November 28, 2011

Moving to a New Blog

Many thanks to those who have read this blog from time to time.  I have decided to create a new blog called The Radiance of Form.   The reasons for this move and an explanation of the new name are there in the first post.

I will be reposting a number of these posts from Beatus Est there from time to time, and continue the ongoing series on propaganda and art this week.


October 18, 2011

How Art is Philosophical

In the last two posts I wrote about the philosophical nature of true art, and how a purely political art is rightfully labeled as propaganda.   I left off last time with the question about the use of art for propagandist purposes, or rather the misuse of art.   In order however to understand how art is misused, it may be good to understand exactly what I mean when I say that art, as opposed to propaganda, is philosophical.

In the example pointed out before, the Shootings of May Third, is the depiction of a particular historic event.  What raises this painting however to the level of art, is that also represents a universal truth about humanity.   It is not simply that the painting depicts the scene of the firing squad, that makes this art, but that it depicts the real emotion, the defiant courage of the man in the face of death, that all men feel kinship to.   This scene, which to a historian would be a mere fact, becomes through the focus on the executed man's courage, a vessel for communicating a universal truth to anyone who views it, regardless of having knowledge of the particular circumstances of this historic event.  

The historians might tell us that such a painting is not entirely accurate depiction of the events of May Third, or even that this happened some other time, but to an artist this is unimportant.   Rather than being interested in the accuracy of an event depicted, an artist is more interested in the truth, the universal truth of this man's courage.    Indeed this is why fiction is so lauded, because it tells us more truth in the telling of a story than science might ever tell us.   The novelist Patrick O'Brian points this out through the imminently philosophical scientist, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
But I imagine, sir,' - to Stephen - ' that you read books on medicine, natural philosophy, perhaps history - that you do not read novels or plays.'  'Sir,' said Stephen, 'I read novels with the utmost pertinacity.  I look upon them - I look upon good novels - as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints."  - Patrick O'Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation.
The art of literature then tells us more about the universal nature of man than any discourse on psychology or anatomy ever could, because it focuses on what is universally true about man, not just what is correct.   Simply painting a man on his horse would tell us no more than a photograph might, but should that man be pointing and sternly riding a rearing horse, what is communicated is clearly the virtues of his great leadership and stern courage, which makes message of the painting not the man, but the virtues which can be universally known to all men.  This is what makes art philosophical, that art speaks about parts of the soul of human beings which are common to all of us.

What makes something art is that it depicts not just the events and situation of a particular event or person, but that depicts the parts of about human nature which are universal to all mankind, and through that points to something other than the mere facts of our existence. 

September 28, 2011

Political vs Philosophical Art

In the last post I wrote about how art is used to promote political ends, such as the coerced composition of the 5th Symphony of Shostakovich.    The final distinction I left off with, that while art some is sometimes made to be political, all art is philosophical, deserves to be looked at further.

Politics is by its nature a changeable thing, something that despite the advent of "political science" still manages to be a fickle thing, not responding to theories of unbreakable rules.  This is because politics is related to particular, rather than universal things, particular politicians, particular issues, budgets, and voters, all of which are subject to the particular circumstances of a time.   In other words, a political campaign which one time worked in one state might not work in another, or even the same state at a different time.  

A purely political art then is a work of art that is used to promote a particular political end.   A purely political art is most properly called propaganda, it is used to propagate, promote and convince people of the goodness or importance of an issue.   After this particular issue or cause is no longer in play, the purely political art loses its moorings and becomes meaningless, art then becomes merely an item of curiosity.   The art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution comes to mind, the posters don't really move you to anything other than finding the design striking and interesting. 

Politics and politicians however are not guided simply by particular circumstances, but rather (at least the best of them) are guided by principles that are applied to particular circumstances.    The principles are what a philosopher would call universals.   The universal truths, such as justice, equality, courage, et cetera.  When we see these universal principles as the guiding force of work of a politician, rather than simply the expedient, we acknowledge this as a great thing and label such people "statesmen" rather a politician.

Art then works the same way.   The universals are at work in the best works of art, the courage of a man, the need for justice, the longing for beauty, these make the best art universally loved, thus we call it "Art."    On the other hand, art which is purely used for political ends, which has little or no value in the universal sense, but is valued as we said only for the particular circumstance of the time and place, is called "propaganda."   But yet, even in art which is intentionally political, which might be called propaganda in some sense, still can express the human virtues in a universal way.  

Looking at Goya's The Shootings of May Third, we do not have to understand the particular political event which inspired the painting to be inspired by this.   The defiance of the man with his arms stretched out stands out.   He may be a radical, or a monarchist or whatever party, but his courage is what strikes everyone viewing this painting, this universal virtue turns Goya's painting from propaganda into the realm of true art.

Thus it is the universals, the philosophical, which makes art what it is, but the purely political degrades art into the realm of propaganda.    The artist stands to the propagandist like the statesman 
stands to the political hack.  

But what happens when the propagandist uses, or more correctly misuses art for terrible ends?

September 22, 2011

Shostakovitch, Art and Propaganda

Today I came across a very interesting show about a piece of 20th century music, which raises interesting questions about the nature of art, politics, philosophy and propaganda.    The program, PBS' "Keeping Score" with Michael Tilson Thomas, explores the history of the creation of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and how the life of an artist in the early years of 20th Century Russia was affected by the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union.

I found the show interesting in that it explores not just the music qua music, but that music is a particularly powerful means of not just expression but of propaganda.   Every person interviewed in this program acknowledges that music, indeed all has a power greater than just to be enjoyed, but that it has a deep power that can be used to political ends.    Stalin recognized this, and before the 5th Symphony, made Shostakovitch persona non grata with a particularly scathing review of his opera, labeling the music as antithetical to the state. 

To the totalitarian Soviet Regime (indeed all totalitarian regimes), all art is in a sense "political" and therefore simply a tool to be used for or against the regime, so artists are chosen for their support of the state.  This is however only somewhat true, as some art is intrinsically political (anthems, statues of patriots etc,) but some art is only political due to its adoption by a party or state.  The adoption of Wagner as quasi-politico-religious themes by 1930s Germany is a good example of this, as Wagner was dead before the Nazis came to power.   This exposes the difference between the works of art made to be political from those used for political ends. What makes this possible is not that all art is political, but that all art is philosophical.   

This is a theme which I am currently exploring further so look forward to another post explaining further that connection between philosophical art and political art.

September 15, 2011

Article on Duncan Stroik's Renovation in Sioux Falls

Over the last year a lot has been happening, including getting married, starting a new job and working with the ICA and NCAS. I have been writing though I've been concentrating on writing longer more scholarly work. I do however intend (as I've said too many times before) to start blogging more often. I hope to use this perhaps as a way to work out parts of ideas I'm working on for a few scholarly articles I hope to publish soon. I'm also trying to work out a new name for the blog, so suggestions would be welcome, as I'm trying to use this blog as more of a more scholarly laboratory than just a news feed.

One article I just had published was on the recently completed renovation of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The renovation was overseen by Duncan Stroik, a former boss and professor of mine at Notre Dame. The article was published by Adoremus Bulletin, where you can read the article in full. I encourage you however to purchase a copy of the article if you like it, as the print version includes a number of beautiful full color photos of the renovation.

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?

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.
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