Monday, November 26, 2012

Palladio-Crystal Palace-Yamasaki (26 November - 2 December)

on this date in design…

Andrea Palladio, Italian architect, birthday 30 November 1508
Crystal Palace, Hyde Park/Penge Common, London, England, destroyed by fire 30 November 1936
Minoru Yamasaki, American architect, birthday 1 December 1912

To the general public, the name Palladio usually refers to a Palladian style window: an arched top window flanked by matching rectangular ones.  But to the architecture community the image of the nearly perfectly symmetrical Villa Almerico-Capra (a.k.a. Villa Rotunda) comes to mind.  Palladio’s life long search desire to achieve symmetry was influenced by classical architecture after being exposed to Vitruvius’ Seven Books on Architecture and inspired him to write four more of his own.  In the Renaissance, artists were searching antiquity to regain the symbolic knowledge lost during the Dark Ages.  Palladio used classical Roman hierarchies to create a new building type, the agricultural villa, but used inexpensive building materials such as stucco covered brick. 
The Venetian aristocracy of the time ate it up.  These imposing structures lorded over their sites creating a sense of superiority.  This would later influence the American plantation designers where the main house used neoclassical designs and plantation owners attempted to establish their dominance as a new aristocracy. 

At the height of the Victorian Period and the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain sought to hold the world’s first international exhibition.  To accompany the effort, the committee organizers called for designers to submit plans for an exhibition building that was cheap, easy to construct and temporary.  Nearly 250 were submitted but none fulfilled the requirements.  One of the committee members sought out the head gardener at Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton.  
He had been experimenting with greenhouse designs and the new, inexpensive and strong manufactured cast plate glass.  Paxton’s idea of using the manufacturer’s off-the-shelf materials as the basis of the building unit-scale and construction not only saved money, it saved time.  The subsequent design was not only larger than any of the other submissions; it was way under budget and on time. 
The enormous 1,851 foot long structure enclosed over 19 acres of parkland and was adapted to save existing trees to be chopped down (a point of contention to those opposed to the entire production).  This enormous “erector” set was easily dismantled after the Great Exhibition of 1851 and relocated to a park elsewhere in the city.  Unfortunately, little was known about fire safety at that time.  When a small fire started in the women’s coat room it quickly spread to the entire edifice and turned the night sky red visible for eight counties. 

Minoru Yamasaki’s polite quiet demeanor was at odds with the brutal “New Formalism” buildings he designed.  Although, it is for the controversial design of the Twin Towers in New York City Yamasaki is most remembered, it was the Pacific Science Center in the shadow of the Seattle Space Needle that first gained him international praise and the cover of Time magazine in 1963.   The metal lace of the PSC’s gothic pointed vaults was carried over to the purely decorative base of the WTC.   Yamasaki was on the forefront of the postmodernist movement which made his designs an easy target for criticism.
Many referred to the Twin Towers as giant metal file cabinets (and I agree).  However, with their collapse and all the lives taken with them, it is hard not to look at the New York skyline and be reminded of their absence.  This undoubtedly placed them in a more loving corner of the general population’s hearts.  After all the controversy, Yamasaki went on to design the similar Rainier Tower in Seattle which seemed to put the “file cabinet” on a pedestal.  Perhaps this was a figurative thumbing his nose at the critics.

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