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.
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The bath: from functional to fantastic

The New Architecture throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine. 

Instead of anchoring buildings ponderously into the ground with massive foundations, it poises them lightly, yet firmly, upon the face of the earth, and bodies itself forth, not in stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery, but in those simple and sharply modeled designs in which every part merges naturally into the comprehensive volume of the whole. 

Thus its aesthetic meets our material and psychological requirements alike.

— Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, 1925

This was especially true in the bath, which Gropius limited to the bare-bones basics and confined to the bare-minimum galley space it needed to meet his family's fundamental needs. These baths in Gropius' 1938 house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which he designed as his residence when he was professor and later dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, show how the industrial aesthetic of his Bauhaus School does meld into a unit. The consistency of black linoleum, chrome metal, white porcelain and curved edges forms the bath as a purely functional but adequately comfortable place to get in, get clean, and get out. For a "stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery" would tempt people to linger longer in the loo, captivated by the cosmetic eyeful, keeping other people waiting.

Photo by Cliff, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lloyd Wright had a similar idea for the baths in the Usonian Houses he designed as back-to-nature, back-to-basics homes for his less well-to-do clients. This bath at the 1941 Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia (for which Wright reduced his fee when the construction costs jumped), is also reduced to functional and spatial essentials. But the added touches of red brick, Tidewater red cypress finished in clear wax, and a concrete floor painted in Wright's trademark Cherokee red (radiant-heated by hot water pipes) give the space a warmer, friendlier, more nature-calming experience than the antiseptic, metallic impersonality of Gropius' lavatories. Yet Wright's finishes are still simple enough not to tempt the eye to gawk at the beauty, follow the details-within-details, and detain the bather.

Back to nature?
Sadly (or happily?), today's baths snub the Masters' minimalism to become comfort castles overflowing with enough eye-grabbing aesthetics and body-bounties to make you never want to leave the lav. 

Yet some still want to feel natural, like this one, which flaunts the knots in its pine, the beams in its ceiling, the stones in its stairs and floor (and fireplace!), the wood-finish in its water-jet hot-tub, and the calculated window-view of evergreens and mountain ranges to make your bathing experience seem back to nature — though Mother Nature has fooled you this time by not providing these materials for free like in days of old. For the chandelier gives away the wealth spent on this, as does the gas fireplace that warms your towel-down after you (finally) get out of the tub.

Photo by Don Cochran, courtesy of Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates
Abraham Lincoln could never dream of this kind of log-cabin luxury, which gives the rich the illusion of roughing it. 

Here the logs are more ornamental than structural and functional, never letting you lose sight of the "natural" wonder of those ringed cross-sections, hatchet-hews and bark-scars as you water-jet yourself soft and clean in the soaking tub, which is simply crafted so as not to distract from the subdued natural effect. 

The variegated brown floor and shower tiles continue the woodsy, cavernous feel into the shower, but in a way that removes you further from Lincoln's struggles for survival, especially when you step into the shower's vast glassed space and turn on the massaging showerheads and steam-jets.

Photo courtesy of
Here's an attempt to reconcile Wrightian naturalism with Gropian functionalism. 

This bath combines the rustically erratic stacked fieldstone of the former (making rock's natural contours your steppingstone to your bath!) with the factory-processed glass block of the latter. 

The conventional floor and wall tile smooths out the composition as a mediator between these nature-vs.-machine polarities while providing a compatible contrast of its own: good old black-and-white.

However, opposites do have commonalities here. The wobbly texture of the glass bricks is simpatico with the rugged roughness of the stone, and the grays of the aluminum and the stones do jibe agreeably. And the common theme of the grayscale throughout the bath is the ultimate unifier here.

Photo courtesy of
This takes the stone a step further, organically evolving the tub and shower out of existing ground-rock, bringing them back to their tidal-pool and swimming-hole roots. The wood-plank ceiling is a fine curvilinear complement to the contours of the rock-tub, keeping the scene natural and fluid, like the water and the rock it shaped over eons.

Photo courtesy of
This bath "rocks" with nature, reframing the shower as the rain and the waterfall that were its origins. The stacked stones evoke nature's erosion of ancient ruins. The nature views (through one-way glass, hopefully) bring the real thing into the picture, so "it's like taking a shower in Ireland," as Irish Spring Soap jigged on the radio in the '70s.

Photo courtesy of
Totally dissolving its picture window, this one brings us one step closer to nature, the way it "throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine" even more than Gropius' baths could do — to the point of giving the bather the ultimate "public bath," hence a risk of embarrassment upon emerging from the tub should hunters or horseback riders happen to approach from afar. 

The white porcelain bowl-tub theme repeats itself admirably as twin bowl-sinks designed to appear detached. The knotty wood vanity brings more nature inside, while the mirror-doors on the medicine cabinets expand the effect of the box-burst into "light, space and greenery" of nature beyond the galley confines of the bath.

The result is a balanced compromise between nature and manufacture, neither one upstaging the other.

Simple and sharp
Gropius' vision of "simple and sharply modeled designs" can go beyond the pragmatic into the stylistic, as this combo of clean lines, rich textures and curved forms shows. Frosted sea-green glass, woodgrain veneer, Carrara marble and pearly-white porcelain calmly complement the soothe of the bath, contrasted by the big-city vibrancy of the view.
M Lab-The Country Home,
Linc Thelen Design,
In fact, simple sharpness is transcendent to many styles, from a modern contrast of tinted glass membranes with solid wood planes (left) to classic subway- tile walls where a clean glass-and-metal framework emphasizes the grout lines.

'Ornamental frippery'
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
Compare that to these showers of excess: classical columns, relief carvings, silken swags, frilled pleats, milled panels, marble floors and light crystals make up a 'plumbing plus' spectacle only Gropius and Wright would want to get out of.

A fine line
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
By contrast, these baths do as the Victorians did: tone down the trim for just enough elegance to confirm your standing in society but not so much visual detail as to tempt you to wear out your welcome in the washroom and keep others waiting. 
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The shower: from practical to palatial

Nickel-plated brass shower with shampoo
pipe, for a standalone or fitting over a tub,
Shower over porcelain-enameled iron tub with
curtain of thick cotton or silk lined with rubber,
Notorious for spatial and cosmetic excess as the Victorians were, the shower was where they downsized their decorative, expansive impulses and focused on the most practical, space-saving ways to get clean and refreshed and get on with the morning. 

Which made the shower experience pretty cramped for them, compared to the palatial pomp of the parlor — perhaps on purpose so they wouldn't linger too long in the loo...
American "needle" or "cage" shower, c.1890.
Photo by Dan Theurer, courtesy of
Flickr and Creative Commons.
Canopy shower, manufactured in
the United Kingdom, early 1900s.
Courtesy of
...though the wealthier may have been tempted to do so by plumbing's highest tech of the times: the "needle" shower (left). It encircled the user in nickel-plated brass rings of pinholes spurting needle-thin water-jets all over the body. This made a shower a full-body massage (or polar-bear swim, depending on how the heat and pressure were adjusted with the valves and taps that came with the contraption). 

Also called the "cage" shower, its bare-bones structure proved a bit jailish for the uppercrust after a while. Hence the advent of the "canopy" shower (above, right), which extended a porcelain enamel basin up into a hooded concave shower-wall and often encased it in finely finished wood or accented it with enameled metal ornamentation. This framework gave the user the sculptural poise of a nude statue in a niche. Canopy showers were also pumped up with "douche" and "plunge" settings for stimulating water-cascades, "kidney" or "spinal" sprays for deep-tissue massages where the body was tensest, or even shampoo sprays.

Old-world opulence
Which meant that the luxury of a morning shower was transpiring to the visual as well as the physical not just a bare necessity, but an eyeful, as well as a full-body sensation.

The above examples show how today's homeowners are surpassing the Victorians in stylistic standards for their water-wonderlands. Touches of Gothic England (left) and Renaissance Italy (right) make the shower a world into itself, tempting you not to leave this old-world opulence to face the real-world tensions the shower's steam and stream try to wash away. 

Light and dark
The glass corner lets the sun pour in like shower-water (left). The Carrara marble lightens up the corner further, so you can sunbathe as well as bathe. Conversely, the dark treatment (right) mystifies your daily douche, bringing out the sculptural beauty of the rains as they give you the works.

Neutral and natural
But if you want to go midstream between light and dark, neutral gray tiles coolly complement the soothing serenity of your shower (left). And so does a natural setting (right), which brings the water back to its source — nature — for a really relaxing refreshment.

Sticks and stones
Other natural feels for your shower include hand-hewn wood posts and beams, for rustic ranch or log-cabin intimacy (left). Rough-cut fieldstones (right) give your shower-stream the aura of a waterfall or natural spring streaming out of the rocks.

Open and closed

As the shower naturalizes, its barriers dissolve. Like old ruins, the stacked stone walls expose the shower (and its users) fully to nature, nakedness and all (left). By contrast, the stone-stacking (right) reinforces the shower's closure with the brutal mass of a dungeon wall too high and thick for escape.

Saarinen's sanctuary

The skylit shower descending into a circular tub (left) may have taken cues from Harry Bertoia's skylit sculpture of small metal panels cascading onto the circular altarpiece in Eero Saarinen's 1955 MIT Chapel (right), reinforcing the concept of the modern shower as a sanctuary of spiritual peace.

Fire and water

A fireplace in a shower? How can nature's most averse rivals — fire evaporates water, water quenches fire — coexist so peacefully in one space? Perhaps the fire hastens the warm-up and dry-off process when the water goes off, sparing the user the abrupt aftermath chills that often follow a nice hot dousing in the douche. (No wonder the right-hand image's Pinterest pinner, Tamara Spencer, said, "My daughter would never come out of there!!! Neither would I!!")

Bed and bath

Two other adversaries, the slumber of the bedroom and the wakeup of the shower, are also becoming bedfellows, perhaps to hasten the morning get-go (and evening hay-hit) by reducing the paces between sheets and shower, sparing users the frenzy of darting down the hall to make the head. The chandelier-like rain head quickens the wash as well — elegantly.

Trendy and traditional
The animated tiles and free-form spaces of these "dream baths" show how splashy today's shower can be, visually captivating the free-flowing splish-splash of the water, making you not want to leave your waterworld. But that can mean time and money down the drain.
Mott's combined "needle and rain shower," c.1916.
So the choice for those of modest means and little leisure may be the traditional white-tiled tub/shower, for which we can thank the Victorians for heeding Thoreau's counsel for a change: "Simplify, simplify."

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!