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Entries in structure (13)


Tulsa: not resilient yet

Tulsa’s Resilience Challenge Officials are prioritizing civil engagement and working on an innovative floodplain management plan.

Tulsa Oklahoma, one of the Resilient Cities 100.  Trying here to figure out exactly what Resilience Cities are and do.  It was, once, the centre of the US oil industry, but diversified to 'telecommunications, finance and aviation'.  What does this mean?  call centres? airport hub?  But, it has poverty in minority communities.  Of course it does.  Not only is it in need of resilience from being located in Tornado Alley, local civil society, especially the poverty sector, must be engaged with.  Tulsa has 391,900 people.  This is the extent of the information on Tulsa as a resilience challenge.  

What am I expecting?  Microsoft is working with the Resilient Cities 100 on emergency communications during extreme weather events.  A Chief Resilience Officer, a CRO, is needed.  As Tulsa's challenges are listed as Hurricane/Typhoon/Cyclone, Social Inequity and Tropical Storms, it can be linked to 51 other cities from Belgrade to Arusha.

Resilient Systems, another diagram with rollovers explaining some key terms, all very good, desirable and unchallengeable.  Reflective: able to learn. Robust: limits spread of failure.  Flexible: has alternate strategies. Integrated: systems work together.  Resourceful: can easily repurpose resources.  Redundant: has backup capacity.  Inclusive: broad consultation and communication.  

Last night on the news CBC showed a new way of teaching grade fives how to analyse problems.  The task was how to make a playscape for their school.  Lots of bubble diagrams were created, arrows, priorities, who does what.  When it came to materials the pupils dutifully wrote in their bubbles 'swings', 'slides', 'monkey bars'.  Good god, for all that analysis, they still see a playscape as a traditional playground set that's been in every school yard since 1952.  Somehow all this systematic organisation seems to reorganise knowns and givens while excluding lateral, creative thought.  One suspects that no amount of bubble diagramming or rollovers will come up with a vegetable garden in the corner of the school yard – that kind of idea floats in from some different universe.  

If we have CROs, CEOs and CFOs, we have governance structures and hierarchies.  If there was anything revealed in On Site review 32: weak systems, it is that hierarchies are rarely robust and are structurally incapable of being resilient.


Can't resist:



the Tarpon Inn and hurricanes

The Tarpon Inn in the 1940s. Although built and burned, re-built and destroyed by storms before this version, its basic and original form and function is a barracks. It presages the two storey motel with each room accessible from an outside walkway. Compared the the Tarpon Inn in its current palm-treed beauty, this view from the 1940s seems to indicate a more motel-like attitude to travel and lodging.

The Tarpon Inn, in Port Aransas on the south east Texas coast, was built in the 1920s specifically to resist hurricanes and the storm surges that had destroyed its earlier versions.  A forest of pine poles are set each in 16' of concrete and continue through two storeys to the roof. There is a post in each corner of each small room.  There are no inside corridors, you get to your room from the porch.  The lobby is papered with tarpon scales – discs about 1.5" across – each signed by the fisherman who caught it, including famous people who came for the sport, mostly in the 1920s and 30s when there was a lot of tarpon, Megalops atlanticus, in the Gulf.  

Tarpon scales from the 1920s-1940s in the Tarpon Inn lobby, 7000 of them supposedly. Tarpon are warm water ocean sport fish, 4-8' long and up to 250 lbs.  It is alleged that the tarpon has suffered a massive decline along the Gulf coastline since the 1950s because of loss of coastal 'nursery' marshes: mangrove marshes in Florida, a seawall across much of Mississippi that used to be marsh, and increased commercial fishing of menhaden, a tarpon food source. 

Why am I revisiting the Tarpon Inn after twenty years since I saw it?  Perhaps because it is an ecology of people, architecture, climate and weather that seemed so precise, and so gone.

The Tarpon Inn today. These images are taken from traveller's blogs; although the inn is on the Texas Historic Register of significant buildings and properties I wasn't able to find a survey of it. The Tarpon Inn operates as a rather beautiful boutique hotel these days, Port Aransas's gritty past all but erased.


breakaway walls

Damage from Hurrican Ivan, 2004, in the southeastern USA where breakaway walls are necessary and mandated.

This structural detachment of structure and skin is very helpful in extreme weather: in hurricane-prone coastlines houses have breakaway walls which are ground level enclosed areas for parking or storage, where the enclosing walls will actually break away from the structure when hit by high winds and water.  The house is instantly piloteed, water and wind rush right under it.  Breakaway walls are bylaws in many areas, and there is a FEMA manual that outlines specifications. The principles appear to apply only to ground floors; the house itself is conventional construction where walls are meant to protect, not flee.  

Because of our northern climate, all our woodframe houses sit on basements that act like concrete boats: they resist frost heaving but in a flood fill up with water immediately.  And every time there is a tornado in a non-tornado zone such as happened in southern Ontario last week, the houses are deconstructed leaving piles of studs and shredded plywood.  In Places in the Heart, a 1980s movie set on the prairies during the Depression, a tornado was coming and Sally Field rushed about the house opening all the windows before taking the children into the storm cellar. The house was made as transparent to the wind as possible. A storm cellar is accessible from outside the house, no convenient basement stair, and so even if the house is blown apart, the cellar is a separate underground bunker.  This was in The Wizard of Oz, which we've forgotten.

In this new era of violent weather, our bulwarks against traditional weather where the worst that happens is that it gets very very cold — three weeks of -30, no problem, the houses are snug.  Our houses have always been built to resist — we feel the whole house ought to be a storm cellar — rather than to bend.  We are getting new weather, we are going to have to rethink it all. 


Powell & Moya, Skylon, 1951

The Dome Model with Si Sillman (bending), Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Roger Lovelace, and Josef Albers. Photo by Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy of the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate, Scheinbaum and Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate.
As we have a call for articles out for On Site review 32: weak systems.  I've been thinking of such things: Buckminster Fuller's postwar experiments with geodesics and space frames: how light can structure be – how much material can be removed so that what is left is the stress diagram alone?  Jeffrey Lindsay was one of his young engineers – from Montreal, ex-RCAF WWII pilot. It all coalesced evidently in 1948 at Black Mountain College where a combination of sculptors, Josef Albers, John Cage, Fuller, Merce Cunningham and ex-pilot engineering students who had learned about geodetics as navigational theory (straight lines that describe a sphere) experimented with building domes out of lath.  

Lindsay moved to southern California, but continued to work with both Fuller and other architects: he was the engineer for the vast space frame at Simon Fraser University, 1966.  If you look him up on wikipedia there is a huge image of Fuller's geodesic dome for the US pavilion at Expo 67.  These are dramatic structures: transparent, minimal material with huge impact: architecture no longer a solid against the world, but a structural system that mediates between internal space and the outside – it turns the outside into a romantic vision of otherness, seen through a scrim.

Powell & Moya, Skylon, Festival of Britain, London. 1951.And from a different angle altogether, another example of structural minimalism is Powell & Moya's 1951 Skylon, the overriding symbol of a magical technological future for Britain.  It really was a lovely thing, a javelin balanced on three slack cables strung from three steel posts canted away from the centre to balance the weight of the skylon.  It is stabilised by near-invisible guy wires. How exhilarating it must have been to see, unlike anything that had ever come before.   This was not to be inhabited but to be looked at: straight symbolism, which was also its downfall as it was dismantled and cut up for scrap when the government changed from Labour who used the Festival of Britain as an event to mark the change in Britain's fortunes –away from rationing and bomb sites to a gleaming future; not surprising that it fell given the postwar economic state – to the Conservatives under Churchill, cold warriors who felt Britain should recover its imperial trappings from half a century and two world wars earlier.  

I don't think American structural minimalism ever had this political charge – postwar United States was in its technological ascendency, a consequence of the space race, another cold war contest. The American reaction was to rush toward this conflict, rather than bluster about a glorious past.



Pollarded willows

More ways to torture trees. Coppicing was for woodlands where new shoots are easily harvested, springing as they do from ground level. Pollarding is similar except that the original tree trunk is cut off at 8-10 feet high.  This was used where the land was used for grazing and new shoots at ground level would be grazed off.  
Stobbing is when you cut a tree off at head height and so do not have to use a ladder.  Ancient practices these, all meant to control the height of a tree to lessen the shade cast by a large canopy, to structurally strengthen the tree by reducing the proportion of canopy to trunk girth, or to provide easily accessible building materials.

Both coppicing and pollarding are finding new life in permaculture management of biomass, but pollarding's longer history is, like coppicing, that of harvesting even, small-diameter trunks off an existing and vigorous root system. This is incredibly ugly looking in the winter – massacred stumps, and when in leaf, extremely formal, pollarding being one of the methods used to control avenues of trees in nineteenth century gardens.  When you think of it, it is rather like turning tree trunks into pilotis: the open ground plane, buildings floating above. 

1913: pollarded elms, ten each side, on the avenue to Christchurch Priory, Dorset. They succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and were felled in 1975. The local history article from which this photograph has been taken seems to think it a good thing, the avenue masked the architecture of the priory, which now sits baldly on its bare lawn. No one cared to replant the avenue. Local history societies have a lot to answer for.


mexican vaults

Mexican vault. photo by Michael Ramage, Scaffolding to structure seminar, Cambridge University. This example was done by unskilled students in a learning process sort of way, but it shows the nature of the brick used.

A very interesting pdf of a Scaffolding to Structure seminar, under Philippe Block and Lara Davis at Cambridge University in 2010, is here.  It includes the building of a mexican vault, above, outlined for them by Alfonso Ramirez Ponce, a Mexican architect who lectures at UNAM and teaches low cost sustainable construction using regional materials. 

Such vaults are called bovedas; an odd little video, below, shows precisely how they are done in Mexico, by skilled masons:


The Boveda at Casa Chorro from bloodredcolt on Vimeo.



Eladio Dieste's bricks

Eladio Dieste. Salto bus station, Uruguay, 1974

Dieste's hallmark: double cantilever self-supporting thin-shell single-layer brick vaults.  Here for a bus terminal in Salto, Uruguay in 1974.  Dieste lived from 1917 to 2000, a surprisingly contemporary career, little known here.  Gaussian vaults: double curves.  The book on all of this is Remo Pedreschi's The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture.  Pedreschi's explanation of masonry vaults points out that the thinness of the shell is dependent on the dimensions of the block and the finishing layer, typical ratio is 30/80. Dieste's vaults were 130mm thick, and the vaults spanned 50m, an astounding relationship using bricks and mortar and not achievable using concrete.

Pedreschi writes that 'Dieste's sense of cosmic economy' – what a lovely phrase – led him to derive strength from form, rather than from mass, using hollow brick (2/3 the weight of concrete) and extremely shapely catenary curves, i.e. higher, curvier vaults.

So, what was going on in Uruguay while this beautiful work was being built? State of emergency in 1968, Tupamaros geurillas defeated by the military in 1973, torture, break up of the unions, torture, the removal of the Communist Party, torture, political prisoners, dictatorship, mass emigration, economic crisis, desaparecidos. 

Does stability lead to complacency, and does complacency lead to dull thinking?  I've always thought so myself.  In theory it should be the opposite, but in practice it isn't.


the Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC.

The Empress Hotel was built between 1904 and 1906, shortly after the death of the real Empress in 1901.  It was a CPR hotel, Francis Rattenbury the English architect, also the architect of the Parliament Buildings and the Crystal Pool.  Unless one is from Victoria, Rattenbury is better known perhaps for being killed on his wife's instructions, the story told in Terence Rattigan's 1975 play, Cause Célèbre.

The Empress is pinnacled and towered, looming and gothic, now covered in ivy.  One doesn't make architectural criticisms of it because it is such an institution: the archetypal outpost of Empire, like Raffles in Singapore but not so racy: the Empress is famous for tea.  Of course.  This is Victoria.

Next to it was the Crystal Pool where all little Victorian schoolchildren learned to swim up until the 1960s – either there or at Elk Lake in the summer in the Daily Colonist swim classes.  Yes, that was the name of the newspaper.  The Crystal Pool, built in 1925, was a large glass house: no curved pieces, all flat plate glass on cast iron structure, at the time known as the largest salt-water pool in the Empire.  It was a wonderful space for a child – light streamed into the pool, glittered on the water, the palm trees dripped, exotic as any Hockney pool in California.  

This was my Canadian childhood.

Crystal Garden pool. F M Rattenbury and Percy James, architects. Victoria BC 1925


Ingrid Mida: construction 

Ingrid Mida. What Lies Beneath, 2010. Mosquito mesh and ribbon on mannequin. copyright Ingrid Mida

Thinking last week about how buildings in construction are always so exciting, all floor plates and breezeways, came across Ingrid Mida who, among other things mostly to do with fashion, has an interest in substructure.  Here, a chemise, corset and pannier worn under an 18th century gown, not literally of course, this is art, but somehow the transparency, the bones and webbing that make a form is always very interesting.

This is what the flat plate shapes drawn out by Diderot for the Encyclopédie lie upon.  Unlike today where the shape of a garment is held in place by the body itself, in 18th century court dress there was an intervening cage that was supported by the body and in turn supported the garment.  It is indeed architectural, this idea that with clothing one makes an inhabitable space and then protects it from the weather, sometimes decoratively, sometimes grimly.


structural illiteracy

apartment entrance, southwest CalgaryAnyone, no matter how little formal schooling they have, realises that the equation 2 + 2 = 5.37 does not look right.  Yes, we were taught, but taught so young that simple arithmetic becomes common sense. 

Could we not teach basic visual literacy, also at a young age, so that when anyone sees the picture above (never mind the people who originally drew it up, bought the materials and built it), common sense would tell them that this simply cannot be right?


João Luis Carrilho da Graça: Ponte Pedonal, Carpinteira

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Ponte Pedonal, Covilha. see reportage 403 when you get to the website.

It is odd which architects in other countries come to our attention and which don't.  João Luis Carrilho da Graça has a huge reputation in Portugal, many awards, a long and stellar career of relentlessly minimal sculptural modernist work.  Websites are full of dramatic photos of shooting white wall planes, hard blue skies.  The work of Alvaro Siza, who has a much larger critical reputation outside Portugal, appears almost hand-made in comparison: shaped and trogdylitic, lots of saudade, absent in Carrilho da Graça.

However, FG+SG sent us this da Graça footbridge over the Carpinteira near Covilha a little while ago: new photographs, the bridge was designed in 2003 and finished in 2009.   It is a 220m pedestrian bridge, centre piece perpendicular to the stream bed and valley, the two end sections determined by anchoring points.   Hard to find much hard information on the engineering, materials or constructions but I did find this news clip which appears to discuss the controversial nature of the project:

As I write this, I'm also listening to a radio program about Louise Bourgeois who died a couple of days ago.  She says 'all my work is suggestive, not explicit.  The explicit is boring'.  This footbridge is very explicit, its engineering is beautifully calculated to just draw a brave line across the valley — and there it sits, nothing ulterior or mysterious about it.  One might wonder if this is the ultimate limitation of the modernists, that in the past 30 years of layered signification in urban environments and in architecture, this kind of minimalism ultimately says too little to sustain a conversation beyond its engineering. 

The question is perhaps why we have asked our architecture to speak eloquently about the human condition, rather than just containing, with some sort of grace, the human condition. 

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Ponte Pedonal Covilha, 2010


Diderot 2: cutting your coat to fit the cloth


Diderot. Tailleur. Encyclopédie, or Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72). right: Blue camblet riding jacket, Britain, 1730-50. Victoria and Albert Museum T.12-1957

Above is the layout of pattern pieces for the material and lining for a mid 18th century jacket.  The skirt is very full, for both fashion and riding.  The scale bar at the bottom marks off une aune, which is a pre-1799 (when France introduced the metre) measurement unit used for cloth and is roughly a yard.  The two different widths of material shown in the plate indicate two different looms: 18th century silk brocade generally came from narrow looms producing a 19" width.  Wool was wider.  The most well known example of width determined by the loom is that of Harris Tweed, produced in 28" widths on the Hattersly shuttle loom.  This narrow width determined how the ubiquitous Harris Tweed jacket was cut and styled. 

Generally, and unless it is very rare and hand-loomed, wool fabric comes 60"/155cm wide today.  Even this width puts limits on how it can be cut to make a coat.  However, what is interesting about the above layouts is the complexity of the coat – 16 pieces, and every piece curved.  This would have been a very shapely jacket, something like the riding jacket in the Victoria and Albert Museum, above right. 

We could make this jacket from this plate, starting with the length of the sleeve and the waist dimension, scaling everything up proportionally.  Publishing these plates, and it was M. Garsault who was the editor of the métier of tailoring and garment-making under Diderot's overall editorship, meant that the proprietary knowledge of tailoring and dressmaking was suddenly public property.  Until the Encyclopédie was published, everything was local knowledge without standardisation.  Was this inevitable and rational modernisation represented by the Encyclopédie, the first and devastating shot in the wresting of control of production from personal, individual eccentricity?

The other thing about this pattern is that the cloth and the pattern determine the garment, not the body.  The body is fit into the resulting shell, rather than the shell being built responsively upon an individual body. It is so obvious that this can act as a metaphor for architecture it hardly needs saying, but I'll say it anyway. From the turning of sheet material into curved pieces, little has changed from 18th century tailoring to Gehry's complex software plotting programs that produced Bilbao.  And for the rest of us, it is the 4 x 8 module that determines so much of the spaces we inhabit, not our own dimensions.  




Diderot's Tailleurs

Diderot. Ganterie. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72).

Thinking on from Nicole Dextras's Weedrobes, the illustrations for Diderot's  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72) come to mind.  This survey of French crafts and trades just before the Revolution, includes such things as how a bodice is made, a riding jacket, gloves, hats – all the patterns laid out flat.  Included are the workrooms for glovemakers, tailors, hatmakers – the spaces of craft and trade: where is the dress cut and stitched?  where does the dressmaker or the tailor sit as they fell a seam?  what is the space like in which the hat is sold? 

In the Encyclopédie they are austere rooms flooded with light from tall many-paned sash windows.  These rooms are never deep and usually have windows on two facing sides.  Because these are crafts and trades, furniture is the work bench, a sturdy work table, open shelves and sometimes a cabinet.  Accompanying the plates illustrating the garment, and the plates showing the spaces, are the plates of tools, the instruments of the craft: a catalogue of needles, of stretchers, of hat presses, of shears.

The sense that an illustration, from illustrare – to light up, can explain a process and the minimal spatiality of that process is something quite valuable.  The end product is no more or less important than the way the buttons are made, or how daylight falls on the work table.  The Encyclopédie is clearly an Englightenment project that does not privilege status, or accumulated meaning, over fact.  Dresses are not about fashion, they are about the people who make the garments.  This is indeed revolutionary, this concentration on process.

It is also interesting, just in terms of women's fashion, that all the panniers, the many-layered gowns, the corsets, the lacing, the ribbons and the embroidery fell out of favour after the revolution, replaced by simple white muslin dresses that hung straight from a high waist.  Domestic interiors, and one can think of the Georgian rooms of the Jane Austen era here, cut the gilded baroque in favour of whitewash and plain, beautiful proportions.

Today, the Couturiere's room below seems quite functional, but it was shocking and indeed revolutionary to have this kind of utility ennobled to the point that it influenced domestic interiors.