Archive for the ‘Play Architecture Weekly Go Mad with Joy’ category

Play Architecture with the Whites of Contrast

July 9, 2013

July 9th, 2013

R. Meier
Douglas House
Harbor Springs


Richard Meier was born in New Jersey and was part of the group known as the “New York Five” or alternately, the “Whites” as they preferred to call themselves, because of the white facades of their houses.

Obviously influenced by Le Corbusier and others like Giuseppe Terragni and his fellow artists of Italian Rationalism, their designs look more complicated and seem to have more window play, more “strategies of intersection.” The architects of this group often played with the axis of houses, separating, turning areas, and other areas overlapping, all the variables we take for granted to today.

The four stories of the Douglas House sweep down in the landscape, all window play among the trees and a fantastic arrangement of chimneys rising up surprisingly to break the facade. There is something Medieval about those chimneys, despite their ultra-modern look. The entrance is on the top floor and the house is made of reinforced concrete. While I like the white concept generally, I’m not sure I like the extreme whiteness among the trees because it looks so man-made, there is such polarity there. Richard Meier felt this startling contrast enhanced the beauty of the natural environment. It reminds me of Wright’s Fallingwater without the colour because of the way it has been fitted in the landscape.

Here is a picture of it from my book Architecture of the 20th Century, Volume 2. The house on the left is also a Meier design called the Saltzman House, and you can see the reverberations from Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye there. Then on the right is the Douglas House from the playing card which I really like, although I’m not convinced it wouldn’t have been better in stone. In thinking about it though, it does remind me of bleached bone, perhaps an echo of the skeletons of animals from the woods. In looking at it from a distance you can see how it also looks like the white foam of a waterfall, streaking down among the trees, so I am coming around to the idea of the stark white against the trees and water.

I was a bit iffy on the outside stairs because they remind me so much of factories and industrial buildings, but that is classic from the 1920s and 1930s, and Meier wanted the stairs outside so they didn’t block the views or the sunlight. I can see this as being sensible in that setting.


Harbor Springs is a small resort community, geared to tourism, so they’ve managed to keep the landscape natural. You can just see the edge of Lake Michigan at the bottom of the slope. The openings and variations in windows are interesting. It would be a house to make you feel anchored in the landscape, part of the scene, right IN the landscape with so many balconies and outdoor niches. Yes, it would be a glorious thing to wake up there in the morning.

I was also delighted to find that Richard Meier, following the classic tradition, designs his own furniture. He has a classic chair design where the curve of the arms can be set against other chairs to create curved, flowing conversational seating. The dining table and side tables are lovely. I’m not sure what I think about the chaise, it comes in a flat model and a rocking model and reminds me of the Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe design of the Barcelona Chair. I understand that Mr. Meier uses furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in his houses as well, and their influence is seen in his own furniture.


As I’ve mentioned in this study, I am not fond of Le Corbusier’s work with the exception of the Villa Savoye, so I was quite delighted to discover that his good design was such an influence on these fellows in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

Richard Meier has designed office and municipal buildings, at least one church, and several museums too. Some I like, some I don’t. There is something about large, white commercial buildings with lots of same-sized windows that remind me of the high school I went to, so I find it hard to think of them as attractive.

He ran into real controversy in Rome when designing a building to cover the ancient Roman monument Ara Pacis Augustae. There is still talk of moving the building and re-erecting it elsewhere. It provides beautiful light on the monument, and the stark white of Meier’s design allows the soft colour of the stone of the monument to glow gently as you view it, so I like that section from the INSIDE at least. There is something about the juxtaposition that works.


Unfortunately, when viewed from outside, the rectangular windows are reminiscent of a car dealership and it doesn’t fit with the surrounding historical buildings. The front entrance, even with some lovely stone, reminds me of a grocery store.



As a whole I don’t care for the complex, it’s too stark. This is the middle of ancient Roma, not a suburb in North America. People scrawl ugly graffiti and criticisms over the outer walls, disturbing what could be a peaceful setting for the ancient altar, not to mention defacing the work of the architect. That I don’t agree with, but perhaps this is an architectural misjudgement on Meier’s part?

I think I prefer Richard Meier’s designs when they are smaller with more variation in windows and rotations. The Douglas House is a gem, an outstanding design that really holds up.




Play Architecture with Italian Fascists

June 17, 2013

Daily Draw June 17th, 2013

I lost track of when I started this, possibly back in February. I got stumped because I just couldn’t get a sense of how I felt about this.

G. Terragni
Casa del Fascio


Giuseppe Terragni is described as a proponent of “Italian Rationalism” and he and his brother and other architects and artists formed a group in the Como area. Rationalists were influenced by Le Corbusier and the idea of a better society, social progress and functional solutions for real people, all the jazz we like in modernist architecture. It is a high ideal for sure, and part of the reason for this building’s popularity today is how well it reflects that idealism. It has been renamed Casa del Populo or “House of the People” to get away from its fascist past and truly reflect the idea of rationalism in architecture.

I always think of Lake Como and wealthy celebrities and beautiful old houses and sweeping gardens when I think of this area. It’s quite surprising this building. It’s a museum now and lots of tourists go to see it. There is just something about it, it is an anomaly for those times. I still can’t believe it was allowed and that such modern ideas were encouraged by the Italian fascist state. But Mussolini once said “Fascism is a house of glass into which everyone can look” and Terragni used that idea literally in his building, leaving the government offices open to the public areas. He described his design as having “no obstruction, no barrier, no obstacle between the political leader and the people.” Such idealism gives me a ping in the throat, given the extremes and destruction of fascism in the history of the twentieth century.


In an age when German fascists were building heavy, monumental and suffocatingly imposing public buildings, along came this delightfully light and open homage to geometry and modernism in Italy. It is made of concrete but faced with marble and this front view shows a plain area on the facade, and this white space had an actual changing or revolving display of images projected onto the facade or sometimes draped with images and illuminated. Because it was the headquarters of the local fascist party, they held rallies there and the inner space is rather open to allow for such gatherings, you can see the doorway is very wide to allow groups to surge from exterior to interior. Different types of marbles were used on the floors and interior too; practicality doesn’t resist display and inventiveness.

Actually, I believe Terragni used fine marble as he felt it a suitable tribute to the fascist martyrs commemorated in images within the building. A bit like a monumental crypt in that idea, and it does look like a mausoleum in some ways, perhaps because of this heavy use of marble.


The artist painting frescoes for the building was Mario Radice, and he was greatly influenced by artists like Piet Mondrian and Fernand Leger. The Nazis in Germany were destroying abstract art, but in Italy Radice was allowed to paint abstract frescoes on the interior walls of the Casa del Fascio! That fact gets to me, I feel nothing but amazement. In this example he’s put in a likeness or photograph of Mussolini, but these frescoes were eventually destroyed after the war, being politically incorrect and a painful reminder of terrible murders and situations. I think Radice himself destroyed the texts, realizing I suppose the mistaken purpose of it all.


Still, what I am astonished by is the completely different approach to artistic and architectural renderings of the fascist ideal in Italy as compared to Germany. This would never, ever had been allowed in Germany. Hitler might have imprisoned an architect who put forward a design like this. All such ideas were suppressed without question.

The glass doors here in Como could be swung open and the four sides had different facades and the light and shade made dramatic effects. The large inner courtyard had cantilevered stairways and offices around it. It must have really been a sight when the abstract frescoes were still there. Even today with all our devotion to deconstructionist buildings, this is a fascinating design. I always seem to come back to philosophy and idealism with these architects, but like other artists, that’s what gives them the impetus to create. It becomes a bit sad to see buildings destroyed or “re-purposed” as we like to call it, when they have such strong idealism embodied in them, but sometimes they are respected and saved, like with the Casa.

Giuseppe Terragni died when he was 39 or 40 of a blood clot in 1943. He only worked for 13 years as an architect. Perhaps it was better he died before Il Duce’s ignoble death, shot and then strung up in a plaza. But then, Terragni didn’t live to see how really popular this building of his became. We like his interlocking, open spaces, light and glass and marble, the novelty and plastic change in doors and windows and ideas.



Play Architecture in the Fabled City of Brasilia

February 3, 2013

Daily Draw February 3rd, 2013

O. Niemeyer
Government Buildings


Oscar Niemeyer was a Brazilian architect, another fellow who really epitomizes the optimism and ideals of the 1950s and 1960s. He earned a B.A. in architecture from the fine arts university in 1934 and worked for his father’s typography house before he found work in an architectural firm. I find that interesting as there are many similarities between the lines and drawings of architecture and typefaces; the precision and relationship of lines is important in both.

In 1936 he worked with Le Corbusier on a plan for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro, and made changes and improvements to it after Le Corbusier had finished his consultation. Niemeyer improved it, and his improvements were accepted by the firm, which gives you an idea of how talented he was that they listened and respected him over the global icon of architecture. But then, this was South America, and they had their own way of doing things, their own sensibilities.

Up to 1960, the capital of Brazil was Rio, but they wrote it into the constitution back in the 19th century that a new city called Brasilia, removed from Rio and more central to the country, would be the new capital. I call it the Fabled City of Brasilia in the title of my post, and for me it is like creating Utopia, creating all the buildings and planning the layout. Niemeyer created several awe-inspiring, soaring buildings for this city, and this one is called the Congress Building or National Congress Building. I wanted to show a picture of the building where you could see how it relates to its surroundings. You can see many more images of it online, beautifully lit at night and looking just as vital today as it did 53 years ago. The English translation of the city plaza, is “Three Powers Plaza”which refers to the three sections of government and the presence of all of them. It looks rather harmonious as your eye moves back and forth between the structural elements.


The slab that forms the walkway between the buildings has offices and restaurants and the two towers are the administration block. I find those towers visually similar to a building in Düsseldorf, Germany called Dreischeibenhaus, which formerly was the Thyssen-Haus and before that, when it was built, the Phoenix-Rhein-Rohr Building.

The walkway was originally a way to allow people to walk up and wander around and feel like they were part of the fable. Unfortunately, there was a military coup in 1964 in which the army and their guns took over the terrace. Even today, due to security, the complex is mostly out of bounds. Oscar Niemeyer fled the country at this time and went to work in Paris. He came back after 1985 when democracy was gradually restored to the country.

Such a bright future, and the bright promise of Utopia, only to be blanked out by violence for decades. Niemeyer was a socialist but dictatorship doesn’t represent that ideal either. He also worked in collaboration with others on the United Nations Headquarters in New York, which gives yet another indication of his high idealism and commitment to a better society.

While in Paris he developed some furniture designs. No surprise there: is there an architect from the modern era that did not try furniture design? He designed these in bent steel and leather and they were also made in bent wood. I like them, they look comfortable.


Oscar Niemeyer designed quite a few buildings that stand up over the decades. No less than I’d expect from the youngster who changed the plans of Le Corbusier. Imagine having the confidence and talent to do that successfully at a time when no one questioned Le Corbusier’s ideas?

This was an interesting study. I feel like I did when I first read Eduardo Galeano, like I know absolutely nothing about South America.


Play Architecture in the Terminal of Currents

January 6, 2013

Daily Draw January 6th, 2013

I started this a couple of months ago and bogged down in trying to sort out a sadness that overtook me with it. I find corporate history interesting, and as well as architecture, this building is about the changing fortune and vision of corporations, and the sadness of ageing, change, and loss of leadership.

Eero Saarinen
TWA Building
New York


The first thing I thought of in relation to Trans World Airlines (TWA) was Howard Hughes. Hughes bought 25% of TWA way back in 1938 and eventually controlled 78%, so essentially he owned the company, although they had a board of directors.

This airline was so much a part of post-war America and the elegance of design and new technology. The company stood for luxury travel and carried the cachet of Hughes, the daring flyer, the innovator, the dashing money guy. We need heroes and he was one for a time.

As he aged they forced him out. He relinquished power of TWA in 1961 while this building was being created, and in 1966 they took him to court and forced him to sell his shares in the company. He lived for ten more years, moving from hotel to hotel, becoming reclusive, malnourished, with overgrown hair and nails, and suffused with chronic pain. It was medications he took for pain that contributed to his kidney failure. He was always eccentric and obsessive, but I wonder if ageing and the way he was dismissed and disrespected were what really killed him?

Eero Saarinen’s father was an architect and the family came to America from Finland when Eero was about 13. When he finished high school he went to Paris to study sculpture in 1930 and then came back to the States, got an architectural degree from Yale, and joined his father’s practice in 1937. You can see this interest in sculpture very clearly in his designs.

He started off emulating the designs of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and then moved into a style people call “romantic” or “expressive” with more curves and sweeping shapes than the rigid, rectangular style of those gentlemen. In 1950 he opened his own office with other designers and became known for distinctive designs. He was always changing though, always interested in trying new things, almost as if he couldn’t quite settle on a style, or perhaps changeability was his style?

The TWA Terminal is his best-known work and it is in all my modern art and architecture books. The curves he favoured seem like sculptural wings that suggest the rising take-off of flight. He wanted the building to express the drama and excitement of travel. The anticipation of soaring aloft is palpable, and the light filters in from everywhere in the structure, so you feel bathed in sky. Here is a picture as it was originally:


The Sydney Opera house uses a similar roof and they were designed at the same time. Some things I read say the preponderance of upswing roofs and all kinds of curling forms in architecture of the 1950s and 1960s reflected the optimism of the period. It could be, or perhaps architects were bored with rectangles and just felt like experimenting with free-form shapes? It might have been a bit of both. Like other forms of art, architecture does involve philosophy and sociology, so periodic movements in society and human culture would charge the art of the period too.

The interior reminds me of air currents, and the turbulence experienced by planes in flight; wind swirling and lifting. All the fixtures, boards, stairs, signs, chairs, and phone booths were custom designed by Saarinen so that the whole assemblage had a matching look. The curves were carried into the sidewalks and parking lot outside and it had a related traffic tower on the grounds. I like the way it seems to ripple out in circles, expansive, ready for the future.


Like other architects, he designed furniture as well, and two of his chair designs are still in production. The tulip chair was often seen in episodes of the original Star Trek television show.


Eero Saarinen died in 1961 of a brain tumour before the building was completed, he was only 51. His associates made sure that his unfinished projects were completed. Like Hughes, his reputation suffered as he fell out of fashion.

In 1978, airline deregulation in the United States removed government imposed price restrictions and the TWA management didn’t seem to be able to cope with competition. The currents of management and lack of leadership had them limping along through the 1980s. It reminds me of IBM not seeing the importance of the personal computer revolution. By the time someone noticed they lost much of their corporate power and status and their reputation as innovators.

TWA filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and 1995, then turned it around for a short time until they merged with American Airlines and disappeared forever in 2001. The world moved on and planes got bigger and bigger and there was more traffic and people in airports. No longer the TWA terminal, this building is now known as Terminal 5. It was expanded to accommodate jumbo jets, they demolished some of the original complex and tacked on a new structure. They “refurbished” what they could save of the old terminal, mostly the roof and front of the building which is partially encircled by the newer terminal.

This is what it looks like now:



The magic and landscape of the design is gone, it looks like a snack bar squeezed into an aluminum junk yard. Change, loss of leadership, age, decrepitude, and time swallow it: the lack of vision continues.

Howard Hughes and Eero Saarinen have been entombed in the Terminal of Currents, along with the optimism that we felt in 1962.



Play Architecture in the Chapel of Mystery

September 14, 2012

Daily Draw September 14th, 2012

T. Ando
Chapel on the Mt Rokko

Tadao Ando is a Japanese architect and completely self-taught. I admire him as an example of how, in a world of specialization, there are still people who can do it, who are born to the work, regardless of educational credentials.

This is a Christian chapel and he gives a nod to that with the classic belltower, but the chapel is quite close to a hotel so they rarely ring the bells, lest they disturb the hotel patrons.

The haunting thing about this design for me is the structure to the left of the chapel proper. It so reminds me of the entrance to a subway tunnel, but it has a mysterious quality to it, as if it is funnelling souls to heaven. It’s almost like a Ray Bradbury story where you go into the Paris Metro but you are really journeying somewhere else: Green Town, Illinois coming up, and Mars is Heaven.

When you are walking through the very long tunnel the exit is open so that it frames the natural scene at the end, like entering Narnia or having a snapshot of the seasons. I can’t quite explain this haunting quality it has.

The chapel itself is very minimalist and simple, which gives it a quiet, contemplative quality like handwoven linen. To the left on a hill is a colourful, beautiful garden and pond that overlooks the stark-looking chapel below it. The setting is beautiful and Mt. Rokko is not one mountain but a group of mountains, popular for sightseeing and hiking, so this is a perfect centre of calm amid the bustle of tourism.

It’s one of the nicest buildings I have seen, with this feeling of mystery, as much a hushed mystery as an ancient cathedral.

Peace. The place everyone longs for.

Play Architecture at the Villa of Stilts

July 28, 2012

Daily Draw July 28th, 2012

Le Corbusier
Villa Savoye
Poissy, 1929-31


The only “machine for living” that Le Corbusier designed that I like. His cousin Pierre Jeanneret was also involved in the design. I generally don’t like houses on stilts because people tend to junk up the lower area around the stilts with boxes and bicycles and old tires and the detritus usually found behind the doors of a garage. This of course is a display house so they haven’t done that, although if you see in the first diagram he has cleverly provided a hideaway for cars on the first level.



The other side of the lower floor showing the living space and the spiral staircase. I like that he’s framed the windows in the same painted wood as the garage doors on the opposite side.


Here is a snap of the two pages devoted to the house in Volume 1 of Architecture in the 20th Century by Peter Gössel and Gabriele Leuthäuser where they refer to the house as “…a smooth prism raised on stilts with a rich interior life.”


Le Corbusier liked the pure volumes of the geometry of cubes and prisms, cylinders and spheres. Purity referring to the basics of shape, and the way such basics stopped arbitrary over-exuberance and over-embellishment. Plus they let in lots of light because they were so open, another necessary design aspect for this architect, at least in his early designs.

In one photo, you can see the famous chair he designed that I referenced in my discussion of the architect on the King of Spades in this deck. The garden starts with a terrace outside the windows of the living spaces on the second floor, and then there is a ramp leading up to the roof level. It is this rooftop garden that saves the house for me, it just makes the second floor and the roof come alive. Some of the interior ramps look a bit too institutional but the spiral staircase is handsome. It was supposed to a much larger home but due to costs Le Corbusier had to amend the plan.


The roof always leaked even when the family lived there, and then the Savoye family left the estate in 1940 during the war. It was badly damaged due to German and Allied occupation of the estate during WW II, and by the late fifties it was used as a youth centre and the town planned to demolish it. The architectural community reared up and protested, and Le Corbusier, who was still alive, got on board and it was listed as a historical site and restored over decades. The concrete had deteriorated, general structural repairs and rewiring were needed, and many of the original fixtures and furniture were reinstated.

I am glad they saved it, this is a house that is too interesting to lose. I love, love, love it.


Play Architecture with Fallingwater

July 23, 2012

Daily Draw July 23rd, 2012

F.L. Wright
Falling Water (sic)
Bear Run, 1936

I really like the line drawings in this deck. The house is actually called Fallingwater and is all one word. Bear Run is about 60 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In 1934, Edgar Kauffman Jr. came to Wright’s fellowship at Taliesin for several months. He had studied architecture and knew he didn’t want to be an architect, but he was drawn to Wright’s ideas and philosophy. While there, his parents visited him and his father, Edgar Kauffman Sr., who was a wealthy department store owner in Pittsburgh, fell under Wright’s spell and asked him to design a country retreat for him.

They had some property in Bear Run and were using it for camping and swimming and generally roughing it on vacations, but wanted a permanent building there. They thought a nice woodsy house looking toward the waterfall which fell under a large boulder would be nice. They wanted to spend about 20 to 30 thousand dollars.

Weeks and weeks passed and no word came from Wright so Kauffman phoned Wright and asked to see how the plans were coming along. Wright pretended he had the plans done but he actually had not started them. Kauffman was going to be there in a couple of hours so Wright just sat down and drew, and drew, flipping sheets around and using up many pencils, and finally giving the drawing the name Fallingwater. His two assistants drew up the other two elevations while Wright was schmoozing with Kauffman.

Instead of being a rustic lodge opposite the waterfall, it was built around the boulder Mr. Kauffman used to sun himself on, and was all angled modernity with wood and stone and cantilevered concrete balconies. It also cost a hell of a lot more than $20,000 in the end. The engineers were sceptical this was a safe design but Wright went ahead, although the builder added some extra structural support on the sly.

The conservation of the house started in 1988, fifty years after it was built. Most buildings need a renovation by that time but this house needs to be preserved for historical reasons. Because of the humid environment over water it has mould and mildew problems, and always was a bit structurally iffy, so they had to add steel girders to support it for a while, eventually using newer methods like steel cables and post tensioning, using blocks joined to floor joists and the cantilever beams with tension added. The interior was saved as it was originally and strangely looks like a house from the late sixties—well ahead of its time.

Fallingwater, apart from being beautiful, reminds us all that when you are older and written off by society, as Wright was at the time, you still have your life experience, creativity, and intellect to draw on. More than an architectural legacy, Wright leaves us with a deeper philosophy every time we see this house.

I like it!