Friday, June 26, 2009

Parting shots, Top 10

The 'top 10' list of architects had as its purpose a retrospective look at those who wielded truly significant influence on design in the twentieth century and since. To a lesser extent it was an introspective look at particular practitioners who influenced my own thinking.

In the 1920's, the time was ripe for these people to perform. They brought to bear the basics of construction means and methods available at the time, and bent them to new forms of expression. It's been said that behind every great building there is a great client, as well as designer. Clients were changing along with the world in the early twentieth century with the maturation of the industrial revolution and social/political turmoil in Europe and Russia. The sudden availability of electricity, telephones, motion pictures, radio and automobiles broadly impelled new approaches to all aspects of the way we lived.

Although they shared significant traits, architecture's modern masters weren't a very homogeneous lot. The coolly rational constructs of Mies were distinct from the soulful humanity of Aalto or the solid, sometimes taut and twisting concrete forms of Corbusier. We can only wonder what Utzon and the others might have done with the availability of computer-aided design and fabrication so throroughly and deftly mined by Gehry.

An important thing to remember about these people is, they were inventing. They all drew from the past, particularly the immediate past, in setting the course of their own work. However, as they set out in their careers there were few hints in built work in the way of clean lines, stripped of the familiar ornamentation that had marked the architecture of the previous couple of thousand years. Viewing the German Pavillion at Barcelona or the Villa Savoye today, it's difficult to not compare them to structures of today and the last twenty or thirty years - but they were built eighty years ago, and nothing like these "machines for living" had existed. (To put it in perspective look at a 1929 automobile while looking at these buildings.)

Above, 1929 Ford

Below, 1929 German Pavilion, Barcelona

WWI engaged vast armies, with necessities of the war accelerating technical achievment. By the 1920's an explosion of new ways of thinking about the world was evident. Fashions in clothing changed with unprecedented speed and intensity. New factories drew rural populations increasingly into cities and suburbs. The heady times spawed, for what must have been numerous reasons, an almost universal appetite for new and revolutionary images and lifestyle.

O'Neil Ford wasn't really in the same class as the others in this list as a designer, but he was influential in ways whose effects haven't been fully felt. He was probably the profession's most compelling spokesman for regional integrity in design, and he directly influenced generations of Texas architects, who in turn have influenced architecture with Ford's take on things, without any particular focus focus from him regarding what ought to constitute building form. While motivated by cultural and philosophical reasons and what he insisted was common sense, his promotion of conserving existing buildings, the use of indigenous materials and proven methods of dealing with local enviromental conditions are worthwhile signposts toward sustainable design. Nineteeth-century inhabitants used local materials because this was generally the only feasible option. Shade, daylighting, natural ventilation were all employed as rational and necessary reactions to the Texas climate, and Ford never stopped emphasizing the importance of these tools.

The cumulative effect of these individuals, with all the paradox and contradictions within themselves and between them, was one of making available immense enlightenment to all who would follow.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Top 10: 1 Alvar Aalto

Opera House, Essen

Saynatsalo Town Hall

Viipuri Library Auditorium
Who knows if Alvar Aalto was the all-time best architect or not - or if such a thing could exist? He was, though, held in the highest esteem of most of the better architects with whom I'm personally acquainted.

The reasons for this aren't numerous or complicated, once the underlying essentials for any exceptional architect are assumed.
  • He broke with ideas of form and ornament from the past

  • He was inquisitive and inventive. He brought an analogy to ornament, delighting the perceptions, in functional objects of construction, using materials that reinforced one another in utility, warmth and comfort. At the same time, the images of his buildings and places possessed a definite vocabulary of his own invention, and an edge that characterizes the best of modern architecture's associations.

  • His work was sufficiently compelling, and without pretentious exhibitry, PR effort or impracticality that he was accorded respect and admiration by his peers, those who drove the architecture of his era.

  • In practical yet artful ways, his designs drew from nature and interpreted nature's forms much more than overtly intellectual theoretical pursuits. At the same time, the art of his expression of architecture has inspired serious and sophisiticated scholars to struggle to articulate and theorize the qualities that made up his work.

Finlandia Hall
Aalto was intellectually gifted, and I'm sure he could theorize with anyone. But, he approached design, I think, more as a craft than as an intellectual exercise, and sought inspiration from the rich natural environment of Finland. Lakes, forests, snow and ice cover, traditional expressions of materials.
Also, he always tried to find ways to acknowledge and provide for those who'd use the buildiing. All architects do this, if too often unevenly, but Aalto took it further than most. His thoughtfulness was striking. He considered tactile properties of the materials of objects within a place, and considered things like the fact that a child can't conveniently reach up to the usual height of a door pull.
Concrete columns in a large foyer might be faced in tile up to seven or eight feet, the height of a person's reach, because people often like to lean against them. A door pull he designed had two half-valentine-shapes, one above the other, so a child could easily manage opening the door. In other words, he didn't stop with forms that were beautiful, maybe, and met a building's functional needs. He made sure the colors, materials, lighting and acoustics were truly comfortable to experience on multiple levels.
This thoughtfulness, meticulous attention to comfort and its supporting details, didn't interfere in any sense with his command of formal expression. He was able to function on more levels more effectively than most, in addtition to a talent that may have been genius in the sculptural crafting of form itself.

Ceiling detail, Viipuri Library
Two articles on Aalto in
Essential Architecture's entry on Aalto
Terrific photos of Villa Mairea
Photos, Viipuri Library, 1929-35
Restoration Log, Viipuri Library
Brief youtube, Aalto sketching
NY Times article, Artek Furniture
Saynatsalo, Finland Town Hall
Barbican Museum, London Aalto Exhibit
"Aalto freson"

Top 10: 2. Le Corbusier

from here
Since around 1960, Le Corbusier has probably been posed as "the greatest" by more professors of architecture than any other individual. This guy was gifted and incredibly prolific He brought an intellectual range to the discipline of architecture that is probably unexcelled, and left a body of work that has occupied students and practitioners since early in his career.
Cassie Thinking About CubismImage via Wikipedia

No shrinking violet, he attacked cubism with a manifesto, labeling his POV "Purism." He'd have probably liked Philip Absolon's "Cassie Thinking About Cubism," 1996.

Heidi Weber Museum, Zurich

The wiki article in the first sentence provides plenty of biography. I'd like to address a few aspects of his work and what I see as his more significant influences on architects.

First, he organized proportioning with his own version of the Golden Mean. He called his system the Modulor. Without trying to pick at the various opinions that have been written over the years about Modulor, I think it proved a useful tool, if for no other reason than that it offered a systematic application for casting proportions of planar elements and spaces. The diagonal of the golden mean rectangle describes an angle of about 31.8 degrees to the rectangle's long sides. As a student I used a 30/60-degree triangle to rough in proportional schemes, and it worked just fine in planar layouts. A rule of thumb a lot of architects have used is to note the approximately 2/3 ratio of the square within the rectangle. So, major divisions within, say, a wall can often be seen at the 1/3 or 2/3 point of the height or width of the wall's elevation.

Golden Mean

Valid? Depends. It's possible to make a completely hideous design using this system, but it can underlie both simple and highly intricate organizations of elements in for example a building elevation. Again, I think the adoption of the Golden Mean or the Modulor as an organizing principle tends to lead to well-developed compositions, if for no other reason than that it is a visibly organized composition. How good it is depends on all the factors that underlie the designer's skill and knowledge of his craft.

Second, Corbu brought a lot more to the table than a scheme of proportions. He was quite literally a working artist in addition to practicing architecture. He developed a routine of painting in the morning, then going into the architecture studio in the afternoon. His point of view, with art on an equal footing with architecture, would seem to have brought architecture a freshness that's hard to maintain if one is narrowly focused. Narrow focus was never attributed to him. He's been called a polymath more than once.

Third, His affinity for one fundamental material of building, concrete, enabled him to envision and carry out projects of limited means with high ambition and distinguished results. (Labor costs, with the forming of concrete relatively labor-intensive, have reduced the cost benefit of concrete in most markets since the time of constructing Corbu's work.) The National Assembly building at Chandigarh is a perfect example, 1952-59. (This was followed in 1962-74 by Louis Kahn in his own vocabulary in the National Parliment of neighoring Bangladesh.)

National Assembly Building, Chandigarh, India. (found here)

Mill Owners Assoc Bldg, Ahmedabad, India Adrian Mallol i Moretti
One of my professors, John Shaw, related that a friend of his had worked in Corbusier's office. A long row of drafting tables lined up along one side of the studio, and a tapestry by Corbusier hung at the front of the room. Any time a designer was stuck for a form, he'd lean to the side and peer down the aisle to the tapestry, and could usually find a shape to employ that would likely be considered suitable by the boss.

The owners of the Villa Savoye called Corbusier and complained that there was a leak in the roof, asking him to come out and take a look. He arrived, peered at the ceiling. He asked for a pencil and paper. They gave it to him. He went to the table and fashioned a little sailboat of the pencil and paper, walked over to the puddle of water on the floor, launched the little boat, said "Au Revoir," and left. (Whether this actually happened in this way or not, it's a documented fact that the Savoyes' having to flee the Germans was only reason Corbusier wasn't sued for the leaks.)

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France. 1929.
While he characteristically produced buildings with superior functional organization, I've always viewed Corbusier as a formalist. The forms he developed were well beyond any functional justification, even when daylighting, ventilation and other considerations were woven into the rationale of a formal element within a design. When challenged on this opinion in a seminar, it occurred to me that he probably viewed functional design as analogous to the mixing of color in a painting - a skilled and necessary prerequisite, but not the painting's raison d'etre.

Heidi Weber Museum, Zurich
Barbican Centre's exhibit - audio slideshow on Corbusier.
The photogenic Villa Savoye.
Youtube has several videos on Corbusier.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Top 10: 3. Mies van der Rohe

Above, Seagram Building, NY. profzucker, flickr

Above, Seagram Building, New York. B. Tse, flickr

Mies van der Rohe was one of the most influential architects of modern times. To prove it, all it takes is a look at his buildings, a quick check to see if anything like them preceded them, then look at everthing else.

As a head of the Bauhaus school, Mies' credentials as a founder of modern architecture are pretty unassailable. But, his built work went far beyond even this pathfinding school. He didn't invent the skyscraper, but he arguably invented the way it was detailed, for almost a hundred years.

German Pavilion, Barcelona, 1929

Mies is called a minimalist (After all, he coined the term, "Less is more.") by many. I find that misleading on various levels. That is, Mies' buildings tended to be clean and uncluttered, but were rich in material, execution and proportion. While minimalism doesn't have to be bad, it seldom approaches the level of Mies' work, even after many decades.

Farnsworth House. Plano, Illinois. 1941.

Update, 3-23-12. An extensively documented restoration account of a Mies villa in Czechoslovakia is here: Villa Tugendhat

Update, 4-10-12. Time Magazine photos.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Top 10: 4. Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn blended the spatial theories of the Beaux Arts with modern clarity of geometric simplicity to create a unique vision and expression of architecture. While the bulk of work produced by students of the Ecole de Beaux Arts was neoclassical, a good argument can be made that the school was about teaching students to develop methodology of design, ratther than merely how to work in a particular style.

Whatever the merits of Beaux Arts approaches to design, Kahn's primary use of it was, I think, in the formal arrangement of spaces. He certainly didn't articulate spaces' surfaces in a way that could be in any way confused with Beaux Arts, but he often proportioned them and arranged them in a way that harked back to his education at Penn.

Kahn was, as an academic, always interested in the use of analogies to understand and express ideas concerning architecture. A useful analogy he coined described spaces in a building as "served" or "service" spaces. By this he meant, for example, a dining area was "served," a kitchen was "service," as would be closets, mechanical rooms, rest rooms, stairs, etc. Somebody has pointed out, in discussing this idea, that spaces that don't fall into the categories of served and service could be called "interstitial" space, a necessary but essentially null space such as structure, air conditioning ducts, chimneys, etc. A more limited use of the term refers specifically to space between floors dedicated to mechanical elements.

As a professor at Yale, then Penn, Kahn mantained an office in the practice of architecture during the years he taught. Parenthetically, of this 'top ten' list, most shared Kahn's dual role as professor and practicioner, usually for extended periods. Exceptional achievement in design, particularly when notably innovative, naturally requires that one be conversant with the theoretical implications of the approaches they employ and the choices they make. Academic surroundings both foster this and attract individuals who are prone to theoretical exploration. Kahn was more than prone to explore theory, he was seriously regarded as a philosopher of design and was sometimes actually poetic in the expression of his insight.

Kahn was able to do striking and memorable structures with the not-always-so-simple technique of using basic geometric shapes and volumes. The richness came from the materials and lighting, paricularly natural light, not ornament. If there is one attribute of Kahn's work that architects regard as particularly unique to him, it's probably his great ability in the use of direct and indirect daylighting in his spaces.

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban houses the Parliament o...Image via Wikipedia

The reason basic forms, if they're to read as basic forms, isn't necessarily simple is that functional exigencies tend to work against a cylinder, cone, cube, sphere or cycloid. It typically requires that some space be wasted, that more expensive roofing, custom doors and window, etc in order to accomodate forms that vary from the more conventional building vocabularies. Consider a window. If a designer feels that a window should "read" as a clear, punched opening in a wall, for example, the absence or minimization of head, jamb and sill material isn't easy to do, and certainly can't be obtained using off-the-shelf components.

Above, Library, Phillips Exeter Academy

An excellent series of photos.

Top 10: 5. Frank Lloyd Wright

Above, Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright's sheer intellect and creative ability has not been surpassed, in the opinion of most architects. I share that opinion. Still, he has been, I think, a sort of difficult figure for most architects of the last 40 years or so. While his acknowledged prominance and, probably, genius makes the study of his work rewarding and inevitable, his work was so singular that its lessons for other architects tended to be highly abstracted.

That said, less obvious elements of Wright's work have evidenced much broader influence than the literal forms typically present in his buildings. These less obvious elements are principles rather than Wright's forms or details. The principles include integration of landscape and built space, articulation of natural materials, "thematic" detailing and eagerness to integrate new products and systems into design.

A truly compelling aspect of Wright's work lies in the unified aesthetic he was capable of infusing into each project. Not only would the concept of the building and its site be superbly resolved, details of furniture, daylighting and light fixtures, furniture, stained glass windows and carpet were all typical aspects of the design, and every aspect would be highly integrated within a the organized configuration or scheme of the project.

Wright was a capable designer of structural systems as well as aesthetically distinguished buildings. The columns Wright designed for the Johnson's Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin were remarkable. He described them as lily pads, with their diameter of nine inches at the base, sharply flaring out to almost twenty feet at the top. The building official required a mockup column to be loaded and tested to failure. Sixty tons were loaded onto the column before it collapsed.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House on the campus...Image via Wikipedia

Frank Lloyd WrightImage via Wikipedia

Frank Lloyd Wright designed house (one of two)...Image via Wikipedia

Frank Lloyd Wright, Clinton Walker ResidenceImage by dalylab via Flickr

Top 10: 6. Jorn Utzon

Section, Sydney Opera House.

Section, Paris Opera House.

A political ploy by Australia's then-Premier of New South Wales cost Utzon, and the world, much of what would have been a larger group of buildings than he did in fact produce. This sordid story is spelled out in a wiki article on Utzon.
Utzon had a rare, probably unexcelled, ability to conceptualize form in a building. The Sydney Opera house was the most spectacular and well-known of his career, but a church near Copenhagen, at Bagsvaerd was a significant force in architecture as well. Bagsvaerd Church is, as well as being a perfect, whole and complete design in itself, a very influential building .

Above, building section and floor plan Bagsvaerd Church
The contrast between the church's rectilinear exterior, and the softly billowing form of its sanctuary ceiling is striking. The idea wasn't new, at all. The Beaux Arts Paris Opera House is a good example of a suspended ceiling form that is unrelated to its roof shape. The Bagsvaerd Church incorporates this idea in a modern building, in a way that feels natural and convincing in an era of lip service to "form follows function." This ceiling was, according to Utzon, based on the form of clouds, floating across the sky.

Utzon's sketch of clouds as the idea behind the floating ceiling.

Bagsvaerd Church

Bagsvaerd Church

Richard Weston's book, Utzon, Inspiration - Vision - Architecture
Sydney Opera House

Friday, June 19, 2009

Top 10: 7. Ralph Erskine

Top: Inside face of Byker Wall
Above: Byker Wall facing the road.

Ralph Erskine was an iconic British-Swedish architect, best known for his work during the 1960's and 70's.
Byker Wall, the large 1970's housing redevlopment in Newcastle, England, is probably Erskine's best-known project. This project showcases all the qualities most associated with him.
The project was heavily participatory during the programming, and even design phases. Residents of the neighborhood, presumed to be moving into the new housing under design, participated in charettes and provided constant feedback to the design team.
Erskine was meticulous in the integration of structures into their landscape, and Byker Wall is delightfully detailed in the manner in which buildings relate to one another and to the landscape. Relics of lost buildings, carved stone griffons and the like, were placed in otherwise plain walls of brick, and some were strewn about in selected parts of the landscape in the manner of ancient ruins.
The project is strikingly clear and simple in the master plan - one side of the site's perimeter faces a busy and noisy road. Very effectively blocking the road noise from the rest of the site, the building mass is highest along that side of the project, and presents a largely unperforated brick wall to the road. Small windows, vent hoods and patterns of brick colors relieve the wall from monotony. Completely contrasting, the side of the building away from the road is delicate, with brightly-colored balconies and shed roofing composed in a seemingly whimsical, beautifully-scaled array.
The further from the perimeter and the higher-trafficed streets and roads, the lower is the scale of the housing. A discussion of the project and the history of the site.
Here is an overall site plan of the 635-unit neighborhood. A plan of an individual building is shown here.
A remarkable flickr photo group maintains a large collection of Erskine projects. "bykercolin" would appear to be a resident, at any rate has taken a huge number of photos, with many very nicely composed shots showing real appreciation and affection for the place. I think it's well worth a look.

Top 10: 8. O'Neil Ford

O'Neil Ford was Texas' most prominent architect of the twentieth century. Thousands of other architects would claim the honor for themselves, but Ford was the man. How many have been named National Historic Landmarks? As far as I know, O'Neil Ford is the only human to be so designated by the National Council on the Arts. When told of the honor, he asked if it meant he couldn't be altered.

"A Washington Post article once described O'Neil Ford, the irascible, cigar-chomping San Antonio architect who died in 1982, as "the nation's leading architect, although the nation may not know it yet." Much of the nation still hasn't heard of him. But if you view any of his creations - from San Antonio's Trinity University and the Tower of the Americas in HemisFair Park to the Texas Instruments semiconductor plant in Dallas - you'll understand why he was considered a genius at using materials like stone, brick, and wood. More than anyone else, Ford preserved the indigenous character of Texas architecture from the encroachment of what he called "bulldozer mentalities" and "that nasty, modern stuff." --Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly December 1999 (From Ford's firm's website.)

Sombody once remarked that an architect looking for a job stood a better chance of getting one with Ford if he was down on his luck, a few kids at the house, and a stack of bills to pay than with a degree from a top school. Ford's formal education stopped at the end of his second year at North Texas State. Still, my first employer as an architect, James Pratt, was Ford's student at Harvard in the early 1950's.

Ford's contribution to architecture is harder to understand than that of the other 'top ten' listed here. He and Mies van der Rohe are the only two without a degree in architecture. He wasn't a 'national' figure outside certain communities of the architectural profession, and he wasn't a household name. His value to architecture was significant, though, in the ripple effect of his tenacious and ultimately successful effort to establish understanding and appreciation of regionalism in design, and the closely linked phenomenon of historic preservation. His first preservation cause was the la Villita community in San Antonio.

Ford's accomplishments came through personal charm, persuasiveness and professional design credibility inside Texas. He did this among fellow architects, clients, agencies and the media, hence to some extent, Texas' public.

Ford's passion for regional integrity in design came from a place rich in identifiably indigenous traits. Spain's, then Mexico's, control of Texas left a valued architectural heritage. German immigrants to the Hill Country west of Austin brought a practical stone vernacular to farmhouses and small town commercial buildings. The hard climate of the more arid western half of the state was lightly sprinkled with small towns whose buildings, other than sometimes grandiose courthouses, show a common-sense economy of construction that hold lessons for today.

Elements of regionally derived design solutions are the same everywhere - though by definition each separate region will have highly individual forms of these elements. A regionally suited house in Minnesota will have quite different attributes from a house in Central Texas, and different still for Coastal Georgia. These elements include responses to climate. Is it important to provide ventilation and shade, Texas, or is heat loss of primary concern, Minnesota? Also, historic cultural context matters. Texas' Spanish colonial days are one example; Coastal Georgia's British colonial background is another. Indigenous building materials matter as well. Paris is built on a limestone escarpment. Savannah is on the edge of a pine forest, and clay is readily available for firing brick. The ubiquitous glass office building denies the opportunity to express immediate regional influences for a building, as do franchised brands like McDonald's. Why voluntarily take a road trip if you're going to see the same thing everywhere you go?

The geometry of central Texas' regional vernacular buildings is simple and straightforward. Rectangular main volumes, shed roofs, side gables, porches, either as voids under the main roof or as lower-pitched added sheds, usually at the front, make up the bulk of 19th century farmhouses. This ubiquitous building type, whether walled in stone or wood siding became a trademark to be found in all parts of the state. The thing that most appealed to Ford about this heritage was, I think, its common-sense basis and its charm in fitting into the landscape. He celebrated these essential forms and loved detailing the special conditions that caused variations from the basic model, as well - as long as it was executed with the same principles and would "fit" within the logic of the overall building.

Not long after graduating from college, I was working in the Dallas firm of Pratt Box Henderson. In those days I smoked cigarettes. One day an older fellow of seventy or so, elegant in a seersucker suit with a primrose in the place of his tie-pin ,was led by the receptionist into the studio where I was working. He said, "Do you smoke?" I said I did. Thinking he wanted a cigarette, I reached for them on the bookshelf next to my table.

"Hell, no! I don't want your damn cigarette. I want you to see what I got from smoking," he said. With that, he took off his jacket and laid it on the end of my drafting table. Then, he pulled his shirttail from his trousers and lifted it to his shoulders.

"How about this scar?" he demanded. I looked. "Well feel of it! Come on!" I felt the scar and allowed that it was some scar, all right. Several people had drifted in to see what was going on. With the audience in place, he continued. "They took out my damn lung and it turned out there wasn't any cancer in the lung itself, just in the windpipe next to it." Shook his head. "I'm pretty damn lucky to be alive, and you'll need to be, too, if you don't quit the goddamn smoking." With that he unzipped his trousers and started tucking in his shirttail. He kept talking, as though he and I were the only people in the room. The women started to leave.

It suddenly hit me that this was O'Neil Ford. He was well-known to me, but I'd not met him and he'd lost enough weight that the pictures I'd seen didn't help recognize him. I'd actually signed a get-well card from the school when the news of his surgery came several months ago. All the while he kept talking, connecting to everyone in the room (there were seven or eight still there, and a couple of the women had returned now that he'd zipped up.)

"Well, tell James and Philip I got the job." (James Pratt and Philip Henderson. They were interviewing for a project at the University of Dallas, and Ford had evidently dropped in to determine if they were competing for the job.)

Just as he was leaving, he glanced at some sketches of an insurance company office building in New Braufels on my table. "I don't know what you're working on there, but it looks like it's in Texas."

The basic parameters of local materials, orientation to sun and prevailing breeze, generous shade and recognition of the relationship to the surrounding context make up the essentials of the architecture of common sense. Ford recogized and applied these parameters with often exquisite refinement in the design of every building type. In doing so, he influenced and inspired truly significant numbers of succeeding architects and the culture in which they work.

Early in his career Clovis Heimsath worked for Ford. He authored the book Pioneer Texas Buildings, which must have been one of Ford's favorites.

Texas Online's Ford entry.

David Dillon, architecture critic for the Dallas News, wrote a fine book on Ford's work, The Architecture of O'Neil Ford, Celebrating Place.

The following photos were by \

Top, chapel at la Villita

Middle, San Antonio Riverwalk

Bottom, captioned "So O'Neil Ford-y." I agree, whether his design or not.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Top 10: 9. Harry Weese

Harry WeeseImage via Wikipedia

Urbane and conversational, Harry Weese was an extraordinary individual - a true Renaissance Man. He was greatly influenced by Alvar Aalto, who was his professor at MIT, and by Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook. He worked for one of the largest corporate firms after graduation, SOM in Chicago.

He started his own practice in Chicago in 1947. While unmistakably a modernist, Weese introduced richer detailing and materials than were commonly employed in most modern buildings. This came from his personal association with Aalto and with Saarinen, and, maybe, his appreciation for historic buildings.

His father was a banker, and Weese maintained a profit-making practice throughout his career. (On a visit with Aalto, he got the franchise for Aalto's furniture in the Midwest. He opened a furniture shop in Chicago after the war, where this and other modern furniture was sold, Baldwin-Kingrey.) He liked the juxtaposition of architecture as an art and a business. A fascinating oral history of Weese's life and career is housed in the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. If you have to choose between reading Weese's oral history and reading this blog - go for the oral history. It has not only a fascinating account of the development of modern architecture, it's the personal perspective of one of the most accomplished practitioners. Here's an excerpt, an anecdote about Eero Saarinen during Weese's year at Cranbrook:

  • Weese: Oh, yes, he was a great friend. In fact, when I was there that summer, Eero challenged me to a duel.

  • Blum: What was that about?

  • Weese: His first wife, Lily, was something of a character, a sculptor, was kind of after me. She insisted she wanted to do a portrait of my head, so I had to pose for her in her studio. That was the summer they declared the women's dormitory off limits.

  • Blum: And there you were.

  • Weese: Eero found me in a bronze urn at the end of Academy Road curled up with his wife-to-be. After he got me out of there, he challenged me to a duel, but I talked him out of it.
A personal note - There were two professors in graduate school who most influenced my own approaches to architecture, Martin Price and Bernhard Hafner. Martin worked for Harry Weese after graduation, twice. While he was certainly "urbane and conversational" as noted earlier, Weese also possessed truly unusual stamina in the pursuit of design solutions. His methods of design could be exhausting, but rewarded with an outcome that would be thoroughly thought out and infused with all the intuitive resources of the designer. He was the real deal, as were all the 'top ten' listed here.

He spoke at our school, Texas at Arlington, while I was taking Martin's design studio in 1978. Rightly anticipating a large crowd, the lecture was held in the gym. Weese's elegant double-breasted gray jacket and navy trousers were rumpled from travel, and he seemed tired as the talk got underway. He walked about on the gym floor, mike in hand, and seemed to want to just get through the talk and find a place to sit. When the question-answer part came, though, he became animated and energized. There wasn't any doubt this was a guy who would find reserves of energy when he wanted to engage in something. His presence was also remarkable. He was visibly an accomplished and forceful personality, but without any hint of arrogance or condescention toward students. Shaking hands with him, he had the politician's ability to connect by looking you in the eye and clearly focusing on you to the exclusion of everything else that was going on.

Weese was one of two architects on the 8-member jury for the Vietnam Memorial design competition. Details are murky, but the politics and emotions surrounding the competition, and the eventual construction, presented almost every conceiveable obstacle to the successful execution of the design as originally intended.

This was a three-year struggle, and it's difficult to believe that Weese's influence didn't guide the eventual result to a significant degree. The winning entry, by then-student of architecture Maya Lin, was highly controversial. The stark monument was deemed inappropriate because it was "somber," "not uplifting," "focused on casualties without including survivors," and was the object of every opinion available to the imagination of millions of would-be critics.

Ross Perot was a leading opponent of the Maya Lin design, and opinion coalesced in two camps. One favored Maya Lin's design, the other insisted on adding a realistic statue and a flagpole at the joint of the two wings of the memorial. An eventual agreement was made to build the memorial with both Maya Lin's plan and the statue-with-flagpole addition dead center of the wall. However, behind-the-scenes maneuvers somehow resulted in the successful solution that is seen today.

    of the
    The jury for the Vietnam Memorial Design Competition finds Entry
    Number 1026 the finest and most appropriate of the 1420 entries
    submitted. We recommend to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund that
    it be built on this site.
    Of all the proposals submitted, this most clearly meets the spirit
    and formal requirements of the program. It is contemplative and
    reflective. It is superbly harmonious with its site, and yet frees
    the visitors from the noise and traffic of the surrounding city.
    Its open nature will encourage access in all occasions, at all hours,
    without barriers. Its siting and materials are simple and forthright.
    This memorial with its wall of names, becomes a place of quiet
    reflection, and a tribute to those who served their nation in difficult
    times. All who come here can find it a place of healing. This will
    be a quiet memorial, one that achieves an excellent relationship with
    both the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, and relates the
    visitor to them. It is uniquely horizontal, entering the earth
    rather than piercing the sky.
    This is very much a memorial of our own times, one that could not
    have been achieved in another time and place. The designer has
    created an eloquent place where the simple meeting of earth, sky and
    remembered names contain messages for all who will know this place.
    Agreed, 11:25 A.M., May 1, 1981
    Pietro Belluschi rfi^fa
    Grady Clay
    Garrett Eckbo
    Richard H. Hunt
    Co stantino Nivo
    James Rosati
    Hideo Sasaki /4
    Harry M. Weese

Weese's largest project was the DC Metro system. Along with the extraordinary
Metro, itself, considered the world's premiere transit system, the restoration of the historic Union Station was carried out by Weese's firm.

above, DC Metro

An informative essay on the design of the DC Metro.
below, Union Station, DC

below, Swissotel, Chicago