Alvar Aalto: Why I dig Architecture: Mt. Angel Library

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

I visited Mt Angel, Oregon with a sole purpose.


See a piece of architecture that was not set in a sprawling metropolis, not designed for a merchant tycoon, and that required some work to get to.


Mt. Angel library is part of the Mr. Angel Monastery, completed in1970  by Alvaar Aalto,  settles quietly into a hillside overlooking the beautiful Oregon farming community just south of Portland. The history of the library isn’t all that interesting – the abbey needed a new library and the benefactors thought Aalto a great architect to request a design from and needed a new one.  Aalto was asked and he accepted – simple. He visited the site maybe twice, probably only after construction.

What resulted was the first time I found peace from “architecture”, not from an idea or from a long night of work, or a particular solution  – but from being inside a well designed building.  Now, the extent I knew of architecture at that time was –  Frank Lloyd Wright was really important and that nobody is an architect anymore. The layout is in a flowering shell shape that feels like a fluid gesture of someone with vision and the confidence of the technical.  The consistent north light comes from the incisions in the ceiling, and come streaming down  to the multiple floors of tiered shelves and reading booths.

It was what a library should be, and what architecture should strive for.  I learned that day the gesture of the line can become something much more important than what the word embodies, and with some patience and persistence it can become something remarkable. Unlike anything I had encountered, it was planned for a result in mind and that result was reached. There was no criticism deserved, it was honest about what the library needed and delivered. And that is why I dig Architecture (or mostly).



September 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Imposing – Sarcastic – Arrogant }{ Imperialist – Villain – Lair 


Evil is really interesting to me, to us. Where does it come from? How do we see it coming? What do we do when it arrives? And what does evil really look like?  Movies and literature try to help us, as does architecture.  And much like what I find tidbits in, these  disciplines link themselves in a nice complimentary package.

Skyfall – the latest James Bond movie – had a villain that was pure evil.  Coming from good intent, and working to achieve it, ultimately resulted in the creation of a corrupt character.  The villain, Raul Silva, made his lair (such an evil word) on a fictional ghost island off Macau.  There, the concrete buildings beautifully tattered, he began his genius plan of killing and terrorizing the world.  Besides the incredible amount of new technology Raul inserted into the buildings,  the homes and work places were simply cavities of past use. They were homes and work places without the new paint. 


Homes by a simple turn of time and neglect inspired a lair.  I found it telling of a small root to evil – negligence and father time.  And following a theme, what best to see negligence and father time than in the built environment which travels through the generations of society. Time makes for forgetting and negligence makes for ignoring – both places evil can find fertile soil.

The island was loosely based on an island off Japan – Hashima Island – and it’s story is really nothing “lair”-ish. A mine created the town, the market fell for the mine’s content, and the people left the town.  Pretty simple. There is really nothing evil about the island, it’s a benign little place where people can now slowly wander around on metal gangways and snap pictures of some long lost civilization. What filthy evil that is.

What I’m concluding to is – tear it down or walk around it. If we tear it down we had to have found the villain, but if we walk around it – well – maybe we’re not so uneasy with a little evil.

Ancients Were Colorful

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

I began this post many months ago when two articles (here and here)on the same day hatched one of those “huh…..” moments.  One article was about the death of Boston City Hall’s architect,Gerhard Kallman, and another about discovering Rome’s Arch of Titus was a colorfully painted monument for one of Roman’s great leaders. These two articles, a Brutalist monocrom masterpiece and an ancient classical arch led me to believe that maybe we modern men have the whole color prism flipped. I had believed that the cultures of the past lived in the world I see uncovered today – gray stones and weathered rock.  But maybe this is not only false but incredibly wrong. And if it is wrong, how has architecture been affected by this perception?

Color in the ancient world was definitely far from absent, and notions that the archeaological remnants show us an accurate portrait may only touch the surface of how our ancient cities, monuments, temples, and baths actually looked. Color in antiquity was not only gray, it was likely varied and vibrant.  Examples abound, the Chinese terra cotta warriors were brightly painted. The Minoans painted their palaces in bright colored frescoes. Roman baths have been uncovered showing an amazing pallete of color.  But what the modern world has seen for hundreds of years are these examples void of their finish. The great paint stipper, time, has left only the bleached bones of buildings. Did this lack of color influence those architects who have and are designing in a neo-classical, or even brutalist, style.

Did Inigo Jones imagine color in his studies of Rome and Greece?  What were the ancient cultures views on color? It is not difficult to say color was more important to them than form, even by the set limits they had of creating complex curves and span.

Beyond materials use there is no wonder we get museums and libraries, state capitals and banks looking like the color of the Pantheon. Not then, but now. Has this pallette of white, black, gray been so ingrained in architecture that even our incredible feats of material and engineering still can create buildings that are unfinished in white, black, gray?

To those Stubborn…. One

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Big news this last week was that the couple, Luo Baogen and his wife, took a $41,000 buyout to let the government of China tear down his home and complete a huge road that already links a rail station with Wenling.


I love an underdog story, but what’s more interesting is that this story came from China.  China, the home of authoritarian committee and local government that tells rather than listens, let a lone duck farmer hold the machine of progress hostage. China…   the fastest growing economy in the world. China felt it was best to not bring in the military or police but (in a very capitalistic approach) choked the homeowner out in a siege-like tactic minus trebuchets and added asphalt.

China let a small old man play chicken with them for years. And that is very – Boagen gangster.

This is the same country that controls the internet, holds an entire country openly hostage (Tibet), and saddles tourists during periods of party gathering ridiculous rules of privacy.  No open windows in taxi cabs? No cameras? Do they have the secret KFC recipe wrapped in the secret Coke recipe written on the sidewalk outside the Forbidden City?

In 1991 the city of Wallace, Idaho held the last stoplight on Interstate 90 which connected Boston to Seattle.  The small mining town was a vestige of its former size, following a huge fire and years of the mining industry slowing down.  The people of Wallace did not want their town destroyed by this enormous interstate so they mounted a campaign to have it rerouted.  Their last stand eventually won (thanks to Historic Preservation Society). The design was changed so the interstate traveled over Wallace by using huge pillars and enormous engineering gymnastics.

The point is, I see Wallace happening in places like America – but I do not see a duck farmer holding out in America.  Maybe China is incredibly paranoid of the duck farmers and tourist cameras, or maybe China isn’t so dissimilar than the US when it comes to machine of progress.

Serving the Farms

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Le Corbusier, in his book “Towards a New Architecture”, pointed at the urban grain elevator as one of the most incredibly pointed example of American ingenuity and solutions to scale.  I think that observation was incredibly honest, and incredibly insightful towards a country that incredible productive and incredibly resourceful.

So, what would a man like Corbusier say about the server farms that have sprung up in the last ten years?  What would he say about their function, about their beauty, and about their sheer existence?

Unless a person’s been living under a rock’s rock, we would know that the internet has incredible infrastructure.  There is a giant conduit at the bottom of the ocean tying the continents together with information.  All the websites content is stored in gigantic banks of servers, with hundreds of people cooling and organizing them.  These servers need few things really, they’re very simple. They need connecting wires and huge air conditioned spaces. The result of this are exactly the look and function of apple packing houses.  Large open insulated buildings with cheap energy cost, low risk of earthquake, and open space.  It’s too bad these buildings are so incredibly ugly in the landscape. There is a growing realization in the news about the ramifications of server farms, and what it is they are doing to the places they are built in.  A couple very good articles on the impact of server farms include a NYT article about the town of Quincy and another NYT article on the shifty economics of companies.

There are few architecture programs in the world left for architects to re-envision – for good mostly (fingers crossed). And these server farms which are only going to become larger and more visible, should be looked at by their owners for territory to introduce good design to. After all, the effect most of them have are as job and economy stimulators to the small communities that have seen the decrease in small farms and increases in unemployment and isolation. The real effect seems to be just as the sight of the buildings suggest – a looming fortress of concrete and loud condensers who employ a less than a McDonald’s franchise – and they’re getting tax breaks and energy rebates.

Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. owe use all to introduce the server farm as something to be happily astonished by just as Corbusier was astonished by the beauty of the grain elevators.

Austin’s Art Deco

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

It needs to be said once in a while – Art Deco architecture is pretty great.

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to go on a walking tour of downtown Austin that centered around the great examples of 1920s-50s Art Deco buildings.  We saw into the darkened lobby of the Brown Building, the Chicago-esque Scarbrough Building, and the compact Fidelity Mortgage & Loan.  The tour was put on by the Austin History Center and was guided by authors of a new book on Hill Country Art Deco.  There is a soft spot in my taste maker for Art Deco. Seeing that my taste maker is usually geared too much towards historicism and sexy curves, I don’t feel like I’m alone.

Art Deco wasn’t Art Deco until the style was decades in the rear view. It began by stylizing the form to flatten the classic architectural decor (the column, fluting, pediments, etc.). Still holding to the idea that there can be style in architecture (which is a difficult mentality in that it’s limiting the complexity of architecture to a consumer product, even if it is), Art Deco digested the use of new products such as aluminum into a new obsession of the long vertical lines and swooping forms that soon redefined how people saw buildings.  Whether or not people began seeing Venturi’s ducks  and what I’d call googi-tecture in the port hole windows and curving corners is arguable (Hut’s is a hamburger, right?).

I believe the style of Art Deco, especially after spending time seeing some of Austin’s examples, proves that designers don’t live in a bubble without historical, political, economic, or social touchstones.  They were still holding to the basic rules of architecture, symmetry and composition of form and space, but they integrated a more restrained urge for the decoration, a greater willingness to stretch the bounds of material. Yes, there were still the statues and carvings of eagles,  the elaborate light fixtures,  and carved stone recesses, but these decorations felt more like utility, as though they were exploring the beauty of a machine with a budget. These buildings were invented from exciting forms seen in vehicles, rockets,  and airplanes. The flight/speed steel, aluminum, and glass.

This was the style that defines architecture for a pre-war America, The Great Depression, The Roosevelt years, and Superman. The devil is in the details with architecture and Austin has quite a few Chrysler buildings in it’s midst.


October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

I made a grave mistake a while back. Looking back at this small moment in time I cannot help but be embarrassed. It’s pretty difficult to even talk about it.

Ok, here goes.  I used to believe Elisha Otis invented the elevator.

What an idiot.

Well, I was corrected that day by a very blunt friend of mine. Otis did not invent the elevator. The elevator is about as old as dirt – the Greeks had Archimedes while the simple idea of using ropes and pulleys to ascend a height likely predated even the great Greeks.  If I studied Asian culture more, they probably had this “invention” before the ice caps melted.

Nonetheless, elevators are about the most influential technology for the built environment. Sure, stairs are classic. Of course, doors keep out the weather and unkempt neighbors. Don’t forget simple rocks – they make walls alright. What’s so great about elevators is that they single handedly allowed us to inhabit space above the ground. They allowed us to transport goods as well as people, the elevator gave the tendon to the steel bones of our modern society.

The elevator is far from static in it’s trajectory as the bicep of architecture, the space elevator is so freaking cool that it still intrigues me a decade after I first heard about it. And how about elevators transcribing the Pacific or Mediteranean oceans? Forget about the “Beam me Up, Scotty” – that’s totally a particle elevator.

So, to wrap up the best of all my blog posts….. Elish Otis did invent the safety elevator at the 1854 Worlds Fair in New York – not a small feat when you think about the possibility of an elevator failing on top of the Petronas Towers.

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