Archive for the 'Unique Buildings' Category


Standing On The Shoulders Of Past Architects; Imitation Or Inspiration?

Every architect must confront the precedent of the Greeks and their legacy of design somewhere along in his or her career.  We first come into contact with their wonderful buildings much sooner than most of us know because, you see, the elements of design that they used are imitated throughout our daily environment in all the cities of western civilization.  From the U.S. Capitol to a little school house I saw out of the corner of my eye in Port Costa, California, to the styrofoam “columns” available on aisle 14 in your local Home Depot, (sorry about the indignity of it all Ictinus), Grecian architectural vocabulary is all around us.  We get a formal introduction to their work during history classes in architecture school and from then on we confront them in our own work.  Most of us try not to imitate and some of us go deeper into the roots, beyond the decoration of a Corinthian column, to understand and utilize the meaning in the precedents they established.  The Erectheion above, is a favorite of mine for the richness and variety of the design.  It was built around 400 B.C. It features prominently in the linked article  I wrote three years ago addressing this imitation, inspiration question.More Than A Pediment And Six Columns


Heavy Breathing In The City

My wife has learned not to call for emergency medical attention when she sees me hyperventilating during one of our urban warrior walks through a wonderful city.  The heavy breathing ramped up quickly some time ago as I rounded this corner and ambled into the Place d’Youville in Montreal, Quebec.  I am a huge fan of humane urban spaces, scaled for just a few people.  I am not so much enamored with the spaces seen in some architect’s renderings requiring about 276 people (including at least 3 small children happily kicking big red balls) to enliven an otherwise feature-less composition.

Note that this space has only three people in it and it works super, plenty of green areas; good restraint by the landscape architect not letting one of the junior staff people go bonkers with paving patterns.

From my measured diagram, note the linear nature of the space.  I like the concept of this geometry being able to more seamlessly fit into a gridded street pattern as opposed to a square.  This form gives more frontage on the open space for the buildings running down the street.  In case you are wondering, the smaller number, like the one with the “p” next to it is my paced count which I multiply by 3 to get the measurement in feet.  During this trip, I was preparing to teach a high school course on architecture and liked the idea of this space as a precedent for the urban/architecture project I was planning on assigning.

The long, linear view can be seen here.  I think it is fine that the designer of this 2002 renovation did not need to block the view in some way but rather just let it flow to the obelisk barely visible at the end.  Behind me as I took this picture was a small building that encloses the space at the south end.

This early map shows where the Place was eventually placed in relation to the older part of the fortified city and the water front.  It came into existence in the 1600s as a market place

Here is an aerial view before the vegetation grew up to maturity.  Note the building blocking the end of the right hand drive lane.  A bit unfortunate in my opinion.

This is the front or north view of the building that stomped into the urban space.  It is an archaeological museum.  I am not too keen on the street-scape it created in terms of pedestrian friendliness.  Do you barely see the two people in this spare architectural scene?  They look pretty lost without the rest of the 274 people from the rendering and worst of all no cute kids kicking red balls.

The architecture of the Place is, how shall we say,  rather vintage!  I do admire and respect the geriatric buildings of the world and this one gets around using at least two canes!  The pilasters with capitols of an unknown order, the delicate arcuated windows and those little pairs of doors flanking the front door.  Major character expression in this facade!  This is a classic zero-setback (meaning it sits right on the edge of the sidewalk), party-wall building (meaning its wall touches and occasionally frolics with the one next to it).  This form is very efficient and creates a generally well-formed city fabric.

Here, my friends, is a youth who knows how to treat its elders.  A totally modern addition that respects the form of the place to the extent that it delicately goes up and across the top of an older, doddering fella who needs some love and is not ready for the rubble pile.  I am breathing heavy again as I write this.  It is OK if you too, fog up your computer screen a little.  The architectural and urban excitement just keeps on coming around so many corners in wonderful cities.


Family of Four Houses

Bright sun, stiff tailwind and smooth pavement are bicycling delights. The last piece of the pleasure for me last April was a little architectural delicacy to savor. More than a few candidates stepped into my twenty mile per hour view as I traveled south on California’s Highway One, south of Mendocino. Downtown Manchester, all five buildings worth, presented a modest little group of houses that seemed to have been friends since their early years on this lonely stretch of coast. Vacation moments like this are ripe for a little dreaming. I imagined their beginning.

The drawings were spare, comprised of two sheets, 18 x 24, a plan, four elevations and two structural plans; foundation and roof framing. Drawn with an F lead on vellum, the lettering and line work were sharp and clean. The instructions to the designer had been to keep the cost down yet still he managed to articulate the form and place the windows with a taut control that added up to a tough and lively little group of buildings.

The day they dug the footings in 1952 was a sweet moment of promise for the crew, knowing that once they got through the foundation stage, the reward of framing awaited. With sill plates bolted and rim joists nailed down, soon the floor joists were being placed and nailed. It was three men on this project, working one building at a time and taking turns with cutting and nailing. Normally the sawing is set up close to the building so that measurements can easily be called out and it is a simple fluid motion to pass the cut material over to the ones who place and nail. A sixteen penny nail is pulled from the leather pouch with the left hand as the hammer in the right readies for a quick tap to set the nail and then three firm strokes to send it home. Douglas fir, no doubt milled nearby, smells great when freshly sawn. The electric circular saw was relatively new to construction and these carpenters reveled in the ease as they remembered the days of hand sawing.

There is a fussy part when they frame the walls with that little pooch-up at the front of the house. The angle of the sloping parapet return has to be measured just right and the studs are angle cut to hit the top plate flush. The designer is not there to take the ribbing from these journeymen as they wonder about the flat roof in this waterlogged climate. Once one house is framed, its brother or sister is next in line. With each successive sibling, the process smooths out and the pride of a craftsman knowing just the right move to cut or place or nail is sublime.

Once the framing is complete much of the stucco and plaster is complete on the first house and the carpenters switch to smaller hammers for the finish work. By the time eight months rolls by, the family of four is pretty much complete and ready for people to fill them up. A nice day for the crew when they see people settling in.

How I would love to know the whole story of these buildings. They seem to have held up to the elements fairly well and doubtless hold a lot of memories both real and imagined.


3 x 5 Architecture

This is a little architectural frolic I started a while back.  Digital postcards of nifty travel discoveries.  I have been providing content to the Central Valley American Institute of Architects newsletter for some years and I wondered if this might be a way to get others to contribute.  My hope has been to make the “assignment” rather petite in ambition and size so that newbie writer/thinkers could tip toe in.  At this moment I have not pushed it and am waiting to see how energetic I feel about leading the effort.


Buildings At The Edge Of The Sky

I talked about this subject a little bit in my Seattle seeking post.  How buildings meet the sky is a pretty big deal as it is where our eye is naturally drawn to and architects have wanted to take advantage of that situation.  The top edge of the building has historically been called the cornice and before modernism’s stripping away of ornament, it was an intensively detailed and decorated part of the building.  Note the Berkeley Building above in Boston and the railing with the fussy balusters (vertical posts supporting the top rail) and then the spiky mini obelisks every so often.  Folks, we are talking major animated articulation here.  I was totally captivated by this building when I saw it and I would venture to say that most architects today would say they like this.  But ask them if they would design like this and they would adopt a  somewhat condescending expression and tone in their voice as they digress on the virtues of modern design.

From a historically bent website here is some detail on the building.

The Berkeley at 420 Boylston Street, designed by the firm of Codman and Despradelle,  is a lyrically beautiful building that was completed in 1905.  Désiré Despradelle was a professor of architecture at MIT who had been educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris–an architectural school that was highly influential on early 20th century U.S. architecture.   Boston lagged behind Chicago and New York in construction of the new steel-framed buildings (especially skyscrapers), and this building doesn’t compete on height, but its exterior is stunning–its steel frame ornamented with glazed terra-cotta, copper, and glass.

Now we get to a modern interpretation of the cornice.  This is the Harkness Graduate Center at Harvard designed by Walter Gropius around 1950.  Note that this building has very little of what we would call ornament.  There is almost nothing extra here; it has just enough to do the job.  Consequently the overall form of the building is accentuated and the details of construction become very important as visual elements since we have so little else to look at.  Look up where the building meets the sky and you see the human equivalent of a tail bone.  No tail just a remnant of one with that 3″ top piece of stone hanging over just 1.75″ (measured with my super accurate micrometer eyes).  I actually loved this building and even though it might look a bit foreboding in this image, it is nicely scaled outside creating an excellent courtyard beyond this front entry.  Inside is a total delight with lovely dining and study areas.

Now for the tough guy of early modernism.  Le Corbusier (aka Edouard Jenneret) was a hero to me in architecture school (1984) whose luster has tarnished a tad since then.  This is the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (art studios and gallery) at Harvard, completed in 1963.  This is an all concrete building, inside and out.  He was super clever.  Look at this tower element here in the foreground and see how the horizontal construction joints, those narrow 6″ bands are spaced so that, “oh wow, the last one just forms the hint of a cornice at the top”!  What a coincidence!  He was for sure not a cornice guy either but nifty how this worked out.  There is lots more to say on this building later on.  A future post is needed to see some of the form making that modernists have done up there at the edge of the sky


The Curiosity of San Francisco Stairs

I have for  years driven through San Francisco, admiring the consistent urban fabric and wondering about the nature of the architecture behind the streetwall created by the zero setback party wall buildings.  I am working on a dental office in the second building from the right in this photo.  I expect it is over a hundred years old.

A fire on the upper floors and the subsequent water damage means that the wall finishes had to be removed and reinstalled. When I arrived for a site visit a few days ago the doors were open and I got to fulfill one of my longtime wishes of peeking behind the streetwall.  This is a three story building with one individual apartment on each of the upper two floors.  Above are the separate entries and stairs to each floor.

This stair has 31 steps all the way to the third floor.  Don’t lose your footing coming down! Today we are limited to twelve vertical feet between landings.  This one has about sixteen feet.  Good aerobics going up!

This is the nice little turn the stair takes at the top to bring you to an entry hall.  That topmost balluster has some serious beef to it.

Here is the payoff view, courtesy of a big hole in the wall.  They ran two completely separate stairs from the street level vestibule up to each apartment.  It would have been more efficient to run one stair up to a landing at the second floor, have a keyed front door to that apartment and then continue up the stair to the third floor.  Hmmm,  why?  My friend, Stephanie, suggested that maybe this made each apartment feel more like your own home by having a nice front door actually open onto the street.  A good reason perhaps and a question to be carried along to further explorations.


Seattle Seeking

I was in Seattle in January pounding the damp pavement, slinging my camera and notebook in search of things to jangle my nerves (the ones connected to my eyeballs)  when I found this gem of a building just east of downtown a ways.  I love it that this building can express itself in a very modern way while at the same time behaving very well as a responsible urban citizen.  Note the ground floor retail complete with awnings and covered entries making the pedestrian experience worthwhile.  Then above there is a bit of form making and articulation including the strong corner.  Frank Lloyd Wright got himself in quite a twist over the cornice of the older buildings of his day, saying they should not have this ornament at the top.  I can get somewhat behind that idea but this  building makes for such a fine detail at the top with those roof overhangs.  Note the way the balconies below are in alternate bays to the  “cornice” elements (overhangs).  There is a second floor office use and then the three stories of residential on top.   Sorry to not know who the architect is.  Seattle just seems to do a lot of good buildings like this.

Mixed Use Building detailSeattle Mixed Use Building

The Architectural Adventures Of Saxon Sigerson

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