought I have decided that my favorite example of good packaging is a simple one - Wrigley's Spearmint Gum. For me, the ceremony is even better than the product. As a child I recall begging my mother for some of her gum. I would take the container, pull the little tab, whip it around the end, then pluck it off. I could then select my stick of gum and pull it out. The sticks were cloaked in a paper label, which would be flicked off to reveal a foil wrapper. Spreading the foil exposed the stick of gum. Finally I could fold it in half and stick in my mouth; but to be honest, the actual taste of the gum was nothing particularly special.  It was the packaging.

Packaging isn't restricted to product merchandising. Architecture often employs many of the same principals. In 1893 (the same year that Wrigley's Spearmint Gum was introduced) a monumental event was taking place in the world of architecture - the Chicago World's Fair. Daniel Burnham served as the master planner for the fair. Burnham assembled a collection of the country's most prominent architects to populate the fairgrounds with their variations on neoclassical architecture. The result was a "White City" comprised primarily of temporary buildings. The buildings first goal was to attract attention and draw the public to them. Without that, the contents could not be explored. It was all about packaging. 
1893 Chicago's Word Fair
Neoclassical Buildings surrounding the Grand Basin
A visitor to the Fair could see the buildings in the distance, especially at night. (The Fair featured the first extensive use of the electric light in the country.)  As they drew closer they could begin to see some of the play of shadows and lights, the contrast of solids and voids. The building entry was usually contained within a featured form, and was often terminated in an axis or some other ordering devise. The buildings revealed more detail as one moved in, around, and through them. Once inside, the emphasis on the exhibits overtook that of the architecture. The exhibits were the product. The buildings were the packaging.

In fact, buildings are still all about packaging and buildings sport all kinds. Far too often the packaging is banal, like the monotonous rows of cereal boxed at your local grocery store. Sometimes the package is explicitly branded, as in the case of Manhattan's Apple Store or the classic Coca-Cola bottle. Occasionally the package is new and refreshing, as in the case of the CHEGS Campus Canteen or the new Puma bag.

Assorted Cereal Boxes
Dollar General by Unknown Architect

Apple Retail Store by Peter Bohlin
Classic Coca-Cola bottle

Puma Clever Little Bag

CHEGS Campus Canteen
by KnowSpace

Today, all but two of the two hundred plus buildings of the Chicago World's Fair are long gone, but Wrigley's spearmint gum is still around! The use of packaging for products and for architecture, like the gum, is just as prevalent as ever. Architects and their clients have learned that the way a building is packaged is just as important as the way consumer products are packaged. While packaging isn't usually associated with art, architecture often is. There are numerous connections between this pair, one of which will be made in the next post, First Impressions.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Architecture & Deliverables (part 2): That's Life

Architects design roughly 2% of the new houses constructed in the United States. Drafters, the homeowners themselves, and builders design the other 98%. This fact has long troubled architects, and rightfully so. We ask: Why is it that so many are willing to put the largest investment they will ever make, into the hands of non-architects? And: Should architects even try to bridge the vast chasm that exists in the services and deliverables that we provide and those provided by others?

Some architects believe that the profession’s reputation is cheapened by engaging in activities such as cranking out mail order plans, where you do not visit the site or know anything about the client. Good design begins with the site and the house should be tailored to the lifestyles of the client. Right? On the flip side of the coin, other architects are concerned about the “elitist” reputation we have earned as patrons to only the wealthy. These architects would like to bridge the gap and bring better design to the masses.

The popular media has jumped into this debate on occasion, usually in an effort to assist those architects seeking to bridge the gap and raise the level of house design. The process involves radically altering the services and deliverables typically provided by architects. Life magazine first undertook this effort in 1938 when it featured a canned "affordable" house design by Frank Lloyd Wright. (There is more than a little irony in this fact, as Wright's houses rarely met his projected budgets.) Life magazine made a handful of attempts to introduce architect-designed house plans over the years, ending in a series of house designs by the nation's leading architects beginning in 1994 and ending in 1999. It was dubbed the Dream House Program. 

The website explained the mission of the Dream House Program this way: "LIFE Magazine believed that too many people, as noted architect Robert A. M. Stern has said, "buy the house they hate the least." Life thought there had been a dramatic break in the decades following WWII between great architecture and the typical American home. The average new-construction home in America was often more a product of what builders and bankers believed would sell for the most profit than it was a thoughtful, flexible habitat that truly suits the needs of a family. Life hoped that by commissioning extraordinary architects to design Dream Houses, they could help change the face of residential architecture in this country. A truly creative home, well-lighted and incorporating intelligent use of space, can be a source of delight. Living in such a house is like living in a piece of sculpture, opening up new worlds of appreciation for what exceptional design can do."

Here is how the program worked. Life magazine commissioned one architect per year to design a high quality house that an average American family could afford to build. The design was then featured in an upcoming issue of Life. The architects were given free reign with the design and were obligated to produce deliverables, a set of construction drawings and specifications, that could be ordered by the magazine's readers.  Once the plans were purchased, the Owners would be free to alter the designs to suit their particular site and accommodate their lifestyles.

Below are images of the Dream House Project designs, followed by some of my observations and opinions derived from my research into the program and the houses. 
1994 Robert A.M. Stern
1995 Dennis Wedlick
1996 Michael Graves
1997 John Rattenbury
1998 Hugh Newell Jacobsen
1999 Susan Suranka
One thing you'll probably notice right away is the incredible design variety generated by these six architects. This reflects the fact that their approaches to the design challenge differ, so the resulting constructs differ as well. In an effort to illustrate this variety, I tried to find images that were faithful to the design intent of the architects. This was not always easy. Some designs were reshaped or altered in ways that would probably make their architect cringe. Another note: The more liberties buyers took with the house designs, the less satisfying they tended to be. I wish I could have found a image of the Suranka house that used more earthier colors and materials. At least I found an image of her design. I could not find an image of Graves' design at all, despite that he is probably the most recognized name of the bunch. Perhaps this is because he sold a disappointing number of plans, just over 100. Of those sold, even fewer were actually constructed (but that's true for everyone). Stern managed to sell over 1200 plans! This is in part because he kicked off the Program, so his designs were around the longest. But it is also because his classic traditional approach is broadly appealing. This contrasts with Jacobsen's stylized vernacular approach or Rattenbury's organic approach. I personally think these two designs are the finest of the collection, but a smaller segment of the Life's readers appreciated (and bought) them.  

Most of the buyers were happy with their purchases, feeling that they got a good deal - a Jaguar for the price of a Chevy Spark. A common refrain however, was that the architect's construction estimates were often wildly optimistic. Some of these house designs, especially those of Stern and Graves, were really less middle class than upper middle class. Suranka and Wedlick's designs were not flashy but were very solid. Good space planning and efficient use of space made these plans perhaps the best values.

While I applaud Life magazine's Dream House program for trying to bring better design into the marketplace, it appears to have had very little actual impact. Even the architects who participated have mixed opinions on whether the program's approach was effective. When one purchases a house plan through the mail or online, even if it is designed by a famous architect, they are still getting a compromised product and only a small piece of what an architect can offer. In other words, they are getting something like an Impala (but certainly not a Jaguar) for the price of a Chevy Spark. If you really want the Jaguar, you'll have to buy the Jaguar. 

So, after all of this analysis, after these observations and opinions, what is the answer to the question of how architects can bridge the gap and bring high design to the masses?...... I still have no idea.  But I haven't given up trying to figure it out! Next month we'll shift gears and take a look at the connection between architecture and packaging in a post entitled Wrigley's Spearmint Gum.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Architecture & Deliverables (part 1): Ready to Wear

dress pattern from 1915
In the late 19th century the sewing pattern industry was born and, within decades, proceeded to revolutionize fashion by producing a cost effective product that appealed to a larger market segment. The pattern allowed one to select a particular style of fashion, and then permitted even the amateur seamstress to easily cut out the pieces for a specific size garment and proceed directly to sewing. The design style of the patterns usually mimicked high fashion (haute couture), but the materials and construction were modified to reduce the cost to produce the garment. Prior to the emergence of pattern, all clothing was made from scratch, with little or no standardization.

Mass market clothing
In most of the civilized world, homemakers were the seamstresses tasked with making the clothing for the entire family, with or without patterns. There were exceptions of course. The wealthy could, and did, hire professionals to make their clothing. These professionals tailored each and every garment to the individual. This labor intensive work involved taking measurements, thoughtful collaboration regarding style, careful selection of the materials to be used, and considerable or total involvement in the actual construction.
Couture gown by Unrath Strano
In many ways not much has changed. Pattens continue to allow for mass market production of clothing, which is so prevalent in today's clothing industry. Most of this clothing is made with cheap materials using cheap labor and efficient production techniques, allowing the clothing to be sold as affordably as possible. Large retailers perpetuate this cycle. Talented clothing designers and tailors are still around but their efforts are directed mostly at a small segment of society - the wealthy. The differences between the end products, however, are radically different. The mass market garments often lack style, and are ill fitting and unflattering. The couture garment well crafted, fits perfectly, and flatters the client.
Sears mail order plans
There is a definite connection to architecture here. In 1908 Sears, Roebook, and Company began selling mail order homes for customers who made their home selection from a pattern book. The program proved wildly successful, eventually resulting in 75,000 new homes. The kit came with all of the pieces cut and ready to assemble. They were loaded on railcars and sent to the site. These cost effective measures allowed Sears to provide more house for less money. The pattens resembled popular custom architecture but they were modified to use cheaper materials and simplified construction techniques. They were not designed for a particular homeowner or a particle site. Prior to this approach, houses were often built by their occupants using local materials and construction techniques. The wealthy tended to retain architects to design custom houses, tailored specifically for them and their site.
Present-day mail order plan
As in the fashion industry, not much has changed. Most of our houses are built from patterns developed to use cheap materials and simplified construction techniques in order to keep the prices down. Developers duplicate, mirror, or make minor modifications to a small collection of plans and fill entire neighborhoods with these houses. Sometimes these houses are drawn (and to some extent designed) by draftsmen and sometimes they are even drawn by the builders themselves. Talented residential architects are largely left out of the process. Architects have done a poor job of explaining their value and have insisted on high design, exhaustive construction documents, and significant control for all projects. Whether one considers this a good thing or not, it results in high fees, which the developers view as cutting into their profits. So their talents are ignored and under underappreciated by all but a small segment of society.

Site Specific: Fall House by Fougerson Architecture
Architecture faces another unique challenge not faced in other design fields. It is site specific. Good architecture considers the unique nature of the site on which it resides. This is counter to the pattern approach to design. Canned plans are necessarily compromised because they fail to address the features of the site - views, orientation, circulation, and the like. The Fall house, for example, can only be fully effective on its site.  This plan on any site, anywhere, does not work.  In the context in which it was designed it is spectacular. This is residential architecture at its best - "haute couture" architecture. It cannot be achieved using the pattern approach. I'm not convinced, however, that there is no place to strike a balance which raises the bar on residential design and gets better design into the marketplace. That may or may not involve the pattern approach but it does involve rethinking the deliverables used to construct our homes.

The fashion industry has made inroads in its desire to bring high quality design to the masses.  Target, as one example, now retains well known and respected fashion designers to produce some of its best selling ready to wear garments. While they are certainly not couture garments, they are a considerate improvement from the mass production garments so prevalent in other discount and department stores. Architecture has not met with similar success, but it is not for lack of trying. We'll look into these efforts next month  in the follow up post entitled That's Life.
Joseph Altuzarra's collection for Target

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Architecture & Cycling: Pelotons and Break Aways

Like 3.5 million others, I spent countless hours this July glued to the television broadcast of the Tour de France. The more of the race I watched, the more I realized that bicycle racing shares many commonalities with architecture. More specifically, the Tour de France shares connections with the modern movement. I know this sounds like quite a stretch, but please allow me to explain.

Bicycle races occur all the time, all over the world, but the Tour de France is somehow unique. Most elite riders grow up with a dream of riding in the Tour, despite the fact that it is..... well..... grueling. This year's race contained 23 stages and covered almost 2300 miles. It traveled across windy flatlands, over cobblestones, and through the Pyrenees and Alps. A skeptic may think the reason riders endure this is for the notoriety that comes with achieving success in the Tour. I like to think that the riders compete in the Tour because it is the ultimate test of their skills. The route of the race changes year to year, lending a measure of unpredictability. Riders and their teams set their training schedules and select other races so that they will be in top form for the Tour.

Architecture is consistently being produced - every day on every continent. Yet there is a movement within architecture, the modern movement, that garners more attention than any other. Google "architecture", look at the images that pop up, and you'll see what I mean. Your screen will be filled with images of modern buildings, such as Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Utzon's Sydney Opera House, as well as lesser known works. The process of becoming an elite architect is no easy task. It involves design savvy, the ability to deal with complex programs, a knowledge of systems and materials, patience in dealing with sometimes difficult clients, and it often results in late nights and lost weekends. While ego and notoriety do play a role in why architects practice, I believe the true reason the architects strive to design great buildings is to test their design skill and maximize their potential. They compose their staffs, select their clients, and compete fiercely for commissions which allow them an opportunity to compete head to head with their peers.

Unless you follow cycling, you may not know that it is really a team sport.  The teams are often built around the team leader. This is usually a seasoned rider who is good in all aspects - time trials, sprints, mountains, and flats. This rider has teammates (domestiques) who protect him, provide a slip screen, pace him, and bring him food and water. This allows the team leader to be in contention at the end of the stages. The teams are also comprised of a manager, coaches, mechanics, and other support personnel. So every time you see a cyclist standing on the podium at the end of the Tour, a large portion of the credit should go to the team.
Podium ceremony
 Astana Cycling Team
Pritzker Prize Ceremony

Staff of Jacobsen Architecture

When it comes to architecture, we all know the team leader. He or she is an experienced and accomplished architect, an inspirational designer, proficient in tectonics, and fluent in architalkure, but they are not the only ones responsible for the dynamic buildings credited to them. Buildings are complex creations, requiring expertise from a team of architects, technicians, drafters, engineers and other consultants. So when an architect stands up and accepts the Pritzker Prize, know that he's accepting it for the team.

I think the most interesting connections between architecture and cycling are those dealing with the race itself. For most of the race the bulk of the riders ride in a large group, called the peloton. Riders in the peloton are able to draft off each other and save a lot of energy, in much the same way as birds flying in formation. The peloton sticks together for the majority of the race, riding a nice and steady tempo. Teams try to set up their leaders near the front of the peloton to avoid the occasional crash. Sometimes a lone rider or a small group will break away from the peloton and try to ride away with the victory. Rarely does this tactic work however.  The peloton usually monitors them, waits for them to tire, and then absorbs them, often cruelly, just before the finish line. The only reason that riders keep trying to break away is that sometimes, not often, but sometimes, it actually works. In every Tour, there are a couple of stages won by an aggressive rider in a break away.

Break away riders pursued by the Peloton
Los Angeles is a modern city with a large stock of fairly average modern buildings. Some buildings are better than others but the overwhelming majority can be considered part of the backdrop of the city. They are an architectural peloton, with no real promise for any sort of architectural glory.  That is not to say that the teams of architects designing the buildings are not well trained or that they don't want to succeed on a higher level, they simply were not able to design a building that could break away from the others. Every once in a while however, a building does complete a successful break away. In the case of Los Angeles, the Disney Concert Hall is such a building. It manages to break away and stand alone in the midst of the architectural peloton. There are other successful break away buildings in other places, but they too are very much the exception.

Frank Gehry's Walt Disney's Concert Hall
A break away building in an architectural peloton
But should architects be trying to design break away buildings? Or should the buildings be designed to be part of the architectural peloton? We'll broach these questions and others next month by returning to the related field of fashion design.  Suit up for Ready to Wear.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Architecture & Furniture (Part 2): Furniture by Architects

As discussed in the previous posts, many architects have tried their hand in furniture design. Most never made it off the drawing board, some were made into prototypes, but relatively few ever made it into production. Fortunately, many of these are excellent pieces. This post serves as survey of some of my favorites.

LeCorbusier's Sling Chair, Grand Modele Sofa,
Chaise Lounge, and Low Table
LeCorbusier embraced the "machine aesthetic" in furniture design as well as architecture. He designed furniture using many of the same materials he used in his buildings, namely glass and steel. These he combined with leather and foam to create a wide range of furniture pieces, including tables, chairs, sofas and a timeless  chaise lounge.

Jacobsen's Ant Chair

Arnie Jacobsen's mid-century classic ant chairs are still in production and available in a number of variations of the originals three legged design. Jacobsen summized that having a single leg in front would minimize the conflict between the leg of the chair and the legs of the seated occupant. Jacobsen is responsible for numerous classic furniture pieces, including the egg chair, the swan chair, and the Series 3300 sofa.

Eileen Gray Side Table, Light Tube, and Bibendum Chair

Eileen Gray is best known as the designer of the classic side table that bears her name. In her time Gray was a well known as an innovative designer of interiors. As an extension of this practice, she also designed furniture and lighting. Her work, long under appreciated, is now much sought after by collectors.

Saarinen's Tulip Table and Chairs
Eero Saarinen, son of the celebrated architect Eliel and textile designer Loja Saarinen, was a gifted designer who began designing furniture while still a teenager. Teamed with another protégée of Cranbrook Academy, Charles Eames, the team won MOMA's Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940. Saarinen went on to design iconic furniture for Herman Miller, including the classic Tulip Table and Chairs, and the Womb Chair.

Eames Desk, Credenza, and Executive Chair
Charles Eames, Saarinen's collaborator, also entered a prestigious design career. Charles, the architect, and his wife Ray were designers in the full sense of the word. Together they designed everything from toys and cards to a Case Study house, in which they lived. They were extraordinary designers of furniture for Knoll. Molded plywood and fiberglass shell chairs were followed by colorful storage furniture, refined executive chairs, tables, and chaise lounges. Many of their most popular designs not only remain in production, but remain top sellers.

Rapson Rapid Rocker
To round out the Cranbrook designers, I would like to take note of the work of Ralph Rapson. I consider Rapson to be the Forest Gump of Architecture. Though many are unaware of his name, he was instrumental in the advancement of mid-century modern architecture and furniture design. Unlike Saarinen and Eames, Rapson chose to market his furniture under his own label to maintain creative control. A designer to the end, Rapson won a widely regarded furniture competition held by Dwell magazine, shortly before his death in 2008.
Venturi's Chippendale Chairs
Postmodern architects also delved into furniture design. Robert Venturi challenged the modernist's lack of ornamentation, and introduced color and whimsey into his designs. His most famous pieces remain his collection of tables, chairs, and sofas produced for Knoll in the 1980s. These pieces harken back to furniture styles of the past, such as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Empire, and even Art Deco - spare forms, historically inspired.

Gehrey's Outdoor Furniture Set
Deconstructivist architects have also tried their hand at furniture design. Gehry's early furniture experimentation with the cardboard squiggle chair mirrored his architectural experimentation with chain link and corrugated steel. Later fame, and the corresponding swelling budgets, have changed the cladding of his buildings to stainless steel and titanium. His furniture has likewise echoed this level of sophistication, as exemplified in his reinforced aluminum pieces manufactured for Heller.

As you can probably tell, I love this stuff and could go on and on..... but I won't.  It's time to leave this topic and go on to the next area of exploration - Architecture and Bicycles.  No, seriously. Join me next time for Peletons and Break Aways.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Architecture & Furniture (Part 1): Sit on It!

Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman by Charles Eames, 1956
Like many architects, I am fascinated with the closely aligned craft of furniture design. In a continuing desire to make the posts on this blog concise, I have chosen to break this subject down into two posts. This post serves as an overview, and focuses the conversation on one particular type of furniture - the chair. The second post will be more of a historical survey and will address with other types of furniture as well. In this post, there are three questions for which I am suggesting possible answers. Why are architects interested in furniture design? What is the allure of chair design to architects? And how successful are the actual end products?

Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer, 1925
Ladderback Chair by Charles Rennie Macintosh, 1902
Pioneers of early modern architecture were well-rounded individuals who designed much more than buildings. Their training was in the arts and crafts in general, rather than exclusively in architecture. If an architect designed a building, they thought not only about the envelope, but also about what the envelope actually contained. During this time, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, architecture underwent radical transformations, due to the industrial revolution. Some architects, such as LeCorbusier and Marcel Breuer, embraced the new industrial world and experimented with new construction techniques and materials such as steel and glass. Other architects, such as Charles Rennie Macintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright, ushered in a return to the decorative arts, in reaction against the excesses of the Victorian era. Both camps produced buildings that were new and different. Furnishing them with compatible furniture proved to be challenging. So necessity became the mother of invention. The only way to get acceptable furniture was to design it.  That is just what they did.

Rolling Armchair by Paul Rudolph, 1968
I am not certain what the appeal of the chair is to the architect. I think there are many contributing factors. The process of creating a pleasing form that serves a particular function is a fundamental skill of the architect, so the process of creating a chair is not unlike the process of creating a building. Architects also like to experiment with materials and shapes. The chair then becomes a natural subject of this experimentation. Finally, because so many of the pioneering architects have designed at least one signature chair, their successors want to do the same. It is considered sort of a right of passage. My wife and I attended a symposium a few years back and one of Paul Rudolph's contemporaries shared a story of Rudolph's desire to make a chair. While a brilliant architect, Rudolph was never able to design a chair with which he, or anyone else, was happy. The closest he ever came was his rolling armchair.  The chair, being as gracious as possible, is lacking.

Johnson Wax Chair by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1937
This brings me to my last topic - how successful are these architect-designed chairs? There are a couple of commonly cited objections. The first is that they are simply not comfortable; perhaps too much emphasis was given to form and too little emphasis to function. Certainly this is sometimes the case. Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax chairs look beautiful in their environment but the secretaries using them constantly complained that they were too hard, the chair back to distant and vertical to support their backs, and their three rolling legs caused them to topple periodically. Other times the issue of comfort is not relevant, as in the case of Charles Eames' lounge chair.  This chair is both beautiful and comfortable.    Comfort was a key consideration in the furniture Eames created. He was fascinated by anthropomorphics and experimented constantly with molded plywood. This knowledge and skillset allowed him to make chairs that "fit". The only downfall of the Eames lounge chair is another frequently cited objection to architect-designed chairs, the  price. This is due, in some measure, to the architect's insistence on quality. It sometimes means that the chairs end up being fabricated from choice materials and crafted more by hand than by machine. Another contributing factor is the fact that most architect-designed furniture satisfies a relatively small niche in the broad furniture market. The (usually contemporary) styling has never had broad public appeal. Lack of a broader market means less efficient production, leading to higher cost. Lastly, and this is the one that is hard for me as an architect to admit: designing chairs is hard! It is a profession all to itself and architects venturing into it usually don't have the experience or expertise to make an all-around successful chair. Some, such as Arnie Nelson, Charles Eames, and Eero Sarannen have been able to design really successful chairs. But if you drill down and look at the successful chairs designed by architects, they have been by architects who have really put a lot of time and effort in furniture design, sometimes at the expense of their building design.

We'll explore a number of examples of architect-designed furniture pieces next time.  Please join me again for Furniture by Architects.