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On the Trail of Le Corbusier

28. SEP, 2011

By Edward Keagle, AIA

Like many architects of a certain age, I am sitting on a slide collection of innumerable images gleaned from many trips to architectural shrines and lesser destinations. I recently began to digitize some of these so I could more easily share them with colleagues and remind myself of old lessons. In the process I also learned some new ones.

During the summer of 1987, I toured France, Switzerland, and Germany in the company of Syracuse faculty members, including Werner Seligman, and about 20 fellow students on the centennial of Le Corbusier’s birth.

Born Charles Edouard Jeanneret in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, he is recognized as one of the giants of modernism. He shed his given name early, somehow realizing like Madonna, Prince and Sting that sporting a singular name sets one apart.  In my grad school studios he was a god, he was Corb or Corbu, influential for his buildings but also because of his writing: the collection of his essays in Vers une Architecture codified his attitude toward architecture. He was also a painter of note. During our summer tour we had access to practically all his buildings in the region, icons and little-known works alike.

Corb’s built work and theorizing helped to usher in the 20th century machine aesthetic and minimalist design that we associate with modern architecture today. He had great faith in technology, loved the automobile, admired aeronautic design and came of age in a part of Switzerland renowned for precision watch-making that could be considered the Silicon Valley of his age.  If you ever have heard a house referred to as a Machine for Living, you have Corb to thank.

His early work was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the Romantic, naturalistic bent of his early art teacher, L’Epplattenier. Here is a good example of the power of a good teacher in a young person’s life. L’Epplattenier recognized his gift and helped arrange commissions for Corb when he was just 17 years of age.

What surprised me viewing these 24-year-old images of a memorable tour was that the modernist Corb was actually very earthy and sustainable. Some architects might think sustainable design began with LEED, while others may date the movement from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Looking back at the examples of Corb’s work from post-war France suggests an awareness of some of the principles that guide present day sustainable design.

I hadn’t remembered all of his green roofs, a staple in Green Design! He built largely in concrete, a good way to make the post-war shortage of steel go farther, but also a heritage of his early training under Auguste Perret, a proponent of reinforced concrete. What was striking looking back at the concrete work was the rough character of the material. Modern architectural concrete standards would never tolerate this gnarliness. Clearly, he had learned to build using local materials in a manner suited to the quality of labor at hand and didn’t obsess about the level of finish.

This realization was refreshing.  We contemporary architects obsess about precision and crisp finishes.  We also fixate on the placement of the many devices and mechanical intrusions that must be integrated into our new buildings, from sprinklers and exit signs to lighting levels mandated by code, thermostats, smoke detectors, and fire safety systems. Looking at these works from just fifty years ago, you realize how much mechanical and electrical advancements have taken over our spaces. I envy the casualness and purity with which Corb and his generation could approach design, concentrating more on space, form and expression without being sidetracked by today’s technological expectations and inevitable complications.

Through these old slides, I also see that he had come to understand that buildings are for people, that they should grow out of their context with only a little help from the skilled trades. At first I thought his architecture was saying, “Don’t obsess – build.”  Now I realize he had more freedom to choose his obsession. His was for space, form, and expression. To that, we architects of the present must add “integrate the technology.”

Edward Keagle is an associate at Centerbrook Architects, http://www.centerbrook.com/


citizen architect

Marley Porter’s tribute:
“Once upon a time there were three architects:
Frank Gehry,
Samual Mockbee
and me.I don’t personally know Frank Gehry, but I have a personal relationship with Samual Mockbee.Lots of people have personal relationships with Samual Mockbee. His friends call him Sambo.Sambo’s legacy is love.1

McGee Church Mississippi – bags of concrete, some corrugated metal and some pipe

Film maker Wainwright Douglas of Big Beard Films made a documentary on Sambo. He called it “Citizen Architect – Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio.”

This is a documentary that looks at Sambo from the perspective of his students and from regular folk, many of them poor.

Frank Gehry’s legacy is lust.


Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, SpainVeteran film director Sydney Pollack called his documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry”. Pollack and Gehry are friends.This is a documentary that looks at Gehry from the perspective of other famous and mostly rich people.

The Lust and the Love of Architecture.
Frank Ghery, Samuel Mockbee and me.

I graduated top of my class at Arizona State. I broke out of the starting gate early and never looked back. I pushed my career hard and by the time I was thirty five, I was a principal in the largest architectural firm in the East Valley of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. The firm started with my name. We had a ton of high profile work. We received award after award. I was published in magazines, quoted in the papers and seen on TV. My children understood I was famous.

I was in love with the lust of architecture.

My architectural foundation was my ego. A foundation built on the soil of ego is a foundation made of soggy cardboard signage. It cost me, I cost me, a wonderful life.

Running away from fame is like running away from fire. Stay too close to it and you get burned. Suck it in too deeply and you choke on your own burnout.

I ran to rural Alabama, far from the fires of fame and met Sambo, professor Mockbee.

The first thing he did was invite me to come to the Auburn University Rural School of Architecture.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“We’re out in the boondocks right now building a straw bale house for a super-deserving family. Drive on out. Stay the night. Bring some beer.”

I drove out into the middle of nowhere and discovered it was everywhere I wanted and needed to be. Sambo gave me a great big bear hug the first time we met. I loved him right away. We sat around a big fire that night, Sambo and me and maybe a dozen zombie-eyed students, drinking up the juju from a Master Human Being.

Sambo introduced me as a top-notch designer type architect looking for the meaning of life. They all laughed, none as loud and happy as Sambo.

“You’re going to see a whole lot of life manana, brother Marley, a whole lot of life.”

The next day, we drove another twenty minutes through the humidity in the dark green cotton of rural Alabama. This was the Rural School.

An ancient, bean-pole black man with no teeth came up to greet us, smiling like summer squash. Sambo squeezed him and I shook his hand.

“Damn Sambo”, the old man whistled, “Good to see you again. You bring a new friend to see our home?”

What I saw blew my mind and melted my heart. The home was made of stacked bales of straw. Three six foot diameter drainage culverts stuck out the side, the ends capped half with glass, half with corrugated rusty metal. The roof was huge, twice as big as the house below it. It cast tons of shade and cool breeze was everywhere. The family kept pouring out, kids and grandkids and dogs and everybody smiling and holding out their arms to their architect, Sambo.


Bryant (Straw Bale) House, Mason’s Bend, Ala., Rural Studio, 1994Samuel Mockbee introduced me to the Love of Architecture.Sambo said, “Architecture has to be greater than just architecture. It has to address social values, as well as technical and aesthetic values. On top of that, the one true gift that an architect has is his or her imagination. We take something ordinary and elevate it to something extraordinary.”

Sambo added, “Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place. For those of us who design and build, we must do so with an awareness of a more socially responsive architecture. The practice of architecture not only requires participation in the profession but it also requires civic engagement. As a social art, architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there. The dilemma for every architect is how to advance our profession and our community with our talents rather than our talents being used to compromise them.”

Frank Gehry inducts us into the Lust of Architecture.4
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Frank Gehry is beyond famous. He is an icon, a “Starchitect”. He receives every award there is to receive in accolades, and dances on mountain top commissions.
He is undeniably a great artist possessing an extremely unique perspective and vision.
And he is smart, very smart. He puts into his contracts provisions that ensure his and only his vision is the last and final word.
And he’s probably a nice guy.
Gehry has earned a grand reputation for ignoring budgets and the ultimate wishes of his clients. His Sydney Opera House came in fourteen hundred percent over budget. His Walt Disney Concert Hall was one hundred seventy million over. The project ended up in a Mickey Mouse law suit.
No matter. He’s a super marketer, smart enough to poke fun at himself. He even starred on The Simpsons as his famous self, demonstrating how his ideas came from looking at crumpled up paper.
He is a very smart guy.
Yet critics say “his buildings waste structural resources by creating mega-budgeted functionless forms”. Critics state that “his buildings do not account for the local climate or surround.” Critics churn that “his buildings are spectacles overwhelming their intended uses, not belonging in their surroundings.”
The “Economist” declared Gehry a “one-trick pony”, an “auto-plagiarist”.
Gehry remains rock solid though in his resolve and his reason. He’s a very smart guy.
His newest idea, well, you be the critic.5
Gehry on Gehry on Gehry’s newest high-rise idea.
Gehry insists, “It’s a mixed use high-rise. It’s now on hold but I am very proud of it.”
Gehry is proud of all his buildings.
Others wonder why.
One.  The disdain I harbor for this dilettante is getting in the way of a thoughtful answer. But I’ll try. It’s sort of like, one has a dream with all the distortions that dreams have, and the next day writes it down, and with major delusions, proclaims it literature. This image, this proposed building (is it a building?) is lacking two fundamental qualities. Intellectually, it’s vapid. Visually, it’s hideous. Someone, please take his license away.
Two.  At first glance, it looks like a lump of something… stinky.
Three.  Well I love Frank Gehry. I am not an architect but love architecture and I think sometimes Frank seems bored! Is this supposed to be a building? Like “Two” said, it looks like something stinky! He is just trying to see what he can provoke and see who would sponsor and buy this design… This needs not to be built. When he is good he is brilliant and when he is being a bad boy…he must be treated as one.
Four.  And now from the fecund to the fecal and yes, you’re right. Gehry goes scatological. He told us that in the office they lovingly call this project “the Turd.” Hard to digest? Glad it’s eliminated? Gehry always said his architecture is about movement.
Five.  After designing turds for a long time, he made his life easier and literally put a turd on a podium and called it a building. Well played, Mr. Gehry. Now we know that intellectual laziness can lead you somewhere.
Once upon a time there were three architects:
Frank Gehry,
 Samuel Mockbee and me.
I am grateful I got to know Sambo personally. I miss him. He helped change my career and my careening into everything I am not.
I am grateful to know of Frank Gehry. To experience his brilliance, to stand in awe under the hot reflected brilliance of his polished stainless steel tiled skin shadow, gives me humble perspective.
I am grateful that my foundation of soggy cardboard signage failed me and that I learned this lesson well:
The Love of Architecture is the gift of creativity shared with those who need it and with those who receive it well. It is the gift of sharing. The Love of Architecture is The Gift Given.
Sambo, here’s to you Dear Friend: Love On Dude!

Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio-FIlm Trailer



the architectural spells invocations and incantations of marco frascari

start with the most recent and delve back into the history:                            http://grimoirearchitecture.blogspot.com/

grandeur of an architectural dream: alluded and deluded…?

For the Architect, a Height Never Again to Be Scaled


Published: May 26, 2005

THE architect of New York’s best-loved landmark, William Van Alen, has been all but forgotten in the half-century since his death. Even at the height of his career, Van Alen never approached the fame of Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, but he was a major architectural figure and had been a star in the making since his student days. Soon after the Chrysler Building was finished in 1930, though, his professional standing began to slide, and he watched helplessly as his career unraveled, a victim, ultimately, of its greatest achievement.

Van Alen, who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1882, grew up in a New York of low, flat-topped buildings and trained as a draftsman for a Manhattan row house developer. By 20, he had studied at the Pratt Institute and apprenticed with some of the city’s best architects; six years later he won the Paris Prize, a scholarship that allowed him to study architecture – and develop a fresh eye for it – at the École des Beaux-Arts. When he returned to New York in 1910, “he tingled with the touch of approaching modernism,” Kenneth Murchison, an architect and critic, wrote years later.Murchison went on to characterize the young Van Alen’s thoughts: “No old stuff for me! No bestial copyings of arches and colyums and cornishes! Me, I’m new! Avanti!”

He soon went into practice with another young architect, H. Craig Severance, his polar opposite in style and personality. Severance was a handsome charmer who loved nights out at the Metropolitan Club and felt most comfortable in crowds, while Van Alen was tall, gawky and socially awkward. He spoke quietly, smiled sparingly and let his wife, Elizabeth, carry the conversation at parties. He kept his distance from even his fellow architects. “I am not particularly interested in what my fellow men are doing,” he said when asked if he read the popular architectural journals. “I wish to do things original and not be misled by a lot of things that are being done by somebody else.”

Van Alen’s independent spirit and skills as a designer were well matched with Severance’s strength at bringing in commissions, and the firm quickly began to prosper. In 1914 they finished the Standard Arcade, a string of shops on lower Broadway whose facade was notable for windows set flush with the walls, rather than set back, a practice that set a new standard. In 1915, Van Alen earned considerable praise for his novel design of an office building (the Albemarle, at 24th Street and Broadway) without a decorative cornice.

By the early 20’s, the partners were winning more commissions for bigger jobs, but in 1924 Van Alen’s 10-year partnership with Severance broke apart in a fight over credit for the firm’s success. Van Alen now had trouble getting commissions on his own. For four years, even as he continued to attract attention from critics and other architects (“Van Alen’s stuff is so darned clever that I don’t know whether to admire it or hate it,” one architect, Richard Haviland Smythe, told Pencil Points), his most notable projects were limited to a Lucky Strike shop, the Delman shoe shop and a Childs restaurant on Fifth Avenue.

With the real-estate market reaching fever pitch at the end of the 20’s, skyscrapers were becoming the obvious route to stardom for architects. In 1927 Van Alen got his shot when William H. Reynolds, a real-estate speculator famous as the impresario behind Dreamland Park at Coney Island, commissioned him to design a 40-story tower at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Van Alen worked on the design for more than a year, but then Reynolds sold the land to Walter P. Chrysler. Van Alen won the new commission, though he had to abandon the earlier plans: Chrysler wanted the world’s tallest skyscraper, one that would spare no extravagance in catching the public’s eye.

Through the winter of 1928-29, Van Alen’s plan evolved, from a building topped with a pyramid crown to one with a Byzantine dome to one likened by Murchison to Alfred E. Smith’s derby hat. He finally hit on a multi-arched dome cut through with triangular windows, which made his tower seem to shoot into the sky. The dome’s stainless chromium-nickel facade gave it the appearance of steel suffused with starlight.

Only a month after the announcement of the Chrysler Building’s design, with a projected height of 809 feet, Van Alen learned that Severance had been hired by George L. Ohrstrom, an investment banker turned developer, to build an even taller building – 840 feet – at 40 Wall Street. The resulting battle forced each skyscraper higher, and Van Alen came up with a trick that guaranteed victory. He designed a needlelike spire to surmount the tower, having it constructed in secret within the building. It won the height race for Chrysler at 1,046 feet and captured the city’s imagination.

Immediately, though, the critics tore into the design. They were particularly scornful of the spire, which many regarded as an embarrassing gimmick. George S. Chappell, writing under the pen name T-Square in The New Yorker, declared the building “distinctly a stunt design, evolved to make the man in the street look up.”

“To our mind, however,” Chappell added, “it has no significance as serious design.”

Douglas N. Haskell said in The Nation that it “embodies no compelling, organic idea.” Although Van Alen had been among the country’s most adventurous architects in his push to move beyond the conventions of masonry construction, he was now being dismissed as a practitioner of flash.

Just as bad, as he saw it, was the problem of his compensation. He had been so carried away – or naïve – on winning the commission that he never signed a contract with Chrysler. After the building’s completion, he asked for 6 percent of its $14 million cost, in accordance with American Institute of Architects standards, but Chrysler refused.

Van Alen sued, and a lien was placed on the property. Although he eventually got his money, he was held up in the press as an example of how architects should not conduct business with clients. One did not sue Time magazine’s 1928 Man of the Year and hope to win many future commissions.

The lawsuit and the bad critical reception, along with the Depression, ended Van Alen’s career. In the mid-30’s, he tried to revive it with plans for prefabricated houses, but only the exhibition models were built.

Frustrated, he spent less and less time designing and more managing his real-estate investments and teaching sculpture at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York. By his death in 1954 his name was absent from architectural circles. The Chrysler Building was his greatest accomplishment, and the one that guaranteed his obscurity.

Neal Bascomb is the author of “Higher” (Doubleday, 2003), which chronicles the 1929 skyscraper race.

the chrysler building and a story of william van alen

click on link for an audio-visual working memoir:  http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2005/05/26/garden/20050526_CHRY_AUDIOSS.html

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