Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Empire State Plaza Strikes Back

I’m a firm believer that you can’t really understand a work of architecture until you’ve seen it in person.  The Empire State Plaza in Albany bears this out. – photos can’t do it justice .  Going to Albany to see it is well worth the trip.

I had been there a few times in the past, most memorably at night in deep snow back in the 70s.  I had a few pictures of it which I used in my class, but I needed better ones.  More importantly, I had to see if my memories of it could possibly be real, or whether I had built it up out of proportion over the years.  I hadn’t – it exceeded my memories in many ways.

I think that the Empire State Plaza is the worst urban redevelopment project to ever be built in this country.  It is not nearly as well known as it should be – being in Albany, as New Yorkers famously ignores everything that happens in Albany.  If this project were in New York, it would be known world-wide.

It is terrible in at least three ways:  as a whole, as individual pieces, and for what it did to the city of Albany.


The scale of it is enormous – 4/10 of a mile (12 blocks) long, 1/4 of a mile wide.  It is a vast, empty plaza, devoid of all but smokers even on a warm day.  In the winter, I’m sure no one ever goes onto it, as there is a whole subterranean concourse level beneath, which connects all the buildings.  DSCF2254

To walk into the plaza is to be humbled, to feel the power of the state poised to crush you.  Greta hummed the imperial march from Star Wars the whole time we were there. The newer buildings dwarf the Capitol, and their massive solidity seems about to crush the dainty Capitol between them.cropped-dscf2262.jpg

The State Capitol sits on the top of a hill, and the plaza has been built up to a slightly higher level – perhaps symbolizing that the power of the state lies not in the feckless legislature, but in the inertia of the bureaucracy?  DSCF2268

The buildings range from the banal to the truly awful.  Wallace K. Harrison was Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite architect, their association going back at least to the design of the UN (where Harrison first began copying Corbu).  He was of the grandiose modernist school (which is often detectable through the excessive use of marble), and in New York he was partially responsible for Lincoln Center.  The buildings fit into the simple parti of the plaza design – a museum facing the Capitol at the end of the axis, four smallish towers on one side facing a large tower and the “Egg” on theater, with a couple of bookends near the Capitol.

The towers are not so bad as objects.  Elegant and slim, there are two nested masses, expressing core and office floor area.  The idea of a series of identical towers works, and their footprints are actually quite small, with the potential for good daylighting.  The problem is all that empty space in between them.  The large tower refers to classic slabs such as the RCA Building, but in the extreme tower-in-the-park vein.DSCF2271DSCF2352

The Egg is rather funny.  Sometimes it looks like a boat, sometimes a duck, sometimes an egg. This is another element in the channeling-Corbu vocabulary – the expressive, playful highlight which contrast with the preponderant rationality (think of the stuff on the roof of the Unite).   I can’t imagine they named it the Egg to start with; I like it when a nickname is so perfect it has to be acknowledged.DSCF2255

The museum is ponderous and looming, at the top of a huge staircase that spans a street.  Most schoolchildren enter from the streets way below, so they don’t experience the whole effect.DSCF2241

The two building flanking the Capitol are the worst.  Massive, clunky, ill-proportioned.  (They are so ugly that I suspect Harrison’s even-less-talented partner, Max Abramowitz, must have had a hand in them.)  They try to articulate some aspects of their systems – such as the beams which support the overhanging upper stories – but the differentiation of parts doesn’t work if you just cover everything with marble.  Greta and I have been defining a few building types on this trip, related to popular culture, with the Barad-Dur type showing up pretty often.  Greta immediately classed this building in the Star Wars ATAT type.  DSCF2258


But the biggest problem with this project is what it did to the city.  The Capitol sits at the top of a hill, with the commercial and residential districts on the slopes below it.  Albany1

The neighborhood seen to the left in the old postcard above was obliterated, and the podium / plaza run straight out from the Capitol.  By the time you get to the south end of the museum, the edifice looms above the city.DSCF2237

To the west, a long, lower building presents an impenetrable wall.DSCF2362

And to the east, facing the Hudson, there is a giant rampart, from whence the defenders can look down upon the populace.DSCF2246

But there are no people here (except a few lost pedestrians), as the area has been cleared for approach ramps that lead to the parking garages in the podium below the plaza, and to the streets on the west side.DSCF2356

The relationship between the plaza and the Capitol may be problematic, but that edge is by far the most successful.  The imagery and message of the other three sides is clear:  the government is secure behind its defenses, and the danger and messiness of city life has been pushed far away.  There is a megalomania of architectural vision here that is seldom seen so clearly (the only other example that comes to mind is the Renaissance Center in Detroit).  Harrison, the lesser acolyte of Corbu, has achieved the complete destruction and negation of the city that the master was never able to fully carry out.

Dave McGann

Dave McGann was a good friend way back in high school, and we haven’t seen each other in almost 30 years. Dave is a year younger than me, and was the assistant editor / editor in training on the high school newspaper when I was editor.  What stands out in my memory of those days was how much effort we spent trying to sneak double entendres past the faculty advisor. Dave was smart and serious even back then, and as always, it’s been fun to see how your friends have gotten older but haven’t changed that much.

Dave attended SUNY Albany, and then stuck around the area, working at what seems to be the intersection of policy, research and media.  At his current position, he runs a group that deals with trainings, both live and online.  Dave says that if you’ve ever done an online training on harassment or something like that, there’s a good chance that they made it.  (I’ll be posting his email so you can send him comments.)

Greta and I spent a fun evening with Dave, his wife Louise, and their son Chris, who is about to head  off on a post-doc appointment near DC.  What really pre-occupied us was a discussion of beer.  I had been aware of Dave’s proclivities in this area from his Facebook postings;  actually, I’ve been aware of his proclivities since high school, so maybe now it’s more his accomplishments that are in the foreground.  Besides having rare microbrews that you have to drive to secret locations in Vermont to procure (and which can be sold at enormous markups in Brooklyn), Dave and his son have been brewing for ten years (it helps to have a PhD scientist in the family), and their beers were superb.  We drank great beer, ate fabulous Italian food (finally back in the part of the country which does real Italian), and talked about the vicissitudes of late middle age.

Dave and I had many of those heartfelt, serious conversations about the meaning of life in high school, and it’s wonderful to see how he has lived since then.  Like most of us, the facts of his life are pretty normal – career, marriage and two kids, suburban house – but it struck me that Dave has a keen appreciation of how good that has really been. Perhaps it’s partly due to Louise’s work as a social worker, where she deals with people much less fortunate every day.  But for whatever reason, Dave seemed really content, knowing that he’d made some good choices in his life, and that things had turned out better than we ever expected back in the day.

HH Richardson

Having left the midwest and arrived last night in the Boston area, the Architecture Greatest Hits tour moves along from FLW to Richardson.  Before I dive into the Richardson trove that is Boston, I think I’d better get the Richardson outliers to the west out of the way.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh is one of his most complete, extended and perfect buildings.  In previous visits, I’d focused most on the courthouse itself, with its solid mass, beautiful tower, commodious entry and stair, etc. DSCF1221

Erie04 Erie08


This trip we spent more time looking at the jail.  We often speak about Richardson as a proto-modernist, looking at the rationality of his planning, structural bays, how he led directly to Sullivan, etc.  But in the jail there are other elements at play that we would now regard as quite current – the play between order and disorder, symmetry vs. asymmetry, colliding grids and organizational systems.


The site is irregular, but Richardson drops some axial, rectilinear volumes onto it, as if the site weren’t an issue.  Then he wraps all of this in a wall that addresses the streets.  Sometimes this is just a wall, and there are courtyards behind it,



and sometimes the wall becomes a building, with a whole different geometry.


For formal entries and foci, symmetry is used to emphasize the centerDSCF1252

but in other areas, an asymmetrical  composition is made of the facade, tying into the field of the wall, but existing on its own terms.  DSCF1227

A building you can study for a long time, or as I pointed out in Minneapolis, you can just copy it.

The psychiatric hospital complex in Buffalo is more conventional than this, and at first glance, it is one in a long line of buildings that might not be the most comforting for people having mental problems.   DSCF1897

It is a really large complex, with multiple pavilions and wings.  The central piece is very formal, establishing a clear hierarchy for a large building which rambles around.DSCF1877

but Richardson breaks down the scale nicely in the repetitive wings, each of which reads as a building (again, symmetry and asymmetry):DSCF1887

which are then linked by little connector pieces, and step back to form a series of open spaces.DSCF1886

In Albany we saw the city hall, a well-balanced exterior massing, with a simple, straightforward interior.DSCF2288

and the State capitol.  It’s hard to understand exactly what Richardson is responsible for here, as quite a few architects worked on it throughout a few decades.  However, he is generally given credit for the overall design of the elevations.DSCF2277

It seems that this massive exterior stair exists primarily to buttress the east facade, which started subsiding down the hill:



He also completed much of the interior planning, and the basic design for the over-the-top western stair.DSCF2312

This is truly the most extraordinary stair I’ve ever seen.   The space and procession are incredible, DSCF2302

The detailing is insane, but apparently much of that was added by a later architect.DSCF2324



Albany is a place that is disdained (or more usually ignored) by downstaters, but this stair alone is worth the trip.  Beaux Arts planning meets Piranesi.

We now head into Boston, and more Richardson will follow, next week.

Terrance Goode and Carolyn Senft

Terrance Goode and Carolyn Sent were colleagues and good friends on the UO faculty back when I first arrived in 1990.  They were my informants in the culture:  when I was first applying for a position in academia, a mutual friend in New York told me to look them up, and they taught me everything a New Yorker needed to know about Eugene.  I would have been completely at sea without them.

I bought a house two doors down from them on 19th St., and we spent a lot of time together, cooking meals, discussing architecture, and trying to keep the cats from escaping.  They left town over 20 years ago, and have been happily ensconced in Syracuse for most of that time, where Terrance teaches architecture, and Carolyn has divided her time among teaching, designing, quilting, and raising their son Eli.

Greta and I spent a couple of days with them, where we once again spent a lot of time talking about architecture, driving both Greta and Eli to distraction.  We tooled around Syracuse seeing the sites, which include a commodious architecture building:DSCF2198

some student-designed housing which makes a statement DSCF2207

and evidence that football culture in Syracuse might be even a little more crazed than in Eugene (I haven’t seen any football banners hanging on churches in Eugene).  DSCF2167

We had a great time catching up after many years of long-distance communications.  T&C send their regards to their many friends in Eugene, who are probably wondering how I have managed to start this post with a photograph of them without a cat in it.  DSCF2216

Buffalo & Rochester

Continuing our tour of cities that were really important 100 years ago but not so much now, we cruised through downtown Buffalo and Rochester.  I think cities such as these are where you often find some of the best architecture and art in this country: they had a lot of money to spend back then, when you could still buy great European art, and when there seemed to be more clients who cared about architecture.

I’ve already posted the great Wright and Richardson buildings here, so the obvious completion of the architecture trifecta is the Guaranty Building, one of Sullivan’s best.  Simple, elegant, beautifully proportioned, it really stands out against the banal post-war buildings near it.  DSCF1913 DSCF1902

I was told to go see the Ellicott Square building by a few people – a full block building with a central skylit atrium.DSCF1924


The train station, in context:DSCF1933

Down the Niagara River past the Falls, The New York State Power Vista is where the big American and Canadian hydropower plants face off against each other.  The sheer scale of these dams is worth a visit.DSCF1724

And inside the excellent visitors’ center, there is a surprise:  A Thomas Hart Benton mural, which is reminiscent of those in Kansas City.DSCF1737

Rochester doesn’t have a great reputation, and the downtown is not compelling – mainly mediocre buildings from all eras.  But there are highlights.

We came to Rochester to see the Kahn Unitarian Church, and the Broad Street Bridge, which when originally built, was an aqueduct which carried the Erie Canal over the Genesee River.  It was later used to carry the subway across, and with the addition of the top roadway level, converted to a vehicular bridge (also good for the parking of small trailers. DSCF1974

The Andrews Terrace apartment building started life in the 1970s as downtown luxury apartments which didn’t fly, and is now Section 8 housing.  What struck me is that many current architects are playing games with angles, and here is a 40-year-old building which anticipated many of the moves, quite elegantly and simply, since there were no computers to facilitate needless complications.  I can’t find who the architect was.DSCF1984

I think it’s pretty compelling when glimpsed from down the street.DSCF1949

Rochester has some buildings which I don’t think are very good, but they’re kind of fun:DSCF1990

especially this one, which is open to many interpretations.  I thought Barad-dur, or maybe those fighters in Star Wars where the wings fold up.  Greta thought was Aragorn’s crown.  I have to admire the originality and chutzpah – never seen anything quite like it.DSCF1952



Since we reached Pennsylvania we’ve done a pretty good job of staying off interstates.  We travel a little more slowly, but we see things and places.  Here are few places that haven’t gotten their own posts.

Once again John Wenzel was our guide around the Ligonier Valley, showing us things that we would never have found our own.  An 18th century grist mill.DSCF0790

and the amazing California Furnace from 1850, an early iron furnace as the industrial revolution kicked into gear.  Boullee out in the woods. DSCF0820


here John and Greta give it scale.   DSCF0822

On the way into Pittsburgh, John pointed out where strip mine sites were now being filled and built upon.  We realized that strip mines become strip malls.DSCF1004

Heading north towards Buffalo, we arrived at Punxsatawney, home of Phil the groundhog.  We caught a glimpse of Phil (or who they say is Phil, along with a bunch of other groundhogs who may or may not be Phils).DSCF1544

Among the many icons of Phil in the town, we noticed this one, which looked strangely familiar.DSCF1548 DSCF8616

The large, adorable, rodent gods seem to be taking over the country, but in Punxsatawney, unlike South Dakota, they are fighting back:DSCF1549

In upstate New York, we drove on Route 20, which hit the northern end of many of the Finger Lakes, a part of the state I (and most downstaters) had never visited.  Canandaigua had some cool houseboats DSCF2130

While Geneva fell into the recurring category of Places that Used to be Prosperous, but still had some interesting buildings.DSCF2145 DSCF2147 DSCF2148

Waterloo had some nice houses in various states of repair.DSCF2152

Skaneateles appears to be the prosperous resort town on the road, with beautifully restored houses, and a thriving main street – the first place we could find a cup of coffee, in the Land that Starbucks Forgot.DSCF2154 DSCF2155 DSCF2160

and in Sharon Springs, this highly-wrought and astoundingly maintained church.  Nice church, interesting steeple, but I’m not sure they’re getting along.DSCF2219

There we were, far away from the City and coastal civilization as know it, and Ithaca was still too far away to be worth visiting.  It really is the most isolated spot in the east.

Rochester Unitarian Church

Lou Kahn buildings are really hard to see.  There aren’t very many, and they are all in hard-to-reach places, like Bangladesh, or Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  I’d only managed to see six before starting this trip and I hope to catch four or five more this year.  At the top of the list is the Unitarian Church in Rochester.

Because they are so hard to visit, we all know these buildings from publications, and so our images of them are pristine and perfect – brand new architecture, before the weather or human habitation has had a chance to have an impact.  Many of Kahn’s buildings are also maintained in fairly pristine condition – art museums, important institutions – so it is quite amazing to visit one of his masterpieces, and see how it looks after 55 years years of hard use.  DSCF2077

From both the exterior and interior, the quality of the design is most apparent in the rigor and clarity of the parti.  An entry axis, a longitudinal axis that links the major spaces, and the classrooms clustered around the sanctuary.  That is pretty much it, and the development of the idea in the section and the tectonics is what makes the building extraordinary.

The big spatial/symbolic idea is in the sanctuary.  The four corners are voids under towers with clerestories above.  The concrete lower ceiling is a cross, referring back to the ideal of centralized churches.  DSCF1999


DSCF2039The plan and section are simple and powerful – big idea, beautifully articulated.

The rest of the interior mirrors this simplicity – the lobby, meeting rooms, transition spaces, classrooms.DSCF2026




a classroom

a classroom

The Miller house in Columbus would have been an austere modernist exercise without Alexander Girard’s furnishings;  here you could argue that when new and empty, the church was severe and perfect, but now there is a relationship between the building (concrete, wood, masonry) and the colorful small-scale stuff (some of which – acoustical panels and space heaters – were necessitated by the materiality of  the building fabric ) that the congregation has added.  It’s noticeable that the order of the design is maintained, despite the random stuff that accumulates in any building that is being well-used.

The exterior looks much as it did when built.  The square plan of the sanctuary is apparent, with the four towers rising up from within the mass of classrooms.DSCF2108

The entry shows something Kahn is always playing with – seemingly symmetrical, but not quite – the off-center center.  Tempering the formality of the axes, showing an inflection towards accommodation.DSCF2070

The integration with the landscape is not something I’d thought about before.  It’s remarkable when seen from down the hill, the soft green of the landscape playing off the severity of the brick.DSCF2096

the office / meeting room wing

the office / meeting room wing

Has a fire exit ever looked this good?DSCF2088

It was instructive to see this the day after the Darwin D. Martin house.  There are similarities – the axiality, the use of massive brick piers/towers instead of walls, the solidity of corners – but the big difference is in the development.  Wright articulates the articulations, with an ever-cascading sequence of scales at which the idea can be developed.  Kahn goes about two levels of articulation down from the parti.  Wright looks for every opportunity to play with the idea, Kahn boils it down to just the essentials.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Part 2

In the past two weeks we visited two of FLW’s masterpieces – Fallingwater and the Darwin D. Martin house in Buffalo.  They are both so well known and documented that I don’t what I can add beyond a few photos and comments.  (Neither of them allows photos inside under normal circumstances, so all my pictures are of the exteriors).

Fallingwater is considered the great house of Wright’s middle period, and it is a tour-de-force.  Every inch has been designed and detailed to perfection.  I must admit that despite years of looking at books about it, I didn’t have a very good idea of its spatial arrangement.  After visiting it, the reason for that is now clear to me – it doesn’t have one big spatial organization, it is rather a series of perfect parts that are really quite isolated from one another

the little entry door on the left

the little entry door on the left

For each part, the big move is the connection between the interior space and the exterior terrace/tray.  These are then pinwheeled around the central mass.  One moves between the parts on very tight stairways attached to the mass.  From the outside, the parti of cantilevered trays is obvious; from the inside, you can understand the logic of each part, but never comprehend the whole.

the concrete trays

the concrete trays

the swimming hole

the swimming hole

the beams anchored in the native rock

the beams anchored in the native rock

We now live in age where the open plan (and open section) are dominant;  it is instructive to see how fantastic a house can be when it is divided up into discrete parts.

looking into the living room from the a terrace

looking into the living room from the a terrace

Edgar Kaufman Jr. was an apprentice of Wright’s, and convinced his parents to hire Wright to design Fallingwater.  In the 1980s he was one of my professors, co-teaching a seminar on Wright at Columbia.  It was a great course, and he was a lovely man, with a courtly manner, a beautiful voice, great reminiscences and insights into Wright, and the best wardrobe of anyone I knew in New York.  In homage to him, I wore a nice tweed jacket while touring the house (instead of the normal tourist garb), and as I paused besides the tray of cocktail ingredients by the fireplace, I felt that he would have approved.

Why don't they have tours where they let you mix a drink and sit by the fireplace?

Why don’t they have tours where they let you mix a drink and sit by the fireplace?

The Darwin Martin house has been restored by a non-profit over the past two decades or so.  The main house had survived in bad condition, as had the Barton house (built for Martin’s sister) and the gardener’s house.  But the carriage house and pergola had been demolished long ago, so the foundation undertook the complete reconstruction of them based upon Wright’s original drawings and photographic documentation.  All of this work is painstaking and beautifully done, as is the restoration of the main house.

the complex

the complex, Barton house on the right

front elevation

front elevation

the main terrace

the main terrace

We had an excellent docent on the tour, who spoke of how Wright regarded this as his summa project, the one that accomplished everything he wanted.  Having seen many other early Wright houses, I’d agree.  He had an unlimited budget, and he used it to pursue every idea and piece to its most developed state.  Nothing that could be developed or elaborated has been left alone.  Sometimes it’s a bit much – there are just so many idea and moves and articulations.  But it all fits together seamlessly – the underlying logic of the overall scheme is always apparent, and the development at successive scales reads perfectly – it’s like a rectilinear fractal.

the service entry

the service entry

the backyard seen through the porte-cochere

the backyard seen through the porte-cochere

The Barton and gardener’s houses are much smaller and simpler, and the contrast with the main house was intriguing, as one could see the bare bones spatial organization without the endless development.

The Barton house

The Barton house

the gardener's house

the gardener’s house

Toshiko Mori designed the adjoining visitors’ center, which plays with some of Wright’s ideas (cantilevered roof, rigid modular plan) with very different materials and tectonics.  It’s a fine little building, one which doesn’t compete with the house, but which has its own integrity and logic.

the introductory video is projected onto the glass panels on the left

the introductory video is projected onto the glass panels on the left


The houses confirmed my opinion that you can’t really understand a great building until you visit it.

Selfies, Part 3 (including the ultimate Safe Bison-Selfie™)

Since Mt. Rushmore was a gold mine for selfies, we should have known that Niagara Falls would be another.  The tourists couldn’t resist the lure of the selfie, no matter how wet or freezing they were:DSCF1578

this guy is standing in a dead-end spot which seems to be reserved for selfie-takers

this guy is standing in a dead-end spot which seems to be reserved for selfie-takers

it doesn't matter if the Falls don't appear in your selfie, as long as the lighting makes you look good.

it doesn’t matter if the Falls don’t appear in your selfie, as long as the lighting makes you look good.



the girl on the left was spinning in circles, taking a selfie movie!

the girl on the left was spinning in circles, taking a selfie movie!

We thought that the last opportunity for a Safe Bison-Selfie™ had been in Pittsburgh (what could be safer than an extinct bison) but then we realized, we’re in Buffalo!  There must be some good bison opportunities here. And there were:

the stuffed animal Safe Bison-Selfie™

the stuffed animal Safe Bison-Selfie™

And the Ultimate Safe Bison-Selfie™, with the soft cushions!  (cue Cardinal Biggles):

Somehow, the bison soft cushions were in the gift shop at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin house. I have no clue.

Somehow, the bison soft cushions were in the gift shop at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin house. I have no clue.

Perhaps now our work is truly done.

No, more selfies continue here.


Just as there are celebrities who are famous for being famous, there are tourist attractions that are popular just because they are popular. Then there are tourist attractions that are popular because they are incomprehensibly amazing. If you haven’t been here yet (and I find that many people haven’t), go, and get as close up as you can. I had been here a few times as a kid and thought it was cool, and I wondered if it would seem familiar this time. It didn’t. Greta was blown away (literally).DSCF1608