Thursday, October 13, 2011

Toronto Modern

I was in Toronto last week for the 10th annual Greenbuild conference and expo.  Though my short time in the city was spent primarily in the convention center attending seminars and visiting product booths, I took a few hours one glorious afternoon to take a brisk walk around downtown.

First stop, the Toronto-Dominion Centre by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s.

A view up to the Mies monoliths from the grassy lawn.  The buildings appear to be undergoing a re-cladding or re-painting of the curtain wall.  I wonder how the architects of the renovation have taken into account Mies' vision within the context of modern technologies and advancements in building envelope design?

Apparently, I missed a major feature of the TD Centre when I did not pass through to the banking pavilion on the northeast corner of the block (a cousin to the post office at the Chicago Federal Center).  Oops!  However, I thought the lawn near the southwest corner of the complex was a nice respite from the usual paved plaza of Mies' other urban work.  I walked through the area near the end of lunch time, and the lawn and surrounding granite benches were still being heavily used, which is always a good sign in a public place.

I love the simple glass box lobby with travertine walls--classic hallmarks of Mies.  One thing I noticed for the first time, however, was the tiled soffit.  I do not know if this is typical of other Mies high-rises, but it gave a nice gloss to the ceiling inside and out and added to the lightness at the base of the large buildings.

A couple blocks north, I stopped by Toronto's city hall by Finnish architect Viljo Revell in the early 1960s.  Revell is a sort of one-hit-wonder architect and is most famous for Toronto's city hall but relatively unknown otherwise.  Currently, they appear to be doing some renovation work on the glass facades of the towers.

Toronto's city hall exhibits just the kind of free-form "fun" Modernism that I tend to be drawn to.  Though the plaza in front seems well-used (there was a farmer's market on the day I visited) the urban environment suffers a bit from the sterile bleakness of many aging Modern public spaces.  (I am reminded of my visit to photograph Albany's Empire State Plaza on a weekend, where during my entire visit, I saw fewer than half-a-dozen people in the vast public space.)

Although I think the form of the two towers gently enclosing the, council formally elegant, I cannot help but think that their windowless outer face turns the towers' proverbial back on the city, focusing inward on the bureaucracy of city government.  It makes sense that something like this would have been built within the context of mid-century urban renewal, where in cities across the continent whole neighborhoods were bulldozed for monumental, internally-focused (often governmental) projects, but it seems out of touch with a vibrant urban community that I get the sense of when I am in Toronto.

One of the recent attempts to both "green" and humanize city hall is the addition of a green roof, gardens, and public space on the roof of the building's podium.  The design is by PLANT Architect of Toronto, and I must say that it is a welcome and beautiful addition to the building.  It was delightful to walk up the long ramp to the roof and enter a world of bugs, cricket sounds, and playful birds.  Though the sounds of "nature" were not quite enough to drown out all the sirens, car horns, and buses of the surrounding city, the elevation above the street and the connection with a natural landscape (contrived, but beautiful of course), was a great respite.

Gravel and paved paths wind their way around the city hall towers, with benches and seats providing spots to rest, read, or relax.  As I think about it now, I wish there had been a bit of a water feature to provide some white noise over the city, but during my visit, I did not really find the experience lacking.

What looks like bush-hammered concrete on the outer face of the city hall towers a la Paul Rudolph and the Yale Art & Architecture Building is really something quite extraordinary.  Instead of rough concrete, the surface is actually inlaid with split- or cleft-faced white stone (marble?) strips.  I have never seen anything quite like it.  In areas where the facade has been cleaned, in the sunlight it was really quite brilliant, and with the addition of the public park on the roof of the podium it is easy to access the building for a closer look.

Let's take a look inside city hall!  I loved the big, wooden doors.  The wood hardware bends slightly out away from the door to signify "pull" and slightly in toward the door to signify "push."  Nice design!

Just inside the doorway is a really cool sculpture on the wall...

...made of nails!

Revell died before the building was completed.  He is commemorated on a column just inside the doors of city hall.  Notice the floor, which has white stone strips laid into the terrazzo, similar to the exterior of the towers.

The council chamber sits atop a pedestal that skewers the podium and goes clean down into the floor surrounded by lights and a little amphitheater with flags and commemorative plaques.  The clerestory surrounding the council chamber lets natural light into the podium and allows the chamber and its pedestal to "float" within the composition of the podium.

I love when architecture is so iconic that it becomes a logo!  (Like Oscar Niemeyer's Chapel of St. Francis which we saw on logos all across Belo Horizonte during our trip to Brazil this past summer.)  This photo was of the sign to the roof garden of city hall, but the logo is really everywhere, including trash cans all across the city.

Continuing my jaunt north, I walked up to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) which features an addition and facade renovation by native Torontonian, Frank Gehry.  The expansion opened in 2008 and is Gehry's first project in Canada.

The new facade of the AGO is a sleek, curved glass facade supported on curved wood beams.  It reminds me of Gehry's early explorations of fish in both sculpture and architecture.  It is quite restrained for a Gehry, which is entirely appropriate for the context.  I really appreciate its subdued and elegant forms.

Each end of the block-long facade flips up in tail?  Or is it a billboard?  (What would Venturi do with this Duck-cum-Decorated Shed!?)

Looking up at the backside of the extended facade, including the wood beams.

Behind the AGO is another component of the Gehry addition:  a bright blue titanium box with a squiggly stair.  Blue titanium and squiggly design elements.  Now we're talkin' Gehry!

A closer view of the spiral staircase.

Next stop, Will Alsop's Sharp Center for Design, adjacent to the AGO from 2004.  Though I think the idea of the floating box up on stilts is interesting, I find the black and white metal skin and multi-colored pencil-columns a bit inelegant and childish.  Less would have been more here.

I had to catch one more new piece of architecture on my little tour, so at the far north end of downtown, I went to see Daniel Libeskind's 2007 addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Libeskind's work has never really been my thing, but I had to see it since I was so close.  The form is a bit jumbled for my taste, and I had to work really hard to figure out how to open the doors (unlike Revell's city hall).

I believe they call this addition "the crystal"...

...but it appears somewhat parasitic.

Meanwhile, back at the expo, one booth had a chair made out of full-size and half-size rolled drawing sets and three strap clamps.  Simple.  Elegant.  Cool.

And since we're talking Toronto here, there is always the requisite (parting) shot of the CN Tower, former tallest freestanding structure in the world.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Experiments in Furniture Refinishing: Part 2

The great furniture refinishing experiment of fall 2011 continues . . .

After cleaning, patching (dog chew marks on one corner?), and sanding the disassembled parts, things start coming together to look like a chair again after the bits and pieces of the frame are glued and clamped.

After the glue dried the frame was feeling sturdy again.  No more soft, wiggly joints!  Additional sanding removed minor scuffs and scratches, and taking it all the way up to 400 grit left the frame feeling incredibly smooth.

Taking the whole operation outside, we applied several applications of teak oil with microfiber rags. The oil really brings out the grain and deep red color of the teak frame.  These chairs are going to be beautiful!

Like a good TV chef, I did some prep work off camera.  Thought the vinyl was in great shape, the 50+ year old plywood seats had started to delaminate underneath.  We carefully removed the outer-most peeling lamination and then made a template of the seat bottom.  At work one early morning, I used our shop and cut masonite boards to fit the seat so we could re-laminate the bottom and provide some additional stability.

After applying liberal amounts of wood glue to the new seat bottom, we clamped around the perimeter of the seat and left it overnight to dry.  I am not actually sure how this will hold up in the long run, but if this can give the chairs a second life without having to re-upholster new seats, I think we are getting our money's worth on the investment.

Fortunately for us, the design of the chairs features another panel underneath the frame with the manufacturer's stamp.  Had the stamp been imprinted directly on the bottom of the seat, it would have delaminated with the outer layer as described above and we would have lost a bit of the chairs authenticity.  Here I am putting a clear coat on that additional panel to help preserve the branding stamp.  We will be able to re-mount this board to the bottom of the chair once the seat is attached.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Experiments in Furniture Refinishing: Part 1

I have not been able to walk by the English Building Market here in New Haven lately without buying some new (old) piece of furniture.  A few weeks ago, we finally found the twin to a chair we have in our living room allowing us to complete the seating arrangement.  And just this week, I picked up a set of four dining chairs for pretty cheap.

These unique three-legged chairs were designed in the early 1950s by Hans Olsen and manufactured by Frem Røjle in Denmark.  The branding stamp is pretty clear on the bottom of all four chairs, and one of the chairs still has a sticker that says "Danish Furnituremakers Control."

The chairs are made of solid teak with a vinyl seat and the set of four were intended to nest around a small circular table which was, unfortunately, not available at the Market (see below; not my photo).  In good condition, I have seen the table and chair set sell for a couple thousand dollars online.  There is also a version of the table available that expands to seat six with two additional chairs--sounds perfect for our little family.  I guess that means we are on the lookout for two more chairs and a table now!

Though the chairs are in fair condition and I originally thought I would just clean them up and oil or wax them, wobbly joints, a chewed up corner, and a split frame on one have made me decide to disassemble and re-glue all the joints of the chairs.  I have already disassembled and started cleaning up one of the chairs as a test.  I am reasonably competent around furniture and in the shop, so it seems like it will be pretty straightforward to put back together with a little wood glue and a strap clamp.  (I hope I do not have to eat my words later!)

I guess there could be worse things in the world to collect than awesome vintage modern furniture bought for cheap!  But something tells me if this little refinishing/restoring experiment is a success, I may have found a new hobby.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

Ten years ago, I was a senior at Georgia Tech studying architecture. Feeling a bit under the weather, I had decided to skip my morning structures class, and I was sleeping when a phone call from a friend startled me awake. I could not believe what I was hearing when she said, "the World Trade Center has been attacked and one of the towers just fell." As an architect, I could not even grasp the concept of a building that large falling. It was surreal as I turned on the television to see replays of the tower collapsing on itself. Unsure of what was going on and whether other large cities such as Atlanta would be a target, we got a small group together and went to my friend's parents' house outside Atlanta and watched the news all day. It was unreal.

In more recent history, I have been slowly but surely cleaning our basement, which includes going through and organizing a number of old boxes. It dawned on me as we approached the tenth anniversary of the 9|11 attacks that back in high school, I went with my father to photograph skyscrapers in New York City for a class project.  After looking through a couple of boxes marked "photos," I was able to find a pile of photos of New York and felt it would be a nice tribute to post photos of the World Trade Center.

Most of the photos are in black and white and they were shot with 35mm film.  They were probably taken in 1997 or 1998, but I cannot remember.  After I scanned the photos, I did a little bit of digital doctoring, but did not want to do too much to them as I think the tones and textures of the imperfect photos give them an air of nostalgia.

This photograph above was one of two photographs of the World Trade Center I chose to have enlarged for my class project.  I think I called it Tracks, and I paired it with the photograph below, entitled Chambers WTC, of the World Trade Center subway station.  I always felt the photograph of the station had an air of melancholy.   Though according to Wikipedia the Chambers WTC subway station survived the 9|11 attacks, I still think there is something sad about the photograph.

I think this photograph epitomizes the typical view of the World Trade Center and is taken from across the Hudson River in New Jersey.  Looking back at the photo now, I am struck at the scale and height of the massive towers, easily twice as tall as anything else around them.  (Note the Woolworth Building, just to the left of the World Trade Center towers.  It was once the world's tallest building!)

If my research is correct, I think this is a view looking south toward the north face of the base of the South Tower from across Tobin Plaza.  The sculpture is called Ideogram by artist James Rosati, and was destroyed on 11 September 2001.  The 200+ foot broad face width of each square tower easily accepted the full wingspan of the Boeing 767s that hit them in the attacks.

The view up between the towers can only be described as dizzying.  It is hard to believe that in 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit strung a wire between this gap and performed a "dance" between the towers more than a thousand feet above the pavement.  (There is a great documentary about Petit's amazing feat called Man on Wire, which I very much recommend.)

Yes, I count myself among the architects who love to take photographs looking up the corner of tall buildings.

Another view up one of the towers through the leaves of a tree on the plaza.

In my attempt to be artistic, I had wanted to document the elevator doors of New York's tallest buildings.  I thought it would make a cool series to see how their design and ornament changed over time.  After having a difficult time getting permission to photograph in the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Woolworth Building, we were not only allowed to photograph in the World Trade Center lobby, but also to set up a tripod!  If you look carefully, you can clearly see the tripod in the photograph.  My father and I are also visible in the slightly distorted reflection of the chromed doors.

This photograph of the World Trade Center elevator doors was taken at the moment the doors were either opening or closing, I cannot remember.  You can see the ghostly image of people inside the elevator cab, and looking at the photograph now, I am haunted wondering if any of these people were in the towers on 11 September 2001.

We went up to the observation deck on the top of the South Tower that day.  Though I cannot remember if it was particularly windy, I do distinctly remember the uneasy feeling of the building moving slightly beneath my feet.
A view north toward Midtown that will never be again, with the Empire State Building front and center.  This part of the city has changed significantly in the past ten years, including the addition of the Time Warner Center, New York Times Building, Bank of America Tower, and Hearst Tower to the skyline.

A view south over New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty.

Another view south toward Governors Island, with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the distance.

A view looking west up at the towers from Liberty Street.  The steel facade of One Liberty Plaza is in the foreground on the right edge of the photograph.  One Liberty Plaza suffered broken windows but no major damage in the 9|11 attacks.

This photograph shows the South Tower reflected in the facade of the Deutsche Bank Building.  The Deutsche Bank Building sustained massive damage, including a 24 story tall gash in the facade, when the South Tower fell and was subsequently dismantled.

I cannot be sure, but I think this staircase was near the base of the Deutsche Bank Building.  I am pretty positive the small amount of facade showing at the upper left of the photograph is the old Marriott Hotel, and that this view is of the South Tower.  (If anyone knows where this staircase is--or was, rather--please leave me a comment.)

At the end of our trip photographing around Manhattan, my father and I took the ferry back to Jersey City where we had parked and set up the tripod to catch the downtown skyline slipping into the night.