Architecture Roulette 2

From page 312 of Ian Sutton's Western Architecture: "In curious parallel with the 19th-century polemics of Morris and Ruskin over 'truth to materials,' the extent to which the steel skeleton was expressed on the exterior of the building was to become almost a moral issue. Those that did express it have been hailed as 'progressive' and 'honest,' those that did not as 'historicist' and 'retardataire.' By now feelings have cooled and it is possible to enjoy a frankly 'dishonest' building without a feeling of shame, just as one can enjoy Der Rosenkavalier without worrying about how avant-garde it was."

The above is from a chapter focusing largely on the earliest generation of skyscrapers. And there you have it: honesty may be the foundation of relationships, but you don't have to feel shame or horror if you are lied to by a building. Thank God I can tell my parents they can paint and hang pictures up on the load-bearing walls in their house without shame.


"A four-sided gambrel-style hip roof characterized by two slopes on each of its sides with the lower slope at a steeper angle than the upper"

Architecture Roulette 1

The other day I bought (for 2$!) a textbook, by a guy named Ian Sutton, called "Western Architecture" from a used bookstore. I think I'm going to turn it into a recurring feature on here: open to a random page and post a paragraph from it. Maybe they'll be more to that. We'll see.

Anyway, here goes:
From page 111: "The largest of Spanish cathedrals, and indeed the largest medieval cathedral ever built, is that of Seville, begun as late as 1402 and not completed until 1518, with the explicit ambition, as one of the building committee put it, of making 'those who should see it finished think we were mad.'"

Well, mission accomplished on that. What's interesting to me about this church is how perfectly it symbolizes the complicated, rich, and violent meeting of religions and cultures in Spain. It was begun about 150 years after the Christian reconquest of Seville, but the tower of the cathedral is, with a few alterations, also the minaret of the old Moorish grand mosque. The combination of convenience and empire building leads to some strange bedfellows.


Same as it Ever Was

Generally, I'm a fan of the Central Corridor project in the Twin Cities (for any out of town readers, it's light rail transit that will, when finished, travel the roughly 8 miles between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, a trip that currently takes way longer than it should in a car or bus). As the metro area continues to grow, and the price of gas continues to climb (and it ain't getting any lower, not in any meaningful way) it's not really going out on a limb to say that better mass transit is going to be an increasingly important urban amenity.

But: it's also worth remembering that one of the neighborhoods bearing the brunt of two to three years of incredibly disruptive construction is Rondo, along University Avenue in St. Paul. Rondo, which in the first half of the twentieth century was a safe, vibrant, working class neighborhood that was in many ways the economic and cultural capital of black Minnesota, (see link) was torn in two and largely destroyed by the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s (similar to what Robert Moses did to large chunks of the South Bronx). The route the light rail is taking makes sense, but little to nothing was done to reach out to the business owners and residents along the route, to ease the myriad issues that come with tearing up their streets and limiting access to their entrances and parking lots.

A number of conservatives from outside the Cities believe light rail transit to be an overpriced boondoggle that will steal valuable resources from road maintenance or tax cuts, and only serve to ferry homeless people and ne'er do wells from one city to the other. A lot of people in the neighborhoods it will go through view it as another paternalistic and destructive effort at urban renewal that takes no stock of the wishes or concerns of those it will supposedly serve. Only one of these groups has a point.



For over half a century after the end of World War II, the massive south window of the spectacular Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany was simple glass, the original stained glass having been destroyed, like most of the rest of the city, in allied bombing raids. Finally, in 2007, it got a new stained glass window designed by the German artist Gerhard Richter: a spectacular series of what look to be pixels; 11,500 individual squares in 72 different colors. The overall effect, seen below close up and a bit farther out, is stunning.

The project, in addition to being beautiful (I can only imagine how the window looks when struck by direct sunlight) also goes a long way towards defining my particular thoughts on architecture and urban design. The way to respect the past, in a building or a city, is not to mindlessly ape it or put every "historical" building or district on a pedestal. When we do that with a city or a landmark, we draw a line in sands that are always going to be shifting. The Cologne Cathedral is a perfect example of this in more ways than one: begun in 1248, it was not finally completed until 1880. It is still, rightly, seen as one of the crowning achievements of Gothic architecture, but it is not a medieval church. It was the product of 600 (now almost 800) years of evolution and change.

A city is, or ought to be, like that. It is always changing and always in flux and while, for one reason or another, certain buildings are worthy of at least temporary protection, to take an entire neighborhood or district of a major city and declare it a protected historical zone is to kill what makes it human. It has the added downfall of making it less interesting. Wandering around the City of London (the small legal entity, not the massive metropolitan area) is striking because you turn the corner of a narrow, winding medieval street and see an ancient church next to a glass and steel office tower. This is a contrast that respects history by respecting the present, doing to London what people have always done to London: building, changing some things, keeping some other things around, in a wonderfully hodge-podge way. This, despite calls from some church officials for figurative representations of 20th century martyrs, is what Gerhard Richter and the archdiocese of Cologne did with this window. Good for them and good for us.


Oddities and Exploration

When I was a kid I went every now and then to a massive playground built onto the side of a hill in a suburb of Minneapolis. This place was spectacular: an intricate series of ascending wooden platforms connected by staircases, ladders, and rope bridges, all capped off with a massive slide all the way down to the base of the playground. The best part of the place, though, was under and around the main structure. You could jump over a railing, or off a platform, and find yourself in a tremendously cool underworld with (to a six year old) nearly unlimited potential for exploration.

This is probably why I love the interiors of some incredibly odd, unnecessarily complicated buildings, or why my favorite part of old churches is usually the crypt
(also because that's where they keep the interesting dead people). A case in point is Frank Gehry's Stata Center at M.I.T. in Cambridge, MA (at right). I have the same problem with the exterior that I have with a lot of Frank Gehry's work: namely, that it's clunky, gimmicky, arrogant, impractical and, bizarrely for such expensive work, kind of cheap looking.

Of course, it's easy to make the same criticisms of the interior of the building, especially on the impractical front (below are two photos of the interior, including one of the author being dripped on by Mr. Gehry).
But for all it's flaws, it's just damn good fun to explore. There are so many nooks and crannies, so many seemingly nonsensical hallways, doors, and open spaces, that you could spend hours just meandering through the thing. Let's face it: most of us still really want secret passageways and rotating fireplaces in our homes, and a contemporary building that lets you feel like you can go off the beaten path and explore is a rare treat.