Roll Your Own Film Series

Washington’s Building Museum, one of the city’s often overlooked gems, recently had an Architecture & Design Film Festival that I unfortunately missed.

I have already seen Columbus, which I recommend design minded, about the meaning of a city and outlining low-key relationships that rang true. (It helps perhaps that I have been to some of those buildings in Columbus, IN, and they are remarkable.)

In the process of looking up the others, found that all of Workplace, Gary Hustwit’s film about the creation of new quarters for NYC’s R/GA (a big deal ad agencies/design firms) is available, if and you liked Huswit’s Helvetica (which I loved), you’ll enjoy it. It starts a bit like an RG/A infomercial, but clearly Hustwit got editorial control. The principals say their piece (including candid meeting footage with Norman Foster) and so do those people who can’t believe what is being foisted on them!  Crisply done and worth a watch if you are interested in architecture and design.

Hugh Ferriss and Long-Ago Futures

United Nations, New York, NY – Bird’s-eye perspective looking south. 1947

On a recent trip to the National Building Museum, I encountered a book of drawings by the architectural draftsman Hugh Ferriss, 1889-1962. The name was new to me, but the style was immediately recognizable: Muted, glowing cityscapes, rendered in charcoal, evoking the beauties of classical modernist architecture, as well as memories of a now-vanished future.

Some of his subjects are still around, of course. Ferriss, who was based in New York City, did architectural drawings for many familiar buildings, such as the United Nations and the Hayden Planetarium,


Hugh Ferriss, “Preliminary Report to the Hayden Planetarium Authority,” Nov 1941-Feb 1942.


Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Center of the Center, 1958.

Another depicts a building that he didn’t live to see completed, the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. (The trademark arches are clear, but otherwise the plaza doesn’t bear much resemblance to how it was built, much less how it is today. )


With a bit of digging, I found The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Ferriss’ poetic speculations, published in 1929 (in which 2018 must have seemed tomorrow and then some). In a charming introduction, he disclaims any particular prophetic ability, noting that he did these  in his leisure moments, and that they reflect “wondering in drawings” about where then-current architectural trends might lead.

Fascinating to browse (even if some of his utopian visions are a bit totalitarian in character). A full imaginary city takes up the final section of the book, and has  has zones for business, art, science, technology, etc., and a grand tower for philosophy, “where art and science meet.”   You can browse the entire book at the link above.


Library Tourism

I know I am not the only person who, on visiting a new city, checks out the library as a tourist attraction. An architecture blog has fueled the fire by proposing the 19 most beautiful libraries in the country.

Having recently seen the Geisel library at UC San Diego, it’s something else (although conventionally beautiful it is not).  But no argument with the Boston Public Library, still my favorite library anywhere.  bpl

The main reading room at BPL, a place I mostly go to write, rather than read.

Of the others on curbed list, in addition to Geisel (yes, of Dr. Seuss fame) and Boston, I have seen the Library of Congress (worked there for years in fact), the NYPL (pretty wonderful), The Peabody Library (although for an event, not to browse), The Washington Library in Chicago, The Beinecke (worth a special trip, particularly at sunset), the Law Library at UMich (which would not have made my personal list of bests), and the L.A. Library.

I would have included the Quincy (MA) Crane Public Library too, a H.H. Richardson masterpiece. And the renovated Cambridge (MA) Public Library is pretty fetching too.



Commonplace Book: Uses of the Past

Nobody (except me) loves Boston City Hall, and even I don’t love the DC FBI HQ, the J. Edgar Hoover building, (slated for destruction). Brutalist architecture is at “the awkward age” too young to be historic, too old to be current. It’s even more of a problem with Soviet-era architecture from Iron Curtain countries. Ideological and aesthetically derided, a symbol of suffering in design. But is it really? Will it some day be as beloved as American Victorian, now of course prized.

In the London Review of Books Sheila Fitzpatrick assesses a book by a writer who has come to love those massive wedding cake pieces of Stalinist ideology made real.  Worth a read for the design mavens among you:

Here’s a bit of it.

Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings by Owen Hatherley

Hatherley didn’t go round Moscow with Sytin in his backpack, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any point of connection between his sensibility and that of the Russian intelligentsia. Žižek is a hovering presence, and there is a dash of Boris Groys as well. Hatherley would like to think the communist regimes did something right in creating living space for their people and hopes to find some elements of ‘real socialism’ in their built environments. But there’s always something like a wry grin on his face when he hints at these hopes. ‘Like many Soviet ideas,’ he writes in frustration at one point, ‘it is so obviously right and so obviously botched.’ Architecturally, his core allegiance is to modernism (the brutalist and utopian kinds, not the defanged ‘Ikea modernism’, which he disdains), but he has developed a certain affection for Stalinist monumentalism.

Could it ever just be “Dear Old Moscow State”?

Photo of Boston City Hall courtesy Wikipedia, “Plaza8” by Marguerite & AJ Marks – originally posted to Flickr as Boston city hall. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Beautiful Machines: Frank Gehry and Software

"Beekman Place New York" by Emmett hume. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
A Frank Gehry building in NYC: “Beekman Place New York” by Emmett Hume. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The characteristic designs of architect Frank Gehry’s signature buildings are only possible with the advent of sophisticated computerized design programs. (True of most modern buildings I would think, unless there are some historical re-enactor types who limit themselves to only the tools available to Palladio.)

A fascinating, and underreported, aspect of his legacy is the extension of computer approaches not only into the design process, but also into the engineering, the sourcing and the fabrication. The designs go from the computer to the fabricators directly, who create the pieces of the building on a just in time basis. The results get shipped to the site, and all of this is a “paper free” process, that is born digital, bits the whole way until the steel, titanium, or whatever is being fabricated, becomes atoms. No blue prints, no 2-D models, just a data stream.

I learned about this hearing a visitor talk about it at an exhibit in the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. He was explaining to his companion how the panels for Disney Hall came in from their Midwestern fabricator in batches, everything controlled by algorithms. As the building came together variances occurred in the panels, and this information could be fed back by computers to the manufacturer who made the next batch of panels to the slightly changed spec. In fact, the computer program could predict most of the variances, including any changes that resulted from weather during shipping.

This use of nearly real-time data across a network is what makes these buildings visually possible, and financially feasible. Earlier architects with hit unbreachable limits that Gehry, and his peers, can blow past. (To wit one of Gehry’s quips: “Had Erich Mendelsohn had the computer stuff that we got now, I would have had to do something else.” )

The fascinating blog Priceconomics has a great piece on it by Lian Chikako Chang, an architecture writer and researcher, with detail about how his system works and just how transformative the concept was to the whole industry. Gehry’s shop is now also a tech company that offers a platform and service for other studios as well. It also mentions the irony that Gehry himself has no patience or aptitude for computers at all!

From the piece:

Gehry suspected that digitally designed geometries could be executed much more efficiently with less redundancy. Instead of creating standard 2D construction drawings, Gehry now had his contractors refer directly to the 3D digital model, translating digitized coordinates directly into manual cutting instructions and machine tooling paths.

The contractors he worked with welcomed his guidance. “Most contractors,” he has since said, “want the architect to be the Daddy.” In 1997, the museum [Guggenheim in Bilbao] opened on budget and on time to rave reviews.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. Photograph taken by User:MykReeve on 14 January, 2005.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. Photograph taken by User:MykReeve on 14 January, 2005.
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