Monday, September 24, 2012

Remote Control-Richardson-Hoover Dam (24-30 September)

On this date in design…

“Birth of the Remote Contol”, successful demonstration of the “Telekino” by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, Bilbao, Spain, anniversary 25 September 1906
Henry Hobson Richardson, American Romanesque Revival architect, birthday 29 September 1838
Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada boarder across the Colorado River, dedication 30 September 1934

So much of life is convenienced by such a simple concept of not getting off one’s rear in order to control the myriad of devices that inhabit the modern landscape.  This goes beyond the scope of the television to include keyless ignitions, wireless internet access, G.P.S. and R.C. toys.  It all happens every day, millions of times a day; little thought goes into how it all started: Leonardo Torres y Quevedo and some radio waves.  Named the Telekino, and in the presence of the King of Spain, Quevedo guided a boat from the shore of the port of Bilbao. Granted, Nikola Tesla had also successfully demonstrated his radio-controlled “Teleautomaton” years earlier but received little recognition for its achievement.  Where Tesla’s invention was seen as a novelty, Quevedo applied his technology to projectiles and torpedoes but, just as Tesla, met with public resistance and lack of financing.  However, more recently in 2007 the Telekino was recognized by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as the milestone it was forever granting us (rightly or wrongly) the ability to guide intercontinental ballistic missiles and drone aircraft to reduce the human cost of war.  

So few designers achieve the moniker of their own “style” but such as in the case of other great American architects Wright & Sullivan.  H.H. Richardson developed what would become known as the Richardsonian Romanesque.  In the combination of French, Spanish, Syrian & Byzantine examples he was able to study while at l’École des Beaux-Arts (only the 2nd American admitted to the architecture division) he developed a distinctly unique style.   Richardson’s designs focused on the balance of massive proportions, devoid of elaborate and superficial ornamentation so the viewer would not be distracted from the composition as a whole to appreciate the symmetry and the beauty of the rusticated material of the façade. 
It is this style that he perfected with the Trinity Church in Boston and for this commission he won national attention which guaranteed him work for the rest of this shortened life.  On his deathbed, he hastily scribbled a will in which he asked his assistants to carry on present commissions.  Eventually they formed their own partnership Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, which answered the call for New Orleans to have its own example of Richardsonian in honor of the native son (seen as the majority of this work is in the Massachusetts area). 
The Howard (a.k.a. Taylor) Library Building on Lee Circle now is part of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and open to the public.  However, this is not the only Richardson-inspired building in New Orleans; Tulane University also commissioned a separate firm to complete three buildings in his style which now have become an essential part of the university’s iconography.  The Richardson Memorial Hall completed in 1908 originally housed the School of Medicine but today, more appropriately, is the home of the School of Architecture.  It was the first building on campus to install an elevator, used to transport cadavers for anatomy class.   It could be said that with the late hours architecture students work they still do.   

It may appear hipocrical that so many environmentally concerned Americans have issue with China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River which will displace 1.3 million people and disrupt a delicate ecosystem.  After all, it was the U.S’s own civil engineer on loan from the Department of the Interior who first surveyed the location for China in 1944.  In addition, the U.S. has also made tremendous environmental missteps in the name of economic progress, one of which would be our own Hoover Dam.  In an effort to put people to work during the Great Depression, idea was born to build the dam in Black Canyon to provide hydroelectric power, fresh water & control flooding.  However, in retrospect the decision might have been a little too hasty.  Over 100 lives were “officially” lost; for many others their cause of death were suspiciously attributed to other things such as pneumonia instead of carbon monoxide poisoning to avoid paying insurance claims. 
The first was J. G. Tierney, a surveyor who drowned while looking for the ideal spot for the dam, the last was, sadly, his son Patrick W. Tierney who died 13 years to the day his father did.  Environmentally, the dam does in fact control flooding but at a cost of thousands of species down river in the Colorado River delta who depended on seasonal waters.  Additionally, during construction & since, the delta experiences a reverse flow which has increased the salinity of the marsh to toxic levels. 
As lovely as it is for residents of Las Vegas to enjoy Lake Mead, due to evaporation, there is about 30 feet less of the lake than there was initially.  That means less fresh water and less habitat for fish and other species.  So, in all the post-game analysis of the pros and cons of a dam, can we really blame China for wanting to take advantage of virtually free hydroelectric power in lieu of the coal it burns today?  Man has been manipulating the landscape for millennia and will continue to do so in perpetuity. 

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