a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.

Richard Nickel – photographer, preservationist, hero

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”   –      Richard Nickel

photo by Nickel of the demolition of the First Regiment Armory

The archive of photographer Richard Nickel was recently donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Nickel is a hero in the Chicago preservation and architecture communities for his early and dedicated work to preserve and document so much of Chicago’s early architectural history.  Working throughout the 1950’s and into early 1970’s, Nickel tirelessly recorded much of the work of Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Holabird and Roche, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.  These were the ugly, dark days for urbanism and architecture in the US, as hundreds of magnificent buildings were demolished by private developers and public institutions to make way for “progress” and urban renewal.  What was lost was priceless buildings, glorious creations of great architecture and great neighborhoods.

photo by Nickel of the Rookery Building stair by Adler & Sullivan, via the Richard Nickel Committee

Nickel not only took countless photos of endangered buildings, but he was also an ardent campaigner against the kind of wanton destruction that some Chicagoans were attempting.  The demolition of Louis Sullivan’s work was Nickel’s prime target and his efforts included not only taking photos but saving actual pieces of soon-to-be-demolished buildings.  The interior of the Chicago Stock Exchange building is a part of the Art Institute, on permanent display, due his work and that of other zealots he recruited.  Louis Sullivan is now known as one of the greatest of all American architects and much of his body of work exists solely in Nickel’s archive.

Louis Sullivan ornament, photo by Richard Nickel

Nickel’s story ended tragically and in some mystery.  His body was found inside the demolition site of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, buried under a collapsed stair.   Under great risk, he often entered building sites where demolition was already underway, and his photos are often the only documentary evidence that exists of so many buildings.  In the case of the Stock Exchange, he returned many times after the official salvage operation was complete to retrieve and document.

demolition of the Garrick Theater, designed by Sullivan, photo by Nickel

His archive, some 15,000 photographs, prints and negatives, has been held by The Richard Nickel Committee and available for viewing only by professionals and academics.  Hopefully now that it is housed at the Art Institute, some of this man’s heroic and beautiful images can be viewed more easily by the citizens of Chicago, who have benefited so powerfully from his heroic efforts.

For more info on Nickel, I recommend They All Fall Down by Richard Cahan, on Nickel, his preservation efforts and those of Chicago architect John Vinci.

new project – Sunshine Canyon house

I am very excited to be working on a new house project for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Canyon fire just west of Boulder.  I feel deeply for their loss – years of mementos, photos, etc. all lost, not to mention the house itself, the repository of years of memories and events.  So it is kind of odd for me to be happy working on a project that stems, to some extent, from a great sadness.  But I can’t help it, I love to make buildings, to sit down with folks, listen to their stories, their dreams and thoughts and try to give form to those explicit and implicit desires.

The design we are working on tries to balance the centrifugal forces that are directed toward magnificent mountain panoramic views with the centripetal forces that focus on a courtyard and the internal landscape of the house.

These are some relatively early views of SketchUp model of the project.  SketchUp is a great tool and its integration with Google Earth allows us to upload the model and place it in the actual topography and verify view corridors to specific sites – in this case, a distant view east to Denver and extensive views west and south to the mountains.

While I would probably never give up the tools of physical models, sketches, plans, etc., the use of SketchUp is a powerful tool that might tempt one away from such traditional design methods.  It can in fact be a bit difficult to remember that even though we can make a fully rendered model of the project that we can walk through, view furniture and the light streaming in, that we have not completed the design of the project.  We may have crafted the space and maybe even captured some of the touch and feel of the building, but we hardly even touched the larger and more difficult task of detailing the structure.  Every eave, every handrail, every window mutin has yet to be drawn and studied.  As my friend David Leary says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

barn, Sunshine Canyon

Along with 170 or so houses, there was at least one barn lost in the recent Fourmile Fire.  It was not remarkable or even functional, with walls falling apart and a partial roof.  It stood by its self in a little field right along Sunshine Canyon Drive, a visible and much loved signpost along the road.

The fire burned up from Fourmile Canyon to the north and east, over the ridge that is Sunshine Canyon Drive and partially down the other side.  There was a very controlled line just west of the Bald Mountain parking area but this barn was lost on the east side of that.  I don’t know exactly how it happened but the burn immediately around barn indicates that a few embers probably caught the old, dry wood of the barn and the flames were contained.

This barn marked the turnoff from Sunshine Canyon Drive that was the access road to a project I designed and that I visited frequently during construction.  A couple times a week for about three years, I watched this barn slowly, almost imperceptibly, fall down while our project was building up.  And, like many architects, the barn held a fascination for me that took me into the falling structure to poke around and take dozens of photos.  The beautiful, simply structure housed a couple of old rotten-stuffing upholstered chairs, a stove, and a whole army of rusty cans and pails.

And now, the site holds only the memory of that old barn.  No one will rebuild it, or ever could recreate the strange and intriguing air that floats around inside abandoned buildings.

Back to the future in the Rocky Mountain West

I have an abiding interest in the work of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s most well-known architect from the 1960’s and 70’s.  His organic designs have been extremely influential and are much more finely resolved than the better known works of other organic architects like Bruce Goff.

One of his most interesting buildings appears briefly in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper from 1973.  It is really only an establishing shot and I am pretty sure none of the interiors from the film are of the actual house.

Sleeper is an odd, slapstick Allen movie set in 2173 starring Allen and Diane Keaton.  To depict a future society, Allen used a number of buildings in the Denver/Boulder area, most notably the house in Genesse often referred to as the Sleeper House.  Not yet completed at the time of filming the building sat unfinished and deteriorating for many years until recently a new owner completed it and added a large and fairly sympathetic addition.

Also prominently featured in the film is the Mesa Lab of NCAR in Boulder.  Allen, captured and brainwashed here, eventually escapes and returns to sabotage the place.  There are a few establishing shots and a couple of Allen rappelling down one of the towers.

There are a couple of other local buildings in the movie.  Briefly seen in the very beginning is the main building of the Denver Botanic Gardens.

And as a humorous sight-gag, the Mile Hi church in Denver is rendered as a McDonalds.

What may be of note here is that Allen’s future is a city-less one filled with modern, space-age buildings and for that he left his precious NYC to film in Colorado.  The houses depicted in the movie, the Sleeper house and the Brenton house, are displayed as modern and although a bit alienating, not entirely evil.  NCAR on the other hand is the embodiment of the tyrannical, hero-worship technological society.  Maybe both of those portraits are appropriate for the programs of the buildings and maybe as well for the architectural background of I.M. Pei, NCAR’s architect.  Schooled in the heady days of unabashed hero-worship, the building has all the hallmarks of the Mies/Gropius/Rudolph scaleless, dehumanized placelessness.  By contrast, the houses by Haertling and Deaton were self-conscious antipodes to harsh geometries and materials of late Modernism and attempted to incorporate new spatial concepts while still holding on to Modernism’s liberating ideologies.  Does this difference represent a slightly different generation of architect, is it reflective of the radical shift in attitudes of the 1960’s, or is it a reflection of two architects born and educated west of the Mississippi (Deaton and Haertling) as opposed to the Modernist orthodoxy of the East Coast (Pei)?

(all images from the movie Sleeper, by Woody Allen)

critical regionalism – an experiential approach, Part Two

As an extension of the thoughts in Part One, I would like to talk about some of the possible architectural responses to local geology and climate discussed in the previous post.  What is of interest here is how these responses may combine to create a body of work that expresses a kind of regionalism without regard to specific building form or style.  Below are descriptions of the types of architectural responses that might be found in the Rocky Mountains and when synthesized in various combinations, may describe a kind of regionalist architecture.  I have included some photos from a house I designed a couple of years ago to possibly demonstrate the architectural response to a given condition.

Soil Conditions

point loads on posts and lintels

The seasonal expansion and contraction of our local soils and the ability to point load on granite might drive a design to be more expressive of post-and-lintel type construction than continuous wall construction as is typical.  This is obviously very dependent on exact, specific soil conditions and may not express itself in all projects.

Solar gain

Because of the intensity of the sun and general aridity of the mountain West, the roof is often used more as a shading device than a rain protector.  This results in large overhangs which create a kind of interstitial space between the interiority of the building and the purely uncovered exterior space of the landscape.  This middle space of covered outdoor space may also become more formalized as covered terraces or balconies.

Another resultant of the intense solar gain is its effect on building materials.  Untreated wood, left exposed for even a short period, will quickly splinter and decay.  Even when treated, the UV rays of the sun quickly breakdown most stains and paints, making wood a relatively short-lived building material especially when compared to the centuries-old timbers and siding of East Coast houses.

exterior "room", partially roofed

Lastly, the infrequency of rain also coincides with an abundance of sunny days, around 300 or so per year.  Given the general altitude of much of the mountain west, that means that even on a freezing day, a pleasant afternoon can be spent on an outside terrace in direct sunlight.  So, like many California modernist houses, this creates the ability to live outside for much of the year, although this tends to be more for winter afternoons and summer mornings rather than purely seasonally determined.

Windy, dry conditions

very limited use of exposed wood (stone walls, metal roof)

The combination of occasionally fierce winds and frequently very low humidity creates many days of red-flag fire danger days.  These conditions, combined with the intense solar gain, quickly deteriorates wood, making it even more susceptible to even the smallest falling ember.  This may make a strong case for eliminating exposed wood from building exteriors and using much more fire-resistant materials like stone and metals.  Abundant native stone, both granites and sandstones, would reinforce this regional material usage preference.

Aridity

xeriscaping right up to the face of the building

As a possible corollary to the windy, dry conditions listed above is the extreme aridity experienced on the east side of the Continental Divide.  Most of our streams and rivers are charged with snow melt, not rainfall, and the storage of water and its conservation has written much of the history of Western land use.  As differentiated from the damp Midwest or East Coast, the lawns of typical houses are irrigated and with growing awareness of the scarcity of water resources, xeriscaping has become the preferred method for treating the land in the spaces between buildings.  These xeriscaped areas are marked not by low, gound-hugging grasses like prototypical “lawns”, but are combinations of native bushes and tall grasses.  Because of this variety and size of plantings, a building in the mountain West does not sit on a generic, de-natured green tableau but is a built moment in a continuous landscape of native plants.  The building does not sit within its own domesticated space of green lawn, but either interfaces directly with “wilderness” or must use other architectural devices to establish this domesticated zone of semi-public, semi-private space.

I am sure there are a lot of other buildings in the mountain West that demonstrate the same or similar responses to these conditions.  In a future post I will try to find classes of other examples that span many different architectural styles but have in common these traits, including vernacular architectures.

Columbia cemetery – necropolis

Older cemeteries within the city are some of the most interesting urban structures.  Almost every city has at least one remaining cemetery sitting in what has become a vital part of the city.  This doesn’t compare to the number of cemeteries that are moved by municipal authorities as they have become surrounded by houses and shops and their land value has greatly exceeded their cultural and historic value.  Paradoxically, what “saves” most old cemeteries is often not their status as hallowed ground nor their famous inhabitants, but the  nature of the living “park” that the cemetery has become.  Nature trumps culture.

On a recent visit to Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery, what is most striking, even more so than the poignancy of the small, worn gravestones, was the use of the necropolis as a place for dog-walking, strolling and making out.  A fairly lively place.

I had thought I would write a post about the architecture of the cemetery, its layout and the different neighborhoods that make up place – military graves in one corner,  older stones tightly spaced, etc.  However, amongst the throngs of running dogs, cellphone squawking talkers and huddle lovers, it was more difficult to study this than I had imagined.

Unlike the cemeteries of the older East Coast cities and Chicago that I have visited, Columbia is not full of the ornate sculptural markers of pre-Raphaelite angels and mourning cloths.  It does have plenty of simple, modest markers signalling maybe a simple life, simply lived, one of so many.

So normally I would suggest a visit to your local cemetery, to walk around the markers and spend a quiet afternoon.  But don’t go for that.  It is really too crowded with the living to pay attention to the dead.  In Boulder, go to the cemetery –  go and enjoy a nice park without runners, without cyclists, without cross-training tri-athletes, without any “sports” at all except the eternal battle of dog versus squirrel.