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The Inexplicable Intertwinglement of Architectural Theory

Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.

“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, 1972. Image courtesy of The Graham Foundation.

Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.

Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.

During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.

As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.

Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.
Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.

The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959.  Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.

The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.

The most delicious decorated shed ever.  Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.
The most delicious decorated shed ever. Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.

After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.

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Preservation and Neglect

Poor Blaservations!  I’ve neglected you horribly in the last few months, even after vowing to keep a regular schedule of updating you.

But here’s the honest truth; I’ve been too busy working in preservation to update in a timely manner.  Here is a brief summary of ‘Blaservations 2012’ thus far:

-Generating original research on the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition for use in a 3D animated Bollywood musical about Swami Vivekananda.

-Launching into historical research of Highland Park, Michigan for eventual publication.

-Working with a writer to develop a narrative around the history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, designed by Benjamin Marshall in 1911.

-Managing a survey of over 1,300 Postwar houses in East Oahu for the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division.

-Researching and writing a National Register Nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Franklin Court Complex for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

Woa dude.  That’s a whole lot, and I’m not even counting the little week long projects I’ve done between the larger ones.  And the year isn’t even over yet.

Architectsploitation

Step right up, Folks!

Your local urban epicenter proudly presents a disgusting spectacle of unmarvled specticality. She’s big, bad, scary and oh boy, she’s been mad since White Flight! Drool at her blown out openings, her overgrown lawns, her burnt out ceilings. Gape and goggle at her missing pediments and copper piping. She’s the Nasty Queen of Newark, the Detroit Dead, the Chicago Crumbler, She is…

An abandoned, blighted building. And you can see her almost everywhere.

There is something oh-so-sexy about a derelict structure. Perhaps its’ inherent expressiveness makes you want to explore your art school kid side, taking brilliantly lit pictures using the rule of thirds. Perhaps it cries out to you to urgently document every aspect of it’s raw skeletal form, because it may not be there tomorrow. You can’t deny the visual merits of an abandoned building; the image is striking and powerful on film, and allows the photographer an easy way to make a statement that is almost always up to the viewer to interpret.

Or perhaps you don’t want to take pictures, but instead get all pronoun slaphappy; “They should restore that”. Who is this illusive “They” that seems to have so much power? Is there a Mr. They, international philanthropist able and willing to pump millions of dollars into “that”? Or a Republic of They? City of They? Theyville? How about National Trust of They? Why aren’t “they” taking responsibility? This unfocused blame leads absolutely nowhere.

Buildings cease to be used for a variety of reasons. A structure may have become physically obsolete, gone into foreclosure, or experienced fire or water damage. Building owners can die, be sued for virtually any reason, or be fined for permit violations, and all of these factors can cause a structure to be stuck in limbo for months or even years. Most municipalities have laws dictating that a building be reported by the property owner as vacant, and citizens can obtain information on abandoned properties via the Freedom of Information Act. Here in Chicago, information can be obtained primarily at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Perennial recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing do have a bright side to Preservationists, though. Securing a building is expensive, but demolition is even more costly. This gives direlict structures the priceless opportunity to be reviewed for rehabilitation by building owners and developers once resources are more secure. Some may argue that this itself is a type of ‘preservation’. So snap away, with both your judgments as well as your D90s.

But is the exploitation of abandoned buildings bad for their future? In the case of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a 1913 Beaux Arts dinosaur that wouldn’t give in to the virtual eradication of passenger rail, adaptive re-use plans have ranged from the nonfunctional to completely wacky. Michigan Central has cast a bleak shadow on the City of Detroit since the last Amtrak train pulled out of the station in 1988. There is seemingly no end in sight, and like many abandoned buildings big and small, Michigan Central poses a substantial safety risk and physically manifests the worst qualities in a community.

The moral ground seems to be at the median of education, advocacy and realistic solutions for abandoned buildings of historic and architectural merit, because recognition and documentation are just a start. A fat lady can’t be a ‘fat lady’ forever. Sooner or later she’s going to want to make something of her life, like get a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation of Architecture.