Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Day in History: Machu Picchu "Discovered"

Machu Picchu, (c) J.FulltonNinety-seven years ago today, Yale professor Hiram Bingham III "discovered" the lost Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru. Recently counted among the "New Seven Wonders of the World," Machu Picchu is one of the most amazing places I have ever had the privileges of visiting--and one of the places I would love to visit again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Head & Shoulders Above the Rest

Comcast Center, (c) J. FulltonIt used to be that Philadelphia's City Hall was the tallest building in town. Until 1987, when One Liberty Place broke the "gentlemen's agreement" not to exceed the height of City Hall, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall's tower was, literally, head and shoulders above the rest of the city. (Even the 33 story P.S.F.S. Building is shorter.) In the last 20 years since One Liberty Place was completed, several more buildings have exceeded the height of City Hall, and the 8th building to do so is the newly-completed Comcast Center.

Comcast Center, (c) J. FulltonDesigned by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, the building opened in June of this year. The 975 foot tall skyscraper is 427 feet (80%) taller than City Hall and 30 feet taller than the spire of One Liberty Place, which is now the second tallest building in the city. Though in general it is a tall and slender building with good vertical proportions, it does looks a little chunky and out of context when driving into the city on the Schuylkill Expressway. This gives an unfortunate first impression of the building, which seems more reasonable scaled when viewed from other points throughout the city.

Comcast Center, (c) J. FulltonThe curtain wall is simple and sleek, though the clear glass at the corners and top does look a little funny. Since it is much easier on those portions of the building to see inside to the office floors beyond, from a distance, it almost looks as if the building is surrounded with scaffolding or that the floors are not finished. I imagine that this perception changes with the weather, though. When we were in Philadelphia for Independence Day weekend this year, it was mostly overcast, gray, and a little bit rainy. It is a bit strange, I admit, but I really liked the building in that kind of weather. Under this certain kind of light, the all-glass tower seemed to blend in well with the sky and the city and became a bit more ephemeral instead of massive. It is a huge building after all!

Comcast Center, (c) J. FulltonComcast Center, (c) J. FulltonOne particularly interesting feature of the building was its lobby and atrium. The multi-story public atrium showcases a unique work of art called Humanity in Motion, by sculptor Jonathan Borofsky, in which life-size figures walk across stainless steel tubes traversing the upper portions of the atrium. At the lobby level, Borofsky has even placed "spectators" to watch their acrobatic balancing act.

Comcast Center, (c) J. FulltonComcast Center, (c) J. Fullton
The lobby also showcases a pretty amazing techno-wall of LEDs. The wall frequently shows a number of still and moving images, though it can also be programmed to appear just like the wood paneling that makes up the rest of the lobby, as well!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

P.S.F.S.: Philadelphia's Super Fantastic Skyscraper

Ok, so that is not what P.S.F.S. really stands for, but it is true that the P.S.F.S. Building in Philadelphia is one of my favorite skyscrapers--P.S.F.S. in its case standing for "Philadelphia Savings Fund Society." The 33 story building, designed by George Howe and William Lescaze, was completed in 1932, only a year after the completion of the Empire State Building in New York City. And while the two are really contemporaries, the Empire State Building is considered to be an Art Deco skyscraper while the P.S.F.S Building is considered to be the first International Style skyscraper.

The International Style was defined in great part by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock in their 1931 book The International Style. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name on Modern Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. In the book, they expound upon three main principles of Modern Architecture in the International Style:

(1) Architecture as volume rather than mass: "the prime architectural symbol is no longer the dense brick but the open box";

(2) Regularity, but not necessarily symmetry: "good modern architecture expresses in its design [the] characteristic orderliness of structure and [a] similarity of parts by an aesthetic ordering which emphasizes the underlying [structural] regularity"; and

(3) The avoidance of applied decoration: "architectural detail, which is required as much by modern structure as by the structures of the past, provides the decoration of contemporary architecture."

For many years an office building, the P.S.F.S. building has been opened to the public since 2000 when it was renovated to be the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. The hotel is very nice and I would highly recommend it if you ever plan on staying in Philadelphia. Ask for a high floor on the north or west sides for the best views of Center City! Kim and I have enjoyed staying there twice: the first time for our 5th wedding anniversary in May of 2007 and the second this past Independence Day when we visited Philadelphia with our friend Sujeong.

Though the hotel rooms are quite nice, some of the best architectural features of the building are found in its restored public spaces, including the main lobby and a 33rd floor conference floor (former board-rooms, I imagine), which has a great view of Center City, including City Hall. Since it was rainy when we were in Philadelphia this past Independence Day, we decided to watch the fireworks on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the top of the P.S.F.S.! It was really cool seeing a fireworks display from a skyscraper, although we did unfortunately miss out on the enjoyment of the musical soundtrack.

Even though some of the interiors do feel a little more Deco than Modern, the materials Howe & Lescaze use--both inside and out--are pretty amazing: beautiful granites and marbles in the elevator lobbies, smooth limestone piers along the exterior of the tower which emphasize the tower's height, black glazed brick cladding on the offset elevator core, and beautiful hardwood wall paneling on the conference level. But don't worry! Just when you start thinking that these opulent materials should not really have anything to do with Modernism or the International Style, Johnson and Hitchcock assure us that "the character of surface of volume is not expressed merely by the general design of a modern building [and] the actual materials of the surface itself are of the utmost importance."

PS update: In the photo above, I love the way the strip of windows turns the corner on the black-glazed-brick-clad "core." As if Howe & Lescaze are emphasizing that the brick, usually a load-bearing building material, is simply used as a skin in this case--which it is. If it were load-bearing, it would have had to be continuously vertical at the corners, and the ribbon of windows could not have appeared as it does. It is a cool (dare I say typical) Modern detail!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Birthplace of a Nation

Over Independence Day weekend this year, Kim and I went to Philadelphia with our Korean friend Sujeong. Sujeong is a college student who came to the United States back in April as an intern at Kim's school. Since Kim and I love Philadelphia (and wish we had more excuses to go there already), we thought it would be fun for the three of us to go together. What a better way for Sujeong to get a feel for US history than visiting Philadelphia on Independence Day!?

We had a lot of fun over the weekend and we did many of the touristy things you are supposed to do when you visit Philadelphia: we ate cheesesteak, went to the Franklin Institute, took a trolly tour of Center City's murals, ate at a Stephen Starr restaurant (Brunch at the Continental...yumm!), saw the Liberty Bell, toured Independence Hall, and visited the Constitution Center.

During one of our walks through Old City, we stopped at one of my favorite monuments: Franklin Court. The monument, which sits off of Market Street on the former site of Benjamin Franklin's house and print-shop, was designed in 1976 by Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi (Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates). It commemorates the original structures, which were demolished in the early 1800s, by constructing a "ghosted" outline version of each structure out of square steel tubes, while the plan of the main house's first floor is reconstructed in the paving pattern and concrete vitrines look down onto the original foundations. I think I enjoy the Franklin Court monument so much because it is simple yet descriptive, and it evokes a real sense of history without being too literal or even anachronistic.

I guess I have always had a little bit of a thing for Venturi's work, anyway--mostly because it is fun! I like the idea of architecture that does not take it self too seriously--architecture that is complex and contradictory. My interest in his work is somewhat of a complex contradiction in itself! His work is ugly and ordinary. His buildings are mostly just decorated sheds. He uses brick like wallpaper. He uses boring materials. His color schemes are sometimes questionable. He mixes his metaphors. He is not a Modernist. But he is a talented architect with a particular vision of architecture and specific ideas about what architecture should be and how it should communicate. His designs fulfill this vision, and for that I respect him.

On a side note, I actually applied for a job with VSBA back in 2002 when Kim and I were living in Philadelphia just after we got married. Though it did not work out for me to work there for the summer before we moved to New Haven, I did meet Bob Venturi, very briefly, in the back stair of his Manayunk studio!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Makes a Louis I. Kahn Building an Icon?

Eeek! It has been a month since my last posting. How time does fly during the summer. There is nothing "lazy" about my summer days! Work has been intense (but exciting) this past month as I have been keeping up with Construction Administration duties on our Eighth Avenue Place project in Calgary and have also been working on a team to develop several concepts for a office building in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

In the spirit of a relaxing summer, however, Tuesday evening past, Kim and I went to a lovely summer evening cookout hosted by some of our good friends from church. Over dinner, I was asked by a friend about Louis Kahn. My friend, who is not an architect, was a student at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire when he was younger. Exeter Academy's Library is one of Kahn's most well-known buildings, and my friend remembers many architects and architecture lovers coming to Exeter to see the building. "But," he asked me, "what's so special about Louis Kahn?"

Kahn is clearly an important figure in Modern architecture, but it took even me a while to start to appreciate his work. (Check out this post.) Talking to a non-architect, it was hard to speak about Kahn without architect-y words like "Modern," "mass," "light," "details," "space," and "geometry."

I think the thing I appreciate most about Kahn is his care for detail. Visiting a Kahn-designed building, it becomes clear that the hand of the architect was present in every detail. On the exterior of the Exeter library, for instance, I really love the way Kahn uses the flat arches on the exterior as a natural and elegant transition point to narrow the brick piers from ground to sky. And I gained a greater appreciate of Kahn's design precision while working for Gray Organschi Architecture here in New Haven one summer as a student. I measured and drew an existing storefront space in the British Art Center that was going to be renovated and used as a temporary store for the Yale Art Gallery while its own Kahn building was under renovation! I seem to recall needing to use very few fractions on my measuring tape.

But what do you think about Kahn? Is he really all he is cracked up to be by architects? To my architect readers, what do you love or loathe about Kahn? To my New Havenite friends, what do you think of the Yale Art Gallery or the British Art Center, the first and last museum buildings of Kahn's career? If you have visited any of Kahn's buildings, I would love to hear your thoughts!