The Perfect Home

The Perfect Home was a great three-part BBC series made in 2006 by Alain de Botton on architecture, and I love that you can watch it anytime you like for free now on YouTube. The series was based on his book The Architecture of Happiness, this review gives a good overview of de Botton’s philosophy:

De Botton’s message, then, is fairly simple but valuable precisely because it is simple, readable and cogent. He wants to encourage his readers, and society more generally, to pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture: that architecture should not be treated as an arcane and specialist discipline to be left to professionals, but as something that affects all our lives, our happiness and well-being. He wants us to look more carefully at our architectural surroundings, pay attention to them and develop a language with which to judge them.

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The Perfect Home

Bauhaus postcards from 1923

By Paul Klee

As you might know, I love a good postcard. Here’s something awesome featured in Wired:

In 1923, the Bauhaus was preparing for its first exhibition, where Walter Gropius, the school’s founder, would extol the benefits of industrial mass production. To publicize the events, the Bauhaus mailed out beautiful postcards.

Sixteen Bauhaus teachers and students designed postcards illustrating the German school’s ideas about art and technology. The downsized posters are full of sharp geometric drawings in black, red, yellow, and blue. Some look like rough sketches of architectural renderings, others like Cubist faces. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently acquired 20 of these mini adverts, from a Weimar family who inherited the unsent cards from a relative who attended the original show. Juliet Kinchin, curator of MoMA’s Architecture and Design department, says the set of Postkarte fur die Bauhaus Ausstellung Weimar 1923 neatly encapsulate the ideas from the Bauhaus movement.

By Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
By Rudolf Baschant
By Herbert Bayer

See the article in full and more postcards here.

Bauhaus postcards from 1923

Archibet postcards by Federico Babina

The last time I posted about Federico Babina it was about his wonderful reimagined iconic film posters. His new project is even better. From the Guardian:

Archibet is a book of 26 postcards by Federico Babina. It runs from Aalto to Zaha, by way of big names such as Gropius and Foster, and slightly more recherché ones such as Adalberto Libera, author of the wonderful 1930s Casa Malaparte in Capri. Also Quincy Jones, not to be confused with the musician and producer of the same name, purveyor of stylish California modernism to the rich and famous.

The first letter of each name is made into a little monument – a “small surrealistic building”, as Babina calls them – in the manner of the relevant architect, the P of Renzo Piano, for example, being held up by the cross-bracing of his Pompidou Centre. Sometimes the shape of letter and the architect’s style don’t match. The Dutch modernist Gerrit Rietveld is given a full-curved R, although he rarely deviated from straight lines and right angles.

Babina is Italian, lives in Barcelona, trained and practised as an architect, but also works with graphic design. Over the past 18 months, he has started publishing his architectural fantasias, in which three-dimensional structures are transposed to flat surfaces, realised with solid blocks of strong but subtle colour, and a wry knowingness about his subjects.

Read the rest of the article or better still buy the postcards here.

Archibet postcards by Federico Babina

How elevators made the modern city possible

elevator_final2

From the Boston Globe:

Elevators first arrived in America during the 1860s, in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where they served as a plush conveyance that saved the well-heeled traveler the annoyance of climbing stairs. Initially these steam-powered “moveable rooms” were extravagantly furnished with chandeliers, benches, and carpeting, says Lee Gray, a columnist for Elevator World and an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Passengers were expected to sit down and get comfortable before the operator fired up the new contrivance. “It was all about luxury,” said Gray.

It wasn’t until the 1870s, when elevators showed up in office buildings, that the technology really started to leave a mark on urban culture. Business owners stymied by the lack of available space could look up and see room for growth where there was previously nothing but air—a development that was particularly welcome in New York, where a real estate crunch in Manhattan’s business district had, for a time, forced city leaders to consider moving the entire financial sector uptown. That plan came to be seen as unnecessary thanks to the initiative of one Henry Hyde, the founder of a large insurance firm, who realized that by installing a pair of elevators in his headquarters, he could make it the tallest building in the city: seven stories and 130 feet. In so doing, Hyde ushered in a new era. As a writer for Scribner’s Magazine put it almost 30 years later, the passenger elevator turned out to be “a revolutionary agent” that did for modern building what the steam engine had done for transportation.

Advances in elevator technology combined with new steel frame construction methods to push the height limits of buildings higher and higher. In the 1890s, as Bernard recounts in his book, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago; by 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York. Quickly, the modern city assumed its present shape. As Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Museum in New York, put it, “If we didn’t have elevators…we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall.”

The arrival of the elevator upended more than urban planning: It changed the hierarchy of buildings on the inside as well. Higher floors had once been distant, scrubby spaces occupied by maids and the kind of low-rent tenants who could be expected to climb six flights of stairs. The more important people climbed at most one or two flights, which gave brownstone-style homes, for instance, their high-ceilinged parlor floors. While the arrival of elevators didn’t change this right away—the top floor of Henry Hyde’s building was occupied by the in-house janitor—the upper reaches of buildings eventually became desirable. The elevator ushered in the end of the garret and the beginning of the penthouse, as lawyers and businessmen came to appreciate the advantages of having beautiful, bird’s-eye views and respite from the loud noises of the street. Hotel owners, meanwhile, started turning their top floor rooms into their nicest ones. They could even rent out their roofs for garden parties where guests could survey the glittering new city, all without doing a bit of work to get there.

Read the full article here.

How elevators made the modern city possible

The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building

From Chicago Reader:

Thus the Land was stirring and quivering in impulses, wave upon wave. . . . [Chicago] was pushing its structures higher and higher, until the Masonic Temple by John Root had raised its head far into the air, and the word “skyscraper” came into use. –Louis Sullivan, from The Autobiography of an Idea

On a warm evening in the summer of 1892, Edgar Lee Masters boards the night train for Chicago. He is 22 and one year a member of the Illinois bar, but he’d rather be a poet than an attorney. The train carries him northward, away from his home in Lewistown, and Masters sits awake by the window watching for the exact spot where prairie gives way to city. He comes upon Chicago at dawn, and though he does not know it, the first thing he sees of the city is its red-light district.

When he steps off the train, Masters is hungry and tired. His starched collar has wilted, and his white vest is covered in cinders. His enthusiasm for urban life, however, is unabated, and after breakfast at his uncle’s rooming house at 2128 S. Michigan Ave., he asks to be shown the sights. He is shown them.

Forty-four years pass. Masters spends eight of them as a law partner of Clarence Darrow. He publishes one remarkable book of poetry. Of his first day in Chicago he remembers that he especially wanted to visit “the tallest building in the world, from the top of which, according to an old Polonius in Lewistown, one could see Council Bluffs, Iowa. . . . I had to try that out, and Uncle Henry took me to the Masonic Temple.”

From the mosaic floor of its marble lobby to gabled roofs and glass-domed gardens, the Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of State and Randolph stood 302 feet tall. It was, according to Henry Justin Smith, a managing editor for the old Chicago Daily News, “a wonder of wonders. . . . Everything about the building made the city burst with pride, and gave country visitors kinks in their necks.” In fact, the building achieved a notoriety generally reserved for the Brooklyn Bridge and other “marketable” real estate. Vaudeville comics told the story–and Smith went so far as to claim it was an actual “colloquy” frequently overheard in Chicago’s turn-of-the-century courtrooms–of a cop approaching the bench with several con men in tow. “What’s the charges against these men?” asked the judge, to which the arresting officer would reply, “They took money off a rube, your honor, told him they were selling him the Masonic Temple. And when the rube said he liked the building but not the direction it faced, they said for five dollars more they’d turn it around.”

By 1939, however, the luster had worn off and the Masonic Temple was regarded as just another obsolescent and costly giant. Brick by brick, it was demolished from the top down, relegated to Chicago’s sizable scrap heap of architectural gems.

The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building

Buildings of New York that should still be standing

I’ve posted about the tragedy that is the loss of the original Penn Station before. The most recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts 99% Invisible by Roman Mars dug deep into that story:

Though Penn Station is [now] a drab, low-ceilinged rat maze of a station, it used to be the opposite. It was vast, light-filled, and gorgeous.

The building was the fourth largest building in the world when it was finished.

The original Penn Station in New York City opened in 1910.  It was majestic. Travelers would enter through an exterior façade of massive Doric columns. Inside was a grand staircase into a waiting room not unlike a Roman temple. It was a Parthenon for trains.

The old Penn Station was the brainchild of Alexander Cassatt, head of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For Cassatt, Penn Station would fix a problem that had plagued New York for years—getting between Manhattan from New Jersey. At the time, passengers could only get across the Hudson River via ferry. Cassatt built the first ever train tunnel to run underneath the Hudson River, which was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.

The grandeur of Penn Station would thus crown his monumental achievement.

Newspapers called Penn Station the 8th wonder of the world. Everyone loved it.

Everyone, that is, except for one other railroad family that owned another station across town.

The Vanderbilt family owned Grand Central Station, which was not anywhere near as “grand” as it is now. Not wanting to be outdone by the beauty and grandiosity of Penn Station, the Vanderbilts tore down their Grand Central and built a newer, shiner, Beaux Arts-style Grand Central Terminal. This is the one we know today.

Penn Station was only 40 years old at this point, but already its days were already numbered. After World War II, passenger trains just weren’t as popular anymore. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company couldn’t afford the upkeep of Penn Station’s grandeur. Its glory gave way to grime.

And so it goes. Listen and read more about the story here. As the episode says, Penn Station is the only building in New York that should have been saved from the wrecking ball. Here are a few of the others.

The Singer Building, demolished in 1967
Metropolitan Opera House (39th Street), razed in 1967
Inside the “Old Met” as the Metropolitan Opera House was known
Radio Row, demolised in 1961
Buildings of New York that should still be standing

On the near-death of Grand Central Terminal

From Harper’s Magazine:

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

Read the rest.

On the near-death of Grand Central Terminal