Best of 2017

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My favorite experience of architecture in 2017purely subjectivelywas the Serpentine Pavilion by Francis Kéré (above).  Each year in London's Hyde Park the Serpentine Gallery asks a young-ish designer to build a temporary experimental structure.  Communal aesthetic pleasure is the only point.  Although frivolous things normally don't appeal to me too much, I just loved this. 

Other highlights from a month in Europe with students:
     In Paris, Parc Martin Luther King and the Clichy-Batignolles Eco-District
     In Barcelona, Palau Guell, one of Gaudi's wonderful lesser-known works
     In London, office visits to: Alison Brooks, Arup, Buro Happold, David Chipperfield, Cullinan Studio, SOM, Waugh Thistleton
     In London, the exhibit Circling the Square, at RIBA
     In London, artwork by Mathidle Nivet at Burlington Arcade
     And, a selfie from Mont St.-Michel:


Also in 2017 I was able to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the first time.  It's a deeply moving design which evokes a tremendous absence, both for those who were killed and for the broader sense of innocence lost as we live with domestic terrorism.

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I had several memorable speaking engagements on a variety of subjects: Greenhouse heating, Mid-Century Modernism, Charlottesville.  At the National Solar Conference (ASES) in Denver, I gave a rapid-fire talk about this website, about my experiences blogging, and about why blogging might be a good solution to the problems posed by the academic publishing industry.  ASES posted the video here:

Apple Park, by Foster + Partners


More reflecting on 2017.  When Apple Park—and in particular the Steve Jobs Theater—opened in September, I tweeted:

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Why do I say astonishing?  This represents the full resolution of the aims of modern architecture, begun in the 1910s20s.  It's the first time a building has truly realized the spatial qualities imagined by Mies, Corbu, Gropius and Neutra: the free plan, panoramic transparency, weightlessness.  Although I have not been there, the images are simply thrilling, and in my estimation the visual thrill is deeply resonant rather than superficial.

Nobody (as far as I can tell) has written about this structure as the culmination of more than a century of efforts by architects and engineers.  Are we so jaded that we can't see the importance of this achievement?  Is it out of style?  We think of modern architecture as revolutionary, having developed quickly.  The Steve Jobs Theater now asks us to reconsider the trajectory of 20th century architecture as a slower, longer arc.

Apple Park has been called "the most-hyped building of 2017," but it's far from the best-covered architectural project of the year.  First of all, credit for the architect is hard to find (thus the title above).  When I googled Apple Park I found the name Foster just once in the top 20 results, while Jobs showed up seven times.  Given the level of architectural accomplishment, there ought to be a lot of complaining about this kind of slight.  (I suppose nobody feels Foster is oppressed.)  Moreover, try to find an article which includes the floor plan, much less discusses it.

But even more importantly, who is the structural engineer?  (Upon digging: Arup, but who?)  And how does the structure work?  (I've pieced together a vague idea, but how does it work in an earthquake, for example?)  Where are the services?  How does power get to the lights in the ceiling?  Where are the fire sprinklers?  There's an elevator!?  In sum, how did Foster + Partners and their team manage to visually eliminate all the stuff that compromises modern space?  Again, nobody (as far as I can tell) has written about this. These accomplishments ought to be explained and celebrated!  They're exciting! 


Coverage of the project ([1] [2] [3] [4]) has centered on its conservative nature from the urban planning perspective.  It's an example of 1950s & 60s "Pastoral Capitalism," when American corporations fled city centers and built sleek technocratic headquarters with constructed landscapes in the suburbs.  It's car-centric and therefore a dagger to the heart of sustainable development efforts.  It's insular and anti-social.  It's too expensive. 

These are all valid points, although I bet some will be ameliorated over time, as for example the city densifies and new transportation networks are developed.  In any case, these points seem to me to be far less significant than the aesthetic, spatial achievement, which is clearly perceived through photos.  You can now draw a straight line through architectural history which begins with the modernist avant-garde and ends with the Steve Jobs Theater.  In journalism's terms, that's the lede.

Mies + Apple Park.jpg

Image credits: [top]  [middle]  [bottom left]  [bottom right]

Paris' Zero-Carbon Eco-District

Reflecting on 2017.  In Paris, one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in recent memory is rising out of the ground and coming into focus.  I visited in June with students.  The district is called Clichy-Batignolles; its centerpiece is Parc Martin Luther King.  The amount of construction activity was staggering. 

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The district covers 54 hectares (133 acres) of former railyards and industrial land in northwest Paris. It will include:

  • 3,400 housing units for 7,500 residents. 50% is social housing
  • 140,000 m2 of offices for 12,700 workers
  • 31,000 m2 of shops, services and activities
  • 38,000 m2 of public facilities
  • The new Palais de Justice (federal courts) for 9,000 users per day
  • 10 hectares (25 acres) of green space
  • 2 Metro stations on the new Ligne 14
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The district is intended to achieve "unprecedented energy performance" and a "neutral carbon footprint."  Some official sources on the project:  [1]  [2]  [3]  Some of the strategies are:

  • district geothermal heating and cooling
  • reduction in heating needs to 15 kWh/m2/year (Passivhaus standard)
  • building consumption of less than 50 kWh/m2/year in primary energy
  • photovoltaic power generation of approx. 4,500 mWh/year, supplying about 40% of the need
  • a pneumatic underground waste collection system, reducing greeenhouse gas emissions by 42%
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In June we found an already-vibrant community, with small-scale elementary schools and grocery stores embedded among the new housing blocks.  Parc Martin Luther King, essentially complete, is a wonder; home to birds and waterfowl and community vegetable gardens, it successfully merges French formal traditions and today's pleasures, including plenty of bicycle facilities and a sparkling water fountain.  The older neighborhood to the southeast, Batignolles, offers a diverse street life with a marché couvert and Haussmann-era housing blocks.

To play architectural critic, I found too many of the individual buildings strain for attention with gestural geometries, maybe a residual Bilbao effect.  This is particularly noticeable among the office buildings on the southwest edge of the site.  Collectively, this will likely produce visual cacophony when the ensemble is complete.  And visual cacophony doesn't flatter Paris the way it does LA or Shenzen.  Still, I think the project compares favorably—both technically and aesthetically—with its closest comparators, London's Stratford and New York's Hudson Yards.



The district's predetermined architectural jewel, the Palais de Justice by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is shown above.  It's nice, of course, but will take a back seat to the Fondation Louis Vuitton as the Paris monument to represent our time.  I imagine it will function as a 'bookend' to the Centre Pompidou in illustrating the arc of Piano's career.  It also shows that France is moving some of its most historic institutions from the city center to the periphery, but this doesn't mean sprawl, it's an effort to create new centers.  (Greater Paris surely does have conventional problems of sprawl, as well as problems associated with social housing in the suburbs.)

In the foreground of the image above, embedded within all the new construction, is a historic building: Les Ateliers Berthier by Charles Garnier (189598), where scenery and costumes for the Paris Opera were created and stored.  

Earlier this year, HuffPost asked the well-worn question: Is Paris Becoming a Museum City?  After visiting Clichy-Batignolles, I can answer with confidence: Non!

Additionally, my colleague Jon Gardzelewski (in some of the images above) posted some photos in video form here.

Too Expensive: The Solar Decathlon (redux)

Photo by Jack Dempsey for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Photo by Jack Dempsey for the U.S. Department of Energy.

When I visited the 2017 Solar Decathlon in suburban Denver last month, I was especially attentive to to issue of costs.  It is very expensive for schools to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's event.  The DOE says the estimated cost to date for teams is anywhere from $300,000 to $1.5 million.  Previously I discussed the overall cost of the Decathlon and questioned the value of the event. 

This year West Virginia University withdrew "because of insurmountable budget challenges" and Washington State University did not finish their house in time to compete.  It's getting to be a familiar story.  In 2015, as I noted here, Yale University withdrew from the competition just weeks before it occurred, citing problems with fundraising.  (I would love any of those students to comment here.)

At the 2017 Decathlon, I heard two students independently use the phrase "unbelievably expensive" to describe their homes.  To find out what "unbelievably expensive" means, I dug into the students' competition materials.

2017 Solar Decathlon: Actual Construction Costs
from the Market Potential contest submittals

[Not Reported]  
[Not Reported]  
[Not Reported]

Swiss Team   (pdf link)
Las Vegas   (pdf link)
Northwestern   (pdf link)
Wash U – St. Louis   (pdf link)
Maryland   (pdf link)
UC Davis   (pdf link)
Missouri S&T   (pdf link)
UC Berkeley/U of Denver   (pdf link)
Team Alabama   (pdf link)
Team Daytona Beach   (pdf link)

Notes on the table above:
● These are 1000 ft2 homes (though some --- especially the Swiss --- included extensive enclosed outdoor spaces).
● For the Decathlon, these figures did not include transportation, student & faculty labor, and indirect costs.
● Projected for the "real world," these figures would not include land, real estate fees and taxes, utility hookups, permanent foundations.
● Northwestern, with costs 21% higher than the median, won the Market Potential contest.

Given that the Decathlon is essentially a marketing effort for the PV and electric car industry, again I ask:  Why are top universities willing to invest so much in this?  Why are students willing to donate their labor to it?  Is it a good lesson for any student to build a one-bedroom portable house for $317,000?  Is this the highest and best use of all that money?

The 2019 Solar Decathlon will again be staged in Denver.

Divine Ammunition by Al Farrow

The exhibition Divine Ammunition by Al Farrow is on display at the University Art Museum here at the University of Wyoming through December 16.  It is powerful.  I thought I would share some photos.

This is from the introductory panel:

Divine Ammunition
The Work of Al Farrow

In his meticulous miniature representations of churches, mosques, synagogues, mausoleums and devotional objects, sculptor Al Farrow (American, b. 1943) explores and challenges the relationship between religion, conflict and war. Inspired by a 1995 encounter with the reliquaries of the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, one in particular captured Farrow's imagination. The ornate silver and jewel-encrusted vessel contained a withered finger enclosed in its original blown glass. The body part, arched as a trigger finger might be, sent Farrow's mind to racing with the incongruences of object, metaphor, and ultimately to paradoxes of religion and war, history and culture, belief and power. His artistic pursuit resulted in his series, Twentieth Century Reliquaries.

Farrow’s choice of materials ― used firearms, new and used spent shell castings, lead shot combined with bone, glass and other found objects ― balance the architectural distinctions of his houses of worship, each embedded with doctrines of its particular faith, with the aesthetic beauty of re-purposed, re-fabricated and re-finished military weaponry. Fashioned with painstaking finesse, revolvers become flying buttresses, gun barrels and trigger assemblies convert into spires and gables, and bullets of varying sizes take on the appearance of rooftop tiles or reference sculptures of saints.

In a manner of furthering his own intellectual curiosity and reflection on his subject, Farrow imagines Santo Guerro, a saint of his own invention, which is represented in the monumental The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro (2007) and several smaller works that incorporate human bone.

Farrow has an extensive exhibition record that includes solo and group exhibitions spanning 40 years. He is represented in prestigious collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art, San Jose Museum of Art, 21c Museum Hotel, the de Young Museum and in public and private collections in Germany, Israel, and Sweden. He lives and works in California and is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.