Centering a Town: 10th. Effort/Complexity


I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.

Robert Venturi


This effort was influenced by Peter Eisenman’s House II:

of which I have made a model that can be found here, with discussion.

In both we start with a regular cubic grid, then submit it to a series of shifts and other adjustments. My design is much quieter, however, and where Eisenman rethinks structure and form of the total space, inside to out, my changes are largely surface, on the exterior.

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Centering a Town: 9th. Effort (folly)

In this design I wanted to add a tower—the folly—to distinguish the building, giving it a point of focus and identifying its location and function as a center. I’ve gone out into the plaza, though I’ve also added to its space. The extra area isolates and thus highlights the tower, though I’m skeptical the space would be used and can think of several reasons why it might not be a good idea.

I had two designs in mind, the Urbino Ideal City:

and Bernard Tschumi’s folies for the Parc de la Villette, Paris:

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Centering a Town: 8th. Effort/Open

This may be my most successful design for the site. It is modest and informal, thus fits in with the character of the buildings surrounding. The proportions are good—and proportions and dimensions are always approximate in my models. I have to build what the plastic pieces allow. The design as is, however, is an orchestration of imperfect squares, which keeps it from monotony and forced regularity as well as lends the building individuality and subtle energy. Also there is a contrast of scale for hierarchy, with the large scale of the atrium windows set against the smaller, calling attention to a vital point, the center of downtown St. Johns.

Details and surface give the building distinction. The walls are made of brick, which ages well and references other brick buildings in the neighborhood. All windows are framed in dark green—I can’t represent this well—and smaller panes are used for the atrium windows held by a green grid, adding another degree of complexity and variation in scale.

What the design does is place a prominent open cube in the middle of town and symbolically define it as center. It is an open structure calling for fulfillment. Not only does the cube attract attention to itself and the building, it also makes visible what goes on inside. Users are made aware of their presence in the town, among the passersby. Function and site, users and residents, are visually brought together, inviting relationships and understanding.

The L arrangement of rooms around a corner atrium recalls Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Headquarters, an influence. His building offers a haven in the midst of urban New York without losing sight of its presence.

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Centering a Town: 7th. Effort/On the Grid



Renaissance artists firmly adhered to the Pythagorean concept “All is Number” and, guided by Plato and the neo-Platonists and supported by a long chain of theologians from Augustine onwards, they were convinced of the mathematical and harmonic structure of the universe and all creation. If the laws of harmonic numbers pervade everything from the celestial spheres to the most humble life on earth, then our very souls must conform to this harmony. It is, according to Alberti, an inborn sense that makes us aware of harmony; he maintains, in other words, that the perception of harmony through the senses is possible by virtue of the affinity of our souls. This implies that if a church has been built in accordance with essential mathematical harmonies, we react instinctively; an inner sense tells us, even without rational analysis, when the building we are in partakes of the vital force which lies behind all matter and binds the universe together.

Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism

It was a belief embraced by Palladio, made manifest in his design of villas

public palazzi

and in what was believed the highest form of architecture, the church.

That this order does not fit other conceptions of Christianity, that it doesn’t fit the facts of history, its order, that the order of God might be unknowable, that there are other gods, other religions, or that there may be no god, that the notion of order itself may serve other instincts, that the notion is illusory and self-serving, that it makes no sense—these questions were not asked. When they were, we were left only with numbers, their relationships, and vanishing perspectives.

There is no point in being sentimental here. Still, the well-proportioned buildings remain with their symmetry, their pulsing rhythms, those and the desire that reaches beyond desire, a breathing, an aspiration for what might hold us together and vouchsafe our lives on earth, for that and still for something else.

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Centering a Town: 6th. Effort/Suspension

This effort was loosely inspired by a study of Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library.

Though the result of that study was to realize how subtle and complete his building is and how far mine falls short, how limited my means are. Still, I wanted to create a community center that had a simple, coherent, yet monumental cast that might stand out on the plaza and distinguish it from the other buildings in St. Johns while at the same time fitting in. See the Centering a Town: First Efforts for site, background, and program.

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Centering a Town: 5th. Effort/Columns

Classical order has been with us for millennia in one form or another, exerting extensive cultural influence on our lives. Our language itself is built to great extent on Greek and Latin roots. As an order it is not just a style but a system of controlling space and relationships within that space, having its own language and references, that, by extension, regulates our place within that space, our relationship with the powers who deploy it, with each other, even shapes our ways of thinking about space itself. The order has also proliferated in diluted interpretations that at best are merely sentimental as well as been distorted to create monsters.

But it is the order of demos as well as empire. In the United States, since its early history, various classical revivals have been used not only to structure the growth of political institutions and represent their power but also to build independent homes, schools, churches, and civic buildings, large and small, giving them presence, balance, and ceremony. These contain and support the American spirit, housing its energies and contradictions. They are a vital part of our heritage. White columns and accents are often combined with red brick walls, and I have always found the contrast attractive. The brick gives the mass of the buildings body and texture, bringing them down to earth literally, touching our substance figuratively.

St. Johns has several such buildings, including its branch of the Multnomah County Library, above, picture via its site. Built over a hundred years ago, the library is a modest building that has stood up well and continues to contribute to the heterogeneous complexion of the neighborhood. For this effort I wanted to give bricks and columns a shot in another version of my mixed-use community center project, one that references those buildings as well as distinguishes itself as a place of significance yet remains on our level. See my first post Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts for site, plan, and program.

Modern construction technology rendered columns obsolete; modernist reactions relegated them to archaism; postmodernism only referred to them with irony and whimsy. Yet none of those have given us a common language full enough to express our desires and complexities. The first two have cut us off from our past, the last trivialized it. I wondered if there weren’t some way to reinterpret classical order for a building that might still speak to us now. This won’t be it—I’m just experimenting.

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Centering a Town: 4th. Effort/Building to Endure

Brutalism meets industrial revolution grace—another design for a community center to replace the Central Hotel in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland. This version has the same program as my previous designs, a black box theater and museum/art exhibition space on the the first floor and classrooms on the second and third. See my previous post Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts for background, site, plans, and concept, along with links to resources and my other rough designs. As always with my models, adjust proportions and imagine detailing, especially in the windows.

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Centering a Town: 3rd. Effort

This is a variation on the two versions of a possible replacement for the Central Hotel in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, reviewed in my earlier entry Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts. That post sets the location, has rough floor plans and program, and explains the concepts behind the design. Above, the front corner view, at Philadelphia and Lombard, looking out on the plaza. In this version the grid is more exposed and fully exposed at the corner, distinguishing its intersection there as a corner, announcing its openness and signaling entry. Also see Site: St. Johns, Portland for maps and pictures of the area.

As in the previous versions, I’m limited by what scale, 1/60, and the plastic pieces allow me to do. Proportions need fine tuning and the elements of the grid should be thinner. And again, they could be painted the color of the St. Johns Bridge or made of timber, unpainted to show the colors of the wood.

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Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts

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


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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House II

Building a model offers a way to experience the physical presence of a work of architecture close hand, over time, to examine its structure, the relationship of its parts, as well as engage in the practice and ritual of construction. It also provides a platform to contemplate structures and relationships in general, what might be suggested analogically, what might be applied elsewhere.

I had no particular reason for choosing Peter Eisenman’s House II, but once I started I became wholly engaged in the process of understanding, planning, and building, and tearing down and revising and rebuilding, and with the construction and destruction came a host of thoughts that hovered but landed nowhere, returning me only to House II, its structure, the relationship of its parts, which sent me flying into thought once again.

Eisenman, in fact, intended his project to look like a model:

Built of plywood, veneer, and paint, it lacks traditional details associated with conventional houses. Viewed without the external, scale-specific referent, House II becomes an ambiguous object, which could be a building or a model.

From the PDF linked on his site. The effect is less apparent in my model. This ambiguity makes us aware of the process of design and construction, of process itself, leaving us with questions that can be answered in several ways—or can’t be answered at all. We can look forward and contemplate the final project, brought to completion and perfection. Just as much we realize neither will ever come, that finality was not the goal. Ambiguity most characterizes the house, and we have to contend with the tentative, the provisional. Perhaps we are left with the realization that perfection itself is an illusion, or if apparently obtained elsewhere has questionable value and reference.

Then we have to decide what to make of Eisenman’s comment:

The “real architecture” only exists in the drawings. The “real building” exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that “architecture” and “building” are not the same.

And think where we’re left when we take all the terms out of quotation.

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