Object + Window + Mirror + Lens

object etc

OBJECT + WINDOW + MIRROR + LENS also presents a spectrum and, again, it spans conveniently from objectivity to subjectivity. I wrote about this back in 2013 when a friend (on whom I tried it out and whose judgment has proven to be sound on most matters) thought the meme might be useful. As a case study, consider the example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house of 1908-1909 for Frederick and Lora Robie:


As an OBJECT, the house can be described with several pieces of objective information on which there is general agreement.

  • It is a single-family residence at the northeast corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue [#5757] in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
  • Construction began in the spring of 1909 and the house was occupied the following year.
  • It is an iconic example of Wright’s “Prairie Style” developed during the preceding decade.
  • The client Frederick C. Robie was a Chicago industrialist.

There are several visual characteristics that define Wright’s “Prairie Style” including predominant horizontal lines, window openings in clusters or bands, exaggerated roof overhangs.

It’s possible to continue, using the house as a WINDOW into the clients (Frederick Robie, wife Laura née Hieronymous , son Frederick Jr., and daughter Lorraine), the source of their wealth (automobile manufacturing), and their reasons for choosing the site (to be near Mrs Robie’s alma mater the University of Chicago and her social connections there). WE can legitimately ask what role the house played in their business, social and family life.

  • What construction challenges did the house present its builders H. B. Barnard & Co.?
  • Did Robie entertain business associates here or prefer to do that in the more neutral territory of a downtown social club?
  • How often did Mrs Robie invite university friends and faculty into her home—and how did they react to a design so different from its neighbors in both style and furnishings?
  • Who occupied the service wing (two servant’s rooms and an attached three-car garage)?
  • Why did the Robie family occupy the house for a mere fourteen months?

MIRROR is a category of meaning that will vary with the viewer: What I see and why I see it, i.e., what interests me particularly about the house, may not coincide with your observations or the perspectives they represent. I, for example, am curious about access to the house—the long front on 57th Street presents a level of openness, of visual access, which is both illusory and contradictory: Wright has contrived the planters, roof overhangs and faceted leaded glass doors for light to enter but also to keep out prying eyes. And the entry is anything but obvious and the front door itself so concealed that it conjures the citadel at Mycenae. Was this requested by the Robies or does it represent Wright’s own ambivalence about the institution of marriage? The architect was unable to supervise construction because he had run off to Europe with the wife of a client and the Robie marriage itself would dissolve by divorce in 1912. It reads too much like “The Forsyte Saga.” When I saw the building as a teenager was influential in my choice of architecture as a career. Clearly I see the house for what it can tell us regarding Edwardian social propriety and a personal talisman for fifty-seven years.

Which brings us to LENS, precisely the “big picture” view that any piece of architecture invites; the LENS permits us to see around corners and in greater detail what the WINDOW does not. A survey of architects several years ago identified Robie House as one of the ten most important buildings in the United States. It appears prominently in the Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (a.k.a. the Wasmuth Monograph) whose 1909 publication brought Wright to Europe before the building was even complete. And threats to its existence in 1957 led to the worldwide preservation that has resulted in its restoration as a house museum.

History + Theory + Criticism + Implementation


There is a difference between a course titled “The History of Architecture” and another called “Architectural History.” The first is fundamentally a sequence of styles and their characteristics, the details that help us differentiate one style from another. The other is holistic — including social-economic, political, technological and æsthetic perspectives — and uses architecture as a window into the past. This is the course I’d prefer to take and the one I try to teach.

Examining the history of any field or discipline involves four points of view on a spectrum from objective to subjective.  And each of those vantage points consists of a series of questions. History, for example, is at the extreme objective end of that spectrum and entails the questions What? Where? When? and Who? Consider the Sagrada Familia as an example:

  • Its full official title is Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family—usually shortened to Sagrada Familia.
  • It is located in the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, capital of the Spanish Autonomous Region of Catalunya.
  • It was begun in 1882 and remains incomplete today, with a goal of completion by 2026.
  • The original architect was Francisco Paula de Villar who resigned in 1883 and was replaced by Antoni Gaudí, who remained its architect until his death in 1926.

Most of these statements are factual and unlikely to find disagreement. They are objectively true.

Theory is centered on the question Why? Why, as a late 19th century foundation, does its plan so closely resemble the ground plans of so many French Gothic cathedrals of the years 1150-1350? Why, then, do its columns lean so precariously from the perpendicular, unlike its French Gothic precedents? Why do its decorative elements range so widely in style, from Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau and even Cubism? To answer those questions, given that Gaudí is long dead, we might consult several sources that yield conflicting ideas and interpretations. There are certainly “answers” I prefer, but I’m also open to new perspectives and willing to change my mind. Suffice to say, Theory is measurably less objective than History.

Criticism takes us one more step toward the subjective and asks a single question: How well did Gaudí satisfy his client’s needs? How successful is the Sagrada Familia as an expression of Roman Catholic theology? Then (1885) or now (2016)? The critical evaluation of Gaudí’s design will differ with each of our individual perspectives. To what extent can the Sagrada Familia be used to understand its time and place?

Implementation brings us to complete subjectivity: Based on your evaluation of the Sagrada Familia and all its fame and flaws, How would you have done it? What would you as a designer do to improve upon Gaudí’s evolving solution to the problem presented to him? How would you “complete” a building left unfinished at his death in 1926, for which Gaudí’s intentions may be insufficiently documented? What compromises, if any, would you accept to complete the building by the 2026 centennial of the architect’s death?

A course that raises at least some of these questions and offers strategies for answering them is my goal. One of these years, I might actually succeed.

On Teaching (1.0)


Now architecture—if you think of it in terms of school—…began with a man under a tree who didn’t know he was a teacher, talking to a few who didn’t know they were pupils.   —Louis I. Kahn, lecture delivered at International Design Conference, Aspen, Colorado (1962)

Somewhere between quotation and paraphrase [I’m writing this from memory], Kahn’s observation is damned close to my own views on education. It seems very likely that the majority of our education happens someplace other than the classroom; possibly even other than the studio-laboratory; very likely outside the building itself. Which is not to deny the value of our transactions in those settings; I simply hope to put them in perspective.

In fact, everything I know about architecture could be put on one side of a three-by-five index card, because the essence of architecture, like the meaning of life, is much less complicated than we expect. Number seventeen among the “25 Random Things About Me” in FaceBook is one of those simple ideas: A really great question is worth 10,000 facile replies pretending to be answers.

A problem with efforts to become educated, to be less ignorant, to be informed, is our fetish for answers. And there are plenty of people out there more than willing to give you access to their repertoire of answers. For six easy payments of $29.95, but if you call in the next thirty minutes, we’ll knock off one of those payments. Donald Trump has a mother lode of answers for us; we just have to wait until November 9th to find out what they are. But in the meantime, trust him, because they’re great answers; some of the best answers really; just answers like you’ve never encountered before. And therein lies the problem of our age: the search for answers is far less significant than phrasing the question itself.

I have a meeting this afternoon—with someone whose judgment I implicitly trust—because, in one of my very long-term research projects, I’ve misplaced the original question. In the mass of information accumulated during this last thirty years—four file drawers crammed with photocopies and correspondence; at least ten thick ring binders with 3,000-4,000 postcard images—I’ve lost my way. Now I need help recovering the question that set it all in motion.

The remainder of that three-by-five card would be filled with three frameworks for thinking about architecture; certainly talking about it; possibly even the actual making of architecture:


I’ll say more about each of these in the next few entries. In the meantime, I’ll close with some even simpler advice on the Meaning of Life:

Well, that’s the End of the Film, now here’s the Meaning of Life. [An envelope is handed to the Lady Presenter. She opens it in a business-like way.] Thank you Brigitte. [She reads.]… Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. And finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy which it seems is the only way these days to get the jaded video-sated public off their fucking arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment bollocks! What they want is filth, people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats – where’s the fun in pictures? Oh well, there we are – here’s the theme music. Goodnight.


Art Deco, Moderne, and Modern

The two or three decades before my birth have always been troubling to me regarding Agincourt. These represent stylistic phases of the Pre-Modern and Modern Movements that are difficult to put on, so to speak, as design idioms for Agincourt. This postcard of the Stanislaus County Hall of Records in Modesto, California, caught my eye today and inspired me to reconsider the six-story Medical Arts building I began two or three years ago.


Built in 1938-1939 from plans by architect Russell Guerne deLappe [1897-1955], I suppose technically this is a Moderne [moh-durn] building, and it may do double duty as a WPA/PWA project, as well. So I may be killing two of those birds with just one stone.

Photographs of the building today — stuccoed and painted an “eye rest” beige and sporting louvered window canopies — drain all that raw energy from the concrete formwork. And the rhythm of window mullions and muntins that had previously coördinated with the residual form marks has been lost in a re-windowing. Sure it was probably an energy conservation effort but something visceral was sacrificed in the process. And now that I look more closely and make these observations, I’m not so hesitant to plunge back into the Medical Arts challenge.

Medical Arts

PS: My scheme for Medical Arts is a forty-five degree rotation at First Street SW and Louisa—a site previously occupied by single-family homes, I suspect. The rotation may have come from some sort of equanimity: that the sun should shine on as many of the building’s faces as possible throughout the year. But now that I think that through again, it’s clear that wings pointing to the cardinal points of the compass would do a better job of that. Ah, well, the best-laid schemes and all that.

What also occurred to me well after the scheme was “set” was the similarity with the original Southwest School [later renamed for Nicolaus Copernicus], a plan that I divined from a postcard view of a 19th century school in southern Illinois. You can see it at the far left of this segment of the city map. And that may also account for the rotation of the plan itself. Design is, for me at least, a highly intuitive process.

As a non-profit corporation, the Medical Arts building would have been ineligible for a WPA/PWA connection; those agencies were available to only government entities. Still, the client—the Corporation of Luke the Physician—would have been mindful of the spirit of the times and maintenance of a properly discreet corporate presence. No gratuitous marble cladding here, thank you very much.


“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for….”

“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” —Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. As Detective William Somerset in the film “Se7en,” Morgan Freeman delivers the first two-thirds of this line by Hemingway, but adds “I agree with the second part.” I’m inclined to agree with Morgan Freeman. But especially with the part he doesn’t quote.


Trickle-down Urbanism

My last brush with economics was an undergraduate course fifty years ago: ECON 151; “guns or butter” and all that. Economics had certainly changed since then; indeed, universities have eliminated economics departments altogether, replacing them with “bidness” schools hawking the wares of Capitalism. Each academic year I have at least one class in such a building; each year I ask when their course offerings will include Marxist perspectives and each year I grin inside while they process a query clearly heard wrong. [I am sincere, by the way, and would welcome an opportunity to learn Marxist theory in detail.]

Reading between the lines—catching snatches of conversation among undergraduates passing between classes or deep in discussion over coffee or lunch—the shadow of trickle-down theory lurks in every corner and cranny, shading the entirety of the place and its profferings. Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” have been completely discredited, yet governors like Brownback, Jindal and Snyder live out the definition of insanity: repeating an action but expecting a different result. Will North Dakota soon go down that path?

NOLA ShantyTown

Sadly, I read widely but am not well read. So it was that the notion of trickle-down urbanism came to me, without any recollection that I’d seen it in print. It is a corollary, I think, of the New Urbanism, which is, as far as I can tell from the iconic examples presented to us again and again, a failure and a fraud.  Seaside is familiar to me only through documentaries and the film “The Truman Show.” But while the æsthetics of the place are admirable, Seaside’s economics are rarely explored.

In theory, the malt shop on the corner as community rallying point is admirable. And in theory, also, the soda jockey behind the counter or slinging burgers on the grille is supposed to live in the efficiency apartment just upstairs. But look at Seaside through the lens of Zillow or Redfin and there is a drastically different picture:


I randomly chose a picture of Seaside and located it on Zillow. These seven houses line the west side of Odessa Street, numbers 73 to 13; beyond the cross street are the really pricey homes along the waterfront. Of the seven houses shown—some of them more prominently than others–none are on the market, but Zillow estimates their values from $1.5m to $2.23m. What is especially mind-boggling is that these are, in all likelihood, second homes, places to avoid the winter (and the riffraff). Is Seaside an incorporated municipality? [Wikipedia says no.] Does it have a police force or private security? Do any of that police or security force actually live in Seaside?

OK, I may have chosen unfairly. These homes are well above the median price ($432.900) for ZIP code 32459. But that number may have been brought down by the many other homes in Santa Rosa Beach, the larger community that Seaside is part of.


Among the homes currently offered is #35 Tupelo Street [above], a three-bedroom, three-bath 1,356 square foot single family residence. Its asking price is $1.595m [that’s $1176/square foot, by the way], but Zillow knocks about 40k off that number. And given that #35 has been on the market for ninety-six days, there could be a bargain in the offing. You may wish to bookmark the listing.

The notion of a broad-based demographic for Seaside is even less likely around the Central Square, where condos start at $1m, with an upper end of $2.3m. This is where the soda jockey, hair stylist, or grocery delivery boy lives. My guess is that the person tending the flower shoppe or trimming the hedge lives in a mobile home fifteen miles up or down the coast.


If the current political rhetoric tells me anything [indeed, it tells me far more than I wanted to know], we’ve never been a homogenous society, nor are we likely to become one. The embrace of the New Urbanism in the 1990s has hopefully loosened its grip. What is still with us, however, is the insidious legacy of trickle-down urbanism: the idea that our cities and towns need only the young and proto-affluent, the “Creative Class”; and that cash flow from their “lifestyle”—I loathe that word—will percolate to all levels and benefit the entire society—in the long run. “Build the condos and they will materialize” has proven true, especially when there are purveyors of scented candles and infused oils nearby. Whence goeth the people who once occupied these neighborhoods, you might well ask.

Thirty years ago or more, I canvassed my center city [from Sixth Avenue North to the N.P. rail line and from the river to Tenth Street], putting lists of candidates on door knobs. Working from 9:00 to 5:00 I was unlikely to actually run into an actual resident; they were all at work. What astounded me was the number of people—primarily single, unmarried or the elderly—who called the CBD their home.

It comes as no surprise that my precinct is consistently on the “blue” end of the political spectrum. Our ongoing gentrification may change that; may actually homogenize the voter base. But, in the meantime, I wonder what became of those former residents, whose rents [no one owned their own home] have risen well beyond their means. I know from having been a resident of this neighborhood for thirty-five years that property you couldn’t give away in 1985 will cost you dearly today. With a mortgage long since paid off, we may be able to endure the rising price of real estate. In fact, we have to, because prices elsewhere are well beyond our means. Others were not so fortunate. But where did they go?

On social media sites like Arch Daily and DeZeen, I see innovative, well-designed social housing, and priced for people on the fringe of gentrification. Trickle-down urbanism hasn’t affected them yet. In our market area, I wonder when it will.

I was about to apologize for this borderline rant. But, no.

Patent Pending


Through our own hard work and ingenuity, America has spent much of its history as the world’s dominant economic power. But our dominance is not pre-ordained – history does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability. —Evan Bayh

Made in America

Some time last year we made a pit stop at Wally World, a place which for me has as much appeal as the Zika virus. While Peter shopped for costume materials, I occupied myself with a challenge: scour the shelves in search of anything made in America. Goodness knows what folks at the security camera monitors thought about actions, randomly inspecting merchandise for labels that didn’t say “Fabrique au Cambodge” or “Hecho en Mexico.” Eventually I settled on socks—uncomplicated white men’s cotton socks—as my target purchase. And in short order if was sadly and irritably disappointed. The outsourcing of men’s ties and suits to Mexico and Southeast Asia and of steel and aluminum to China—charges laid quite rightly at the feet of Donald Trump—is ubiquitous, a national embarrassment, and just one of the issues confronting us this election season. Are we incapable of manufacturing a quality cotton sock and, simultaneously, paying someone a living wage. Perhaps that’s a stretch too far.

Almost twenty years ago, I became fascinated with the concrete block construction system Frank Lloyd Wright developed and used to build several Southern California houses. Wright called it “Textile Block” because the metal reinforcement rods were “woven” vertically and horizontally between the CMUs [concrete masonry units]. The idea may have been explored a few years earlier but the first opportunity to actually construct something with the system was “La Miniatura,” the Pasadena house of Alice Madison Millard and arguably the best of the series.


The history of “textile block” is convoluted and still (as far as I’m concerned) unresolved and includes Lloyd Wright (technically Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., one of Wright’s two architect-sons), Walter Burley Griffin (an associate whom Wright called “that draughtsman who went to Australia”) and a bunch of other characters who never amounted to a hill of beans. I only invoke Wright because, nestled in the illustrations in one volume of The Complete Works of Frank Lloyd Wright there is a drawing Taliesin archivist Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer captioned as inexplicable, or some such descriptor. It was with considerable hauteur that I wrote Mr Pfeiffer, informing him that the “odd” drawing which didn’t seem to fit the others in the job file was, indeed, part of a U.S. Patent application.

Wright is just one of a number of American architects who attempted, some of them successfully, to protect their innovations with a United States Patent. Minneapolitan L. S. Buffington, for example, tried to patent the skyscraper. Imagine that. He failed, of course, but not for lack of trying, even slogging through the courts. Wright was more successful, receiving patents for the design of a Luxfer Prism panel and the office furniture for the S. C. Johnson Co. I’m guessing that Richard Meier, Michael Graves and several other Post Modern architects who’ve drifted into the decorative arts have patented various tea kettles, desk lamps, and other tchotchkes for the retail market.

My interest in “Textile Block” required wading through decades of the Patent Gazette and the discovery that 19th century Americans were inordinately creative and just as vehemently protective of their intellectual property. You’d be astounded at the number of patents for fairly simple tools, for example, awarded to people in very small towns across the U.S. All of which leads to today’s burning question: Who in Agincourt owned a patent?


The Beautiful, Picturesque and Sublime

Distinctions between these three concepts — beauty, picturesqueness and sublimity — are at the heart of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, an 18th century philosophical treatise important to understanding the Romantic period. In each case, an emotional response is evoked from the viewer. I’ve found more utility in applications of the picturesque, where it can be found in literature, fine art (most directly, for me, in painting), as well as in architecture and landscape design:

  • In the novel, a new literary form of the late 18th century, strong words create vivid mental images: verbal depictions of settings where the action takes place. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel, permits its readers to travel in both space and time by means of these word pictures.
  • Landscape painting was also “invented” about the same time, a new genre where dabs of pigment stand in for words; where raw natural landscape dominates and human presence (and influence) is minimized. Previously, painted contours, water features, incidental buildings, trees and shrubs were there to fill embarrassing voids between and among heroically composed figures engaged in dramatic action. From Claude Lorain to John Constable, the landscape itself became the active element.
  • Eventually, the emerging profession of landscape design reconfigures actual contours, manipulates lakes and streams, positions trees, shrubs, flowers and strategic architectonic features to create living examples of the static landscape painting. Visit the gardens at Stourhead (as I did with my friend Dennis Colliton almost twenty years ago) for a consciously choreographed series of spatial experiences that may approach the sublime.


Curious, how long it’s taken to see Edmund Burke’s trinity in even the earliest phases of the Agincourt Project. Especially the picturesque. Despite Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment rationality of the original townsite — or, more probably, as a reaction to it — I’ve subconsciously framed public space with religious (i.e., spiritual) imagery; allowed our institutions to generated axes of tension and movement; and permitted an organic evolution of the vistas that knit neighborhoods together. I am neither painter nor writer, yet those media have been my tools.

Agincourt has been a product of the late 19th century and the early 20th. I’m comfortable drawing real characters like Frederick Law Olmsted and Lawrence Buck and even Europeans Adolf Loos and Sigmund Freud into the narrative. So it’s a stretch to invoke an 18th century personality like Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren and collaborator with Sir John Vanbrugh yet overshadowed by both of those giants. I wonder if dabbling in the 18th century’s issues cleanses my palette for the 19th and 20th.

Nicholas Hawksmoor [1661-1736]

In 1985 Peter Ackroyd won the Whitbread Award for the Best Novel of the year. I bought and devoured it in a single week. I also remember waking one morning with vivid mental pictures of having visited Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church of Little St Hugh, a design from about 1736.

Dream-walking through the London’s streets, lanes, and courts, I popped through an “Alice-like” constriction and there it was before me. I was alone in the square while late afternoon light played on its rounded apse. Once inside, ribbons of orange rippled over wood pew boxes. All of this is unremarkably ordinary, except that Nicholas Hawksmoor designed just six London churches, not the seven discussed in Ackroyd’s book. His depiction of the imaginary #7 triggered something in me: I saw the place he described. So detailed (relatively) were those mental pictures that I rushed to school, taped a piece of white tracing paper to the desk and drew (i.e., draughted) as quickly as I could the building’s plan still in my mind’s eye. Now, more than thirty years later, I need to complete the church of Little St Hugh. Let it not be said that I have a short attention span.


The “empty” part of the plan was the chancel, which concerned me because I doubted being able to install an adequate choir. Things are going better than I’d hoped and soon I’ll be giving much needed attention to the elevations and sections.

Let’d hope it doesn’t take another thirty years to get this done. I haven’t got the time.