Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty (and fifty) years after

Attack of the World Trade Center, New York City, September 11, 2001. Photo by Evan Giniger.
Remains of 67, and 1 WTC on September 17, 2001. 
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford.
On this 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 devastation of New York's World Trade Center by terrorist-hijacked airplanes, I'm sure the minds of all who were around back then and not too young to remember that cataclysm that claimed 2,606 lives (plus 125 in the Pentagon attack and 44 in the diverted plane crash in Shanksville, Pa.) still explode with stories so diverse and numerous they'd fill all the gigabytes in all the digital archives in the world.
September 11, 2001. Photo by WalkingGeek (CC BY 2.0).
September 11, 2001, taken from a rooftop in Brooklyn and from the Brooklyn waterfront.
Photo by Andrew Lynch (CC BY 2.0).
Many (myself included)  remember just where they were and what they were doing when the news hit them by TV, car radio, phone, Internet, word of mouth, etc. Which is not surprising; due to the advanced communication and information technology we were fortunate to have by then (and without which the passengers of Flight 93 wouldn't have been able to prevent their hijackers from doing more damage), the impact of this "shot heard [or seen or felt] 'round the world" was far more far-reaching, time-halting and panic-inducing than the others throughout history, including John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, the 1883 volcanic eruption on Krakatoa heard 3,000 miles away, and, of course, the initial musket-fire of the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord that gave rise to that locution in "Concord Hymn," Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 tribute to that historic start of the Revolutionary War.
My history with the World Trade Center goes back a good 50 years when I lived in New York and was first learning, to my chagrin, that a new skyscraper project was going to cop the "World's Tallest" title from a building that made me proud to be a New Yorker as I gazed in awe at my bronze souvenir model of it. My treasure was emblazoned in bold block lettering on each side of its base as follows: on one side, "1,472 FEET"; on another, "WORLD'S TALLEST"; and on another, "EMPIRE STATE BUILDING." In fact, 
that year (1971) my father decided to take my family to visit this prized icon of Superman single-bounding and King Kong colossus and gawk at its cityscape views before it lost its Royal Highness crown to the new World Trade Center the city was all abuzz about.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Victorian foresight

A recent open-house tour with an architecture buff friend of mine who sought a Brookline, Massachusetts home for his relocating cousin, while getting his fill of Victorian grandeur for the week, was an eye-opener for me regarding how adaptable these 19th- and early-20th-century homes are to the demands of today's homebuyer—as if the Victorians sensed what future generations wanted all along. They certainly prefigured the form-follows-function modernism to come, as the exterior of this 1902 Queen Anne / Shingle Style hybrid shows. Its deep stoop-raised porch, large windows, bulging bay window, cantilevered second floor, and gabled roof truly reveal the vast generosity and quirky geometry of space and light inside.

This is what greets us the moment we step inside. The bay window seems to grow bigger and broader, expanding the space and light into an open-concept feel, supplemented by the oversized side window, both close to the floor-to-ceiling windows virtually every new skyscraper condo boasts. Wall-height bookcases flank the entrance, true to a Victorian wise-space-use tradition still widely practiced today. (This is despite ebooks and phone-reads being the new normal—but, hey, they're of no use for impressive housewarming or home-staging, because your household has to appear well-read, even if you've never touched those Dickens and Thackeray tomes on your shelf.)

The Victorians certainly conceived the beginnings of the taste for open concept that's prevalent in today's new construction. A wide doorway grants passage from the living room to the dining room, never letting dinner-party guests lose sight of the bay window that beckons them back when the feast is finished.

Because of this open concept, the dining room offers ample elbow-room, as well as a fluid connection to the kitchen, once again showing Victorian foresight for the open floor plan today's homebuyers love. The first floor is actually on a traditional foursquare plan, with the foyer, living room, dining room and kitchen each constituting one "square," but all are interconnected and lead us back to square one (the foyer), for the easy navigation we crave today.

The cantilevering of the second floor provides for bedrooms that have not only the size but also the versatility we seek, allowing them to double as home offices for remote working.

Similarly, the breadth of the gable debunks the myth of the attic as a cramped, dark storage nook, providing instead two garrets for very sizable side-to-side bedrooms. This one reinvents the 19th-century tradition of built-in shelving or storage units below the gable-slant, as an entertainment center for a flat-screen TV, once again demonstrating how the Victorians thought of everything.

The more cramped spaces in the dormer gables offer their benefits, too, in the form of a cathedral touch in the primary bathroom. A soaking tub was made to fit gingerly in-between the dormer's side walls, and the soar of the gable provides breathing room during a bath, offering it the effect of coziness and cathedral-space simultaneously. The basketweave pattern of the marble-tile floor brings back some of the space's Victorian luster.

The raised first floor and its stooped porch denote a substantial basement below, roomy and ready for renovation into the versatile home gym you see here...

...with room to spare for a game room, complete with shelves that can accommodate a microwave, satisfying today's demand to make space in every space.

This second house on our tour was pre-Victorian, built in 1823, but later updated with a Victorian verandah and compatible interior details. It is known as the Joseph Sewall House, the 20th house built in Brookline and the second in what would become the town's Pill Hill historic district (so named because it was a doctors' mecca). A partner in the Boston-based Sewall & Tappan shipping company, Joseph was a progeny of Salem Witch Trial judge Capt. Samuel Sewall. After its 1970s condo conversion, its residents included novelist Gary K. Wolf, author of Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the basis for the 1980s hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Like its Victorian successors, this house was forward-looking in its use of oversized windows and large spaces, suitable for today's light-filled, flexible floor plans.

Yet its condo chop-up ran its space into some roadblocks. Here the stair to the upper-level units is awkwardly placed, which causes its turned-baluster rail to run up against the wall and be denied its logical continuity (and safety provision) up the stair. But at least the sinuous double columns and the rosette-studded beam of this Victorian lobby decoration agreeably offset that flaw.

One of the building's original floor-to-ceiling windows—a prototype for what today's skyscraper condos call for—affords the living room generous light and an expanded sense of space, supplemented on a more intimate level by the original pocket-shuttered side windows that mark the home's Greek Revival period. The black marble fireplace mantel in-between the windows does the same, touting the era's emphasis on ornamental simplicity with its unadorned, unfluted Tuscan columns and simple central panel. Contrasting this is the bas-relief complexity of the cast-iron surround, apparently a Victorian addition, boasting side images of the Roman god Mercury with his snake-twined caduceus, a central bust of the Roman goddess Minerva, and geometric designs typical of Victorian leaded glass flanking her. But the Roman origins of the god images and the Tuscan columns are compatible across the styles and eras.

The eat-in kitchen gets plenty of light from two original pocket-shuttered windows, but it certainly shows its '80s age with square terra cotta tile floor and backsplash, hump-paneled wood cabinetry and black-colored range, though the granite counters would still hold up today, in a fresher design context. (How curious that we call those styles "dated" but not the much older Victorian ones. Perhaps it's because of the artistry that was put into the latter, that we can still appreciate today, as opposed to the streamlined and fabricated way '80s décor like this was manufactured, which gives it a chintzy, commonplace look that's easy to tire of and replace with a contemporary style, hence call "dated.")

The house's generous expanse of space allows this unit two sizable bedrooms, one strong on wall area (left), the other on light, courtesy of its two windows (right). Yet one wonders if the first bedroom's long wall space and singular window are out of proportion with each other, since they yield uncomfortable dark corners in the room. Still, the window is reasonably well placed to shed light on one corner for a workstation there.

The primary bathroom (left) makes the most of its constraining L shape, but its vertical-windowed alcove leaves little room for a tub substantial enough to soak in, except for bathing a child. A shower stall would have been best. Also, the bathroom's limited space forces the vanity to nearly bump up against the tub, making it vulnerable to water damage and leaving less egress for the bather. The second bathroom (right) does better, fitting a sizable shower in its galley space and a just-big-enough all-porcelain pedestal sink that isn't susceptible to shower-spray damage.

The Joseph Sewall House's broad front and side expanses and spacious ell addition certainly gave it space for multiple condo units, but its immense footprint hardly hints at the unevenness of the spaces inside, due to haphazard floor planning for the condo conversion. So, unlike the Queen Anne / Shingle Style house we saw, this one scores on historical preservation and significance but falls short on exterior veracity about its interior offerings, as well as consistency of interior comfort, because the condo planner didn't heed the original architect's foresight about what the house could offer future generations if left alone or given a more sensitive renovation. Quite a contrast there.

The final open house on our tour presented a contrast to both of the others. Like the Sewall House, the façade of this much-rebuilt 1900 two-family home belies its interior, but in a different, and more satisfying way:

Whoa! What a gargantuan open floor plan you walk into, which offers even more flexibility in living-dining arrangement than either of the other homes, owing to a removal of the wall between the living and dining spaces to create a multipurpose great room.

As you can see, the great room keeps itself open to the kitchen, turning all common areas into one humongous entertaining arena, in a way that emphasizes the oneness of the dining and living rooms with the kitchen for faster food service and a larger dinner-party/cocktail space. The dining and living realms are demarcated by a ceiling beam and a wall post, and the living room is further defined with a bay window that expands its space and light, harnessing Victorian and contemporary spacemaking traditions simultaneously.

This studio-style openness extends to the stair... the bedroom level, where another sweep of space awaits, able to accommodate a king-size sleeping area, a home office, and a myriad of other amenities—including a baby grand piano! (Yes, that's a good measure of the adequacy and efficiency of a living space: how well it could accommodate a grand piano, physically and acoustically, plus a concert/recital audience. An upright piano or spinet would be less good a measure, for those were invented as space-savers and fitters into tighter spaces.)

Here the quirky angles of the roof gables do their stuff again to add drama to the space without making it feel atticky...

...leaving ample room for a good-sized primary bathroom that lines up its tub and shower laterally along one wall for the sake of spatial economy and inclusion of bathroom luxuries as well as necessities.

Even though my friend's cousin said nay to all three homes, that open-house tour presented a good variety of examples of how Victorian-era homes can serve contemporary households, depending on how punctilious the planning of the interiors were. The first one demonstrated how well existing spaces could fit the bill, the second one cautioned us about the consequences of sometimes-haphazard floor-planning, and the third one showed how adaptable a turn-of-the-20th-century house was to today's open-concept living by careful renovation.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Bath to nature

"When nature calls" is our standard summons to go use the facilities. But is nature really calling us, design-wise? What does "bathroom" bring to mind, regarding the materials we see, touch, and clean when another nature calls (mold and mildew)?

That's easy: Tile. Enamel. Iron. Steel. Chrome. Brass. Glass. Granite. Marble. Quartz. Plastics.
All but the last are indeed natural (unless you chemists consider polymers nature-based). And granite and marble do lend natural touches to your routine. But they are so factory-honed they feel more ritzy than natural. These two bathrooms with plants and green views are good starts toward a "bath to nature," but are still too fabricated to truly be.
Here's an even better start, courtesy of Civil Engineering Discoveries: a bathroom assimilating some of the colors and materials of nature to blend with the trees outside of the clerestory window. The bathroom harmonizes with this nature by abstracting its chromatic and sometimes material essentials into its design. Reddish-brown wood is used for the vanity, towel-rack, door-frame and shower-shelf. Green tilework in the shower directly complements the tree-view. The chaotic nature of clouds, leaves and soil are expressed in the wall and floor. In this way the bathroom draws upon Japanese home design tradition of emphasizing the wood frame and the screen surface to simplify it enough to blend it with nature.

These bathrooms push the nature-blend a bit farther, spreading the wood onto the walls and beyond with mounted wood-box shelves, a wood-framed mirror and a lower wood shelf (left), and a plant-accented wood-cased vanity complemented with the rustic stains and veins of quartz wainscoting (right)
These bathrooms edge away from the rather ritzy slickness of the previous ones with more rustic wood-plank walls that reflect the organic graininess of wood, as a fine complement to the gray tones, which complement the calming characteristics of the wood with a neutralization of the spaces.

Here's even more of a nature-assimilator: a bathroom that proudly shows off nature's gnarly, knotty nature. The vanity was apparently formed from a twisted tree-limb that was honed with an ax to rough out its rusticity to the max, leaving room at the bottom for storage of a few toiletries. The mirror is presented as an organic globule that boldly defies formality as it reflects the complementary wood post and beam. How'd you like to wake up to this every morning?

This one really roughs it as best as possible to offset the upscale formality of the bowl-sink, the oval egg tub and the back-straightening commode. This was built in 2013 by a Norwegian family as the bathroom for a sustainable off-grid house on Sandhorney Island, North Norway, in the Arctic Circle. That back-to-nature approach is certainly reflected in the hand-hewn post, the workbench-like vanity, and the textured stucco finishes all around, not to mention the green-grown view.

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.
Sadly (or happily?), many of 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 modern 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" 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.

But when nature really calls and you really want a "bath to nature," take this nature connection a giant leap further and go soak in your outdoor hot tub...

...or jump in your backyard swimming pool! (Hey, it's summer, right?)

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Of the hill

Norman Lykes House, Palm Canyon, Phoenix, Arizona, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Upper photo courtesy of Lower photo by Steve Hoge, courtesy of Flickr.
I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and home should live together each the happier for the other.

In his lifelong quest for an organic architecture that did not dominate the land as its Classical, Gothic and Victorian precursors did but integrated itself with it to become one with the Mother Earth that originated its materials, Wright combined site with structure in many of his designs. This allowed each to benefit from the other. The building mirrored and abstracted its environment's natural forms in its architecture while conserving its site to preserve nature's ecosystems and offer the picturesque natural views many a homebuyer would desire.
Photos courtesy of L'autre carnet de Jimidi.
The Norman Lykes House near Phoenix, Arizona, realizes his goal fully. Begun before his death in 1959 and completed in 1966, it seems to hibernate in the hill, curve with its contours, crag with its cliffs, and swoop with its sweep, affording its owners a wraparound panorama of Palm Canyon's mountainous desert country while providing fluid spaces that reflect human circulation patterns.

In the following images the house is so "of the hill" that it resists the urge to be "king of the hill." It defers to the hill's earthly dominion by not only letting its pool-users and porch entrants enjoy hill views but also not letting them forget the nature that originally created the house, as if it were a logical continuity of the hill.
Photo courtesy of Alexandru Luca of Pinterest.

Photo courtesy of L'autre carnet de Jimidi.

Notice how "on the hill" its neighbor is compared to the "belongingness" of the Lykes House. The neighbor diverts our attention from the nature onto itself with a white façade that counters the warm earthtones the Lykes House borrows from its rocky environs. Also, the neighbor's linear geometry, clearly man-made, clashes with the nature-made feel of the Lykes House's organic curves.
But Wright did not originate the "of the hill" ideal. Civil Engineering Discoveries, a New York-based "learning platform for all over the world," often posts images of hill-bound housing from all over the world that show us how diverse cultures have used the hill and mountain to best advantage for views, natural resources, health, remoteness, and unification of their homes with nature's majesty.

For example, these one-level houses on the Faroe Islands, a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark, have roofs sodded like the grass of the hill they stand on, bringing them closer to the ground than the Danish tradition of earth-hugging low-scale homes. This also enables the peaked gables to pay homage to the peaked mountains in the distance.
An earthier example: a Welsh house that reprises the Faroe Islands' sodde
d roof and one-story stature but takes its belongingness to the hill a step further by mimicking the hill's contours. It slopes up from the ground and slants slightly down to become more hill-like, allowing for a patio and hot-tub, though that mars the "eyelid" effect that would have made the house even hillier. But the fieldstone walls augment the house's earthiness by honoring its natural resources.
This residential community on the Amalfi Coast in Italy is arguably on the hill, built in the Classical, Italianate and Renaissance architectural traditions that Wright deemed notorious for counteracting nature's spontaneously organic fluidity with monumentally manmade pretension. 

Yet I think they're of the hill in their own way. For one, they sit precariously on a steep elevation, mirroring the craggy rocks of the adjoining cliffs, appearing just as vulnerable to nature's meteorological disruptions as nature is itself. But this siting is beneficial, too, stacking them down the cliff, which affords generous sun and sea air for all concerned. Also, their wide variety of colors reflect the diversity of flora that grows in those parts. 
Here is a more unified example of Italian hillside development, in Gangi, Sicily. 

Here the rowhouses are of a more uniform design and are more consistent in height, and the slate roofs are colored to reflect the terrain of the neighboring mountains. This makes them even more "of the hill" than the previous example. 

Furthermore, the variations in the roof heights seem to imitate the unevenness of natural mountain curves and undulations, while the roofs resemble the unified hue of the mountains, and the steep slope of their hill allows all of the houses the generous sunlight that pours onto the mountains, baking them into a golden brown.
Hobbiton, Matamata, New Zealand, built for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Photo by Jackie.lck (CC BY 2.0).

Bilbo Baggins' hobbit-hole, Hobbiton Movie Set. Photo by Tom Hall (CC BY 2.0).
What would most delight Wright regarding of-the-hill habitation would be Hobbiton in Middle-earth (as constructed in Matamata, Waikato, New Zealand, as a movie set for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films), the location of Bilbo Baggins' earth-tunneled hobbit-hole, as J.R.R. Tolkien himself described it in The Hobbit:

The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

Now that's hill and home living together, each the happier for the other—and for Bilbo, to whom this marriage granted the luxury of one-level living and, as far as the earth could stretch, mansion-quality space he didn't have to build high on the hill to attain. Happy, that is, until the day Gandalf appeared at his perfectly circular green door...

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!