Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts

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A mixture of uses, if it is to be sufficiently complex to sustain city safety, public contact and cross-use, needs an enormous diversity of ingredients. So the first question—and I think by far the most important question—about planning cities is this: How can cities generate enough mixture among uses—enough diversity—throughout enough of their territories, to sustain their own civilization?

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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The Central Hotel in St. Johns used to be, in fact, a three-story hotel, constructed around the end of the 1800s. A fire in the 1920s destroyed the upper floors, and the building has undergone a series of renovations and uses over the years resulting in its current form. The style grows on you.

St. Johns was once a separate city, incorporated into Portland a century ago, and the neighborhood still looks like and functions as a small town, with considerable diversity of small commercial concerns. The Central Hotel is located in its heart, on the corner of Lombard, the neighborhood’s main street, and Philadelphia, which leads a few blocks away to the St. Johns Bridge. There is a sizable plaza surrounding, and over the years the site has provided the locus of much activity. The St. Johns Parade has passed by for over half a century, and festivals and an open air market have their home there. Bobby Kennedy once spoke before one of the hotel’s incarnations to a crowd in the 1968 presidential campaign.

The intersection is a central place, and a building there could be a point of focus, of gathering, of identity and definition, one that reflects and interacts with the rest of the neighborhood. Now, however, the Central Hotel lies vacant and represents only indecision and decay.

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Metropolitan Storage Warehouse: Fire Proof

I’m trying to imagine walking up Vassar Street alongside the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, the minute or so that would take. Ahead, the corner tower a story higher; above, elaborate cornice work, reaching out, lifting up, dividing in crenelation. Further on, circular windows, arches, and stars of decoration. Beyond the tower, the main campus of MIT.

But the tower is distant, the embellishments high or few and faint. What I am most aware of from the ground is the continuing mass of brick pierced by small windows, its texture, its endless division, its warm color—the fact of brick itself, its presence, dominant for well over 500 feet.

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Mies van der Rohe: Krefeld/Haus Lange +

Never before were Architecture and Sculpture in such correlation. There seems to be a mental identity between the sculptures of Sol LeWitt and the architectural volume of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

from the LeWitt exhibition catalog

Truth is the significance of fact.

Aquinas/Mies van der Rohe

The best that can be said for either the square or the cube is that they are relatively uninteresting in themselves.

Sol LeWitt

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Muzharul Islam/Bangladesh National Library (Borges/Babel)

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings. From any hexagon the upper or lower stories are visible, interminably.

Borges/The Library of Babel

The comparison is extreme, but once Borges’s story came to mind, while building this model, I could not let it go.

The Library of Babel is wholly, maddeningly regular, vastly inaccessible, and, again, possibly infinite.

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Dhaka International University Administrative Building

“RED” symbolizes strength in our culture

from the architects’ statement

I keep returning to this building, my model on a table, approaching it, imagining entry and exploration of its floors, standing back in contemplation. It’s a modest building, about 68 x 52 and 50 feet tall, four stories if the roof area is included, a fairly simple structure with some complexity yet is solid, elemental, monumental even, but not imposing, direct in expression but open with suggestion. Something important is supposed to happen here that won’t have quick rules or rote answers. The structure rises in relationship to its culture, its environment; it stands apart. In the context of the turmoil the last years, of all time, it raises questions about what can be asserted, what needs to be challenged, what is ephemeral, what might endure. For Bangladesh, specifically, it projects hope.

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Ilya Golosov: Zuev Workers’ Club/Moscow

Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, Como, Italy, has been disassembled to build Ilya Golosov’s Zuev Workers’ Club, Moscow. I can’t decide how much contradiction, even irony, there is in that. Both were built about the same time, early 1930s, late 1920s, a period of intense modernist innovation and debate in which both architects were involved. Both buildings followed and were responses to massive turmoil and social change. Both housed functions meant to serve a broad population, these uses based on political ideology, those ideas hotly debated as well. Most, both are original, striking, and memorable designs, what first drew me to them.

My main interest in both, however, is what we might learn from them and adopt for our current world. The larger our cities grow, the more we spread out, the more we become isolated and culturally diffuse. How can we maintain our common identity and keep our neighborhoods vital? Part of the answer lies in our institutions and the architecture that houses them. My own virtual project suggests a possible solution, explained generally in Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts, with more thoughts and designs here. A modest building, designed well, could do much to serve a neighborhood and visually enhance and anchor it.

Terragni, however, was a Rationalist and Golosov’s Zuev is considered Constructivist—there is much to untangle here that I will put aside.

And both, of course, had in sight different political ideologies.

The club in 1929. The passersby give a sense of a past still present, of the transition the Soviets had to make.

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Giuseppe Terragni: Casa del—

Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be revived, since, for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.

Lenin

If we had seen this government center with that picture some ninety years ago, we would have, by association, formed one interpretation of it, a more favorable one for some of us, a lesser one for others. We might have said that architecturally it expresses how the monolithic mass of the state has been broken down into individual parts, these on a human scale, the independent parts brought together into coherent interdependence where everyone belongs in a structure that is open, light, and transparent. Walls have come down.

Terragni, in fact, says something similar in his interpretation of his building: “no barrier, no obstacle, between the political _______ and the people.”

But Lenin was not the picture we got on the wall.

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Mies van der Rohe: Berlin/Haus Lemke

Mies van der Rohe’s Lemke House is so simple, so basic, so modest that one has to wonder why it merits much attention. That, however, is what is so exceptional about the design, how modest, how basic, how simple it is. The simplest things are often the hardest. And given recent events, a return to a base, seen clearly, is well in order.

But as always with Mies simple is not so simple.

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Museum (two)

Another corner art museum in an urban setting, similar to the five-story version of my first effort in program and size—about 110 x 110 feet, 80 feet high. See that post for description. Again, the interest is in creating a building that distinguishes itself and announces its function at a busy intersection. The L arrangement of windows breaks the cube and relieves the sides, as well as points to and highlights the corner, announced by a massive column. On the top floor, a canopy overhangs an open area for views, for air, for a break from exhibition, which could be used for outdoor sculpture and plantings.

The design was heavily influenced by David Adjaye’s Dirty House in London, a warehouse converted to studio and living space.

The flat black color, among other things, brings together the different textures of the former warehouse and unites them in a rough, expressive geometric shape punched with square holes, above which, in absolute contrast, hovers a pure white plane, a modernist benediction. Combined, the two forms make a stark and compelling image, wholly coherent.

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Museum (one)

A museum for contemporary art on a corner site in an urban setting that, in fact, resembles a work of art.

An art museum, especially in a city, needs to separate and distinguish itself from its surroundings as well as give some indication of its type and be expressive without upstaging what is inside. It also needs to make full use of limited space, and since wall space outside equals exhibition space inside, it can only have a few windows. Further, curators need full control of lighting, and natural light can be an intrusion. Yet somehow it has to make maximum use of limited space without appearing as a monolithic block.

The former Whitney succeeds in all of those requirements. Breuer on his design:

Its form and material should have identity and weight in the neighborhood of 50-story skyscrapers, of mile-long bridges, in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should have visual connection to the street, as deemed fitting to the housing for twentieth-century art. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.

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