Tuesday, November 16, 2010

_ ghosts

What is your favorite building? I’ve been asked this question dozens of times, by friends in passing, by strangers at parties. I’ve had other architects ask me, during job interviews or beer hour. I’ve even asked myself this question, and I’ve worked to prepare an answer, even if it was an answer that I didn’t quite believe in. Most recently I’ve decided that anyone, architect notwithstanding, who’s thinking about this question properly can only answer by remembering their grandmother’s kitchen. We are standing in the midst of six billion people, and at the end of 3,000 years of recorded history, so questions about favorites will inevitably be broken by that weight. Perhaps this is no great revelation, but buildings are a part of Real Life, despite the profession's occasional hopes to the contrary (one reason that architecture is best separated from buildings).

I remember the wood and brass weather station by the breakfast table in the kitchen of my maternal grandmother, with its complicated, yet somehow never moving dials. I remember the row of heavy clear-blue glass jars near the door always full of chocolate pretzels, wrinkled old apricots, and hard candy that I wasn’t allowed to take. The cabinets were painted white with black, gothic hardware. Blue light filtered through from a bubble skylight overhead. Grandma had her washing machine right there in the kitchen, instead of a dishwasher. There was no clothes dryer, so the kitchen smelled of detergent, and the towels were always stiff from drying outside in the El Paso sun. Try as I might, I can’t remember what the floor or table looked like, but I do remember that there were eleven 2”x2” photographs lined up in a wicker frame, one of each grandchild, on the wall behind my grandfather’s dining chair.

My paternal grandmother lived in a mobile home, and her kitchen was tiny, with yellow-green linoleum floors and dark stained wood cabinets. There was a Grandma-shaped tunnel through the kitchen, past hanging steel pans, nearly dead ivies, and a gnarled, red-brown chile ristra, hanging over the countertops. There were crocheted potholders shaped like green butterflies and ceramic red ladybugs mounted to tiny magnets that stuck trembling to the refrigerator door and slid to the floor from the disturbances of air when my brothers and I tumbled by.

We should remember Gaston Bachelard, who wrote "The Poetics of Space". We should remember his Oneiric House, also called the house of dream-memory. Writing about dream-memory, Bachelard seems to mean something like this: there are spaces in our lives – mostly from childhood, but not always, that correspond somehow to the psychological space in our heads. He writes, for instance, that if a man hears a strange noise coming from his basement in the dead-of-night, he will track the sound to his attic instead. In the attic you find the comfortable recesses of your own ideal self, he says. In the basement reside your demons. Bachelard writes about the smell of drying raisins, and how the smell conjures up images of home to him, despite not smelling raisins for years.

I lived in alone in my second apartment in Chicago. I was there for three winters. It was on the ground floor of an old corner bar – it had been the stockroom, I think – in the East Village neighborhood, off Paulina. After the bar had closed, the building was turned into a transient house for Mexican immigrants. According to my landlord, the stockroom, perhaps 400 square feet, had been divided into seven bedrooms that shared a single bathroom and kitchen with the apartment in the front of the building (which had been similarly divided). By the time I lived there, all the walls had been removed, and a bathroom had been added to my space. There was still no proper kitchen, rather just a conglomeration of appliances and an oversized stainless steel restaurant sink in one corner. The apartment had fifteen-foot high, stamped tin ceilings and a little lofted mezzanine that was big enough for my bed and pile of dirty work shirts. I painted the expansive plaster walls bright yellow. The doors were already sky blue.

There was a basement that I had direct access to, with a washer and dryer. There was a little under six feet of clearance to the undersides of the floor joists above, and there were ropy, brown cobwebs everywhere. When it rained, water would seep through the rubble foundation walls and leave waves of mud and silt on the floor. The landlords were packrats, and they were notorious pushovers when it came to tenant storage, so the basement was crammed with all manner of junk – old records, furniture, and molding books. One of the previous tenants had been a theater set-designer, and there were fragments of plaster columns, decaying costumes, rolls of chicken wire, and rows of removed theater seats down there, all lit by a couple uncovered 60W bulbs. It was in there that I lived Bachelard’s psychological theory of basements. I would stand at the clothes dryer, amid the swaying shadows and dripping walls, and hearing the ghosts, I would retreat outside to investigate.

I think it would be interesting to hear my siblings, or my cousins describe my grandmother’s kitchens. I have a feeling that the description would be different for all of us, and I have a suspicion that what I see in my memory is mostly a reflection of my own self, and only lightly inflected by what was actually there. If buildings are real life, so too are dreams.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

_ history

In my last post I linked to an interview with Stanley Tigerman, compiled and archived by the Art Institute of Chicago as part of their Chicago Architects Oral History Project.

It is worth highlighting this entire series of histories, which are incredibly revealing of the nature of the practice in Chicago after Mies and during the Post-Modern moment.  In particular, it is worth reading Jack Hartray's history straight through (via Internet Explorer -- the "next page" mechanism doesn't seem to work with Firefox...).

At a previous job, I sat next to Jack.  He was not actively practicing, but was something like the office mascot and waterproofing guru who would wander in around 3 in the afternoon, make a few phone calls and then fall asleep at his computer.  He was kept around, as he put it, because he was "cheaper to keep and a better decoration than a potted plant."

Most of the stories that Jack would tell over the phone are in this interview, including having studio classes with Bucky Fuller and working with Walter Netsch and Harry Weese, or building rubber band and cardboard models of buildings that you could poke with your finger to find out how they wanted to fall down.  The following is a very extended quotation from his interview:

Hartray: [speaking about the detailing of Miesian modernism] ...we'd draw these façades and there was a fascia, which was usually a steel channel, and the fascia would sit on top of the wideflange columns. But there really isn't a nice way of connecting the wideflanges.  So if they aren’t in the same plane the channel sticks out and ends up looking like a very short eave. You really wanted to be all in one plane or have just a little reveal. So there was the recurring question of how do you balance the fascia on top of the wide-flange. We just keep struggling with that. I remember when Mies published the Farnsworth house, where he took the column out from under the fascia and put it on the face, and you heard people slapping their foreheads all over the city.

van Roessel: Meaning "Why didn't I think of that!?"

Hartray: Yeah. Of course, once they saw that, they couldn't get it out of their minds and they did it at a larger scale on the Inland Steel building, where it doesn't work very well. And they did it on the Chase Manhattan building, where it didn't work at all. Because now you've got columns on the outside of the structure, but you've got another set of columns on the inside that stay at one temperature all year long while the outside columns are going up and down.  At the Inland Steel building, once you move the columns out from the spandrel beams that should be framing into them, you can no longer get any wind resistance out of the joint because you're connecting the beam in the wrong place. So then you end up with all kinds of diagonal braces in the floor that are hidden, out of sight. You wind up with a very expensive and impractical building. But the Farnsworth house was really something. Mies always did that. The graduate students would come out of IIT and they had these rigid sets of rules that they had made up for themselves. Mies never gave them the rules. They just had decided that there were rules, because they were looking at what had been produced in the school. Then every couple of years, Mies would do something that would just throw the whole game up in the air again. The curved façade down at the museum in Houston and the idea that Mies’s building was actually a part of an original Beaux-Arts building that had a curved façade. Painting steel white? These were things where he broke with his own rules. The marvelous part about Mies was that he actually was so unscrupulous in breaking his own rules. He'd do anything to get the building and details to look right. I remember we'd stay up all night figuring out what a handrail does then it turns at the landing and comes down, because the baluster holding up the handrail is welded to the outside face of the channel stringer and so the handrail has to come down, straighten out with a little horizontal area and then start down again. How can you get rid of that little horizontal bump? We'd mess with the landing to clean up the handrail and then we couldn't get the fascia at the landing to hit the stringers at a point. You just couldn't get it to work. Then Mies did the Arts Club and the stair in the Arts Club had this beautiful thing where both the handrails and the fascia on the stair were doing exactly the right thing.  Everything came to a clean point. The reason it worked was that the handrails were not parallel to the stringers on the stair. They were at a different angle. But it was a small enough difference so that you couldn't see it. Visually, it was okay. So, the problem was, do you get hung up on mathematics or do you trust your eye? Mies always trusted his eye…

The classical idea was that if measurements didn't work one way, you just push the details around until they looked good. It was interesting because none of us had studied classical architecture, but we were facing all of the same issues. How do you turn the corner with wide-flanges? At the Air Force Academy, there were some corner details with wide-flanges that were just awful!  What I found out later when I went to Vicenza was that Palladio got into the same bind and did it the same way and came out with a terrible detail.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

_ good intentions

I started my career in Chicago.  I moved there as an young architect just out of school, and I was confronted by buildings of a sort that I had never known other than through the whirring slide projectors of freshman architectural history.  I felt had to come to terms with this, in one way or another.  I went on the AIA's architectural river cruise, and listened as the tour guide drafted Chicago buildings into a completely fabricated history of architectural style, ending in "deconstruction".  I went to networking happy-hours with the Young Architects Forum, where product reps with fake tans and double my salary bought us beers and chicken fingers with their expense accounts, and we gossiped about good buildings and good firms, and tried to outdo each other in what projects we had worked on, or which architects we knew in Chicago (whether they knew us was an unasked question).  It was important to us to know all the new buildings and the rumors, and it was important to somehow insinuate ourselves into some lineage. 

I went to lectures.  I went to one with Frank Gehry and Stanley Tigerman, mostly because I hoped that Tigerman would try to pick a fight with Gehry.  During questions, someone on the far side of the auditorium asked Gehry what advice he would give to young architects.  I'm sure Gehry gets asked that question at every lecture, and he gave an earnest shot at an answer.  He explained what had been most valuable to himself, when he had been a young architect in Toronto designing spec office interiors, was that he always knew what his aesthetic was and he worked all the time with that aesthetic in his head, even if he wasn’t able to execute it.  He explained that in the face of everything pulling you somewhere else, you have to maintain a design intent and follow through with it. 

My favorite book when I was a kid was a blue cloth-bound copy of Davy Crockett, from the Disney-ized fad in the '50s that I would re-read monthly in the dead of night.  Davy’s motto in the book, given to him by his uncle before Davy shot his first bear was, "Be sure you’re right, then go ahead."  So Frank and Davy agree.

But how do we know we're right?  So much of our training in school, and so many of the hours that get burned early in a building's design are somehow supposed to make it easier to see what a finished building will look like before the concrete is poured.  Even today, with all our computers, virtual reality is hard – harder than I think many of us want to admit, and the only thing that simulates reality well is actual reality (a tautology, I know).  At some point, it seems like there was this shift where so much contemporary work went the other way – trying to make real buildings resemble the virtual (I understand that Perez-Gomez  and Dalibor Vesely traced a turn like this around the invention of perspective), which is usually justified not as a response to the technical problems of representation, but as an aesthetic mirror to our pluralistic, indeterminate, digital society. 

I think that there’s a large gulf between saying that we, as people, should celebrate twenty-first century multi-vocalism (who would deny this?), and then saying in consequence that we, as architects, must insert out buildings into that conversation to stay relevant.  Can there be no more dumb architecture?

And what about the image of the architect-genius?  People sometimes seem surprised when I say that not only do I not always know how something will look when built, often times small decisions are made as a sort of hypothesis…

      "Why does this room have pink carpet and that one lime green?" the client asks.
      "I wanted to find out which one might look better," is the secret reply.