Archive for the ‘architecture’ Tag

Lawrence Halprin’s Portland and Seattle

I took a look at the landscape work of Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) in Portland and Seattle. These were mid-century projects in the center cities intended as urban renewal projects, in an era when people had moved to the suburbs and away from the city proper.

The Portland Open Space Sequence (1966) was built to connect a then-new group of high-rise and medium-rise apartment buildings south of Market Street in Portland to the downtown district. It is a sequence of walkways, small plazas, stairways, and Pettygrove Park, mimicking the rolling terrain and greenery of western Oregon. Of course, what is Oregon without a lot of water, so there is a “stream” running through the area, with a small Source fountain, a larger Lovejoy Fountain, and the showpiece Ira Keller Fountain (1977) that is in front of the Civic Auditorium. The latter fountain is now one of Portland’s focal points, although not part of the original plan of the Sequence. Overall, the Sequence now shows its age, as the ample precipitation has given some of the benches and concrete walls a very Oregonian layer of moss. The park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, one of relatively few midcentury landscape designs to be placed on the list.

Benches and stairs, now moss covered

Ira Keller Fountain on a wet spring day in Portland

Heading north, Halprin also designed the Freeway Park in Seattle. This was a radical design in its day. Downtown Seattle is bounded on the western side by the soon-to-be-demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct and the waterfront, and on the eastern side by I-5. Halprin put the park on top of the freeway, with a serpentine path that shields the pedestrian from seeing I-5, and a fountain that cuts out the noise from automobiles. At least I think that was part of the intention when the park opened on July 4, 1976. These days the traffic is so atrocious that it’s impossible to avoid completely.

Fountain and terraces, Freeway Park

Freeway Park, Seattle

Other cities have used this concept to link together neighborhoods once cut off from one another by freeway construction, such as Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, and they have been largely successful projects. The convention center, built in the early-to-mid 1980s, also covers the freeway, and is linked to Freeway Park on its upper levels.

Commonwealth Building, Portland, Oregon

Downtown Portland is full of generic structures sprouting all over, but has a few standouts. Arguably the most innovative building downtown is the Commonwealth Building (formerly the Equitable Building) located on 6th Avenue between Washington and Stark. It’s a shiny smooth skyscraper with limited prominence in the skyline, that yields little information about its age. It could be brand new, but was in fact completed in 1948, a young looking 70 years. Designed by Pietro Belluschi, much of the innovation of the building is unseen, and it remains a rather unknown structure long overshadowed by better known buildings in New York like Lever House. The building was given National Register status in 1976, a rare distinction as it was only 28 years old at the time.

It’s a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for its technical innovations. Among them are central AC, double pane windows and an aluminum facade. The aluminum facade would later be used in other Midcentury skyscrapers like the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh while the greenish glass would be a signature element in landmarks such as Lever House in New York and the Inland Steel Building in Chicago.

For the most part, the building has been sensitively modified, mostly to the entrances. Despite the apparent uniformity of the facade, the 6th Avenue and Stark St. elevations are slightly different. The window panes are subdivided into three sections along Stark, two along 6th. Subtle colors keep the facade lively, while the skin of the building is nearly smooth, as no section protrudes out more than 7/8″.


Commonwealth (Equitable) Building, 1948.



Poets Row, Denver, Colorado

I came across this very nifty corner of Denver as I was wandering around the city last weekend, taking advantage of the holiday weekend and balmy 70 F temperatures. Normally I just change planes in the airport, but this time I spent a day exploring downtown and the neighborhoods northeast and southeast.

Poets Row refers to a National Register-listed block of apartment buildings directly south of the State Capitol, on Sherman Street between 10th and 11th. These were mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s and together they form a harmonious group of Art Deco, Moderne, and International Style structures that have seen new life as residents have returned to the central city over the past 20 years. They’re named after famous writers, not really poets. The buildings are nothing fancy or luxurious, but are notable for being an intact row of apartments that gives a glimpse into city living 70 years ago. Aside from the view of the skyscrapers downtown, this is a virtually unchanged streetscape, and a wonder that it survived all these years without being torn down or otherwise defaced.

Downhill, a couple blocks away, are the distinctive buildings of the Denver Art Museum- the Daniel Liebeskind building is the most recognized, but I have to say that the fortress-like Gio Ponti structure (1971) really caught my attention. This is Ponti’s only US design, and I haven’t decided whether I love it or hate it. I don’t think it really fits the location so close to the Capitol and City Hall, and it’s an unavoidable structure that barely resembles a museum. I thought it was a jail, like the one in downtown Chicago.

Mark Twain Apartments

Thomas Carlyle Apartments

Dorset House, understated International / Moderne style

Denver Art Museum, Gio Ponti (1971)

Des Moines Art Center

A distinguished group of architects contributed to this medium-sized art museum in the Midwest, which includes additions by I.M. Pei (1968) and Richard Meier (1985). But I’ll concentrate on the original structure, one of Eliel Saarinen’s later designs, completed in 1948. This building has the signatures of Eliel Saarinen’s buildings, warm stone, and an undefinable style. It’s not Art Moderne, or Art Deco, or Art Nouveau, or International Style, but is uniquely Saarinen Sr. For those of you who have visited Cranbrook or his churches, this one stands out as an Eliel Saarinen building. The exterior is Lannon limestone, quarried next door in Wisconsin, alternately rough-cut and smooth, with careful attention to detail. His sweeping lines and calculated asymmetry are evident here, as are the protruding bricks interrupting the horizontality, lending a subtle three-dimensionality to the exterior walls. So he manages to achieve an understated, yet individual result.  The use of decoration is minimized, instead the textures of the stone become the basis of decoration. The entryway is a masterly series of gentle curves that draws the visitor inside, emphasized by the sparse use of horizontal lines around the vestibule. Like all of Saarinen’s structures, the refinement and quality is really appreciated with a closer, rather than cursory, look.

Front entrance, a mix of glass, smooth stone, and brickwork

Another view of the main entryway

Courtyard entrance detail

Courtyard, with Pei (left) and Meier (right) additions


Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis

So everyone is familiar in some way with Eero Saarinen, as his structures are ingrained into the American built environment. His Gateway Arch became the instant symbol of St. Louis upon its completion in the 1960s, and chances are that you have changed planes at Dulles Airport or JFK Airport.

His father, Eliel Saarinen, is less well-known, and has a style all his own which is difficult to pinpoint. Eliel is best known for his “losing” design for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper, which became an oft-imitated model for the tall building and is now seen in 1920s skyscrapers such as the Gulf Building in Houston and the David Stott Building in Detroit. He created a number of seminal structures that manage to fly under the radar, they’re all carefully designed and executed buildings, but understated. They are however recognizable as Saarinen buildings, especially in his use of tan brick. He

designed two religious structures during his US-based career, two similar, radical designs for modern churches. One is in Columbus, Indiana, completed in 1942, and the other is Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Christ Church Lutheran was Eliel Saarinen’s last structure, completed in 1949, he died in 1950.

The exterior is of a simple geometry, with little in the way of decoration. A few sparse sculptural elements adorn the main facade, with some relief elements such as a cross on the side. The interior is a real treasure, with a narrow vertical window providing the illumination for the altar. Composed of white brick, the altar glows. While the exterior is a simple box, the interior adds a few elements of subtle, but noticeable asymmetry. The roof line is slightly slanted, the wall of the altar curves, and there is extra seating under a low ceiling. The brick walls wave in and out upon close inspection. Light comes in from side windows. In short, there is plenty of visual interest inside, but it requires close inspection to really appreciate the design elements. The overall effect is one of calmness.

Christ Church Lutheran, tower and detail of relief

Saarinen Sr. on the left, with the Saarinen Jr. extension on the right

Eero Saarinen, in one of his last works before his untimely death in 1961, designed the extension, which defers to his father’s design elements, and created a low-key, functional structure. The two buildings are linked through interior hallways and underground passages, creating a courtyard with a fountain in the center. This fountain led to leakage into the basement, necessitating an ongoing restoration effort. Right now, the courtyard is a mess with plenty of construction (as of May 2017), but the finished product ought to be similar to how the structure looked before.

Interior, from second floor balcony

Interior from first floor

Montevideo, Uruguay

I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Uruguay’s capital, which seems to be what most visitors see of Montevideo. Uruguay is a country that’s fallen off the map, and not necessarily in a bad way. As one of the smallest independent states in South America, it’s sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, and the capital is a mellow, safe place situated about 100 miles east of the much larger Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. In fact, it’s one of the quietest capitals in Latin America, with none of the heavy traffic, loud blaring music, frenetic pace, or safety concerns of the larger cities. The Uruguayans will remind you, tango probably started in Uruguay, and the first World Cup did go to the Uruguayans.

That said, I took the impressively fast boat from a rainy, dark, Buenos Aires. It was a scene of controlled chaos with a long lineup for tickets, check-in, Argentine and Uruguayan immigration and customs, all at the Buquebus terminal at the old port. The ferry got to Montevideo in less than three hours, and I walked the last couple of miles from the port towards downtown. It’s laid out on a grid pattern that sort of follows the contours of the peninsula, interspersed with leafy squares every 300 meters or so that don’t really conform to the grids. The buildings are generally not new, but rather a mix of early 20th century structures and a few midcentury buildings squeezed in there, looking a bit dowdy and worn. Like the United States, South America has been a hotbed of immigration, with lots of Europeans coming in the 19th and 20th century, with another wave around World War II. And like Buenos Aires, Montevideo feels like a distant outpost of Europe.

The country today is known for its steaks, architects, tango, and liberal social policies. This has made it one of the most successful stories in South America, despite its low profile. But with a total population less than the city of Los Angeles, it’s not hard to see why. Even the main government center is delightfully accessible, you can just walk into the main ministries and even the building where the president works.

Overall, it was a quiet, but chilly day walking around, and it’s a pleasant, if not terribly exciting place. Probably part of it has to do with being late winter (I visited in September), and it’s considerably more lively once the weather warms up. The food is pretty meat and potatoes heavy, and I treated myself to a steak dinner in the market district near the port. This happened to be the only place that would accept my ATM card, since I was without any substantial cash during nearly all of my vacation.

So here’s a few pictures from Montevideo.

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo

Avenida 18 de Julio, the main commercial artery of the city

Mindcentury wacko architecture downtown

I guess this is street art about football!

Brasilia, September 2016

This is of course Brazil’s capital, built in the center of the country, but the middle of nowhere, in a relatively short span in the 1950s, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The plan is obvious from the air as you approach the airport, shaped like a bird, or a drawn bow and arrow, with a spine of government structures spanning about a mile, and numerous structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It was recognized with World Heritage status in 1987.

It’s a decent, but long day trip from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, with frequent and reasonably priced flights. I was based in Rio, and it’s advisable to use a departure from the centrally located Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), instead of the much further Galeao Airport (GIG). I picked a 6 AM departure from SDU, a quick and inexpensive taxi ride, but ended up returning to GIG, which made for a rather long, 90 minute return bus trip to my hotel in Copacabana. It’s a 90 minute flight over a pretty barren landscape that gives you an appreciation for the task involved in building a new federal capital from scratch sixty years ago, and sprouting a city of now 3 million inhabitants.

There’s a bus that stops just outside the terminal in Brasilia, which will drop you off at the major sites downtown. It’s a 20 minute ride, and I got off at the Tres Poderes (three powers), which is surrounded by Niemeyer’s signature buildings. This fairly small area is home to Brazil’s version of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court, all within about 500 m or each other. They’re also the best structures in town. I took the free tour of Congress, which was impressive, it’s the building with the skyscraper in the middle and the two domes. The interior is also very nice, with a cool collection of mid-century furniture and art and a sophisticated feel. Nearby is the presidential palace, the supreme court, and the foreign ministry. Behind it is a cluster of 1980s structures by Niemeyer, which are crumbling.

National Congress building

National Congress building (1960)

Itamaraty Palace (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Itamaraty Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1970)

I walked west, about a mile towards the cathedral. It’s not that large, and a pretty cheerful space, with a gleaming white interior and lots of stained glass. I liked it, while the building next door, the museum, was a crumbling UFO. Way further afield, another mile away, is the Santuario Dom Bosco, completed in 1970, which is pretty unexceptional from the outside, but is a winner inside, bathed in light shining through blue and purple stained glass.

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral (1970)

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel (1970)

Niemeyer’s buildings elicit a visceral response. You can’t doubt the imagination that went into them, but I get this feeling that he forgot the human scale in Brasilia. It’s a bold plan on paper or in a model, but doesn’t quite work in reality. Now overall, the city comes across as being pretty sterile, with little pedestrian traffic, few places to sit and enjoy the view, and vast exposed empty spaces that are hard to maintain. Despite some very nice religious structures scattered around the city, it’s reminiscent of some of the places in the old Eastern Bloc that I’ve been to, like Chisinau. The main axis is a bit like Washington’s Mall, but with much less character, less vegetation, and really grim buildings and ministries lining the road. It’s also a very pedestrian-unfriendly city, the address system is nearly impossible for a first-time visitor to decipher, and the main social centers seem to be shopping malls. I took lunch in a mall food court after nearly starving, dodging a few six lane highways, and creepy stretches of concrete jungle to find an unmarked Brutalist structure that actually had people inside.

The living areas are way in the periphery, with a large slum on the western outskirts, while the original 1950s / 1960s living quarters are in generally good shape and wealthy areas, with a few of them carefully preserving Niemeyer’s intentions. Interspersed between the apartment buildings (located in these so-called Superquadras or superblocks) are lots of greenery and a small commercial zone every few blocks. It’s hard to imagine these really getting lots of street life, but they seem to have a decent selection of restaurants and markets. Downtown there’s very little in terms of services.

Restored apartment building

Restored apartment building

Typical  neighborhood commercial stretch

Typical neighborhood commercial stretch

A word about safety, since this is on the minds of most visitors to Brazil- Brasilia is quite safe, I didn’t worry about carrying my DSLR around and taking lots of photographs, unlike in Rio and Sao Paulo.

Downtown Detroit, 2016

A brief business trip brought me back to Detroit for the first time in a couple of years. While a wide swath of the city is rapidly disappearing, the high density stretch downtown to Midtown is regaining some of the hustle and bustle of years past. I don’t think the city will ever reach its postwar peak of 1.8 million again, but downtown is pretty stable, the demolitions have stopped, and work is underway on the new arena in anticipation of the move of the Red Wings and the return of the Pistons. I happened upon one of the free tours of the glorious art deco Guardian Building, which offers a detailed look at the jazzy, exuberant exterior and then takes in the view from the top floor, a rare view of Detroit from above that most visitors miss. Even with the unfortunate demolitions of numerous buildings starting in the 1970s, it’s a rich collection of early skyscrapers which thankfully won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. There’s lots of buzz downtown, with renovations, adaptive reuse, and residential conversions. The pre-Depression era skyscrapers are outstanding, mixed in with high quality mid-century designs that have stood the test of time. The skyline has changed little in 50 years, and here’s a few pictures of the blocks around the Guardian Building.


Nice detail on the facade of the Ford Building (Daniel Burnham, 1909)



The vaulted lobby of the Guardian Building (Wirt Rowland, 1929), decorated with Pewabic tile. It’s hard to imagine that this lobby once featured a dropped ceiling that hid all of this tilework, before a 2003 renovation set things right!



And from Hart Plaza, Minoru Yamasaki’s elegant One Woodward (1963), and Johnson and Burgee’s postmodern One Detroit Center (1992), framed by the sculpture Transcending (2003).


Buhl Building (Wirt Rowland, 1925), entryway

The Romanesque entryway of the Buhl Building (Wirt Rowland, 1925). Yup, same designer as the Guardian across the street, completely different style.


Condesa Art Deco, Mexico City

Mexico City is a new, old favorite destination of mine, at least as far as cities go. I first visited 20 years ago, and was surprised and delighted by the chaos and vitality. This was in the bad old days of the 1990s, when the city was seemingly on the edge of oblivion, with 20+ million souls living at a mile and a half above sea level, a place badly damaged by the 1985 earthquake, hopelessly polluted, sinking like Venice in the spongy lake bed, and high in crime. I visited during one of the volcano Popocatepetl’s eruptions, the mountain casually spouting ash and smoke 40 miles east of the city, nearly lost in the haze that blanketed the city.

I’ve returned twice since then, in the space of a few months. Mexico City has changed much over the past decade, becoming cleaner, sporting bike lanes, cutting edge, world-class food, audacious new architecture, while still being an inexpensive place to visit. It’s actually quite close to the Four Corners, and a fun place to go for a long weekend. That said, it’s so vast that you can’t really see a whole lot in a weekend. It’s probably going to be one of those places that I go to regularly, like LA, where I feel familiar enough that I can visit a different section each time and see something new each time. The UNESCO-listed historic center (Centro Historico) is still my favorite part of town, with these austere, tilting structures of dark red and gray volcanic stone that have survived every natural and political calamity over the past 400 years. To this day it’s still the commercial and political heart of the city, and the entire nation. The central square, Zocalo, is the epicenter of Mexico, a space of gigantic proportions much like Red Square is to Moscow, or Tiananmen Square is to Beijing.

About three miles southwest is a neighborhood called Condesa, developed in the 1930s, which was badly damaged in the 1985 earthquake and fell into obscurity until about ten years ago, when it underwent a major resurgence. Now it’s the yuppie / trendy / gay center of town, cosmopolitan, featuring a mix of new architecture mixed in with many Art Deco buildings in various states of repair. It’s also one of those few places in city that’s actually green, with a couple of large parks that make it a pleasant place to hang out, day and night. Despite the incessant traffic on the main streets, it looks like a great place to live.

There are also some buildings by the Pritzker laureate Luis Barragan, who’s work seems to be neglected in Mexico despite his fame worldwide. I took a tour of his works scattered throughout the city, and for the most part, they really slip under the radar. His house and studio is a must-see for architecture buffs, located a mile beyond Condesa in Tacubaya. So here’s a sampling of the buildings and streetscapes of Condesa.

Houses by Luis Barragan, Avenida Mexico 141-143

Houses by Luis Barragan, Avenida Mexico 141-143

Art Deco house, Condesa

Art Deco house, Condesa

Edificio San Martin, Avenida Mexico 167

Edificio San Martin, Avenida Mexico 167

Edificio Tehuacan, Avenida Mexico 188

Edificio Tehuacan, Avenida Mexico 188

Shigeru Ban’s Aspen Art Museum

Located in downtown Aspen, this building and the museum’s collection is a real treat to visit. It’s quite small, with three floors of exhibits, no permanent collection, and very friendly staff that approach you to ask whether you have any questions about the art being shown. They’re also very enamored of the building, which was designed by 2014 Pritzker laureate Shigeru Ban, and opened in August 2014.

The most noticeable part of the building is the wood-weave exterior that graces the two streetfronts, providing the visitor peeks at the mountain and town surroundings. Between the exterior and the interior of the building is a grand staircase that is echoed in the interior, divided by a glass partition. Essentially it’s an in-between space, “engawa” is the Japanese term for it, and the grand stair unites the outside and inside of the structure.

Ban also elaborates on the woven wood theme in the roof elements, which are elegantly curved wood trusses that are easily missed. You’ll need to look up at the ceiling while you’re walking the grand staircase, or check out the rooftop terrace skylights to see the trusses. He also blends in the interior and exterior space very cleverly on the top floor, where a small outdoor sculpture garden merges seamlessly into the indoor / outdoor cafe, and then the interior staircase leading to the exhibition levels. It’s also an unusual feature in Aspen to have a rooftop view, affording a unique, although not so spectacular perspective on the surrounding urban scene.

The sidewalk in front of the entrance is also turned into a plaza, with a few trees, benches, and a reflective sculpture. The architect designed this space to de-intimidate the experience of visiting a museum. So this is very different from the grand urban museums (like the Met, British Museum, etc.).

Ban is known for his use of recycled materials and for his temporary structures. This museum is no different, with a wall built out of recycled tubes, and this becomes a prime decorative element.

Best of all, it’s free, which is something rarely experienced in Aspen.

Aspen Art Museum facade, with the plaza in front

Aspen Art Museum facade, with the plaza in front

Front entrance, wood weave detail

Front entrance, wood weave detail

Wood roof structure, over the grand staircase

Wood roof structure, over the grand staircase