Monday, February 4, 2013

Arts & Letters-Owings-Fire Extinguisher (4-10 February)

on this date in Design…

National Institute of Arts & Letters, honor society, Act of Congress passed 4 February 1913
Nathaniel Owings, American architect, birthday 5 February 1903
Fire Extinguisher, invented by Alanson Crane, patented 9 February 1863

The National Institute of Arts & Letters has a confusing and unnecessarily complicated history of inception.  Without going into much detail as to how, the organization is now known as the American Academy of Arts & Letters.  The original “Institute” was founded in 1902 but was recognized by an act of Congress in 1913.  This does not mean it is a government funded or controlled organization, simply that it is recognized and is essentially an honorary title.  Other organizations with this honor include the Girl/Boy Scouts and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Essentially, the purpose of the AAA&L is “to foster and sustain excellence in Literature, Music and the Fine Arts by identifying and encouraging individual artists.”  It does this by awarding prizes (money), exhibiting work and funding performances & literature of up-and-coming artist & authors.  To be elected to the 250 council is not only an honor by being recognized by your peers but is also a life-long membership.  The Academy has also identified and fostered some of the country’s most influential and important artists.  Despite a black period when modernism was shunned, today the AAA&L is more akin to the original progressive intention.  Members include Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, Maya Lin, Richard Meier, I. M. Pei and Robert Venturi to name just a few.    

As one of the founding members of the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merril (SOM), Nathaniel Owings’ business & organizational acumen lead the firm to become known worldwide for reliability for large-scale developments.  Despite a cantankerous relationship with Louis Skimore, SOM became and still is the quintessential “go-to” firm for record making skyscrapers.  The two were so independently strong willed that a satellite office had to be opened in New York so they didn’t have to be in the same city together.  But, with the even-tempered engineer John O. Merril in the middle, the business partnership was an enormous success.  SOM has the most buildings on the “World’s Tallest Buildings” list with 10. 
That’s 6 more than any other firm on the list and they are about to add 11th with One World Trade Center holding fast to spots 1 and 2.  Owings retired from the firm in 1975 but remained an active advocate for open public spaces in American cities including acting as President Johnson’s design advisor for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, the California Architectural Council of the AIA continues his legacy by awarding an architectural prize in his honor each year to projects that reconcile the potential adverse needs between nature and the built environment.  The 2012 winner, the California Academy of Sciences is truly inspiring as it serves two purposes as a building and a science experiment simultaneously.  Think of it as one giant terrarium.     

In the wake of yet another deadly night club fire last week (this time in Brazil) it is appropriate that we look at a fire prevention device.  Before there were fire extinguishers, there were fire grenades.  It seems counter-intuitive to throw a grenade at a fire.  However, these small orb-shaped glass bottles filled with fire suppression liquid would be hurled at an ensuing fire with moderate success.  With the advent of the fire extinguisher, a person would have a bit more control over where the liquid landed and thereby a better chance of actually containing the fire.  The basic principle is to contain the liquid within a pressurized canister when opened the liquid will shoot out; much like a “Super-Soaker” water gun works.  Thankfully, there have been many devices created over the past few centuries but Alanson Crane’s was the first in the US. 
With each new technology, buildings and the public at large are safer provided municipal codes are in place, followed and enforced.  The US today has some of the strictest Life Safety codes in existence.  These are not hurdles that hinder the design process.  These are essential the functionality of a building and legitimize our job as design professionals.  The next time you enter a public building, take a moment to locate some of the devices put there by the designer for your safety: lighted exit signs, overhead sprinklers, fire alarms, emergency back-up lighting (thank you Super Dome) and attached to the wall--a fire extinguisher.     


American Academy of Arts & Letters 

Biography of Nathaniel A. Owings on the SOM website 
Willis Tower, Chicago, IL
John Hancock Center, Chicago, IL
Nathaniel A. Owings Award
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA

National Fire Protection Association
NFPA artidle on Brazilian nightclub fire, 27 January 2013
NFPA article on fire extinguishers
ESPN article on the Super Dome Super Bowl power outage, 3 February 2013


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