When Girth Is A Virtue

New York City is now home to the world’s skinniest skyscraper. The Steinway Tower has finished construction and is open for occupants. The building comes in at 84 stories in height, is 1,428 feet tall, and has a height to width ratio of 24:1. It is taller, and therefore skinnier, than the other slender skyscrapers that are found on what is being called “Billionaire’s Row” on West 57th Street.

There are 60 apartments in the Steinway Tower’s 84 stories, and as the photo above indicates, the Tower offers a commanding view of Central Park, the east side and west side of Manhattan, and the rivers beyond. According to the CNN article linked above, the prices are extraordinary, even by Manhattan standards: studio apartments are $7.75 million, and the penthouse goes for $66 million. (Seriously, who would want to pay $7.75 million for a studio apartment?)

Photographs of the building make it look like a gigantic, freshly sharpened pencil, and in addition to it’s super-thin appearance, it’s got other architectural flourishes. The facade includes blocks of terracotta, which appears to change color when seen at different times of day with different light and from different angles.

Separate and apart from the cost, and the height, it would take a special person, willing to put a lot of trust into architects, contractors, building materials, and super-height construction techniques, to live in this building. Super-skinny might be fashionable, but in my view when it comes to buildings a little more girth is welcome.

Austin’s Architecture

I’ve been meaning to write one last thing about our recent trip to Austin. If you’re interested in architecture, Austin is a must-visit destination. With the city growing like crazy, and new buildings being constructed everywhere you look, Austin allows a kind of real-time look at the direction of modern architecture.

So, what do you see in Austin’s new buildings? Lots of geometry, for the most part, and not much ornamentation. The ruffles and flourishes that you notice in older buildings—sometimes beautiful, sometimes garish, but almost always interesting—are long gone. The new buildings are sleek and gleaming, and in many instances the simple rectangle and cube designs that maximize the space under roof reign supreme.

But that doesn’t mean the architects don’t try to come up with visually interesting buildings. The Google headquarters building that is under construction and shown in the first photograph in this post is enormous, occupying an entire city block, but the design includes a graceful curve and, at the front of the building not visible in the picture, a unique stacking of floors that makes it look like the observer is peeking into the innards of the building. The design of the top of the building in the photograph immediately above tries to depart from the standard flat roof. And other buildings, like the eye-catching “Jenga” building shown in the bottom photograph in this post, make a statement by playing off the cube and rectangle look in an arresting way.

In the ancient architectural battle of form against function, functionality seems to be winning, but the architects look to be doing their best to add a dollop of flash and flair and inject some art into the architecture. And one other thing is clear: if you live or work in one of Austin’s new buildings, you are going to get lots of natural light, because windows—lots and lots of windows—are a dominant feature. That’s a good thing too, because it shows that today’s architects are concerned about the experience of the people inside the building as the people like me gawking at the skyscrapers from the outside.

Going Classical

Some architects are up in arms about an executive order apparently being considered by the Trump Administration, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  According to a report in the Architectural Record, which says it obtained a preliminary draft of the order, the order would revise the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” issued in 1962 to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.The Architectural Record states that “the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideal.’”  The Record notes that the classical style was the prevailing form of architecture during the time of the Founding Fathers — as evidenced by the designs of Mount Vernon and Monticello.  The Record also reports that the draft order specifically criticizes some recent government buildings for having “little aesthetic appeal.”  The proposed order apparently does make allowances for “traditional architectural styles,” which would include Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial designs — but would ban “Brutalism,” the blocky, massive style of building that came into vogue in the middle of the 20th century and was the preferred style in the Soviet Union.

The American Institute of Architects says that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposes any change to the guidelines for constructing government buildings, and is urging its members to sign an online petition objecting to the proposed order.  According to one on-line report, the AIA says that “[a]ll architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

It’s not clear exactly what the Trump Administration is contemplating, as the articles I’ve seen say it isn’t commenting on the draft rule.  However, I wouldn’t object to changing the standards to return federal buildings to the classical style, or the quasi-classical style adopted by many WPA federal buildings built during the 1930s.  I’m glad the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, for example, adopted the classical form of architecture; they are lofty, soaring, graceful buildings that are both attractive and aspirational.

Brutalist and Bauhaus designs are neither of those things.  I shudder to think of what a ponderous, looming, dark, Brutalist Lincoln Memorial might look like — but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have its picture taken by millions of tourists every year, as is the case with the Lincoln Memorial we now have.  If businesses want to go the Brutalist route on their corporate headquarters, that’s fine with me — but government buildings should provide a link to the past and our traditions, and do more than simply adopt whatever the prevailing architectural styles might be at the time.


Our New (Old) Library Branch

IMG_4671Kish and I are big users of the award-winning Columbus Metropolitan Library system.  Now that we have relocated to German Village, we obviously won’t be using the New Albany branch as we have been doing for years.  So, where to go?

It turns out that the venerable Main Library on Grant Avenue is one of the nearest branches of the CML.  It’s an easy walk from German Village and a terrific facility, so we’ve decided to adopt it as our new branch of choice.

The Main Library originally was called the Carnegie Library, and its original building was opened in 1907.  It’s a beautiful marble and granite structure with fantastic interior flourishes, including tiled hallways, stained glass skylights, soaring ceilings, and sweeping staircases.  There’s also a huge modern addition behind the original building that was added in 1991.  It doesn’t have the same architectural panache as the original — at least, not in my view — but it is huge and houses an enormous collection on three sprawling floors.  As a fan of the music CD options the CML offers, it’s nice to be able to browse a different assortment of jazz, classical, and rock options than was found in the New Albany branch and make a few impulse selections, as I did yesterday.

IMG_4667Our timing in beginning to use the Main Library is just about perfect, because the recent addition will be closing in less than two weeks for a major renovation — and, as one of the librarians explained yesterday, the library will somehow try to fit the staff and collection back into the original Carnegie building during the renovation period.  It will be good to see the initial building returned to its intended use again, although it will undoubtedly be a tight squeeze.

The renovation plans are impressive.  One of the main goals is to link the library to Columbus’ Topiary Park to the east by getting rid of an intervening parking lot and fence, landscaping the area, and adding an open deck that will function as a reading area.  It sounds like a terrific idea . . . and any proposal that replaces downtown surface parking lots with more green space has my enthusiastic support as a matter of course.  The east facade of the existing library building also will be replaced with glass, and the library will incorporate some new technology and new features in its children’s space.  All told, the renovation will cost $30.4 million and won’t be completed until summer 2016, which means we’ll get to become very familiar with the Carnegie building in the interim.

Using the Main Library is different from the New Albany branch — it’s far bigger, and the New Albany branch didn’t require the security guards that seem to be an inevitable part of any downtown building that is open to the public — but it has all of the features that make the Columbus Metropolitan Library system so excellent, including the ability to reserve books, CDs, and other parts of the library collection on-line.  Columbus’ Main Library is a treasure to be supported, and I’m glad that the community is investing in it.


Frank Lloyd Wright

The Frederick C. Robie House

The Frederick C. Robie House

If Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, then Chicago must be the Town of Frank Lloyd Wright.  His studio was in one of the Chicago suburbs, and homes he designed are found throughout the area.  In Richard’s Hyde Park neighborhood alone, a casual stroll takes you past two homes created by the famous architect:  the Isidore Heller house, built in 1897, and the celebrated Robie House, which opened in 1910.

On Saturday we took a tour of the Robie House, which many consider to be the pinnacle of Wright’s Prairie-Style Design.  As his work progressed, Wright’s home designs took on an increasingly geometric approach, and the Robie House certainly reflects that trend, with long horizontal exterior lines and crisp angles.  The interior rooms also are geometric and open, with large windows that open out onto second-story balconies that circle the front part of the structure.  The inside of the house feels very open and airy.

I don’t know a lot about Wright’s work, but I was struck by his elegant solutions to some basic home design issues.  He wanted to ensure privacy of the Robie family, so he decided to put the principal living areas on the second floor, where the Robies could look out the many windows but passersby on the ground below, blocked by the bulk of the exterior balconies, could not see in.  He also used wooden screens and beautiful decorative windows to partially shield occupants of rooms from view.  Wright also disliked open radiators and wiring, so he placed the heating and lighting elements behind attractive wooden structures.  His attention to detail included designing special light fixtures, built-in drawers and cabinets to decrease the need for bulky furniture, and a unique dining room table.

The Heller house, which we saw only from the outside, presages Wright’s developing style and is viewed as a key transitional point in his career.  It is marked by some beautiful ornamental work on the exterior but also reflects Wright’s love of geometric design.  According to the sign out front, it is for sale.  Imagine owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house!

Before our tour of the Robie house we watched a short video about Wright and the history of the house.  One point that was made was that Wright believed that America should develop and capture its own style, rather than borrowing the turreted, gothic designs of Europe.  His Prairie Style homes, with their characteristic geometric appearance, and his interest in designing not only structures but also windows, furniture, and light fixtures flowed from that deep belief.  The result is beautiful — but it failed to have the lasting impact that Wright hoped for.  In our subdivision you’ll find many Georgian homes but not many that borrow Wright’s lines or theories.  It’s too bad, but we should all still admire his effort, the sweep of his vision, and his interest in America staking out its own approach.

The Isidore Heller house.

The Isidore Heller house.

A Temporary Invalid’s Perspective

As our readers know, I’ve been stumping around on crutches for a few weeks now as my foot heals. And yesterday Kish and I had to go visit someone in Riverside Methodist Hospital and realized that crutches just wouldn’t work, so I plopped myself down into a wheelchair for the visit. Both experiences have given me a new perspective.

With crutches, my main concern is stairs, ramps, and floor surfaces. Even a single step, such as from from one room to another, can pose a significant risk. If there’s no handrail, your only choice is to teeter on your crutches and hop up or down on your good foot, hoping you don’t fall in the process. If you’re talking three or four steps, forget it. The chance that you are going to be able to repeatedly balance and land successfully is miniscule — which means you are risking a crash. When I go up and down the stairs at home, I do it on my knees or on my butt, one step at a time. That’s OK for home, but it’s obviously not a very dignified approach when you are in a public place.

IMG_1866Ramps are better, obviously, because no hopping is required. But if the surface is not flat and clear, ramps also pose a risk. I don’t achieve enormous ground clearance when I balance on my good foot and swing my crutches forward, so if there’s any change in the surface it might snag the rubber tip on the end of the crutches and cause the finely calibrated crutching process to come to a screeching halt. That can happen even on a flat surface, if it has carpeting with some kind of raised pattern.

As for the wheelchair, it apparently changes the perspective not only of the seated person but also of everyone else. When I was seated in a wheelchair, I felt reduced and shrunken and somewhat helpless. Curiously, the hallway scenery seems to move by much more swiftly when you are wheelchair-bound, perhaps because you aren’t the person who is in control of speed or direction.

The most fascinating aspect of my brief wheelchair adventure, however, was the reaction of other people. When we went to the hospital Kish initially put me in a wheelchair by the door, then went to park the car. As I waited, several people walked by without so much as a nod in my direction or an acknowledgement of my presence. This is unusual behavior in the friendly Midwest, where it’s rare to not look passersby in the eye. For those people, apparently, I might as well have been a piece of furniture. I wonder if other people in wheelchairs have had similar experiences?

My experience suggests that building designers and architects would be well served by spending a few days on crutches and in a wheelchair, to appreciate the challenges involved and consider first-hand how their designs might affect people using those devices. It has definitely opened my eyes.

The Generic Outerbelt Architecture Zone

Most major American cities have an “outerbelt” — a multi-lane highway that rings the core metropolitan area. Outerbelts are supposed to facilitate traffic flow and spur economic development. Unfortunately, outerbelts typically feature the ugliest, most generic modern architecture you can possibly imagine.

IMG_1860The picture accompanying this post was taken as we were driving along I-270, which is Columbus’ outerbelt. If I didn’t identify the location, though, people in Indianapolis, or Atlanta, or Dallas, or virtually any other American city might easily believe that the picture was taken on their ring road. The squat, featureless, five- or six-story brick or concrete office building is so ubiquitous you wonder why anyone hires an architecture firm these days. Don’t they just recycle the same boring designs endlessly? Don’t architects grow weary of designing utterly graceless, interchangeable boxes that can be plopped anywhere on an outerbelt and immediately be lost in the bland, maddening sameness?

People used to care about the buildings they constructed. They wanted them to be functional, sure . . . but they also wanted them to add to the beauty of their cities. Older buildings have all kinds of interesting cornices, and pedestals, and statuary, and other ornamentation that will make you stop and take notice. With modern buildings, that is no longer the case. Now, we drive by the generic outerbelt ugliness without a second glance, or even a thought.

If you drive to a city, your first impression of the town is created by what you see in the outerbelt zone. For most American cities I’ve visited, it’s not a positive first impression — instead, it makes you think the city is another boring, indistinguishable cookie-cutter exercise. Often, of course, the band of outerbelt ugliness doesn’t really reflect what the city is like. Why don’t city planners care more about the dismal impact of the outerbelt zone?

The Soulless Robocop Zone

IMG_5920I prefer old hotels to new hotels. New hotels offer more plug-ins for our electronic devices and more modern amenities. Old hotels, however, definitely have better lobbies. I’ll take clocks, painted ceilings, and gilding over generic atriums any day.

When I enter some modern hotels — like the one I stayed in most recently, which shall remain nameless — I feel like I’ve been flung into one of those sci-fi movies about a Big Brother future where all concepts of art and beauty have been stripped away, leaving only a soulless, dreary, monochromatic functionality. I half expect to see RoboCop come springing out from behind one of the elevator towers.

Tower Bridge, December 29

063The Tower Bridge is a fabulous bridge. It’s one of those pieces of public architecture that says a great deal about the time and the place in which it was built. The Tower Bridge — built at the end of the 1800s, and featuring all kinds of wholly unnecessary, entirely ornamental spires and turrets and gold-topped embellishments — speaks of an Empire at the height of its commercial and military power.

The Guardian Building

IMG_5151On our visit to downtown Detroit over the weekend, Russell made sure that we stopped by the Guardian Building, which has to be one of the coolest buildings you’d find anywhere.  It is a fantastic palace of a building that combines Incan themes, Art Deco motifs, and the kind of architectural flourishes that you’d expect from a wealthy Bavarian prince.  Walking through the building is a feast for the senses — as I hope the photos in this post demonstrate.

IMG_5154Of course, Detroit being Detroit, reality had to intrude into the dream.  Some time ago, somebody thought it would be wise to connect this fabulous structure to the boring high-rise across the street through what looks like a cheap aluminum tube.  It’s hideous, and it tells you a lot about the kind of judgment Detroiters were using during the city’s long downhill slide.  Fortunately, nobody messed with the lobby area of the building, where these photos were taken.


A Sucker For Old Courthouses

IMG_4126I’m a sucker for old courthouses.  Take me just about everywhere in America and I’ll start scanning the horizon for a tower that might signal the presence of a county courthouse built back in the days when communities thought centers of justice were worth more than a just few tax dollars.

The Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio is a good example.  It a a bold, multi-towered structure made of red sandstone and granite that stands out against the perpetually blue Texas sky.  It was built in the Romanesque Revival style, with one spire that is topped with a beehive-like dome.  The large courtyard in front of the courthouse also features a large fountain with a blind justice statute.

It’s a fantastic building, and I have only one suggestion for San Antonio’s city fathers:  how about more shade in the courtyard?  It would be nice to be able to appreciate the beauty of the building without worrying that your brain was frying like an egg.


Sacred Circle

IMG_3827This neat little architectural flourish is found on an otherwise unremarkable downtown Columbus office building.  Seeing it raises the age-old question:  which is cherubim, and which is seraphim?  If I recall correctly, one of them is supposed to be a head with wings, and one is supposed to be a baby with wings.  Which is which?

Whatever . . . I like the fact that someone saw fit to add a nifty bit of ornamentation to a blank wall.

Truly Supreme (II)

IMG_3063The entrance to the Ohio Judicial Center is every bit as lovely as the Ohio Supreme Court courtroom.

Many busy attorneys hurrying to an oral argument no doubt scurry through the entrance without looking around — or looking up.  Those who fail to do so are missing something, because the ceiling above the entrance sparkles with colorful, carefully inlaid tile work (show above), and the doorways feature beautiful, finely detailed metal gate-like doors (shown below).  How much time did it take for the master craftsmen who were involved to place the tiles or do the metalwork that produced such striking pieces?

When people talk about making a grand entrance, this must be what they are talking about.