Sunday, 26 September 2010

Eastern Seaboard - the final frontier

Friday 3 September – Off to Washington for a whistle stop tour following an excellent introductory from Michael McGill – the Government Services Administration’s representative on the National Planning Commission. This set the scene for a drive by tour which took in a number of the older DC buildings and a selection of newer ones with welcome stops at old 1887 Pension Building (now the National Building Museum) by Montgomery Meigs with its spectacular atrium (shown below left) complete with 75 foot high Corinthian columns each made out of 75,000 bricks which have been plastered and marbled. An extraordinary space.

Then to 1973 US Tax Court by Victor Lundy - we fortunate to gain access to the interior of this fine building before security cut in after we had visited one of the Courts.

 A brief pit stop at the Museum of the Native American which, to my mind sits uncomfortably among more restrained neighbours. A native Californian travelling with the group felt that it captured perfectly the character of the Arizona desert scenery. The exhibits are fascinating and the ground floor eatery is among the best in Washington. 

A final stop of the day was made at the FDR Memorial (detail below)which is a favourite of mine among many fine monuments in the Capital. It was good to have a chance to walk along the waterside and to see the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson (right above) memorials as the sun was beginning to set. 

Saturday 4 September – the real reason for extending the tour to Washington was that it was the setting off point for the visit to the University of Virginia – Thomas Jefferson’s creation which was a rewarding experience. We were shown round the Rotunda and The Lawn by an enthusiastic fourth year student who was justly proud of the surroundings. A detail of one of the Pavilions facing onto the Green is shown below left and the classic view of the Rotunda (with its Corinthian columns strangely wrapped in black plastic bin liners) below left.


 Then on to Jefferson’s Monticello (below). Magnificently sited, a grand vision and convincing from the outside. The interior, Jefferson’s own room apart, was a slight disappointment. What had seemed a stately house outside was, in many areas, ill proportioned and clumsy. It seemed like what in fact had been – a perpetual work in progress. Like Jefferson himself, the building seemed flawed by contradictions but both exert their magnetism. 

Sunday 5 September – the last excursion before catching the plane back to Blighty. A tour of Hollin Hills – a modernist suburban development of the 1950's - the first community of contemporary homes built in the Washington, DC area - to the designs of architect Charles Goodman, and landscape plans by Lou Bernard Voight and Eric Paepcke. Many homes had garden plans prepared by Dan Kiley. We were shown round by Michael McGill who generously showed us his own house and arranged access to another. 


FLW had the last word – a visit, on the way to Dulles Airport to the 1939 Pope-Leighey House which, according to the hand out ‘today tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovative designs for a modestly-sized and affordable single-family house and how two families adapted the dwelling to fit their lifestyle’ Says it all, really.

It was fitting that the last building visited in transit to the departure lounge was Saarinen’s wonderful terminal building at Dulles Airport (1958-62). Still working, still elegant and a reminder, should we have needed it of the wonderful collection of buildings we had seen in the preceding two weeks.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Wednesday 1 September – a new month, a new city – Philadelphia. We actually had a couple of hours off in the train between the two cities. Accommodation in the efficient and pleasing Lowes Hotel – a converted modernist skyscraper done with considerable panache. A walk around the historic bits with local architect James Kruhly

The new Liberty Bell Visitor Center (by Bohlin Cywinski and Jackson - 2003) and several of the old churches and other buildings affording memories of what we call the American War of Independence but is known localy as the Revolutionary War. The Liberty Bell has a more prosaic association with London - it was cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (Visited by the Company some years ago) in 1752 and then shipped to Philly where it carcked on first ringing. No wonder they opted to go thier own way!

Much of the feeling about the historic part of the City seemed reassuringly British. The visit included Carpenters’ Hall (shown right) – still home of the Company of Carpenters of Philadelphia who enjoy close a relationship with the Carpenters’ Company of London. Indeed James Kruhly was the exchange lecturer in London earlier in the year. 

Dinner at Ye Olde Tavern complete with serving wenches, Martha Washington’s Turkey Pie and Jefferson’s Home brewed Ale. All that might be expected.

Thursday 2 September – Accompanied James Kruhly – to whom many thanks, to Louis Khan’s Richards Laboratory building at University of Pennsylvania. Jim is formally engaged on reversing the vandalism of a few generations on this building which boasts pioneering glazing (all looking a bit tired) and interesting use of horizontal virendeel trusses. It will be good to revisit in a year or so when the original vision will be more obvious.


More Lou Khan (you will note that we are getting onto first name terms now) at the Erdman dormitory block at Bryn Mawr College (above left)) which proved controversial among the group – particularly in relation to the detailing. Might just prove depressing in winter but generations of residents have generally voted in favour and there were some nice touches.

Then followed a visit to the very quirky Wharton Esherick House in Malvern (above right) where the eponymous artist and sculptor lived and worked on painting, carving and making furniture into his old age. His motto, “if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing,” is evident in the joyful expression of his work which was inviting to the eye and sensuous to the touch. The complex even boasted a Louis Khan studio. A delightful spot and a fascinating visit.
A final visit for the day to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom Synagogue built in Elkins Park in the 1950’s. Described as ‘a startling, translucent, modernist evocation of an ancient temple, transposed to a Philadelphia suburb’, the building was named a National Historic Landmark in 2007. I had been predisposed to be unimpressed (from photographs and writings) but felt better about it after watching a movie in the visitor centre relating to the commissioning of the building. I still feel that it is far from the best from the great man though the auditorium was a wonderfully shaped space even if garishly decorated. Good to have seen it.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Big Apple

Sunday August 29 – New York hotel central, simple and generally satisfactory apart from the army style breakfast plastic cutlery and a slop bucket for leftovers.
Walked most of the length of Central Park to the fabulous Metropolitan Museum which was, as always a wonderful experience – one could have a week’s holiday in the place and still miss most of the exhibits. 

Too many special pleasures to start naming them here. However, the ‘Big Bambu’ installation by Doug and Mike Starn on the Roof was fantastic. Resisted the temptation to go climbing though this was permitted under supeervision by grown ups.
Some then joined a guided walk around Central Park to admire the designs of Frederick Law Olmstead and Englishman Calvert Vaux before gathering at the apartment of private art collector Jeanne Frank – a delightful experience, welcome drink and a fascinating collection. 

An intrepid few set off in search of the famed Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station only to find it closed. Dined nonetheless under the star studded roof of the great concourse of this extraordinary building.
Monday August 30 – A workout in the form of a guided walk led by architect Kyle Johnson to look at Midtown modern architecture. Icons aplenty with the stars of the show being the Mies Seagram Building on Park Avenue completed in 1958 and boasting some surprisingly subtle restaurant designs by Philip Johnson
and the extraordinary 1931 General Electric building by Cross and Cross – Gothic Art deco extravagance in terracotta and a great treat. (see detail below )
Many other wonders of different periods. Lunch and the afternoon at the much lauded Museum of Modern Art - MOMA. Despite the criticism that the most recent extension destroyed too much of the earlier work, this was a great place to look at rather too much art much of which was most exciting.

To Crowne House for a visit to the Nohra Haime Gallery – dealers in modern art - where we were well looked after by director Ana Maria Ossa.

The day was rounded off by a visit to a Paul Rudolph Townhouse (below) built over a retail outlet and show room for Rudolph designed light fittings on 58th Street which displayed a wonderful control of space and packed much into a small area. Great fun.
Tuesday August 31 – another marathon walkabout with Kyle Johnson – this time around the financial district. Some good and great historic buildings (including a selection of lobby spaces) and much not so wonderful modern. Even a stripped down Gehry near City Hall (shown below).

The highlight of the day (for those who lasted the distance) was probably the walk along the High Line – a length of old elevated freight railway line which has been wonderfully (hard and soft) landscaped giving great views of both the water and the city. Various buildings to wonder at and about on the way there including recent offerings on the 2007 IAC Building by Frank Gehry (him again but looking – detail-wise at least – rather like John Nouvel’s City of London building at New Change) and, on the opposite corner of 19th Street, a residential tower by Jean Nouvel looking, perhaps, a bit Gehryish.(Gehry's IAC Building below left and detail from the Novvel competition right)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Pas de Deux? The Architecture of Dance

Pas de Deux? The Architecture of Dance.

Architecture apparently imitates dance. ...or vice versa. One of our favourite European architects, Santiago Calatrava, has recently designed a split arch for a New York City Ballet production, Benjamin Millepied's Why I am not where you are. Dancers perform jetes and arabesques in front and around and through the split arch. Choreography? Definitely. And Calatrava's set is perfect for accenting the structural positions of the dancers. Lighting in various hues from cherry red to grisaille to rainbow enhances the dancers positions and performances.

Commissioned by Peter Martins, Artistic Director, as part of the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, Calatrava's hyperbolic-paraboloid composition (structural cables in evidence) commences as a sphere and then changes through a split, almost butterfly-shaped arch through to the rainbow-hued 'phoenix'. It is the perfect foil for the elegant dance composition. George Balanchine and Philip Johnson would be delighted that the tradition of their previous collaborations (1981 Tschaikovsky Festival) is being continued.

Elegant beyond belief. Memories of Balanchine's Jewels, actually.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The further travels of architects

Thursday August 26 – sunshine and a day of pleasant surprises. To Yale to see first Louis Khan’s 1953 extension to Yale Art Gallery – fuelled by expectations I found this slightly underwhelming  - a feeling not helped by a Sol DeWitt ‘installation’ all over the wall behind the reception desk. Superb collection though. 

Across the road stands Khan’s last building – the Yale Center for British Art (shown right). Again, an incredible collection housed in a quite wonderful building.

Nearby stands Paul Rudolph’s seminal 1958-63 Yale School of Architecture now happily restored to its original condition (and shown below). This was powerful and impressive  and full of freshmen Masters students all looking bright eyed and fired with enthusiasm to match their surroundings.
 Via a couple of Saarinen dormitory blocks (external views only) on the way to the SOM / Gordon Bunshaft Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library built in 158-63 and recently renovated (shown right)

A slightly forbidding exterior (though had led me to expect) gave way to a stunning interior with light filtered through marble wall panels to which my camera skills could do,little justice.The centre book stack might well have influenced Sandy Wilson’s treatment of the Kings’ Collection in the British Library.

The day finished with a real treat – a visit to Saarinen’s David S Ingalls Ice Hockey Rink completed in 1958 and refurbished in 2008. A generous guided tour showed us a timeless building of great character and beauty.

Friday August 27 

I find myself unimpressed by Philip Johnson’s 1953 Ball House in New Caanan. Strangely orientated, poorly detailed – would make a nice beach house. We also saw a number of other modernist houses in the area – mostly from the outside. We shown a very impressive modern show house on a tight town site – all energy efficiency and gadgetry with an asking price that made the eyes water.

Philip Johnson again in the afternoon – this time the iconic Glass House (1949) which was great fun and deserving of its status. The stuff of fantasies. Surrounding buildings less interesting but some interesting modern art. 

The final stop of the day was Richard Meier’s Smith House (below) overlooking Long Island Sound in Darien Connecticut. A truly spectacular house on a wonderful site – we were shown round by a welcoming and proud tenant (wannabe owner) – an engaging hedge fund man from London with an interesting art collection.

Saturday August 28  

First stop Usonia- a planned development in the happily named Pleasantville in New York State. This was set up by group of idealistic men and women who, following WWII, in 1945 enlisted Frank Lloyd Wright to design and help them build a co-operative utopian community. 

We spent several hours with Roland Reisley – one of the original owners who lives in the Usonian house both designed for (1951) and extended by FLW for Roland and his wife. His was a positive experience of the great man. Roland also walked us round large parts of the wider development pointing out  other Wright houses and a selection of clones. He was utterly charming and has written a book about his experiences of working with Wright. His was a house (pictured below, right) one could happily live in and his generosity made for an unforgettable visit.

We then drove into New York where many took then opportunity on a beautiful evening to that the Ferry to Staaten Island for a meal in an excellent Italian restaurant. Great views of the Statue of Liberty and the waterfront by night on the return journey by ferry.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Company in America

A number of members of the Company have recently returned from the annual architectural study trip - this time travelling down the Eastern Seaboard of the USA from  Boston to Washington and Monticello. What follows here and in subsequent postings (not too many goodies all at the same time) is one member's record of the trip. A far more scholarly account wll be prepared by Dr Mervyn Miller and posted in due course on the website itself.

Monday 23 August – having assembled in Boston the previous evening we were greeted by unremitting rain for the next three days. After a summer of drought-like conditions this was welcomed by Bostonians with lawns but not by us.


Undeterred we set off on a walking tour of Copley Square and the Back Bay area led by a ‘Walk Boston’ tour guide. HH Richardson’s Trinity Church (completed 1877 and pictured left) would have benefited from the spire which had been planned but never erected following a loss of confidence resulting from the collapse of the spire on the nearby Old Church. Richardsonian Romanesque with typical polychrome brick and tile detailing and wonderful interior with impressive clear spans.

Directly opposite sits McKim, Mead and White’s Boston Public Library (right) commenced in 1888 – a handsome civic building with a quite wonderful reading room running the full length of the building (and other spaces) on the upper floors. So well regarded is this work that it is known as the McKim Wing – not many architects get that lucky. The delightful cloistered spaces behind happily survived Philip Johnson’s 1972 extension which seems like a clumsy tribute to Louis Khan. Nice slated roof though.

Back Bay in the rain loses something of its charm though there were some Richardson buildings showing inventive brickwork.

The weather conditions equally didn’t do much for the exterior bits of Norman Foster’s extension to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (seen left). The detailing of the stone cladding seemed curiously unconvincing –generally slick, probably costly and disappointingly bland. Yet to open the views of the interior from the visitors’ gallery promise much more and, with what is thought to be an excellent collection of American art, will certainly be worth a revisit.

The final stop of the day was the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Archive proudly sited on the water’s edge overlooking the City across the Bay. IM Pei ‘s 1979 building is perhaps a little dated but a visit is an inspiring and moving experience.

Tuesday August 24 – a day given to visiting academic establishments. First, Harvard – English but not quite, quadrangles but not quite. Sever Hall by HH Richardson (1880) was a strange composition with some excellent brickwork originally laid (we were informed) in ‘blood’ mortar. Some details might just have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright should he care to admit it.

Le Corbusier’s only complete US building – the 1963 Carpenter Center for Visual Arts seemed well suited for its purpose and was fun to visit. He would probably not have approved of the addition of the guard rails to stairs and the ramp that runs through the building which resulted from a recent Health & Safety audit.

Then James Stirling’s 1985 Arthur M Sackler Museum (pictured left and sorry about the traffic lights)to which we were allowed only limited access – pity – some interesting spaces were inviting. Many of the traditional buildings including the flamboyant and overbearing Memorial Hall might, in the interests of time, be left off future tour itineraries be they ever so august. 

Then off to MIT. The new (2010) Media Arts and Sciences building by Fumihiko Maki is a wonderful counterpoint to the adjacent (and somewhat sidelined) IM Pei's Weisner Center. This was scintillating, beautifully detailed and well finished – what a place to challenge creative minds.

On the other hand Frank Gehry’s enormous and unsatisfactory 2004 Strata Center seemed out of place and showing clear evidence of detailing defects. For all that, it was quite fun to see it and it and creates the environment probably suited to the Computer Sciences and Artificial Intelligence Labs (among other things) it houses.

Ereo Saarinen’s 1955 Campus chapel and the Kersage Auditorium restored the spirits. The chapel was exquisite, the auditorium less so. Then onto Alvar Alto’s Baker House 1947 much admired Dormitory Block. Justly, in my opinion, recognized as a masterpiece of modernism. Steven Holl’s over scaled (perhaps I mean curiously scaled) Simmons Hall Dormitory block was only visible in the distance through the rain. Perhaps best.

Wednesday August 25 – more rain en route for Louis Kahn’s renowned Exeter Academy Library (1945) which proved to be the anticipated tour de force despite the fact that the rain showed the continuing and apparently unresolvable leaks. Strong forms, subtle details and a rich palatte of materials made for a pleasurable experience. Lucky school children.

Via the Currier Museum in Manchester New Hampshire  as a jump off point for a visit to FLW’s 1950 Zimmerman House built for clients who loved it . Most of us thought of it a small, largely unliveable-in trophy house. The highlight of the visit was one of our number being roundly scolded for sitting on a banquette seat. He was photographed thereafter on every chair he was foolish enough to sit on.

To Lincoln MS for the 1938 Gropius family house. This was a fascinating modernist icon with wonderful connections to the cultural world of the time. What had clearly been a comfortable house for the family is now a museum piece. Then onto another modernist house built in 1937 by architect Henry Hoover and shown to us with justifiable pride by his welcoming and charming son.

More - much more to follow.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Installation Court Luncheon - 13 September 2010 - Innholders Hall

click on any picture to see it enlarged
The Company's Installation Court and lunch took place on Monday 13 September and saw the installation of Edward King as Master, Michael Wilkey as Upper warden, Dr Mervyn Miller as Renter Warden with Jaki Howes (the new kid on the block) becoming Junior Warden. Jane Lamb and Richard Biggins were admitted as Assistants of the Court.

Among other things the Court had an update on the progress of the proposed Aldgate Landmark - the winning entry in the competition is being progressed on a number of fronts - town planning, Scheduled Ancient Monument status, costings, structural design etc. The fund raising is also in hand and, as might be expected given a gathering of architects, there were nearly as many opinions on the preferred type of contract as there were architects in the room.

Stephen Games was admitted as a Freeman of the Company and Philip Cooper was elected to the Freedom.

The meeting and subsequent lunch were held in the imposing Innholders' Hall. The pre-1666 hall, close to the centre of the great fire, was destroyed though its fine silver and its charters survived. The hall was immediately rebuilt. The earlier front doorway, the Old Court Room, and the magnificent Dining Hall have been little altered since.On the night of 10th May 1941 the hall was saved from serious damage thanks to the vigilance of the Hall Keeper and the efforts of the Enfield Fire Brigade. After two hours work the blaze in the hall and the surrounding fires were extinguished. The Hall Keeper reported a quantity of wine appeared also to been 'blitzed'. The firefighters were thought to be grateful.

The Master's principal Guest at Lunch was the President of he Royal Town Planning Institute - Ann Skippers who gave a thought provoking speech in response to the Master's toast to the Guests.