December 04: Barbara the Bodacious

2016/12/04 § Leave a comment


On this day in every year is the Feast of St. Barbara.

St. Barbara is the patron saint of architects and stonemasons.  Her story includes sheep and locusts, a great tower and lightning strikes, teleportation, daughterly spunkiness aimed at an overbearing father, bizarre and violent death, and other great martyrish stuff.  She’s pretty great, and you should probably make a cake for her feast day today, and also study this comprehensive scholarly study of her legend and its cultural significance: Matters of Taste’s Ode to St. Barbara, complete with prayer.

Image: “St. Barbara Crushing her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio (from this source)

December 03: The Too-Perfect Town

2016/12/03 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1981 ground was broken for Seaside, Florida.

Although not the first twentieth-century town designed on traditional principles of planning, Seaside quickly became the poster child of New Urbanism for the United States and, for better or worse, maintains that position.  Starting in the 1980s, Seaside’s designers and developers worked in an era that benefitted from decades’ worth of dissatisfaction with Modernist vandalism to American cities and the growing warmth for the return of color and character in architectural design that is one of Post-Modernism’s best legacies.  At the core of Seaside’s planning principles were very old ideas: walkable, pedestrian-oriented streets and places, planned centers of community life, variety in kinds of buildings–both formally and functionally considered.

So idealized was Seaside, apparently, with its perfect Florida weather and candy-colored houses, it was chosen as the site of the fictional-fictional town that is the huge set of The Truman Show.  This designation was a double-edged sword: both acknowledging the ideal and pretty nature of the place, while at the same time suggesting it was dangerously divorced from the reality of life: a creepy nostalgia lay behind all those apparently welcoming white-washed porches.  Granted, critics might make that point, and also argue that New Urbanism is quaint architecture for very rich people, as there are observable trends  of very high-priced real estate associated with New Urbanist developments.  But, there is nothing inherently expensive about the architecture: it is a matter of supply and demand.  The quality of life found in beautiful and walkable communities is highly prized, and there is simply not enough of it to go around. The resulting soaring prices are not a problem of New Urbanism, but rather with the hoards of city planners, developers and architects who continue to build too much boring cookie-cutter suburban crap and soulless, high-density urban stonkers.

Image: Jim Carrey in The Truman Show

November 22: Pei in Doha

2016/11/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2008 the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha, Qatar.

Doha was established as a city only in the early nineteenth century; before then it was a small village that depended on Persian Gulf pearl diving.  In the mid-twentieth century Doha suddenly discovered a new source of wealth: oil.  Its growth at the turn of the millennium was as astonishing as other Gulf cities, and with the surge in population to about 1.7 millinon in 2010, the government made swift and grand efforts to ornament the city with pop-up cultural institutions.

One challenge for all of the new building in the Gulf region is the tension that exists in places with little permanent precedent for architects to consider–either the local idiom is oftentimes ephemeral and usually has already been swept away in the name of earlier modernization efforts–and the desire to articulate a sense of place, which necessarily depends on drawing something specific from that place.  Granted, many architects see their task as contributing only to the ideal of the Modern, which is understood as absent of any external references whatsoever (Dubai is pretty expert in this category).  For them, the job is pretty easy, as their clients are supremely wealthy and just as eager as they to create stand-alone monuments to themselves.

But in the very nature of building a museum, the state (which had to amass its collection in quick order) expressed the need for a memory-monument rather than one more glitzy new blob.  The challenge then for the architect, even a modernist like I. M. Pei (b. 1917), was to design a contemporary building with some cultural relevance.  In his work for the museum at Doha, Pei indulged in a lengthy study of Islamic art, the heritage of the artifacts that his building would actually house.   What he found there was an emphasis on stacked and overlapping geometries, complexity spun from straightforward drawing exercises, and the ever-present use of light as a design element itself.  These were not new discoveries for him (this other museum from the mid-1970s is a good point of reference), but rather interests that had defined his work for over half of a century: a happy coincidence that he was able to use to great advantage.  The difference here was to accommodate his own impulses into a context that would be recognizable and relevant to a new audience.

By all accounts, Pei accomplished his task brilliantly in Doha.  The museum is obviously contemporary, and is indeed another grand gesture of Qatari dominance over nature (at least for now) as it is built on a manmade peninsula.  But its particular masses and shapes and design elements coalesce in an image that is at home in Islamic traditions–skirting the edge of modernity and tradition in a skillful, and usually accomplished, way.

Great collection of photos and drawings here

Image: interior of the museum (from this source)

November 10: Making Glass [Boring]

2016/11/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1959 US Patent 2,911,759 was issued for the manufacture of float glass.

People have been glazing windows ever since they started making windows.  Don’t let Laugier fool you: that original primitive hut had windows that were not capricious.  People need enclosed spaces to live, since they don’t fare very well in nature, but they don’t want to live in the dark.  Primitive Man carved holes in his walls, then filled them with something that would keep the rain and bugs out and let the light in–maybe a light cloth, or a piece of vellum smeared with animal fat.  Primitive Man thought that was good enough.

Primitive Man, Jr., thought a hard, impermeable material that did not smell of rotting animal fat was a better idea.  Initially, only rich Post-Primitive folks could use thinly cut alabaster or pieces of glass (made necessarily small by the process in which they were cut from large discs created by blowing large cylinders that were sliced on one side and flattened out).  The technology limited the size a piece of glass might be, and meant that they would be necessarily bumpy or wavy.  By the nineteenth century, Industrial Revolution Man figured out how to make longer glass by rolling sheets through a special machine or casting them on an iron surface.  Either way, the glass required laborious (and expensive) polishing–reminding us that a cheap-looking building like the Crystal Palace was really pretty expensive, and reminding us why it was a long time before we see this amount of glass in one place for a long time.  But even when clients were willing to shell out, architects had the good sense to use glass in concert with other materials that were more amenable to aesthetic traditions.

In the early twentieth century a number of Belgians developed methods for drawing molten glass up from a tank, which lowered the production costs dramatically.  Remember that the structural technology required to make glass and metal buildings existed for generations already; it’s only in the twentieth century that architects and their clients decide this might be a thing to try; the sinking cost of glass may have assisted the theory for transparency that becomes more prominent in these decades.  This was just in time for–or maybe prompted by–the new emphasis on glass in architectural design in the hands of the early Modernists, from nutty-but-lovable Expressionist Bruno Taut to the more successful-but-dour Walter Gropius.  Theirs was the last step before the mid-twentieth century breakthrough with float glass.  Sir Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff (whose names ought to have been written for a Monty Python sketch but are, in actual fact, for real) figured out how to create continuous ribbons of glass on a layer of molten tin, which is the method still used for most window glass in the early twenty-first century.  Finally, super-big pieces of glass, predictably smooth and clear, very inexpensive, and completely void of aesthetic interest without further manipulation.  Glass was already the preferred material for loads of Modernists who were having their way with cities around the world, and continue to do so.  Architects have matched the cheapness and banality of float glass with equally cheap (-looking) and banal buildings.  Behold: Boston, Chicago, London, Dubai, Detroit, Beijing . . . etc., etc., etc.

Back in the day architects understood that the mass of a building should be sculpted to enhance the natural play of light and shade on a facade.  It’s the non-transparent stuff that is fun to look at and easy to live in.  Glass can work with opaque materials in interesting ways, but when it takes over the design, there’s just not much that the building can say any more except “I am a big shiny thing.”  Glass is a convenient way to fill in the necessary holes in architecture to let light in.  Glass is not a building material; it is an enclosure material.  When it takes over, architecture is necessarily thin, brittle, dull.  But it does make a much crunchier setting for, say, Transformers movies–which may be all the evidence necessary to argue for an all-glassy world’s aesthetic and cultural merit.

Image: making cylinder glass, which is, maybe not surprisingly, much more visually intersting than making float glass (from this source)

October 20: Blame And Shame

2016/10/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2005 Wal-Mart opened a store in Teotihuacán, Mexico.

Yes, that Teotihuacán, the two-millennia old city that, at the height of its population, was the largest in the pre-Columbia Americas; an unparalleleld site of archaeological, sacred and historical significance to a long-lost race, dubbed the “place of the gods” by the later Aztecs.  With a footprint of over 268,000 square feet and rising over 200 feet tall, the Pyramid of the Sun is the most prominent of the many structures that still stands here.

Plans for the 71,902 square-foot store and its 236-space parking lot were approved by state and federal agencies and had the blessing of the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History.  However, approval was granted absent public hearings, and the resignation and death of two successive representatives of the Institute raise eyebrows about the process itself.

Negotiating the rights and interests of past, present and future residents, local consumers, business owners, politicians, archaeologists, tourists and students of culture is no easy matter.  But the construction of a Wal-Mart seems to be one of the worst kinds of development possible so near this site.  Granted, other development is visible from the monuments–but Wal-Mart is not just any kind of development.  It is an arm of the American-based multi-national dedicated to the death of local businesses and by extension the putrefaction of regional customs of consumerism.  It epitomizes everything bad about globalization.  While development that improves the quality of life for residents everywhere and anywhere must be balanced against a mothball approach to protecting historic sites, this one is a grotesque whopper of a mistake.

Image: the store under construction; pyramid in the background (from this source)

October 11: Blast!

2016/10/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1855 Henry Bessemer was granted a patent for his method of processing steel from pig iron.

Bessemer (1813-98) was one of those great nineteenth-century tinkerers whose genius for solving problems was matched by the capacity of the era to provide resources to meet increasingly heroic aims of industrial manufacture.  A byproduct of his experiments in the production of sheet glass, his idea was to convert pig iron to steel by blowing oxygen through it to burn off its impurities (chiefly carbon).  Voilà: cheap steel (only about 1/6 the cost of steel before the process was developed).  Bessemer’s invention allowed the replacement of cast and wrought iron with the stronger metal, which made the construction of broader bridges and taller skyscrapers more economically feasible by the end of the century.

Investigate the “Drama of Steel” (1940s style) here

Image: a Bessemer converter, in action (from this source)

September 25: The Taste

2016/09/25 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2009 the Matters of Taste blog was unleashed to a desperately waiting and needy world.

Ever since–well, except for the recent hiatus–MoT’s apparently extensive, virtually worldwide, and expertly comprehensive staff has peered into the most pressing matters of architectural practice, education and design, critiqued buildings, museums and exhibits, sneered at Barbiexplotation, celebrated fine films and good dogs, prepared lavish meals for dead architects, fawned over nineteenth-century designers, and basically kept an eye out for people, events and activities that fulfill the essential standards of the social contract known as taste, and skewered those that fail.  Vive la Taste.

It’s also Francesco Borrimini’s birthday (no coincidence), so there’s that, too.

Image: the premiere (from this source)

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Contemporary Architecture category at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.