Archive for the ‘art deco’ Tag

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

 

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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.

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

 

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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!

 

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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

Across LA: Olympic Boulevard

Each year the Great Los Angeles Walk picks a crosstown major arterial, and in November 2015 it was Olympic Boulevard. So walk 16 miles across a city reputed for being pedestrian unfriendly? Why not? I spent many weekends in LA in 2015, exploring the bridges, the hidden sidewalks, the stairways, and got a new appreciation for a city I’ve always loved.

So I met up with a rather large crowd at the recently renovated, kitschy Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway, which opened an hour early just for this event. And after some introductory remarks, we were off. The route was initially south on Broadway, then a jog over to Main Street and Olympic, and then it was due west for a good 7-8 hours until we met up with the beach at Santa Monica. Like many of the main arterials, Olympic is a slice of the ethnic diversity of the city, much of it felt in the first 3 miles of the route where it’s a spectacular collision of Korea and Latin America, visually stimulating and chaotic. The rest of it is less interesting, passing through the rather pedestrian-unfriendly Century City and a few historic neighborhoods and HPOZ (historic preservation overlay zones) near Beverly Hills. The stretch within Beverly Hills is extensive, but is a world away from the Beverly Hills that is seen on TV and in the movies- it’s the middle-class, unexceptional side of the city, and mostly residential. The demographic is mostly upscale after Koreatown, including neighborhoods like Rancho Park, Country Club Park, and Santa Monica.

I was one of the slower ones, stopping at a friend’s house to chat, then stopping for a leisurely lunch at the legendary Tom Bergin’s about midway through the walk.

A good way to start the walk, beautiful blue skies and morning light on the Eastern Columbia building on Broadway

A good way to start the walk, beautiful blue skies and morning light on the Eastern Columbia building on Broadway

Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway, recently and beautifully restored

Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway, recently and beautifully restored

Commercial chaos, Olympic and Western

Commercial chaos, Olympic and Western

Persian flavor, Westside

Persian flavor, Westside

Helios House, the future of the gas station!

Helios House, the future of the gas station! Olympic and Robertson

Century Plaza Towers, Minoru Yamasaki (1975)

Century Plaza Towers, Minoru Yamasaki (1975)

Well, most of the crowd did not make it all the way back to the beach, I got there just after sunset, my legs and feet sore from a crazy walk across town. Never done it before, can’t wait to do it again, there’s no better way to explore the City of Angels.

Santa Monica, fading daylight, are we there yet?

Santa Monica, fading daylight, are we there yet?

Last days of the Sixth Street Bridge, Los Angeles

I visited LA quite a bit in 2015, spending many happy days wandering around the diverse neighborhoods and landscapes of the city. The Sixth Street Viaduct, generally called the Sixth Street Bridge, was the doomed landmark that I spent plenty of time up close and personal. My last visit was New Years weekend, 2016, which was supposed to be the final weekend it would be open to traffic. It turned out that the closure was delayed by a couple weeks longer, but it was essentially the bridge’s last stand, showing all the battering, use, abuse, and love of its 83 years.

There really was no way to save the bridge. The disrepair and decay of the concrete really showed, and it was continuing to deteriorate. Had the concrete not been faulty, perhaps it would have lasted longer. But despite the loss of this landmark, the replacement bridge is a thoughtful nod to the old one, and will be LA’s newest showpiece when it’s completed.

Sixth Street Bridge and the downtown skyline, January 2, 2016. A now-lost view.

Sixth Street Bridge and the downtown skyline, January 2, 2016. A now-lost view.

A bit of calm along the river. The scene was actually pretty busy, with a steady stream of cars, visitors, and photographers.

A bit of calm along the river. The scene was actually pretty busy, with a steady stream of cars, visitors, and photographers.

That bit of elegance among the drabness of the industrial flats.

That bit of elegance among the drabness of the industrial flats.

And a bit of abstraction. . .

Walking back to Santa Fe Avenue, goodbye!

LA River bridges tour, part 4

So to finish up my little tour of the LA River bridges downtown, I walked the Olympic Boulevard Viaduct, originally called the Ninth Street Viaduct (1925), and the Washington Boulevard Bridge (1931) on two separate occasions. These two bridges are located just south of the I-10, and carry a fair amount of traffic bound for the vast industrial corridor stretching from downtown to Vernon. Needless to say, like the other bridges, they’ve seen better days and have been extensively retrofitted, but are beautiful structures with lots of details to check out.

The Olympic Boulevard bridge is a rather schizophrenic structure befitting its rather long length (1422′), with two distinct sets of lighting standards, colored two different ways, and a whirling, S-shaped, guardrail pattern along the sidewalk. What’s seen today is the result of a renovation and seismic upgrade in 1998. It crosses the LA River and a set of railroad tracks on the eastern side of the river. It’s been made very colorful by graffiti over the years, with the usual set of parking spaces, homeless encampments, and art canvasses in the areas underneath the bridge.

Olympic Boulevard Bridge, southeast side

Olympic Boulevard Bridge, southeast side

S-pattern, Olympic Boulevard Bridge

S-pattern, Olympic Boulevard Bridge

And this brings us to the final bridge in this walk. The Washington Boulevard Bridge is one of the shortest, and one of the most distinctive. Despite its rather desolate location near a concrete plant, a recycling center, and essentially in the middle of nowhere, it’s an island of elegance amongst the drabness and gray. Then there are the heavy trucks and large vehicles that batter this span on a daily basis, and it’s surprising that it’s survived this long. Most notable is the set of now-faded, but colorful, engineering-oriented, terra cotta friezes decorating the four large pylons on the short (312′) structure.

Pylon with frieze, Washington Boulevard Bridge

Pylon with frieze, Washington Boulevard Bridge

Frieze detail, Washington Boulevard Bridge

Frieze detail, Washington Boulevard Bridge

LA River bridges tour, part 3

The Sixth Street Viaduct (1932) celebrated its 83rd and last birthday in 2015.

The bridge is scheduled to close on January 3, 2016, and demolition will start five days after that. So after being on life support for years, and deteriorating from within, it’s going to be replaced. I walked it on a day where it was closed to traffic for a film shoot, so it was possible to get a close look without dealing with traffic. The bridge attracts a large number of filmers, photographers, fashion shoots, car rallies below, and in a way, it’s the town square of the Arts District. And on occasion, a few people climb up to the top of the bridge for what must be a pretty, and illegal vantage point.

East entrance, Art Deco flair, now sadly deteriorated.

East entrance, Art Deco flair, now sadly deteriorated.

The bridge has seen much better days, and from old Los Angeles Times photographs, it was clear that the cracks were appearing very soon after its opening. Now the railings are crumbling, the anchorages are separating, and it’s literally falling apart. In certain places it’s possible to see the river below the cracks in the structure. It’s still the most graceful of the spans across the river, immediately recognizable from the theatrical double arches mixed with restrained Art Deco flourishes. Really worth a look is the area around the tunnel leading to the river, which feels like a cathedral if you use your imagination a little. Also look for the patched up sections where engineers tried to slow down the alkali silica reaction that ultimately led to the bridge’s demise.

The fading LA icon, Sixth Street Bridge.

The fading LA icon, Sixth Street Bridge.

This doesn't really give you a secure feeling, it's probably a 4-5 inch space in there with a view of the river channel below.

This doesn’t really give you a secure feeling, it’s probably a 4-5 inch space in there with a view of the river channel below.

I stopped briefly for some coffee on Mateo Street, which seems to be the epicenter of the Arts District these days, once creepy, now uber-trendy and busy with pedestrian traffic. And then it was on to the 7th Street Bridge, a much less spectacular structure from the roadway. This bridge links LA’s once-thriving downtown retail corridor 7th Street with Boyle Heights. What’s interesting about this bridge is that it was constructed in two phases. The lower deck came first (1910), and as the traffic demands increased, a second upper deck (1927) was built and the lower one abandoned. The lower level is now barely accessible, gated off, and is a roof for numerous homeless residents of the city. The bridge is better viewed from the river (walk through the 6th Street Bridge access tunnel and turn south), where the engineering behind it is clear.

7th Street Bridge, two parts built 17 years apart, but looking pretty cohesive overall.

7th Street Bridge, two parts built 17 years apart, but looking pretty cohesive overall.

Then it was uphill, as 7th Street passes under numerous freeway lanes, climbs steeply, and meets a traffic light at Boyle Avenue at the crest. My walk came to an end at the landmark Sears on Olympic Boulevard, which is now pretty empty save for a small retail section that somehow hangs on. It’s a time warp building that’s preserved the old signage and neon. Pretty much my feet were battered from 11 miles of walking on the rough surfaces, especially the last section that crossed over the very large, complicated 5 / 60 / 10 interchange.

Next part in this series, the bridges south of I-10, Olympic Boulevard Bridge and Washington Boulevard Bridge. I walked these on two separate occasions, and they’re unique, rarely explored places hidden among the warehouses, grime, and heavy truck traffic. Stay tuned.

 

LA River bridges tour, part 2

My tour continued east past the vast complex of jails, bail bond businesses, and led to the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge, once known as the Macy Street Bridge (1926). It’s a very elegant structure, with a neo-Spanish theme, probably one of my favorites. The theme here is the curve, right-handed, left-handed, scrolls, you name it.

Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

More curves, decorative guardrails

More curves, decorative guardrails

I turned right (south) at the traffic light, and crossed under the freeway, past some more public housing, and this brought me to the 1st Street Bridge (1929). It’s also a reconstruction, widened recently to accommodate the new streetcar line between Union Station and East Los Angeles. It marks the northern end of the Arts District, with the very long, ambitious One Santa Fe mixed-use complex (Michael Maltzan) abutting the bridge. It’s the anchor of the district, echoing the horizontal nature of the area, think railroad tracks, railyards, the LA River, and Sci-Arc across the street.

View south from the 1st Street Bridge

View south from the 1st Street Bridge

The 4th Street Bridge (1930) is getting a bit crumbly. I crossed under the bridge on Santa Fe Avenue, and went up the west side staircase. It’s normally a pretty messy stairway, either with broken glass or human waste, or people sleeping there. It was somewhat clean for a change this time around. Unlike its neighbors to the north, the bridge has a distinct Art Deco theme to it, with clean, sober lines throughout, mixed in with a funky decorative guardrails. Like many of the bridges, there are these large decorative towers / alcoves, which were probably intended as viewpoints and places to sit. But they’ve turned into informal dumps, not surprising given that pedestrian traffic is pretty minimal and the area is a magnet for the homeless, pushed further east by a gentrifying downtown.

4th Street Bridge from below, retrofitted, but sporting plenty of vegetation

4th Street Bridge from below, retrofitted, but sporting plenty of vegetation

Crumbling light fixture, 4th Street Bridge

Crumbling light fixture, 4th Street Bridge

 

LA River bridges tour, part 1

Los Angeles is a wonderful walking city, rough around the edges, but I think it’s best seen on foot. Plus, there are a lot of pedestrians, and plenty of people taking the underrated public transit system.

In my previous post, I outlined a walk that took in the variety of the bridges that cross the LA River downtown. It threads through mostly older neighborhoods and industrial areas just east of the downtown core. In early June 2015, I took a walking tour of most of the downtown bridges, so here’s part of the tour. The typical June gloom day was ideal for walking around, since there’s very little shade in this part of town, keeping the temperatures, and the temperature of the pavement, tolerable.

Of course, not following my own advice, I drove into downtown and parked at Union Station. I started by going north on Alameda Street, which then blended into Spring Street and headed in a rough northeast direction down a busy traffic thoroughfare, though sparse with walkers like me. About a mile north of Union Station is the short North Spring Street Bridge (1928), part of a closely spaced trio of bridges, each of them fairly similar in their design. This one is being retrofitted right now.

North Spring Street Bridge (1928), and the very apocalyptic landscape of the LA River

North Spring Street Bridge (1928), and the gritty landscape of the LA River. Truly a concrete jungle out here.

The eastern end of the Spring Street Bridge lies one block from the North Broadway Viaduct (1911), which is bookended by a set of elegant columns. It’s built on a grander scale than its neighbor, with a few additional decorative flourishes, like this central set of columns midway through the span. The Broadway Bridge is heavily restored and retrofitted, and although the original ornament has been duplicated, the surfaces are clearly new. It’s not really perceptible to drivers, but walking across, it was a somewhat disappointing experience seeing how “new” it was. I recognize of course that the retrofits were necessary given how seismically active the Southland is.

I turned north at Solano Avenue, heading up Solano Canyon, one of those unfortunate neighborhoods that felt the effects of the Pasadena Freeway (Arroyo Seco Parkway) in the 1940s, and then the construction of Dodger Stadium in the late 1950s. In effect, it’s been split in two by the Parkway, and the geography keeps it a rather isolated, funky enclave that’s not often visited. It seems to maintain a sense of community often lacking in an anonymous big city, let alone a very spread out big city like LA. I crossed under the freeway and then up the stairway to the walkway along the Parkway. Once you reach the LA River crossing, the sidewalk is in pretty terrible condition, pretty much a garbage dump in places, littered with broken glass. Even for a now seasoned barefooter like me, it’s a challenging place to walk safely.

Gotta tread carefully!

Gotta tread carefully!

Now at the base of the stairway, my route entered a rather forlorn part of town, passing the neglected confluence of the Arroyo Seco and LA River, the imposing, threatening presence of the Lincoln Heights Jail, and finally back to civilization at North Broadway.

Lincoln Heights Jail, I think this might be a great place to explore, anyone?

Lincoln Heights Jail, I think this might be a great place to explore, anyone?

After some lunch at Carnitas Michoacan, I continued my walk through Lincoln Heights, full of Victorian structures in various states of repair, finally reaching North Main Street at the Brewery art colony. I turned back towards Union Station. Main Street passes the last remnants of the old Italian community that used to be here, now just an Italian deli and the historic San Antonio Winery structures. It’s going the way of other historic Italian neighborhoods, like New York’s Little Italy and East Harlem, where the American melting pot finally mixed. The Main Street Bridge (1910), the oldest and shortest of the LA River spans, leads into an industrial neighborhood on one side, and the World War II-era, International style William Mead Houses (1942), aka Dogtown, on the opposite side. Despite the reputation of public housing, this appears to be a vital and well-kept public housing project.

Lincoln Heights funkiness

Lincoln Heights funkiness

The next set of bridges are in downtown proper, starting with the Macy Street Bridge, now Cesar Chavez Street Bridge. Stay tuned.

Los Angeles River bridge walk

The LA River cuts through the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, deep in a concrete jungle of warehouses, trendy lofts, America’s largest Skid Row, and some of the busiest commercial areas of the city. A series of historic bridges were built in the early 20th century, to provide essential infrastructure, but also to re-build after disastrous flooding along the river. The channel itself was covered in concrete mid-century, so very few traces of the wooded, meandering river still exist.

Downtown, from north to south, it starts with the complex of bridges of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the unusual sidewalk that straddles the northbound and southbound lanes of the 110. I’ve written about that in a previous post. South of this are the Broadway, Spring, North Main, Cesar Chavez, 1st, 4th, 6th, 7th, Olympic Blvd., and Washington Blvd. bridges, ranging from the modest to the grand, built between 1905 and 1933. They’re perhaps the most hidden and underappreciated structures of the city, beautifully detailed, but mercilessly spray painted, graffitied, and covered in trash. They are also the most viewed structures in the city, appearing in countless commercials and movies. Seismically, they were built before current earthquake code, and many aspects of the bridges have been modified, or copied, or widened. So in classic LA fashion, they look unchanged from a distance, but up close, the changes, makeup, and restoration really show. The development of the Arts District on the west side of the river and the slow gentrification of Boyle Heights on the east, has brought the bridges back in focus, and they are busy creative spaces. It’s easy to find a fashion or film shoot going on at any hour, but also easy to find solitary, creepy zones.

I put together a route that links the bridges in downtown LA, which can be found in the link below, and walked them in June 2015. I’ll try to post on my walk in a future entry on this blog. Happy exploring!