brick, sustainability, and the places I’ve lived

Below is a series of photos of some of the places I have lived.  (Thanks to Google streetview for most of these).  Not everyplace is there – a house in Louisville when we first moved there, an apartment in Venice, a couple of places in Lexington, Kentucky – are missing.

A question came up regarding masonry houses and the West.  Most everything built here in Colorado for single-family residential work is wood frame construction with wood siding, even though the environment out here is not kind to wood (too much high-altitude sun and snow).  I was wondering how common that was in other places and decided to take an albeit bias survey of a least the places I have lived.

Of the 20 places shown here, there are a couple of brick suburban houses in Louisville, KY; a brick dorm and some brick apartments in Lexington, KY; a couple of brick townhouses in Boston and a couple of brick houses in New Haven; some brick apartments and a converted storefront in Chicago.  The lower images are from Colorado:  a small frame house in Boulder, a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, a wood-framed townhouse and then a partial brick suburban house in Boulder.

Maybe because I was obviously drawn to apartments in old, brick houses as a young adult, they’re heavily represented.  But overall, I think my experience is probably not that different from many others, moving from suburbs to cities and back to suburbs again.  It may be a regional expression or possibly a recognition of the age of building stock, but the paucity of masonry in the West is striking.  The number of older, quality buildings in Colorado is pretty thin, but this may not be the region as much as the relative youth of most of the buildings here.  I’m afraid in an society with increasing demands to make short-term capital, the idea of creating a building to last generations has simply died away.  Even the older, brick suburban houses that I grew up in Louisville have a solidity and permanence that a wood-frame and sided house can not invoke.  So I think looking at these images, it is not the region nor the suburban/urban/rural nature of the structure, but rather its date of construction that has most influenced the use of materials.  Hopefully with a  renewed interest in the environment, we can recognize that the most sustainable building is one that lasts the longest.

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brick, sustainability, and the places I've lived

Below is a series of photos of some of the places I have lived.  (Thanks to Google streetview for most of these).  Not everyplace is there – a house in Louisville when we first moved there, an apartment in Venice, a couple of places in Lexington, Kentucky – are missing.

A question came up regarding masonry houses and the West.  Most everything built here in Colorado for single-family residential work is wood frame construction with wood siding, even though the environment out here is not kind to wood (too much high-altitude sun and snow).  I was wondering how common that was in other places and decided to take an albeit bias survey of a least the places I have lived.

Of the 20 places shown here, there are a couple of brick suburban houses in Louisville, KY; a brick dorm and some brick apartments in Lexington, KY; a couple of brick townhouses in Boston and a couple of brick houses in New Haven; some brick apartments and a converted storefront in Chicago.  The lower images are from Colorado:  a small frame house in Boulder, a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, a wood-framed townhouse and then a partial brick suburban house in Boulder.

Maybe because I was obviously drawn to apartments in old, brick houses as a young adult, they’re heavily represented.  But overall, I think my experience is probably not that different from many others, moving from suburbs to cities and back to suburbs again.  It may be a regional expression or possibly a recognition of the age of building stock, but the paucity of masonry in the West is striking.  The number of older, quality buildings in Colorado is pretty thin, but this may not be the region as much as the relative youth of most of the buildings here.  I’m afraid in an society with increasing demands to make short-term capital, the idea of creating a building to last generations has simply died away.  Even the older, brick suburban houses that I grew up in Louisville have a solidity and permanence that a wood-frame and sided house can not invoke.  So I think looking at these images, it is not the region nor the suburban/urban/rural nature of the structure, but rather its date of construction that has most influenced the use of materials.  Hopefully with a  renewed interest in the environment, we can recognize that the most sustainable building is one that lasts the longest.

what makes an architect?

This is the house I grew up in:

It is a pretty boring, little brick, builder house from the early 1960’s.  It sits in St. Matthews, a pretty boring little suburb on the east side of Louisville Kentucky.  The entire neighborhood is made up of these houses or the ranch- or tudor-variant.  At the time I lived there it was a solidly middle/working class neighborhood full of kids, many around my age, mostly catholic.  The only buildings that were not houses were a few churches, a small single-story commercial strip of stores and a few local elementary schools.

So, what about this environment makes a kid want to be an architect?  I can never remember wanting to be anything else.  Maybe it’s just me.  Or maybe not.

I have worked a few years in Boston, more in Chicago, and now, yet more in Boulder.  In each of these places I have met a number of fellow architects who not only grew up in similar neighborhoods, but actually in St. Matthews.  This always slightly stuns me and leaves me wondering that same question.  We had no experience in “architecture” in our various public schools, no great local buildings, not even a number of nearby buildings under construction.  We did have a strange misstep in planning.

Many parts of this neighborhood were designed to have a continuous alley running behind all the houses, much like a typical city/suburban layout.  However, in my St. Matthews, for whatever reason, they did not install the paved alleys.  Instead we had a 10-12′ wide, continuous grassy strip that ran behind all the houses.  And this strip belonged to us kids.  No adults ever ventured back into this area of overgrown grass and honeysuckle, rusting bikes and broken-down sheds.  We moved through the neighborhood along this strip, learned to smoke and had fights back there.  It linked every house and made an alternate kid-universe to the tidy lawns and neat sidewalks along the street.  Maybe that was the place that a little kid could go to make their own kinds of spaces, where boys and girls could dominate space and transform it.  It definitely became a place for daydreaming, if not a few budding criminal careers as well.

grass strip behind Nanz Avenue, St. Matthews, Louisville, from Google Earth

Probably every neighborhood has that kind of special kid-centered geography.  Maybe not so consistently linear and parallel with the streets of the adult world.  Does that stir the geometric imagination and begin one down the path of making spaces and making buildings?  Maybe it did for a number of us.

Market Street, Louisville, KY

MarketSteet_louisville

This is a composite photo of the facades along a one block length of Market Street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I grew up in Louisville, and while it did not boast a thriving modern architecture scene, it did have a remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial architecture.  Market and Main Streets, both relatively close to the Ohio River’s transportation, were a thriving business district and the masonry and cast-iron storefronts erected there are a poignant reminder of Louisville’s once critical location along the Ohio River.  Unfortunately, like other river towns, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, etc. the middle and later twentieth century and the growth of the interstate trucking system, did not serve the economies of these places well.  And, of course, like many cities, Louisville’s ardor to tear down the buildings of the past was only halted by enough general economic decline that it wasn’t profitable enough to get rid of them all.

Now, in the days of renewed urban living and loft apartments, there is a renaissance for these buildings, especially in St. Louis, where the river-hugging brick warehouses and factories are being reinvented as condos and the excellent and amazing St. Louis Children’s Museum.   I hope the fate of this block in Louisville has an equally good outcome.  For while modernist buildings are still thrilling to look at and occasionally design, it is the continual reinvention of a building that surely holds the most interest, historic, cultural and aesthetic.