Archive for June, 2015

Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois.

farnsworth615c

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

I have been involved in this house for a long time due to my Board service at both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and for the last couple years I have also served on the Technical Advisory Panel looking at flooding mitigation options for the Farnsworth House.  I have been a cheerleader for the process the National Trust has undertaken, and I have listened especially closely to the National Park Service, since it is essential in my mind that any actions taken insure we preserve the National Historic Landmark status of this iconic masterpiece of architecture.

farnsworth615b

I came into the process as a skeptic, not wanting to move or alter the house.  Let it flood, I said, taking a purist position.  It’s a submarine, I said.  I did not like the idea of moving it because we bought it in 2003 so it wouldn’t be moved away.  As Dirk Lohan (Mies’ grandson and an important architect in his own right) says, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that does not flood,

FH 2013 terrace hosue

I became convinced that the hydraulic option – putting the house on hydraulic jacks that would lift it out of harm’s way in the case of a flood – was the best preservation option, and I still believe that.  Doing nothing, I realized, relegated the house to the status of archaeological ruin.  But of course doing anything with a house of this international significance will cause some people to get their knickers in a twist, pressing upwards as they express objections to actions which could harm this landmark.  As all actions can.  As inaction will.

FH 2013 frontal

Doing nothing will do great harm to the building, and it is clear from the National Park Service and others that doing nothing is NOT a preservation option.  That is the archaeological ruin option.  Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin reported on what has happened in the last year as some preservationists – John Vinci in particular – have objected to the hydraulic option and forced the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to investigate a new option – moving it almost half a mile to a new site on Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s property where it will 1.  flood less, 2. allow a reinterpretation of the original landscape, which was ruined by the introduction of a highway bridge in 1970, reimagined as a manicured landscape in the 1970s and 80s,  and altered by the loss of a sugar maple tree that framed the house in 2012.

fh f riverS

This tree is no more

Doing anything dramatic – and dramatic options are all that remain – will upset or excite people.  Look how the Miesians got upset about the new window stops at IIT Crown Hall – a quarter-inch slope meant that a NON-RIGHT ANGLE had been inserted, thus wrecking (??) Mies’ vision.

the bite

Don’t tell me you can’t see that.  Come on! 

Landmarks Illinois has to approve whatever solution obtains thanks to their preservation easement, and they will make the decision as a Board.  Thanks to local opposition, the National Trust is now looking at this new relocation option.  (Note:  I have not been on the Landmarks Illinois Board for two years)

cornfield bus

Like here.

I still prefer the hydraulic solution because it keeps the building in place.  I also reject the irresponsible claims by some that this technology is somehow a big deal.

About Hydraulics

Let me take you back to to 1854, when Elishu Otis demonstrated the safety elevator.  Hydraulics – which preceded Otis by a decade – powered that elevator.  His innovation was a brake.  Within a few years, hydraulics allowed tall buildings to be practical.  By 1882, four years before Ludwig Mies was born –  you had a company in London running high-pressure mains 184 miles powering some 8,000 elevators.  So if this 175-year old technology worries you, avoid elevators.

333 elev doors

You’ll never get me up in one of those things.

Hydraulic jack technology is older than the zipper, the typewriter (what’s that?) and the automobile.   As the great Bob Silman, who investigated ALL of these options, noted, we put our lives on hydraulics whenever we get on an airplane.  All those noises you hear?  Hydraulics.  Think of all the times you have flown and the hydraulics on the landing gear failed.  Go ahead.

airplane

Sorry I’m Amish.

Back to the Decision – and Owning It.

Indications are that this relocation option – like the hydraulic solution – will still meet the National Historic Landmark status requirements.  This is really important and a key factor in the decision in my view.  The relocation option also appears to have the favor of John Vinci – who has no official role in the process.  Landmarks Illinois DOES have a role in the process.   As soon as we at the National Trust present our preferred option Landmarks Illinois will need to make a decision, especially in light of the fact that we have investigated this new relocation option based on their reaction to the hydraulic option.

farnsworth11 grtS

I get it – I have been in this field for over 32 years.  I LOVE being in the John Vinci position of sniping and throwing brickbats against the powers that be, safely outside the decision-making process.  That’s what I did in my 20s, and that saved some buildings from uncaring owners or inconsiderate government entities.  But Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust quite literally TOOK OWNERSHIP of this house a dozen years ago and are now responsible – there is no one but ourselves to snipe and throw brickbats at.

farns living east1109p

Or stones.  Maybe I should have said stones.  It’s a glass house after all.

So my role of late has been to praise the process the National Trust has undertaken over the last three years and to insist that every organization involved take ownership of the eventual solution.  Landmarks Illinois has made this a Board decision as opposed to a decision of the Fund and Easements Committee.  Fine.  But no decision – like taking no action – is NOT an option.  That decision will likely not be comfortable, but I for one will own it.

farns bedroom1109s

You make your bed you sleep in it.

UPDATE:  A European perspective.  A couple of weeks later I was in Europe with a local preservation group in the Ossola Valley and an Irish ICOMOS Committee Chair.  I mentioned the Farnsworth House flooding problem and without context or prompt they both said, nearly in unison:  “Jack it up.”  This would not be a fraught issue in Europe.

Do you know the Bessemer process which allowed the industrial production of steel, which made the materials of the Farnsworth House possible is ALSO younger than hydraulics?  Don’t worry – the old technology will not be visible – just the purity of the Modern.

The Über of Architecture

June 17, 2015

Later this month I will be heading to Associazone Canova in Italy to participate in the 14th Annual Architectural Encounter so I am thinking about the future of architecture.

My three years in Silicon Valley have demonstrated the revolutiuonary transformation of human interaction and the infrastructure of our environment: the landscapes, pathways, and buildings we inhabit.  The App Age  of Über and Airbnb and Google has reprogrammed our normal relationship to goods; services, and to space itself. Interviews are carried out in coffee shops, coffee shops are in libraries, homes are hotels, cars are taxis and even clothing may not have a single owner. Clients are no longer fixed but fluid, and the key design element for future resilience will be in fact fluidity: the space, the plot, the wall or the wearable that can adjust to the next radical disruption.

As a human society we are arguably moving away from the settled lifestyle we pioneered 11,000 years ago when we shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

DD end house fields view

small agricultural plots in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Are we moving back to a peripatetic lifestyle where we constantly move not only in space but also in technological platforms?   The Industrial Age was a major shift away from agriculture, but until recently even that transformation, involving massive human migrations to cities, remained in the mode of a settled multigenerational life. The end of World War II saw the rise of the nuclear family, who were still supposed to settle in a single geographic location and work for an industrial concern for a lifetime.

studebaker house

Studebaker – the only car company that started with the Industrial Revolution (Palm Springs).

Now we are in the age of retooling as knowledge systems explode and individual lives are subject to constant reeducation and career moves. We adapt to changing realities and modalities. Resiliency has replaced sustainability as a leading concept not only in architecture but in political economy as well.  We are in the obverse of High Modernism, which felt it could determine all future needs and design accordingly.

IBM vw2sc

IBM Building, Chicago, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  It was designed for room-sized computers and floor-sized heat exchangers.  Now it is a hotel.

The design byword today is resiliency, a kind of adaptability, which interestingly, has been the dominant mode in historic preservation/heritage conservation for the last 50 years. Indeed, when the High Modernists were designing buildings for Forever Needs, preservationists in Soho and elsewhere were repurposing old buildings for new uses.

3rd wd  red rom

Even in Milwaukee

Jane Jacobs saw old buildings as incubators for new ideas and new businesses. Don Rypkema, the leading spokesperson for the economics of preservation, makes the same argument every day and has made it in over 40 countries worldwide. We know that adaptive re-use is the economic underpinning of older buildings, sites and structures. What does this mean for design?

nr green11

Greenwich Village.

“Long life loose fit” is one foundation for resiliency. Buildings become non-specific in their uses. Again, this has been a foundational idea for historic preservation for a half century, but the Über/Airbnb world requires a further step: multiple uses not simply in time, but in space.

orly inside

Musee d’Orsay, in time and on time

I am reminded of an example I learned from the architect Yatin Pandya back in 2008. Yatin described the Manek Chowk, a major public square in Ahmedabad, a city on the tentative list for World Heritage status. In the morning the Manek Chowk is covered with hay as animals wander and feed throughout the square. By late morning the plaza is transformed into a shopping area as people buy pots and pans and choose from a vast array of locally grown vegetables. By noon it becomes a market for bullion and jewelry. Each evening the shops vanish, tables fill the square and dozens of nighttime food stalls service a human population in the same space where animals feasted the morning before.

manek chowk

Manek Chowk, 2008, mid-day

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Market at Manek Chowk, Ahmedabad

I think our future buildings – and of course our past buildings, will become microcosms of the Manek Chowk. We are already seeing this in coffee shops that have recognized – and started to monetize – their role as offices for the legions of information and service workers who no longer have or choose to use a formal office.

Hana haus courtyard

Palo Alto, California.  It was a movie theater.  Then a bookstore.  Now it’s a coffee shop/entrepreneurial platform.

The idea was incipient in preservation when I came on the scene over 30 years ago. I recall the buildings of Printers Row in Chicago, formerly industrial and now transformed into residential lofts, office lofts, shops and even religious structures. Every city in the world has a former warehouse and industrial area where the buildings have been saved and re-used as housing, galleries, offices, shops and more.

grace donohoeS

And the church (left) serves multiple congregations

This trend will continue to define our future and the shifts will become both more broad-based and more granular. We will share buildings as we share our apartments on Airbnb and our vehicles on Über and our bicycles with everyone else in New York or London or San Francisco or Washington.

DIY bikes chgoS

Chicago I think

Adaptive re-use of buildings is morphing into adaptive use of all buildings (and sites and structures).  While recent architectural theory has revolved around issues of sustainability and resilience, technology has been viewed as a new way to design, and a new set of elements to incorporate into designs.

usafa chap int ceil2

Refracting light through colored glass is a hell of a technology.

The technological revolution actually implies a new approach to design that in many ways will finally realize the century-old modernist goal of uniting engineering and design.  Modernism was a reaction to In the idea that 19th century architecture had become obsessed with the visual qualities of facades and lost its connection to engineering – modernists were to reunite those two elements, and our friend Mies van der Rohe was one of those proponents.  Yet, as I explained in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne, there is always the attempt to sweeten, or make beautiful, the resultant form.

millowners-faces

Sweet!  LeCorbusier – Mill Owners Building, Ahmedabad

Google and Apple and Facebook have all hired starchitects to design them wacky new buildings that will SYMBOLIZE their technology, but I think it is much more interesting to look at the buildings that birthed and nurtured this technology – because they are historic warehouses and loft buildings.  Long life loose fit.  New ideas need old buildings.

Firefox bldg Embacrp

Firefox building on the Embarcadero, San Francisco

Tech Bldg SFcrp

Headquarters for a variety of tech companies, San Francisco 2015

It seems to me the use of buildings – in time and space – is the key to a sustainable built future,  Facades always were a kind of advertisement, a signifier, of dignity or permanence or comfort or desire.  Maybe the 19th century split between architecture and engineering is an ongoing battle between space we need to occupy and do things in and symbols we want to create on the landscape.

first unitarian church Providence

Gothic, Classical – this one has it all.  But it really doesn’t SAY Unitarian…..

I have been having many discussions about the future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year.  One of the challenges, which I wrote about in connection to the need to make the National Register reflect the diversity of the American experience, is to get beyond the focus on facades, which still dominates our review of potential landmark buildings and districts.  While this makes sense for those buildings nominated under Criterion C for architecture, it cannot be supported at the same level of formal scrutiny when you are dealing with sites significant for Criterion A (history) or Criterion B (famous people).  That significance may be interior, and it is inherently related to use, not form.

man o war barn

The barn where legendary horse Man O’ War lived, near Lexington Kentucky.

If these musings prove true, the multiplicity of meanings embodied in historic significance will be embodied in spaces that were used in multiple ways by multiple agents, lending over time a multiplicity of significations.  This will take us farther from the facade, or the facade will become – as it in in the Manek Chowk or Piazza Navona – an interior wall, a backdrop for actions that will resonate in that wall over time.

pala navona

this place matters

As we slide into the Über future we should also take with us the other great lesson of preservation: how to make good buildings.  We save them because they CAN be saved, because they have sufficient inherent resiliency to be repurposed.  Indeed, preservation of old buildings, site and structures is all about resiliency.  So when our 21st century shared space economy gets in full swing – remember where it started: with old buildings.

1946 estes08b

Its an asset, a resource, a performer that beats any new building by 48 truckloads of debris.

FYI last one is a totally altered 1880s cottage where Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney lived when they first married.  You should see the amazing fireplaces they designed on the inside.  Oh, and she lived there in the 1940s after Walter died and she was compiling Magic In America.  So there.