Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's Heroic, Not Brutal

Government Service Center, 1962-71
Paul Rudolph
Boston, Massachusetts
Hello Everyone:

Brutalism, Blogger believes, is a genre of architecture that get very little respect.  The structures are graceless, massive, concrete blocks built by concrete enamored architects.  They are emblematic of the post-World War II urban renewal phase, that misguided attempt to revive cities.  However, Mark Byrnes, in his CityLab article "The Case for Calling Brutalism 'Heroic' Instead," interviewed a trio of Boston-based architects and designers: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimely who want to re-frame this not so loved style as heroic architecture.  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely were spurred into action in late-2006 when then-Mayor Thomas Menino first suggested razing Boston City Hall  t  The trio compiled years of research, interviews, and staged a popular exhibit on the subject Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.  Perhaps it is time to rethink Brutalism as "heroic" genre of architecture, on par with the much loved pre-World War II Moderne.

Peabody Terrace, 1962-64
Sert, Jackson & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Photograph by Mr. Ducke
The exhibit is an thorough retrospective of the forces that shaped shaped Boston's revival between 1957 (the year the Boston Redevelopment Agency was established) to 1976 (the year Quincy Market was revitalized).  Mr. Byrnes writes, "Heroic is an important addition to the growing conversation about Brutalism-or, as the authors prefer, 'Heroic' architecture."  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely co-authored the accompanying book, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (, which tells the story of urban American's concrete architecture.

Although there have been many well-known examples of these buildings that have fallen to the wrecking ball, and inspite of Boston's new mayor's efforts to preserve City Hall, many of Brutalist buildings are still endanger of demolition as they age.  Mark Byrnes writes, "The trio behind Heroic doesn't expect to change the minds of traditionalists, but they do want these buildings to get a fair shot."

Boston City Hall in 1981
Kallmann, Mckinnnell & Knowles
Boston, Massachusetts
 Polemic buildings like City Hall and the partially completed Government Services Building by Paul Rudolph reflect the ambition and the confidence of their clients. They are emblematic of a unique era in American history where cities were re-imagined by governments and brought to life by the students of post-war European daring designers.  They have faded into a culture that still has no respect for them, "...but while Heroic buildings promised so much-sometimes more than they should have-they are hardly brutal and anything but evil."

CityLab recently sat down with  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely to talk about their efforts to rehabilitate this much maligned period style.

Cecil and Ida Green Center for Earth Sciences, 1959-64
I.M. Pei
Boston, Massachusetts
"Why 'Heroic' instead of 'Brutalist?'"

Chris Grimely: "Brutal" is not a good brand....With "Heroic" there's a nice trajectory from Reyner Banham to the Smithsons to that word,  But them at the same time we love the connotations of a hero, and the notion that you're doing your best to create something to fix the problem at hand..."Brutal" is fundamentally a negative, whereas with "Heroic," some people take it as a rah-rah but we see it as a much more nuanced phrase that complicate the project in a number of ways....

Mark Pasnik: There's the legacy of Brutalism being such a negative term.  It begins the conversation with negativity about these buildings, and this, falls into the misreading of them as harsh....The name plays into that mischaracterization that's grown around a lot of them.  I think "Heroic" is a better title for what their actual aspirations were...One the one hand, Brutalism encourages a misreading.  On the other hand, I think it's historically inaccurate for the work that is in our book.  The term grown out of a British tradition and was applied to many of these buildings but all of the architects we spoke with in the book would say that's not what they thought their work should be called.  They believed in some of the aspirations of Brutalism but they didn't believe that their work was Brutalist...

Paul Rudolph standing in front of the Yale University Arts Complex, c.1963
New Haven, Connecticut
Mark Pasnik went onto say that the trio's invention of the term "Heroic" came from a two-fold interest.  First, there was the work of British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who are partially attributed to coining the term.  The trio wrote the book as a sort of to arms to return to the aspirations of early modernism  was called The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture, so "heroic" was being used by the originators of Brutalism as a call to arms to return to the basic principles of modernity.

Mr. Pasnik added that it was Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown that used it in a negative context.

...They contrasted what they called "heroic and original," against the "ugly and ordinary."  They always used Paul Rudolph projects to indicate the former while arguing architects should pursue the latter...For us, "Heroic" has this kind of duality-it's an aspiring term but there's also a critique in it...

Blue Cross Blue Shield Building, 1969
C.F. Murphy & Associates
Photograph by Orlando R. Cabanban, Inland Architect
Chicago, Illinois
What were people calling these buildings when they were new?

MP: A lot of them talked about "New Monumentality."  I don't think they would call themselves Brutalists or New Monumentalists or anything like that.  I think they were just "modern architects," but they were seeking a monumentality out of the modern vocabulary that hadn't existed.  A lot of them were constructing the work to be post-Miesian, post-International Style, which was lightweight and repeated...and had a corporate image...I think they were looking for a different king of language that would reflect civic society...concrete was a way to get at that monumentality, that permanence, all the kinds of things that weren't associated with the International style.

What made Boston so ripe for a concrete architecture boom?

MP: Boston had previously been a city where the political and economic classes would not work together, and it was really a legacy of mayor James Curley...The bankers who had money wouldn't invest in the city because of what they perceived as a corrupt administration.  And Curley use his power to serve his neighborhood and his constituents.  That, along with the depression and the world wars meant that by the 1950s, Boston had built almost nothing new in decades...Drastic action using federal funds jumpstarted the city thanks to the formation of the Boston Redevelopment Association...under Ed Logue and then-Mayor John Collins.  They came together and proposed a series of initiatives to create federal investment in the city and the goal was to spark larger investment and more growth...

Washington Hilton
Washington D.C.
When Logue took over the BRA in 1960, very little had been built, but suddenly there was this flood of money coming from the federal government.  Log came out of New Haven where he had previously don a lot of urban renewal...He, as did many architects in Boston at the time, seemed to like concrete as a way to both reflect the weightiness in the presence of historical buildings but also indicate a vision of the future.  It allowed architects and...Logue to feel like they were connecting to this historic importance of the masonry city while also being a new language that could reflect optimism about the future...There were suddenly new opportunities, new investments, and the need for upgrading and modernizing the whole city at once...

Boston City Hall Plaza, 1991
Boston, Massachusetts
CG: The big thing going on architecturally here during that time was that so many ex-students of Corbusier had arrived; Josep Lluis Sert, Araido Cossutta.  Walter Gropius founded The Architects Collaborative.  What they provided was a somewhat European-but mainly civc and cultural-sensibility about the use of concrete...there's a serendipitous moment where this architectural language come to the city at the same time as the public and private sectors bring in a remarkable amount of reinvestment.

Were these buildings well received at first?

MP: City Hall is probably the most recognized one and from its very beginning there was controversy about it.  Many people saw it as a symbol of "the new Boston"...But a lot of other people felt that something like City Hall didn't reflect the traditions of Boston...In 1964, Architectural Forum did a special issue dedicated entirely to Boston because of how innovative it had become, seeing it as a case study, a new model for urban renewal...There were mixed reactions to this kind of work  Some deeply believed that Boston was a historic city that shouldn't change but many others were very optimistic about those changes.

Boston Government Services Center construction photograph
Was there a specific Heroic project that's seen as a sign of the period's peak?

MP: I don't think people saw any one of these particular buildings and said "it's time to do something different," but Paul Rudolph's Government Center might be a good case-in-point of that shift, because it was really designed in '63 or '64 but it opened in '71.  It was designed when Rudolph was at the height of his game...There was a lot of enthusiasm for it earlier but when it actually opened it was a big government building opening in an era of government cutbacks.

CG: The rear view of history would point to City Hall, but that's a much longer narrative.  Even though there's an interest in the history of Boston, there a real lack of nuance.  People just associate everything from urban renewal and concrete architecture with top-heavy government that didn't care about the people and wanted to exert its will over the population,  It's become the de facto narrative...

Quincy Market
Boston, Massachusetts
The book uses the redevelopment of Quincy Market to mark the end of the Heroic period.  What does that project symbolize?

MP: It is a symbolic shift.  The end started to appear earlier than that, but it was a good moment to end the book.  As we looked at the dates of when concrete was being used it was really into the '70s but not beyond the mid-'70s.  That also reflects the shift nationally towards Postmodernism and the reassessment of historical forms as  reinvesting in historical architecture...

It marks the end when even the BRA is shifting its attitude towards the resuscitation of existing buildings rather than the creation of new ones...In our conversations with Tad Stahl, he always attributed it to shifts in energy markets.  After the oil embargo the cost of doing concrete rose substantially.  He also attributed it to the shifts in the construction industry that went from large construction organizations...towards a sub-bidding process.  He felt that shift meant construction companies could no longer afford to create experts in high-quality, architectural grade concrete.

Quincy Market Plaza
Boston, Massachusetts
Public opinion is certainly a factor, too.  I think the countercultural movement started to tarnish these buildings, which were meant to be public and engaging.  The shift started to see them more as Big Government...What's always curious to me is that it's both the liberal and most conservative forces that came together to undo these buildings as part of the popular imagination...

CG: Quincy Market happened during the Bicentennial year in 1976 and the beginning of that kind of reinvestment in the history of Boston.  Thirteen years before that there was an insert published by the Boston Globe that was talking about the future of Boston and the city developed a '65-'75 masterplan.  The rate of change that came with it allowed the city to become viable again...Because the city had been revitalized there was this  idea now that if tourist were going to come, they weren't going to come for all the new these new buildings, they'd come for the history which would then drive the next part of the renewal.  With opening of Quincy Market, you begin to see a reinvestment in the history of the city for better or worse.

Boston University skyline
Boston, Massachusetts

Which Heroic buildings in Boston are at risk today?

MP: There have been a few.  The MLK elementary school by Sert was torn down last year.  It's very close to one of his most important complexes, the Peabody Terrace building at Harvard.  City Hall was a big risk under the last mayor but the new mayor initiated an evaluation and study for making City Hall and the plaza around it better, which will be done over the next year.

The Government Center parking garage is slated to be demolished and replaced with a high-scale residential towers..,we understand it's a megastructure parking garage in downtown that cuts the city in half...The institutions around Boston are looking at thoughtful strategies for how to reuse these buildings.  Peabody Terrace was carefully renovated and upgraded.  The Boston University law [tower] by Sert is just about finished with a major renovation and addition that was sensitive to its original nature.  And Harvard is now looking to transform the Holyoke Center...

Holyoke Center, Harvard University
Sert, Jackson & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts
I'm a little more optimistic than I was a couple of years ago when a lot of these building were talked about for substantial negative changes.  Many institutions and even the city seem to be handling them with better care now... but with City Hall, when Menino was very negative about the buildings. It probably encouraged locals to think negatively about all of these buildings.

I think there's been more national attention on Brutalism and on its character in the last couple of years.  High-profile cases in Chicago, Washington D.C. and Orange County {New York], have brought people to the foreground to argue for them.  I also think the economics usually make more sense to save the buildings and invest in them some people are deciding between demolishing them or completely rebuilding them with all new systems and bringing them up to code...

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, 2013
Photograph by © Lee Dykxhoorn
Cambridge, Massachusetts
CG: No one batted an eyelid about losing Sert's MLK school.  Thankfully, a few years ago, with the Boston Preservation Alliance and significant efforts from other parties we managed to get the Christian Science Plaza landmarked...Of all the buildings here, losing City Hall would be our "Penn Station moment."  As they're won't to say, it would take a controlled nuclear device to bring it down, so at least we have that on our side.  There's a study out right now for the plaza and the building to really investigate its use and its usefulness...Even Michael Mckinnnell, on of the architects of City Hall has said on numerous occasions that he's eager and willing to see the building modified and reused.

Interior staircase Government Services Center
Paul Rudolph
Boston, Massachusetts
Other than City Hall, what Heroic Building in Boston is the most misunderstood?

MP: We call City Hall the third rail of this building type because it just sets people into a storm.  The Rudolph one is probably equally disliked and sometimes people confuse the's a tour de force of brilliant design but it's also incredibly complex because it's a mental health services building, the programs aren't really suited.  It's corrugated, bush-hammered concrete.  It's a tough surface...

There's a story people talk about where someone lit themselves on fire...on the altar of the chapel by in all of my research, I've never seen any evidence of that nor have any of the other scholars I've spoken to that are focused on Rudolph...I worry that there's a lot of misreadings that happen in these buildings and their architects that paint a very dark picture...There are some big issues with code violation.  The handrails are all too low and they had to put a chainlink around these outdoor sectional moments where light was being brought down into a lower level via a reveal in the plaza.  Now it's all surrounded with chainlink so it looks terrible but they've come up wit a solution to permanently fix that...

Madison Park High Schoo, 1967-77
Photograph by Nick Wheel courtesy of the Francis Loeb Library Harvard GSD
Roxbury, Massachusetts
CG: Madison Park High School.  The people of Boston and even the design community don't even know about it.  It's Marcel Breuer's only institutional project in the city...It's a remarkable piece of work.  When you step into the interior courtyard of that space it's just epic...It''s in okay condition.  It definitely needs some investment, but the actual precast concrete pieces are in pretty good shape.

This book will naturally appeal to those who already like this kind of architecture, but what would you like everyone to get out of it?

CG: Even though we're unabashedly admirers of this kind of work, the project is as much of an aesthetic one as it is a cultural one.  We'd hope that the skeptic would not necessarily be swayed to like the buildings but to at least appreciate their existence in the making of a 21-st century Boston.  When start talking about destruction of epochs of architecture you really run the danger of erasing the culture and history of a place well before you're able to evaluate that history and its implications.  Preservation needs time and we're sprinting fast through the eras of the last 50 years to take down projects just for the sake of their "ugliness."  Legacy cannot be evaluated in time before these things are being torn down.  Thankfully, I think we're starting to see a shift.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Quietly Commanding Our Attention

The Center for Character and Leadership Development
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Hello Everyone:

Blogger hopes your holiday was bright, merry, and safe.  Yours truly cannot wait until the new year to bring you more of the stories that continue to shape our built and urban environment.

Today we look back at some of the more notable buildings of 2015.  In her article for the Wall Street Journal, "The Best Architecture of 2015: Their Modesty Becomes Them," Julie V. Iovine reports that inspire of "...the loudest works of new architecture..." that held everyone's attention, there were some quieter projects that snuck into the scene, expanding the definition of what architecture can be.  These are buildings that do not scream "look at me" (Broad and Petersen Museums), instead they give us a more modest, yet thrilling experience.  Here are the buildings that command attention in their modesty.

Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion
Ted Flato and David Lake
Cooke County, Texas
Photograph by Casey Dunn
The first building on our list is the Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion in Cooke County, Texas.  The Pavilion was designed by Ted Flato and David Lake for the Dixon Water Foundation.  At first glance, it resembles a typical ranch house however, Ms. Iovine writes that it falls into the category of living building.  This means "...the structure is made almost entirely from local and recycled materials, its energy consumption is self-generated and next to nil ("net neon in the new jargon), and its water independent.  The firm of Lake|Flato is know for the novel way they make traditional building elements: deep overhangs, clerestory windows, chimneys, and ceiling fans look more contemporary.

The Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion is set amid towering live oak and the rectangular sheds are dressed in reclaimed pine which are "...pulled apart and reconnected with wall and doors of slatted wood carefully position to provide shade from the hot summer sun and shelter from winter's north winds."  The client, the Dixon Water Foundation, provides resources and education on water conservation.  The 5,000-square-foot pavilion is encircled by wetlands that will filter and recycle wastewater and eventually restore the local watershed.  Messrs. Flato and Lake argue "...that a connection to beautiful architecture can lead to caring and a desire to preserve and conserve one''s surroundings."  This unassuming building could very underscore this point.

Front elevation of The Center for Character and Leadership Development
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The next building on the list of memorable buildings is The Center for Character and Leadership Development.  The Center was built by the venerable firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  This is not the first project SOM completed for the USAFA.  In 1962, they built the Chapel, the centerpiece of the campus, "...layering 17 aligned spires made of folded aluminum and glass tetrahedrons."  They returned over fifty years laters to add the Center for Character and Leadership Development, "an equally striking building meant to balance the focus on faith with a building dedicated to reason."  Upon first sight, the Center and the Chapel, modest would not be the first word that comes to Blogger's mind.

Designed by SOM partner Roger Duffy, the new 46,000-square-foot center is sited across the Court of Honor from the Chapel, resting on an elevated plaza.  There is a ceremonial staircase leading down to a below-plaza-level entry.  Julie V. Iovine writes, "This deferential move actually highlights the propulsive energy of the 105-foot steel-farm and glass inverted funnel-actual a skylight-that projects through the plaza at a 39-degree tilt."  The complex includes meeting rooms, a library, and seminar rooms however its core is the Honor Board Room.  The Honor Board Room is a rather impressive space-the officers addressing disciplinary issues are seated on a marble plinth and the errant cadets are seated below, under an oculus.  The location of the cadets's place is deliberate-precisely under the North Star-as a way to remind them of their own moral compass.

CENTRO University
Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos
Mexico City, Mexico
Julie V. Iovine gladly reports, "It's a welcome trend to see architecture addressing both the symbolic and functional side of space dedicated to education."  CENTRO University in Mexico City, Mexico, designed by Enrique Norten of the firm TEN Arquitectos follows this trend.  The university features a hybrid curriculum, melding creative, technological, and business studies.  The over $50 million campus is composed of four buildings that features either green or solar-panel roofs arranged in a manner that keeps out or connects to the surrounding neighborhood.  The campus also features a six-story building "...whose glass wall provides the cafeteria with views of the city, while across a communal courtyard another building is laced with exterior staircases overlooking the public space, and a third building floats above and joins them both."  The elevated exterior space, formed by these interlocking components, has a 40-foot-wide, "sit-able" staircase with a painted black and white pattern by Jan Hendrix which references the energetic midcentury pavers of Roberto Burle Marx.

Columbus Museum of Art Margaret M. Walter Wing
Michael Bongiorno of DesignGroup
Columbus, Ohio
The final member of our list of more modest buildings is the Columbus Art Museum's Margaret M. Walter Wing in Columbus, Ohio.  When the Walter Wing was originally conceived, it was far more ambitious in plan but scaled back in 2008 and given over to local architect Michael Bongiorno of DesignGroup.  Mr. Bongiorno began by taking the much loathed 1970s addition down to its bones, rebuilding it to blend seamlessly into the new 80,000-square-foot wing on the east side to the 1928 Renaissance Revival building.  Both the old and new happily coexist, "...each retaining its own identity, the elegant limestone cornice of the original building is now a visual attraction inside the skylit atrium of the new wing."  the Walter Wing is clad in patinated green and its extruded rectangular shape gives it a distinctive presence.  The museum is cognizant of the fact that local visitors outnumber tourists; thus provides ample space to linger.  Both the new and renovated portions of the museum bracket the outdoor sculpture garden, design in 1979 by Russell Page.  This once passive space in the back of the museum should be a more fascinating place to revisit.

As Julie V. Iovine has shown us, buildings do not have to bluster to get attention.  Sometimes, it is the unassuming designs that create a presence.  Perhaps the Los Angeles civic officials can take heed of these lessons and reconsider the bombastic proposals.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Taking A New Approach To Historic Preservation

Old U.S. Mint
San Francisco, California
Hello Everyone:

Historic preservation can sometimes be a frustrating thankless task.  Between balancing out community interests, researching the historic significance of a place or thing, dealing with bureaucrats, dealing with developers and civic officials, and so on, it is enough to make even the sanest among preservationists go mad.  However, Cassie Owens's recent article for Next City, "Why It's So Exciting to Work in Historic Preservation Right Now," serves a form of encouragement for those of us who have just had enough and want to curl up in a corner.  Ms. Owens reports, "National advocacy and education group Preservation Rightsizing Network released a new action agenda..."(  The focus of the agenda is on legacy cities and the points in the plan aim to "widen the interpretation of historic preservation, connect the saving of old buildings to everything from municipal code enforcement to warding off modern redlining."  This sounds like encouraging news.

Detroit, Michigan
Kevin Chang/

In recent times, preservationists have allied themselves with people like bloggers such as Carol Ott (https://slumlordwatch.wordpress,com) and artists like Candy Chang the creator of the "I Wish This Was..." project (  What the new focus on legacy cities demonstrates is how this magnified view is refracted inward:

Preservationists need to pursue strategic efforts in foreclosure prevention, down payment assistance, homesteading, code enforcements, and strategic property acquisition and disposal...Intangible heritage and culture-the stories that make a community what its-should be recognized and preserved through oral histories, community storytelling events, and in other ways.

In short, historic preservation should take more holistic approach, not just focus on the tangible and intangible historic and cultural properties.

Baltimore, Maryland-area row houses
There is a large gulf between the preservationists that work to stabilize neighborhood and the stereotypical one-the historian who flies into save a building deemed significant enough to warrant protection.  Yours truly is more of the former rather than the latter.  Most practitioners are the latter, the architectural historian variety.  The campaign to save a preservation-worthy place usually takes place in the form of some activity, like hugging a building (no not really but close).

A number of preservationists have told Ms. Owens that the interdisciplinary approach, the one favored by blogger, is a matter of necessity rather than ambition.  Patrick Grossi, the advocacy director at Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia told Ms. Owens, If I'm not initiate with zoning codes if I'm not following what's happening with the land bank, if I'm not conscious of what certain members of city council's priorities are, I don't think I'm actually doing my job.

Lakewood, Ohio mid-2010

Emilie Evans, the director of the Rightsizing Cities Initiative and is the co-leader of Brick + Beam, a Detroit-based organization that supports rehabbing houses for nonprofits, developers, and residents.  Cassie Owens asked Ms. Evans if she saw herself sharing tips for Do-It-Yourself home renovators when Ms. Evans was still in graduate school for historic preservation.  Emilie Evans replied,

...did not see [that] coming explicitly...Who knows where we're going to end up as professionals...But it's really exciting.

The Preservation Rightsizing Network's action plan is divided into three sections: "calls for a new approach (which focuses on the healthy urban fabric), a new toolkit (programs and policies to buttress this broadened vision), and nice cross agency partnerships."

Downtown Cleveland, Ohio
 Preservation Rightsizing Network Chair Cara Bertron said,

We have good preservations tools, but they don't go far enough...Many preservationists working locally in legacy cities and distressed neighborhoods have known for a long time that historic tax credits are not going to be applicable to every neighborhood.  They're a great tool.  But they can only be use in locally or nationally designated properties.

The action plan is, in one sense, a broad view of how preservationists are addressing this gap.  Ms. Bertron was quick to point out that "preservation that focuses on the built environment rather than the gems within in it isn't new."  Michael Allen the director and architectural historian for the St. Louis-based Preservation Research Office and editor of the action plan agrees.  Mr. Allen said,

Downtown St. Louis, Missouri

As much as I believe in the principles, I don't believe that they're new or radical...This challenge is how do you move these points of view from the margins to the center of practice.

Mr. Allen continued, saying that preservationists advocating for new strategies are those who are on the ground and being frank practitioners saying "This in't working.  Here's something that might work...The wrong way to do this is the that fails to save the buildings, right?"

There is the stereotypical preservationist who is fixated on architectural detail.  Ms. Bertron said,

And we love those people.  They're great!  They have to be only a small part of the choir in legacy cities...Talking about revitalizing neighborhood instead of rehabbing [sole] buildings, it's more complicated, so it's a harder sell.  I think sometimes we as movement, default to talking about something that's an easier win.

Downtown Eagle Rock, California
Patrick Grossi believes that only 3 percent of Philadelphia's buildings are protected.  A tough win "...would be a series of district designations, particularly those outside of the city's core."  Mr. Grossi said,

Even more important I think is just reframing what the values of preservation are...Preservation does play a role in how you approach and navigate growth, how you provide a sense of empowerment in neighborhoods that are lacking.  And that's really more of a hearts and minds campaign about what the historic built environment can do for you.  As opposed to "Hey we're preservationists and we haven't been here in a while, and we think all these buildings belong the register.  How do you feel about that?

Cara Bertron concurs with Mr. Grossi (as does yours truly) that inscription on the National Register of Historic Places cannot be the end goal.  She added, "Community needs" should be,...the field needs a larger, more collaborative set of strategies.

Cara Bertron has the last word,

It's been fun to be able to say, this is a movement.  And because you guys are here, you're part of it.  Because you're reading this, you're part of it, because you care about cities and historic neighborhoods, you're part of this movement...[The agenda] is not the only document.  It's not the first time you'll read any of these ideas.  But it helps to frame what we're doing.

Life Amid The Harshness

Manzanar War Relocation Center sign
Hello Everyone:

Today we return to the subject of immigration.  In this case, a dark moment in the American immigrant experience-the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  Blogger has decided to return to this because of its timeliness.  Rather than present a post on the grimness of life in the internment camps, Blogger has come across a review of American photographer Ansel Adams's photographs of Manzanar, recently publisheded by Zocolo Public Square, that presents ordinary life among the harshness of the camp life.  The scene present ordinary American citizens, locked up for no other reason than their ancestry, trying to do the best they can under extraordinary circumstance.  At times, the images almost seem absurd, yet they are a testament to sheer determination to carry one inspire of the bigotry that put them there.  The pictures in this post  were all taken by Ansel Adams and just treasures to behold.

Pool in the Pleasure Park
Manzanar War Relocation Center
Ansel Adams is one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century.  The late Mr. Adams is best-known for his stunning photographs of Yosemite's Half Dome.  During the Second World War, he tried his hand at documentary photography, turning his lense on scenes of daily life at the Japanese-American internment camp in Manzanar, California.  The black and white pictures include "...images of people going about their daily lives-schoolchildren during a fire drill, farmers at work in a potato field, a nurse in uniform."  These images, are part of an exhibit titled "Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams," at the Skirball Cultural Center (

Nurse Aiko Yamaguchi
Manzanar War Relocation Center
The photographs are remarkable because they present images of strength and resilience of the families trapped behind the gates because of their ancestry.  Also what makes them so remarkable is despite the harshness of the setting, the internees were very determined to carry on with their lives.  It may seem strange to carry on daily life amid the grim conditions but Blogger believes that this was  an act of passive defience.  A way for the Japanese-American citizens to tell their jailers, "You may imprision our bodies but you will not imprison our souls and our spirits."

Ansel Adams arrived at Manzanar with a goal, He wanted to show strenth and resilience in contrast to the anti-Japanese imagery and racist sentiment that was out there, according to assistant curator Linde Lehtinen.  The exhibit is presented in conjunction with the Japanese American National Museum (  Mr. Adams's photographs are presented along side images take by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake, as well as objects and artifacts used in daily life at Manzanar and the other "relocation centers" in the Western United States and Arkansas.  Mr. Adams's photographs were later published in a 1944 ironically titled book Born Free and Equal. The reviews were mixed, to say the very least.  Ms. Lehtinen said,
The Izuno Family
Manzanar War Relocation Center

There are accounts of so-called patroits burning the book and calling Adams 'un-American' because he was sympathetic to Japanese-Americans.

However, there were those among the photography community that believed that Mr. Adams did not adequately present the harsh realities of camp life.  "They wondered why people smiled and appearred so industrious under Adams's gaze.  After all, Manzanar was a prison camp."  Ms. Lehtinen continues,

Part of that had to do with the timing...The camp had just been constructed when Lange visited in June 1942.  She captured the "stark, difficult moments of the forced evacuation" and a place that looked different from the one Adams first photographed in October 1943.  By the time Adams arrived, people had tried to make improvements in the barracks they lived.  Instead of bare wooden floorboards, there was linoleum, for example.  People knew who Adams was and that he was coming to photograph them; they probably dressed in their finest clothes...

Cemetery monument
Manzanar War Relocation Center
Another issue is Ansel Adams's photographic style-"polished and pristine."  Mr. Adams was not a portrait photographer, he was more comfortable taking pictures of landscapes.  One example is an semi-aerial photograph of Manzanar, showing clusters of people.  Ms. Lehtinan commented,'re able to see his interest in creating a panoramic view of this beautiful place-and I use that word because he saw it that way.

The residents of Manzanar may have beenn deprived of  their liberty but they continued to live, work, and go to school amid the backrop of the stunning mountains.  Ansel Adams used his camera to document how people lived in this place of terrible beauty.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Save The Earth And The Building

Lever House, 1951
Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois
New York City, New York
Hello Everyone:

Should we try to save iconic buildings that hurt the environment?  This is the question architect James Timberlake addresses in his article for Fast Design titled, "Should We Save Mid-Century Modern Icons That Hurt The Environment?"  This question becomes increasingly important as more and more of our mid-century modern buildings come under consideration for preservation.  This question is also timely, in light of the recently concluded climate talks in Paris, France.  At the summit, world leaders spent a full day discussing"...public policies and financial solutions to reduce carbon emissions within the building sector."  It is a known fact that buildings are responsible for about "30% of global greenhouse gas emissions."  At the same time, there are ongoing discussions, within the construction industry, over what to do about inefficient buildings from previous eras.  The debate is focused on historic value versus economics eventually leading to the big question: "Are these buildings worth retrofitting, or do we tear them down and start over?"

During the post-World War II building boom, approximately 30 million commercial buildings went up, the majority were high-rises that contained work and living spaces in every major city.  The best-known of them were designed by significant architects such as: I.M. Pei, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Edward Larabee Barnes, as well as the firms: Harrison & Abramovitz, Skidmore, Owing Merrill, and HOK.  They were innovative for their time and became part of our collective urban conscious.  Mr. Timberlake gets to the point and asks, "What are the ethics of intervening in these mid-century structures to bring them up to energy code compliance?"

Society Hill Towers
I.M. Pei
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Left Behind By Advancing Technology

James Timberlake uses the example of his condominium building-the Society Hill Towers, by I.M. Pei, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  As boy, Mr. Timberlake watched the trio of towers rise up from the ground during a stopover on his way to the 1964 World's Fair in New York.  He writes, "Fifty years later, the residents are debating how to make the buildings energy efficient without destroying their character, which mainly comes from the distinctive egg-crate eco-structure of concrete and the floor-to-ceiling windows."  Mr. Timberlakes cites the windows as the most character defining feature, critical to the building's aesthetic quality.  He continues, "Further, the light, views, and how we inhabit the space all depends on these magnificent views."  Be that as it may, the windows are leaky and provide insulation.  Changing out these windows would require massive renovation within each and every apartment.  The condo board has used best practices to reduce the overall energy costs, upgrading the boiler, replacing the pipes, and installing LED lights.  However, the windows remain the energy inefficient element.  The debate over what to do continues.

United Nations Secretariat Building, 1952
New York City, New York
One of the great things about mid-century design and construction is that it advanced the creation of building envelopes.  Mr. Timberlake writes, "Thin-walled glass construction evolved as an alternative to load-bearing masonry walls with punched windows."  Together with the bonus of expansive views and light came the problem of dealing with solar heat and energy loss through those large panes.  Alan Cunningham observed, in his book Modern Movement Heritage, "how to deal with the design intent of these mid-century curtain wall alongside rapidly advancing facade technology became a conundrum."  If the building cannot be upgraded without changing its character, are these structures preservation worthy?

Century Plaza Hotel, 1966
Minor Yamasaki
Los Angeles, California
Worth Saving? 3 Key Questions

In 2013, sustainability consultants Terrapin Bright Green and strategist Bill Browning published the study, "Midcentury (Un) Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1953-1978 Manhattan Office Building."  The report recommended that it was environmentally beneficial to raze these types of building rather retrofitting them with double- or triple paned windows because it would make the building more energy efficient by contemporary standards.  This may seem provocative but it leads to much deeper questions.  Let us start with these three:

1. How much is the facade, or curtain wall to blame for inefficiency?  Currently, it has become quite normal to include embedded environmental impacts in a building's footprint.  Mr. Timberlake writes, "Quantifying the environmental impact of these buildings is essential for environmentally ethical construction and sustainability..."  What is the impact of demolition?  A typical high-rise contains "hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, concrete, glass, and aluminum, much of which may be recycled if properly taken down."  However, when you factor in schedule and cost-if it takes over a year to raze a significantly tall high-rise "...that expense, along with the energy, time and materials already embedded in an existing building may force the argument to re-invest in proper design and engineering, i.e. re-utilizing the existing facade and finding other ways to make the structure energy compliant and efficient."

MetLife Building, 1963
Walter Gropius, Emery Roth, Pietro Belluschi
New York City, New York
2. Does replacing the curtain wall really add up?  More succinctly, "what is the curtain wall value-to-replacement ratio?"  If the curtain wall is retrofitted or replaced, what is the cost in terms of potential energy savings by using a more efficient envelope?  Are the costs mutually beneficial?  James Timberlake tell us, "This is a relatively easy calculation that architects and engineers can do as an act of design."  One example, "life-cycle inventory data sets can be used to account for the upfront environmental cost of materials and the subsequent environmental impact reductions due to operations energy savings."  In short, the more energy saved, the shorter the return period is in context to carbon or costs.

Seagrams Building, 1958
Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson
New York City, New York
3. What if you look beyond the curtain wall?  Are there alternative methods for creating energy efficiency other than replacing the curtain wall?  Alternative methods can include energy off-sets and the "essential evaluation of an adaptive reuse of the curtain wall in itself a building system."  Could an additional interior layer be built to mitigate the lack of a thermal break?  Since all sides of a building are not equal, could we consider selective zone replacement on parts of the exterior elevation that gather or transmit the most energy?

The tabla rasa approach would have serious negative environmental and architectural ethics impact.  Mr. Timberlake writes, "We've learned so much over the years about building renovation and intervening in more conventional structures, or more modest versions of these envelopes, how might these lessons be applied to a 30- or 40-story structure or higher?"  How could more active, passive, or hybrid highly energy efficient curtain walls be developed with the help of engineering firms and global curtain wall makers address the issue?

Infrared image of a 27-story high-rise
Currently, architects and engineers have an array of tools that allow them to find a way forward.  One example of a took is thermal imaging, piloted in European cities to discover which buildings are energy inefficient.  Thermal imaging could be very helpful in cities like New York and could guide policies and budget toward betting the environmental performance in regions that require it.  Also, competitions like Construction magazine's 2016 Design Challenge are a way to engage architects and engineers and create an opportunity for dialogue about long-term remedies.  James Timberlake concludes, "The impact of historical architectural infrastructure on the energy crisis is an ethical problem that we can no longer afford to ignore."

City For Sale

BT Tower
London, England
Hello Everyone:

Are cities commodities that can be bought and sold on the open market?  This is the question that Saskia Sassen took up in her recent article "Who owns our cities-and why this urban takeover should concern us all" for The Guardian.  Ms. Sassen examines how the massive foreign and corporate investment spree of buildings and land, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, signals new phase in major cities and has implications for equity, democracy, rights.   She writes, "From mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties exceeded $ the top 100 recipient cities and $1trillion a year later..."  The point of her article is an examination of this investment surge and why it matters.  Essentially, cities and spaces are places where the powerless make history and culture, thus making their state of powerlessness complex.  She speculates, "If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given out cities their cosmopolitanism.

The current scope of acquisitions has given way to a "systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in our cities."  This transformation changes the significance of the city and has major implications for equity, democracy, and rights.  Cities are complex organic entities.  This state of being has allowed cities across the span of history and geography to outlive powerful national governments.  Think about how long cities such as London, Paris, New York, Bangkok and so forth have been in existence.

Hanoi, Viet Nam
Thrown into this mix, is the opportunity for the powerlessness to declare we are here and this is also our city.  It is not about the money, it is about acknowledging that actual people live hers.  It is in cities, to a large extent, that the powerless have left their footprints-cultural, economic, social; mostly in their neighborhoods.  These footprints have spread out into the greater urban landscape in the form of "ethnic" food, music, et cetera.

Density aside, none of this is possible within the confines of a business park.  Ms. Sassen describes business parks as, "...privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not 'make.'"  Nor is the spread of the cultural, economic, and social footprint possible in the mines or plantations.  She argues, "It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one's powerlessness can happen-because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements."

77 Columbia and 321 8th Avenue
New York City, New York
Yet, those how do have the power, to certain extent, do not want to be troubled by the powerless and just leave them their devices.  Ms. Sassen also points to police violence as a way for the powerful to keep the powerless down.  However, she points out, "...this can often become a public issue, which is perhaps a first step in the longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights."  The cities are the backdrop for which these struggles take and in part, have succeeded.  Be that as it may, it is this very capacity to make history and create culture that is being threatened by the surge of corporate redevelopment in our cities.

A new phase

One way to explain the post-2008 urban investment surge as more of the same.  Saskia Sassen points to the late 1980s which "also saw rapid growth of national and foreign buying of office buildings and hotels, especially in New York and London."  In her article, "The global city: strategic site/new frontier" (, Ms, Sassen wrote about the large number of foreign-owned buildings in London at the apex of this period.  Financial companies from the Netherlands and Japan needed a foothold in the city in order to access the European markets.

Russell Street, Hong Kong

Current trends suggest some significant differences and indicate a whole new phase in the nature and rationale of foreign and national corporate acquisitions.  There are four prominent character defining traits:

The sharp scale-up in the buying of buildings: Cities such as New York and London have long be the object of investment by foreign and national corporations.  More recently, the Chinese have emerged as major buyers in these cities.  Today, about 100 cities have attracted a significant amount of attention from prospective buyers.  To wit, "...foreign and corporate buying of properties from 2013 to 2014 grew by 248% in Amsterdam/Randstadt, 180% in Madrid and 475% in Nanjing.  In contrast, the growth rate was relatively lower for the major cities in each region: 68.5% for New York, 37.6% for London, and 160.8% for Beijing."

Toronto, Canada
The extent of new construction: Acquisition of buildings was a character defining feature of the eighties and nineties boom times-think Harrods Department Store in London, Saks Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center in New York City.  In the post-2008 period most of the buying has been done with the intention of demolishing the existing structure and replacing it with more high-end developments.

The spread of mega-projects with vast footprints: the death knell of the urban fabric?  These mega-developments increase a city's density and actually de-urbanize it-bringing to mind the comment about cities, density is not enough to make a city.

The foreclosing on modest properties: this has had the most catastrophic effect in the United States, where the Federal Reserve reported "...that more than 14 million holds have lost their homes from 2006 to 2014."  One major result of the vast amount of unoccupied or under-occupied property is that, at least, some of it is likely to be redeveloped.

Atlantic Yards development
Brooklyn, New York
  Saskia Sassen writes, "A further striking feature of this period is the acquisition of whole blocks of underutilised or dead industrial land for site development.  Here, the price paid by buyers can get very high."  She cites the Atlantic Yards development by one of the largest Chinese construction companies for $5bn.  Right now, the property is taken up a mix of modest factories and industrial services, neighborhoods, and artists's studios that were pushed out of Manhattan by large-scale developments.

This eclectic mix of occupants will be evicted and replaced by 14 luxury residential tower-"a sharp growth of density that actually has the effect of de-urbanising that space."  This development will become a de facto gated space with a lot of people; not the fascinating mix of use and people that typically make up the urban character.  This kind of development is spreading from city to city and will have similar de-urbanizing effect

Mexico City historic district
The sheer scale and nature of these investments, coupled with the enormous amounts spent on buying urban properties and land is mind numbing.  Ms. Sassen writes, "Those global, corporate investments of $600bn from mid-2013 to mid-2014, and over 1tn from mid-2014 to mid 2015, were just to acquire existing buildings.  The figure excludes site development, another major trend."

The proliferating urban gigantism has been emboldened and enabled by privatization and deregulation that began in the nineties throughout the world, continued to this day with minimal interruption.  The overall result has been the reduction of public spaces and the escalation in the large, corporate private spaces.  Ms. Sassen, "The result is a thinning in the texture and scale of spaces previously accessible to the public."  Where there was government oversight and regulation, or a mechanism to address public complaints, in its place is a corporate headquarters or luxury apartment building.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Saskia Sassen observes, "Global geographies of extraction have long been key to the western world's economic development.  And now these have moved on to urban land, going well beyond the traditional associations with plantations and mines..."  Essentially, the corporatization of access and control over urban properties goes deep, beneath modest homes and government offices.  What we are seeing is large-scale buying of chunks of cities.  The extraction mechanisms are frequently far more complex than the outcomes, which can be brutally elementary.

One important metamorphosis is the shift from primarily small private to large corporate means of ownership-public to private.  This process is accomplished piecemeal, part of the urban land market and urban development.  However, the wholesale purchase of city spaces takes on another dimension, the alteration of a city's historic fabric.

Guizhou-Chiang-Khong, China
This trend has become more acute because "..what was small and/or public is becoming large and private."  This means the transference from small properties within city boundaries, crisscrossed by streets and small plaza, to projects that erase most this fabric of streets and plaza via mega-projects with larger footprints.  Thus, it privatizes and de-urbanizes space regardless of density.

Cities are organic, ever evolving entities and because of this, they are capable of incorporating a diverse body of "...people, logics, politics."  This constant state of flux makes the urban space a "frontier zone where actors from different worlds..." can interact without the restrictions of societal rules of engagement.  It is in this frontier zone where the powerful and powerless can meet meet.  This situation also creates spaces for innovations.  This includes innovations by the powerless, even if they do not become part of the powerful.  The innovators, regardless of socio-economic-cultural background,  produce the elements of a city and leave a legacy that adds to the cosmopolitan environment in a manner that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Highland Park, California
The constant state of flux also has the ability to shape the urban subject and subjectivity.  The organic nature of the city can partly "...override the religious subject, the ethnic subject, the racialised subject, and in certain settings, also the difference of class."  Saskia Sassen observes, "There are moments in the routines of a city when we all become urban subjects-rush hour is one such mix of time and space."

Based on everything that Ms. Sassen has just said, it would seem that cities have this wonderful potential to models of inclusive spaces.  However, her argument takes a sharp turn, writing, "But today, rather than a space for including people from many diverse background and cultures, our global cities are expelling people and diversity."  This point does not seem to so much a self-contradiction rather, an observation that corporate heads and property owners are "...often part-time inhabitants,...very international-but that does not mean they represent many diverse cultures and tradition."  These part-time inhabitant frequently represent "...the new global culture of the successful-an they are astoundingly homogenous, no matter how diverse their countries of birth and languages."  This runs counter to the urban subject that large, mixed cities have historically created.  This is, first and foremost, the global "corporate" subject.

Boston Waterfront
Boston, Massachusetts
Change in the urban environment is ultimately founded on getting rid of what used to be.  Ms. Sassen writes, "Since their beginnings, whether 3,000 years old or 100, cities have kept reinventing themselves, which means there are always winners and losers."  Cities are full of rags-to-riches stories, accommodated by the richness of variety.

Despite the long history of success stories, the contemporary large-scale corporate acquisition of urban spaces creates a de-urbanization dynamic.  Instead of adding to diversity, it generates a whole new urban formation-the monotonous replication of high-rise luxury buildings.  We can look at this as a phenomena that contains its own logic that cannot be bought into line with logic of a traditional city.  It maintains its autonomy and perhaps, shows its back.  It is that backside that does not look attractive.