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?

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.

Incredible Soviet Monuments

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

With the whole Soviet era well in the rear view it seems appropriate that we, as rabid hungry eye candy consumers of everything anyone has ever made, should turn our attention to the remnant over scaled pieces of art from the Soviet empire

Just like we look upon Stonehenge or the Easter Island Rapanui statues in a sort of cocked headed wonderment, I think the newly documented installations of the Soviet people can cause this same reaction. What in the world were they besides some lesson Leon Krier would like to show, a surplus of concrete needed to be made, or some way to commemorate some event that has already been forgotten. My best guess would be the Soviets desire to have large commissions given to artists and architects trying to find a”national” Soviet idenitifier in shapes and forms.  Maybe they were successful, one thing is sure – they are very interesting.

Take a look at the full 25 Here

Diocletian Was Ahead of His Time

March 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Near the end of 2008 Mike Duncan started The History of Rome podcast, what I would like to consider the best crash course in the history of the Roman Empire next the Mr. Gibbon himself. The great part of his podcast is that there is no reading required. Mike has done all the leg work and assembled great podcast after podcast of this incredibly interesting story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. I say fall, because it does happen. As of this date his growing slate of podcasts has yet to reach the great fame of the Emperor Constantine, and I dread when the day will happen when Mike has to describe how the ancient Roman world was involved with the first World War.

I do this little explanation because we hail from the same university (go, ahem, vikings) and because he has come to the point of history where my favorite emperor has been introduced, described, and retired.  Yes, my favorite emperor is Diocletian.

Sure, Hadrian can be a close second and who can really dislike Trajan or Marcus Aurelius. But for me, Diocletian was so far in the future for his time that he single handedly shaped the transition from antiquity to the middle ages. I might be overstating my opinion, but if I won’t do the overstating no one will.

A little about why I believe Diocletian is incredibly awesome:

He was a great builder in for the Empire. His Palace in Croatia, his various temples in Egypt and the Middle East. He just had a taste for architecture, although not of strictly Roman styles as this article touches on.

At the middle of the 3rd century Rome was a mess, there were emperors rising up and getting killed left and right. If that wasn’t worse, the borders of the empire were being overrun by numerous tribes all over the the place. It didn’t matter what was on the seat of Rome, Egypt was ignoring rules, German tribes were doing whatever they want, and the British Isles were on their own most of the time. The presence and title of emperor had grown pretty meaningless since Marcus Aurelius. The emperor during the Crisis of the 3rd Century was usually some military general or snot nosed kid, a different manboy every other year who spent his time fighting disloyalty and enemy armies all over the place rather than dealing with what really was killing Rome: economic stagnation and infighting. Rome was a mess and, as Mr. Duncan puts it, on life support.

Enter Diocletian. The guy seemed to come from nowhere. He wasn’t from an illustrious family or a great military mind, he was, however, a brilliant societal observer and shrewd pragmatist. He began his reign as emperor like many of his predecessors, mainly by taking a bigger army that named him emperor and killing a man, Carinus, who also claimed to be emperor. Diocletian solidified power unlike his predecessor – he forgave those opposed to him in his fight with Carinus. He didn’t purge or burn, he let them go and let them keep their jobs.

Diocletian’s triumphs were many. He recognized no single man could do all that the office of emperor required, so he sliced off duties and handed them to men – he, *gulp*, shared power. In establishing the Tetrarchy rule, he constructed a new pecking order that fluctuated throughout his reign and yet allowed the emperor to do his job better and force stability throughout the Empire. He delegated and invested men offices that had at one time been done only by the single emperor. He kept this new power structure in line with several brilliant practical moves.  He never ruled or even visited Rome, moving the capital to the East. He began taxing Romans (yes, they didn’t have to pay taxes – at all) and all citizens more closely, neutering the old power families and holding all people to higher expectations (and returns). He grew the bureaucracy and the size of the army. He installed his own governors around the empire that were outside of the local power vacuum and listened to him.

Most interesting to me is Diocletian radically changed the image of the emperor augustus from “the first citizen of Rome” to “lord of Rome” and aligned himself as a divinity to the god Jupiter. This is incredibly ballsy for the time and for a Roman, a conversation with Jupiter and any speak of earthly divinity could only be found in death prior to this. It was likely he found his divine inspiration in the cultures of the East (Persia namely), and introduced it to Rome. Of course the French “Sun King” would famously take this to the amazing ends during the 17th and 18th century. He basically poured the foundation for what would harden and become the reign of the first substantial Christian emperor Constantine and the ensuing thousand years of the middle ages and their divine emperors and kings.

Diocletian, along with the new tax system, instituted what would become recognizable to the middle age practice of serfdom by taking a census of every citizen and requiring them to do the same job and to pass that job down to their sons. So, if on the day of the census you were busy being a potter – it was permanent. He also forbade families to move from the town where that census was taken. This move of permanence can been seen today, in our surnames. Find out what Smith or Tanner or Pitman or Leech or Hooper or Dexter or Mayer mean. Diocletian wanted economic predictability in the empire, and this is what he thought would work. And it did, for several hundred years.

Already this post is too long – boring! But I have to mention his role in the history of Christianity, and how I think Constantine ultimately benefited from Diocletian’s tract on this new upstart religion. Yes, Diocletian persecuted Christians. He did this because in several ways they were just too new – they weren’t like the ancient Jewish faith or the generational belief in Roman gods. They were new, and they had no single voice or presence. Everyone with an itch would be touting some new ritual or belief and Diocletian saw this as not only angering the Roman gods, but leading to societal chaos. I have not gotten the impression that he wanted the people who called themselves Christians exterminated, that would have been counter productive, he just wanted them to get the order right of who they pay taxes to (pay Caesar what is Caesar’s was kinda being ignored) and stop thinking they were entitled to be taken seriously because they were an immature belief. I’m not going to even care about what attracted people to the faith of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but there was a lot of new imperial rules being handed down by a large part of the population beholden to Diocletian. Besides, persecution mostly meant they couldn’t hold positions or they were required to do the traditional Roman rituals.

I wish I could convey how un-idealistic Diocletian was about religion – Diocletian was an ultimate pragmatist and not some religious zealot out to kill beliefs that weren’t his own. When Diocletian eventually retired (yeah, he retired!) and died Constantine would use the mythology card to harness this persecuted minority and ride it to his own power vacuum.

There are so many intricate things Mike goes into on his podcast. He has a new free podcast every week and I always look forward to hearing it. Except episode 46 and the whole assassination of Julius Caesar, that is just so played out in history.

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