Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Googie gone for good, but Caribbean culture conserved

"Googie" architecture — that sleek, streamlined silverstreak style of neonic eyepop associated with the space-age spirit of the '50s and '60s — does indeed feel like an extraterrestrial alien in colonially correct Boston. Brick walls, granite blocks, wood clapboards, slate gables, French mansard roofs, Greek temple fronts and Italianate porticoes simply don't click with the character of this architecture-as-advertising, where acrobatic geometrics, circusy silliness, eye-catching iconography, gargantuan neon script or backlit block lettering captivate the driver-by with an in-your-face enticement to stop. Shop. Eat. Drink. Play. Buy. Here. Now.

Yet, by comparison, Googie's out-of-this-worldliness does make it appear out-of-the-ordinary. And as it evolves through time from an eyefeast of the now to an eyesore of the past to an icon of its era, this commercial/retail quasi-kitsch of the Las Vegas/Route 66 breed has a way of growing on us.

Especially when its days are numbered.

Such is the case for Hi-Lo Foods in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. This rare relic of the postwar period of sensationalist signage tacked onto a simple store structure — a "decorated shed," in architect Robert Venturi's words — is soon to be replaced with the generically wholesome Whole Foods Market, which also means outsville for the Caribbean grocery offerings unique to the community.

Learning from Las Vegas

Hi-Lo seems to have picked up pointers from the hard-not-to-spot sign that still entices motorists into The Strip in spirit and style as well as signification and orientation. The frame-backed space-star is there, as are the block letters on white, their encapsulation into individual shapes, and the use of chevrons for dramatic emphasis.

Remember this? (Hint: JFK Jr. worked out here)

And so did I, which is why I remember it well. But if you don't, no worries, for it's gone the way of JFK & Son.

Anchoring the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 85th St. in New York City's ethnic enclave of Yorkville, this mixed-use building was known by many names: the New York Turn-Verein, NYTV for short, Turn Hall, or Jaeger House. Downstairs was Adolf Jaeger Jr.'s restaurant, where locals quaffed Jakob Ruppert's Knickerbocker beer eins, zwei, g'suffa and devoured sauerkraut-slathered bratwurst, knackwurst and wienerschnitzel by the kilo. Upstairs was the great gymnasium/ assembly hall/auditorium, where the Turn-Verein, German for "gymnastics club," ran just that — and where I had the privilege of tumbling and tussling on the mat with John F. Kennedy Jr. when I was 6 and he was 7.

The old building's lavish admixture of Georgian and German décor, capped by an urn-topped crest reminiscent of the crown of the Brandenburg Gate, dispels its role as the central gathering place for New York's German-American community for workouts, Turner shows, assemblies, dances, you name it. The storefronts are as humble as the immigrants' beginnings in the New World, but the ornament on the upper floors signify the importance of the space inside, the rich aspirations of the new American citizens, and the fortitude of the Turners that taught and took gym up there. The tall trio of arched windows show that it contained all the light, space and headroom necessary for a good bodybuild, pole-vault, rope-climb or pyramid formation.

Little boxes on the hillside...

...but Pete Seeger would be wrong to say these ones are "all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." No, this time the topography defines the boxology, in proper Roxbury fashion. 

This contemporary condominium on Fisher Avenue in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood is the closest thing to a "Roxbury style" I've ever seen, taking full advantage of the area's characteristically hilly terrain to evolve as a series of stepped dwelling units leading up to a "lookout" tower room at its pinnacle. Thus each level's setback along the upward bound hill yields each unit (or story, in the uppermost unit's case) a terrace from the roof of the lower unit or the ground-level garages, which comprise the first floor so that they don't intrude upon any unit's living space with exhaust odors or car motor noise. This multilevel arrangement allows each unit a great hillside view, and each level is jogged out in a zigzag form to allow it multiple sides of exposure, hence more light inside.

This creative configuration gives the entire complex a jagged, asymmetrical form that emerges as a geometric abstraction of the randomly craggy Roxbury puddingstone that characterizes this neck of the woods. This conglomerate stone, seen here in Roxbury's preserved Rockledge Urban Wild, is an aggregate of many different kinds of rocks, stones and pebbles bonded together by prehistoric volcanic and glacial action, forming the bedrock underlying the bulk of Roxbury, as well as parts of Brighton, Brookline, Canton, Dedham, Dorchester, Dover, Jamaica Plain, Milton, Needham, Newton and Quincy.

'Of the hill'

Of course, the greatest hill-house of all is Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Far from the run-of-the-mill of little boxes on the hillside, this nature-inspired masterpiece of organic architecture comprises big slabs on the cliffside, cantilevering over the waterfall below them in a visually precarious posture — albeit in a geometrically ordered programme that reflects the machine age as well as nature's way. 

Man and nature are both at odds and in détente here, and the structural assuredness of the balcony slabs is counterbalanced by the unpredictability of their built-to-last claim, appearing ready to cascade down the rocky waterfall on a moment's notice as the water gradually erodes the rock into the soil from which all came. 

The stair towers are built of local stacked stone as a monument to the nature that made all things and a contrast to the man-madeness of the concrete that cast the slabs.

Fallingwater, built in 1934 for business tycoon Edgar Kaufmann, epitomizes Wright's prescription for all houses: 

No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.
— Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (1932)

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Great 'Pieramid' of Tampa

Photo by Texx Smith, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
For Pete’s sake!

What’s that at the end of the pier?

A Key West-bound cruise ship?

A Disney theme park?

Alien spacecraft?

Expo 2011?

No, it’s The Pier itself.

Pete's Pier

The St. Petersburg Pier, that is — Tampa Bay’s signature icon, a monumental gateway to (and getaway from) its namesake city. Anchoring the end of a mile-long wharf approach from downtown St. Pete, this colossal inverted pyramid combines shopping, dining, fishing, boating, an aquarium, festivals, live entertainment and much more on five floors of Florida family fun.

Sittin' on the dock of the Bay

The fun begins right on the dock, where you can take in the Tampa Bay view, go on a boatride or dolphin watch, pedal a surrey bicycle along the waterfront, take a horse-drawn carriage ride into the city, feed the pelicans, or fish for amberjack, flounder, sea bass, shark or snook with poles and bait from The Pier Bait House (right), a roof-tiled remnant of The Pier’s 1926 predecessor.

Canopy to culture and cuisine

The Pier’s grand entrance canopy introduces a tourist information desk and 16 specialty shops selling candles, collectibles, crafts, fashions, jewelry and more. 

The Dockside Eatery food court offers a smorgasbord of fast food, including Burger Bay, Cara’s Pizza, Hong Kong, and 41 ice cream flavors at Cones on The Pier. 

Al's alcove

At Captain Al's Waterfront Bar & Grill, you’ll be sittin’ on the dock of the bay enjoying all-American cuisine in your choice of indoor seating, the outdoor patio or the tikki bar area, hearing live bands on the Waterside Courtyard every weekend. 

The Dockside Activity Room holds an Oldies But Goodies Dance the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month, and hosts such local acts as the SunCoast Band.

Fish tank, fish taste

Upstairs is the Pier Aquarium, where a $5 admission ($4 for students and seniors, free for children under 7) lets you gaze at a colorful collection of native and tropical fish in a 2,000-square-foot tank. 

Restaurants for all tastes comprise the pyramid’s upturned “base,” which cantilevers outward for the ultimate on-the-bay dining experience at:
  • Cha Cha Coconuts Tropical Bar & Grill, featuring Bahamian conch fritters;

  • Columbia Restaurant, where the Tampa Bay panorama complements the Spanish/Cuban fare;

  • Fresco's Waterfront Bar & Grill, serving Mediterranean cuisine in a suitable seaside setting. 

Pier's precedents

The Pier originated in 1889, when the Orange Belt Railway built the Railroad Pier on Tampa Bay, three years before St. Petersburg’s incorporation as a city. An immediate success, the Railroad Pier was replaced in 1906 with the Electric Pier, which extended 3,000 feet into the bay and dazzled tourists and locals with its theatrical night lighting. This gave way to the Municipal Pier in 1914. When the Hurricane of 1921 damaged it, the city appropriated a $1 million bond for a...

Million Dollar Pier

Inaugurated on Thanksgiving Day in 1926, this Mediterranean-style palace boasted an open-air ballroom with rooftop terrazzo floors, an observation deck, and a grand central atrium for all sorts of community events, including card games, fishing tournaments and singalongs. Its grand portico became WSUN-TV’s studios, from which “Captain Mac” broadcast his children’s show in the 1950s. Fallen into disrepair, the Million Dollar Pier was razed in 1967.


The St. Petersburg Pier, opened to the public in January 1973, was designed by William B. Harvard Sr., founder of Harvard Jolly Architecture, with a tubular steel framework to create large windows for copious sunlight and bay views, and an inverted pyramid form to maximize the top floor area and observation deck.

Southern nights

This offbeat design enables The Pier to continue its predecessors’ traditions of providing plentiful space for private and public functions, offering Tampa Bay’s most breathtaking observation point, letting patrons dance the night away, and electrifying the bay’s night sky and clear waters with colorful lighting and fireworks.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!