Centering a Town: 16th. Effort/Cubic

As in other designs, the notion of structure is figured. The thick, cubic grid holds the classrooms, elevating and giving them status. They are also set off by the contrast in materials and window patterns. Design could be enhanced by other materials and colors for the grid—stained or stressed metal against the brick, for example, or concrete.

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Centering a Town: 15th. Effort/Spiral

Spiral because of the spiral staircase at the corner. This is an improved version of my first two efforts. Program is similar, though it has no black box theater. And it is a reserved yet informal design that fits in with the character of other buildings in downtown St. Johns. It picks up the brick in the courthouse and library, and the green details repeat the color of the St. Johns Bridge as well as suggest its structure of suspension.

As always, some imagination is needed to see my models. Details—refined brickwork, window frames—are everything in a simple building like this, which I can’t reproduce. I’d also like a more involved and delicate grid for the corner windows enclosing the staircase. The stairs themselves, of course, are not the correct scale. Also I cannot do interiors. The white elements inside provide an armature to support the roof.

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Centering a Town: 14th. Effort/Time

We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.


The theme for this design is time because, obviously, the building has a clock, or several clocks.

The site, in fact, has a clock standing at the corner of the plaza. Last I checked, it didn’t work. The Central Hotel has since been demolished, over a year ago. A mixed-use project is planned, but it has been put on hold and the plot remains vacant, waiting.

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Centering a Town: 13th. Effort/Suspension II

See Centering a Town: 6th. Effort/Suspension for another variation of this theme. Again, the desire is to complement the St. Johns Bridge, the defining landmark for St. Johns, with analogous construction. Two piers are bent around the building to support a narrow band and the grid that contains the upper floors.

From the rear of the upper floors there will be an excellent view of the bridge, only a block away.

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Centering a Town: 12th. Effort/Palazzo

Donato Bramante, Palazzo Caprini (Palazzo di Raffaello), c. 1510

These buildings are in a class of their own and represent a climax of the High Renaissance palace between 1515 and 1520. Their functional differentiation of a rusticated ground-floor and smooth piano nobile, their majestic sequence of double half-columns, their use of few great forms, and their economy of detail, the organic separation of one member from another (e.g. balconies and bases of columns), the compact filling of the wall and the energetic projection of mass—all this, though unprecedented in ancient as well as modern times, gave these places the stamp of truly imperial grandeur. They had something of the serene and grave quality of ancient Roman buildings, and it was palazzo type that, fused with Venetian elements first by Sanmicheli (Palazzo Pompeii, Verona) and then by Palladio, was constantly imitated and varied all over Europe by architects with a classical bias.

Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, on buildings influenced by Bramante palazzos.

The style of palazzos—Italian palaces for nobles and the wealthy—may seem an odd choice for this project. They housed, however, several functions, and the ground floor was often used for commerce. Later revivals of the style served all manner of purposes. What the style succeeds in doing is defining an urban presence, assertive, conscious of itself, yet also mindful of the need to respect a town’s grid and fabric. The palazzo faces the town streets and lies close, maintaining its reserve without withdrawing to isolation and exclusivity, at least in appearance.

That was my interest, a unified design for a building with many functions, one that distinguishes the building and elevates the importance of the activities inside yet still fits in. Its location—in the center of the downtown area, before the plaza it commands—calls for such presence. I also wanted a design that might reach back into the past and give it present relevance and connection.

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Centering a Town: 11th. Effort/Memory

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

T. S. Eliot/Burnt Norton/Four Quartets

All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.

Didion/Notes from a Native Daughter/
Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Architecture built today necessarily, inevitably, is focused on the present, using current materials and technologies, and contemporary idioms and styles and trends. Much is simple and merely functional, bowing to the economic demands of costs of land, material, and labor, to the desire to maximize profits in a world that has lost touch with its base.

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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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