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.

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