Thursday, July 13, 2017

Going mobile

Allston and Brighton present such a wildly eclectic hodgepodge of buildings modeled on places with well-established architectural identities—the New York of Commonwealth Avenue, the Oxford of Brighton High School, the Cambridge of Harvard Business School, the Rome of Harvard Stadium, to name a few—that these Boston neighborhoods lack central defining elements, the way brick rowhouses signify Beacon Hill and bay-windowed brownstones characterize the Back Bay. That was why, in my ramblings through Allston and Brighton's architectural admixture as a resident there, well-landscaped mobile homes like this stood out for me. For they capture the core characteristic that has defined these villages for years: transience with potential for permanence.
 
"Movin' in, movin' out" typifies Allston-Brighton across the generations, as graduate students and greenhorn professionals land pro tem digs there and move on up and out in a few years (as shown by the mountains of couches and whatnot usurping the sidewalks come September). 


Yet this blue dwelling shows how one can homestead with a mobile home: place it on a sizable plot of land and landscape it imaginatively. Thus an ordinary prefab house truly becomes home, giving incentive to stay put, unlike The Who's ideal of the peripatetic "home on wheels" vagabonding hither and yon in their 1971 song "Going Mobile."


Homesteading, indeed—this mobile is a ranch with all the dressing: a rail fence gives the garden a western twang, and topiary balances the ranch-rough with French finesse. Home, home on the range and le jardin de délices—reasons enough not to go mobile from Brighton.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Expo in retro

Photo by Guerinf, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Constitution Act unifying Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as the Dominion of Canada in 1867. So Canadians have another reason to sing "O Canada": it's the golden anniversary of Expo 67, the landmark Montréal world's fair that marked Canada's centennial by flaunting futuristic fantasies in a panoply of new architectural forms showing how science and technology can stretch the imagination and ally diverse world cultures in common goals.
 
Photo by Marc-André Desrosiers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Yet Expo had scant effect on my imagination or aspiration when my parents took me there. All I remember from it are the two exhibits pictured here: Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome (the United States Pavilion) and Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 community. Perhaps I resented being pulled out of Kindergarten for a week, hence missing my friends and a "Leaves Change Color" Crayola-crayon/construction-paper project my whole class had done while I was away. 

But the Red Maple Leaf was the better choice for me in retrospect. For Expo 67 was my earliest exposure to modern architecture and the ways it can enrich our lifestyles while protecting our natural environment by economizing on building materials and land use. And the Tinkertoy framework of Fuller's "world" and the block-building playfulness of Safdie's "city" did captivate my young imagination more than the other exhibits (which may partially explain why they're virtually all that's left of Expo).

Habitat for humanity

Photo by Xavier Comtois, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
 

Photo taken in 1967, courtesy of Shawn Nystrand and Wikimedia Commons
Habitat must have recalled the "big blocks," "interlocking blocks" and Lego bricks I loved in Kindergarten. For this Jenga-like hodgepodge of 354 prefab concrete modules fused the spirits of all three. (A Safdie spokeswoman said Lego played "a role in the design—initial models of the project were built using Legos; subsequent iterations were also built with Legos.") 

Photo by Stilfehler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
1035 Park Ave., NYC (1925-26, Henry C. Pelton)
This helter-skelter of bump-outs, cantilevers and shifting block-stacks gave each unit individuality that intended to feel like a house as well as a unit to the resident. This radically challenged my traditional view of the apartment building as a solid, straight-up streetwall of the sort I was living in on Park Avenue in New York City at the time (right). For Habitat was not only more jagged and fragmented—like a basalt rock, an Aztec ruin, or a Mykonos fishing village—but also lighter and loftier in external appearance and internal feel. This made some of its units seem to float in space, Jetsons-style.

Photo by Brian Pirie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And I did feel in space-travel mode as I walked its connecting paths, bridges and catwalks, observing how sea and sky views streamed in anywhere I turned, how one family's roof was another one's garden, and how the interlinkage forged a sense of intimate community among the 158 units.
 
Photo by Stilfehler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Exploring the units themselves as I went along the walkways felt like my Kindergarten games of "Go In and Out the Windows": each unit felt like a logical extension of the next, and all were indelibly interconnected to one another so that one unit's roof was another one's terrace and one unit's floor was another one's awning. This achieved a delicate balance between light and shade, airiness and groundedness, privacy and community—an immaculate reconciliation of opposing yin-yang forces that made the development a cohesive yet individualized "habitat" in the truest sense. Also, the development's clean-lined, smooth-planed modernism fondly reminded me of some of my father's designs. With that I decided I wanted to live in Habitat when I grew up—which was not to be, or ever will be, given how pricey the units have become, according to a report in The Guardian.

Geodesic genius
 
Photo by Laurent Bélanger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Dluger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The United States Pavilion grabbed most of my attention at Expo, probably because it immediately recalled the Unisphere (right) that had been my strongest memory of the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, Queens, two years prior. In both cases I was awestruck by the way a slender web of crisscrossed steel arcs (right) and a steel honeycomb of hexagons and triangles (above) sculpted majestic globes with space-age auras that appealed to, once again, my fascination with space travel...which would become a virtual reality when my family rode high on the minirail that was transporting us into "the world," as we called it...
 
...a world of space flight, high-tech, pop-art, op-art, and other funky, folky, chic, cool, hot, hip exhibits of the USA as the world leader of innovation across the universe, kudos to the design daring of Peter Chermayeff and Cambridge Seven Associates and, yes, the engineering ingenuity of Bucky's bubble.


Photo by Guerinf, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons











Space and structure
 
Photo by Guerinf, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Those two spectacles of space and structure made all else at Expo pale before my eyes. For the ultramodern of many of the pavilions was bent on showing off the shock of the new and the wave of the future in world architecture, with more style than substance. Others were simply dull, and historical hubris marred the Algerian, Chinese, Egyptian and Maine pavilions.

Photo by Wladyslaw, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But Moshe's mountains and Buckminster's ball did it differently: they innovated space and form solely from the architectonic sciences and the characteristics of materials: moldable concrete with glass for Habitat, tensile steel trusses with acrylic cells for the Dome. They made more space with less material, preempting sprawl and skyscraper.

Eco-Expo
 
Photo by Alex Faris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This model for both conservation and wise use of natural resources ripened the Geodesic Dome for repurposing as the Biosphere Environment Museum. Fuller's original steel-web shell encases a complex of sustainable buildings, green roofs, and indoor gardens. Designed mainly by Eric Gauthier, they showcase the aquatic ecosystems of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, conserve threatened indigenous plant species by restoring their natural ecosystems, and demonstrate the capacity of planted roofs to mollify heat islands and carbon footprints, muffle sound, increase energy-efficiency and purify water and air. Also in and around the dome's biosphere are exhibits on water conservation, climate change, biodiversity, ecotechnologies, and the type of sustainable building development pioneered by forward-thinking architects like Fuller and Safdie.
 
Photo courtesy of the Archives of the City of Montréal
So, yes, the sacrifice of an inessential Kindergarten leaf project to witness Canada turn over a new leaf in architecture history was worth it. Habitat and the Geodesic Dome were models for the eco-building we now need more than ever to save the very world that Expo 67 was honoring—socially with global exhibitions, symbolically with the Dome.
 
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Franklin's Spirit of '76

Photos courtesy of the National Park Service
Few landmarks embody the Spirit of ’76 as poignantly as Franklin Court in Philadelphia. For it is a spirit in its own right—a sculptural “ghost” of Benjamin Franklin’s home, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for the American Bicentennial in 1976. 

Erected on the foundations of Franklin’s residence and print shop—both of which his daughter’s heirs razed in 1812 for income housing—the steel skeleton sculptures suggest the bare-bones framework, rooflines, chimneys and pass-through archway of the buildings, as well as the extent of their interior spaces. 

For instance, the 54-foot-high “house” sculpture lets you know that Franklin’s dwelling, begun in 1763, was three stories tall and had ten rooms.

His wife, Deborah Read Rogers, moved into the house two years later when he went overseas to represent Pennsylvania in the British Parliament and oppose its passage of the Stamp Act of 1765. 

Returning in 1775, Franklin departed again for France to forge the French Alliance with the Colonies that aided their quest for independence. 

While away, he wrote Deborah in detail what he wanted done to the house. She oversaw its renovation, as indicated by the correspondence engraved in the footprint’s flagstones. The draftsman’s images of walls, closets, window/door openings, stairs and a fireplace show how Franklin planned his home, including the library he added in 1788, two years before his death. Children may associate these lines with a basketball court or playground, but once they learn their architectural symbolism, they might enjoy sitting, standing, walking or going in-and-out-the-windows in the different “rooms,” imagining their look and feel.

For these sculptures leave the true appearance of the house and shop up to your imagination, as no historical records or renderings of them have ever surfaced. But plenty surfaced in archeological excavations of their grounds: foundations, water wells, privy pits, and ceramic artifacts, including a rare Bristol punchbowl discovered in a pit. The well and pit sites are preserved. 

Mulberry and plane trees, brick paving, and stone walks recreate the quiet, orderly court ambiance Franklin planned as a retreat from city life, as well as direct access to it when needed. The cobblestone path through the print shop’s archway continues through the central arch of the colonial rowhouse block at 314-322 Market Street, all on axis with his residence.

Built between 1753 and 1797 for Franklin's business purposes, the diversely designed Georgian-Federal rowhouses are restored to reflect some of the many hats he wore as postmaster, printer and publisher. The United States Postal Service Museum at 314 displays original Pony Express pouches and issues of Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post Office at 316 still uses his trademark postmark “B. Free Franklin” to cancel stamps. 

Franklin’s obsession with fire-resistant buildings (as founder of the first fire department in Pennsylvania) is exhibited on three floors at 318, which he built as a rental property. Exposed walls reveal wooden joists separated by plaster and masonry. Glassware and pottery unearthed in the excavation are displayed in the cellar. 

The Printing Office and Bindery at 320 exhibits colonial printing and binding equipment. At 322, Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, published The General Advertiser newspaper. It became The Aurora in 1802 under the editorship of William Duane, who married Bache’s widow, and later James Wilson, grandfather of President Woodrow Wilson. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” edited Godey's Lady's Book there from 1837 to 1877.

True to its archeological emphasis, Franklin Court continues beneath the privies as the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Its 2011-2013 renovation into a modern design of metal posts and beams and a brown-tinted glass facade displeased Venturi and Scott Brown, and those expecting to see the room below may be in for a letdown.

The arcaded, columned colonial hall displayed automated statuettes of Franklin in different phases of his life, spotlighted and revolved chronologically to depict him resisting the Stamp Act in Parliament, schmoozing with Louis XVI at the Court of Versailles, or cajoling the Constitutional Convention to approve the U.S. Constitution while nearing death.

Exhibits in the new museum's bare-bones spaces include a computer-animated rendition of Franklin's "library." We observe him quill-penning his autobiography in his final days, letting us in on his reflections on his extraordinary life and the future of the nation he co-founded.

Also on display are some of Franklin's great inventions: bifocal spectacles, the Franklin stove, the pneumatic air pump, Poor Richard's Almanack, and the “Armonica,” a glass harmonica of graduated glass bowls on a pedal-operated spindle that produce different musical tones when wet fingers press their rims as they turn (for which Mozart wrote his Adagio for Glass Armonica in C Major).

Each of the five rooms focuses on one of Franklin's character traits: Ardent and Dutiful, Ambitious and Rebellious, Motivated to Improve, Curious and Full of Wonder, Strategic and Persuasive. The videos, touch-screen and mechanical interactive exhibits, and artifact displays encourage children to adapt those positive characteristics into their own lives, so that Franklin's spirit of '76 can live again in American generations to come.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

The royalty of Rhodes Hall

Photos courtesy of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, except where noted
Also known as Le Rêve (“The Dream”) and the “Castle on Peachtree,” Rhodes Memorial Hall at 1516 Peachtree St. NW in Atlanta realizes that “castle in the air” and “your home is your castle” living situation that dominated many of our childhood reveries. Built in 1904 for $50,000 as the residence of Amos Giles Rhodes, proprietor of Rhodes Furniture in Atlanta, this robust granite mansion was designed by Willis F. Denny II in a Romanesque Revival style inspired by the German Rhineland castles Rhodes idolized while traveling in Europe in the late 1890s. 

Its granite towers and battlements, mahogany woodwork, murals, parquet floors, tile mosaics and stained glass reflect Rhodes’ standing as one of Atlanta’s wealthiest citizens. Born in Kentucky in 1850, he opened his furniture store locally, expanded it to 35 Southeastern cities, and continued to run it until his death in 1928. The mahogany is from the West Indies, and the granite was quarried at Stone Mountain, 25 miles east of Atlanta. Fascinated by the new technology, he electrically wired his home with 300 lightbulbs, multiple call buttons for servants, and an advanced security system.

The arched, columned porch with coffered ceiling is an “outdoor room” in itself.
The porch introduces the tall, dark and handsome reception hall with
mosaic-tiled fireplace, mirrored mahogany mantel, picturesque
nature murals, and carved mahogany staircase.
Regally rising above the stair are three stained-glass window
triptyches designed by the Von Gerichten Art Glass Company,
winner of four gold medals at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition,
a.k.a. the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904.
The windows depict the Confederacy’s rise and demise, from its firing
on Fort Sumter to its surrender at Appomattox. These scenes no doubt
inspired Margaret Mitchell's background research for Gone with the
Wind 
in the house when it held the Georgia State Archives.
The Louis XV-styled parlor is embellished with high columns, scrolled
brackets, ornate ceiling, cascading crystal chandelier, silken damask
panels, and a bow window with fanspread arches and paneled pilasters.
Photo courtesy of History Atlanta




Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center
If you’re inclined, go up to the roof and observe how the neighborhood has changed over 111 years. Built on 114 acres of land stretching across Tanyard Creek, Rhodes Hall was comparable to Tara from Gone with the Wind in southern plantation elegance and expanse. Most of that land is now taken over by modern office buildings and the Brookwood Interchange of I-75/85. As a holdout from the period when such stately homes lined Peachtree Street before most gave way to urban progress, Rhodes Memorial Hall memorializes an era that “is no more than a dream remembered. A civilization gone with the wind,” as the movie’s opening titles read.

Photo courtesy of the Georgia Archives
It remains because Amos Rhodes’ heirs deeded his home and an acre of his land to the state of Georgia for use for “historic purposes.” It housed the Georgia State Archives from 1930 to 1965, then became the Peachtree Branch of the Archives. In 1983, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation leased Rhodes Hall from the state, restoring it as a historic house museum and their home.  
Rhodes Memorial Hall is also a popular venue for weddings, wedding receptions and bridal showers, particularly its “Cupid at the Castle” 15-minute weddings on Valentine’s Day, where up to 20 pre-registered couples exchange vows for a $200 donation that benefits the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. 

For more information on Rhodes Memorial Hall, call 404-881-9980, or visit the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, 233 Peachtree Street, 404-521-6600.

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