Monthly Archives: December 2015

St. Augustine

IMG_7361St. Augustine is the place in the southeast where we first became aware of the incredibly complex history of this region – French, Spanish, English, American – every historic place keeps track of its shifting sovereignty throughout history, and posts signs informing you of the “Seven Flags” or whatever.  But as the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the US,  St. Augustine is right up there with New Orleans in being a place where this history is quite visible in the built environment, and not just when you read a sign or a textbook.

We first visited St. Augustine four years ago, and were surprised by its variety and beauty.  There is the Spanish period, which can be seen in the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century fort – not a reconstruction.  IMG_7281

There are Spanish-style buildings in the historic quarter. Along Prince George’s St., they are full of shops and tourists, so while one has to stroll through, the crowds can drive you crazy.DSCF9110

But once you pass south of the Plaza de la Constitucion (the oldest public park in the US),DSCF9238

you enter a historic district pretty free of tourists (as there are not many shops) , which isn’t ordered like any other place in this country – narrow streets, gates in walls, hidden courtyards.DSCF9119  DSCF9131  DSCF9159  DSCF9146

The 19th century part of the city has beautiful, eclectic residential neighborhoods, similar to those we’ve seen in other southern cities.  DSCF9166  DSCF9165

A unique neighborhood we explored on this trip is Lincolnville – begun after the Civil War, it is the historically African-American neighborhood originally inhabited by former slaves.  DSCF9198  DSCF9194  DSCF9201

There are buildings in various states of repair – some showing clear major remodels to add more space, some deteriorating, DSCF9202  and signs of creeping (sometimes rampant) gentrification on some blocks.  DSCF9183p

As the boom of Florida tourism hit the Atlantic coast in the 1880s, Henry Flagler developed much of downtown St. Augustine.  He hired Carrere and Hastings, who designed two exuberant hotels, one of which is now Flagler College, and the other is the city museum.  IMG_7358  IMG_7390

They are spectacular and wild, as is their Presbyterian church and rectory:  DSCF9255DSCF9242

For some reason, we saw a lot of quirky yards and installations in the city, which made us feel at home.  DSCF9176  DSCF9097

It’s a small city, with a great variety of places, periods, cultures and architecture.  It attracts a lot of daytrippers and tourists, but they are cleverly contained in one area, and don’t overrun the whole city – it is a place where residents can enjoy life without being on display all the time.  It seems to be the one place in Florida where the past hasn’t been dwarfed by the present.

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Homosassa Springs

The waters of Florida have been so warm this year that the manatees, who can’t survive long in water below 68 degrees fahrenheit, don’t need to find hot springs. This makes finding them difficult because they’re more spread out, and our first attempt at the powerplant outside of Tampa failed. So we went to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. I was expecting to go there and just find a couple of manatees, but they had a whole little zoo. Technically, it’s a rehabilitation center, but most of the animals they have on display will never be able to be released to the wild, and so are on display.

They had an impressive number of birds, half of which seemed to have just wandered into the enclosures for a snack. I saw over a dozen black-crowned night herons, which have been one of my favorite birds since I did a report on them in third grade, and had never seen in real life before. I had known they had red eyes, but not this red.
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The red-backed hawks were the models of the place, posing in the light in a way that just begged you to take their picture. They were getting more attention even than the bald eagle, who had the American flag in his enclosure.P1060533
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And no one was even looking at the whooping cranes. I guess if your species’s incredible comeback from near extinction was more than a few years ago, nobody remembers or cares.P1060567

There were a bunch of mammals as well, including a panther, black bear, a couple of bobcats, and an extremely rare red wolf. The cutest was the red fox, another animal I had never seen in person before.
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P1060411Po the hippopotamus, who apparently starred in many movies during his youth, was housed there as well, but the manatees were the stars of the show. Three resident (captive) manatees are fed romaine lettuce three times daily. I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see these guys eat. Related to elephants, their upper lip is partially prehensile, and they use this to pull food into their mouths.

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If you’re in northern Florida, I wouldn’t miss coming here. It’s a great place to see and learn about southern wildlife, and would be great for kids of all ages.

Family (southeastern division)

My family has lived in New York for generations (Bronx and Manhattan origins for all branches), but as the decades have passed, you can see the demographic trends of the country writ small in our family,  with migration towards the south and west.  As we drove down the east coast we managed to visit many of them, though once again not all.  (And I’m afraid I can’t add any old photos to this post, as I had to move all family photos off my computer to make more room, and then forgot the flash drive in Seattle.)

DSCF6228The first southern relative we saw was my cousin Alice, who lives in the Virginia suburbs of DC with her husband Gary.  When we were young we only got to see Alice and her siblings every couple of years, as my Uncle Bill was attached to the Foreign Service in places such as South Africa and Mexico. This was in the days before simple and cheap international flights – I actually remember seeing them off on an ocean liner as they left the US once.  HIs last assignment was in Washington, so they settled in Falls Church, and both Alice and my cousin Bill have stayed in the DC area.

Alice and Gary live in McLean, but we didn’t get to see their house, as it is up a steep driveway, (and after our experience in my brother’s new gravel driveway in NY, we decide to play it safe.)    So Alice and Gary met us (along with Bob and Susan) for lunch in DC and we had a good time catching up.  Gary works in the finance field, with another one of those jobs I can’t quite understand.  We don’t get to see them very often, but it’s always fun – they have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the conversation is always wide-ranging and engaging.  We’re trying to convince them to come visit us agin on the west coast soon.

DSCF7583My cousin Kathie lives in Raleigh, where her branch of the family moved in the 70s.  At that point, it was so unusual for New Yorkers to move to the south that when my Aunt Marge walked into a store and asked for bagels, she was met with a blank look.  Kathie seemed to adapt well as a teenage transplant, and was the only one of her siblings to pick up up a southern accent immediately.  Kathie started her career out as a speech therapist, and has evolved more in to social service program management at this stage.  She raised three kids, all grown and off on their own now, and is also now a grandmother, with twin baby grandchildren.  Her daughter Jennifer, who works as a city planner, came over for dinner when we passed through, and we discussed our experiences of sitting on opposite sides of the table in project planning meetings.

We also got to hang out with Kathie’s partner Chris, who teaches management at NC State, and we had an excellent conversation about the state of academia in different places.  As in every other conversation I’ve had with an academic on this trip, my suspicion that higher ed in this country is becoming a strange and dysfunctional world was borne out.  It’s not that our individual campuses or departments have issues, it’s that academia (especially public institutions) as a whole is going through a transition period (marked by reduced funding, the explosion of management, the shifting of costs onto students, etc.), the end state of which is unclear.  After Greta went to bed we all sat around taking about the general state of affairs, three middle-aged people with enough experience in the world to now understand how things work, and also enough experience to understand how difficult it is to change any large institutions.

DSCF7675The next night we stayed with Kathie’s sister Marirose and her husband Steve (who took off on a trip the next morning before I could grab a photo).  Marirose has another one of the jobs I can’t understand, but at least this time it’s not because it’s in an arcane area of finance.  Her work seems to involve human resources, and leadership, and training and networking, and I think she knows everybody in Raleigh.  (One of my high school friends moved there a few years ago and immediately met Marirose at a reception.)  My mind works in very concrete ways (why I became an architect), and Kathie told me that their father could never really figure out what Marirose did either;  he was in HVAC, another member of the concrete-minded side of the family.  Steve is an engineer, so his work I get.

Marirose and Steve raised three kids too, with the youngest still in school at NC State, it’s astounding to me that my littlest cousin is also a grandmother.  Her daughter Caitlin came over for dinner with her four-year-old son Chase, whom Greta declared to be the most delightful child she had met on the whole trip (Greta is an astute judge of small children and dogs).  We had a great time eating, drinking, playing, telling old stories, and catching up on the various goings-on in our extended families.

DSCF8998Our next family stop was with my sister Laurie and her husband Jeff in Estero, Florida.  Laurie is my youngest sister, seven years older than me, so she and our sister Sue were effectively responsible for a lot of my upbringing.  I was always hanging around them, listening to their music (they had much better taste than my brother) and yacking, and and they never seemed to mind.  They were a huge influence on me and how I see the world.  Greta and I sometimes discuss how much ideas about how women should live have changed in the past half century – she has always taken it for granted that she can do whatever the boys can, and is amazed that it was ever different (a viewport I’ve always shared).  I tell her that my views were probably shaped by having three smart, forceful sisters, who always figured out what they wanted to do and moved ahead in that direction.

Laurie worked at a variety of jobs while living in New York, going to school and raising her son Justin (previously seen in the northern family post).  Eventually she moved out to the Philadelphia Main Line to be near our sister Sue, and after a few years she met Jeff, a madman stockbroker with three kids, and who had hobbies like hot air ballooning and racing his Corvette on the middle-aged guy stock car circuit.  They got married and later ended up working together, starting and running a brokerage firm and a mutual fund company.  (Financial type jobs where I actually do understand what they do.)  Laurie has always loved the ocean, so over the years they spent a lot of time in their summer house on the Outer Banks, before deciding to move their winter base to the Gulf Coast.

Laurie has recently joined my sister Pat and brother Jerry in retirement (so I’m the last one working to pay all their Social Security benefits).  They now spend most of their time in Florida, but head north to Pennsylvania frequently to see their kids and grandkids, (as Laurie has always been about the most engaged grandmother I know).  We had a good time staying with them, and Linda and Jeff got to once again commiserate about what it’s like being a quiet person married to a Keyes who never seems to stop talking.

While Linda was traveling with us in Florida, we switched gears from my family to go visit her sister Paula, who is living most of the time in St. Petersburg at this point.  Paula had a long career working for Yum (Pizza Hut, KFC, etc.) in various places around the country.  When her son Ben was out of the house and off at school, she moved to Shanghai to work for six years, often taking her vacations in other amazing places around the globe.  After returning to Louisville she left Yum, but has more recently signed on as a consultant with Bloomin’ Brands, helping them figure out how to internationalize some of their restaurant lines (such as Outback).  They’re based in Tampa, so she’s rented an apartment nearby in St. Petersburg (the most bizarrely laid-out one-bedroom apartment I’ve ever seen.  I hope none of our grads worked on it.)  We visited her there, dragging her away from the office briefly to experience the St. Petersburg nightlife.  The next day we met her for lunch, then we hit the road again while she went back to work.

DSCF3015cWe returned to south Florida to spent more time with my stepmother Gina, who was living in the home she shared with my dad until his death in 2014 (six months after this photo was taken).  Gina grew up in Liverpool, and when she was three, she was evacuated with her siblings to a small town in Wales the day after the British entered WWII.  They lived on a farm in this town for a few years until the risk was deemed less and they returned to Liverpool.  (I happened to be traveling in England in 1989, and met up with Gina and my dad, and we went down with her surviving brother and two sisters to see the town on the fiftieth anniversary of the day they arrived.  Some people there actually remembered them.)  Gina then grew up in Liverpool (didn’t know the Beatles), and after working as a seamstress decided to try something new.  She moved to the US in the 60s, and eventually ended up in New York, working as a secretary at Associated Dry Goods, where her boss was a client of my dad’s.  After my parents got divorced, my dad sent Gina a letter asking if she’d like to go on a date (he didn’t feel right putting her on the spot while at work) and that was that.

They had a happy marriage for over 40 years, living on the Hudson River in South Nyack, and later buying a condo in Naples. Gina went back to school and got her bachelor’s degree in the 80s.  They travelled together a lot, sometimes related to my dad’s work running his engineering firm, but then a lot more when they retired.  They split their time between the northeast and Florida, but about ten years ago, when my dad was in his 80s, they decided that summers in Florida weren’t a lot worse than the northeast, so they just stayed down south.  We visited them in Florida every Christmas after that, which was always a week of eating and talking and walking on the beach.

After a year and a half of living alone, Gina agreed with my sister that maybe she should move on, so they made plans for her to move into an assisted living facility.  It’s in the same development as their condo, so Gina will still be near all her friends, and can still participate in all her normal activities, like her exercise class and bridge club.  My sister has put her financial and organizational expertise to good use straightening out all of the financial complexities, and we tried to help  her sort through papers and books, etc. while we were there.  Gina  moved into the new place in January.  It’s a beautiful building (actually has a better view than the condo), and it seems like a fine place to keep enjoying the good life in Florida.

Leaving Florida we we left all my family behind (mostly they go south but not west), but there’s more of Linda’s family to catch up with in Texas.

South Florida

Floridians speak about the duality of their state, how the Florida above Orlando is a different world from the one below – economically, socially, politically, etc.  This is apparent when you travel through the whole state for a few weeks (we mainly noted south Florida’s aversion to trailers).  Socially, Northern Florida is part of the South, and Southern Florida is largely an amalgam of the Northeast, the Midwest and Latin America.

What struck us most on this trip was the difference between the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, not just socially, but also architecturally and urbanistically.  Decades ago my dad pointed out that I-95 ran down the East Coast, and I-75 ran from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, so this largely determined where retirees settled.  (And meant that comparable real estate was cheaper on the Gulf Coast, as Midwesterners just wouldn’t pay as much as Northeasterners).  It’s not really that clear anymore; in Rabbit Is Rich, Updike’s character wintering near Ft.Myers observes that he expected to be surrounded by Midwesterners, but all his golf buddies are New York Jews.  So while the social differentiation may have become less apparent, the differences in the built environment are even more clear.  The pattern for development on the Atlantic coast was set in the early 20th century, with cities, public beaches and gridded neighborhoods, over which the postwar pattern of highways and sprawl were layered.  The Gulf Coast was remarkably undeveloped until after WWII, so the overwhelming organizational principle is that of postwar car-oriented development and sprawl, with the city centers resembling the “edge city” fabric more than any pre-war, pedestrian-oriented city.

We spent some time in Miami, which is remarkably booming, packed with extremely expensive condo towers, flashy cultural institutions, etc.  It’s truly one of the global cities, more connected to the society and economy of Latin America than to the State of Florida.
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But once you look past the glitz of these towers, there is that complexity of culture that you get in a real city.  The Wynnwood neighborhood is that kind of light industrial zone near the center of town where artists and hipsters are taking over, with cafes, galleries, and lots of street murals.DSCF8919  DSCF8923

We also went through the smaller beach cities in the area – Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, etc.  The early 20th-century promenades and boardwalks have been reinvigorated, and even on a really windy day a stroll along the beachfront is entertaining and lively.  DSCF8700

And older attractions, such as the Gulfstream race track are being reinvented, with casinos and other Vegas-like glitz.  DSCF8743  DSCF8725

The Gulf Coast is a different world.  We have been going there for years to visit my family in and around Naples, which has a very small historic core of shopping, and neighborhoods of beautiful older homes along the beach.  DSCF2979  DSCF8947

There is public beach access here, but no commercial development – no boardwalk, no crowds, nothing kitschy.  The area began to boom in the postwar era, with large developments, towers, DSCF2950and some of the most insanely awful houses I’ve ever seen:  IMG_0326  IMG_0337

all of this is much more privatized, with many gated communities and limited public beach access.  Even when an area is at a pretty high overall density, such as in the condo developments, it’s a car-based pattern, with any commercial development miles away.

We visited some of the older Gulf Coast cities we’d briefly cruised through before.  Sarasota has a historic core with some lovely buildings, but has been dwarfed by the postwar development.  DSCF8577

St. Petersburg was our favorite of all of them – a pleasant downtown near the bayfront, an area of cafes and restaurants that seemed liked a South Beach for people who aren’t models, and an older residential neighborhood near downtown that was charming – a mixture of 1920s eclectic houses, all of which seemed well-adapted to the climate (and former lack of air conditioning).  DSCF8598  DSCF8610

Tampa, the big, booming city on the coast, is profoundly awful.  There are a few remnant historic buildings and districts, but the downtown has a collection of unrelievedly terrible big buildings from the 1950s to the present that may be unparalleled anywhere else.  DSCF8625

The money is now expressing itself in cultural institutions, which you can distinguish from the offices because they are horizontal and blank.DSCF8634

On a podium (which must contain parking) there is the most grievously overscaled and pointless plaza this side of Brasilia (this is about 1/4 of it):DSCF8622

Surrounded by deadly buildings DSCF8635

and only one other person we could see, a sleeping guy planking on axis:DSCF8629

The building behind him, belonging to the Sykes Corporation, looks like a prison in Blade Runner, and does the worst job of hitting the ground plane of any skyscraper I’ve ever seen:  DSCF8639

and here’s the front door:DSCF8641

Looking at the detailing of the lower cube attached to it, and other details around the plaza, I realized that they were dressing this monstrosity up in Kahn-like moves and details!  Squares, water channels running off the end of the plinth, and this evocation of Exeter:  DSCF8642

There were some astounding buildings outside of town too – as far as I can tell, this might have been a tilt-slab commercial building converted to a church (with some nice arched windows).
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Our favorite thing around Tampa is they gigantic power plant, which has the positive side effect of heating up the water for manatees.DSCF8693

Most major American metropolitan areas from the 19th-20th century are centralized, with a dense core, and rings of lower density development around it.  I think all of South Florida can be conceived of as one gigantic metro region that has been straightened out.  The dense older urban areas are all along the Atlantic, with density stepping down away from the coast.  This area has all the pros of bigger, older cities, such as culture and excitement, but also all the problems – insane traffic, highways cutting up neighborhoods, poor older neighborhoods, crime, etc.  There is not that much late-20th century edge city development, as it ran into the Everglades.

The Gulf Coast is where they have put the postwar Edge City.  Completely car-based and privatized, with an extraordinary road network to accommodate this.  Everything is new and looks alike.  The cities resemble the Edge City clusters along highways much more than they do prewar cities, with even downtowns being car-oriented.  If you think of South Florida as one area, it’s not that much different from other major metropolitan areas, except that it has a 100-mile wide swamp as a greenbelt between the older development and the newer.  The Northeast/Midwest origins of the residents doesn’t play out that strongly anymore – now the Atlantic coast is for people who like cities, and the Gulf Coast is for people who like postwar suburbs, with the problematic cities a comfortable remove away.

Jeff Thompson

DSCF8832One time Jeff and I were talking about the different kinds of people you meet in architecture school or firms. There are the hard-working, serious, responsible types.  There are the people with big ideas but not quite the skills to realize them.  There are the problem-solvers who excel at the rational aspects of design, but have a hard time with the more intuitive or compositional aspects.  And then there are the people who just throw something down on paper, and it always looks good.  Jeff smiled sheepishly and said, Yeah, I was one of them.  He was absolutely right.  Our class in grad school was half people who had four-year undergrad degrees in architecture, and half people who had never designed a building before.  Jeff had gone to the University Of Florida, gotten a very good education there, and everything he did was beautiful.  I was in awe of people like him, and if he hadn’t been such a nice guy, I would have really hated him for it.

Most of my close friends in school, such as Ray and Kerry, were more like me – northeasterners with liberal arts degrees who were feeling their way into this design thing.  Not only was Jeff one of those really different architecture undergrad types, but he was from southern Florida, a completely alien world.  I was equally exotic to him; he recently told me that I was the first person he’d ever known who regularly swore as part of normal conversation.  (Jeff had never lived in New York before, obviously.)  But despite these differences, we became good friends quickly.  Not only was Jeff innately talented, but he was also very smart, inquisitive, gregarious, a very good guy, and a lot of fun.  Architecture school is full of people who seem to be miserable most of the time – they’re sleep-deprived, overworked, insecure, dissatisfied with their work or angry that no one recognizes their genius. In the midst of this general angst, Jeff was always cheerful and kidding around.  He had a way of getting you to stop taking it all (and yourself) too seriously.  It would have been a lot harder getting through school without his presence.

After graduation, Jeff and I both worked in New York at Steven Winter Associates.  We shared an office and spent a huge amount of time together for two years.  We were mostly working on building systems and technology and research projects at this point, but we did get to do a little design together.  My favorite collaboration was when we designed a 15,000 square foot house on an island in the Nile in Cairo.  Being of the Postmodern generation, we went to town with historical allusions – domes, aches, courtyards, etc.  There was a squash court and an outdoor pool, carefully screened from eyes going by on boats.  It never came close to getting built, but we had a lot of fun.

After a couple of years Jeff felt the pull of family and the good life in Florida and so he returned. I visited him once in the lat 80s, after he had been working for a firm down there for a while, and was just starting out on his own.  He showed me a house he had designed for his parents and which his brother had built.  It was really good – simple, appropriate, well-scaled, with beautiful rooms.  He talked about how hard it was to get work, and I said, but surely if you show people this house they’d want to hire you?  Jeff said, yes, they like his parents’ house, but then they want to know if he could do something like that for them, but more ostentatious.

I moved to Oregon and we lost touch.  I tried to Google him, but there are a lot of Jeff Thompsons out there.  Finally I found him through Google Image, standing in a group photo of staff working for Broward County.  We talked on the phone and caught up, and the next year when we were down in Florida at Christmas with my folks, we went over to Ft. Lauderdale to see him.

Jeff, like so many other excellent architects, had problems keeping his firm afloat with the inevitable oscillations in the boom-and-bust economy.  HIs ex-wife lived up north with their two children, and he had responsibilities.  So he moved into the public sector, working in capital projects for Broward County, getting a regular paycheck and benefits, and keeping more regular hours.  He has happily stayed on there, and is now the Broward County architect, acting as the client and overseeing projects.  A couple of years ago he took us to see a new children’s museum they had built, which was great.  I’ve always thought that good clients had as much to do with good buildings as did architects, and this bore that out.  It’s really worthwhile running complex processes so that good buildings can actually happen.

The other thing that happened with Jeff’s firm was that at one point he hired a charming interior designer, they fell in love and got married.  Jill stayed on in practice, and also taught in and ran an interior design program in Miami.  But after many years of those same business cycle swings, plus the completely insecure, badly-renumerated and often miserable life of a non-tenure-track faculty member, Jill went over to the public sector too.  She works for the county parks department as their park planner and designer, and is loving what she does.

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Jeff and Jill had a daughter about 20 years ago – Hannah is now a college student living at home with them  in Ft. Lauderdale.  Greta and Hannah have now met a few times over the years and have always had fun hanging out.  The added attraction on our visit this year was Jeff’s daughter Jenn, who finished college up north and has been living with them in Florida since, working at various jobs and becoming a broker.  Greta and Hannah and Jenn discovered many common interests (sci-fi, superhero comic books, etc.) and they have been put on Greta’s ever-growing list of the sisterhood of cool nerdy girls she’s met on this trip.

The first night we arrived, Jeff had acquired a big block of seats for the 3-D opening of the new Star Wars movie, which was perhaps the high point of the month for Greta.  Linda had joined us for Christmas, so we all cruised around looking at stuff for a couple of days – beach towns, Miami, the new Perez museum.  It’s quite amazing having two architects and two interior designers get together – the ideas are flying and the conversation never lags.  The only problem is that all the kid are bored to tears by it, but at least this time they had their own conversation going on;  so as always with seeing the Thompsons, we all had a great time.

Herzog and de Meuron’s Perez Art Museum

DSCF8756Sometimes it seems that Renzo Piano has designed every new museum in the US in the past 20 years, but then we come across some places that have resisted the hegemony.  However, even in these non-Piano buildings, you can see how he has shifted the conversation.  We’ve visited a lot of new museums on this trip, and in general, I think there is a much greater emphasis on the clear expression of the buildings’ systems (often with exquisite detailing), and less emphasis on look-at-me form-making, starchitect branding and spatial gymnastics than there was in prior decades.  The new buildings have great conceptual clarity, but this hasn’t been at the expense of being good museums for displaying art.

Herzog and de Meuron’s recent Perez Art Museum in Miami follows up on the success of their parking garage in South Beach, which highlighted their ability to work with structure and space, eschewing the intricate screen facades for which they were known.  The Perez Museum continues with this approach, with a parti where the articulation of the elements of frame, roof, box and plane are the basis for the scheme.  In the photo above, the roof/trellis floats above the whole building, supported on tall columns.  (We wondered if the metal plates visible at the middle of the columns are external steel reinforcement, allowing for an extreme slenderness ratio that otherwise might cause buckling.)  In the shadows under the roof you can see one of the concrete box galleries poking out.

The beautiful parking garage is under the main floor plate, which has tightly-spaced precast joists and a thin slab.  There are stairs, ramps, and stepped terraces which connect the plinth to the ground plane at a few points.DSCF8751

There are some excellent details at the stairs – a few ways to differentiate the conditions:DSCF8883  DSCF8862

On the side towards the water, the roof creates an enormous shaded porch with views out.  The roof structure is used to hang all sorts of growies, mimicking the Spanish moss / jungle atmosphere we’ve come across in many places, but which do somewhat resemble gigantic Chia Pets.  DSCF8772  DSCF8860

And one can watch the life of the city and the port go by.DSCF8873

The ground floor is mainly glass, with a solid wooden box for the entry.  The parti element of solid box gallery rooms is visible, and the gallery spaces between the boxes are the gaps where the interior space can connect out to the cityscape.  DSCF8890

The general impression from the exterior is an almost Japanese timber-frame approach in precast concrete, with layering of structural elements.  The roof reminded me of Kenzo Tange.  The boxes and spaces under a huge roof is an approach seen before, even back as far as Pietro Belluschi houses.

Moving in from the lobby, the distinction between the concrete boxes and the partition walls in the open plan can be seen.  DSCF8782

There are galleries on the main floor, but most of them are one flight up.  To reach that level, you climb up this monumental stair, which also functions as the circulation for a presentation/lecture space.  DSCF8792

From above you can see how the auditorium can be tuned and curtained off.  In section and in function it is similar to the Seattle Public Library, where the auditorium space isn’t isolated most of the time, but open to the passer-by patrons.DSCF8841

There are open gallery spaces between the boxesDSCF8803

and a clear way of making an opening into a boxDSCF8826

The rigor of this approach is pretty consistent, although there are some places where the detailing seems a little fudged – boxes dying into the concrete floor slab above, but screen walls doing the same.  This may be a matter of budget or convenience – it is easy to pull a screen wall way from a box for a reveal in plan, but not attaching the wall to the slab above presents structural problems.  (I may be more focussed on this after a visit to the Kimbell yesterday, where the articulation of these issues is rigorous to the nth degree.)  But it does make me wonder whether we would even be thinking about these issues if Mies had jus let the wall support the roof in the Barcelona Pavilion.  (This issue will resurface with some subsequent posts.)

There are some interesting juxtapositions of the art and architecture:DSCF8830

and a gallery which opens up to the third floor of offices, where a site-specific installation occurs.  I was looking at this and a museum guard offered me a lengthy handout on the piece.  I looked at it, but said that I had a problem with art that needed three pages of explication to be understood – if the piece can’t speak for itself, what’s the point?  This triggered a reminiscence by him of his earlier days studying art with Norman Rockwell and how he learned to really draw, and how a lot of the conceptual stuff he sees now makes no sense to him.  I’ve been thinking recently about the particular hell of being a classically-trained artist who spends his days surrounded by contemporary conceptual art.DSCF8804

And no piece on a Herzog and de Meuron museum would be complete without a photo of the sublime rest room.  This one is similar to those at the Walker addition in Minneapolis, but somehow not quite as transcendent.  I think it may be the contrast with the dark color, whereas the Walker is all white and more ethereal, an unusual  feeling to have in a public bathroom.  DSCF8839

The art was interesting, but not overwhelming.  Except for a show of paintings by Australian Aboriginal painters, which was spectacular.  I have a new artist on my favorites list:  Tommy Mitchell, who died a few years ago.  He didn’t start painting until he was 65.  DSCF8821

Overall, a building in which the articulation of the elements is striking, especially on the exterior.  The gallery spaces are fine, but not extraordinary.  And sometimes, the curators must be making an effort to make sure the artwork is well-integrated with the architecture.  DSCF8799

Middleton Place

DSCF8411Located up the Ashley River from Charleston, Middleton Place is an 18th century plantation that is known for having the first designed, landscaped gardens in America.  Successive generations of Middletons lived here and modified the landscape (when they weren’t busy running the Continental Congress or signing the Declaration of Independence), but also lived resided in their Charleston townhouse.  (Both Middleton Place and the Edmonston-Alston townhouse are owned by the same foundation, but despite the best efforts of the genealogy-obsessed docent, we couldn’t quite figure out the family relationships.)  Our colleague Roxi Thoren has been doing research on its history for a while, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sound too knowledgeable about its history or meaning.

The original intent in the early 1700s was to have a country residence, which was transformed into a plantation later in the century.  The main house was located on a long axis that stretched from the house to the main road on one side:DSCF8314

and to the river on the other:DSCF8319

There are a series of parterres stepping down to the river landing, with constructed lakes flanking the axis.DSCF8328

Upriver from the house are formal gardens – a gridded landscape of allees and outdoor rooms DSCF8279  DSCF8307

one of which contains the Middleton family grave, DSCF8301

and culminating in a long reflecting pool.  All of this would have been for the strolling pleasure of the Middletons and their guests, with many quiet places t sit and talk, similar to country houses on the continent.  DSCF8272

Beyond this end of the plantation, a more natural swamp and lake area remains.  DSCF8454

What I found most remarkable was the river’s edge, where the juxtaposition of the natural marsh landscape DSCF8450

with the formal built landscape is handled beautifully, allowing you to move along the edge and experience both:DSCF8448

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The main section of the house was destroyed by Union troops in the Civil War, and after this the Middletons, in straightened circumstances, modified the remaining side pavilion to be the main house (so it is not situated across the main axis.)  DSCF8381

The remains of the house were knock down by an earthquake, and were either used to build a new stable and farmyard, or were left in a pile:DSCF8315

Near the house are some remaining older buildings – the original spring house, which later had a chapel added above: DSCF8335

and a freedman’s double house from around 1870.  (The original slave quarters no longer exist, and from what we’ve learned at other plantations, these freedman’s houses would be notably larger and better than what the enslaved people lived in.)  DSCF8385

The other side of the axis from the formal gardens is a landscape more in the romantic tradition, with picturesque vistas and winding paths.  DSCF8407

It’s a beautiful place, where the intelligence, complexity and importance of the planning is probably not explcitly apparent to the many visitors who come to see the plantings in the gardens.  Greta enjoyed the relative lack of architecture (hooray for the Union, she cried), and even the time she had to spend appreciating the landscape was enhanced by a reasonable amount of interesting livestock. DSCF8267