December 17, 2009

Alternative way to get the Blue Line to Georgetown

Since the earliest days of Metro, planners and engineers have struggled with the idea of running the Blue Line between Rosslyn and Georgetown, but I believe that a solution to this problem could be found with looking at the problem in a roundabout way.

The problem of how to get the Blue line to have a stop in the heart of Georgetown has been the topic of discussion for a while now, and biggest obstacle has been how to navigate the extreme grades between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Each area is perched atop significant bluffs above the Potomac below, making direct a tunnel between the two sides a nightmare, one that Metro abandoned in the earliest stages of planning as impracticable. The direct tunnel would have to descend and ascend such a steep grade over such a short distance so that a station at a practical depth would be impossible.

However, I propose a simple solution, simply make the distance between the stations longer and give the tunnel a little more room to make the descent. How can you do that when obviously you can't move the whole of Georgetown? Simply putting a big bend in the tunnel.

Railroad builders have used the technique of bending the tracks around bends, horseshoes and even loops to make the ascent of steep grades possible, such as at the famous Tehachipi Loop. The idea would be to give the train enough track to descend below the Potomac by bending the tracks to the west, making a turn under the Potomac and the C&O canal and making a gentle ascent under M Street NW. Certainly it would be more tunneling, but it would make the sorely needed station a possibility.

Could this work? Has anyone proposed something like this before?

December 15, 2009

New Design Site Launched

I'm pleased to announce the launch of my new design business website.

I offer architectural renderings, architectural design consulting, liturgical and urban design as well as graphic design. Please take a look and feel free to comment.

December 11, 2009

East Building of National Gallery Crumbling After Only 30 Years

NOTE: After writing this article I received the following message from the author of the WSJ article:

"I have read your blog about my WSJ article on Pei's E Bldg wall system but it contains what I believe is a major error--the notion that Pope used expansion joints on his W Bldg marble veneer. This is untrue. The W Bldg marble veneer is mortared as well as anchored to its concrete back-up on the lower level and bonded to a brick substrate on the upper/piano nobile level. The resulting mass obviates the need for expansion joints. The only movement joints on the building are for structural movement and they fall between the wings and the center/rotunda block. I checked this out with the Gallery in reporting the story."

In this week's Wall Street Journal, Catesby Leigh writes about the ongoing problems popping up at the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building. The WSJ article explains that the facade of the building, constructed using an experimental curtain wall system that the architect described as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls," has become unstable. While the article delves into the technological reasons for the failures, it begs the question of why. Why would the architect make a conscious decision to ignore established precedents for the construction in favor of a new, unsustainable system. The answer has more to do with ideological constraints as much as a technological ones.

East Wing of the National Gallery (photo by Iainr, via Flickr)

The facade of the East Wing is constructed of a series of 2'-by-5', 438-pound marble panels that are held in place on a structure of steel hangers attached to a concrete frame. With the use of new rubberized gaskets to seal the joints between the stones and allow for movement to occur, the walls were supposed to last for a half-century or more before needing even minor maintenance. Pei described them as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls." It is this system that the WSJ piece describes as the very reason why the facade failed.

But the bigger question is why the building employed such technology in the first place. The following line explains the why:

The [use of the new experimental] gaskets also would spare the East Building the need for wide, visually disruptive expansion joints—a standard feature of curtain wall veneer, running horizontally and vertically at regular intervals to accommodate thermal movement.

The clean lines and solid geometrical forms of the building's design simply could not be interrupted with unsightly expansion joints. I.M. Pei quite simply was shackled to his own modern design, constrained to have large uninterrupted geometries of stone, a technological solution was an absolute necessity. The earlier Main Building, designed by John Russell Pope, had no such constraints.

Expansion joints are hidden behind the pilasters. (photo by Boots)

What most people, even architects don't realize is that the Pope building, like the East Wing, is similarly constructed using a marble veneer over a structural core. What is different, however, is the extensive use of a well established conventions construction and the use of expansion joints. These expansion joints on the facade of the Main Building are cleverly hidden behind clusters of classical pilasters on corners of the facade. Pope, not being constrained by the ideology of modern architecture, was able to find a solution that was at once attractive and still working marvelously almost 60 years after completion.

The essential difference between these buildings is clearly the technology used, but that technology is a direct reflection of the architectural philosophies of each architect. In the former case the architect believed that new materials would provide a "technological breakthrough" to allow him to create the clean lines of modern architecture. Ignoring traditional solutions and the nature of the materials he was working with, it ultimately resulted in structural failure. The latter architect however worked using established precedents of construction that took into consideration natural forces such as expansion and contraction and gravity, and combined this with a sleight of hand possible through classical architecture, created a building that has stood over twice as long with no major failures.

The question of modern versus traditional when it comes to building technology has become more than just a question of style, but that of sustainability. The cladding of the entire East Wing will now have to be removed and restored at the cost of $85 million to the taxpayer. This works out to about 17% of the inflation adjusted cost of the original building ($500 million). Add to the financial cost the immense amount of fuel, energy, and building material waste produced by such a project, the justification for such buildings is becoming more and more difficult. Structural and facade failure in an iconic Modernist building is not without a number of precedents, begging the question of why architects insist upon continuing to build such unsustainable architecture in our enlightened times, again the answer is ideology.

On one hand, architects wisely are beginning to embrace sustainability, but with the other hand cast aside traditional detailing and traditional architecture because of a ideological bias against such architecture. We need to use architecture, all of its lessons to create a better and more sustainable future, here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture. For architecture to truly be sustainable it must not only welcome back into its repertoire the lessons that traditional and classical architecture have to offer when it comes to construction, but also must be willing to embrace them.

December 1, 2009

Bicycling in the Eternal City

When people here in the US think of cities with a strong bike culture in Europe, the places that come to mind are Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris, but Rome is rarely on that list. The picture that most Americans have when they think of the Eternal City is riding a motorino around the Colosseum, or as Eddie Izzard puts it most Italians riding around saying 'ciao' like in Roman Holiday. But thanks to a new bike sharing program started last year, that culture is beginning to change.

Bicycling in Paris

This past week I visited Paris, Venice and Rome, and while in Paris I had planned to check out the Velib system for this post. Paris is as many folks have reported becoming an increasingly bike friendly city, and despite the rash of vandalism lately, the Velib system still remains convienient and widely used by commuters and tourists alike. I was pleasantly shocked however to see that Rome has begun its transformation into a bike city much like Paris or Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

Launched in July of last year, the system is being run by ATAC, the transit agency that runs the buses and metro in Rome, and its its fare system works much like the Velib system, being free to subscribers for the first half hour then charging 1 Euro for 30 mins after. Stations are mostly clustered in the Centro Storico (Historic Center) of Rome, though there are a few around La Sapienza University and in Ostia Antica along the coast. On the Google map for the stations, you can even click on each station to see how many bikes are available at any given time.

The new bike sharing system in Rome

The bikes are of a more sturdy and conventional design like most Dutch bikes as opposed to the aerodynamic Velib. Each has a rack in back and a basket in front, making them pretty convenient to take a few items. However this stolid design isn't dissuading the ever fashionable Italians from riding them or riding bikes of their own. The bikes I saw Rome, most of them very new, were ridden by ordinary looking Romans, dressed in street clothes or women in their necessary high heels. It seems the culture of bicycling is being seen to be just a normal part of life, even for the Romans.

System map of the bike share in the Centro Storico

Two years ago when I lived in Rome, I would not have dared ridden a bike in this city, so the transformation, albeit still very small, is remarkable. Judging by the experience of so many cities such as in Paris, New York and Copenhagen, where bicycling had for so long been seen as ridiculous or dangerous concept, but is now embraced proudly as part of the city's life, I think it's an encouraging sign to see such growth in such a short time.

November 2, 2009

When a Survey Shows Britons Prefer Classicism, Architects Attack!

A short time ago, Robert Adam Architects commissioned a study along with The Traditional Architecture Group in the UK asking ordinary people which sort of building they preferred when they were shown this image.

The YouGov survey asked 1042 respondents to select a preferred building from a choice of four, in answer to the question; ”Please imagine a new building is planned to be built near where you live. Four different designs are proposed. Please look at the designs below. Which one would you most like to be built near you?” The illustrations show new buildings of a similar height, size and orientation to the street.
Much to the surprise of the architectural establishment (but neither to Adam, nor myself) the public preferred the traditional schemes by a three to one ratio. Predictably though the architectural press and heads of the prestigious architecture organizations in Great Britain used the survey as a launchpad for their invective against traditional architecture and ultimately on the public at large.

Having all the characteristics of a drunkard confronted with his addiction, the press and architects first deny the charge then move to attack their antagonists. Johnathan Glancey of the Guardian's response to the poll is fairly indicative when he questions the poll's accuracy.
Even if 77% of those who took part in the TAG survey preferred the superficial look of the two “traditional” office blocks, I wonder what they would have said if they had visited all four buildings?
Glancey would like to make us think that the public is somehow hoodwinked by just showing the facades of these buildings, and that the modernist buildings insides are really a lot better than the exteriors show. "You see, the public is just being fooled by only showing the exteriors, really they would love the place if they just got to know it. " Of course this just introduces an assumption that interiors of the traditional buildings are mediocre at best. Which is exactly Glancey's sentiment when he derisively dismisses the classical design:
"You can dress up an everyday office block in any facade you like, yet nothing will ever hide its matter-of-fact nature. Not only do floor heights give the game away — where are the piani nobili in the two “traditional” designs? — but you also know instinctively that behind those weakly expressed entrances lie ordinary speculatively built offices."
Margarine he says, assuming that the classical building is nowhere near the quality of the renaissance palazzo and therefore not as good as his modernist office block. Traditional architecture, according to Glancey, is incompatible with modern uses and is completely unable to adapt to the exigencies of "our modern times."
The two with “traditional” facades, however, are the least traditional of the quartet because the heyday of neo-classicism offered little precedent for the design of 21st century office blocks.
Such forgetfulness is par for the course for the adherents of modernism such as Glancey, conveniently forgetting that the pioneering architects of office blocks in Chicago were committed classicists such as Daniel Burnham, John Holabird and Cass Gilbert, again, living in denial. I suppose it's not too surprising to see such statements when the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Ruth Reed, dismissing this same survey slammed classical architecture because the buildings shown are “frequently very expensive and often use unsustainable materials.”

To which Robert Adam replies with characteristic wit:
“I don't know what planet Ruth Reed is on if she thinks that the glass, steel and concrete favoured by modernist architects are more sustainable or cheaper than the natural materials like brick, stone and stucco used by traditionalists"
As I believe I've shown again and again before, the ridiculous canard of modernism being the sine qua non of sustainability holds as much water as the roofs of these same modern buildings.

But probably most offensive of all is the downright disdain they have for the opinion of the public at large. Glancey is again typical in his Glass-tower elitism when he condescendingly calls those who prefer the traditional designs stupid.

Once upon a time, seven out of 10 people claimed they couldn’t tell the difference between a heavily marketed margarine and dairy butter. How dumb were those people who couldn’t pick up on a difference that must have been as great as the gulf between modern movement and neo-classical architecture?

So if you prefer traditional architecture, you just like margarine because you are too dumb to know the difference. Glancey seems to say: "If you were as intelligent and educated as I am, you'd know the difference." But Glancey either has as Robert Adam claims such "lamentable ignorance of classical architecture" or he is simply not telling the whole truth. I'd prefer not to call someone stupid, as he would, so I think he just lies. Such are the ways of this drunken establishment, drunk from the excess of its power over the built environment for so long that it can only deny the plain truth in front of their eyes, attack traditional architecture and denigrate the very public they claim to be enriching.

I'd be happy to see the architectural press launches such attacks if I were Robert Adam and the classicists in Britain. They are only indicative that classical movement is beginning to resonate with the people, and the modernist establishment is losing its privileged status the sole arbiters of architectural orthodoxy.

I hope that someday the state of affairs on this side the pond will change and the architects and promoters of modernism will be forced to have a debate with tradition on its merits. Sadly however, without champions such as Robert Adam over here, the modernists still remain snug in their glass-tower elitism.

October 28, 2009

Could developing large parking lots help suburban churches fund improvements? Grenfell Architecture has designed this plan to help a parish create a more beautiful church using solid New Urbanist principles and traditional Virginia architecture.

The church occupies typically sprawling suburban lot, surrounded by seas of asphalt and low-rise buildings. However while I was working at Grenfell Architecture we tried to look at this project in a radical way. We came up with a plan to fix the disorganized sprawl of parking lots and low-rise buildings to create a new neighborhood and to truly make this church the center of a community.

The primary focus was to design a new church that better reflected the liturgical reforms of the past few years within the Catholic church. Since many parishes have only limited resources, we explored how a phased development could help turn this parish from asphalt-dominated auto-centric sprawl into to a walkable mixed-use neighborhood.

Both parishioners and priests alike have given this plan almost universally positive reviews. The pastor of this church has seen the plans and is amenable to the idea, but it does not represent any actual plans to construct this project.

1. This is the current site condition. The area is disorganized and chaotic, dominated by parking there is little in terms of good outdoor space, and the buildings do not create any ensemble in any way.

2. The first step is to create a system of streets. This begins to organize the area into a block structure. The streets are designed for on-street parking, amazingly providing an equal number of parking spots diffused about the site.

Note too that the connections are created to allow for this neighborhood to become a center to adjoining neighborhoods.

3. Parking now not being at a premium, the large parking lot facing the street is replaced by a section of shop-front commercial with apartments above. The corner would be anchored by a neighborhood size grocery store, and other small shops such as florists, coffee shops, or service businesses could occupy the rest. The apartments above see their first residents in anywhere from 10 to 20 apartments. These apartments would be ideal for elderly or younger couples who might not be able to afford larger homes.

4. The first set of 20 townhouses are built upon empty parking lots. The townhouses feature alleys behind with one or two car garages. These are geared towards families with children who might attend the local school.

5. The parish school which would be now after sales or lease of properties, be able to afford to build a new three story school. The school would have the same area of classes, but having a taller profile provides a more compact footprint.

Note: up to this point the only demolition that has occured is of parking lots. Already the campus has been improved tremendously.

6. Now having built a new school, the old school could be the first demolition, allowing for the construction of 28 new townhouses and another small section of commercial storefronts and apartments. The townhouses each feature the same rear facing garages and small yards behind.

7. Now the school could complete the reconstruction of the school by completing a rear wing with gymnasium that would create a pleasant interior courtyard. The courtyard also allows for light to reach all classrooms of the school.

8. Having completed all of the residential components, the parish could now use the funding that has been generated from the residential sales and commercial rents, to help build a new church. The new church here might incorporate a small historic chapel as part of the complex of the church, sacristy and rectory for the parish. The existing rectory would be removed, but the pastor could reside in an apartment or one of the townhomes while the new rectory is being built.

9. Now that the parish has a new church and chapel, the old church is demolished to complete the plan. A new set of storefront buildings would be finished in such a way as to create an orderly town square. The town square would be activated by having stores, coffee shops and both school and church functions on its green.

Between this commercial block a parking lot would be created to serve the commercial as well as the apartments built above. Using the topography, a parking structure could also be built behind, doubling the parking.

However, one would hope that since this neighborhood center would be home to almost 75 families, that the need for parking would be reduced significantly. The appeal of being able to be close to school, church and shopping, as well as possibly work, along with a local bus line running to Metro along the main road would encourage less auto use by residents.

The key though is the church as the center of the community. This principle is easily applied to followers of any faith, allowing for their own faith to be shared by their neighbors, and to provide visible witness to neighbors as well. Making the church not just a place where people go on Sundays but a visible and active part of their lives, giving residents something shared that brings them together as a real community.
All Images Copyright Grenfell Architecture PLLC.

Update: This post has been reposted on Greater Greater Washington, please go to this link to see the discussion there.

October 27, 2009

Return to sanity and blogging

After a few months of intense work on a number of projects, including a new website (which is still under construction) and the launch of my new design business, I'm back to a more regular schedule and a more regular blogging schedule.

I plan to have about two posts a week, though perhaps more when the mood strikes me.
Thanks for your patience.

September 14, 2009

Bike Lanes in Portland

I've been busy working on a few projects so posting continues to be light. However I thought I might share a few images of the newest bike improvements going up in the bike heaven of Portland that I saw on my trip home this past week. I don't usually post much about transit and bikes here on this blog, as I prefer this to be a more philosophical blog about architecture, but I found these of interest.

A lot of folks are familiar now with Portlands "Bike Box" outlined to protect bikers in the street as can be seen here.

An interesting little element here is the tucking of a bike lane BEHIND a stop for the new street car lines. As someone who commutes by bike in Arlington, I'd love to see the bus stops do something like this, rather than the buses pulling over INTO the bike lane and forcing me to A. stop, or B. dart out into traffic.

This sort of ingenuity is great.

What is great however is that Portland has just in the past few weeks established a new "Cycle Track."

The Cycle track is simply a inversion of the standard bike lane in the street to a separated bike lane between the sidewalk and the parking lane of the street.

Notice that there is a little 2 foot space there between the parking and the bike lane to allow for a door to open.

Here we see how this helps to deal with the big trucks that invariably block a standard bike lane. Here you can see there's still room to get by!

All of this was done in the past few weeks with just some striping changes. No new concrete or asphalt was laid here. Its great that PDX has taken a little initiative where others haven't and tried something that works in Europe just fine. Wouldn't it be great if DC and Arlington would do the same?

September 2, 2009

Novelty vs. Beauty

Following is the text of my article published on Catholic News Agency's website.

I'm also being interviewed on EWTN radio's Son Rise Morning show tomorrow (Sept 3) in the 8am hour about this article.

Here follows:

When I tell Catholics I meet that I’m an architect, invariably they ask me, “Why doesn’t the church I attend look like a church? Why don’t they build nice churches like the old ones we love?” Sometimes I come up with a complicated answer or theory, but most of the time I answer, “architects.”

In the United States, we have a fairly good tradition of building beautiful churches in which one can feel a true sense of reverence. One would be hard pressed to find a church built before World War II that wasn’t beautiful and beloved by its parishioners. It would be an even more difficult task to find such a church built after the World War that comes close to the beauty found in an average 1920s church and a Herculean task to find one built since the 1960s.

How is it that even within the Catholic Church, where we affirm and believe in the importance of tradition, that a deep and profound architectural heritage came to be abandoned? Again the answer is that architects, like so many other artists, have become obsessed with the idea of novelty. Most artists have been trained to believe by their mentors in 20th century art culture that only novel or “revolutionary” creations are worthy of being called art.

Today, I would venture to guess that most architects labor under this idea in one form or another. Some are truly dedicated revolutionaries, trying to undo centuries of tradition and casting aspersions towards traditional architects as backwards monarchists, luddites, or purveyors of kitsch. Most, however, are simply trying to be creative in the best way they can, some even maintaining an innate affection for the traditional, but still holding it at an arm’s length.

But in terms of high profile architecture, the revolutionary architects have been the ones that have caused the most egregious damage to the beauty of the Church, creating bunkers that one barely recognizes as a church, let alone a Catholic one. The Jubilee Church in Rome by Richard Meier, Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles by Rafael Moneo and the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland by Craig Hartman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to name just a few, are examples of the tremendous ugliness foisted upon the Church by these revolutionary modernists. Coincidentally, or perhaps quite logically, all of these architects are atheist or at least agnostic spiritualists. However, most churches we see daily in our communities are built by skilled, but uninspired, architects. A great many of them are committed and practicing Catholics, who nonetheless labor under the philosophical sway of the revolutionaries.

Now, most architects don’t want to rock the boat and become bomb throwing revolutionaries; they are content to go with the flow, while not realizing the philosophy they casually subscribe to contradicts the basic philosophy of their very own Church. Most believe, as do a great many Catholics, that progress is a good thing and so too even in the Church. A great many indeed believe, given the changes of the Mass and the art of the church that the Church during Vatican II embraced the idea of novelty writ large.

But this philosophy of novelty is contradictory to the teachings of the Church because it rests upon a fundamental belief of the modern movement: the absence of objective truth. A philosopher friend of mine explained to me that the one unifying strain of thought in modern philosophy is the belief that truth itself is not something to be discovered by man, but rather something that man creates. The classical philosopher, on the other hand, believes that truth is eternal, that we are by our nature made to seek and know the truth. To the modernist, however, there simply is not such a thing as objective, knowable, eternal truth. This belief in the absence of real truth is what is at the very root of this insatiable thirst for novelty.

The ancients believed that art was one of many ways that one could come to understand the truth, as was succinctly explained by Aristotle who wrote that “art imitates nature.” Now the Philosopher did not mean that art is just the drawing of what we call natural, such as bunnies or mountains or trees, but that art imitates the true nature of things, such as when we refer to our human nature. Art, therefore, is concerned with the truth about the nature of things: it imitates nature in order to teach us to know and love the truth. Aristotle states that human beings delight in knowing, and what in art is not concerned with delight?

What then is left for the artist to imitate if truth does not exist? If there is nothing of nature that is truly knowable then there is nothing to be learned from beauty, and art has little value over the enjoyment taken in its consumption. When there is no truth, only the new and different and shocking are the things in art that can be enjoyed.

But this enjoyment lasts only for a short time, because since there is nothing to be learned from these works of art, they lack the depth and weight to be a truly satisfying meal for the soul. If one looks at what passes for art today, it has become very thin gruel indeed. The insatiable desire of novelty has led to such abandonment of traditional forms and ideas of art that a pile of cigarette butts or the preserved corpse of a shark is considered the height of art. That such art is highly prized because it is “of its time” only shows how much art has devolved from valuing beauty, order and truth to merely a fashion or fad.

Previous generations of artists always relied upon the wisdom of their forbearers, building upon their techniques and their brilliance to find ever new ways to make beauty. Progress for architects in the past always was a fuller understanding of their craft, looking at precedent to create more beautiful buildings than the generations before. But today progress has little to do with precedent, discovering a fuller understanding of the truth and principles and working towards the end of wisdom. But again because modernists posit that those principles cannot be known, real progress towards wisdom is impossible, leaving behind only an insatiable lust for that new. Instead, the modern artist sees progress itself as the end, and calls novelty true architecture and dismisses all architecture based on tradition as worthless kitsch.

The philosophy of the classical mind stands in stark contrast with the modernist, believing that truth is real and it is a knowable thing. The classical architect embraces this idea and believes that truth is made manifest through beauty, for it is in beauty that we can come to know God. St. Thomas Aquinas says this in part when he says we know God through the order of the universe.

In architecture we only need to look to the examples of the past before the middle of the 20th century to see this beauty. By studying the great architecture of the past, especially the work of the Church, we can come to better understand the principles of beauty: order, proportion and magnitude. The more we study it the better we come to understand our own world and God’s ordering of it. Indeed, this is the true purpose of all art, to shed light on the reality of being through the beautiful, to make radiant the truth. Now to best understand these truths, such as the truths of the faith, we must look to the lessons of the past and emulate them. Not simply copy or parrot the works of past masters, but by practice learn the true principles of the art.

Understanding and emulating the beauty to be found in traditional architecture is key to the creation of true Catholic art. Through the principles of proportion and order, an architect can create sacred architecture that is entirely grounded in the principles of beauty that is found in tradition and that sheds new light on truth, and especially the truths of the faith. This is the amazing property of a beautiful church, it is at once ancient and new, just as beautiful today as it always has been, still speaking with clarity of the truth through beauty it possesses.

This is why the Second Vatican Council declared “the church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own,” because throughout the centuries of Catholic architecture, the lessons and principles of sacred architecture cannot be irrelevant in our or any other time, but are infinite, because they are from God. Indeed, our architecture should reflect the faith that God is the infinite and eternal principle of all things. Just as our theology teaches us, the truths of God are not exhausted or made irrelevant in any time, but have become better understood; our fuller understanding of the truth has made our past discoveries even more radiant.

So too the styles of architecture change, not by massive revolutions or by wholesale rejection of the past (such as how Walter Gropius famously threw all of Harvard’s architectural history books on the trash heap when he became Dean of the architecture school in the 1930s) but by slow degrees corresponding to the revelation of the truth through philosophy and art and the work of centuries of artists.

This is the future of a true Catholic architecture, one that embraces our human capacity to know and to experience the truth, both through our intellect and through the beauty of art. That we can create such beauty and that we ought to create this is evident from the teachings of the Church. We, however, must in many ways undo the damage done to the classical world by the march of modernism, both as a philosophy and in the practice of art and architecture. Philosophy and architecture need each other when it comes to this, for philosophy to define and defend the idea that there is truth and beauty, and for architecture to create beautiful works of art, informed by truth.

There have been signs of progress towards this ideal, where new developments in architecture are striving towards a fuller understanding of truth through the beautiful, such as at my own alma mater, Thomas Aquinas College. Here where the Great Books are studied not for their historic value, but as books that are critical to understanding ourselves, the world around us and God himself, a grand new chapel has been built to the glory of God. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity is not simply a replica of a Church, but a lesson in brick and stone of how ancient principles of beauty come to life in new and creative ways.

Inspired by both the high renaissance churches of Palladio in Italy and the local vernacular Mission churches of California, the chapel shows perfectly how this growth of wisdom happens. By blending together these different styles without an inordinate desire for novelty, a truly original piece of art is created. Here the architect Duncan Stroik rejected the notion that one must pursue the novel and embraced the beautiful forms that will endure for generations. This is the choice that all architects must make to create a true Catholic architecture.

When it comes to a choice between novelty for novelty’s sake and the beautiful, in our Catholic churches the beautiful and the true must always be chosen. We can create something new, a new way to see the beautiful, but not create a new beauty according to our own image. In this way we can create what is both ancient and new. Truth is as infinite as God is, to seek after it in our architecture is to create something worthy of God and our Church.

This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.

August 28, 2009

Column on Sacred Architecture

I'm on the road talking to potential clients about some new chapel and monastery projects that I hope to finish in the coming months and post here. In the meantime, this past week Catholic News Agency has published my column on the state of Catholic architecture in a column titled Novelty vs. Beauty.

August 23, 2009

If Only France still had a Royal Family

Louis Le Vau's Hotel Lambert in Paris.

The Qatari Royal family is moving full steam ahead to modernize the historic Hotel Lambert in Paris. Just wondering if Parisians wish they had some Royal connections to the Qataris to prevent such madness. A well I guess its better to be free.

August 21, 2009

On Temporary Hiatus

I'm on temporary hiatus from blogging for the next couple of weeks. I'm setting up a website now for a new business venture that I'm starting on. I am starting a business providing architectural design and graphic design. Given the architecture market as it stands now, I feel that expecting full time employment would be unwise so have decided to take matters into my own hands and promote my skills and work for myself.

Please stay tuned as blogging will resume when my free time resumes. I will howeverffrom time to time post small links such as to my forthcoming article on sacred architecture at Catholic News Agency.

August 12, 2009

Quite Literal Vertical Cul-De-Sac Rises in Manhattan

Leon Krier has in times past called the skyscraper a "vertical cul-de-sac," and a developer in New York is taking the idea to the next logical step, bringing cars right up to your door in a skyscraper. According to an article in Architectural Record the "new residential building, designed by Selldorf Architects, takes the privacy and parking ease of a gated community from the burbs to the "urbs" and turns it on end."

Cross section of a new "Sky" Garage in New York's 200 Eleventh Avenue.

I struggle to find the words to describe how bafflingly stupid and absurd this development is, but Krier quite correctly notes that skyscrapers carves out a vertical, rather than horizontal space separate from the street network below. It then seems only natural, that the inclination to have the car be the measure of all things, follow from the horizontal suburban gated enclaves or "burbclaves" to vertical "urbclaves."
A suburban garage in a vertical format where one need not see anyone till safely home.

In Detroit I remember seeing an old theatre in a historic tower turned into a parking lot so that the office workers would never have to exit their secure vehicles until they could safely exit into the building. This apartment tower with its so called "Sky" Garages simply pushes that idea to the logical extreme that one finds in the suburbs, where one is locked in the car from door to door, eliminating all unwanted human contact.

The Michigan Theater parking lot, victim of suburban paranoia.

It is a truly sad development that now in the city, where one is accustomed to deal with people, where one ought to find community interaction, one need not interact with anyone they do not wish. The auto-centric mindset is not one that is promoting cars as transit, but as vehicles to pursue an anti-communitarian ideal of security fed by a paranoia towards interacting with anyone, even to the level of the ubiquitous New York doorman.

August 5, 2009

Nominees for Britain's Worst New Building Announced

Merseyside terminal by Hamilton Architects at Liverpool Pier Head

It's been far too long since I have posted, but I know I do not write on a topic that moves at breakneck speeds, so I think my tardiness somewhat acceptable. Nevertheless, I shall try in the coming weeks to post more often, and next week there will be an exciting announcement.

This week however, BD Online, the British architecture journal, has announced the nominees for the 2009 Carbuncle Cup, the "prize" for the worst new building in the UK. Taking a cue from HRH Prince Charles' infamous "Carbuncle" speech in 1984, the competition is a popular one, given the number of truly awful new buildings in the UK.

The poorly detailed Poundbury Fire House

The list is filled with inappropriate, unsympathetic and simply ugly buildings. I take slight objection to the inclusion of the Poundbury Fire House, not because its beautiful, its quite bad, but because it is a straw man of the worst sort. Criticism of the station has become a proxy war launched upon classicists, despite not being designed by a classical architect. The poorly detailed faux classicism this building explains in stone how ignorance of good detail and composition, common among the great mass of architects untrained in classicism, can lead to a very poor building indeed.

Classicism has rules that if broken result in a very bad building to the eye. Had these rules been been followed here, I sincerely doubt the vultures of modernism would have found much to criticize. Modernism on the other hand, without rules, creates little of real beauty, and we see how the Carbuncle Cup remains dominated by this style.

July 8, 2009

Classical Architect Memorialized with Sterile Modernism

Architectural Record reports this week that the firm David Woodhouse Architects has won a competition to design the memorial to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Surprising to no one, the sponsor of the competition, AIA Chicago (American Institute of Architects), has chosen to memorialize one of the strongest proponents of classical architecture in the United states with yet another banal and derivative modernist memorial. It hardly surprises me because the AIA, champion of the modernist architectural establishment, constantly seeks to promote modernism as the only possible form of architecture acceptable in our "modern" times. Using the a memorial to one of the greatest proponents of classical architecture, barely seems cynical, but given the sophistry of most architects it is hardly astounding that they would make such a bold claim.

The AIA find this fitting memorial to Daniel Burnham.

The focus of the competition should have given one pause, as the competition stated that the memorial's objective was:

To build a lasting and notable memorial that will inspire and educate the public, and honor the memory and importance of Daniel Burnham and his Plan of Chicago

The competition did not think it prudent to focus on his contributions to classical architecture as a whole, the Chicago Exposition of 1893, and the numerous grand classical places he created, from the Museum of ScienceChicago, to the National Mall and Union Station in Washington DC. and Industry in Instead, the jury exhibited an ignorance of these contributions and chose a memorial that supports only a vision of Burnham as proto-modernist.

The city of Chicago reflected on a blank wall.

DWA’s winning design central feature is a barren granite wall, ala Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial, a move that was hailed by the press as daring in the 1980’s but remains as sterile now as it was then, but has since become such a ridiculously overused cliché. In the walls facing the lake and the Field Museum is traced the Plan of Chicago in “ribbons of burnished stainless steel” with sledgehammer subtlety. A life-size statue of Burnham stands next to the walls, unadorned and without pedestal, standing like a shabby professor before the blackboard.

The highly polished wall reflects the skyscrapers of the Michigan Avenue street wall and the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago proclaiming that this was the work of Burnham. This of course is false.

The architect’s own website describes that this wall “directs attention outwards towards the city – showcasing Burham’s vision by connecting us to its vibrant, unfolding reality.” The problem is the vista of downtown Chicago has little or nothing to do with Burnham. Chicago’s downtown, replete with what is now Grant Park, skyscrapers and the gridiron, was long in place before his 1909 plan.

Burnham's vision of "Paris on the Lake" is far from realized.

Burhnam’s plan, little of which has been executed, instead focused on creating grand public places like he created at the World’s Fair. Tree lined avenues lined with appropriately scaled and detailed buildings linked these places, from Lake Michigan to a civic center with a magnificent city hall fit for an imperial capital as Chicago saw itself (there is now a massive highway interchange at this very spot). The vision that Burnham saw was one of a Paris on the Lakefront, but again, the design ignores this and instead celebrates a vision that was not Burham’s.

Further proof of this motive is in the architects description of the memorial. Woodhouse claims that the

Memorial's design is rooted in classical precedent (the Athenian Acropolis itself has a diagonal approach up an incline past an off-center cubic volume to a central pedimented portico)”

Such foolishness abounds in modernism, claiming that a ridiculously stripped down, asymmetrical and random plan is classical simply because one can find such things in ancient places. It is a one of the great logical errors to take accidents (things that are not essential) to be essential principles. Certainly a certain asymmetry was to be found in classical architecture, is found where other circumstances warrant. The example given forgets the Old Parthenon, destroyed by the Persians in the first invasion, was on center, but Pericles respecting this sacred place, left this ground clear.

This is classical scheme?

But this is only a continuation of the narrative, that modernism is classical or at least grew as a natural consequence of the classical, claiming Burnham as your own is a good way to. Holding that modernism grew naturally out of classical architecture is a useful argument when confronting the common man who rejects such monstrosities, but is highly cynical considering that the basis of modernism is the rejection of classical tradition. It takes another kind of mendacity to simply ignore the facts for the furtherance of such a dogmatic view of architecture. It is a sad testament that a memorial to a classical architect, its winner and most of the entries serve to reinforce the commonly held theme of the inevitable advancement of modernism, co-opt classical architecture to the service of modernism.

A further insult is that there were a few good classical designs actually appropriate to the content of this memorial. It is a shame that the Richard Driehaus put up the money to sponsor this competition, given his support of the Driehaus prize for classical architecture, but it is an added shame that two classical schemes got the short shrift.

I leave you with images from those schemes, who were among the 20 finalists, either of which would have enhanced and beautified the city. The firm Hammond, Beeby, Rupert and Ainge, submitted the first scheme which evokes both Burham’s civic center in spirit both in design as well as in the rendering. The last submitted by James McCrery Architects who worked with noted sculptor Alexander Stoddart, this design would have graced Chicago with some of the best sculpture in the world since Daniel Chester French’s Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park.

Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge's design evoking the rendering of Burnham's civic center.

The memorial evokes the architectural language of the Beaux Arts.

James McCrery's Scheme focuses on beautiful statuary placed prominent in he park.

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