Archive Page 2


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


Pyramids Across The Eons

From a ways back in time, like about three thousand five hundred years ago, comes one of the really profound and wonderfully simple ideas of architecture and urbanism.  The precedent is an idea that is used throughout the human experience and it works especially well in designing buildings and cities.  In short we take ideas from the past and transform them into projects for the modern era.

Above, the astounding pyramids at Giza in Egypt are simple platonic solids constructed with great effort as tombs.  I don’t know how the idea of this form was arrived at but it definitely was a good choice which the pharaohs would mostly be pleased with.  Even though their resting places down inside were messed with, we universally regard these structures as great achievements in human history.

Some facts from Wikipedia;

The Great Pyramid was built as a tomb for the Pharaoh khufu over an approximately 20 year period concluding around 2560 BC. Initially at 480.6 ft, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

In 1984 the architect I.M. Pei took the idea of a pyramidal form as a precedent and solved one of the challenging problems in the  architecture of Paris. How to create a front door to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France?

For years people had to line up on the narrow sidewalk along the street next to the River Seine.  Not grand by any means.  Pei took this ancient shape, modernized it with glass and steel, set it gently down in the middle of the courtyard, created a beautiful spiral stair down below grade and made the entrance to the museum a totally memorable experience.  He was also making a statement about how to build in cities with deep, rich architectural histories.  Be respectful but do not imitate the past.  We are living here today!

At the Palace of Legion of Honor art museum in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, there is another courtyard that serves as the entry forecourt to the building.  I walked in one day and wow! Here was another pyramid.

This time the museum had a perfectly fine front door at the end of the court but they needed some natural light in the floor below where the public access galleries so as to minimize the feeling of being in a basement, (which it is).  This design by Edward Larrabee Barnes and John M.Y. Lee was completed in 1992.  Not quite the statement that Pei got to make but still a lovely solution and a wonderfully detailed piece of work it is with those steel rods and connectors custom made for this application.

There in a nutshell is the idea of the precedent and it is used all the time at the full range of scales in design.


The Grit of Graphite

My High School student, Sho Kawano took my breath away with these gritty drawings.   The first few days in the classroom with Sacramento Waldorf Seniors focus some of our time on the concept of drawing for information during their note taking as we combine a ton of architectural concepts into this very compressed 4o hour/one month class.

Sho was able to capture the essence of the Pantheon in Rome (circa 117 A.D.) and also a good feel for details such as the coffering in the ceiling as he drew his cross-section.  Notice also that he got a sense of the site by showing that fountain in the foreground.  He was a bit rough in the detail at the columns (40′ tall solid Egyptian marble) by not showing the bases or capitals but that is just fine since he got so much in.  Below is a drawing that I showed the students in class of the same building.

This Drawing of Stuyvesent Town in New York is so passionate and totally captures the feel of the place.  Note the strong vertical strokes and the way his pencil was searching for the shapes and then firming up when he found them.  So cool that he got the Empire State Building in the background, once again placing the subject in context.  Contrast is so vital to a lively drawing in architecture, it can convey its own hierarchical message in the image.


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.


Ideas That Inspire Me

Alexander Book Cover

The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is a book I use on all of my residential projects and many of my commercial projects.  It is a great tool for allowing clients to communicate their wants and desires for a project back to the architect in a very architectural and sensitive way.  It is also great for the architect as a reminder and inspiration in making wonderful alive places for people.

Some years back I wrote,

I think this is the most sensitive and compelling treatment of the human condition as it relates to places and spaces I have found.  Every student should be handed this set by their professor on the first day of design studio.  Unfortunately Alexander’s work is not held in too high regard in most architecture schools.  One of my professors said that this work leads one to believe that creating architecture is a recipe process.  He has a point but the ideas in this book can be used intelligently and combined with bigger more artistic ideas about form making and profoundly meaningful architecture to great effect.

The structure of the book is laid out in 253 patterns to use in design.  The scale ranges from the region to the room and are not thought of as a finite list but rather a beginning to be added to over time.  Each pattern addresses a particular situation such as natural light in a room by basically stating a problem, discussing the issue and then stating a design strategy or feature to resolve the issue.  Below is partial list of the patterns and then the Pattern, Marriage Bed.  This book makes great reading even if you are not actively designing something.  There is a companion volume, The Timeless Way of Building that is best read before using this book in depth.


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


My Latest Article – The Line That Connects

The Hospice Della Trinita De Pelligrini With Composite Diagrams of Solid/Void, Function and Axes from the article

Well it is time to blog on.  The new website has been up for a few months and I just recently published my latest article on the Central Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Website.  I have been writing for about the last nine years on an almost monthly basis.  It is a way for me to keep searching and exploring the ideas of architecture while conducting an architectural practice that can range into very technical and practical work.  I love the balance of being able to do the really nuts and bolts craft of architecture and then fly up into the delicious clouds of architectural musings.  CLICK HERE FOR  THE LINE THAT CONNECTS BY SAXON SIGERSON

The Architectural Adventures Of Saxon Sigerson

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