Archive for January, 2009

If Barack Obama were a building, Part III


what building would Barack Obama be?

A colleague writes,

I’d put the Harvard quad on the list…..he is Harvard, through and through…..

I chose this photograph of Harvard Yard because it shows one of the best buildings on campus, on any campus anywhere- H.H. Richardson’s Sever Hall. They say Obama likes to have varying viewpoints in the room, which he then synthesizes into what for him is the most correct response. Sever Hall does that. Each floor is different, and the details throughout seem to oppose each other, until Richardson somehow synthesizes them into something great.

I could look at this building for longer than I can look at most, and I’ve been known to look at buildings “until they begin to dance.”

Sever Hall, as teh parts work out their oppostions for you, seems to improve as you look at it. It has done this for me for many years. Let’s hope Obama does the same!

Christopher Hawthorne, the terrific Architecture Critic of the Los Angeles Times, has a must-read story today on The neoclassicism of Barack Obama. It’s must-read for its insight, and because he links to Hello Beautiful!

I thanked Christopher and wrote,

I’ve been meaning to write about the ideas Schinkel’s architecture
have for us in this new era, how he wished to pull Prussian society together in peace, and to uplift them and unite them physically and through culture. That is a role architecture could play today.

I’ve also been meaning to write about what we can learn from Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” – today in this era of belt-tightening. Mies shows us how with “almost nothing” (his words) we can live lives of dignity and beauty, with as much freedom as we should have on earth, and with a sense of a collective (enlightened) society.

Stay tuned. And read Christopher’s piece. And tell me,

If Barack Obama were a building, what building would he be?

Read parts one and two.
And back in October, I mused on Obama and columns


A "softer" Thom Mayne, for Pasadena

Caltech – The Cahill Center
Pasadena, California

Two questions: 1) What will Caltech researchers study in this new building?

Is that why the fissures and shifting planes and shakiness of the building?

No. This is Caltech’s new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. These photos are from my camera phone. This is the “softest,” loveliest (!) Thom Mayne building I know.

Second question: The address here is 1216 California Boulevard. To what does the 1216 refer? (Answer at bottom.) Let’s look at the building:

I like its scale, and how it meets the ground softly and with lightly, with glass, with transparency. I like how the earth slopes down before it meets the building, so you gain an extra floor with natural light, yet this maintains a nice height for the neighborhood.

I like the earthen texture of the facade, and its reddish-brown tone, an “academic red,” like brick. In fact, the facade is made of red fiber reinforced cement panels. But it looks like an Italian terra-cotta red, in this, the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s invention of the telescope, in 1609.

And think of this building as a telescope of sorts.

The Pasadena Independent writes,

The view from the lobby up an ever‐narrowing staircase to the skylight on the third floor … mimics the experience of peering up through a telescope.

You occasionally get views of the sky, celebrating astronomy and astrophysics. The glass is also meant to orient you in the universe, the universe of Caltech. These see-through hallways connect the viewer visually to the north and south campuses of Caltech.

And the stairways serve another purpose. Visual and vertical connections between the laboratory and office levels happen in the main staircase. People will meet, randomly. Perhaps a Big Bang of ideas will occur. “Nice ‘bumping into you.”

And every floor has “interaction areas and open break rooms” to provide more opportunities for chance or planned discussions to occur between the researchers. Morphosis designed this place to maximize the chances of interactions among the various occupants- the astronomy and astrophysics faculties, and their research groups.

We have seen other buildings designed to facilitate chance interactions. Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T. comes to mind; as does the suburban campus the Sears Corporation built when it determined that Sears Tower was not spurring chance meetings of employees. (“It’s lonely at the top.”)

It’ll be interesting to visit Cahill in a year and see who has bumped into whom in a stariwell, and what resulted from it. Hold on to your seats.

From the brochure: The 50 million dollar Cahill Center is 100,000 square feet of offices, laboratories, and common areas. It will be given gold‐level LEED distinction for the many features that reduce negative environmental and health impacts. The building’s design provides for reducing water use by 30 percent, reducing energy use by about 25 percent and providing access to daylight to a minimum of 75 percent of its spaces.

The entrances are welcoming enough,

If still a little too industrial for me,

as Mayne and Morphosis are wont to do.

I do like the urban move, when you exit the building, it points directly to its neighbors on campus, to the history of the place, to what came before it. Like a son, directing respect to a father.

And what a history Caltech has! Heisenberg, Lorentz, Bohr, Einstein; they all spent time here as the school came of age in the early 1930’s.

And now, they’ve this new home for the researchers – philosophers really- to contemplate the stars and the universe. A new building by Thom Mayne in which to try to figure out what it all means.

For them, it’s not enough to say, “it’s beautiful.”

Answer to the question at top: “1216” comes from 1216 angstroms, the wavelength of ultraviolet light emitted by hydrogen atoms. You knew that, right?

A ’57 Chevy visits the Farnsworth House – video!


Click the arrow to put the video into gear.
The architecture begins after 4:00.

Bye-bye Mies American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
and fortunately the Farnsworth was dry…

Lord Peter Palumbo, who used to own the Farnsworth House (that is not him in the video), also loved and collected vintage cars. Funny to me how the ’57 car looks so dated and the ’51 house so timeless.

Or, as the man says in the video,

“The house is a basic ’50’s house, and they kind of look good with each other.”

Yeah. A basic ’50’s house. Almost everybody had one, didn’t they?

And who are the unidentified strangers going about their business in the house? The Palumbos? Or the plumbers?


The most beautiful gas station in the world


See this story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the shuttering of the gas station on Nuns’ Island in Quebec, Canada designed by the office of Mies van der Rohe ?

The Mies gas station is no more. In December, Esso quietly removed the pumps and put plywood over the glass and the company sign out front. Now, Montreal’s Verdun borough is left to sort out what to do with a rare piece of architecture not easily adaptable.

“The thing really is beautiful; it’s so unassuming, like a lot of great artworks,” said Phyllis Lambert, whose family, the Bronfmans, commissioned the Seagram Building.

“It’s not pretentious, not glitzy. The major problem is, what to do with it now.”

The gas station was part of a neighbourhood that Mies’s Chicago firm designed in the 1960s, after a bridge connected Île-des-Soeurs (Nuns’ Island) to the rest of Montreal and the island was developed. …

“It’s of a great simplicity, and it’s a building that was really thought out. It’s not overstated, it’s very modest, very functional, and very well designed,” said Dinu Bumbaru, the director of Heritage Montreal, who has described it as the “Ritz” of gas stations.

Ms. Lambert and Mr. Bumbaru are monitoring proposals for the site, owned by island developer Proment Corp.

But it was this line:

The filling station was a departure from the garish corporate colours, neon signs and blinding flood lighting of most modern service stations.

that reminded me that so many gas stations today, if you squint a little bit,

do look like gaudy versions of Mies’ New National Gallery

or the Farnsworth House. A resemblance Martin Pawley noticed long ago

(click image to enlarge.)

Baudrillard says advertising is signs and codes which appear to represent social reality, but actually constitute their own realm– of hyper-reality– which has little to do with what is real.

When we’re exposed to it enough, hyper-reality and media-reality can seem more real than the real. And so, after these brightly-lit modernist gas stations popped up all over, artist Jenny Holzer added LED words, signage, like advertising, on the ceiling of Mies’ New National Gallery in Berlin.

I love her piece. It says a lot. But I’m glad it’s off most of the time.

photos of Nun’s Island Esso via

See Seagram, Susan Sontag and sun. (Plus Philip Johnson.)


“The Seagram Building gleamed like a switchblade in the autumn sun.”

“The elevator swished up like a gigolo’s hand on a silk stocking….”

Susan Sontag, (herself as lovely, dignified and interesting as the Seagram.)


Renzo Piano’s latest work, going up under that great L.A. sky


I went back, and this time the weather was more L.A. Here again you see the roof of the new pavilion of galleries designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop going up in Los Angeles. For now the fins on top of the building- to capture, contain and shape the natural light, to bring it into the galleries below- look like a framework for photovoltaic solar panels, as you see over many parking lots in Southern California.

On the left is the lookout point of Piano’s earlier work at the L.A.County Museum of Art, the BCAM. In Paris when you ascend the escalator of Piano (and Roger’s) Pompidou Center the city unfolds, opens up, as you rise. In L.A. at LACMA, as you ride Piano’s escalator to the top, you are given a view of the sky.

And, seen through the construction fences:

More info on the Resnick Pavilion in the post just below. Scroll down or click here.

More Renzo Piano at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). So how’s that going?


After opening the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) about a year ago (February 2008), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is now on to Phase II of its transformation. Here’s a model of what we have to look forward to:

A one story, glass-filled, pavilion for galleries. (Official info on this building at the bottom.) You’ll see bountiful L.A. light coming in from the top, modulated by one of those finned grill systems that Renzo Piano Building Workshop does so well.

LACMA’s leader Michael Govan says that our favorite museums are one-story structures. Think about it. He may be right.

Just a few months ago the site for LACMA’s new Resnick Pavilion, as it’s to be called, was barren. Today I went to LACMA for a preview of “The Art of Two Germanys – Cold War Culture.” We were blessed with rain, fitting of a show that took me back to Berlin.

And, seizing the opportunity to find anything but blue skies here in L.A., I snapped these photos of the construction of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion.

Here’s how close it is to BCAM

Seen from the balcony outlook of the red, escalator/staircase at BCAM

From LACMA’s website:

The Resnick Pavilion will be a single-story, glass and stone-enclosed structure sited north of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM).

The new building… is intended to house special exhibitions, freeing up existing gallery space for LACMA’s robust permanent collection. Architecturally, the Resnick Pavilion will complement BCAM—both buildings feature glass roof and ceiling elements that will flood the galleries with natural light. The Resnick Pavilion’s exterior will be a combination of glass and travertine marble, and its interior galleries will be a flexible open plan that can accommodate multiple exhibitions at once as well as large-scale works of art. Construction on the new building commenced in 2008 and is slated for completion in mid 2010.

Model, northern aerial view, Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, architects, photo © 2008 Museum Associates/LACMA.

For Renzo in Chicago, the current expansion of the Art Institute, click here.

If Barack Obama were a building, Part II


what building would Barack Obama be?

HB! reader “Fifth Way” commented…

The Seattle Public Library: forward-looking, intelligent, jazzy, cool, open to all (even the homeless), filled with ideas and art and computers and a fun auditorium and people from all over and commerce (a shop and coffee cart) and books for learning everywhere. In many ways, it functions like infrastructure. The original library sign in contained within, but its surface is striking and new. All this and it’s on the Pacific Rim, from an international design team. Hooray for Barack!

Great comparison! Seattle Public Library is one of the smartest, boundary-pushing buildings of our age. It strongly supports the city and supports international, interconnected, what they call “cosmopolitan,” citizenship.

If Barack Obama were a building, what building do YOU think he would be?

— Read part I here. —

Read about Barack Obama and columns, here.


If Barack Obama were a building…


what building would Barack Obama be?

I was inspired to ask this after appearing on Frances Anderton’s Design and Architecture on KCRW radio to talk about Barack Obama and design. Since, well, you know, this.

One Beautiful! reader suggested

Steven Holl’s addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.
I like the comparison. This is contemporary, yet well rooted. Shining forth. Full of culture. Energy efficient. Holds many ideas and is capable of doing many things at once. Works with nature. Very open.
Another reader suggested something like this

If so, I hope it’s high-speed rail, well-designed infrastructure, plus broadband and alternative energies.

Would he be

a Louis Sullivan? Every inch “a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation” as Sullivan wanted his tall buildings to be? Sullivan, a transplant to Chicago, like Obama, certainly gave us optimism and the highest American democratic ideals. But his late nineteenth-century work came at a time of prosperity; and he wanted his tall buildings “without a single dissenting line.” Not sure that’s Obama.

How about

Unity Temple
Frank Lloyd Wright
Oak Park, Illinois

Historic, new, original. A hybrid of two cultures, east and west. Tall, looks outward, radiates energy outward across the land. Radical, yet rooted. Modern yet traditional. Like Sullivan, Wright proclaims Emersonian American ideals. Seems to keep a lot to itself, kind of cool on the outside, a heck of a lot going on in the inside.

Let’s compare Obama to a more contemporary building.

What building do you think Barack Obama would be?

— Read part two here. —

A few months ago, I wrote about Obama and columns.


Renzo Piano’s Art Institute of Chicago wing – sneak preview


When the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago opens on May 16, 2009, you are in for a treat. The galleries and the building are elegant, uplifting spaces, beautifully detailed. They should support the art very well, and not overwhelm it. This is the highest quality design and craftsmanship seen in a public project in Chicago since Millennium Park.

I guess you still get a lot for 300 million dollars, the budget here. Unlike so many twisting, over-reaching museum buildings that have come on the scene of late, Chicago wisely went for understated architecture that will not date quickly, with its neo-classical symmetry and elegance.

(a photo taken from Millennium Park last summer.)

Architect Renzo Piano

The expansion will increase the size of the museum by more than one third. It’s the largest (and best) expansion to the museum since it opened one hundred and thirty years ago. The exterior is limestone, like most of the museum; and for those who are counting, this adds more than 250,000 square feet.

Me, I can’t wait to go in. Let’s enter under the glass canopy:
Once you’re inside, this architecture will graciously step back, and let you contemplate –and get excited by – the art. When you enter through those doors above, you’ll see

The main entrance hall/rentable party room
of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
(Of course the floor will be finished.)

You’re looking south here. This is what’s called the “main street” of this project. It runs all the way into the old building and provides a new north-south axis to the museum that until now was mainly organized east-west.

Officially this double-height space is called the Griffin Court, after the high-flying hedge fund manager and art collector — as in $80 million dollars for a Jasper Johns painting — Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Investment Group. He and his wife Anne are said to have had one of their first dates in the Art Institute, and well before the current economic mess we’re all in, (and I’m sure he lost more than I have), Mr. Griffin made a generous donation of about $19 million dollars and got the court named after him. This makes you realize we’re lucky that the project broke ground in 2005. A $300 million dollar addition like this would not be planned in the current economic conditions. It also drives home the point that the Art Institute did not sell naming rights for the entire wing. Bravo! “The Modern Wing.” That’s nice Midwestern straight talk and modesty.

At the far end of the “main street” will be a café, which we hope will fill this entry space with the sweet smell of espresso. Walk through the doors at the end and voila! you’ll be in the center of the old museum. (For those who remember, you’ll be where the Marc Chagall stained glass used to be. The Chagall windows will return, but it hasn’t been decided exactly where they’ll be placed.)

On the right of the Griffin Court is a long north-south gallery building. The first floor will be galleries for special exhibitions– the first will be works by Cy Twombly. The second floor will be galleries for Architecture and Design! Finally, they get their due at the Art Institute of Chicago. Space for architecture and design exhibitions will almost triple, up to about 7500 square feet.

Elsewhere on the ground floor of the Modern Wing you’ll find an admissions desk, coat room and shop; plus galleries for photography, and electronic media.

Notice in the photo above, on the left side, the nice “quote” Piano offers Chicago — a Mies van der Rohe style “floating” staircase, like the masterpiece Mies designed for the Arts Club of Chicago.

There’s Mies’ stair. Piano is a big fan of Mies. I once walked with him through Mies’ New National Gallery in Berlin, and he spoke of the beautiful clarity in Mies’ manner of expressing structure and also said he appreciates the way Mies uses reflections and transparency.

Back to the entryway. On the left, just past the “homage” staircase, where you see the light coming in, you’ll find a new garden. Renzo Piano is a master of the confluence of Nature, Architecture and Art. He loves to display vegetation, through large glass walls, to bring nature indoors. He’s done this to superb effect at the Menil Collection in Houston, his masterpiece Beyeler Foundation museum in Basel, and at the New York Times building. It is very satisfying, particularly in an urban environment. Much good architecture, like art, is based on nature and he is wise to provide us with the connection.

Besides the architecture and the light and space and sound in the entry court of the Modern Wing you won’t find any art displayed. It’s not even climate controlled enough for art. But it will be suitable to rent out for functions and it’s already in demand.

The long corridor

(looking north, towards the Monroe Street door, from the second floor cafe’)

reminds me of
The great Italian “gallerias” such as the one in Milan. Renzo Piano is Italian, and studied there. (In Milan, not in the galleria — although that galleria is also good place to study urban beauties.)

Fashion Week in Milan

Piano’s foyer in Chicago gives us a modern asymmetry, and novelty. But the structural ribs that help hold up the roof repeat with regularity for the length of the ceiling. As you walk through the foyer you’re aware of their rhythm, their repetition, and of the repetition of the module that they create up above. The visually regular “beat” gives us the sense of a humanist, ordered, 19th-century glass-covered arcade; with the added pulse of the mystical mathematics of the Renaissance. Yes, Renzo Piano at his best is capable of all that. Few of today’s designers are.

The Art Institute quotes him as saying,

Chicago is known everywhere as the first city of modern architecture. Here you are building within the great tradition of our own time, but also within sight of the immense open lakeshore, within steps of a vital city center, just across from Millennium Park. My desire was to root the Art Institute’s building deeply in this ground, but at the same time to give the Modern Wing air and lightness—to let it levitate. A continuation of an urban fabric, a flight into new experiences: this is what I have hoped to achieve, for Chicago and for one of the world’s best-loved museums.

The Art Institute foyer or “court” also reminds me of Renzo Piano’s long, narrow, lit from above with natural light “Arkaden” shopping mall at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

Once again we see how museums have become places to “consume” culture.

But while the malls in Milan and Berlin feature shops left and right the Art Institute Modern Wing offers you elegant rooms in which to look at art. On the right, you see the new galleries for Architecture and Design. Much larger and better space than what those departments currently have. But most of the new galleries are in the large square to the left of the entry court.

Let me say here that the Michigan Avenue entrance into the original 1892-3 Beaux-Arts palace is expected to remain the principal entrance.
You can enter from Michigan Avenue, wind your way through Asian and other non-Western art, and antiquities, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and so on up to the end of the nineteenth century — at which point you’ll find a door. Open it, to enter this new Modern Wing, for 20th- and 21st-century art.

The progression is well thought out. And the passage from old art/old building into the new should be satisfying. Going this way, you will enter the Modern Wing on the second floor. There you’ll find the Art Institute’s 20th- and 21st-century European painting and sculpture, contemporary art, photography, and architecture and design. The architecture and design galleries will house temporary exhibitions and show pieces from the permanent collection.

In the galleries in the new building you’ll get views like this:
What a view! What a city! That’s Millennium Park, with the Frank Gehry bandshell.

Now move back, away from the window. The gallery, still under construction, looks like this:
What a gallery! I like the trend of connecting galleries to views of the city, rather than blocking out all natural light and urban connections. Of course, walls are being constructed in these elegant rooms, on which to hang art. So, unfortunately, but necessarily, we won’t get many of the great unobstructed views seen above.
You can see the galleries are nicely proportioned and nicely finished. They could be larger, especially for contemporary art, but a wonderful aspect of Chicago’s Art Institute is that it doesn’t overwhelm you; doesn’t exhaust you. Almost everywhere you have an intimate relationship to the art on display, and it looks like that will continue here in the new wing.

What would a Modern Art museum in America be without a Sol Lewitt wall drawing? They nearly all have them. Click here and here to see what these are all about.
The Art Institute will mount Wall Drawing #63, which it acquired in 1985. It has been “up” once, perhaps twice, since acquisition.

When you go upstairs to the third (and top) floor, you get similarly gorgeous galleries, and these are lit with natural sunlight, masterfully manipulated by the scrims and the “flying carpet” structure of the roof. It’s a white, extruded aluminum sun-screen of cantilevered blades.
They capture the north light and send it into the top-floor galleries.

The system is designed to adjust to minute fluctuations in light. Photovoltaic cells in the window scrims and computer-controlled artificial lighting are supposed to keep light levels consistent.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is among the best at manipulating natural light in rooms for looking at art. See their Paul Klee Center in Switzerland, or the Nasher Sculpture Garden in Dallas, or again, the Beyeler Foundation in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland- in fact, here’s a view of the highly-acclaimed Beyeler. See the similarities?

A floating roof (“flying carpet” Piano calls them both) to manipulate the light. A classically inspired three-part façade. Flat planes of stone projecting out into space. A strong combination of nature, architecture and art.

Interesting that for Piano’s largest museum project to date – Chicago- he chose to drawn on what many consider his best museum – the Beyeler.

Often when artists enlarge their works, that is, increase the scale, the design falls apart. Failure ensues. Due to scale, Chicago may not be the jewel that the Beyeler is, but Piano has done an expert job of keeping the sensitivity of his earlier, more intimate work. And it’s exciting to see it recast at urban scale for Chicago.

Having recently visited RPBW’s work in Los Angeles- the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM)

(okay, the palm trees and blue sky are nice)

– as in Chicago, a wing for contemporary art attached to an encyclopedic museum (the L.A. County Museum of Art) – I can say I much prefer the work in Chicago. It’s far more elegant both outside and in. In L.A. the outside is a forbidding, too-solid, stone box. The light is nice in the top floor galleries, coming through metal fins and treated glass and then scrims, as in Chicago. I find Chicago’s ceiling composition to be more pleasing. In L.A. RPBW put ventilation grills in the floor of the galleries. They create dark lines in the floor, which have no relationship to the temporary walls that curators build, and the thick dark lines on the floor distract your attention from the art on the walls. I’m glad we don’t have those in Chicago.

Where the third floor views are the most stunning, through the double panes of glass, which make everything quiet and serene.
The third floor will feature European painting and sculpture since approximately 1900, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Brancusi, and Giacometti. The new building will allow the Art Institute for the first time to display these works in galleries filled with natural light.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop is one of the busiest firms in the world. And at some of their projects the detailing is exquisite. At others it is less so. You’ll be pleased with the detailing in Chicago. It is fine throughout the Modern Wing.
Notice the slight indentation (called a ‘reveal’) when the gallery walls meet the floor. (It won’t be as prominent when finished.) This makes the floor seem to float, it makes it seem less solid, makes the space for art seem more ethereal.

Look at the glass staircase.
Glass in this building is for looking out at the city; also to reflect the city.

Take the stairway down to the first floor.

Much of the space in the new wing will be devoted to Museum Education. It’s on the ground floor, easily accessible, free of charge, no need to pay museum admission. The Art Institute will double its space for Museum Education. To inspire a cultured populace and future generations of visitors to the Art Institute!

You enter this directly off of Monroe street. Walk through the birch-lined corridor.

You’ll find 20,000-square feet of classrooms and studios for school kids and families. Again, Piano let the natural light pour in.

At times the light is almost Edward Hopper-esque, as in this room, which fronts a new garden.

A new garden? Yes. Again, that combination of nature, art and architecture that Piano strives for. He pulls the outside into the building. The garden, designed by a woman familiar to Chicagoans (and garden-lovers around the world), will go underneath this great Renzo Piano “flying carpet.”
Read my next post on the Art Institute to find out who is designing the garden. This view is from Columbus Avenue, between the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute, and the old east entrance to the museum.

Read about it, and I’ll tell you about the exterior of the building (which I find too large for its site) in my next post.

When the Modern Wing opens on May 16, 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago will be the second largest museum in the United States in square footage, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

As for sustainability, the Art Institute seeks silver LEED certification for the Modern Wing,

I’ll also write soon about the 620 foot long bridge also designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. In daring Chicago structural style it will span Monroe Street with few supports, and fly above the street (what a view from there!) to the third floor restaurant and to the admission free third floor sculpture terrace of the Art Institute.

Those unseemly seams in the steel will come out and the bridge will be painted.

Check back on this site soon
for a look at the exterior of the new Modern Wing
of the Art Institute of Chicago.