India Trip May 2011

Gerard Damiani and I are proposing to lead another CMU School of Architecture trip to India.   It is open to all CMU students, with preference given to upper level architecture students.  Here the proposal:


What is Pittsburgh Architecture?

What makes Pittsburgh’s architecture and built environment special or unique?  How do we distinguish ourselves from other cities in the US and abroad? What has characterized Pittsburgh architecture in the past?  How has Pittsburgh’s “architectural culture” changed over time?  Can we identify “regional” or “local” or culturally specific aspects?  Why?

What are Pittsburgh’s “Signature Buildings”?  The AIA has a list of “Pittsburgh’s Favorite Buildings“: are there others?

PAC Members and all interested in architecture and the allied arts: let’s discuss. Please add your voice as a comment below.

My response: Pittsburgh’s architecture, and our attitudes towards it, seem indelibly marked by the region’s heritage and history: both good and bad. In the 19th and early 20th-century, the architecture was often as proud as the local plutocrats, and as eclectic as its many immigrant communities. Buildings were solid, big, usually unassuming and conservative, rarely cutting edge. Afterall, this is an inland industrial town, not an agricultural town, nor a port and trading town, nor one built on culture. A city built from the raw, dirty riches of the underground, is very different than one built from the bounty of the land and people above. Neglect, abuse, and opportunism seem to dominate, rather than vision, nurturing, and repairing.
As a result, the city soon choked on its own success. Pollution and the waste from mining and the mills pulled down the quality of life, blackened buildings, destroyed and hid much of the natural beauty of the landscape. Already before WWII, the city became unlivable, and city fathers struggled to come up with reasonable answers. As in their businesses, they thought bold and brash: they leveled the Point, they leveled the Hill, they shredded the continuities of the urban fabric with highways. As development exploded and sprawled into the surrounding ravines and hollows, most buildings were little more than menial and functional. Few had a grander vision, for individual buildings, or the landscape overall. Beauty rarely seemed to be a goal. In the postwar era, and again after the steel era, the opportunities to create a new city were there, but in many ways squandered, in part by overly grand plans, in part by lack thereof. In Pittsburgh, we’re still suffering from the actions of these so-called Renaissances, too often repeating mistakes and mentalities.
But now, with the mining and the mills increasingly irrelevant within the City, we’re starting to focus on the land above, the quality of life under the sky–or at least we should. Architecture has yet another opportunity to re-shape the region’s character, to create a new Pittsburgh. We ought to move beyond the nostalgia for our industrial heritage, beyond our menial and neglectful ways, but also beyond our self-deprecating attitude about our grimy city. Rather, Pittsburgh architecture should embrace both the landscape and people we’re blessed with, and a larger world, with many small, collective visions of tomorrow.

Reading – Architecture

David Brooks had an interesting opinion piece in the NYTimes today about the power of reading, and especially the difference between reading real books and reading on the internet.  Although the article is about lower-income kids, I believe the same applies to architecture students and professionals.  Reading real books about architecture is essential to becoming part of the profession, to feeling empowered by knowledge, and the rich tradition of theory and scholarship that has always been the source for all great architecture.

What books are you reading?  Send in your list: let’s try to create a summer reading list for the whole studio.

Building Analysis Assignment 2010

2nd Year Architects,

Summer greetings.   I hope by now you’ve been able to rest up from the work of the school year, and have started your summer activities.

I have sent each of you an email with the summer building analysis sketch assignment that I had referenced earlier in the summer.  The assignment calls for you to do research on a series of 6-8 courtyard buildings, and to create a single page of freehand diagrams for each of the buildings.   It is due Aug. 23, at 1:30pm, the first day of studio.

Please email me with any and all questions and concerns.


Architecture of Recycled Infrastructure

In the quest to go green, and be eccentric, architects and clients are searching for new things to recycle, new materials for architecture.  The Tree Hugger blog has posted a house currently under construction in Malibu, CA made out of a jumbo jet.  Its use of infrastructure, the issue of scale and re-purposing of other-functional pieces, reminds of the “Big Dig House” made out of an old highway that was removed for the new highway in Boston.

Architects Build Small Spaces

The Victoria & Albert museum in London, which specializes in issues of craft, design, etc., is about to open a fun exhibit called “Architects Build Small Spaces.” The museum invited a bunch of young architects and architecture student groups to build 1:1 follies or “buildings” inside and around the museum in London.  One building is by Rural Studio (Andrew Freear came to speak at CMU on the school’s work this spring).  See top row of images below

It seems like a perfect 2nd year design project.  We’ve started the year off with a 1:1 project the last two years, in 2007 with an “Observation/Installation” on the front porch of CFA, and in 2009 with a “Light Transformer” interior installation.  See 2nd row of images below.

The idea of building 1:1 in a museum goes back to the houses that the MoMA in NYC has commissioned over the years, from architects like Marcel Breuer, Frank Lloyd Wright, and most recently a bunch of “Pre-Fab” experments.  Another important example are the follies built for the “Young Architects Program” (YAP) at PS1 (a MoMA extension in Queens) every summer, often highlighting avant-garde and radical design for fun and public interaction.

Architecture as “Pattern Interruption”

The psychologist Pavel Somov, in the Huffington Post, is calling for an architecture of “pattern-interruption.”   He cites the present trend in architecture away from conspicuous consumption, away from radical form “because we can,” away from “extravagant, eye-popping trophy buildings.”  But Somov also admonishes the merely functional or only green, calling for a synthesis of  functional architecture and one that is intellectually and emotionally more demanding.

Somov advocates something that is “both-and,” something that is “clean and green” as well as provocative, so that it is “functional” on both the physical as well as emotional and psychological plane.   This more challenging architecture, he claims, should be a “pattern-interruption architecture, i.e. an architecture of awakening.”  He claims the mind naturally seeks out, and falls back on, “clichés, patterns, stereotypes and schemas…  So, when the mind stumbles upon the unfamiliar, it chokes and wakes up.  Intentional pattern-interruption, as a method of therapy or architecture, surprises the mind-curmudgeon, and, in so doing, leverages presence and mindfulness.”

In a series of analogies to meditation, Somov goes on to analogize challenging architecture to a Zen Koan (a Koan is a story, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition.  One widely known kōan is “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?”).

The question remains, what does this “pattern interruption” architecture look like, and how “disruptive” it needs to be in order to be effective?  Do we need to be hit over the head with blinding novelty and architectural pandemonium?  Or might it be that this “disruption” is most powerful when it is most subtle, like a Zen Koan?

(All images of work by SANAA)