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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Heart of Darkness


I’ve wanted to make a city in Legos, or a section of one, and this is a first effort. But it is an architectural model of a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The project was inspired by Matteo Pericoli’s work in his Laboratory of Literary Architecture. The model tries to capture the transparency and corruption of the western world in Africa at the time of the novel, in a city-like form. Matteo’s laboratory and my project are explained in full at Numéro Cinq here.


I started with a 10 inch base and divided it into a grid of 6×6 streets for 36 blocks, and took it from there.

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Pruitt-Igoe/Housing for the Rest of Us

PI1 blog

Building a model of a building you are planning to destroy and that has caused so much controversy is an odd and sobering project. The hours spent building it gave me time to contemplate an essay I was writing, “Housing for the Rest of Us, A Non-Manifesto,” which can be found here. I revisit Pruitt-Igoe to take on issues of housing, many still relevant today, as revealed in these two graphs.

Income Disparity


Opening paragraph:

It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.

Unfortunately, I built it too well. The model was difficult to demolish, and I couldn’t simulate accurately the pictures we have come to know so well. More pictures of the model and the actual photographs come after the break.

PI2 blog


PI3 blog


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Situation/Material: South/Bricks


From my short story “Willy”:

Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.

Now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. Now I look at him on the chair beside my desk and see the same dark color, the same man—

While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light—

The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a few weeks. Profoundly retarded—what could twenty years at Triad do to someone’s mind?

Full text can be found here, at Fictions.

Mies van der Rohe: The Brick Villa


For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”

—Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago”

The full essay, “Completing the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House, An Odyssey” can be found at Numéro Cinq here. It is a literary essay that I hope adds some extension and insight. It looks back to the Greeks and forward to recent architecture, adding reflections on Modernism and raising questions about current work along the way.

Pictures of the model can be found after the break.

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The Bauhaus: S/M/L


Click on all images to enlarge

A few quick thoughts

Johannes Itten, one of the early instructors of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, who was influenced by diverse spiritual leanings, some esoteric, built his rules of form around these assumptions:

Square: calm, death, black, dark, red;
Triangle: intensity, life, white, bright, yellow;
Circle: infinite symmetry, peaceful, always blue.

It is impossible to know what to make of such a theory. It cannot be grounded in the actual world or fit in any scheme, rational or spiritual, and contradicts the esthetic evidence of art before and after. And yet anyone who knows the theory will see work that follows such rules charged with significance, that it has a presence that, while difficult to pin down, is complete and undeniable. Even if the rules aren’t known, a viewer will still find the work to have a coherence that is more than formal, that it is suffused with—something.

Similarly, Walter Gropius, in the manifesto he wrote when he created the Bauhaus school, concludes:

So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.

The manifesto was published in a pamphlet, and to reinforce the heavenward aspirations Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut Cathedral was placed on the cover, a black and white image, expressionist and cubist, of a seemingly transparent church placed within a dynamic of lines of light and other buildings that rise upward to a point, above the spire. Gropius’ desire was to create work that brought art, industry, and society together in some meaningful form, this at a time the western world, especially Germany, was recovering from the mass destruction of World War I and suffering economic distress and political upheaval.


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Cultural Center


This is a revision of the writing center, whose design ideas I explain below. I kept the front parts of the building but changed the back. Again, its general purpose is to provide a variety of rooms to support the arts in a community—classrooms, studios, a gallery, a screening room, lecture rooms, with possibilities for administrative and still other uses along with space for informal gathering.

Really, such a project provides an opportunity to test out several ideas beyond commercial or residential uses and gives a chance to explore, my main interest. My general design principle is to combine various styles without attempting to integrate them, yet still keeping a sense of a whole. Here you see Greek Revival, with the split temple front and odd use of columns, a restrained postmodern glance. Other parts of the building I suppose are slightly gothic, along with modernist presences—glass walls, geometric solids in the brick walls, and the open grid at the back, absorbed into the rest of the building. I had Sol LeWitt’s cubes in mind with the grid but have just discovered Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts that does something similar. I repeat here, however, my reservations about art centers that call too much attention to themselves, perhaps at the expense of the functions they contain. This is still a modest attempt, even self-effacing.

Click on all images to enlarge.

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