Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts

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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

Site

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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Mies van der Rohe/Haus Esters, early version, early vision; John Coltrane/Chasin’ the Trane

I wanted to make this house much more in glass. . . .

Mies is referring to Haus Lange, the companion villa at Krefeld, but the wish applies as much to Haus Esters, as evidenced in his early drawings. A photograph shows him working on pastel sketches of the garden and street facades, making final touches, maybe. My previous post has a model of the house as built, where you’ll find photographs for comparison, and I had it in mind while constructing this version.

Both pastels intrigue me no end, and I wanted to come to terms with them in this model. But I could only make rough guesses about placement and dimensions, and completing it was a matter of making uncertain choices, following them up, and finally stopping because I had no confidence alternatives would result in anything more correct or more convincing. There may be a point in that.

The garden face. Note the layout of the garden, an integral part of the design, raised, as in the version built. Time has taken its toll, but the drawing must have been faint in conception, in its realization, the image almost ethereal, scarcely more than receding perspective lines in a natural landscape beneath a vast, open sky. For the architect who valued structure and objectivity, it comes closer to pure spirit. Essentially, it is a horizontal presence, a restating of the horizon. From this presence the rest fades. It is a gesture, a glimpse into infinity, not a detailed working out of structure.

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Mies van der Rohe: Krefeld/Haus Esters

Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Esters and Haus Lange, the Krefeld villas, conceived together and built adjacent, of similar design, were completed in 1930, early in his career. The drawings for the Brick Country House were exhibited some six years before; his Barcelona Pavilion was conceived about the same time as the villas and was constructed for the international exhibition in 1929. Contemporary with those more radical designs, the villas have endured an uneasy existence, at least in critical reception. Both have since been restored and converted to art museums, still active today. They have survived the ravages of the last century and stand in good shape.

Comparison might be made with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, built twenty years earlier, if only to reveal differences. Mies knew his work and likely was influenced. Both are long, brick, suburban homes built for clients of means. They sit low to the ground and emphasize the horizontal, and in doing so make us think of horizons and what horizons might imply. The Robie House, however, is an active play of horizontal planes, suspended, seemingly floating. Haus Esters, by contrast, is largely contained, reserved, and at first glance static. It lacks as well the dynamics of the open array of vertical planes in the Brick Country House and the Barcelona Pavilion. In abstracting the spirit of the industrial age, Mies left Haus Esters with a stark industrial cast. Isolated, without a sheltering roof, it looks exposed.

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Centering a Town: 23rd. Effort/Homage to Mies (1/72 scale)

In the metopes below, eternal adversaries grappled in inextricable pairs: Lapiths and Centaurs, Greeks and Amazons, Greeks and Trojans along the north side in the direction of Troy, Giants and gods on the south. In many of the metopes the struggle was shown in mid-course: there was no victor, no vanquished. Warring opposites complemented each other in intricate, almost heraldic, groupings—and this is perhaps another essential aspect of the term Classical. It conjures aloofness, a sense of timeless idealism; but involvement, too, and violent involvement at that, is part of the Classical spirit.

Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

The drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House are nearly a century old. Reference to it in my “modern” design means that I’m following a tradition well in the past. His project implies that design, like life, is an active process, that the goal of architecture is to capture that understanding. It is Classical in the sense that we are aware of careful and thoughtful proportions, but also of proportions carefully shifted. And the design is Classical in the sense Kostof suggests, of competing stresses, contained but kept vital. Above, a metope from the Parthenon.

It is the challenge of contemporary architecture now, how to maintain yet enliven the modern tradition—it’s what we have—yet break away from the sterility of glass boxes and too well ordered grids. Too many solutions just push the box or attack it, without esthetic grounding, cultural context, or solid frame of reference, too often to excess. Mies’s design is reserved yet still fresh.

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Centering a Town: 23rd. Effort/Homage to Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House

I first saw the drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House over forty years ago while in college, in H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, a standard text on the subject at the time, the pictures illumined with only a few sentences of explication. First the three-dimensional drawing of a home spare yet engaged, complex yet composed, low lying yet forward looking—a lean, solid wedge opening out into the world and negotiating the earth and sky:

Below it the sketch of the ground floor plan, a grid of right angles that do not intersect, difficult to read as a living space, that extends, in seeming contradiction to the first drawing, out into space without clear containment, yet still a scheme coherent and compelling:

And a chord was struck within, or a tone cluster, that gathered and realigned.

From my essay “Completing the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House, An Odyssey.” This effort pays one more homage to the house. The one thing I am certain of is that it is not the way Mies would have designed the building, had he taken on the project.

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Centering a Town: 22nd. Effort/Under Construction

Structured, orderly, regular, and, but for the corners, symmetrical. The building explains itself in a few terms quickly grasped. The theme is Under Construction because the building retains the scaffolding that presumably was used in stages of its construction.

Although really their use is contained and their placement carefully planned. They are integrated into a completed structure and obviously intended to be permanent. Another possibility is a design that more resembles a building frozen in the process of its construction, incomplete and fragmented, that challenges itself, asks for completion or demolition—a temptation, though I don’t know if that could be done without invoking postmodern slapstick and irony.

The scaffolding pieces add decorum, and, in their openness, involvement, and tensions, provide a modern substitute for columns. The building has the look, in fact, of a Greek temple. The columns give energy to an otherwise static design, as well as add a note of modernness and technology. And since they support the ledges above the second floor and the roof and strengthen the largely glass walls, they are functional, not decorative. This is a building that speaks function, though that function is exaggerated, and with modern materials and techniques they aren’t needed.

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Centering a Town: 21st. Effort/Acceleration

Art, and above all, music has a fundamental function, which is to catalyze the sublimation that it can bring about through all means of expression.

Xenakis

I often listen to Xenakis’s music for percussion when I design and build. Its staccato insistence and limited tonal range are appropriate for construction, which develops by extended repetition without the contrasts of tonal color or the arc of drama. Yet it has its own surprises. The music is a distraction, a diversion from silence, where I can’t think what to do next, but also a call for patterns and yet at the same time a break away from standard patterning. It encourages me to open up, think of other things, to think beyond set ways of thinking, beyond what I think I know.

xmusic

The percussive variations approach randomness without falling into chaos or noise, which themselves have their own possibilities. If nothing else, it pushes me to keep going without worrying about what I’m doing or where I’m headed. Listening provides a way to persist when there seems no direct course, nothing at all to do. I would like activities in the building to follow a similar course.

And a building can suggest sound, even music, even thought.

Xenakis designed the windows for Le Corbusier’s Tourette monastery, based on theories of mathematics and avant-garde music.

In order to avoid a monotonous repetition of standard elements in the immense façade of the building, Le Corbusier asked Xenakis to develop a principle for windows that he had caught sight of during the Chandigarh construction. . . . The resulting window configurations are very vivid. Xenakis developed the dimensions of the glass panels according to the blue and red series of the Modulor. Thanks to the resulting effect of dilatation and contraction, the façade seems to become a dynamic membrane. The principle finds its most virtuoso application in the Tourette monastery, a project that Xenakis worked on as of 1954, with the western façade conceived as a great architectural counterpoint.

From the Xenakis site, along with the drawing.

Photograph by Fernando Schapo, from dezeen.

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Centering a Town: 20th. Effort/Push-Pull

A single brick, in itself, by itself, brings associations:

A brick is an obdurate object of ambiguity that hovers between idea and matter, between life and death. Its texture can be smoothed to glide our touch or left rough and abrade. It can be molded into even shapes for consistent construction or made uneven, presenting individual challenges each time one is laid in a course. The hues can be made consistent, offering an even appearance, or they can vary from one brick to another, presenting more individual challenges. But while it can come close to an ideal oblong shape, it never attains perfection, and it can as much be said that it approaches perfection as it resists it. A brick has the right heft for throwing through a window in revolt. It can also be stacked to encase one solidly. Its color takes on that of blood and the earth from which it is made, or both inseparably combined. Whether it preserves blood or shows it spilled, whether it reveals decay or stalls it—these questions cannot be answered. In spite of its ambiguity, however, we are always aware, in mind and in hand, of its touch, of its mass and weight, of its presence.

From my essay Completing the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House, An Odyssey.

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Centering a Town: 19th. Effort/Planes & Boxes

My first interest in this design was to find a way to break up the shoebox such a building inevitably becomes. To do this, I used separate planes and boxes at different heights that remain individual and slightly overlap or extend from the building, that come together in varying compositions. This building challenges the notion of a building and highlights the activity inside. Like the classes, it is a place of analysis, of breaking into parts and assemblage. De Stijl, very loosely, may have been an influence, of which there really aren’t many examples in architecture.

Rietveld’s Schröder House.

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Centering a Town: 18th. Effort/Compression

Concrete, brick, glass, and steel—it is a design of contrasts with an industrial cast that encourages use and production. Detailing on the windows would give the building a degree of refinement on the upper brick floors with the classrooms, above the ground levels of functional parts, highlighting their significance. The theme is compression because of the way discrete elements rest on one another and interact.

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Centering a Town: 17th. Effort/Time II, IIa

Two more versions on the theme of time. A clock can do so much to call attention to a building and have it command public space, as well as lend it significance and suggest meanings.

I like the ideas in the previous version but its design is rough and needs work—I haven’t decided how yet. These present orderly buildings, closer to our common connotations of time. The risk is regimentation, which I try to offset with accents, the standing mass of the clocked brick columns, some asymmetry, and the deep, expressive indentation of the windows.

This indentation presents a challenge at the corners. That space can be filled in with columns or the intersection could be an open “L.” Or the horizontal beams can be extended at each level, creating a figure of intersection, as I have done in the first version.

Or the brick columns can be moved to the corners and cover that space.

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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.

Shakespeare/Tempest

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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