Cambridge Public Library, MA

The original Cambridge Public Library, a Richardson-romanesque influenced building built in 1888 by Van Brunt & Howe, was recently renovated and added onto with a very modern addition by William Rawn Associates.  The addition has been well received, and the city should be applauded for encouraging a contemporary solution for the addition.

The contrast between the two buildings is instructive.  The original building, in heavy, articulated masonry with volumes defined through the use of geometry rather than material change, establishes a clear civic presence with a central tower set about the clearly defined entrance and reading room.  There is a recognition here that society is bound by its institutions, and that government, as the organization of society, is a good thing that has the potential to improve our collective being, and especially so when it is representative of the people it is organizing.

The addition, by contrast, presents the ideal of civic responsibility and identity as a much weakened proposition.  Its appearance is not of library any more than it is of corporate headquarters or large house, except for its attachment to something so clear as to be a library, or its mother, a church.  Solidity and groundedness have been replaced with transparency and airiness, and the assuredness of stone replaced with the tenuousness of hundreds of maintenance seeking motors making countless adjustments to movable louvers and foils, so as to enable the near complete transparency.

The new addition is slick.  But its only mediocre architecture.  Its attraction is the transparent bar that presents itself as the new identity of the Public Library, but this bar is not much more than a kit of parts shipped over from Germany and extruded the requisite length.  It's more about technology than space making, and is emblematic of the current fetishizing of facades over space making/defining.  For all it's articulation, it's completely inarticulate, with entrance noted only as a horizontal plane hovering over the doors.  Entrance exists as an intrusion through expensive German technology, and with respect to the facade appears incidental in its placement, though located on axis with Trowbridge St.

Facade as composition of volumes/elements

Facade as tool of light delivery and temperature control

One doesn't arrive at this building; one passes through two bars until confronted with a fourth bar at an elevated position.  As you can infer from this description, this is another "bar" scheme, consisting of laminated bars through which one (effortlessly) penetrates upon entry, a bit like chomping into a wafer bar.  One can observe these layers, but they are so subtly articulated that passing through them doesn't add to the experience, as each bar is equally open and light, in contrast to the original building, in which each volume is highly articulated, sequenced, and dark.  The first bar in the new addition is a reading room and shares the curtain wall; this space can be understood as a Loggia of sorts, and is no doubt a pleasant place to sit and casually read.  I say casually, because with the near total openness one is constantly subject to distraction.  This is an interesting contrast with the old building, and points to the difference in attitude and culture between the eras.  It's as if the new wing had a set mission to articulate the multitasking distracted citizens of today with a library intent on reinforcing those traits.

 The East Elevation is all about articulating the bars

One of the saddest aspects of the new wing is the way it eviscerates the original library.  The main entry to the complex is now through the new wing, and the circulation bar provides connection to the original building, which still houses a reading room and a "teen room", along with some other functions.  The original entry is now a dead end conference room of some sort, with the loggia infilled with glass.  The steps now have blocks set on them, centered on the arches, to emphasize that entry "no longer happens here".

It's too bad the original building couldn't be retained as the entrance to the new complex.  Its a much more dignified building, and its sad to see it relegated to corner reading room.  There would have been accessibility issues, and perhaps the programming would have had to be revised a bit, but it would have been a more satisfying solution.



Arakawa died last week.  If you aren't familiar with his work, its because you've been swimming the mainstream and have concerned yourself with "serious" architecture over the friskiness and occasional bizarreness of the near fringes, though perhaps Arakawa wasn't so near.  i'm nearly as guilty as anyone, though was exposed to his (and his partner's) work a couple of years ago when the Bioscleve House was published online.  i remember a grin passing over my face when i first saw it.  For the most part, as architects, we are subject to and have bought into the norms of our profession and those of the public at large: planar walls set in orthogonal composition, a bit of window trickery, a color here and there, yawn.  Of course, there are the starchitect and one-off exceptions, but they, too, generally fulfill our expectations as to how "proper" and "correct" architecture should behave.

Thankfully, there have always been some freaks out there.  The Dean of my school told me the only time he ever walked out of a guest architect's lecture to the school was after the architect showed a slide of some detail the Dean thought was a violation of the architect's duty to protect the safety and well being of the Public.  That architect was Bruce Goff.  i loved the idea that he could get our Dean so upset as to walk out of a lecture, but that was just my ignorance as a student interested in rebellion.  Bruce Goff wasn't so interested in making people angry as following what he believed in, and Arakawa was just such a visionary.

People have been making fun of the fact that he thought people could avoid death through the making of a specific architecture.  And like many an evangelical who promised the absurd, his death has made clear the absurdity of his view, though i suppose one could always take refuge in the thought he just got his forms wrong.  Regardless, there is no doubting the joy in his work.

Though its clear that the shaping of space alone won't keep us from death, its clear that the nature of the space we inhabit has a significant impact on our well being.  One of the curious aspects of these images of the Bioscleve House is how conventional the spaces are.  They really don't have the spacial complexity his thoughts conjure when he talks about the ability of space to (re)shape our being, and keep us from death through a questioning of the most banal aspect of our existence.

As Photographer Hans Silvester noted in one of his books, the more severe and straight-edged the architecture, the less happy the cat.  Cats thrive in spatial complexity, where they can hide if need be or watch from a perch as they care for their territory.  He believed that if we only took more notice of the feelings of cats in the making of our dwellings, we would all live happier lives.

i appreciate the work of Arakawa, but i don't find it to be great architecture.  Its fun, but ironically is too conventional in the ways that would make it interesting to architects.  Though he created spherical toilet rooms, the movement through his spaces was generally very two dimensional.  Full of knobby sloping floors, its not hard to imagine tripping down into the kitchen, and dying with a hard boiled egg lodged in your eye socket.


wabbit, west in peace

Me '84 Rabbit GTI was sick.  Gas mileage was way down.  Gas fumes were a nice perfume, but they were lately getting kind of strong.  Into Al's garage went me Wabbit, where it has always gone since coming here from Buffalo.

i called Al Sat morn to see when i could pick it up, but he told me something else.  He told me it was over.  i couldn't say a word.  "...your gas tank was rusted out, so i got you a new one.  But theres too much rust.  You can't do it.  It doesn't make sense.  You need a new car."

You shouldn't get attached to your car.  Its only a stupid machine.  But i was attached to me Wabbit.  i loved its wild smells and rattles, and it was a blast to drive.  i loved taking people for a drive, though they didn't always share my enthusiasm. The armrest on the passenger side was scratched and indented where visitors had dug their nails.  But occasionally people (men only) would come up to me and compliment me with "cool car dude", and i knew it to be one of the great car designs of all time (Giorgio Giugiaro), though my Americanized version of the original was a lesser design.  i spent the weekend thinking about my history with this car, and how impossible it would be to replace.  yik.

Anyway, i already miss my Rabbit.  and Rat Fink.  and Bert lounging in the back (above).


Matsuyama Castle

These images by photographer Eisuke Muroga of Matsuyama Castle show the unique nature of the Japanese castle when compared to the European model.  The high stone base is a dry wall, meaning no mortar was used in its construction, with the gaps in the stone filled with smaller stones, which aid in draining the wall of water and allowing flexibility, so important in earthquake prone Japan.  Though not on display in this castle, many Edo period walls were constructed with the stones laid on the diagonal, which further aided in resisting lateral forces due to earthquake.

These castles depended not only on their walls for defense, but were often built on hills or mountaintops, to further frustrate an attacking army.  The other obvious difference with the European model is the wood structure perched on top of the wall.  From a formal standpoint, i love the differentiation of the occupied space, in wood, from that of the "earth", in stone, if for no other reason than its articulation of the Japanese cultural relationship to nature, which i think is summed up in the picture above, where nature is understood not as something to be dominated, but to exist alongside as an equal.  The delicacy of the wood structure sitting on the stone wall is telling.

i believe this castle was only used for ceremonial purposes.


Japan musings 6

Shinto, the religion of Japan, doesn’t identify any one god. There are many gods, so to speak, though they are less gods than spirits (Kami), and may take the form of mountains, wind, or trees, but at the same time exist within people. If the center-centric cultures of the west can be said to originate in monotheism, or at least find definition through monotheism, than its not unreasonable to find in Shintoism the Japanese preoccupation with the periphery or edge, but here its more nuanced than saying Shintoism = edge or periphery, and more accurate to say that Shintoism denies any one center. It is multi-centered, but where many claim center, center ceases to exist as its namesake declares, and assumes another role, that of localized node, or a character within a cast of characters. The periphery then exists less as the perimeter of an established center then as a container of multiple characters, and this is the more accurate rendition of perimeter within the context of Japanese culture. Rather than “all roads lead to Rome”, one has a rice paddy, with a clear, defined edge but many claimed “centers”.

 We understand a path as a means to a destination. European cities exist as a network of paths that allow us to travel to various destinations, but they also establish a hierarchy within the city as to the relative importance of those same destinations. Our cities are organized around these paths, and through their association with destination and hierarchy, they exist as extensions of the city center, whether localized as a neighborhood center or centrally as the Town Square. Its not a surprise, then, that our doors along these paths are numbered linearly according to their position on the path. This is the primary means of way finding in the European city, organized by number along a street.

 In Japan, things are arranged inversely. Though paths take people to their destinations, the nature of the city structure is such that the importance of the path is diminished. If in the European city the path has an “object” quality in terms of its assigned importance, in Japan it is the city block that is object. The Japanese city/town is defined not by a city center, but by a multiplicity of centers each with a sphere of influence around which the city is organized. Each door is numbered according to the sequence in which it was constructed with respect to the local node or center; the street is only of secondary import, and is usually not even named.

The compartmentalization so clear in this diagram can be seen throughout Japanese culture, from rice paddys to the bento boxes. The expression of multiple centers over the means of connecting those centers is the Japanese expression of a de-centered/multi-centered society, and can be found to originate in Shinto where there is a heightened value placed on the expression of ones relationships to another person, as opposed to having the rules of that interaction codified by law.


Midway gardens

As a y'onion, deep in the punk movement and sounds of late 70's through the 80's, there were many brands of ethos, but the one that fascinated me was the one that declared "destruction = creation".

The photography of Chris Jordan demonstrates this, but does so in a way that goes beyond creating beauty to question the habits of our species.  In his art, one senses that the "art instinct" must be real.

He shot these pictures at the Midway Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and far from "civilization".  It was the scene of one of the largest naval battles of the Second World War.  These pictures show another, more recent battle, though they again register with us as scenes on a beach.


Rolex Learning Center

Architects SANAA have received a lot of attention lately, especially after having won the Pritzger Prize.  i find this project, the Rolex Learning Center, to be an interesting one.

The program is for a learning center for the Ecole Polytechnique in Lauzanne, Switzerland, which includes a library, auditorium, conference spaces, large forum, cafe, and restaurant.

The undulating form is a perversion of bumpy Switzerland, the building sitting as it does on a flat site near the lake, yet offering hills and dales in a floor that rises and falls, seemingly without reason except to create interesting effect.  Apparently the undulating floor and courtyards are used as devices to differentiate the space functions without having to resort to walls, which are practically non existent.  This has the effect of creating a curious situation where site and building have been inverted; the site providing a neutral space amenable to human occupation, the building rolling up and down as if in need of earth graders to provide a suitable surface.  The building is essentially undifferentiated in thickness, existing in the abstract as if a strata or membrane, but with no walls it reads as composed of 2 layers, with some form of medium (meaning?) that makes their separation impossible.  The pairing of inseparable membranes, acting as a datum of sorts, with the random undulation of the membrane has an interesting parallel in plan, where the random placement and size of the courts is put in stark contrast to the rigidity of the building perimeter, and recalls an inversion of the French Hotel plan type where an interior order is created within an undifferentiated, random perimeter.

This curious allegiance between the rational and the irrational, carried through in both plan and elevation/section, provides a table of sorts that should be the basis for higher education,  embodying here an institution of higher learning, and seeming every bit as abstract as "learning center".

i first wished the underside of the slab weren't so pristine, though came to realize that this reinforces the abstractness of the thing.  i first thought this building was for Rolex, and so was interested in how the treatment of the underside as a grotto might create a metaphor for the passing of time, but it turns out Rolex only provided funding; they have no other connection to the building.


Japan musings 5

Where in the west, and perhaps most of the rest of the world, things are fastened and secured through a direct, center oriented, confrontational relationship between 2 objects, in Japan, those same two objects are secured through tangental, peripheral relationships.  That Japanese culture and being is grounded in notions of de-centering, favoring the peripheral over the centered, is central to understanding not only the Japanese way putting two things together, but also understanding their relationship to nature.  This pervasive and simple notion, observable throughout Japanese culture, and noted over and over in these musings, is the beauty of the place, and not to be found anywhere else in the world.

When you walk through a Japanese garden or temple or manor house, you will observe that no two objects are put together against their will (yes, objects have will).  They will instead be placed adjacent to each other such that each maintains its integrity and self, and thus exist in harmony with each other, and by extension establish harmony throughout the construct.

In these examples of Japanese fences, you can see that the members are allowed to slide by adjacent members, with each component serving its own function, but not in such a way that it becomes subservient to another.  The fences, when wood, are rarely set into the earth by digging a hole and setting in a post, but rather they are often set onto a stone wall or base, which itself is set into the earth as a stone might naturally do.  This is practical, as the wood is kept from the moist earth, but also establishes the same hierarchy held by nature, thereby ensuring the small piece is in harmony with the much larger whole.

The same phenomenon, that of component pieces passing by each other yet bound to create a new whole, can be seen in the wood framing of temple roofs, where the Japanese developed a sophisticated language of wood joinery.  Wood joinery, of course, exists all over the world, but in Japan it is consistent with a prevailing attitude toward design in general, and so takes on special significance.

The example above shows clearly wood members passing by other members in order to create a hierarchy of support and structure.  This passing doesn't occur without one member acknowledging the other; one member receives the other in such a way as to address one or more of the forces acting on the whole: compression, tension, bending, and shear.  The example above is interesting because it shows two beams that appear to be coming out of the corner post, or attached to it.  In fact, these beams are passing by the column (the beam is in fact 2 pieces), but internally their anatomy's are interlocked such that they become one being, allowing forces to be transferred from a horizontal member to a vertical one.  Notice also the diagonal beam, which is in fact two beams joined together, and how the tiny gap between them articulates the line created by the intersection of the beams below, as well as the corner of the column.  This articulates a larger truth, that of the comfort the diagonal has as in the Japanese orthogonal realm, which is nothing more than a restating of the presence of typhoon, earthquake, volcano, or other divine intervention to mans imagined ordering of the world, and the Japanese acceptance of this in their design vocabulary.  In the west in particular, the diagonal is an alien presence, and is usually only awkwardly addressed.


water messes of wires,
in me pixie

    glea rhymes with flea



For some reason i decided to buy a padlock for me gym locker while i was at the grocery store.  This is known as "stupid".  i bought some cheapbutt piece 'ocrap made in guesswhere  that cost maybe $2.60, including tax.

>>6 months.  i was being a peaceful type, wet things dripping from me rippling geezer meats, trying to undo my cheapbutt as i just got back to my locker from the stankygym shower, when the thing just came apart in my hand.  All of a sudden, i had a handful of lock parts.  i wasn't even turning it hard, though i think i might have yawned.  It just went to pieces.  In my hand.  It was kinda funny, seeing as it was supposed to be a security device.  Imagine being the burglar trying to break into a gym locker, and having the lock come apart in your hand.  You'd think you just met Jesus.  i decorated the fuker..

eye poke

You see this stuff all the time, and if you have even the slightest tinkle of loveliness, it means that your mind is covered in monkeys trying to jump out of your skull to escape another moment witnessing these horrors..

Elevator call station at Nasty Hospital

Excessive, uncoordinated signage seems to be rampant in this culture, as well as an aversion to using graphics to communicate messages.  i first noticed this when i was a kid, living in France, where we had a French car that had the nicest simple graphics to denote the gas level, oil pressure, fan, hot, cold, etc.  This was in contrast to American cars, which for years would spell everything out in letters, as if the target audience was complete idiots that needed to read, over and over, what was being displayed in the gas gauge.  i'm still amazed that we have to write "stop" on all our stop signs.  Is our legal system to blame for our text centered culture?

This picture is interesting because it demonstrates the limits of both graphics and text.  The large stop on the stop sign is redundant with the graphic of a red octagon placed at an intersection, and therefore becomes intellectually invisible.  However, as soon as the sprayed note shows up, "stop" becomes integral to another message that has nothing to do with the original intent of the graphic, and so separates itself from the graphic to join its more natural home in text.  "Stop", as text, is torn by the tension between its imposed home in the alien world of graphics and its more natural home as text and component of a sentence.  The sprayed message takes advantage of the use of a stop sign to symbolize "Stop", but in this location it has the unintended consequence of commenting on nature of text and graphics, and the uneasy relationship between both.

 i suppose there are those who would argue that text is nothing more than a collection of graphic symbols for the sounds we peep, and that anything we "write" is graphic, but that tosses out the usefulness of a distinction between the two.


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