Mies at IIT: "Greenhouses"

Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  South face.  Photo ©Anthony Denzer

Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  South face.  Photo ©Anthony Denzer

I have argued "The history of glass architecture is the history of overheating."1  Here's more evidence.  Serge Chermayeff is discussing Mies van der Rohe in a 1985 interview with Betty Blum2:

The buildings that he did for IIT were impossible in the summer.  He made them all glass, as usual, or a steel frame and practically all the glass was covered with aluminum paper by the users because it was impossible to work in them, too hot, greenhouses.

What would you have changed to make it more habitable?

It had to be a different kind of building and not the standard Miesian framed glass, it was impossible, absolutely impossible.  You can really say that all this kind of development, which we now look upon as history, at the time it was measured by use.  They are not photographs, they're not lovely drawings, they're places people use.  As places some of them are awful.  His later museum the National Gallery in Berlin was quite different, the mistakes were eliminated.  It was a great pavilion.


Also on the blog:
Heating of Mies van der Rohe's IIT Chapel  (and note, the Chapel has no south-facing glass)
The Conservatory Effect

1. "In Service," Technology|Architecture+Design (2017).  Also, in The Solar House I show that many early solar houses overheated because proper shading was poorly understood.
2. Oral history of Serge Chermayeff; interviewed by Betty J. Blum, Art Institute of Chicago, 1985.

Against Sustainability

Have you noticed, as I have, a growing discourse against sustainability?  The pieces I'm thinking about are pessimistic (even "dark").  They argue we have intractable structural problems that make 'sustainability' a futile pursuit.  They are based in the discipline of philosophy or refer explicitly to it.

● In the 2016 New York Times essay, "Against ‘Sustainability’," Jeremy Butman started with Descartes and ended by asking: "When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain?"  He answered, "Instead of sustainability, we should instead speak of adaptability."

● In 2017 I encountered the Dark Mountain Project, through Brian Calvert's essay "So what if we’re doomed?" in the High Country News, a story of grand personal and environmental disillusionment.  This references the Dark Mountain Manifesto, a philosophical critique of modern civilization which is quite a few years old now but new to me.  It says: "Increasingly, people are restless...  Nobody knows what is coming.  Nobody wants to look."

● Guy McPherson's website Nature Bats Last has more pieces which fall into this category.  "Toward an Economy of Earth" is notable.  McPherson famously went "back to the land" before 2011.  (Disclaimer that McPherson is apparently accused of sexual harassment.)

● And late in 2017 British sociologist Elizabeth Shove published a slightly narrower critique: “What is wrong with energy efficiency?”  She argues that incremental efficiency measures only reconfirm "essentially unsustainable concepts of service."  This is based in part on ideas of French philosopher Bruno Latour.

● Other examples in this genre?  Please comment!

Personally, I don't know what to make of these views.  I'm not dystopian by nature, yet there's something compelling here, now.  I'm weary of the 'sustainability' conferences with huge carbon footprints, the meaningless corporate platitudes, and the well-meaning student projects which embroider the fringe of the garment.  At the same time, as a modernist, it's difficult for me to see the industrial revolution as an intractable problem.

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.

OKC memorial.jpg

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:

Apple Park tweet.jpg

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%
DSC_2285 combo.jpg

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.

source: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?s=d78050b8f56819f611b9380030606813&p=142737393&postcount=11693

source: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?s=d78050b8f56819f611b9380030606813&p=142737393&postcount=11693

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.