Friday, December 18, 2009

Growing Wings

Ste Chapelle: My personal favorite Gothic space floats gracefully.

Architects have one major foe they tend to fight, even if at the same time they embrace because of the level of comfort it brings them: this foe is gravity, and since the beginning architects have done everything in their power to pull out every magic trick available to suppress its oppressive pervasiveness. This is the paradox of the architect: to design within gravity to create a building that reassures its inhabitants that it will not topple and crush them, and yet to design against gravity so the inhabitants do not feel stifled by the constant force that keeps them grounded. Gravity is rational, and aesthetic anti-gravity is purely spiritual (or is it?). The rationalist deals with the physical well being of a buildings inhabitants, while the spiritualist deals with their mental well being, insuring their sanity and sense of freedom.

One can almost feel Pre-Roman architects frustration with the painfully small distances they were able to span. Before the discovery of the arch in the Roman era, architects had almost no tricks up their sleeves to suppress the true weight of gravity. The arch allowed spaces to free up considerably and soar to the sky, making one almost forget for a second that they were enveloped in a closed space with the weight of gravity bearing down on it. Still, columns and supports for these remained frequent and thick allowing most of the freedom to happen only in the ceiling.

It was with Gothic Architecture that architects started seriously doing aesthetic tricks to suppress the oppressive nature of gravity in order that ones spirit could commune with heaven unencumbered. The introduction of the ribbed vault certainly helped, allowing bays to be of shapes other than square. The introduction of the flying buttress freed up wall space considerably allowing a marked increase of glass surfaces on exterior walls. These devices allowed the buildings to positively soar, defying gravity with every fiber, but the most important development in helping gravity dissolve was the way that the architectural elements were articulated. Columns still had to be relatively thick to hold up the long spanning arches. This was suppressed considerably by breaking up the large columns into smaller bundles. These bundles appeared light and airy and diffused the mass of the large columns. This detail was carried over in the window mullions and the ribbing of the vaults to create the illusion of a lighter building. These details made one think the building was not indebted to gravity as much as it really was. This is a lie, but is it a lie that tells the truth? No: it is a lie to express a spiritual desire for freedom and connection to the above.

Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve by Henri Labrouste

The Renaissance temporarily put an end to this flouting of gravity. The focus shifted away from the organic progress of architecture and more towards a fixation with reigniting the decorum and tradition of the Roman Empire; an architecture whose rhetoric is decidedly more grounded. The emergence in the 19th Century of the Industrial Revolution and its new materials and methods, allowed for architects who were sick of neo-classical obsessions to once again play games with gravity. Examples are many and include the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve by Labrouste wherein the columns that hold up the double barrel vaulted interior space look less load bearing and more like stalactites that have reached the ground. Also the explorations of Viollet Le Duc as well as the bold form of the Eiffel Tower show architecture soaring again in the face of gravity. Gaudi may have not used modern industrial technology to give the illusion that his Sagrada Familia Cathedral is floating, he merely reintroduced and refined many of the aesthetic tricks used in Gothic Architecture to create a building that looks as if it is being pulled upward rather than the opposite. The cathedral looks like an upside down melted wax candle.

50X50 House by Mies Van Der Rohe

Modern Architecture saw important advances in the game of aesthetic anti-gravity. Louis Sullivan used the gothic device of bundled columns to visually attenuate the large columns needed to hold up early skyscraper design. Frank Lloyd Wright created a whole vocabulary on the defiance of gravity. His perfection of the cantilever literally allowed for certain parts of his structures to float. Also the way he articulated corners etc. were all put into place in order to keep his buildings soaring. (Interestingly though Frank Lloyd Wright dealt with the paradox between grounding and flotation, but I will explore this in another post.) Over in Europe, Le Corbusier innovated the Domino system of building. With this system columns separated from facades allowing anti-gravity tricks such as ribbon windows to create the illusion of floating architecture. Erich Mendelsohn used this trick to good effect on his Schocken storefronts. So did Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus building. Mies Van Der Rohe explored the idea of floating architecture mostly beginning with the Barcelona Pavilion. Of his unbuilt work, the 50 X 50 house boldly utilized only four slender columns at the midpoints of the perimeter to hold the roof up. These complex cantilevers gave the impression of flotation. His floating aesthetic culminated with the Berlin National Gallery where 8 columns are separated from the edges and brought in to about the 1/3 points on any given facade plane. The columns are tapered and end with a shrunken capital, almost the inverse of traditional Greek column anatomy. The effect is stunning, creating the illusion that the roof is hovering and the columns are merely pinning it down. It is amazing how just a few aesthetic devices can break the psychic bonds of gravity. A current and successful building that utilizes many of these same tricks can be seen in the New Modern Art Wing in Chicago by Renzo Piano. The louvered and articulated roof hovers over the main building and is held down by dramatically slim columns that taper at both the capital and the base. With their proportions, it is difficult to believe they are doing any work at all. The effective use of cantilevers, proportioning, structural disconnection from the facade and many other tricks, all contributed in the architect’s quest to break the oppressive pull of gravity.

An architects first and foremost obligation is to create a building that does not fall down on its users. Yet we remain obsessed with liberating ourselves from the constant constraint of gravity. It brings us down. It is depressing. It is a nag. Buildings by nature are fixed beings, and it is precisely the nature of a building that makes us want to rebel against it. But does the aesthetics of anti-gravity serve any rational purpose? I believe it does in that a building that uses the aesthetics of anti-gravity will, for the most part, use only the essential amount of materials and methods required for it’s construction. Making a structure that needs no embellishment to help it withstand gravity will by its very nature be lighter. It will fulfill the ultimate rationalist benchmark (the elimination of the inessential) as well as the ultimate spiritual benchmark (freedom and all that word implies)! The closer one comes to floating, the closer one comes to perfection!

Modern Wing Chicago: Renzo Piano (photo by Argitect)

End Note: Now in all reality a building that floats is not rational for all programs. A hospital or a prison most definitely would not want to adopt the aesthetics of anti-gravity for practical and rhetorical reasons. There is a time and place for the expression of flotation in architecture.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Reverse Aquarium

Farnsworth House Collages by Argitect (2001)

In an urban environment such as the Chicago Federal Center by Mies Van Der Rohe, we see the architecture primarily frames the sculpture in the plaza. The sculpture is a contrasting vitality. This is not necessary in a rural environment; the vital element to the architecture is nature itself. Nature is the contrasting element, nature is the dynamic force from which the neutralized architecture enhances by aggrandized contrast. Sculpture is the substitute for nature where it is lacking in the big city.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than at the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe designed from 1945-1951. Nature is clearly the starring character of the house. The nature of the house is to frame its surroundings. There is no other possibility; one is simply consumed by nature when inside the house. The reflections of trees in the glass mixed with the complex tree filtered shadows create a richly decorative experience. The nature seems to encroach on the border like seeing an effective 3D movie at the theater. Reflection and shadow blur the line between inside and out. The only real cue that one is not in an open pavilion is the muffling of sounds. The tree will whip violently in the wind but one won’t hear the wind inside the house. It’s like a reverse aquarium where the surroundings are on display. The floating plane of roof has an even-handed diffusion that seems to glow with indirect reflectivity.

The Farnsworth House is also very much like tofu: it takes on the characteristics of its environment. As the seasons change so does the house. The dominant mood of the environment is reflected in the overwhelming sensations of transforming nature. The color of the house changes with the seasons as well, reflecting what is happening beyond the house. In fall, the house takes on a warm hue, a hue of deep colors and gathering fortitude for winter. I have not seen it in winter, but I imagine the house to be perfectly camouflaged and even more “not there” when surrounded by blinding white. Icicles have the potential to form on its eaves, the house becomes an ice fortress, although a freezing cold one with single pane glass!

Although I have not seen it at night, I believe the success of the Farnsworth House primarily happens in the daytime. The overwhelming inhabitation of the black night, I imagine, could be oppressive and ominous when inside the house. The reverse aquarium reverses, and one would feel as if they are on display to nature, or whatever else may lurk in the void of black night.

The architecture is nature’s frame. It is not overtly decorative in order that it does not compete with nature. Just as at a museum, if a painting is framed in an overtly ornate gilded frame the power of the painting is attenuated. A conspicuous frame will make one forget the frame and focus on what is important; the painting!

It is a hard task to ask the creative minds of architecture to design a building that is not meant to stand out, but instead enhance its surroundings by disappearing as much as possible. The ego wants to be noticed, it wants to be seen and admired. Mies teaches that a building that is meant to disappear, if executed with distilled perfection, can be successful both as architecture as well as an unintrusive framing device for nature (urban or rural) or it’s substitute (sculpture, painting etc.).

Photo by Argitect

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everything In Its Right Place

Flamingo Legs by Alexander Calder in the Federal Center Plaza by Mies Van Der Rohe (Photo: Argitect)

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” Pablo Picasso

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Pablo Picasso

Sculpture for Mies is an important theoretical contrast placed in the context of his work. Solutions for architecture were meant to be architectural solutions (Bankunst), not sculptures with program shoved into them and structure built around them. To make architecture Mies sought to clarify structure and program in a solution that organically grew out of the needs of structure and program (this is a simplification that I will elaborate on in a future blog). This resulted in a vocabulary of strict logic.

To compliment the logical vocabulary of his buildings he incorporated sculpture into some of his major projects. In every case this strengthened considerably the theoretical notions of the building by pointing out roles of decorum in the different arts. They also exaggerated each other’s inherent ideas, strengthening both the idea of architecture and the idea of sculpture.

The most famous example of sculpture utilized in Mies’ work can be found at the Barcelona Pavilion. The George Kolbe sculpture titled “Dawn” stands floating over the shallow pool on the far end of the pavilion. The image of the Barcelona Pavilion that is most widely circulated includes this sculpture. It is integral to the building and feels like it was designed for it. The sculpture reflects in the water and on the nearby glass heightening the feeling of virtual space within the pavilion. The organic flowing curves of the sculpture contrast greatly with the planar arrangement of the space enveloping it. This sculpture is a solid form in a space. The form of the sculpture and the spatiality of the pavilion are reinforced, exaggerated, and heightened by the presence of each other. The sculpture clarifies the spatiality of the pavilion, and in reciprocation the pavilion clarifies the solidity of form in the sculpture. They also elucidate the clarity of purpose for each other: the sculpture is purely art, whereas the Pavilion is purely architecture. The “pure” architecture of the pavilion is shown in the distillation of the column, roof and wall. These clearly articulated elements express the rationality of the architecture. The metaphor of differences between the two arts is somewhat tenuous in this example considering that the Barcelona Pavilion doesn’t actually have a clear program. It is not traditional architecture in the sense that the task it performs is abstracted from pragmatism. This yin/yang between sculpture and architecture can be seen more clearly in the Federal Center in Chicago; a building with a clearer program.

The Flamingo sculpture by Alexander Calder in the Plaza at the Federal Center in Chicago, which was installed after Mies’ death, is, in my opinion, the best example of the contrast between sculpture and architecture in the work of Mies Van Der Rohe. Calder’s Flamingo is literally the heart of the entire Federal Center. It is the dancing soul of the plaza and uses the pristine backdrop to float freely. The two major ways it contrasts the buildings that surround it are its color and its form. The color is bold red, a significant and heightened color in a backdrop of black mullions and glass. Its form is made up of free flowing arcs that swoop up like a sun flare or a gaggle of St. Louis arches. It is with this sculpture that the separate function between art and architecture is wildly contrasted. The sculpture has no obligation to program; its program is merely to create an aesthetic experience. It succeeds in its aesthetic necessity. The building fits courthouses offices and a post office into a structure that must hold these functions up and protect them from the elements. It succeeds in its pragmatic necessities. The aesthetics of the building are a consequential ordering device based on pragmatic concerns including the relationship to its site.

The success of this contrast between sculpture and architecture in Mies’ work is evident when comparing other famous building/sculpture relationships. The Daley Plaza sports the famous Picasso, which is the centerpiece of the plaza as well as a great thing for young children to play on. The dynamic relationship between building and sculpture is lost somewhat in that the sculpture is the same color and material as the building (cor-ten steel). It also has a form that, although sinuous in certain parts, has a rigidity about it that seems to reflect the building. So the sculpture and the building seem to have more in common than contrast. I feel this weakens the force of each part when in relation to the other one. The Thompson Center Plaza by Helmut Jahn has a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet. The wildly eclectic form of the building competes with the sinuous forms of the sculpture weakening its potency. In even further extremity, any of these sculptures above would look just about impotent when competing with a museum by Frank Gehry. Only the work of minimalist sculptors such as Richard Serra or Sol LeWitt could create an interesting contrast between building and structure. However, this would be an ironic contrast; a contrast that comments on the roles of architecture and sculpture by resisting the nature of their logic. This is a tedious fight: the building fights the Rational, as the sculpture fights the Spiritual.

A couple of Mies’ buildings resisted the introduction of a sculpture most notably in the Seagram Building. Mies himself spent a considerable amount of time dedicated to designing a free-flowing sculpture for placement in the spacious plaza, however nothing seemed to work. Jacques Lipchitz and Henry Moore were requested to make sculptures for the space but both declined. Here was a plaza that a sculpture just didn’t seem to fit. However, after subsequent years, in an even more dynamic and contrasting manner, there have been sculpture exhibitions that periodically changed. This contrasted the building even further, demonstrating constant change and fluid motion in the face of the indomitable glass and bronze facade of the Seagram Building. I wonder why the Seagram Plaza resisted sculpture. My initial impression is that the Seagram Plaza, in contrast to the Barcelona Pavilion and the Illinois Federal Center, is symmetrical whereas the other buildings are arranged in asymmetrical, De Stijl, type shifting planes. (This asymmetry happens in the building itself of the Barcelona Pavilion, and happens in the arrangement of symmetrical buildings at the Illinois Federal Center.) Perhaps the symmetry of the Seagram Plaza, in its rigidity, resisted the introduction of a dynamic element such as a sculpture.

Extreme contrast between sculpture and architecture can help to heighten the sensations of the other. The decorum of sculpture and architecture is clearly distilled when given a properly opposing context.

The ambiguity and competition of sculpture at the Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank Gehry.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The More Part.....

Chicago Federal Center: MVDR. Calder Sculpture in Foreground (photo by Argitect)

"Less is More"- Mies Van Der Rohe

We know that Mies was aware of the ambiguous nature of glass based on his interest in its reflective possibilities for the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922. Further evidence of the elusive qualities of glass can be seen in the Barcelona Pavilion where he uses shallow water pools to magnify the mystifying qualities about each material. Mies would have you believe that his liberal use of glass in his projects in America achieved a clarity and honesty about program and structure. Indeed, for the most part, this is true. It appears his American projects sought to downgrade the mystical qualities that he was exploiting in his Avant-Garde period, but this is specious. What Mies did was assimilate the residual effects of minimalist architecture into a more subtle and sublime whole. The effects and illusions of materiality were framed within order for maximum viewing of their mystical qualities.

A building that is fraught with angles and strange juxtapositions competes with the natural mysteries of the materials it’s clad in. A building specifically made to highlight a material may go overboard in its architecturality and lessen the very qualities it was trying to enshrine. An example that comes to mind is the metal cladding found on many Frank Gehry Projects. The shiny qualities and games that are played with the reflectivity of the metal are both heightened and hindered by the form of the building. In other words, the form of the building competes with the inherent qualities of the materials. Materials framed in less intrusive forms have their qualities heightened because they are not competing with the architecture itself.

Advanced Tech Lab at University of Iowa by Frank Gehry.

Firstly, in the Barcelona Pavilion we find a much more conventionally ordinary plan compared to the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922, however the games played with the reflectivity of glass are stunning. Planes of glass float past one another, and in the interstitial space between the overlaps we get mirroring effects. The glass envelope, which is ambiguously shaped in a De Stilj type diagram, gives the illusion of virtual space. Materials beside glass also obsess over reflectivity: columns are sheathed in chrome, the marble walls are glossy, and the travertine floor on a rainy day becomes a mirror reflecting the entire building. A rainy day would be ideal to see the Barcelona Pavilion, the maximum in spiritual space; it’s material qualities as elusive as it’s program! These residual effects of minimalism unimpeded by obstreperous architectural form are the “more” part in the idiom Less is More. The rippling water, reflectivity and matchbook marble almost give the building a quality of Baroque-ness, which is certainly unexpected when describing a Mies building.

In the Chicago Federal Center in Downtown we have an interesting example of the games that glass plays within Mies’ less Avant- Garde and more classically inspired buildings he did in America. What is interesting and inescapable when looking up at these skyscrapers are the mosaics of the surrounding buildings reflected in the black sounding board of the glass and I-beam grid. The reflections seem part of the buildings, as if they were applied decoration! What’s interesting and jarring at the same time is seeing the adjacent Mies tower reflected in the other one. Unlike the decorated and more solid surrounding buildings that survive the reflectivity relatively unharmed, a Mies reflection of a Mies is engulfing. The building is swallowed up like a black hole; light is absent from the void reflection, like an ominous doppelganger from the other side.

The large sculpture, Flamingo, by Alexander Calder is an integral part of the building, and is perfectly framed by the austerity of Mies’ facades. But, the buildings do play games with the sculpture. The Post Office reflects the sculpture, and upon approach from the southwest, it is unclear whether the half we see on the post office is a mirrored reflection or if we are just seeing completely through the building to the rest of the sculpture. Upon closer inspection, it is indeed a reflection. The Post Office has distorted the reality of the sculpture.

Reflectivity in glass is mostly an outdoor game with facades, except at night where this is reversed and the inside becomes reflective. I imagine this can be unsettling to a person, not being able to see outside, but knowing that anyone could be watching them. I would guess a night in the Farnsworth house after a horror movie with the lights on, obscuring the outdoors would be an unsettling experience.

Glass is a material that on the surface appears to clarify the nature of a building. The more glass used, the more we understand about its program and structural diagram. However, an overabundance of glass can undermine this purpose and create major ambiguities with reflectivity. A master architect will understand this and embrace the contradiction. I know Mies did. His Less was always More.

Glass tricks with Calder (photo by Argtiect)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Material Spirituality

Top: Luxury at the Barcelona Pavilion Bottom: Velvet and Silk Cafe, 1927. Enveloping Luxury.

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new.” Mies Van Der Rohe

In the previous post comparing Mies’ architecture to the Trump Tower you may be asking me; “But Andrew, where was the paradox in this essay?” The paradox lies in the fact that although Mies achieved a rational, epoch defining space, he did it originally for clients with the same aims as a developer like Donald Trump: to evoke a rhetoric of strength and luxury. IBM is a brand name; the rhetoric of the building shows strength and luxury. Strength is found in it’s bold, no nonsense volume, and it’s pristine detailing. This gives the impression of an indomitable spirit. Luxury is found in its sumptuous materiality. Travertine, dark tinted glass, and gold painted Barcelona Chairs are among the opulent materials. Similarly, the Seagram building in New York by Mies uses even more luxuriant materials. The building is clad in bronze. So, no matter how the IBM Building and the Trump Tower fare for posterity, they were still built for the same aims.

The paradox of Mies lies in the idea of using finely wrought materials to create a space of almost nothing. What Mies had to do in architecture was to create spiritual space out of the corporeal. One would think that if an architect was interested in making architecture that had an ethereal nature that materials wouldn’t matter much. One would think that the thinnest and least obtrusive materials would be all that is necessary. Of course the prominent material in all of Mies’ work is glass, which is the definition of a material with almost no materiality, but this is contrasted with finely wrought stone of the most expensive kind filled with pattern and texture. These are the opposite of ethereal materials. They do something in regards to grounding the spiritual flight of his column free glass volumes. Mies used his perfectly chosen stonework on the floors and cores of his buildings. These were opaque out of utility, and contrasted in total completion to the surrounding free open spaces.

How interesting that an architect who grew up the son of a stonemason, indebted to stonework his whole life, would come to conclusions about architecture in his maturity regarding the negation of solidity: The negation of the grounded building! Indeed in the Farnsworth house we find the building floating on columns, removed off the ground by about 4 feet. This has a rational and spiritual motive. Rationally Mies justified this by acknowledging that the house lie in a flood plain, although frequent flooding inside the house over the years has shown he did not raise it high enough. Spiritually it’s an expression of flotation, a removal of the building from the solid earth. The Farnsworth House is spiritually disconnected from reality. It is a ghost! Materiality is suppressed more so in this building than any other of his buildings, and this is done literally by using muted colors and large expanses of glass. Glass is the dominant material, and the panes are so large that when inside they do not seem to exist at all. The only evidence the building is not enclosed is in the sound barrier that the glass provides from the outside. Steel is painted white and thus disappears. The bathroom/utility core is clad in light wood. The only stonework is the travertine floor, texturally rich, but pale in color. Nevertheless, Mies was adamant about getting the stone perfectly placed. He oversaw the laying of the stonework and handpicked individual pieces. Mies expended great effort in making sure the material manifestations of his spiritual spaces were executed perfectly.

Whether Mies was making a dwelling or a corporate office space, he chose to define the physical manifestations of his work with expensive and beautiful materials. This is not a rationalist approach, and indeed he got flack from his peers when he used such luxuriant materials for the Barcelona Pavilion. Is this a contradiction on his part that his buildings that expressed the idea of essentiality were clad in such worldly riches? Or are we missing something in this interpretation? Mies was a Rationalist in the sense that he used rationality to express spiritual ideas. Rationality for him was an idea of rationality, and not true rationality. I call this Expressive Rationality. True rationality is left in the hands of the engineer. Expressive rationality as a phrase seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction of two wildly opposite spectrums of thought. But this is what Mies was about. Mies was looking for the spirit of his epoch, but the spirit has to be expressed in reality. This brings me to the question that plagues all artists, sculptors and architects in search for ideas of truth: How does one express an idea of the spiritual with physical means?

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Left: IBM by MVDR Right: Trump by SOM

“The essential is what architecture is about, and we should not be afraid if that gets a little boring.” MIes Van Der Rohe.

A skyscraper is built by the powerful to show off their power. They are literal realizations of giant egos. Donald Trump has built a giant in the heart of Chicago set out to trump all the surrounding buildings for stature and glory (pun intended). Its location is a beacon of showmanship: “Look at me! I am better than all of you.” is what it says. This placement used to be dominated by the IBM Building by Mies Van Der Rohe, which before the Trump Tower was foregrounded by the low and unassuming Chicago Sun Times building. This used to be my favorite view of the city. The Trump tower nudged into the Chicago Sun Times spot and is now king of the mountain. In almost every article I’ve read about the building not once have I heard any actual examinations of the architecture. Articles about the Trump Tower are amenities driven, because that’s what it’s all about. The building is for the rich, to live downtown under the luxurious umbrella of Donald Trump. So what about the architecture of this powerful new kid on the block?

Trump Tower’s basic form evokes its nearby surroundings, most noticeably the Wrigley Building. The multiple levels tie it in to the various heights of the adjacent buildings making it less jarring as it surpasses them. Obviously the building is dealing with the issues of being right next to the IBM building by Mies Van Der Rohe. This is most clearly evidenced in the treatment of the all glass facade. The most obvious homage to Mies are the vertical mullions that separate the windows. These are spaced in similar proportion to that of the IBM building. The vertical mullions, however, are not I-beams (that would express the structural steel encased in cylindrical concrete columns), but extruded chrome shapes very similar to a clothes iron. These shapes go further to point out the main motives behind this facade, which is reflectivity. This shape clad in mirror-finish chrome is clearly that way to capture light and give the facade a shimmering quality. The blue tinted glass windows also reflect to a high degree. When the sun is out an arc of light blinds its way across the building. A band of chrome louvers at intermittent levels signify mechanical floors, similar to the band at the lower one-third portion of the IBM building.

Having these two building side by side can really teach us about the precious qualities of the IBM Building. No matter how hard the Trump Tower tries to evoke the graceful proportions and grid of the IBM building, something elusive prevents it from looking as elegant. I don’t know what this could be, but this deficiency is in the Trump Tower as well as 95% of all the Mies imitations that are out there. The brightness of Trump gives it a mass and a presence, whereas the blackness of IBM seems to suggest a void in space. It keeps Mies’ skyscraper architecture in the spiritual world, where reality doesn’t quite touch it. The Trump Tower is of the world and part of it, there is no detachment. It also is clearly less a progression of the Miesian spirit and more an homage to his style. This is a key difference, and goes far towards making the Trump Tower nearly irrelevant for its time. It looks badly dated, as if it was built in 1990, one of hundreds of towering glass skyscrapers that sought to use Miesian vocabulary but didn’t have the deft touch to pull it off. In contrast, the Ohio Fairbanks Condos by Helmut Jahn goes further towards crystallizing the ideas of essential epochal architecture in our time. Instead of copying Mies, the building seeks to take his concepts of the essential and apply them to the technological constraints of our time. Similarly, the Aqua Tower, even if the conceptual framework is muddled, is further in the Miesian spirit than the Trump Tower.

Like I mentioned earlier, I believe the driving force behind the materiality of the trump tower was reflectivity, which is a concept for energy efficiency, and also one of many of the residual themes that recurred in Mies’ work. I call it residual, because outside of the Glass Skyscraper project of 1922 reflectivity is an effect of the theories he chose to work with, they were not the driving force. Just like Jeanne Gangs’ Aqua Tower was mastered by the scrim, Trump is mastered by reflectivity. Both of these were residual effects in Mies’ work. An interesting, and I believe coincidental, component of the reflectivity theme (as well as the theme of Miesian homage), can be found in the serpentine glass mullioned facade of the lobby that weaves its way freely in undulating curves. On first impression I felt strongly that this was a wink in the direction of Mies’ Glass Skyscraper project of 1922. Walking along the perimeter of this glass lobby I noticed the fascinating and fragmented reflections it gave off: coincidence or willful effect? If this is indeed the reason behind the lobby facade then I am impressed, but I’m leaning towards coincidence. Either way, it is the best part about the building.

Lobby Facade of Trump Tower

One last note: walking around the Trump Tower I was depressed to find so many tourists pointing at it, and taking pictures of it, unconscious of the truly great buildings right around including, IBM, Marina Towers and the Wrigley Building. I’ve been compelled several times to go right up to the tourists and tell them they are taking pictures of the wrong buildings. For now, I will let the bully be king of the mountain. I’m confident the novelty will wear off soon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Contributions to the Epoch"

Left:Glass Skyscraper Project Mies Van Der Rohe 1922. Right: Jeanne Gang Aqua Tower 2008.

“Some people think that you should always be doing something new, they ask for more and more novelty – not the essential things.” Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

"Things you couldn’t do before maybe because you were forced into repetition from construction, that’s where we’ve really been liberated. I love Marina towers, but they are the way they are because they needed to be repetitious. We can break away from that.” Jeanne Gang

The glass skyscraper project by Mies Van Der Rohe is striking in the context of all his other works. This seems to be a building of free flowing form, truly and literally thinking outside the box. His motives behind the shape were the combination of a strange site and games played with the reflectivity of glass. He stated that an all glass skyscraper was less about light and transparency and more about reflectivity. One can imagine Mies systematically and scientifically going through hundreds of permutations to arrive at a volume with maximum reflective potential. It’s strange to hear the motives for a Mies building seemingly having only one dimension: the reflectivity of glass. This seems to be a case where a small idea dictates to an exaggerated amount the built form. His subsequent works would subsume this into an increasingly holistic and spiritual approach to architecture. This building was outright revolutionary for its time. Beyond the strange shapes, Mies begins to show a building that is interested in being honest about how it’s constructed. One can clearly see the structural concept after a cursory glance of the model photograph. Floors are held up by interior columns and the floor plates branch off of these. The facade is applied and non-structural, it is clipped on, and we can literally see the clips holding the glass up at the top. It’s not far removed from the free plan associated with Le Corbusier, however this is more like a free facade. The model photograph further shows the revolutionary nature of this project by contextualizing it with a bunch of opaque low-rise cottage looking forms right out of Caligari’s Cabinet.

I can’t help walking around Chicago today, and going past the Aqua Tower by Jeanne Gang and seeing at least a superficial resemblance to the Glass Skyscraper project. They both have sinuous facades, although the Aqua Tower keeps the glass plane vertical and uses the floor plates to create the curves. The motives behind the building also seem to have a similarity. Whereas Mies’ curving forms were about reflectivity, Gangs’ are about maximizing views. There is an interesting diagram that shows points of views emanating from the tower block and pushing and pulling it in certain directions. It seems like a similar method that Mies might have used to find his perfect reflectivity. However, it seems this “maximum view” motive is a little dubious. I get the impression from both of these projects that the initial decisions were purely aesthetic and that a justified motive was attributed after the fact. The idea of views is arbitrary: the flowing forms are what the architect was looking for. And they have a beautiful effect when standing right up to them, but the rationalist inside of me does not see the justification or the posterity for such exaggerations of form. Jeanne Gang passes herself off as an architectural scientist, using research and modern technology to inform and dictate her architecture. I wish that this could be more boldly asserted in a high profile project such as this, because the rationalist/spiritualist duality seems to be tipped too far in one direction even if at the same time the mouth is speaking of rational motives for the given results.

The most striking element of the Aqua Tower is the scrim effect it gives looking vertically at close proximity. When further away this dissipates and the building seems to just be a regular skyscraper block with slightly tweaked fringe. Again it reminds me of Mies Van Der Rohe and the scrim effect that can be found on his skyscrapers with the protruding I-beams. Of course Mies’ scrim is looked at horizontally and not vertically like at Aqua. It’s a lovely trick that enhances the ambiguity of a buildings solidity and transparency. I believe the subtle way that Mies did it seems to have much more weighted substance. In other words, it allows you to discover it on your own: the building isn’t mastered by the scrim; it is just one element of many. (When at the IBM building, be sure to check out the adjacent parking garage and revel in the cleverness of it’s cladding. It reflects the scrim effect!). I’m also disappointed in the cumbersome and sometimes careless detailing of the Aqua Tower. The mullions are graceless, and the balcony railing is a jolting afterthought. In defense of the tower though, it has beautiful proportions, very tall and slender, and most importantly, at least it is something new and refreshing to the city that opens up room for discussion.

Both of these buildings seem to suffer from being mastered too highly by one conceptual triviality. Mies would later use the ambiguity of reflectivity to much more refined effect beginning most strikingly with the Barcelona Pavilion. Hopefully, Jeanne Gang will be able to subsume some of her scientific concepts into more solidly rationalized buildings.

The newly constructed Trump Tower is problematic in a whole different realm, but that “contribution to our epoch” can be a topic for next time.....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Less is More : More is Good?

Above: Crown Hall and Me. Below: Campus Building IIT

"Less is More" - Mies Van Der Rohe

"I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." Mies Van Der Rohe

In my opinion it seems Mies Van Der Rohe followed Durand’s concepts most fully in the campus buildings that he made at IIT in Chicago (aside from Crown Hall). These were his first built works in America, and utilized a system of bays and units in plan and bays and units in elevation to create a framework for all the buildings. This was very similar to Durands’ ideas of systematized building units. Mies also cut away all flak, using in his stripped down buildings a factory aesthetic that arose from the outgrowth of his design process. He eliminated any hint of ceremonial space in these buildings. They were truly utilitarian. That’s why they don’t carry the grace as most of his other built works. Aside from the beautiful corner steel details and the interesting coloring of the glass and brick, these buildings really seem to lack in charm. But that is one reason I find them fascinating. I mean how did a German coming to a very conservative country like America convince a college campus to create utilitarian box classrooms that looked like factories? Indeed, the first building he built on the campus was a factory! It’s fascinating and it’s boldness and daring bring it up a few points in my book. Mies could have easily theorized that he had created a unitized building system, just like Durand did, and declared he would use it for all other buildings for the rest of his life. Indeed he refined a different type of building with his skyscrapers. An undiscerning eye could probably not make out the subtle refinements between Lake Shore Apartments, The Seagram Building and The IBM Building. These skyscrapers were very much in Durand’s spirit as well.

But what compelled him to break away from type in Crown Hall? It does not share the same units as the other buildings, instead it freely floats on the inside supported by giant exterior beams that do all the work out of sight. The ceiling is high and grand, the staircases are detailed to float, and it is symmetrical. These do not seem like Rationalist choices of the like he did with the other university low-rises. It seems Mies was doing something else, and was willfully creating a spiritual space. A space dictated by aesthetic, not pragmatics. What was the lesson he was teaching his students? In comparison to the other buildings they would see on campus, I imagine they felt a little confused, or maybe even deified. THE ARCHITECTURE BUILDING was a grand space and everything else was lesser. Even the Chapel was a humble building that had more in common with the other buildings than Crown Hall! Perhaps he was commenting on his esteem for architects. Despite it’s lofty aims, Crown Hall is still created of units and is rigorously disciplined. It is a logical building to itself. All pesky functional rooms are relegated to the basement out of sight and out of mind. The main floor is for studio, the sacred act of creating architecture.

Mies was an interesting contradiction. His most famous line was Less is More. If we look at the phrase for a second it is confusing. If less is more, then is more good? Was he actually advocating more? It does not appear that way in his buildings. But it is more a spiritual phrase than a rationalist phrase. The less a building does in the real world, the more spiritually fulfilling it is? But Mies had do to so much to create Less. He had to hide utilities, he had to arrange program to fit in cores, he had to develop better facade technology, and he used industrialized ornamentation to articulate the parts of a building. Honesty was not his goal, but a concept of honesty. Which is interesting when looking at Mies the man. He was fat, indulged in expensive suits, and constantly smoked cigars. Outwardly it appears he lived an indulgent lifestyle. I marvel at the demons he tackled in his life.

Taken with all his other built works in America, in Crown Hall we see the creation of the third building type Mies created: The Open Pavillion. This along with the utilitarian low-rise and the skyscraper were all refinements of basically the same vocabulary over decades. So the question remains, was he a rationalist or a spiritualist?

Another interesting question lies in his transformation of approach between his European work and his American work. What about America caused him to curb his overtly avant-garde tendencies? ......

Monday, September 28, 2009

LIght Machines: Le Corbusier

Top: Brussells Pavilion by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis ( A fascinating electronic musician)
Bottom: Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Le Corbusier

“The house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s famous definition of Architecture being the masterly and correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light seems to be more aligned with Boullee and the Vitruvian idea of Delight. Le Corbusier, in the end was a form-maker or more aptly a volume-enveloper. He framed views, made abstract sculptural forms removed from the practical and wholly indebted to the purely aesthetic. Like Boullee, Le Corbusier believed in the perfection of pure geometries in creating the most aesthetically perfect manifestation of form. Unlike Boullee, his buildings actually got built!

The irony of Le Corbusier lies in the fact that he derived his new conception of modern architecture simultaneously from ancient aesthetics of pure geometric form as well as through the example of the rationalist engineer whose grain silos and factories were emerging with the industrial technology of the time, and were unfettered by the decorum and traditions of architectural expectations. The modern machines of automobile and airplane also inspired his notions of standardized architectural perfection. The modern and the ancient collided in Corbusier’s conception of a new Modern Architecture. However, as can be seen in his works, the Vitruvian doctrine of Delight always takes precedence. He made a point to differentiate the architect from the engineer, something Durand would potentially deem unnecessary. Le Corbusier expounds on how the engineered forms of bridges and automobile and ships allude to new ways of building, but in his Modernist period he uses these lessons solely as aesthetic devices. It is well known that the Villa Savoye was a ridiculously heavy construction made by old methods and fronted to look like a brand new way of building: it was certainly a machine only in spirit. He praised the Engineer in his ability to be honest about the problems of construction in his time, but he did not fully take those lessons to his constructions. His buildings lied to tell the truth: they were an expression of the new honest way to build, but were in and of themselves not honestly constructed. His desire for the correct and magnificent play of light on forms negated the buildings from being strictly about honesty of construction. His expressions were conflicted, and this conflict could be interpreted as an interesting tension or a convolution of ideals. I vote for the former. Le Corbusier was an architect with enough genius to embrace the paradox of his profession. Timeless/Progressive, Industrial/Sensual, Functional/Spiritual, Rational/Arbitrary. He was not without fault, however. Hindsight teaches his ideas of urban planning, and even earlier, of mass production houses, were ultimately not unifying towards society as intended, but alienating. They had negative and long lasting repercussions.

Le Corbusier was most like Boullee, but practical enough to get his buildings actually built, and in a moment in time where his theories were accepted by the clients of the time.

Mies Van Der Rohe placed his ideologies squarely in the shadow of Durand, using rationality as a religion for the derivation of his buildings. But were his buildings devoid of Delight? Find out in the next post....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas

Top: Boullee: Cenotaph to Newton. Bottom: Durand building modules.

“Shall I, like Vitruvius, define architecture as the art of building? No, for this would be to confuse causes and effects. The effects of architecture are caused by light.” Etienne Louis Boullee

“ Architects should concern themselves with planning and nothing else.” Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand

The early beginnings of modern architecture already showed opposing viewpoints as to the correct approach of making buildings. The doctrine of Vitruvius, being Commodity, Firmness, and Delight was distilled like oil and water by two 18th century architects. Etienne Louis Boullee and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand.

Boullee subscribed to the purity of true geometric forms, like cubes, pyramids and most forcefully, the sphere. He believed the sphere was the perfect, all encompassing expression of architectural form. He was strictly interested in the Delight part of Vitruvius’ doctrine. His work was fantastical, neglectful of program, and unbuildable at the time of conception. The sphere is in some ways a ridiculous shape for architecture, having no easy way to ingress the volume let alone figure out how to fit program into it. Boullee was not an architect interested in practicality, his motives were purely aesthetic. He was a dreamer in a profession governed by the practical needs of constructability and appropriateness of program: firmness and commodity!

Durand on the opposite end based his theories strictly on logic. His ideas proposed that buildings need not concern themselves with aesthetics; aesthetic forms would arise by the correct usage of construction and planning. He also believed in the cylinder and sphere, not as a spiritually perfect form, but as the most efficient and economical mass for design. He advocated the logic of the grid, which promoted regularity and ease of programming. Durand could be argued as lacking in the Vitruvian doctrine of delight.

The paradox of the architect can clearly be seen in the opposing philosophies of these two early pioneers of modern architecture. Boullee is the Spiritualist, hounded by the realities of gravity, economy, and reality, Durand is a Rationalist, hounded by the decadent tastes of his time, dogged by ornamentation, decorum, and the final nail in the coffin of all idealistic architects: the demands and whims of the Client!

Of course in hindsight we can also see the ways these architects betrayed their original conceptions. They were still mainly influenced by the belief that truth in architecture is derived from an adherence to classical forms like the column and the pediment. Boullee actually seemed to deviate furthest from this, the large amounts of bare space on his buildings being some of the first examples of undecorated building. Durand, however logical he was, still adhered to the traditional forms of the neo-classicists. This seems arbitrary now, even if it may not have at the time, and the arbitrary would certainly be something I imagine he would have been fully against.

Boullee and Durand found practical counterparts in the modern era with Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe, albeit with even more layers of paradox. This is the topic for my next post.....

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Reverse Diaspora

Zonnestraal Sanitorium by Jan Duiker

“The architect who builds in the international style seeks to display the true character of his construction and to express clearly his provision for function. He prefers such an will increase rather than contradict the prime effect of surface of volume.” Henry – Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson

The loftiest goals of Modernism were to create a new type of building, free from rhetoric, regionalism, ornamentation, and anything else that would betray it’s true form as a building for all nations. Basically they sought to cut the bullshit out of the equation. However, the residue of beauty was inescapable amongst the Functionalists. No matter how hard they tried to express brute uncompromising built structures they betrayed themselves with aesthetic proclivities.

The vocabulary of the International Style shows the aesthetic framework of the Modernists. Along with Le Corbusiers’ Five Points other common themes include the use of white stucco or plaster, and almost always a flat roof. These two things, in hindsight, clearly seem to be non-rational solutions in building. White stucco, cracks and crumbles over time, needing heavy maintenance to keep it proper. And the flat roof, of course is illogical in that besides shelter the function of the roof is to shed water. Of course these things like white walls and flat roofs are lies to enhance the idea of rationality. A flat roof conveys a severity of purpose. In a spiritualist way it is also an abstract reduction of what a roof is. However, I have a lot more to say about the rhetoric of flat roofs, and will save it for another post.

The International Style was trying to accomplish a building vocabulary of standardization that could be used all around the world, and was not encumbered by nationalist dogmas and traditions. The only way this could be done was to strip if of all applied decoration, use economical standardized materials of the latest technology, and program the building towards strictest logic, avoiding sweeping grand statements deemed unnecessary. What they attempted to do here was destroy the boundaries of spoken language and nationalism and unite all countries towards a worldwide community: A Reverse Diaspora contrary to the Tower of Babel: One building pulls us apart, and a new philosophy brings us together!

But alas, just like any utopian aspiration, (like Communism for example), other complex forces in the world (like greed {nay}, and free will {yay}) diminish lofty overarching visions and keep the world in a constant state of paradox: order and chaos....

Lange House by Mies Van Der Rohe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Back Pages

Mediatheque Sketch by Andrew Ryan Gleeson

“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” - Bob Dylan

I was looking through an old college sketchbook recently and found a diagram relating the overarching concept of a studio project I worked on in Montreal for a Mediatheque. The sketch showed a detail of a column, a typical bay, and the shape of the building all drawn the same size and adjacent to each other. Above it, written in my fit for a doctors’ scrawl was the heroic phrase: TOTALITY OF BUILDING. I remember one studio session with my professor for this project way before this sketch. My preliminary ideas for the building had massed the program into two distinctive volumes, which I deemed an articulation of program. However, I espoused my admiration for Mies, and the concept of a building having a consistent disciplined theme throughout. I noticed my professor seemed a little perturbed by these remarks. He looked at me, then the sketch, and slammed his fist gently on the table and said; “If you are going to do this, do it damn it! Don’t half ass it, go all the way. Make a disciplined building.” This declaration refocused and distilled my ideas about the project further. So, I attempted to distill a Mediatheque with an extremely elaborate program, and concocted a rational bay system and grid (with classical proportioning) to accommodate all the necessary functions. This took an endless amount of time. I still believe the simplest looking buildings are the hardest to pull off.

Looking at this approach to design, I realize in hindsight the inherent hypocrisy of my design ideals. I spouted off endlessly about my hatred for form, and my patent disassociation with Frank Gehry and the form makers. I aligned myself with the classic Modernists, who were interested in light and volume, and rationality based on technology and program to create a building. The focus was not on aesthetics, but the root of the building, the truth of the program: Honesty in architecture! However, is getting program to fit into a glass cube any different than getting program to fit into the likeness of a horse’s skull? The emphasis may be different, but the approach is the same: make a building’s nature bend to the will of the aesthetic framework.

So in hindsight, I need to acknowledge that the Mediatheque had an aesthetic framework that expressed rationality and honesty, but in and of itself was not necessarily honest. I lied to tell the truth about my belief in an architecture of consistent wholeness. To express clarity one must suppress the endless complexities of design.

One could argue that my proposal for the mediatheque, was rational in the sense that regularity was more economically feasible. If economics drove the building, mine would potentially be a more rationalist solution. We did not work with a budget for this project, however, so this factor did not influence my design.

To be kind to this old project, I think I pulled off a successful building that distilled my ideas further than they had ever reached before. I still have a defense and a belief against the form makers, and the strict Spiritualists, (A glass cube and horses skull ARE different) but I’ll save that for another time...

Mediatheque Front Elevation Sketch by Andrew Ryan Gleeson

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mies Van Der Rohe - The Liar

“Just as Sullivan , over half a century earlier, had adjusted appearances to express an idea of structure, so Mies ‘lied in order to tell the truth’ about the steel frame.

William J. R. Curtis- Modern Architecture Since 1900

The architect and his confused motives can clearly be seen in the skyscrapers of Mies Van Der Rohe, whom on the surface appears to be the epitome of the Rationalist thinking architect. Indeed, Mies’ buildings, and particularly the ones he created in America, appear to flow from concepts of construction and program. But Louis Kahn was famous in pointing out that in the Seagram Building by Mies and Phillip Johnson, the shear supports, which appear in diagonals, are hidden in the core walls of the skyscraper. No diagonal lines are to be found in the Seagram Building, or any other of his skyscrapers. Louis Kahn was essentially saying that Mies was being dishonest about the structure of his building. In truth what Mies chose to do was suppress the diagonal to reinforce the clarity of his construction. He lied to tell the truth. This is something he does in almost all of his projects. To enhance the clarity and rationality and logic of his pristine boxes, he hides the components of design that confuse the logic of the building. Unfortunately Louis Kahn’s rebuttal skyscraper proposal looked singularly clumsy and confusing; a tangled web of diagonal pieces that looked like a tinker toy model. On the whole, Kahn’s work showed a great deal of clarity, this skyscraper is not one of those occasions. Louis Kahn seeks clarity of structure differently than Mies. One could argue Louis Kahn was more honest, and thusly even more rational than Mies, but his buildings in general did not portray the same crystallization of execution that a Mies building did. I am not saying that one of these architects is superior to the other; their motives were fundamentally different.

Lake Shore Drive Apartments Corner. (photo by Andrew Ryan Gleeson)

So, the paradox of the architect is most clear with Mies: Hide the truth to heighten the truth. The most famous example of this, and in my opinions one of the cleverest ideas in the history of architecture, was the way Mies used the I-Beam in his skyscrapers for decoration. Compelled by the purity of the skeletal frame of an unfinished skyscraper and frustrated by the stringent demands of fireproofing that required the I-beams that supported the building to be covered in concrete, Mies had the epiphany to clad the exterior of the concrete column with an I-beam. This served to evoke the true structure of the building because in reality the truth was superceded by the demands of fireproofing. He then used the I-beams all across the facade as mullions between glass bays. With this masterstroke, Mies was able to evoke the image of a building still under construction. A purity of structure is heightened with a decorative element! It is the funniest joke in Modern Architecture, masterminded by the architect most people consider to be the most sobering of them all. This is the case for Mies as a Spiritualist in Rationalists clothing. He used the Spiritualist idiom to evoke Ultra-Rationalist spaces. He distilled in order to create idealized structures that seemed to convey honesty further than what the bare truth would express. The line between a Spiritualist and a Rationalist blurs considerably. Mies sought to uncover true ideas about architecture. He sought to discover the will of the epoch he was living in in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It is a testament to the Rational part of his methodology, that instead of constantly trying new directions and shapes for skyscrapers, he perfected and distilled the vocabulary he began in the first two Lake Shore Towers. A comparison between these first skyscrapers and one of his last, like the IBM Building, shows that he succeeded tremendously in perfecting his craft of pristine skyscraper architecture. It’s like watching, in microcosm, the evolution of the Greek temple from the Basilica at Paestum to the Parthenon.

Louis Kahn was more dogged by Rationalist honesty, he sought to use construction methods in an honest way to evoke an ancient and timeless aesthetic vocabulary. Mies sought to discover the will of the epoch, and Louis Kahn sought to discover the will of eternity, but that topic is for another time.....