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. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Trajan-Chihuly-Burj Khalifa (17-23 September)

On this date in design…

Trajan, XIII Roman Emperor, birthday 18 September 53
Dale Chihuly, American glass sculptor, birthday 20 September 1941
Burj Khalifa, Dubai, U.A.E., anniversary beginning of construction 21 September 2004

On the outskirts of Seville in Andalusia, ancient Hispania, the infamous Roman Emperor Trajan was born to Roman elite parents.  Not only was he responsible for orchestrating massive gladiatorial festivals in which over 11,000 prisoners & thousands of animals were publically murdered, he instituted popular welfare programs and implemented multiple building campaigns all designed to keep the citizenry happy and entertained.  
His chief architect of his many triumphal arches throughout the empire and “Trajan’s bridge” across the Danube was Apollodorus of Damascus.  Apollodorus is also often credited for building the Pantheon, although there has never been any reliable documentation of that.  One of Trajan’s most notable projects completed during his reign in Rome was his forum & market complex.  It was once thought to be the world’s first shopping mall but recent theories suggest it was an administrative office complex.  On the more unusual site, he broke from the arch tradition to create a new type of monument: Trajan’s Column which commemorates one of his many military successes.  He was anything but modest, but then again, was there ever a Roman emperor who was? 

With the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Art Glass Movement being celebrated this year by multitudes of retrospective and exhibits it is all too fitting that the work of Dale Chihuly be featured.  As one of the brave pioneers into this medium that was once restricted to large-scale industrial production, he has been able to produce pieces that are extraordinarily delicate, enticing, overwhelming by sheer magnitude.  His studio works much as one from the Renaissance, where he as the master oversees a core of apprentices.  To build the communal spirit there is one enormous long natural wood table that all are encouraged to congregate at not just for meals but for collaboration. 
The majority of his work is evocative of sea creatures, collections of fire tongues and unearthly flora.  As much as the name Chihuly is salivated over by designers & clients alike, the time may have come that he has reached the pinnacle; dangerously teetering on the verge of becoming a one-trick-pony as Britto and Gehry.  This is a difficult wire to tread as artists strive to satisfy the desires of an adoring public while maintaining a forward-thinking creative flow.  None the less, I still would jump at the chance to own a piece and will make room in my schedule to see any exhibition in the neighborhood. 

Ahhh, the Burj!  This still amazes and astounds me.  This vertical city was six years in the planning and will sit atop the list as the tallest structure built by man for many, many years.  Thanks to the design team from Skidmore, Owings & Merril (SOM) evoking images of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile high tower, that pinnacle has come closer than ever before and trumps any attempt since.  The Burj Khalifa stands at 2,717 feet high, over 1000 feet taller than the next contender.  Equally as iconic as this new tower is the architectural firm who designed it.  SOM has designed 10% of the world’s top 100.  This may seem like a small number until you analyze the list a bit closer: out of 100, that is 10 completed and separate buildings.  The next closest in number would be Cesar Pelli & Associates with four but it may be unfair that the Petronas Towers were each counted separately.  If that’s the case then Cesar is tied with Tange & Associates (see 3 September entry) but none of Tange’s buildings reach the 1000 foot mark.  For SOM, all but one is over a thousand.  After the building boom than gave us the Chrysler Building lay dormant, SOM reinvigorated the race for the sky with the first project to attempt that mark after the Empire State Building with the John Hancock Center in Chicago in 1969 and established themselves on the global market as the “go-to” firm for massive buildings. 

So it may be a little unfair that they have out-shined everyone else since they’ve been at it longer than anyone. 


Monday, September 10, 2012

Lascaux-Sottsass-Vishwakarma Puja (10-16 September)

On this date in design…

Lascaux Caves, Southwest France, anniversary of discovery 12 September 1940
Ettore Sottsass, Italian architect & designer, birthday 14 September 1917
Vishwakarma Puja, Hindu god of architecture, holiday (India), 16 September (alternatively 17 September)

When four French teenagers chased their dog Robot deep into a remote cave little did they know they were on the verge of one of the most significant discoveries of prehistoric art.  Since there have been several other sites discovered but this was an eye-opener to the world community as to the complexity and detail which the Paleolithic mind was able to communicate in visual form nearly 15,000 years ago.  Today it is still hotly debated as to the intention of the artists; from ritualistic to historical recording.  However, one cannot help but be amazed at the diversity of subjects, the depiction of seasonal changes and the overwhelmingly apparent symbolic meaning behind the images still unknown to us.  There are records of now extinct species and herds of animals that read like an encyclopedia of the hunt. 
There are even examples that appear to regress in perspective; a technique that would be rediscovered during the Renaissance.  This monumental discovery forced modern man to rethink the nature of what the prehistoric man was able to comprehend and thus paint the way for further understanding of from where we, as a species, came.

If Ettore Sottsass would have a say in what would happen to the caves paintings at Lasceaux he no doubt would say to destroy them.  This seems harsh but for Sottsass, his idea was that the future only begins when the past is completely dismantled, and its logic reduced to dust so only nostalgia remains.  He saw that the past was a jumping off point and for humanity to continue to progress. 
And to this credit, it can be believed that we as a species have considerably evolved from those Paleolithic individuals for millennia without the benefit of access to those wonderful images to guide us.  In Sottsass’s case, he went further to figuratively dismantle the design greats of the past such as Wright and create new forms.  He believed that functionalism is not enough; design should also be exciting and sensual. 
This theory lead to the formation of the Memphis group in the early 1980s (and as you may already know my personal least favorite movement).  However, in challenging the avant garde to push forward there was a creative freedom that eliminated heavy-handed design for design’s sake.  Designers who followed his mold such as Gehry & Graves were light-hearted and expressive.  To document the deterioration of the past, Sottsass always carried a camera which was confiscated on more than one occasion; once while photographing a rotting window on a police station.  The police might not have understood his fascination with the ruin but were more concerned that he was casing the joint.

Continuing on a venture into the mythical past, according to the Mahabharata legend, Vishwakarma Puja is the divine draftsman of the entire universe and the official builder of all the palaces of the gods in addition to their flying chariots & weapons.  He is depicted as wearing lots of gold topped off with a gold crown.  In his four hands he holds a pot of water, a book, a noose & craftsman’s tools.  Unlike in the west, Indian culture commemorate the day by using it as an excuse to increase productivity and be inspired to create innovative products.  Most of the festivities happen on factory floors.  However, Hindus also make the connection with the heavens by flying kites; most likely encouraged by Vishwakarma Puja to create new and exciting designs for the sky.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Schlemmer-Tange-Serlio (3-9 September)

On this date in design…

Oskar Schlemmer, German painter, sculptor, designer & choreographer, birthday 4 September 1888
Kenzo Tange, Japanese architect & Pritzker Prize winner, birthday 4 September 1913
Sebastiano Serlio, Italian mannerist architect & author, birthday 6 Septeber 1475 

It seems as though the Bauhaus gets a lot of attention here but its far-reaching impact is limitless.  With the addition of Oskar Schlemmer to the faculty in the sculpture department and eventually the theater department, the influence on the art world exceeded the oppression of the Third Reich.  One unique feature of the Bauhaus is that so many controversial and challenging individuals with conflicting ideas thrived in constructive disharmony.  Schlemmer objected to the popular abstract ideas, focusing more on the human figure and its relationship to the space in which it occupies fundamentally grounding what architecture should be.  This is illustrated by his reduction of the human form to an architectural language that emulated movement thereby “capturing” the fourth dimension in physical space.  The influence of these dancing forms can be seen today in the work of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid who both strive for Schlemmer’s theories in the contemporary world.   

In the aftermath of the destruction of World War II, the metabolist movement took hold in Japan and one of its most ardent supporters and contributors was Kenzo Tange.  This movement is characterized by large-scale flexible & expandable structures what would grow organically as the needs of a population changed.  
It is easy to make this connection in the atmosphere of two nearly leveled cities where the architects of the time were mostly concerned with housing the demoralized population.  In the case of Tange, his design was selected to memorialize the event with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  The museum hovers over the axis of the park in plain, unadorned concrete so as to not distract from the contents inside; the visitor is suspended on piloti in the figurative mushroom cloud. 
Not long afterward in 1953, Tange was one of the few select architects and journalist who were invited to participate in the documentation of the habitual construction of the Ise Shrine.  Historically a closed process it also marked the end of the US occupation of Japan.  Later, he was able to demonstrate to the world his talent for combining traditional Japanese design with the modernism by completing a few structures for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; the first held in Asia.  This would make Tange’s work in demand around the world and notably, his funeral was held in the Tokyo Cathedral he designed.   

In the time of the Renaissance, the world was hungry to elevate the human experience not just societally and scientifically but artistically.  As advances in building and communication technologies arose and in his day, Sebastiano Serlio laid the groundwork for proliferation of the Italian Renaissance style throughout Europe with his influential book “I Sette Libri Dell'architettura”, a.k.a. “The Seven Books of Architecture”.  This addition to the design community enlivened the atmosphere.  It examined and definitively identified the proportions and geometries of architecture.  It combined both high quality illustration with explicit written instruction for not only architects but the builders and craftsmen of the time to achieve what could be argued perfection in built design focusing on the practical rather than theoretical aspects. 
This work is still in use today and is a phenomenal reference for the classical orders.  The comparison could be made that what Serlio did for architecture was what the Bauhaus accomplished in the 20th century.  To see Serlio’s work in physical form visit le Châteaux de Fontainebleau.