Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little Urbanism?

Berlin, March 31, 2013

How is urban design different from architecture?  Well, it shouldn't be too complicated, the later has to do with buildings and the former with cities.  Or you could say that what matters is size, that urban design deals with much larger stuff than architecture.  Fair enough.  But what if we wanted to define urbanism by some distinct attitude towards design?  That, for example, it has to do with the construction of the collective, in both physical and cultural terms?  Then, not only the subject (buildings or cities) wouldn't matter, but even size wouldn't matter (!)

Let's try this notion on something really small, like Gropius's Märzgefallenen Memorial in Weimar.  Built in 1922 and destroyed by the Nazis in 1936 (see note) history books present it through on or two images that privilege the expressionist monumentality of its western end shaped like a lightning bolt (Gropius's competition motto was "Lightning bolt from the bottom of the grave".)

Yet, the memorial is a lot more than that.  As the mass of concrete unfolds--literally, develops through folds cast in concrete--it first establishes an edge in the landscape, then wraps around a small gathering space to finally rise up as memorial that, in turn, becomes marker for the cemetery at large.  Is it architecture or sculpture?  Or landscape?  While we debate those possibilities, I'd like to argue that despite its small dimensions--the whole thing is no more than ten meters in each direction--the memorial is conceived in urbanistic terms.  Yes, right?  The construction of the collective.  Almost as if it were a miniature of, or a model for an urban square.

By the way, it's interesting to note that at the time both Gropius and Mies (the later in his 1926 monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg) use common materials--concrete and brick respectively--for memorials, very different from the more traditional choice of noble materials like stone, bronze, etc.  Definitely a radical attitude (... but what would have Loos said?)

April 1 Postscript: sorry, I just read that Gropius initially wanted to build the memorial in sandstone, but ended un with concrete due to cost constrains.  Oh well, there goes that theory...  In any case, sandstone or concrete, this is an interesting example of--how would you call it?--rhetorical tectonics, where an operation in one material, like folding paper, is translated into another material with very different properties.

(Note: Gropius's memorial was reconstructed right after the war and it's quite an amazing thing to visit.)

Friday, March 29, 2013


Dessau, March 29, 2013

"We're all Weimared out, gentleman, now we're Dessauing!"
Lyonel Feininger, 1925

When Gropius decided to move the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau he had to put his new city on the map.  Literally.  Most appropriately, the responsibility, of drawing the map, fell on Joost Schmidt, the head of Advertising at the Bauhaus.  And he drew it at the most ambitious, regional scale.  In Schmidt's drawing, Dessau is unsuspectedly at the center of a pinwheel radiating transportation lines, everything from railroads to airplanes.  Yes, even Berlin--population 4 million in 1925--appears on an outside circle of Dessau--population 70,000 the same year.

As the architect of the new building for the school, Walter Gropius does more or less the same at the scale of the city.  He organizes the different parts of the program--workshops, classrooms, refectory, studios, administration, etc.--as pinwheeling volumes, not so much occupying its site but articulating the broader areas around it, giving it a foundational role for the new Dessau.  The administration block even plays the role of a gateway, bridging above the street that comes from the train station.

(And at the center, up hight, you can almost guess it, right?  Yes, Gropius's very own office.)

But the Bauhaus building in Dessau is a urban construction in at least another way.  Each use and activity--dwelling, working, recreation, etc.--is called out in the massing, as if the ensemble were a miniature city.  So, for all its modernity, the Bauhaus seem to have no problem in following Alberti's 15th century dictum, that "... the city is like some large house and the house is in turn like some small city."

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Tourist Map of Weimar

Weimar, March 28, 2013

Sometimes maps look like something.  I still remember when somebody showed me how to do the map of Venice with my hands: you just place the thumb of your right hand between the thumb and index finger of your left and the Grand Canal magically appears, with Santa Maria della Salute at the tip of your left thumb and the Cannaregio on your right index.

When I first saw the map of Weimar, I couldn't help seeing it as a human figure, with the historic center as the body and the green spaces as the limbs.  The Ilm river runs north-south along the east side of Weimar.  The Park an der Ilm to the south makes one of the legs and when the river turns east, the park to the north makes one of the arms.  The cemetery to the south makes the other leg and the Weimarhallen-park--the one with the swimming pools--to the north makes the other arm.  At the heart of the city, most appropriately, is the Theater Square, with the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller shaking hands (yes, to be anatomically correct, the square occupies more or less the place of the liver.)  You wouldn't want the train station (at the top of the map) to be the head, but i would certainly make a nice hat.

I know, it sounds silly, but there is a long history of inscribing the human figure on the plans of buildings and cities, dating back at least to Francesco di Giorgio in the Renaissance.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Schinkel's Eye

Berlin/Weimar, March 25, 2013

You may know Ledoux's famous image of the eye with the interior of his Besançon theater.  One could think of Schinkel's equally famous perspective of his Berlin museum in a similar vein, with its extraordinarily compressed layers of columns and stairs as an experiential lens between the building and the city.

By the time the figures in the drawing reached the upper terrace and can look across the Lustgarten back to the city, they have crossed the most elaborate sequence of thresholds.  First there was the row of columns.  The museum is a three-story building--you can see it on the fenestration of the lateral walls--but on the front it appears as a much taller single story volume sitting on a base.  The dimensions of the colonnade work at the scale of the Lustgarten, the open space in front the building.  To reach the top of the base, the figures in Schinkel's perspective had to climb the wide expanse of steps in front of the columns.  Here they had to find the center, as only four of the columns reach the back wall of the loggia.  Afterwards they went through a large frame and turned 90 degrees to face a flight of stairs parallel to the facade.  At this point they had completely lost any connection with views of either the inside or the outside.  When they reached the landing--pay attention to this--they turned out--yes, the next flight of stairs is not a layer in but a layer out!--and climbed back to the center, where they re-emerged to the city but at a much higher level.

Think about it this way: when the figures crossed the first threshold of the building, the encountered the bases of the columns.  Now, having reached the upper outdoor terrace, they can almost touch the monumental Ionic capitals, as the fluted shafts of the columns in the foreground frame their views.

It is as if the building had blinked, closing its eye and opening it again to a new and surprising experience of the city.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Tourist Map of Berlin 1

Berlin, March 23, 2013

I just arrived to Berlin this morning.  On the tourist map I got at the airport, the city doesn't appear to have any limits other than the ads around the edge of the sheet.  Prominent at the center is the elongated green figure of the Tiergarten.  It is bisected by a major straight line labeled "Straße des 17. Juni".  Smack in the middle is a circle of with the Victory Column drawing in elevation.  The Spree River meanders in a curling blue line more or less parallel to the Straße des 17. Juni.

In earlier maps of Berlin, the Tiergarten appeared typically not in the middle but way to the left, reserving the center of the drawing for the historical core of the city, let's say between Parisier Platz with its Brandeburg Gate and Alexanderplatz with its Soviet-era TV Tower.  Both landmarks are easy to recognize since they are also drawn in elevation.  If you focus on this area to the east of the Tiergarten and squint your eyes, you can begin to recognize two distinct fabrics: the more circular pattern that corresponds to 17th century Berlin Fortress with its island in the middle, and the orthogonal grid of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse.

At the other end of the Tiergarten, to the southwest, Kurfurstendamm and the Zoologischer Garten train station mark what was the center of Cold-War West Berlin when the wall divided the city. 

(I must confess that I love this kind of cheap, often free, tourist maps!)

Friday, March 22, 2013

City of Buidings (Copley Square)

Cambridge, March 22, 2013

Back Bay is a textbook example of urban fabric: rectangular blocks, east-west thoroughfares of different scales, north-south cross streets with names in alphabetical order, back alleys running down the middle of the blocks and rows and rows of narrow three-and-four-story party-wall row houses.

Yet, when the fabric of Back Bay reaches Copley Square, it turns into a city of buildings.  Both H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church to the east and Charles McKim's Boston Public Library to the west bookend the space of the square not only at a larger scale but with a completely different massing, not the regular repetition of residential structures, but free-standing volumes with distinct iconographic profiles.  Facing each other across the square, the two buildings represent, in a way, the choice of city that the United States faced after the Civil war, with the church as an earlier language of public buildings and the library as a harbinger of the architecture that came to dominate urban America for the next half century or so.

Although more embedded in the fabric, you could add the Old South Church to the collection.  Also, until 1908, the massive gabled volume of the Museum of Fine Arts on the south side, later replaced by the Copley Plaza.  And, of course, after 1977 the 60-story exquisitely restrained reflective volume of Harry Cobb's Hancock Tower.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Invisible Buildings

Cambridge, March 20, 2013

A while ago I wrote a little note about the Barolo Palace, a building in Buenos Aires allegedly built to house Dante's ashes and designed based on the Divine Comedy 

Dietrich Neumann--the architecture historian at Brown University, who's writing a book about Mario Palanti (the architect of the Barolo)--tells me that there's absolutely no truth to the Dante story, only to add "... but such fun that it has found its way into countless guidebooks and even into the guided tours of the building."

Now I really want to know how the story came about.  It must have started somehow, and somebody must have "read" the building with painstaking care in order to map the poem onto it.  Almost as good a story, don't you think?  Maybe even better.  As the Italians like to say, "si non e vero e ben trovato" (if it's not truth, it's well made up.)  And it this case the story would be true, I mean, the story of making up the story of Barolo and Dante's ashes, and how it got to be accepted as a true story.

But why stop there?  Think about the possibilities.  One could take a building and tell how it originated in this or that book.  You could even do it the other way around, with buildings giving origin to books...  Well, yes, of course, Borges, always Borges, isn't that exactly what he does when he goes to see the Aleph in the basement under the dining room of Beatriz Viterbo's house on Garay Street?

The book begetting the building.  The building begetting the book.  Take that one, Victor Hugo...

City of Buildings (Persepolis)

Cambridge, March 20, 2013

When one thinks of cities, at least when I think of cities, I think of streets.  They can be the curving streets that follow the topography of Tuscan hill-tows or the orthogonal streets of gridded cities, the narrow passages of Muslim urbanism or the wide avenues of baroque capitals.  Streets seem to define the way in which urban settlements take shape.

Still, cities are put together in many different ways.  Take for example Parsa, the Persian city better known by its Greek name, Persepolis.  It's a city of buildings, almost unmediated by any other urban orders or spaces.  On top of a large constructed plinth 60 feet above its surrounding area, buildings sit next to each other, articulating open spaces and sequences of access and movement.  The architecture is defined by walls and columns, uninflected prismatic masses and regular arrangements of larger central spaces, ancillary rooms and perimeter loggias.  The dimensions of individual buildings seem to be independent from each other, responding more to their respective programmatic demands than to any overarching framework.  And I'm not sure that there are even compositional principles at work, as if the operative notion of urbanism in Persepolis were something like deployment.

Of course, one could argue that Persepolis is not so much a city as a collection of palaces, but I'm not sure if that's an important distinction.  Maybe a city of ritual?

Happy Nowruz!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Siege of Boston (lessons for architecture)

Providence, March 18, 2012

Today is a holiday in Boston, Evacuation Day, commemorating the date (actually March 17 177) when a fleet of 120 ships carrying British troops departed Boston Harbor, leaving control of the city to the Continental Army.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord almost a year earlier, it was clear that the battle for Boston came next.  As the Washington troops began a 10-month long siege, both camps knew that the key to the city was in the surrounding areas: Bunker Hill to the north, Roxbury Hill to the west and Dorchester Heights to the south.  The names explicitly refer to the three high points around Boston.  The military commanders knew a couple things that any good architect knows:

1) That the section is often more important than the plan.

2) That when looking at the plan you need to put it a broader context.

The British already controlled Roxbury, just west of the Boston Neck that was at the time the only land connection to the city.  On June 17, the Battle of Bunker Hill gave the British forces control of the high ground on the Charlestown peninsula but left them too exhausted to tackle Dorchester.  A tactical victory with disastrous strategic consequences.

It was a matter of time.  When the cannons seized by the Continental Army at Fort Ticonderoga reached Dorchester Heights, the British forces in Boston were at shooting range of the newly emplaced American artillery.  At that point, the British had little choice but to evacuate.

Again, remember, pay attention to the section (the high ground in this case) and the context.  Also, don't confuse tactics with strategy... it may have been what cost the British their American colonies.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

As Cities Grow: Buenos Aires

Becket, March 16, 2013

The new Pope is originally from the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Flores.  A very interesting part of the city, one of two towns (Belgrano is the other) that grew independent from the city core and was only absorbed by the larger fabric in the earlier part of the 20th century.

There is a beautiful 1892 map of Buenos Aires that shows the foundational grid of the city to the east, with finger-like extensions projecting out from the original rectangle.  It has already absorbed the neighborhood of La Boca to the south (a fiercely independent area of Genoese immigrants that a decade earlier had gone as far as to briefly secede from Argentina and raise the Genoese flag.)  But Belgrano to the north and Flores to the west were still independent towns, separated from the core by a largely rural landscape and connected by road and rail.  Actually the very first train line established in Argentina, with its legendary "La Portena" engine, linked downtown with Flores.  Both Belgrano and Flores (also the case with La Boca) developed their grids with local, independent geometries.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard published his "To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform" where he first described his concept for the Garden City.  Not very different from the Buenos Aires shown on the 1892 map, don't you think?   

Friday, March 15, 2013

Some Buildings Move

Becket, March 15, 2013

In Buenos Aires, the National Congress is at the western end of Avenida de Mayo--the central axis of the city--with the Government House at the other end.  Such a clear alignment of institutional organization and urban structure, don't you think?  Hard to believe that the site originally selected for the Congress was not that one, but ten blocks to the north (Callao between Paraguay and Charcas if you know Buenos Aires.)

I suspect that Torcuato de Alvear, the first mayor of Buenos Aires, was as familiar with Paris as with his own city, if not more.  Paris may have been very much in his mind when he spearheaded the opening of a major axis cutting smack through the middle of the city's colonial blocks.  Avenida de Mayo was aligned with the center of the main square, Plaza de Mayo, and the Government House.  After that, it was a matter of time before they would realize that the opposite end of the axis was the perfect, and obvious, location for the Palace of Congress.  Construction hadn't yet started, so the earlier choice of site was abandoned and the building moved, figuratively speaking, to this new location.

In turn, this "move" triggered another one, since the new site had been originally allocated to a grand opera theater, the Teatro Colón, that was built on a different site, about a kilometer to the northeast.  In a way, you could say that Alvear took a Buenos Aires that was more like checkers and turned it into game of chess (only a couple of decades for the bishops to start cutting diagonals.)

(On a site note, with the opening of Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires now had two parallel "datum lines" only half a block from each other.  The earlier one was the colonial Camino Real (Avenida Rivadavia) that was the main access of the city from the west and still remains the numbering divide for north-south streets.  A couple of blocks from the Congress, they reconcile in the silliest of s-shaped curves.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Some Buildings Shrink

Cambridge, March 12, 2013

You may not believe this, but as that the Casa Rosada was growing to its present dimensions, at the opposite end of the square the Cabildo of Buenos Aires was shrinking at about the same rate.

Generations of Argentinean schoolchildren had the image of the Cabildo as it was on the rainy May 25 of 1810 engraved in their memories: a plain two-story horizontal volume with a central clock tower and five bays of arches on either side.  Yet, if you went to Plaza de Mayo, let's say after 1940, you'd see a similar building, but of much more vertical proportions and with not five but only two bays of arches on either side of the tower.  How come?

Actually, before it began to shrink, the Cabildo had one last growing spurt. In 1880, the notable architect Pedro Benoit extended the tower by ten meters and resurfaced the whole building with Neo-Renaissance ornamentation.  That would be a short-lived new glory.  Less than a decade later the Cabildo would loose three bays on its north side to the opening of the grand Avenida de Mayo, the new main axis of Buenos Aires.  It also lost its tower.

What was once a simple but proud public building had turned into undistinguished urban fabric.  It narrowly survived several calls for its demolition and in the early 1930s lost another three bays, now to the south, to leave room for the newly opened Diagonal Sur.  With this loss however, the building regained its symmetry.  Calls were now for the restoration of the colonial building.  In 1940 the architect Mario Buschiazzo, a pioneer of historic restoration, completed the reconstruction of the Cabildo, bringing back not only its plainer language but also its original clock tower, even if a tad shorter, to account for the new proportions of the building.  And the Cabildo was now a historic monument.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Some Buildings Grow

Cambridge, March 10, 2013

Some buildings grow, others shrink.  And it's quite interesting to follow their transformations as they track cultural (social, political) and physical transformations in the city.

When Juan de Garay, the founder of Buenos Aires, distributed land, he set aside the entire block east of the square for the fort and a portion of the one to the west of the square for the Cabildo, the seat of the government.  But as soon as the local government broke with the crown in 1810, the first thing that they did was to relocate to the fort.  And that would be the location of successive ruling bodies and presidents all the way to the present.

The Primera Junta (as the first government is called in history books) moved to the north side of the fort.  Eventually the southern half of the fort was demolished and in 1873 replaced by a monumental Central Post Office.  The new building dwarfed the two-story remnants of the fort, now the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada (named after the color of its paint, a mix of lime and ox blood) and it was replaced by a twin of the recently completed building, different only by a long upper balcony (made famous after 1945 by Juan Domingo and Eva Perón.)  A few years later the post office was annexed to the new Casa Rosada linking the two buildings with a three-story archway pavilion that filled the void and moved the compositional emphasis to the center.

That's the story... or almost, because in 1938 the southern wing of the post office part was demolished (I believe that the plan was raze the whole building, but demolition was halted in the nick of time.)  And yes, that's the Casa Rosada that you see today.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hippodamus in the Pampas

Becket, March 9, 2013

Maybe we spend too much effort arguing about the formal merits or shortcomings of the urban grid without paying enough attention to other questions.  For example, its succinct way of setting the table for the urban game of public and private.

Take for example the case of Buenos Aires.  When Juan de Garay founded the city in 1580 (see note) he distributed land on a regular square grid roughly 130 by 130 meters.  Inside the squares private property, outside public.  Nothing earthshaking about that.  Now the game begins.

First, Garay removes one of the squares and labels the empty space "Plaza".  That becomes public.  In many Spanish colonial cities the main square is at the center (why elsewhere?) but in Buenos Aires it's almost (but not quite!) on the eastern margin, a block, a little bit more than a block to be precise, from the edge of the river.  What was an even pattern now has acquired not only a hierarchy but also orientation.  The grid has been articulated anchored both socially and geographically.  Some manzanas--as the blocks are called in Buenos Aires--are more central and more valuable so those are subdivided in quarters.  You can see it in the map: the denser manzanas bunch up around the Plaza and along the coast, while some of the ones farther away are not even worth labeling.

And over time the game will continue.  Blocks will be further subdivided, other squares will appear, some streets will be widened, diagonals will slice through the grid... but that another story (or many.)

Note: Yes, Buenos Aires had an earlier incarnation.  Founded by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536, it was abandoned within five years under the most harrowing of circumstances (best depicted in a little drawing by the Bavarian chronicler Ulrich Schmidl and in the first chapter of Manuel Mujica Lainez's exquisite "Misteriosa Buenos Aires".)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Burnham's New York

Boston/NYC, March 6, 2013

After the Chicago Columbian Exposition closed in October of 1893, no plans were too big for its director, the architect Daniel Burnham.  His scale of operation was now the city: Chicago of course, Cleveland, San Francisco McMillan's Washington, and even distant Manila in the Philippines.  By the time of his death in 1912, Burnham's was the largest architecture office in the world.

In that context, even the project for the New York offices of the Fuller Company--the legendary general contractor of the early Chicago skyscrapers--wouldn't have been too important a job. Still, Burnham made the most of it, to the point that even today that area of Manhattan, the Flatiron District, is named after the building.

Burnham took the acute angle where Broadway meets Fifth Avenue and simply run with it.  The success (genius?) of the project was to recognize the extraordinary potential of the site--everything, from its geometry to its orientation in the city--and then do almost nothing (yes, the choice of words is not totally innocent.)  He starts with a 22-story regular steel frame--the specialty of the Fuller Company--to then wrap it with a sheet of glazed terra-cotta.  And not much else, limestone at street level and a muscular crowning, but not even the articulation of the corner or the expression of the verticals.  The iconic quality of the Flatiron stems from the unambiguous preeminence of the whole over the parts.

The Flatiron Building stands as a exception to the characteristic skyscrapers of New York, with their tower shafts and icongraphic tops.  It would take another half a century and another architect coming Chicago for a similar feat: Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Death in Chicago

Cambridge, March 5, 2013

The original model for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was Venice, not Beaux-Arts Paris or Renaissance Rome.  At least, it was Venice that John Root and Harry Codman went back to for references, as they drew the final plan of the exposition towards the end of 1890.  Not that you would have noticed when the fair opened in May of 1893. But, by then Root and Codman were both dead.

Much has been made of the spectacular murders associated with the Chicago Exposition, from Dr. H. H. Holmes gruesome trail of corpses to the assassination of Carter Harrison, Sr., the mayor of Chicago, just the day before the closing events.  But, there are a number of other deaths, not of them involving foul play as far as we know, that may have had a profound effect in the design of the fair and in the future of the American City for the following couple few decades (yes, yes, take all this with a grain of salt.)

John Wellborn Root was Daniel Burnham's partner, one of the most gifted designers of his generation and the architect initially in charge of the buildings in the Chicago Exposition.  We don't have much evidence of his intentions for the project, but there is an unfinished sketch that shows a rather asymmetrical articulation of arches, gables and turrets of varied proportions, most likely polychrome if we are to read it in a Richardsonian key.  But a few months after he drew this sketch, Root was dying of pneumonia at age 41.  Henry Sargent Codman was the right hand man of the aging Olmsted.  As he was still working on the landscape of the fair, Codman died after an appendectomy; he was not yet 30.

We can also add Joseph M. Wells to our list of casualties. Less known that our other characters, he was the chief draftsman in the office of McKim, Mead & White at the time of the Boston Public Library.  As Charles McKim was shamelessly pillaging Labrouste's Biblioteque for inspiration, the erudite Wells kept insisting in going back to the source, Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano.  He seemed to had had nothing but contempt for McKim's banal use of the classical language.  Offered partnership in 1889, Wells is reported to have rejected it, refusing to "put his name to so much damned bad work."  A year later he was dead at age 37, and McKim was free to do whatever he pleased with his Beaux-Arts and white plaster.

Of course, the looming absence from the design of the Chicago World's Exposition was Henry Hobson Richardson, the dominant figure in American architecture after the Civil War, who died from kidney failure in 1886, months short of his 48th birthday, and would have certainly had something to say when it came to this most prominent, age-defining project.

I suspect that the sixty gondolas brought from Venice to Chicago for the occasion--complete with their Venetian gondoliers dressed in red jackets and stripped breeches--may have felt a little ill at ease in the midst of the 170 acres of calcimite-coated neo-Renaissance columns, arches and pediments of the fair.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Chicago Wheel

Becket, March 3, 2013

The Industrial Revolution brought with it all sorts of new programs.  Among them a rather peculiar one: the world's fair.  Beginning with the 1844 French Industrial Exposition in Paris, the phenomenon caught fire: Bern and Madrid in 1845, Brussels in 1847, Saint Petersburg in 1848, Lisbon in 1849.  And of course, the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, with Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace.  But the fair that raised the bar, literally, was the 1889 Exposition Universelle, again in Paris, with its celebrated Eiffel Tower.

When the directors of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair began to work on the plans for the Columbian Exposition, the challenge of the Eiffel Tower was fresh in their minds.  Although they had agreed on the Beaux-Arts for the architecture of the exhibition, the design of an heroic landmark required a completely different approach.  For that, they selected an obscure bridge builder from Galesburg, Illinois, that proposed a gigantic rotating wheel with pivoting passenger cars.  His name: George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

Yes, the centerpiece of the Columbian Exhibition was the original Ferris Wheel.  I don't know if Ferris could rival Eiffel as an engineer, but the rotating wheel created all sorts of original design problems resulting in a unique iconic structure, with a series of double rings connected to its central axle by a web of slender spokes.  Add to that the supports for the axle, the cars with their pin connections and, of course, the slow rotational movement itself, and you had a new, unprecedented monument.

Then it was the experience itself, of 2,000 visitors going around, slowly turning all the way up, more than 250 feet up in the sky, to the views of the fairgrounds and the city below.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Burnham's World, more

Becket, March 2, 2013

Do you know who George B. Post was?  I didn't.

He was the architect of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.  Certainly not a household name, like Daniel Burnham, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, or even Sophia Hayden, some of the other architects in the fair.  But Post's building was not just another building.  It was, by far, the largest building in the fair (actually, with a footprint of almost 1.5 million square feet, it still ranks as one of the largest buildings ever build.)

At least since Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace, these gigantic structures were a staple of 19th century world exhibitions.  But unlike, let's say, the unapologetically industrial Galerie des Machines at the 1889 Paris Fair, the great hall in Chicago had to balance its engineering demands with the Neoclassical ambitions of Burnham and his colleagues.  In Post, Burnham found the perfect man for the job: a civil engineer educated at Richard Morris Hunt's Ten Street Studio (the architecture school Hunt established when he came back from Paris.)

Still, you had to deal with such a large structure on the plan.  You know, like finding a place for a rhinoceros in a dog show.

Here is where the site plan plays a particularly difficult hand brilliantly.  One of the short sides of the building faces the basin, matching the proportions of Charles McKim's Agriculture Building (yes, of course, it's the long side of McKim's building.)  Then, one of its long sides faces the shoreline: you do need that kind of dimensions when you're dealing with the scale of Lake Michigan!  Finally, the other two sides are conveniently broken up by smaller (still rather large) buildings in the foreground.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Burnham's World

Cambridge, March 1st, 2013

Have you ever looked with a little care at the plan of the 1893 Chicago Exposition?  If I ever had (I must have, in Neil Levine's course,) I didn't remember.  If you asked me, all I could describe was the long classical axis of the Great Basin with Daniel Chester French's tall figure of the Republic at one end, Richard Morris Hunt's Administration Building at the other, and several Beaux Art colonnaded and pedimented white façades on the sides.

But that's only a small portion of the plan.  The whole fair spread on both sides of the Basin, a great deal to the north.

One of the underappreciated qualities of Beaux Arts composition is its nimble ability to take on particular demands of site and program.  In the case of the Exposition, the plan resolves the two alignments of the site--the grid of the city to the west and the edge of the lake to the east--with surprising ease.  The solution is deceptively simple: the north half of follows the grid and the south half follows the shoreline (this last one is the area of the Basin, that runs perpendicular to the shore.)  That generates a rather awkward wedge-shaped area in the middle, taken by the irregular perimeter of a lagoon (Olmsted to the rescue.)

The other major adjustment happens with the rail lines, that come from the south along the edge of the property line, splay, and make a tight turn to deadend in line with the  axis of the basin.

All of these plan maneuvers create a host of "topical" problems that the individual buildings not only resolve but take advantage of (more about that to come.)