WTC designer on the role of architecture

Found an interesting quote by Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the original WTC Towers in New York. Ironically, he argues against applying a monumental approach to all architecture – kind of a Bigness in reverse:

“There are a few very influential architects who sincerely believe that all buildings must be ‘strong’. The word ‘strong’ in this context seems to connote ‘powerful’— that is, each building should be a monument to the virility of our society. These architects look with derision upon attempts to build a friendly, more gentle kind of building. The basis for their belief is that our culture is derived primarily from Europe, and that most of the important traditional examples of European architecture are monumental, reflecting the need of the state, church , or the feudal families — the primary patrons of these buildings — to awe and impress the masses. This is incongruous today. Although it is inevitable for architects who admire these great monumental buildings of Europe to strive for the quality most evident in them — grandeur, the elements of mysticism and power, basic to cathedrals and palaces, are also incongruous today, because the buildings we build for our times are for a totally different purpose.

Minoru Yamasaki, from Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America by Paul Heyer

After reading this (only an online snippet, so no further context), I have more questions than answers: What’s the “totally different purpose” he saw for today’s buildings? How did he justify the monumentality of the WTC if he believed in what he said? Since apparently he was an admirer of Islamic architecture, did he think it was somehow less “strong” than the European model? I’ve ordered the book, so I’m hoping to be able to answer some of these soon.

Semester wrap-up pt. 3

This is the third part of a post that starts here, and continues here.

In my “standard” tech class, we continued to develop the design of our studio projects from the fall semester. I have to say this was one of the more eye-opening experiences I’ve had at the SoA, which is lucky to still have people like Dan Wheeler around. It really changed my outlook not only on my project, which until now I saw as an exercise in complete fantasy, but also on the possibility of reaching beyond what is “buildable”. It definitely helped to have someone as experienced and incredibly motivated as Dan guiding us with these, but it also showed me that things aren’t necessarily as impossible as they seem at first.

Here’s the final project from the class:

Finally, but not by any means last, was my theory class with Annie Pedret. In her research Annie focuses on early Postmodernism, and so in general did our class. However, our own research subjects were only very loosely related to the class subject. I wrote a paper on the influence of the Modern Movement on post-WWII Polish architecture. This was a kind of a personal exploration, since my earliest personal reactions to architecture involved Polish buildings, most of which are not and probably will never be noted in an international context. I still remember rows of rhomboid-roofed pavilions on then-Marchlewskiego in Warsaw as one of the first buildings I really noticed, when I was probably no older than six or seven. I’m not sure if anybody else remembers them, but I clearly recall being fascinated by that roofline.

Another is the “new” church in Bukowina Tatrzańska by Wojciech Pietrzyk, built to resemble a shepherd’s shelter, but in a completely Modern idiom, its spacious light-filled interior still resonating with me more than thirty years after I first saw it. Seeing a picture of the interior in a 360-degree panorama today, I’m only surprised at the amount of folky detail, which completely escaped my attention back then – or maybe I should say that it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it at the time. Still it’s a gem.

The research is one of the first I’ve done that I’d love to continue. Maybe because of the personal aspect, but at least partly because the lack of source material in the US made it difficult to do an even halfway-decent job. I was incredibly surprised by the help I got from the Polish Academy of Sciences, but even the journal they sent me of their own volition (apparently the ladies who work there chipped in to buy a copy) only offered glimpses of what I was really interested in. So now I’m thinking that if I can’t find a decent job after graduation – and things aren’t looking too happy in the construction industry anywhere really – I just might go for a doctorate in Polish or Central European architecture. How would that be for a twist of fate?

Semester wrap-up pt. 2

This post starts here.

One of the more unusual classes was a tech elective with Doug Garafolo, in which we were supposed to design and build a prototype of a freely selected object that somehow related to architecture. I came up with a modular shelving unit that can in theory be expanded indefinitely – using only one panel and one connector type. Here’s the basic idea, though I admit originally I was going to go with some type of white plastic for the panels:

And a couple of views of the prototype:

I see something like this used both as a standard shelf and a room divider-slash-storage space:

Comments, good or bad, definitely welcome.

This post continues here.

Belated semester wrap-up

This post comes to you in three more-or-less easily digestible bits, or as one of my professors would put it, easy pieces (choke, sputter). Part two is here, and three here.

I had a lot to say at the end of the semester, but unfortunately I had too much to do to sit down and write it all down. Now it’s a bit late to work up the same level of sanctimonious fury over some of the less major bits. But for those who are interested, here’s a more-or-less factual run-down of my semester’s doings:

My housing studio this semester was an apartment (or more accurately a co-op) building on Division and Paulina (i.e. here). The main idea was to create a space for a community of creative types could live and work. To do this I put a series of studio spaces connected by a common terrace area at the top of the building, with each studio connected by a private staircase to one of the apartments below:

In keeping with the egalitarian concept of the building, all of the apartments have access to street frontage, each with a loggia protected from street noise and the southerly sun by wooden louvers. To get light into the long and narrow apartments, I put in light wells that also serve as individual (though not entirely “private”) terraces for the apartments. Access is from the front of the building through five staircases, each serving four apartments.

Here’s a rendering of the Division facade:

This is the layout of a single third-story apartment, with the studio space on top:

And here’s how the whole thing comes together:

All in all, this was a fantastic semester and a very interesting studio, even if I’m not entirely satisfied with the work I did.

This scandalously self-indulgent post continues here. Part 3, if you are so resilient, is here.

Leftist leanings

Thursday’s shoot-out/debate between Jeff Kipnis and our own Bob Somol brought an interesting follow-up to my rant about the superficiality of the vision of architecture advanced at UIC. Both of the supposed duelists stood on the side of architecture’s political engagement through form, rather than the “leftist” and “functional” attitude of trying to change people’s lives through the built environment. Since both they and I see a political role for architecture, I had to think why I find their attitude dissatisfying and superficial.

The easiest way to explain this is to compare these to the way various political organizations engage in politics. I think that the Kipnis/Somol is most like that of a Washington lobbyist – lots of hot air, wheeling and dealing, pressuring politicians with public relations and publicity stunts, but with the sole aim of advancing the power base of a small group of interested parties (here their brand of architect and architectural critic) to allow them to engage in more hot-air blowing and political lobbying, since that’s the only thing they’re interested in. What I envision is more of an architectural Greenpeace (though not as an institution, but an approach) – where the public fireworks are aimed at a specific social/environmental agenda and aren’t simply an end in themselves.

Despite the Kipnis/Somol rhetoric, the underlying seriousness of this attitude doesn’t mean that it has to end up with the stuffy guidelines of a New Urbanism. The idea is for the work to think more about how it affects people’s experiences, both aesthetically and functionally, instead of leaning lopsidedly only towards the visual. In the end it’s about recognizing the fact that architecture is an an art that should not be compared to sculpture, as it often is, but rather to other applied arts that have to take practical considerations into account to maintain their very identity. You can’t seriously call yourself an architect if you design only the formal fireworks of mega-scale sculptures.

Dig deeper

I’m beginning to understand why I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye with most of the UIC faculty – they’re mainly concerned with finding new forms and new ways of generating form, while I’m interested more in the social engineering side of architecture.
This really came to the forefront at yesterday’s debate between Paul Preissner and Alex Lehnerer, in which they covered a variety of subjects, which all, however, revolved around form. Intrigued by the one-dimensionality of the discussion, I asked Paul (I don’t know that much about Alex’s work, but judging by what he said he’s as much of a formalist as Paul is) what he proposed to present to the new audiences he created with his slick and often beautiful forms. The gist of his answer was “nothing” – he has no ambitions for his architecture beyond the purely formal. None.
That’s more or less what I suspected, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment. The school purports to be innovative, but it’s still stuck in the Peter Eisenman mode of architectural autonomy of the 1960s. Architecture for architecture’s sake. Frankly, I find that pretty boring.
For me the promise of great architecture is the creation of a better world. That means architecture that doesn’t limit itself to museums, theaters and rich people’s houses. If it is to have any relevance in the future beyond providing eye candy for architecture fans, it has to deal with the street, with the city, and with the everyday environment. It has to face current issues, with environmental concerns chief among them. Without a deeper substance beyond the flashy facades, it cannot hope to stir a deeper interest, to keep the new audiences its bold forms may be gathering, and it certainly will not have a very significant place in history once the novelty wears off.

It ain’t easy being green

For reasons I’m not going to get into here I’ve been thinking about “sustainability” in architecture – and though the word has become something of a marketing catchphrase, if given a bit of thought it is not as superficial and cynical as it might sound. It doesn’t all end with Da Mayor’s green roof hoopla or sticking “green” technology on otherwise standard-issue buildings.

Though for as long as I can remember I’ve been something of a green freak, my first contact with the specific issues involved in architectural sustainability was at a lecture by David Cook of Behnisch Architekten from Berlin last year. His main assertion was that environmental sustainability was only part of the issue, with economic and civic sustainability being the other two key components needed for the whole to really work.

Economic sustainability pretty much speaks for itself. If you can’t make something work financially, then even if you get to build it, it will quickly fail and be replaced by something else. An economically sustainable building has the opportunity to become a lasting asset. Cook also pointed out the human factor there – since most of the money involved in operating a commercial building goes to people’s salaries, a building that creates a good environment for humans can save its occupants money simply by limiting staff rotation. That translates into benefits and overall satisfaction for all involved.

He also spoke about his firm’s civic sustainability goals, which for him meant mainly respecting people’s inherently social nature. He said that providing public and semi-public space where people could interact – initially expensive – was in fact a good investment in making buildings truly attractive. This in turn helped to make them economically sustainable in the long run, and that again allowed them to continue functioning in an environmentally responsible manner. Obviously not everyone can build Seattle Public Libraries, but it’s definitely a factor to consider. A real win-win, at least on paper.

The lecture made a huge impression on me – frankly, a bigger impression than most of the very good lectures we’ve had at UIC over the past two years. Though in studio we are often directed to deal mostly with formal and programmatic issues, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cook’s talk was one of the main inspirations for both my bIGfUNtHING project and my current studio efforts. I don’t think this is the end of it, either.

What came out of it

Ron Witte’s guest studio ended yesterday – considering my graphics, it’s no surprise that Bob Somol led off his comments with Sarah Palin, with Italian restaurants as a back-up. Anyway, here’s the goods, as they say – the idea was to use form and graphics to create spaces that connected and disconnected so as to enable you to be in more than one room at a time:

BTW, I presented first because I had to get to the youngest child’s first-ever volleyball game (her team won – they managed to serve properly twice, while their opponents never made it across the net).

Ron Witte

Having a four-day guest studio exercise with Ron Witte ( We’re talking about intersecting spaces that allow you to be in two rooms at the same time. In the exercise, we’re manipulating form and graphics to do just that – here’s my second attempt:

That’s it for now. Thank you for your attention.