Reverb 10

For the month of December I am going to try to participate in the Reverb 10 project.  The idea is to respond to a daily prompt and use the opportunity to write or comment on that topic via a blog or twitter.  Hopefully at the end of the month and year, a picture of the thoughts and concerns of a small segment of the online community will have been mapped and traveling that landscape will help us all navigate the year to come.

In that I only post things to the blog every few days, I’m afraid my responses will be probably brief and certainly often quickly thrown together.  However, today’s prompt, from author Leo Babauta, has caused some more lingering musings.

“Writing.  What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing – and can you eliminate it?”

My first response was to say that I am not a writer, and virtually everything I do every day “gets in the way” of writing.  And I’m good with that.  For the most part I would rather be making buildings than writing and I get to do that everyday.  Along with that flippant first impression I thought “why of course everything contributes to my writing”.  Which is stupid and certainly the author of the prompt, an actual author, knows what he is talking about and that kind of childish sentiment is not what he is getting at.

The sinking realization however is that although I am not a writer, I do find myself doing just that, if not every day then at least more than a few times a week.  It does in fact get in the way of making buildings sometimes as the easiest excuse not to tackle yet another drafting task is to spend a few minutes writing another blog post.  And I have to admit that the writing of the blog, which started 3 years ago as a bit of an experiment and maybe a little free marketing, has become significantly meaningful to me.  I am not entirely happy at this prospect as I have spent some 20 years or so crafting my skills, honing my intuitions, to make the best possible buildings I can.  I am unabashedly passionate about architecture and have to constantly reign in my enthusiasm to be even vaguely socially competent.  To find myself occasionally distracted by writing is unfamiliar ground, foreign lands.

So I’ll turn that prompt around a bit and say that although writing does sometimes distract me from architecture, it has now become a necessary component, a lesser-traveled but parallel track to making buildings.  I think as I get more comfortable writing in addition to drawing, they will be mutually reinforcing and the mental shift that writing demands will contribute to the process of designing in something other than a necessary distraction

(Have I sufficiently diverged from the prompt to wrap this up?  I think so.  Back to the drawing board. Really, I get to do that.)

ciclovia – street liberation

Last Sunday, to promote sustainability, the City closed Pearl Street between 15th Street and Folsom, essentially extending the pedestrian mall eastward.  However, this closure was temporary and open to bikes, dogs, and wheels of all types.  There were a number of businesses and organizations that set up booths, but the real attraction was the simple pleasure of walking or riding down the middle of the street where on any other day you would be fender-fodder.

Based on the Columbian street fair, ciclovia, the idea was to make a safe, bike and pedestrian zone in the center of the city.  Boulder however is so blessed with so many great places to ride and hike that the impact of these kind of street closures was a bit lost.  In Cambridge, Massachussets, across the river from Boston, a section of Memorial Drive is closed on Sundays and this creates a large, long bike and rollerblade friendly urban space where otherwise none exists.  I don’t mean this as a criticism of the event, but the activity on the street was pretty dispersed and lacking energy until the fire fighters appreciation parade started up later in the afternoon.  That space, one of celebration and thanks, filled the street in a way that only a single event can.

I strongly support the idea of temporary street closures – I particularly like how they change the space of the city in unpredictable ways.  However, I feel like this kind of closure should be in a different place in the city, like the Hill or NoBo, a place where the closure would be transformative, rather than an extension of the existing mall. Regardless, more power to the folks that put this together and let’s hope the idea continues.  Once people get the idea of filling the streets with something other than cars fully sinks in…

critical regionalism – a post-fire possibility?

In the wake of the Fourmile fire we don’t have a sense of how many homeowners may choose to rebuild of the 166 homes that were lost.  Each of those individual decisions is fraught with a lot of unknowns balanced against the prospect of reinvigorating the mountain lifestyle that was so attractive to so many.  What is clear is that there will be quite a number of houses rebuilt in a relatively discrete area.  What may evolve is some expression of the zeitgeist of residential custom home design.  Most likely that will be varied and reflective of recent past styles of “mountain ranch” and “vernacular Tuscan”.  But it could be much more.

I have written quite a lot over the last few years about Critical Regionalism, Colorado vernaculars, and the lack of a regional aesthetic here in Colorado as opposed to other areas of the United States.  These regional styles can be terrible mashups of tired tropes but that they exist at all is usually due to the use of a select group of materials deployed in a similar climate and topography.  So I would like to make a pitch to my fellow local architects to read (again, I hope) Kenneth Frampton’s essay Critical Regionalism and look to it for some thoughts about making buildings both in a specific place – Sunshine and Fourmile canyons and time, 21st century America.  Think global, design local.

The seven salient characteristics of Critical Regionalism from the 1984 (?) essay ‘Critical Regionalism: Modern Architecture and Cultural Identity’ (the emphasis is mine as are the photos)

by Kenneth Frampton:

“(1)    Critical Regionalism has to be understood as a marginal practice, on which, while it is critical of modernization, nonetheless still refuses to abandon the emancipatory and progressive aspects of the modern architectural legacy.  At the same time, Critical Regionalism’s fragmentary and marginal nature serves to distance it both from normative optimization and from the naive utopianism of the early Modern Movement.  In contrast to the line that runs from Haussmann to Le Corbusier, if favors the small rather than the big plan.

Glen Murcutt, in Australia

(2)    In this regard Critical Regionalism manifests itself as a consciously bounded architecture, one which rather than emphasizing the building as a free-standing object places the stress on the territory to be established by the structure erected on the site.  This ‘place-form’ means that the architect must recognize the physical boundary of his work as a kind of temporal limit – the point at which the present act of building stops.

Antoine Predock, in Arizona

(3)    Critical Regionalism favors the realization of architecture as a tectonic fact rather than the reduction of the built environment to a series of ill-assorted scenographic  episodes.

Mockbee Coker, in Alabama

(4)    It may be claimed that Critical Regionalism is regional to the degree that it invariably stresses certain site-specific factors, ranging from the topography, considered as a three-dimensional matrix into which the structure is fitted, to the varying play of local light across the structure.  Light is invariably understood as the primary agent by which the volume and the tectonic value of the work are revealed.  An articulate response to climatic conditions is a necessary corollary to this.  Hence Critical Regionalism is opposed to the tendency of ‘universal civilization’ to optimize the use of air-conditioning, etc.  It tends to treat all openings as delicate transitional zones with a capacity to respond to the specific conditions imposed by the site, the climate and the light.

Peter Rose, in New England

(5)    Critical Regionalism emphasizes the tactile as much as the visual.  It is aware that the environment can be experienced in terms other than sight alone.  It is sensitive to such complementary perceptions as varying levels of illumination, ambient sensations of heat, cold, humidity and air movement, varying aromas and sounds given off by different materials in different volumes, and even the varying sensations induced by floor finishes, which cause the body to experience involuntary changes in posture, gait, etc.  It is opposed to the tendency in an age dominated by media to the replacement of experience by information.

Rick Joy, in Arizona

(6)    While opposed to the sentimental simulation of local vernacular, Critical Regionalism will, on occasion, insert reinterpreted vernacular elements as disjunctive episodes within the whole.  It will moreover occasionally derive such elements from foreign sources.  In other words it will endeavor to cultivate a contemporary place-oriented culture without becoming unduly hermetic, either at the level of formal reference of at the level of technology.  In this regard, it tends towards the paradoxical creation of a regionally based ‘world culture’, almost as though this were a precondition of achieving a relevant form of contemporary practice.

Brian McKay Lyons, in Nova Scotia

(7) Critical Regionalism tends to flourish in those cultural interstices which in one way of another are able to escape the optimizing thrust of universal civilization.  Its appearance suggests that the received notion of the dominant cultural center surrounded by dependent, dominated satellites is ultimately an inadequate model by which to assess the present state of modern architecture.

Peter Zumthor, in Switzerland

Citizen Architect – Sam Mockbee – follow up

Well, Rocky Mountain PBS decided not to join the rest of the nation in showing Citizen Architect last night. It was on none of their plethora of channels. Actually if you combine two of the programs they did air last night – biographies on Frank Lloyd Wright and Patti Smith – you kind of get close to the work of Sambo and the Rural Studio.
Thanks RMPBS. Couldn’t bump the Antiques Roadshow for one night? Each year there are one or maybe two new programs on architecture and you can’t find space for the national premiere like the rest of America?

Bloomsday, June 16th

a slightly modified version of my annual tribute to James Joyce:

June 16th 1904 is the day that James Joyce set his novel Ulysses, traveling Mr. Bloom around Dublin in a day.  So, in honor of Mr. Joyce,  have a good fry-up for breakfast and certainly a mustard and gorgonzola sandwich for lunch with a glass of wine,

“Mr. Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.  Sips of his wine soothed his palate.  Not logwood that.  Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off.”


There are a number of road races to celebrate the day, the Lilac Bloomsday run in Spokane being the largest and most well known.  I can’t think of a worse way to honor the day.   A pint in a pub seems infinitely more appropriate.

Ulysses is not an easy book to read to say the least.  In college I tried moving through it many times without success.  Finally, on the eve of my prolonged trip to Venice, I threw it in my luggage – surely when it’s your only book, you’ll read it through.  And I did, after a bit.  So, for me the book is inextricably tied with briny Venice.  The challenging, circuitous text melds in my memory with the labyrinthine city, the language of the novel becoming clearer with distance from daily use of the English language..

So, raise a glass to Mr. Bloom, he has a helluva day in front of him.

Hey, and its my birthday.

“…yes I said yes I will Yes.”

a reading of the text, by Joyce himself:

quarry, central Kentucky

I have always been fascinated by this strange, enigmatic image shot just inside the mouth of a limestone quarry in central Kentucky.

the almost surreal doubling of the images in the still water and the two object groups, one in shadow, one in the light, are as close to the everyday oddness of the photos of fellow Kentuckian Ralph Eugene Meatyard.   My earlier posts on this work:

(photo by Mark Gerwing, around 1989)

Louis Sullivan imposter bank, Poseyville, Indiana

I recently was driving a round-about way to New Harmony, Indiana and passed through Poseyville.  Much to my surprise, right in the middle of town, what appears to be a bank by Louis Sullivan.


No mistaking the ornament, both in their individual designs and how they ‘strap’ the building.  However, having studied Sullivan in school and later while living in Chicago, while I was familiar with many of his late career bank designs, I had never heard of this one.  It is extremely similar in its long facade to the bank in Sidney, Ohio.

Sidney Bank 01

However, as you can see, the Poseyville bank is more of a shoe-box than a jewel box, simply repeating the long facade ornamentation to the main entry.  The individual ornamentations however are unmistakable:


Poseyville bank

Sidney Bank 02

Sidney bank

Well, it turns out the Poseyville bank is not a Sullivan work at all.  Rather, it is a knock-off, by Edward Thole, built in 1924 (documented in the excellent essay “The Banks and the Image of Progressive Banking” by Wim de Wit in Louis Sullivan, The Function of Ornament. ( I highly recommend this essay as it gives cultural context to the intentions of the architect and clients of the bank projects.  Rarely are the needs and desires of the engaged clients presented or discussed in architecture books)

Maybe the Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company had the molds available for use?

Sidney bank image from the website maintained by Mary Ann Sullivan:

In any case, it is an interesting building and though not a Sullivan original, a commanding presence in the small town and a fascinating attempt to convey strength and security for a bank without resorting to the usual Greek temple forms.

New Harmony, Indiana

On the border between southern Illinois and Indiana, along the Wabash River, sits New Harmony, Indiana.  Founded in 1814 by a group of religious separatists similar to the Shakers, the town consisted of 180 buildings, but was bought in its entirety by Robert Owen, a wealthy industrialist from Wales.  His communitarian society was an utopia experiment in social reform but was short-lived.

What they left was a remarkable series of buildings and realized urban plan:


Throughout its history, New Harmony has attracted philosophers, theologians, scientists and most importantly reformists, interested in the ideas and promise of communal living.

That spirit is incorporated in the Working Men’s Institute building and in Philip Johnson’s 1960 interdenominational Roofless Church:


This is a beautiful space and surely his best work, – a tall brick rectangular wall with the ‘church’ structure sitting to one side.  The space of this outdoor room is very striking, made the more so by a single, modulated opening looking out on the floodplain of the Wabash River.


This building in a sense spans the cabins of the original founders and the Atheneum Visitors Center by Richard Meier (not built at the time of Johnson’s work).  The Atheneum is other-worldly, a graceful, pure white, vision.  I am sure it was not intentional, but it feels a bit like a nineteenth century steamboat pulled up to a dock, an apt allusion for a visitor’s center.


New Harmony was intentionally separated from the mass of society and it still remains a bit isolated in rural southern Indiana.  I know of no other place that within the space of a few blocks you can wander around almost 200 years of remarkable American architecture.  Well worth a visit.