Category Archives: American Architecture

Blaservations + Emily Speed

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Louise Freer Hall, University of Illinois (Charles A. Platt, 1930)

This fall, I had the pleasure of writing text for UK-based artist Emily Speed’s superb exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts in Fort Worth, Texas.  Ms. Speed’s work tackles a micro and macro sense of place, from a perspective that addresses the body as a house for the mind, and architecture as a personal matter.

Body Builders is a tongue in cheek film with both sculptural elements and paintings that looks at the recreation and duplication of Roman and Classical architectural around the world, with a focus on campus architecture.  Below is an excerpt of the exhibition text:

It’s the fall of 1986, and college freshman Thornton Melon is strolling through the campus of Grand Lakes University.  It’s a bucolic setting, with vividly hued-leaves falling to the ground around beautifully authoritative academic architecture.  Ornate pediments top columns of the highest order with Ionic capitals between, like blooming stone mushrooms.  Tweeded students await fellow classmates underneath deeply recessed porticos, textbooks in hand.  Egg and dart moldings dash around corners.  Windows are so carefully arranged within fields of red brick that they almost look mathematical.  Fresh pledges scurry up dramatic staircases and into grand temples of learning.  “When I used to dream about going to college this is the way I always pictured it,” remarks Melon, “When I used to fall asleep in high school.”

Thornton Melon isn’t a real college student, and Grand Lakes University is a fictional institution.  What’s described above is a memorable scene from the 1986 American comedy Back to School, starring the delightfully bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield as a pension-age freshman.  Back to School centers on Melon’s attempts to survive his first year of college, with his lovably crude personality and eye-roll inducing one-liners (“Remember, the best thing about having kids is making them”) as an accelerant for the various atypical university hijinks he seems to innocently fall into.  If the comedic films of the 1980s have shown us anything, it’s that we will always be fascinated by watching an element of the past (i.e. Rodney Dangerfield) flop around in our kooky contemporary world like a fish out of water.  See films like Big (1988) 18 Again! (1988) or any of the three movies in the Back to the Future cannon (1985, 1989, 1990) as examples.  As Thornton Melon himself quips, “Read.  Who has time?  I see the movie.  I’m in and out in two hours.”

The sense of place that Dangerfield dreamed about and also experienced, however, is spot on.  Grand Lakes University (or in the real world, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Back to School was filmed) is the built environment one dreams about when one dreams about–thinks about—going to college.  While it’s difficult to peg whether this dream is one minted via popular culture or the experience of actually attending a university, it’s reality.  Columns, fanlights, triglyphs and dental patterns abound.  Entablature sandwiches so layered they are almost difficult to look at.  Order and symmetry rule, as well as proportion.  Cue Pomp and Circumstance, if it hasn’t already become an earworm since you began reading this.

Much like a senior citizen aged college freshman, the Classical design language of caryatids and columns was recontextualized from the ancient temples and churches of Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio and all the Greeks, and smacked down into late 19th and early 20th century college campuses across America.  Classical revival buildings connect us to our ideas, history and culture, but also reflect them.  It’s a powerful visual statement for an educational setting.  College is often a person’s first taste of adulthood-be it a slightly simulated one; when we leave the protective cocoon of our parent’s house for the larger body of the college campus.  Unless you were one of the lucky kids to grow up in a historic house, the White House, the Neutra House or This Old House, chances are you spent your formative years within the architectural indifference of the suburbs, where the only thing we ask of buildings is that they have enough bathrooms and convenient parking.  The transition from this underwhelming built environment to the grandeur of the college campus is one of many shocking readjustments.

The student gathers their shower caddies, desk lamps, folders and highlighters and packs them tightly into giant Tupperware bins in preparation for the epic move into the dorm room, a 12-foot by 9-foot space, all of 200 square feet that they will share with a complete stranger.  There are classes to register for, the dining hall and library to find, and an abundance of exciting new faces.  The campus is sprawling and old; it feels like it’s been around forever.  It’s likely less than a hundred years old, but the constant ebb of students and the continuous creation of significant memories within the context of the authority of the built environment makes everything feel very ancient.  The architecture couldn’t be more intimidating, with its clearly formal tendencies a constant reminder that this time is just as serious as the surroundings.  This abundance of “old” forms in a new context for eighteen year olds is a salient visual to students of the importance of the decisions they make right now, and not just whether you’re going to get the townie outside the convenience store to buy you Natural Light or Keystone.  Perhaps it is the extreme order and traditionalism of the Classical architecture of the college campus, the strictness of it, that pushes some students to transgress and break rules.  College is an important time, but it’s also a silly trial and error time where we test who we are against who we want to become.  College is a life event where we are almost authorized make odd or bad informal decisions, like rolling the cuffs of our jeans up to mid-calf, or hanging a Phish poster on the back of our dorm room door.  All the while, the formal campus architecture keeps its arrangement, and keeps watching us change, like it’s watching us from high above, a cultural acroterion.  Four years of experience-based memory in terms of place is an incredibly short time.  The classical revival architecture of the college campus sees it all, and somehow absorbs all the secondhand embarrassment on our behalf.  Perhaps this is why a part of the perception of higher education is forever connected to high architecture, and we will be forever passing out on the steps of timeless, archaic temples of learning donated by alumni (“I hereby dedicate this building to…myself”) and Collegiate Gothic will not only be an architectural style, but the font used to emblazon the most iconic piece of university apparel ever, a sweatshirt screen printed “COLLEGE.”

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Rodney Dangerfield

Blaservations + Pizza Hut

A recent conversation with a friend went something like this:

E: I love Mansard Roofs.

M: What’s a Mansard Roof?

E: Think “Pizza Hut.”

Pizza Hut, Louisville, Kentucky.

Pizza Hut took a highfalutin Beaux Arts decorative feature and used it to jazz up the physical environment of almost every suburban sprawl with a hunger for pizza and a salad bar.  This is an architectural minutiae that almost everyone can understand.  Make the building look cool so people will be attracted to what’s inside (breadsticks).

Francois Mansart (1598-1666) is the father of the Pizza Hut, or Mansard, roof.  This became his specialty (toppings are extra) and years later was used to outfit Nepolian III’s Second Empire Paris, which sent the Victorians in America swooning wildly over their fainting couches in the late 19th century.

Unfortunately, the use of the Mansard as of late has left me a bit light-headed.  Paris on the Prairie or a Claes Oldenburg work entited “Sharpie Marker”?

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Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago, Illinois.

Old Buildings, New Tricks: Permastoned

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Perma-Stone, Formstone, faux stone, Rostone.  John Waters once called this ubiquitous simulated masonry the “polyester of brick.”  From the 1930s through the 1950s, companies all over the United States were pitching faux stone siding to homeowners as a modern update to the exteriors of late 19th century buildings.  Made of shale, lime and water, the unbaked permastone slurry would be pressed into stone shaped molds and heated, creating a stone-like “cracker” that could be applied to the exterior of a building.  Permastone came in an array of colors, textures and stone types, and sometimes mica would be added for extra sparkle.  Widely toted as maintainance free, permastone could be easily adhered anywhere on your building by anchoring it with chicken wire lath, or simply adhering the permastone panels with cement directly to the façade.

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The 3400 and 3500 blocks of Le Moyne Street, between Homan and Central Park Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, have some superior examples of permastone in nearly every color and texture, from taupe roman bricks to rusticated course stone so red it resembles raw meat.  Here is a windshield survey of permastone types seen within these two blocks:

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The Mysterious Architecture of Fraternal Organizations

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Masonic Lodge #272, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin

Knights of Pythias, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of the Maccabees, the Fraternal Order of the Free and Accepted Masons.  These American fraternal organizations, many with unfamiliar and almost Medieval sounding names, had memberships in the millions at the beginning of the 20th century, and had a ubiquitous presence in the social life of people across the country.  In urban areas, they served as an anchor for neighborhoods, and in small American towns, they operated as community centers for families and business owners, as well as gathering places along Main Street, hosting fish frys, rummage sales and bingo nights.  Membership in a fraternal organization was the original social network.

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Tripoli Shrine Temple, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The architecture of American fraternal organizations is one of classicism, mystery and allegory, with an occasional splash of Revivalism that brings a Mughal influence to Milwaukee and the rustic features of a Mayan temple to Aurora, Illinois.  The buildings themselves are covered in symbols and emblems, but many are meant to symbols themselves, a testament to the morality, timelessness, and brotherhood that membership in these organizations represented.  Their dedication to the intellectual development of members is obvious in their inspiration from high classical architecture, in the same way that houses of worship use the design language and iconography of antiquity to inspire the praise of a higher power.  Complex rituals and rites dictated the interior design of these buildings, and many are filled with ante-rooms and chambers for confidential communication.  In Masonic lodges, rooms had entrances for different degrees of membership, whether one was an apprentice or Master Mason, with spaces designated specifically for business, ritual or committee.

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Plan for an entered apprenticeship, from Duncan’s Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry, 1866.

In communities where vernacular buildings were the norm, fraternal organization buildings were the true stunners.  Even some of the simplest temples, housed in common two-story buildings may feature decorative columns flanking the entrance, or a hand-painted annunciator lamp covered in depictions of squares and compasses, five-pointed stars or the letter “G”, representing the role that every act is governed by geometry as well as the “Great Architect of the Universe.”

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Annunciator Lamp, Masonic Temple, Pekin, Illinois

 

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Aurora Elks Lodge No. 705, Aurora, Illinois
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Louisville Scottish Rite Temple, Louisville, Illinois
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Knights of Pythias Grand Lodge 191, Jackson, Ohio

Many temples, shrines and lodges of fraternal organizations have experienced the same problems that have befallen houses of worship in the mid and late 20th century.  With membership declining and stewardship the responsibility of an aging population, large-scale temples, like the South Side Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, no longer made sense for the Masons to continue to operate.  Constructed in 1921 and designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the South Side Masonic Temple was used as an auditorium and clubhouse through the 1950s until its ownership was transferred to the Department of Human Services.  The temple’s second life continued to serve the community until the 1980s, when the Department of Human Services relocated.  While redevelopment plans have been presented, the South Side Masonic Temple has slowly deteriorated over its thirty year period of uncertainty, leaving the physical fabric exposed to the elements and leading to numerous building code violations.  The South Side Masonic Temple was featured on Landmarks Illinois statewide endangered list in 2015 and Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago 7” most threatened buildings in 2004.

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South Side Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois

While the current state of the South Side Masonic Temple is a worse case scenario, the Logan Square Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has fared far better.  Constructed in 1923 and also designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the Logan Square Masonic Temple was sold and converted to a house of worship in the 1960s.  The Armitage Baptist Church purchased the building in 1982 and has remained there ever since.

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Former Logan Square Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, (Armitage Baptist Church)

Large urban areas have a greater percentage of adaptively reused temples and shrines, while many fraternal organizations in rural areas and small towns are still running out of buildings constructed for their exclusive use.  The role that these organizations play within a cultural landscape is largely determined by the size of the population that it serves.

The exclusivity of these organizations has made a sweeping contribution to their decreasing impact.  Women are not permitted to join most Masonic lodges, and until the 1970s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles required all members to be Caucasian.  While the architectural character of the buildings that fraternal organizations built gives them a reason to be celebrated, their legacy of selectivity and discrimination decreases the emotional significance of these buildings as they were originally intended.  A second life as a residential development, event space or house of worship allows them to serve a greater percentage of people in a community, and in many cases makes them not only viable, but neutral.

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Former Knights Templar Hall, Chicago, Illinois, now operating as a mixed-use event space.

 

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Former Masonic Temple, East Lansing Michigan, converted to a residential development.

 

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The former Eagles Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, now a concert venue.