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)

Mid-century masterpiece – Arapahoe Acres

It is rare that really good mid-century modern architecture finds itself not confined to the design of an isolated building.  So much of the ethos of that period of Modernism was committed to making unique, site- and client-specific buildings, that it is unusual to see a cluster of homes that all reflect the design ambitions of Modernism.  Arapahoe Acres in Englewood, Colorado is one of the shining exceptions.

Arapahoe Acres is a small, planned residential development bounded by more conventional developments and houses in suburban Englewood, just south of Denver.  There are 124 houses, ranging from 850 to 2,500 square feet and all with flat or slightly pitched roofs and clearly unmistakable Modernist intentions.  These are not all unique designs for individual clients, but rather a series of types, with significant variations, laid out on a curvilinear street pattern with knot-like semi cul-de-sacs.  Most of the homes were designed between 1949 and 1957 by the developer and self-taught architect Edward Hawkins.

Arapahoe Acres recently held their annual home tour featuring the interior and exteriors of about 8 homes.  What is most striking is that these relatively little houses were so thoughtfully planned and finished that few significant additions or harmful renovations have been executed.  As the neighborhood is on the National Register as a Historic District, this would limit maybe the worst abuses, but I think the reason for the lack of alterations is more due to the open planning, careful spatial layering and utility that pervades these houses.  So while many of them are quite small, the extensive use of natural materials, including some really nice masonry, and clear and simple expressive structural framing lends a quietude and richness that has argued well for many decades for retaining them as originally designed.

If you have a chance, take a drive around the neighborhood and you will see how really interesting it is.  It is certainly suburban and houses all the difficulties that also plague most post-war car-centered developments.  But the theme and variation, simple massing and consistent aesthetic makes for a very pleasing little oasis within the larger undifferentiated suburban sprawl of south Denver.  And of course it is worth noting that this forward-looking development of well-designed and built homes, though now “historic”, is still light-years ahead of most current developments with cheesy fake-Victorian model homes, wood composite siding and faux stone chateaus.  Arapahoe Acres embodies the positive, can-do attitude of post-war America where the future was eagerly anticipated and the best was yet to come.

(Much of the history of Arapahoe Acres info above was gathered from the AA tour guide as assembled by Diane Wray Tomasso, resident and neighborhood historian)

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

June 7th was the birthday of Scottish architect and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh, born in 1868 in Glasgow.  Like Louis Sullivan, his  is one of those great stories of a great talent at the right place, at the right time, with a bit of a tragic ending.  Working largely in booming Glasgow, Mackintosh was able to execute a number of amazing buildings, creating a robust style of architecture that combined early Modernist ideas with traditional Scottish baronial architecture.

Scotland Street School, 1903-06

All of his buildings are firmly rooted to the earth, using masonry in fairly traditional architectonics, but inventing a kind of plasticity with decorative elements that marked a radical departure from traditional forms.  Of note is that many of his decorative designs and furnishings were the work of his supremely talented wife, Margaret Macdonald.

Hill House, 1903-06

And maybe as influential as his buildings are his drawings and watercolors.

Daily Record Building

Mackintosh and his wife Margaret met while students at evening classes in the Glasgow School of Art.  Margaret’s sister Frances, and Mackintosh’s fellow intern Herbert MacNair, also attended and later wed, and the two couples become known as The Four, the most influential members of the Glasgow School movement.  Not enough can be said about that kind of intense collaboration and its necessity in the forging and support of talent and ideas.  Individual geniuses do exist, but rarely can you delve back into their history and not discover influential and inspirational  colleagues, parents, and family.

The Glasgow School of Art is probably his best and most well-known work, a staggering feat of complete interior design and architecture.  Won in a competition with twelve other local firms, and radical for its time, it is still clearly part of the landscape of Scottish architecture and the traditions of masonry and sculptural building.  Mackintosh’s difficult and obsessive nature increasing lead to problems and this building, his best, marks the start of his decline.

Glasgow School of Art, 1897-99 and 1907-09

After failing to find commissions, Mackintosh and Margaret eventually moved to France and although beautiful, his paintings are his only work of this final period of his life.

Happy Birthday, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – a somewhat sad life with magnificent achievements, lasting architecture that continues to inspire in its ability to project into the future while reflecting its past.

(gotta get that tie!)

images from Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Charlotte & Peter Fiell and Charles Rennie Mackintosh edited by Wendy Kaplan

architect’s lineage, part 2

a look at some of the more interesting aspects of the connections between architects as outlined in last week’s post.

architect’s lineage, part 1

I am certainly no scholar, so please take this as a more distanced view than any rigorous academic pursuit would reveal.

Although not strictly associated with Penn, there is a kind of Philadelphia School of architecture that moves from Furness through George Howe and Louis Kahn to Robert Venturi.  This is one of the most important confluences of the two major education traditions of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the European modernist polytechnical schools.  In the end, despite the ostentatiously high-tech and even futuristic forms,  the structural expression seen in the work of Foster and Piano and Rogers owes as much or more to the more plastic and sculptural training of the Ecole as filtered down through Howe and Kahn rather than the materialistic and technical influences of the polytech schools.

On another note, a look at the New York Five – Eisenman, Graves, Meier, Hejduk and Gwarthmey – shows the influence of Gropius and Breuer at Harvard  (Meier did not attend Harvard but worked for Breuer) more than anything else.  Their Modern revisionism came more from outside of the paths of Mies and LeCorbusier than their forms might suggest.

And a final note on this kind of lineage is the fascinating case of California Modernism.  Rudolf Schindler, educated by both Loos and Wright, blends the tradition of European Modernism with the Chicago School via Wright.  Schindler and Neutra, both working, and at a time living together, generated an amazing body of work, reconciling the abstractions of Modernism with the California climate and landscape.  Their legacy, in the Case Study Houses and through Harwell Hamilton Harris in the gathering of the Texas Rangers, echoes through every school of architecture in the States for the next 50 years.  And in the photos of Julius Shulman, their work influences every architect in their generation and next.

architect's lineage, part 2

a look at some of the more interesting aspects of the connections between architects as outlined in last week’s post.

architect’s lineage, part 1

I am certainly no scholar, so please take this as a more distanced view than any rigorous academic pursuit would reveal.

Although not strictly associated with Penn, there is a kind of Philadelphia School of architecture that moves from Furness through George Howe and Louis Kahn to Robert Venturi.  This is one of the most important confluences of the two major education traditions of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the European modernist polytechnical schools.  In the end, despite the ostentatiously high-tech and even futuristic forms,  the structural expression seen in the work of Foster and Piano and Rogers owes as much or more to the more plastic and sculptural training of the Ecole as filtered down through Howe and Kahn rather than the materialistic and technical influences of the polytech schools.

On another note, a look at the New York Five – Eisenman, Graves, Meier, Hejduk and Gwarthmey – shows the influence of Gropius and Breuer at Harvard  (Meier did not attend Harvard but worked for Breuer) more than anything else.  Their Modern revisionism came more from outside of the paths of Mies and LeCorbusier than their forms might suggest.

And a final note on this kind of lineage is the fascinating case of California Modernism.  Rudolf Schindler, educated by both Loos and Wright, blends the tradition of European Modernism with the Chicago School via Wright.  Schindler and Neutra, both working, and at a time living together, generated an amazing body of work, reconciling the abstractions of Modernism with the California climate and landscape.  Their legacy, in the Case Study Houses and through Harwell Hamilton Harris in the gathering of the Texas Rangers, echoes through every school of architecture in the States for the next 50 years.  And in the photos of Julius Shulman, their work influences every architect in their generation and next.

I. M. Pei’s NCAR building, Boulder, Colorado, part 2

last week or so I posted some introductory thoughts on I. M. Pei’s NCAR building in Boulder. https://mgerwing.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/ncar-by-i-m-pei-part-1/

Today, a few more thoughts on the building:

Pei wanted to make an intentionally scaleless building to abstract the forms in relation to the overwhelming presence of the adjacent flatirons.

He certainly succeeded.  Take the odd situation of the windows – using darkly tinted glass and spandrels of dark metal or black glass, the windows are simply slits in the surrounding concrete forms.   It is almost impossible to tell how many stories the building is or what is the nature of the spaces inside the forms.  These are rendered more as voids rather than windows, similar to Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A building.

Like most Brutalist buildings, this attempt to erase the marks of human scale and occupation works on a large scale but is painful in the immediate experience of the building.  The building is so relentlessly composed of two materials – concrete and its void – that all of the materials often used to bring another sense of scale and detail – the laps of panels or fasteners, the rhythym of windows and frames, are eliminated.  Even Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A Building has some smaller scaled detail, the scallops of the roughly corrugated concrete, although occasionally tearing clothes and smashing shoulders, are about the size of your hand and fingers.

The stark orthagonal geometry can be beautiful.  On a couple of occasions where a curve is introduced, like the east approach stair, the interplay of geometry and forms is thrilling.  (the same can not be said for the strange, anolomous arched passageways on the west facade)

In the end I can’t help but see this building as a bit of the dinosaur that it is.  These Brutalist buildings made easy targets for the challenges to Modernism with their cool abstractions and often mean materials.  That the legacy of Modernism, forged in a profoundly humanist utopian project, morphed into cold, scaleless,  inhuman buildings,  is ironically tragic and sad.

NCAR is certainly not a building for the senses and maybe not even for the eye, but rather conceived in the head and held there in its icy Apollonian perfection.  It is beautiful, like an idea or Occum’s razor, made manifest.  And, it was one of the last of its species for a reason.

Standing in either of the publicly-accessible courtyards, the stunning natural setting is held at arm’s length – to be viewed, but not participated in.  Still, the warm concrete walls are a far cry from the worst of the Brutalist genre, if not exactly welcoming, then at least softer, and easier on the eyes and hands.

So next time you are up at NCAR, instead of rushing off to the Mesa Trail and hiking along the flatirons, stop by the building and take a walk around.  To so many people in Boulder “NCAR” means little more than a place to park near a trailhead and some time spent in and around the building, not to mention the work and exhibits inside, is well worth the little dose of culture to mix with the abundant nature of the site.

I. M. Pei's NCAR building, Boulder, Colorado, part 2

last week or so I posted some introductory thoughts on I. M. Pei’s NCAR building in Boulder. https://mgerwing.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/ncar-by-i-m-pei-part-1/

Today, a few more thoughts on the building:

Pei wanted to make an intentionally scaleless building to abstract the forms in relation to the overwhelming presence of the adjacent flatirons.

He certainly succeeded.  Take the odd situation of the windows – using darkly tinted glass and spandrels of dark metal or black glass, the windows are simply slits in the surrounding concrete forms.   It is almost impossible to tell how many stories the building is or what is the nature of the spaces inside the forms.  These are rendered more as voids rather than windows, similar to Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A building.

Like most Brutalist buildings, this attempt to erase the marks of human scale and occupation works on a large scale but is painful in the immediate experience of the building.  The building is so relentlessly composed of two materials – concrete and its void – that all of the materials often used to bring another sense of scale and detail – the laps of panels or fasteners, the rhythym of windows and frames, are eliminated.  Even Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A Building has some smaller scaled detail, the scallops of the roughly corrugated concrete, although occasionally tearing clothes and smashing shoulders, are about the size of your hand and fingers.

The stark orthagonal geometry can be beautiful.  On a couple of occasions where a curve is introduced, like the east approach stair, the interplay of geometry and forms is thrilling.  (the same can not be said for the strange, anolomous arched passageways on the west facade)

In the end I can’t help but see this building as a bit of the dinosaur that it is.  These Brutalist buildings made easy targets for the challenges to Modernism with their cool abstractions and often mean materials.  That the legacy of Modernism, forged in a profoundly humanist utopian project, morphed into cold, scaleless,  inhuman buildings,  is ironically tragic and sad.

NCAR is certainly not a building for the senses and maybe not even for the eye, but rather conceived in the head and held there in its icy Apollonian perfection.  It is beautiful, like an idea or Occum’s razor, made manifest.  And, it was one of the last of its species for a reason.

Standing in either of the publicly-accessible courtyards, the stunning natural setting is held at arm’s length – to be viewed, but not participated in.  Still, the warm concrete walls are a far cry from the worst of the Brutalist genre, if not exactly welcoming, then at least softer, and easier on the eyes and hands.

So next time you are up at NCAR, instead of rushing off to the Mesa Trail and hiking along the flatirons, stop by the building and take a walk around.  To so many people in Boulder “NCAR” means little more than a place to park near a trailhead and some time spent in and around the building, not to mention the work and exhibits inside, is well worth the little dose of culture to mix with the abundant nature of the site.