Monday, July 4, 2016

Old North Church: a modernist prototype?

What is modernism?

Typical architects' responses:

"Clean lines."

"Spatial fluidity."

"Pure geometric form."

"Clear distribution of parts."

"Little or no ornamentation."

"Honest expression of structure."

"Natural light from large windows."

"Exterior expresses interior functions."

"Load-bearing columns yield open space."

Photo by Adavyd, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oddly enough, all of the above characterize Boston's Old North Church, though it hails from an era almost 200 years before any of the above could cross anyone's mind. After all, brick, wood, stone and slate were the available building and finishing materials, and Georgian was the design model. Yet Puritanism put a check on the ornamental excess of the kings of England.

Photo by Victor Grigas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And this is evident the moment we enter Old North. What greets us is not a hefty eyeful of cherubs, scrolls, leaf-moldings, rosettes, frescoes and statues, but a lithe dance of arches, vaults, lines, squares and slender columns that clearly reveal not only the church's structural system, but also the thinking behind the purity and simplicity.

In the name of the Anglicism with which Henry VIII had declared his independence from the Catholic church, Old North's designers and builders forswore the ornamental indulgence that characterized the abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals of European Catholicism for a clean back-to-basics feel that followed Massachusetts' established Puritan aesthetic, blended with the lowliness of North End residential architecture, and saved money to boot.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Boston Eye? Eye say, 'Nay!'

Photo by Kham Tran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Prends garde: Boston may be getting its own Eiffel Tower — in the form of a Ferris wheel.

Capitalizing on the success of the London Eye (above) in giving the British capital an iconic funfair focal point akin to Paris's Eiffel Tower and Seattle's Space Needle, Delaware North Cos. of Buffalo is proposing an observation wheel as part of its City Hall Plaza revitalization plan, touting it as "an unexpected option, but it might just be the concept that will jumpstart the vitality needed for City Hall Plaza."

Unexpected, indeed — and unwarranted.

Photo by Ernst Halberstadt, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Wikimedia Commons
For one, a Big Wheel in the Plaza would divert attention from City Hall as the colossal cynosure of I.M. Pei's original scheme for the area. (True, many wouldn't care, as City Hall is now one of Boston's most reviled buildings. And, yes, a ride to the Boston skyline would be more fun than a scurry through City Hall's maze of bureaucracy.)
Photo by Charlene McBride, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Second, wide open as the Plaza may be, it is still too limited a space to allow Ferris wheel passengers the best eyeful from terra firma to firmament. On one side, the wheel would be so hemmed in by the blockades Center Plaza and the JFK Federal Building put on the surrounding cityscape that Boston's skyscape couldn't be fully taken in until passengers are about halfway up.

Photo by Scott Taylor, courtesy of the U.S. Navy
Photo by MarkGGN, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Observe how the sweeping parkland-riverfront sitings of the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle and the Thames river-edge of the London Eye, almost unobstructed by skyscrapers and streetwalls, allow visitors to experience the expanse of the landscape virtually from the moment of liftoff. Furthermore, such open spaces are necessary for these structures to fully reveal their sculptural presence from many directions: the Eiffel's parabolic "arc de triomphe" grandeur, celebrating the mathematical wonders of engineering; the Space Needle's outerworldly soar, symbolizing America's quest for space travel...

Photo by The Narratographer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

...and the London Eye's Claes Oldenburg giantism, taking the form of a titanic bicycle wheel, as a monument to the tensile elegance and cooperative strength of spoke-structure in transportation engineering. By contrast, the barriers of Center Plaza and the JFK Building and the cluster of Financial District skyscrapers would limit views of an observation wheel to only a few directions — and doubtless its design would not match the London Eye's refinement. 
Third, the Plaza has already been invaded by too many techno-trifles that are intrusive, not constructive. The new Government Center MBTA station headhouse blocks key views of the Sears Crescent from Cambridge Street and City Hall from Tremont Street as a big glass thing of unclear purpose.  
Also, the string of poles and benches along Cambridge Street has become a folly; nobody ever sits there or flies flags there. And, like the headhouse and the polechain, a Ferris wheel would screen out City Hall from one angle; Pei intended its prominence from all angles along Tremont and Cambridge.

Besides, in the wintertime the wheel would become as useless as the poles and benches, just sitting and rusting while waiting for spring. Not a very elegant use for such a costly venture.

So: Eye say "Nay" to the Boston Eye. City Hall Plaza should be transformed into a vibrant, attractive center of culture, community and commonwealth — not another Six Flags.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dracula's Denizen

Photo by Ingfbruno, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
My childhood romps through Central Park in New York City often took me up a steep incline to the summit of Vista Rock, where craggy, creepy, crumbly old Belvedere Castle ominously hulked over me, convincing me beyond any reasonable doubt that Count Dracula dwelt therein. 

(The towering citadel was actually used as the castle of "The Count" on Sesame Street in its pre-restoration days of decrepitude, which suited his batty ways to a T.) 

But the old haunt's weather-beaten door was always barred to me, dashing my hopes of meeting the venerable vampire in the flesh.

Photo by Jesse Richards
Now revamped as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory (named for TIME Magazine's founder), the castle has opened its door, inviting families to see not bats in the belfry, but birds in the Belvedere. 

Photo copyright © by
The observatory has a collection of bird feathers and skeletons and other natural history artifacts for young ones to scrutinize with a scientist's eye through the on-site telescopes and microscopes, which introduces them to the scientific method by which naturalists observe the world, draw conclusions about its inner workings, and share their insights with the community.

Photo copyright © by
Upstairs, papier-mâché reproductions of species of birds often observed in Central Park perch on a plywood tree, piquing family curiosity about what's really flying around out there, encouraging families to watch for the real things from the Romanesque double window or, better yet, the castle terraces overlooking Turtle Pond (below) or along the Ramble just below the great gray bastion.

Photo by Daniel Schwen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jesse Richards
Always nature-centered in its own right, Belvedere Castle was constructed in 1871 of gray rock-faced granite and the park’s native schist — a layered crystalline rock as unique to Manhattan as Roxbury puddingstone is to Boston — as a semi-natural outgrowth of Vista Rock, Central Park’s second-highest natural elevation. 

Architect Calvert Vaux and sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould conceived the towered, arched granite edifice as a Romanesque-Gothic folly providing a romantic overlook onto the park’s picturesque scenery — Turtle Pond, the Ramble, the reservoir (now the Great Lawn) — hence its name, Belvedere, which means “beautiful view" in Italian.

Archival photo by Maya Romanoff
Built as a shell with open portals and unglazed windows topped by Mould’s bronze sculptures of bat-winged cockatrices, the castle was enclosed as New York’s Weather Bureau Station in 1919. For the meteorological equipment, the tower’s conical slate roof with copper cresting and flagstaff was replaced by “more martial ghost-walk battlements." (M.M. Graff, The Men Who Made Central Park, 1982) Weather data have been collected there for local reports ever since. 

So whenever TV or radio meteorologists announce, “The temperature in Central Park is…”, that figure comes from the castle in the air.

Courtesy of Central Park Sunset Tours
But when the Weather Bureau Station relocated to Rockefeller Center in the late 1960s, the castle was closed to the public and besieged by decay, neglect and vandalism. Neon-streaked graffiti marred its crumbling walls, weeds sprouted in its eroding mortar, and vandals pushed away sections of its surrounding walls. 

Photo courtesy of Summitas, LLC
But the danger that posed didn't stop my ornery, foolhardy fourth-grade classmate Richard July from insisting we climb all the way up there during our afternoon sports period. 

"But the sign says, 'PLEASE KEEP OFF'!" I cautioned. 

"Aw, who cares about an old sign!" he retorted as he gave me a shove—subconsciously wanting to push me over the cliff with the old walls, perhaps.

In the end we didn't take a tumble into Turtle Pond, but we got chewed out plenty by Mr. Dietz, our sports teacher, for defying his peremptory order, "No wandering off by yourself!", for boldly going where no man was allowed to go, and for nearly breaking our necks (or getting them bitten by Drac, whichever you believe).

Photo courtesy of New York Architecture (
But the humor turned to pathos in 1975 when I read in The New York Times a sad story about Belvedere's besiege, described much the way I did above while presenting plans for its renewal. Times critic Paul Goldberger pronounced it "a near ruin" in his 1979 guide to the architecture of Manhattan, A City Observed: New York.

Photo courtesy of I Do New York
Photo courtesy of I Do New York
The mighty fortress was on the brink of collapse when the Central Park Conservancy rescued this damsel in distress in 1983. Its restoration included reconstruction of the original tower roof and colorful wood terrace pavilions from their extant foundations, which brings more depth and dimension to the pedestrian's visual experience of the castle by showing how precisely Vaux framed views of the park, the city and the tower itself with the lace-collared terrace columns. 

Furthermore, Belvedere's renaissance was just in time for its use as a filming location for the 1984 Merchant-Ivory film The Bostonians, based on Henry James’ Victorian-era novel, starring Vanessa Redgrave and the late Christopher Reeve of Superman fame.

By Karen Johnson, courtesy Creative Commons
Drac may have flown the coop, but its eeriness lingers: every Halloween, the cockatrices signify it as the “Spooks at Belvedere” haunted castle. Other free family programs there include storytimes with the Princess of Belvedere Castle, stargazing and birding programs. 
Photo by Jim Henderson

Photo by Wally Gobetz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A birdwatcher’s paradise, Belvedere’s terraces are pristine places to observe egrets (above), hawks, kestrels, osprey and other ornithological exotica. The Nature Observatory’s Discovery Kits, containing binoculars, maps, guidebooks and notepaper, let children make their own scientific discoveries about the Ramble’s birds or Turtle Pond’s amphibians, reptiles, insects and shoreline plants, including lizard's tail, bulrush, blueflag iris, turtlehead... and, speaking of which, don't forget the pond's namesakes...

Photo by Larry Hedrick, courtesy of
Henry Luce Nature Observatory at Belvedere Castle in Central Park, New York City, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free to all. For more information, call (212) 772-0210 or contact

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portland's 'living room'

Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The more congested and stressful city life becomes, the more we long for that “village square” that was so central to our city’s beginnings — the great open, common space where neighbors shared the latest news, children and dogs played, merchants traded, politicians spoke, demonstrations and festivals took place, concerts were enjoyed, and citizens stopped for a breather from the day’s tensions — before urban growth and rising land values often obliterated this oasis.

Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Luckily, Portland, Oregon, has revived it as Pioneer Courthouse Square, a 1.56-acre brick pedestrian respite from city clamor with something for everyone: trees, flowers, public art, chessboards, café, food and flower vendors, amphitheatre seating, and a waterfall cascading down a dual sculpture of domino-like granite blocks into a moat. 

Photo courtesy of
This frames the “drawbridge” entry into the Portland Oregon Visitor Association’s Visitor's Information Center, where tourists receive endless info about the city, state and square, and where Portland’s public transit agency Tri-Met offers route schedules and trip assistance for the city’s buses and Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail trolley system. Planned in conjunction with the development of MAX, the square also contains Portland’s main bus/rail hub.

Occupy Portland with the Pink Martini Orchestra, October 26, 2011.
Photo by Ray Terrill, courtesy of
Attracting some 26,000 Oregonians daily, Pioneer Courthouse Square hosts events as diverse as its design elements: spring’s Festival of Flowers, summer’s Sand in the City sandcastle contest, a winter holiday tree- lighting and band concert, and year-round health fairs, movie nights, performances, rallies, speeches and vigils, for which the two amphitheatres are made to order. 

Photo by Noliver, courtesy of Wikimedia
Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia
Monumental columns simulate classical temple ruins in tribute to the amphitheatres’ Greek origins. Artworks along the column row celebrate the city’s history and rainy climate, including scenes of Portland past and present and J. Seward Johnson’s bronze statue of a man offering his umbrella (left). The Weather Machine, a 33-foot ball-topped metal column (right), announces tomorrow’s weather daily at noon with trumpets, flashing lights, a mist spray, and the emergence of a gold-leaf sun, silver great blue heron or copper dragon from the ball to proclaim fair weather, cloudy or drizzly conditions, or rainstorms, respectively. Like a mercury thermometer, a stack of lightbulbs on one side of the machine lights progressively upward as the temperature rises. 

Image courtesy of Portland Public Schools.
As befits any common space, public input shaped Pioneer Courthouse Square from the start. It was the site of Portland’s first public school, Central School, from 1856 until railroad tycoon Henry Villard purchased the land in 1883 to build his 17-story Portland Hotel, capitalizing on the Northern Pacific Railway’s arrival here

Dedicated in 1890 with majestic chateau roofs and turrets, the hotel was Portland’s social center, a fashionable place to wine, dine and recline, until the Great Depression hastened its demise and it was razed in 1951 for a parking facility (below). (A cast-iron gate from the hotel stands on the square’s eastern side as a memorial.)

Photo courtesy of
A plan to clear the site for public use was proposed in the early 1970s, and in 1975 Mayor Neil Goldschmidt negotiated with the Meier & Frank department store to sell the lot to the city for that purpose. In 1980, the city held a design competition for a new public square.

Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of
Portland architect Willard Martin’s design team was chosen from 162 candidates. The project, however, sparked opposition from Mayor Frank Ivancie and local business owners and nabobs, on the grounds that a new public square would attract vagrants.
Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of

But this resistance was overcome when city commissioners Charles Jordan and Mike Lindberg led the “Friends of Pioneer Square” citizens’ coalition in raising $750,000 from the sale of 50,000 donor-inscribed bricks to save the $7.3 million project from back-burner oblivion.

The 2011 Christmas tree at Pioneer Courthouse Square. In the background is the historic
Meier & Frank Building
(1909-1932, Doyle & Patterson et al.), which now houses Macy's
department store and "The Nines" hotel. A MAX light rail train passes by on SW 6th Avenue.
Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Pioneer Courthouse Square was dedicated on April 6, 1984, before a crowd of 10,000 welcoming Portland's new "living room" with great aplomb. Since then, Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has managed the park in public-private partnership with the city, through which local business owners sponsor public events in the square year-round.

Among the best attended events were then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1994 appearance, which attracted a record 55,000 people. On June 27, 2006, about 8,500 fans cheered the Oregon State Beavers as the 2006 NCAA College World Series Baseball Champions. On July 14, 2009, comic Dave Chappelle performed before a joyous throng of 8,000 to 12,000.

Photo by M.O. Stevens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And yes, the square’s namesake still stands beside it. Built between 1869 and 1903 from an Italianate design by Alfred B. Mullett, the cupola-crowned Pioneer Courthouse is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest extant federal building and the second oldest federal structure west of the Mississippi River. It houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury, Post Office Square, Boston, completed c.1885, razed 1929.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Incidentally, Mullett also designed Boston's original French Second Empire U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury (c.1885), where the U.S. District and Circuit courts for the District of Massachusetts met until the building was razed in 1929 for the present-day Art Deco John W. McCormick Post Office and Court House. Mullett's edifice also gave rise to Post Office Square, making it a model for Portland to follow 100 years later.

City Hall Plaza, Boston, in 1973. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
Conversely, Pioneer Courthouse Square has become a model for Boston in the sculpturally creative use of brick and granite to set up a public arena for diverse activities, resting places, conversation pieces and landscape textures. Which explains why so many more crowds are drawn to it than to City Hall Plaza. 

So what about Boston's 'living room'?
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Attic baths: cramped, or creative?

Having once roomed under a roof and made do with facilities not much roomier than the tent I holed up in at Boy Scout camp, I can relate to those loath to confine their bath to attic-level. 

However, the images below show how an attic's gables, pitches and dormers — as well as the odd, quirky spaces they form — open up endless creative potential for the reimagination of your bath.

The sky's the limit

Courtesy of
Courtesy of
The slopes clearly set the limits on cubic footage for these baths, but in doing so they become an asset for light and the illusion of limitless space. The double skylight hovers over the tub in the Prague bath at left, letting users sunbathe while they bathe without peeping-Tom embarrassment. The running skylight cut into the roof's ridge floods light throughout the Danish bath at right, offsetting its triangular "tent" confinement, with help from the linear placement of the tub, vanity and commode along the edges and the shower at center to max out headroom and elbow room.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of Swatt | Miers Architects,
The twin skylights and twin windows at left bask the shower in sunlight, virtually vanishing its glass barriers and broadening the bath's spatial sensation beyond its attic confines. The perpendicular tub/shower placement yields more floor area, and the grayscale palette neutralizes the glare but keeps the atmosphere buoyant. At right, the roof's shallow slope empowers the skylight as a "skyroof," giving guests at the Tea Houses in Silicon Valley, California, the next best thing to bathing out in the open. The deck-like plank floor and bare concrete walls add to the outdoorsy feel.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of
These skylights make the shower a separate experience from the rest of the bath. You step into a splash of light — a cheery alternative to the average dark shower stall where you can't find the soap — and get a "sun-shower" that can help you dry off faster at high noon! The skylight at right shines through the shadow of the rafters and defines the width of the shower for greater elbow-room than the average attic shower stall. Glass block sheds additional light on your cleansing, making you forget you're in an attic.

Glass and brick

Courtesy of
Here the common attic features of industrial skylight and chimney actually shape the shower of the master bath in this loft master suite. The shower stall is structured around the chimney that goes through the skylight, emphasizing the solid-void contrast of the two elements and shedding light on your shower experience so the chimney doesn't cast a shadow on it. The brick wall the chimney grants the shower also gives you a bit of the feeling of bathing on Beacon Hill.


Courtesy of
Here the tub not only gets the splash of light it deserves, but the light source is compatible with its recipient in terms of curves and contours. The "eggshell" tub (and matching bowl sink) is customized to fit under the eyelid dormer, for a real eye-opener to sinuous sex-appeal in attic bath design. The common white finishes light up your eyes further as you walk in to soak in the sun and soap.

To each its own

Courtesy of
Here's where tub, shower and floor each gets its own skylight, for an all-around sunbath that makes the attic shine rather than shadow. The yellow wall treatment intensifies the sun as it shines on your soak, scrub, shower, shampoo and shave. The gable also adds quirky roof dimensions to the shower, making it feel like home in itself.
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