Boardwalk in the City
Chicago’s elevated train, known as The Loop, was completed in 1895 to transport “the lunch pail crowd and passengers resembling gentlemen,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago was the churning engine of the Industrial Revolution in 1895, fueled by steel mills, stockyards, grain elevators, and railroads. Trains connected the skyscrapers on Lake Michigan to residential suburbs carved out of the prairie. Chicago was the first modern city.
Today, The Loop is a rusty remnant of those furious times. Now there are more high heels than lunch pails on its elevated platforms, which are made of unpainted wood and scuffed with the marks of millions of shoes. Carl Sandburg wrote:
"I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.”
At 9 p.m. fog and dirt descend upon the elevated train platform at State and Lake. Lights burn in the office buildings nearby as cleaners work through the night.
Click here for Carl Sandburg’s poem
Boardwalk in the City
When Luis Barragan (1902-1988) left Mexico in 1931 to study architecture in Paris, he left behind the chickens and paddock fences of the hacienda where he grew up. In Paris he absorbed the tumultuous newness of modern art and architecture. Here, Le Corbusier and German modernists were his teachers. Four years later he returned to Mexico, determined to implement the new architecture he’d discovered in Europe.
Like many returning expatriate artists of his time, Barragan was expected to choose between being a modernist or a traditionalist. Instead, he chose both.
For the next 35 years he created buildings unmistakably fresh with clean lines and planar surfaces saturated with color. Yet their modesty and simple finishes recalled indigenous Mexican houses. At the entrance to Las Arboledas, for example, Barragan reinterpreted a utilitarian aqueduct and watering troughs to create a modern sculpture. He wove magenta walls and water to form a quiet prelude to this equestrian community. “Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake,” he said.
Bricks and Civil RIghts in Atlanta
A canopy of 100-year-old oak trees shades Myrtle Street in Midtown Atlanta from the broiling summer sun. To many people, the genteel mansions of Myrtle Street suggest a romantic story of the old South. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in a house nearby. But for others, these houses were on the frontline of change–change wrought by streetcars, black artisans, and the civil rights movement.
Midtown was developed after the Civil War and soon became a streetcar suburb. White men rode downtown to work. Black women rode in the back of the streetcar to Midtown, where they changed diapers and served iced tea for generations of white Atlantans.
Black artisans laid the brick, plastered the walls, and painted the columns of Midtown. After the Civil War, craftsmanship gave artisans of color economic independence that often led to civic leadership. As the daughter of an Atlanta bricklayer Mary Beale said in 1920, “My daddy was not afraid of any white man that walked.” This fearlessness would be invaluable in confronting racism.
The deep porches, dusky colors, and shady streets of Midtown Atlanta are often highlighted in lifestyle magazines, such as Southern Living. Their social history is left in shadow.
An excellent book on the subject is Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine Bishir.
Thinking large, building small
In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon.
Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational.
There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size: for example, Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building.
Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either.
Hale County, Alabama, is the poorest county in one of the poorest states in America. For 20 years architecture students from Auburn University have come here to build. The Rural Studio, founded by Sambo Mockbee (1944-2001), draws them to Hale County, where they build small houses, boys and girls clubs, softball fields, and a civil rights museum for people who often can’t afford running water. They are what Mockbee called “citizen architects,” crafting with their bare hands what many thought impossible: hope in a broken place.
In Newbern, Alabama, the Rural Studio built the town hall and volunteer fire station to form a town green. On a recent spring day, the American flag outside the firehouse trembled as logging trucks rolled past. Across the street students drew up their next projects in an unheated warehouse.
Mockbee and his successor, Andrew Freear, didn’t come to Newbern to be do-gooders. They came to create good buildings. And perhaps the greatest products of the Rural Studio are not its buildings but the 600 young architects who have lived and worked here, learning to serve others, to build simply, and to overcome fear. Why? Because the world has many broken places.
Thunderstorm over New York
On a clear day, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan sparkle in the sunlight and the East River is as blue as the sky.
But during a morning thunderstorm in June Manhattan appears very different. The sky hangs over the city like a blood clot, the new World Trade Center disappears into a cloud, and the East River is the color of lead. Instead of sparkling, its towers have the hue of tarnished pots.
One of the remarkable things about New York used to be how easy it was to ignore the weather. No more. In November 2012, the city’s subways filled with seawater during Hurricane Sandy and lower Manhattan was powerless for a week. Not since 9/11 has New York seemed so vulnerable.
Yet in other parts of the country people accept the violent power of nature as normal. Residents in Colorado shrug when homes are lost to wildfires, San Franciscans cross brace their buildings against earthquakes, and in Oklahoma people respond to tornados with courage and resolve.
Perhaps New Yorkers will face sea level rise with equal determination because, like others, they choose to live here for what they love, not what they fear.
Van Gogh’s Chair
Chairs are architecture. Like little buildings, they have a structure to hold people up and a function to make their occupants comfortable. Like buildings, they can tell a story.
For Vincent Van Gogh chairs were people. He associated his friends with places where they sat. When his father left, he burst into tears at the sight of his empty chair. In a painting of his bedroom, two vacant chairs represent the friends he longed for.
Chairs are a self-portrait. Van Gogh kept this chair in his small room at the monastery asylum in St. Remy. It’s as rough and durable as he was. On it rests his leather satchel, which he filled with paint and brushes, venturing out to paint in the monastery garden and beyond.
Today Van Gogh’s paintings command a king’s ransom, yet he scraped by from week to week. It can be said that all art comes from the poor: The rich don’t paint masterpieces, jazz was invented by the dispossessed, Van Gogh painted The Starry Night living in a monk’s cell. His chair reminds us that the greatest explorers are the ones with nothing to lose.
To see Van Gogh’s painting of his chair in Arles, follow this link
The Willet is a solitary shorebird about the size of a pigeon. It has long legs and a beak about the length of your index finger. It forages at the turn of the tide, its legs just long enough to keep its body above the waves, its beak just long enough to probe the water-softened sand for crustaceans to eat. How perfectly the Willet lives at the seashore.
Yet, how vexed we human beings are to live along the coast. Scientific evidence suggests a rising sea level over the coming century, while our political leaders try to balance two long-conflicting constituencies: home and business owners worried about the cost of reinforcing buildings, and geologists who warn of large-scale and preventable casualties from sea level rise.
Over the centuries the sea has risen and fallen, moving the coastline from east to west. The Willet has moved with it.
In her own quiet way, the Willet seems better adjusted to living at the coast than mankind. She does not need geologists advising her, nor is she building permanent structures. She is out at low tide looking for crabs.
The Forgotten Craftsman
For nearly one hundred years this house near Deltaville, Virginia has welcomed the rising sun to the east and warmed itself by the sun setting in the west. It is one of countless houses of its kind built by unknown craftsmen in Tidewater Virginia.
It may be considered among the finest houses in America, not because it is exceptional but because it is ordinary. The great English architect Philip Webb was unhappy with his design until it looked commonplace. An artistic house is made to behold, a common house is made to be held in our hands.
The beauty of this house comes from the fact that we don’t notice it. The brick clay was dug from a hill nearby, the oak and pine boards were cut from local trees, and the same house was made over and over. Like a wildflower in a thicket, it is without consciousness of beauty, style, or fashion. Straightforward, natural, modest and without contrivance, it has the same qualities we admire in a person.
In Zen there is a saying that at the far end of the road lies effortless peace. The beauty of this house lies in its effortless peace.
Wazee Street, Denver, Colorado
The apartment over the shop has been a building block of cities for thousands of years. The Romans sold olive oil, medieval blacksmiths made hinges, and Victorian green grocers sold potatoes beneath the places where they slept.
Today few cities are built this way.
But Wazee Street in Denver Colorado reminds us of the value of older, smaller, brick and wood structures that do not overwhelm us and provide a multitude of uses. The shop fronts make a regular and almost uniform rhythm, with small variations among the curtains, awnings, hanging signs, and levels as the buildings march down the hill. There are no big surprises in this sequence. And that is the particular grace of a place like Wazee Street: It is simply, quietly there.
It supports city life.
The architecture may be purposely understated, but tonight there will be splendid overstatement. Wazee Street will be filled with black dresses, cheetah prints, high heels, Latinos, Chinese, divorce lawyers, and baseball players — the melting pot of America brooded over by quiet, unassertive structures that are as old as the ancient city of Rome and as modern as Facebook.
Thunderstorm in Marseille
It’s remarkable how we can ignore the weather. We go from our air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned offices in air-conditioned cars then watch television to find out what the weather is.
Yet what pleasure awaits us in a storm cloud: We remember ourselves as children running in the rain and getting our feet wet in puddles. But as adults we find the roof of our cars, the ceiling of our offices, and the curtains on our bedroom windows insulating us from a relationship with the sky.
In Marseille a window has opened to the weather. The builders of the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) built a football field-sized promenade next to the waterfront, creating an unexpected window to the clouds in the second largest city in France.
As a thunderstorm approaches, made more dramatic by contrast with white plaster buildings and zinc roofs, the gravel surface of the MuCEM promenade soaks up the sun like blotting paper.
Just as the full moon appears bigger on the horizon, where we can judge its size against trees and buildings, the chimney pots and iron railings of Marseille underline the fury of the storm.