October 22, 2010

Altes Museum (Old Museum) Berlin

The Altes Museum by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Finished in 1830 the building was the height of Greek style architecture. (Thomas Gordon Smith refuses to use the term "Revival" in speaking of the style, and so do I) The building survived vicious fighting during WWII and survived the fate of the Communist regime after the war. The Royal Palace once stood on the same island in the Spree but was unceremoniously replaced with a hideous modernist block, (which is now being torn down to rebuild the Palace).

Main Elevation


Main Atrium, modeled on the Pantheon in Rome.

Main stair hall landing on the second floor.

October 15, 2010

Modern the Right Way - Otto Wagner

Kirche am Steinhof, Vienna, Austria by Otto Wagner, 1907.

The chapel of the local insane asylum, the beauty of the church is striking. It manages to retain the essence of classical architecture while not being completely classical. The church is filled with remarkable and exquisite figurative art, thus maintaining an essentially Catholic character. The main altar is just astounding.

If all modern were like this, I'd hardly complain.

October 14, 2010

What a Good New Classical House Looks Like

A New Classical Townhouse in Chicago (completed 2006)

You don't have to make a house look like a McMansion to have a classical house. Here's an example in Chicago that fits into the neighborhood and is beautiful. Perhaps I wouldn't choose the French Empire Style but the house works and will doubtless be treasured for generations.

July 21, 2010

Washington Monument Grounds Competition, Why Bother?

The vision for Monument Gardens from the McMillan plan by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens Commision of Fine Arts

Last week a coalition of Washington DC planners announced the National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds. The announcement of this open design competition to redesign the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument, has prompted a lot of response from commenters on Greater Greater Washington and elsewhere, but I simply ask, will it be worth the bother? I am apathetic about this competition for two reasons, one based on my knowledge of the current state of architecture, and second because there already is a great plan for the site.

I’m afraid this competition, like the recent Eisenhower competition, and African American Museum competition, will be an exercise in playing with a stacked deck, stacked only for the modernist. The Competition states that a jury of “respected Americans who are leaders and creative thinkers in the fields of history, design, civics education, art, and science” will be judging the multitude of entries to whittle the competition down to twenty-five semi-finalists and then five finalists that the public will be allowed to vote on.

Will this be the vision for the Washington Monument as well?
Eisenhower Memorial proposal by Frank Gehry

While having the appearance of public input, the jury will have complete discretion to choose which entries will make it to the finals. The steering committee appears to have not a single prominent classical architect involved, leaving me with the distinct feeling that the result will be another confused and ridiculous modernist accretion to our beautiful, classical, city. The shame is that the professionals and academics running this competition will claim to have chosen what the people want, but will undoubtedly chose what they want, ignoring how poll after poll have proven the public’s love of the classical.

The biggest reason however is that the grounds of the Washington Monument already have a tremendous, beautiful and amazing plan, just one that has not been realized. In the 1901 McMillan Plan’s re-envisioning of the original L’Enfant layout of Washington DC, the Monument was to be centerpiece of the Mall, terraced fountains and railings and a large triumphal stairway descending towards gardens and parterres beautifying the center of the city. Not only is it part of the original plan that so many architects and planners profess to have a reverence for, but moreover it’s simply the best solution to the problem.

In 1900, the Monument Grounds were not so different from what we see today, described by many then as now as a wasteland of open space. The plan developed by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim and Augustus Saint-Gaudens well researched and planned to be the symbolic heart of a great nation and everything from the width of the Mall, the spacing of the trees and the heights of the buildings along it was considered so to create a unifying, beautiful and magnificent effect.

One of the pavilions of the Monument Gardens from the McMillan Plan, which would have provided shade and visual interest for those strolling the grounds. - from the Commission of Fine Arts

This part of the mall is the keystone to the entire plan, one that not finishing leaves the entire work much the poorer, like not painting the nose of the Mona Lisa. To instead propose an alternative plan of modernist architecture hatched in the halls of architectural academia would be to deface this magnificent work of art with a monstrous carbuncle.

Finish the Plan, don’t destroy it.

July 12, 2010

Orange Diocese Selects Same Architect from Oakland for New Cathedral

When I read the other day that the Diocese of Orange California had chosen Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) to design the new Christ Our Savior Cathedral in Santa Ana California, I was not at all surprised. Several months ago, Bishop Tod Brown tipped his hand that he had something in mind for the Diocese of Orange when he sent a request to Rome to remain in his office for five years past mandatory retirement age of 75 so that he might guide the long stalled Cathedral project.

What is surprising however is that a Bishop would chose to be swayed by today's latest architectural fads rather than engage and embrace the
interest in beauty and tradition in architecture and art growing amongst the laity of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, Bishop Brown has chosen to use the Cathedral as quite strident rejection traditionally-minded people when the diocese stated "Bishop Brown has emphasized the diocese has no interest in copying the past."

So far nothing is known about the design other than this statement and what can be assumed from the portfolio of the architect and his well known (and widely criticized) design for the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland California. It is likely that the design for Orange's Cathedral will be in many ways entirely similar to the sleek modernist glass and steel monstrosity in the Bay Area. Like Oakland we can assume that the Cathedral will be devoid of all traditional indications that it is a church, both in its overall plan or liturgical layout, but also that apart from a few out of place works of ethnic or abstract art placed in random corners, the only thing that will say "this is a church" will be the sign on the highway.

Cathedral of Christ the Light by Craig Hartman of SOM

From the perspective of modernist architects, the elimination of ornament and beauty has been the modernist ideal for almost a century, but it is particularly disturbing that the church, or rather a few misguided members of the older "progressive" generation have embraced this line of reasoning for the purposes of being "culturally sensitive."

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Hartman speak about the Cathedral of Christ the Light at a conference at Catholic University of America. Hartman spoke in his talk of how when designing the Cathedral in Oakland of the need to build a church that was sensitive to the dozens of different cultures and ethnicities found in the Catholic population of the Bay area. Of course the most appropriate way he found to fill to that need was to create... a glass and steel box. To Hartman, the only way to create a building is of course to strip it of any symbolism or meaning that might refer to any particular culture. The reasoning according to Hartman and other modernists is in order to create a church that is culturally sensitive to all ethnic groups is to create a church that refers to the traditions of none of them.

If such a sophistical line of argument were genuine, (which I believe it is not, it's simply finding a convenient excuse to create what they always would have done), the argument is condescending to the point of being downright offensive, as they essentially are arguing that ethnic minorities are so unsophisticated as to be unable understand any other culture than their own.

Los Angeles' Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is also stripped of cultural symbols.

Experience however has proven the converse to be true, that diverse ethic communities embrace and love aspects of other cultures when they are introduced. For instance where large immigrant populations from Central America have settled in formerly Polish neighborhoods of Chicago, the Polish icons and paintings still hang proudly.

But as the saying goes: "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail," the modernist architect argues that stripping a building of all cultural meaning and symbolism is the only way to make it speak to a "universal" audience in the Church. The truth is that beauty is the most universally known thing to all human beings, and a beautiful church is the most culturally sensitive church one can design, so that all people may love it. Beauty and the embrace of traditions, rather than creating division, are capable of creating a deeper, richer and fuller synthesis of cultures than the cold, bare and lifeless designs modernist architects dream up for the Church.

Sadly, should Bishop Brown stay on for the next five years, this is precisely what the parishioners of the Diocese of Orange will get. This however is in my mind the last gasp of the generation of Church leaders enamored with the modern. Indeed I believe that Bishop Brown knows this and that he is taking on this project in his twilight years because he knows it is the last chance to impose his particular idea of the Church and what it's art should be.

Proposal for Oakland Cathedral by Domiane Forte (courtesy of the designer)

However, the people of the Diocese of Orange still have a chance, before it's too late, to express a desire for a beautiful Cathedral worthy of the traditions of the Church. While in Oakland the people spoke up too late, as the grass-roots campaign to have Dom Forte's design for Oakland replace Hartman's came very late into the process, people still have a chance to speak out in Orange. Perhaps a number of traditional designs be proposed and the people of Orange decide whether any of them or Hartman's design are better? Of course Bishop Brown and Hartman won't let that happen, as we all know what the result would be. As always, true beauty wins.

May 31, 2010

Why are Blocks That Size?

The other day Daniel Nairn posted an interesting comparison of the street grids that can be found in various cities in the United States. A key question that was what made designers of cities choose one block size over another? Why for instance are the blocks in places like Tuscon, Arizona have blocks of 400 feet on a side while places like Portland, Oregon have 200 foot blocks?

To decode the block sizes of most cities one has to look at the interaction of architecture and nature, that is how local climatic conditions affect the shape of a building and it's lot.

The basic principle is that in the north the climate is primarily cold and dark, and in the south it's hot and sunny. This is more pronounced in Europe, where most of the precedents for American building types come from, and these building traditions were brought to America through the different cultures that established colonies in the New World. Thus how cities are laid out by the Spanish is significantly different from how the French, Dutch or English laid out a city, not only in tradition, but also because of where each of these cultures settled in the New World.

In southern and Mediterranean climates, there is a lot of sun and there is a lot of heat as well. So having a building close to the ground is a plus, as the earth helps regulate temperature. Also a building that is only one or two floors is good to help avoid heat rising up to higher floors. Traditional Spanish houses then are long low affairs, with small courtyards giving a little light where necessary but in general cool and dark.

Archtypical Spanish House

In the northerly climates, because of a concern for letting in light, so buildings tend to have tall windows, but also they need to deal with cold winters. So having a tall building is an advantage, as heat is retained through the stacking of floors. Keeping the lots small, narrow and nestled together helps retain heat.

So these important factors affect how the lots that such buildings need begin to make a lot of sense. A city in the northern European tradition will then have buildings being taller and narrower, having a depth of only about 35' or so for the main block and including requisite garden space, would have a relatively shallow lot size, meaning that the block size could be relatively small, at least in depth.

Ideal block in Alexandria Virginia 350' x 450'

Looking at Alexandria, Virginia as an example we see a more "southerly" northern house, having a main block of 35 feet or so with a small wing attached and a small garden behind. The lots in Alexandria are slightly deeper because of this side wing but still relatively shallow compared to the massive blocks you find in old Spanish colonial cities.

Archtypical Alexandria House

San Buenaventura, (aka Ventura), California, where I lived for two years, has lots 400 feet by 400 feet, four times the size of Portland's blocks. Ventura, was laid out according to the needs of a hot sunny climate, and like other buildings of the Spanish Colonial era obey the need for low sprawling houses. Having such low sprawling buildings, the space that this requires on the ground is a lot more and so the lots need to be significantly deeper to allow for a usable garden space behind.

Ideal block in San Buenaventura 400' x 400'

The need for a garden as a place to grow produce and even raise small livestock can't be under emphasized in a pre-industrial city. Almost all food needed to be raised locally, so having a garden was essential to city living. After the industrial revolution, with the advent of fast travel, food could be brought to market from distant lands, so the importance of a garden begins to wane. Thus we can see why Portland, founded in the latter part of the 19th century could afford to have relatively tiny blocks.

The industrial city becomes less and less subject to the necessities of the environment, and so most American cities west of the Appalachians have block sizes of more or less arbitrary sizes. Anchorage can afford to have a big block size just as much as it could have a smaller one. Really today with the advent of cars and air conditioning, the size and shape of a lot has more now to do with the needs of the car and finding parking for it than any other concern. So the key is less the depth of the lot, and more the width (being in multiples of car widths for parking.)

April 27, 2010

Speaking this Friday on Beauty and Harmony

A good part of the reason I've not been blogging lately is that I've been preparing a lecture and presentation for a conference this weekend. The architecture schools of Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame are co-sponsors of A Living Presence - Extending and Transforming the Tradition of Catholic Sacred Architecture.

I will be speaking on the topic of Harmony and Beauty, a difficult philosophical concept for a very long book, but one that has proven to be even more difficult to shoehorn into a 15 minute presentation.

My slot will be in the 1:30 -3:15pm session on April 30, titled: Beauty and Abstraction.

March 29, 2010

Not gone the Way of the Dodo yet!

Stuffed Dodo at Westfries Museum, Hoorn Netherlands.

I've not gone the way of the Dodo yet and died off, just been too busy with a number of projects to post lately. I've got a big backlog of things to write on and right now it's looking like the Augean Stables, (well not all of the architecture, but some of it does stink).

Stay tuned!

February 1, 2010

DC's Sacred Buildings

Just a link to a collection of pictures of the great churches and other sacred architecture of Washington DC, taken by our friends over at BeyondDC

January 20, 2010

Haiti's Presidential Palace

Devastation of the quake at the Presidential Palace of Haiti
(photo by LisaandroSuero via Twitpic)

Due to the tremendous loss of life and suffering there, I've waited a little while to post these thoughts about the impact of this month's earthquake on the architecture of Haiti. There is a terrible habit of some professions to use tragedy as a convenient way to get publicity, even architects, so I waited to post these thoughts some time afterward.

One of the first things that I noticed in the photos of the devastation wreaked upon the island nation of Haiti was the destruction of the Presidential Palace in Port au Prince. This majestic beaux-arts building, according to wikipedia, was built by French trained Haitian architect George H Baussan, in a French imperial style.

My question is what will the fate of this building be in the reconstruction? Certainly I don't want to diminish the loss of tens of thousands of lives by quibbling over a building, but I do think it is an important thought. As some reports have said, the building's destruction has become symbolic of the destruction of the country as a whole, but will the reconstruction of this building in all of its majesty be the symbol of the reconstruction?

I hope, as many readers probably would guess, is that the building either be reconstructed as it was, at least in appearance. Or better yet, that a new classical building replace it. My worst fears however are that the building would be replaced by a modernist monstrosity, ala Thom Mayne's Alaska Capitol scheme.

Will Haiti get a Thom Mayne Deathstar Capital?

What are your thoughts? Would it be appropriate to design a new classical design? How about a competition to do so?
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