Typological Mash Up

nebraska-capitol post card with lights

Bertrand Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol is a typological tour de force that combines a Beaux Arts four courtyard plan with a dome-topped tower that deploys the most up-to-date compositional and syntactical strategies for skyscraper design. What was unique about the project was the way that it transformed what had been conceived as an urban building type – famously sculpted by Hugh Ferriss to allow sunlight to penetrate to Manhattan’s streets – into a uniquely American civic expression. The resulting free-standing ensemble has both the paradigmatic clarity and sense of ritual of Fischer von Erlach’s reconstructions of the important building complexes of Antiquity, including the walled compound of Diocletian’s Palace in Split and the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture, 1721).


Diocletian’s Palace, Fischer von Erlach

The Porcelain Tower of Nanking, Fischer von Erlach

Like the projects from Antiquity, the Nebraska State Capitol is surrounded by massive walls with ceremonial gates and has a symbolic monument on the interior that is highly visible on the skyline.



Theorizing Construction Phasing

Bertrand Goodhue's State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska

Bertrand Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska

While in Lincoln, Nebraska recently, I visited the Bertrand Goodhue-designed Nebraska State Capitol (a typological tour de force). I learned, while reading the historical information in the ramshackle exhibit* in the lower lobby, that the design of the building was mostly influenced by the need to keep the existing – and more conventional – capitol building operational while the first phase of the new building was constructed. Rather than build the new capitol near or next to the existing building, two opposing arms of Goodhues project were built around the existing structure.

The north and south wings of Goodhue's Nebraska State Capitol embracing the existing capitol building, circa 1924

The north and south wings of Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol embracing the existing capitol building, circa 1924

This audacious strategy was both an act of conceptual hubris and highly deferential to the quasi-sacred ground of Nebraska’s government. I suppose it also made the move from the old capitol to the new wings of Goodhues’ building relatively affordable.

Phases of capitol construction

*Note to the Architect of the Capitol – Utile would love to redesign the exhibit.


Tangible Space

While in Austin, TX recently, we stumbled across an exhibition of Korean artist Do Ho Suh at the Austin Contemporary that renders everyday domestic appliances, fixtures, and entire apartments in finely-woven color polyester fabric. Their particular ghostly quality results from the high level of detail that can be rendered with stitching and the way that the fabric both objectives space, as if liberated from a mold, and allows for a view of interior spaces through the translucent material.

The pleasure of Apartment A, Unit 2, Corridor and Staircase, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, New York, 10011, USA partly results from the way that a gallery-goer’s experience unfolds over time. Visitors first see the negative spaces as translucent glowing objects, the color of gummy bears, and then enter the apartment and marvel at the same both-inside-and-outside experience at a smaller scale. The consequence of this experience, enhanced by the everyday ordinariness of the apartment and objects being rendered, is the sense that figurative architectonic space permeates every object, molding, and electrical device.

The installation conjures up the installations of Rachel Whiteread, winner of Britian’s annual Turner Prize in 1993. In Whiteread’s House from the same year, the concrete cast of a Victorian row house represent the banality of domesticity in a new light. Like Suh’s installation, the rendition of the negative spaces of windows and fireplaces as protrusions make domestic space corporeal.

Do Suh’s installation seems to be a direct commentary on Whiteread’s work, but where her negative space is an impenetrable and almost colorless solid, Suh provides both a view into the warmly glowing objects and an opportunity to explore them again, but transformed by their uncanny materiality. Both Suh and Whiteread point to a pre-1990s preoccupation of architectural theory: the description and analysis of figurative architectonic space. Discredited as retrograde by theorists focused on the broader dismantling of Post Modernism (of which the recovery of pre-Modern figurative space was a major goal), an interest in “space” may be due for a comeback.

Bramante’s 1505 plan for St. Peters demonstrates the power of conceiving of architectonic space as a subtractive operation. The square-configured ambulatory that surrounds the center dome-space appears to have been tunneled out of solid matter, given the residual shape of the pier/walls that remain. Likewise, the attenuated transepts, shaped like ghosts of hot dogs, disrupt the spatial legibility of the central space in ways that pre-figure Mannerist sensibilities. At a finer-grain, the reciprocal relationship between niches across secondary threshold spaces, continue the theme of intersecting figurative voids. It’s as if Bramante’s plan was conceived as a full-scale mold for nested figurative spaces.


Luigi Moretti, an important post-War Italian architectural theorest and architect (Il Girasole in Rome, circa 1950, is his most important work), made a series of plaster casts of seminal Italian Renaissance buildings to support his theory of interior space, as articulated in Spazio, an Italian journal. In his essay “Strutture sequenze di spazi” published in Spazio 7 (December 1952-April 1953), Moretti makes a claim for the supremacy of figurative space in architecture. “There is however an expressive aspect that summarizes the fact of architecture and that can be assumed even in isolation, with more ease than others. I allude to the interior space and void of architecture.”

Like Rachel Whiteread’s casts, plaster provided Moretti with a medium to create corporeal representations of figurative space. Plaster, however, does not allow for the depiction of the interpenetration of spaces at a range of scales. Perhaps models of the same spaces rendered in color polyester fabric would allow for a more nuanced representation of the orchestrated spatial effects that Bramante and his progeny were able to wrest out of solid matter.


Utility of Play



Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.

Henri Matisse, French painter, 1869–1954

Two weeks ago, Bostonians swarmed the Lawn on D Street (an ongoing Utile planning project, in partnership with Sasaki and the HR&A). What has attracted this crowd? The opening of Swing Time, an installation of twenty LED-illuminated hanging swings designed by Howeler + Yoon. The swings, described as an “interactive playscape,” glowed a soft white as the mix of yuppies, neighbors, and families channeled their inner child, eagerly waiting for their turn to reclaim a piece of their youth. When at last the swinging began, the white glow turned a bright purple, a transformation that recalled a more sci-fi vibe than traditional playground scene.

Both within the community and among designers, the project has been considered a smashing success. The phenomenon is attributed, not to traditional design criteria, but to a conception driven by innovative programming and social interaction (not to mention, social media). The wide appeal and enthusiastic approval leave us wondering how we might promote more play within the public domain. How might our communities change if playful programming were more prioritized in urban design?


Terminology of Play

There is no shortage of terminology used to describe program-centric and playful urban spaces. “Urban play”, “interactive playscape”, “urban playground”, and “community laboratory” are just a sample of the trendy word mash-ups tossed around. While these definitions have distinctions, their meanings find overlap. Urban play typologies can be loosely grouped into three programmatic categories.

 recreate + exercise     |     create + express     |     observe + lounge

This framework includes programs ranging from public fountains to free speech walls to ergonomic furniture.

Another distinction worth classification is between dynamic and static design. Dynamic designs have the physical capacity to move/change/respond to an interaction and may utilize mechanisms and/or technology. Static designs, though not mechanized in any way, encourage and set up an environment for people to engage or interact with the design or each other.


Free Speech Wall in Charlottesville, VA

History of Play

While this approach seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon in US cities, it has evolved naturally out of not-so-spontaneous cultural shifts and political movements (find out more here). Early stages of this eventual design genre are more entwined with political activism than architectural experimentation. Though there are many histories leading up to our current moment, let a take a closer look at our first category, recreate/exercise, via the playground.

Playground Timeline

 Play around the World

Playful urban attitudes are found all over the world. These range from playgrounds made of yarn in Japan to interactive public art in Amsterdam to exercise-inspired urban furniture in Rome.

Boston Plays

In the past ten years, Boston has embraced a variety of permanent and temporary interactive urban design projects.

Play Appeal

Apart from political and design agendas, what is the present appeal to playful urban design? Is it just for the kids, or is there something about these places that draws diverse audiences?

Consider this: as design focus shifts from a singular, optimized, and permanent design culmination, to design with a plethora of possibilities for permutation, of either the physical space or of the person(s) within the space, the results are much less predictable. Rather than design that responds to a synchronic slice in time [certain audience, cultural moment, and design aesthetic], urban play spaces have, built into their conception, an intentional adaptability. These spaces do not deny change, but instead have productively exploited the inevitability of change. Furthermore, increasing interest within design circles to explore scripting and parametric software points to design that dynamically responds to and/or optimizes a result within set “parameters.” Combining the power of technology with building and construction innovation opens up opportunities to utilize mechanisms that respond to user-interaction or external phenomena.


Jason Bruges designed the project ‘wind to light,’ composed of 500 miniature wind turbines powering LED modules.


We like this idea of options. With options we gain the power to effect change, no matter how small or insignificant, in our community. This goes back to the idea that designers refer to as place-making. We want to make place, identify with, belong to, and have meaning within our community. This empowerment has proven to have positive relationship to a community’s health. There is a correlation between an individual’s perception of having influence and the vibrancy of the community. When citizens are given a way to engage their environment, through artistic expression, political change, or other means, the community is healthier and happier.


Stefan Sagmeister’s design of 350,000 euro cent coins in Amsterdam.

Play Palette

Of course, even adaptive spaces incorporate constraint. The designer, to a degree, has power to direct and bias certain interactions through careful curation of the palette of alteration. These biases, though, are design, and are also likely born out of shared cultural values and expectations. Public spaces can be a mirror, or thermometer, of a cultural climate, with potential both positive, to foster a healthy community, and negative, to politically oppress. In the US today, where a premium is placed on individual autonomy and freedom, urban play spaces reflect this value. The Swing Time project exemplifies a cultural primacy on the individual through the freedom to choose his/her swing, and offered the specificity of three custom sizes. In this way, even adaptable spaces might have an element of cultural life-span.

Play of the Future

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

 -Tom Robbins

From the highly technical responsive mechanisms to carefully curated static spaces, innovation and proliferation of urban play typology suggests that designers are only limited by their imaginative capacities.

As with every design movement, though, there are a whole host of new (and old) critiques. Among these are concerns of waste, safety, and maintenance. Maintenance discussions are nothing novel, but some of these interactive spaces are targeted to a greater degree. Fog machines and moveable parts are not always cost-effective or maintenance-friendly. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine the safety concerns people might have with water, electricity, and boulders designed for jumping. These concerns, though valid and to be thoughtfully engaged, are simply an addendum to the already long list of “constraints.” As adults, we still have fun playing, but we also know that no design in the real world comes without its challenges. That’s the catch-22 of design: there is no fun without a challenge. Here at Utile, we’ll take the challenge to make our work = play.


Take Back The Poles

When the “E” line branch of Boston’s Green Line trolley was “temporarily suspended” through Jamaica Plain in 1985 (and never to return), the closure left a procession of abandoned overhead wire support poles. These poles still stand today, slowly rusting away and stretching from Forest Hills to the current “E” branch terminus on South Huntington at Heath Street. With the removal of the poles lingering for years on the MBTA capital budget without a source of funding, it might be time to embrace them as a canvas for guerrilla art and DIY neighborhood improvement.

Each pole could be painted a different color like an extended Paul Smith stripe color scheme. Or they could be wrapped in rope or clad in wood a la Aalto. Or how about yarnbombing a few hundred knit cozies? The possibilities are endless…


The Smokers’ Lounge as a Building Type

Just as the smokers’ lounge is about to go the way of the passenger pigeon because of the twin influences of public health campaigns and electronic cigarettes, the function has emerged as a bona fide building type. The elegant example below by ASK Studio – located in Des Moines and hot-off-the-presses from the Architects’ Newspaper – takes on the problem seriously and without any hidden moral agenda. As ASK principal Brian Schipper says in the article: “A shelter for smokers may seem a counter-intuitive undertaking, but it is there for safety and to make a better aesthetic for the community.” Cary Bernstein, one juror of the Residential Design awards program, innocently captured the unspoken contradictions of the project. “It’s the sort of structure that has the feel of a private clubhouse for the tobacco-initiated, it makes you want to smoke so you can be in it.”

Iowa smokers lounge

The project stands in marked contrast to a richly evocative vernacular version that I photographed at the back of the Boston Globe headquarters on Wednesday. One can (literally) still smell a group of cub reporters huddled under the canopy and out of the rain while taking a break from the day’s deadline.

Globe smokers lounge

Of course, this scene – and the building type – had a very short lifespan as far of “urban programs” go: from the early 1990s until the completion of the last known example in Des Moines. Like the last passenger pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo, we should reflect on the lessons of the last smokers’ lounge while it still exists. After it’s gone, we can only look back with smugness and superiority about how we once acted as a species.


That Honest Texas Architecture

I was on the most recent Texas Society of Architects Design Awards jury with Andrea Leers (Boston), Marlon Blackwell (Fayetteville, Arkansas), and Mark Reddington (Seattle), and like my experience on other out-of-state juries, I was able to step outside of our Boston bubble and get some perspective on the architectural priorities in another region.

The first thing you should know about Texas is that the honest expression of stone, wood, steel, and glass is king and most typically deployed in large houses on wooded suburban lots, the Hill Country west of Austin, or on “ranches” (think oil and not cows). The work is so persistent – and good – that it dominated the middle rounds of our jury deliberations. Reactions veered from admiration for the crisp tectonic resolution (with many components and details that would not work in the Northeast) to guilt that we were fawning over houses for the one percent. But after our crash course in the Contempo-Texas House Style, we became more discerning and ended up giving just four of the sixteen awards to houses that would equally be at home in Architectural Digest if a stylist came in and made the houses more homey.


Impressively, two of the winners were designed by Lake/Flato Architects, the standard bearers of the style and the firm that pumps out new practices that know how to do this stuff, at least according to the Texas design scene experts that “observed” our deliberations.

As a result of our discussions, we picked two houses that perhaps self-consciously aimed for a language and focus outside of the Texas tectonic mainstream. The first was by Vincent Synder, someone who I later met at a University of Texas post-review party (I swear, I didn’t tell him that we had very recently given him an award). His house eschewed the high end Mies/Scarpa/Kahn details for a more humble and conceptually interesting stud wall language that both made the house more barn-like and referenced early Frank Gehry (where Vince, it turns out, once worked).


The other outsider house was designed by Karen Lantz of Lantz Full Circle. As I wrote in a snappy synopsis of our comments: “An intensely personal architectural collage that self-consciously includes both off-the-shelf and highly customized elements. Surprisingly, the sheer density of architectural moves hold together because of the sensibility of the architect and the high level of craft throughout.” It’s worth looking at the goofy video tour of the house to get the full flavor.

JT 9





I don’t know what’s in the drinking water in Chile, but several important and talented architects are designing pavilions and buildings that serve as a useful critique of the dominant sensibility of progressive North American architects. From the mannered digital explorations of Scott Cohen to the episodic work of the Patkaus, architects in the US and Canada have championed highly complex spaces and expression that derive much of their energy from the geometries and “forces” of a specific site.

Within the context of this almost-unquestioned fidgetiness, I found myself on the final review of a studio at the University of Texas taught by Sofia Ellrichshausen and Santiago Pezo of Pezo Von Ellrichshausen from Santiago, Chile. The class, unusual because of how carefully the design steps were scripted, started with students making matching spatial models of the churches in Rome. “These series of architectonic devices will be totally alienated from their content to be reconstructed as individual and autonomous formal structures.”


Once the students “knew” their church, they were then asked to push and pull its spatial components to provoke fresh ways to think about their prototype. “Each student will develop a personal transformation of a selected relevant case of the previous inventory. In order to enhance the singularity of the former figure, this unique case will be reproduced as a series of variations in the proportions of its members.”

Thus loosened up, students next applied a personalized and quasi-spiritual narrative to their proto-buildings and sited their projects on small uninhabited islands off of Chiloe Island in Chile. The proposals were required to be constructed of wood using indigenous technology (used to construct local versions of Roman Catholic churches on Chiloe Island), thus adding a measure of reality to stories that had more than a whiff of magical realism.


The whole point of the design methodology, it seemed, was to get the students to design their projects through an idealized and typological lens, rather than to seek an approach through a more conventional site analysis (or a programmatic analysis, for that matter). As a result, the resulting projects were equal parts Aldo Rossi, Louis Kahn, and Massimo Scolari. I was reminded of Scolari both because of the archaic/spiritual narrative and the watercolor renderings that each student was required to produce.

While the projects were a little bit too untransformed for my taste, given the promise of the process, the studio shed some important light on the work of Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, one of Utile’s favorite firms.

casa-poli-15 (2)

Poli House, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen



The Haunted Horse Head and the Weathered Octopus

Allusive figuration is one of my pet theoretical issues, most recently played out in our design of the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion. The underlying principle is that ANY work of architecture that is inherently shapely (i.e. non-orthogonal) invites interpretation. The curved roofs of the pavilion were identified as two seagulls in flight, the carcass of a whale, and the structure of a boat during different stages of the public process. We worked hard not to accidentally back into a form that too literally referenced any one thing. Our goal to evade literal associations stands in marked contrast to Santiago Calatrava, who typically strives for a recognizable symbol that can help market the project. Calatrava’s swan in Milwaukee immediately comes to mind.

With this as a background, I was thrilled to run across a mid-career Frank Gehry project at the superb Archeology of the Digital exhibition at Yale. The show, focused on architectural projects that were conceived on the cusp of the digital revolution, highlights projects that anticipated the formal opportunities yielded by digital modeling in advance of the yet-to-be-realized efficiency of the tools. In my opinion, the projects benefited from the struggle between hand-drawn studies and primitive digital modeling. Maybe the shapes look great because they weren’t so easy to make (and thus had to be predetermined in terms of intention and form). The Lewis Residence, planned for a site in Lyndhurst, Ohio and designed by Gehry and his team between 1989 and 1995, is presented alongside Gehry’s more literalizing fish studies. Interestingly, the house includes two elements that fall squarely within my definition of an allusive symbol: a haunted horse head and a badly weathered octopus (my interpretation only). It is fascinating to see how the Gehry team negotiated between their experiments in digital modelling and the hard work of making the forms in paper and wood.



Of coffeeshops, banks and Fritz Zwicky


For months we’ve been waiting with muted anticipation (and frankly, apprehension) for the opening of the 360 Café– a hybrid of Peet’s Coffee and a Capital One 360 bank branch–just down the street , so that when it finally opened yesterday, the normal-ness of it all was almost a letdown.  When I stepped in during lunch break, a few professional-looking people were milling about in a setting not unlike your average neighborhood Starbucks. The only give-away were the employees, neither barista nor bank teller, who welcome you to the future of retail banking with alarming alacrity.

Certainly this is not the first time strange retail program mixes have worked (and even worked well) together; my local hipster bowling alley is attached to a pizza parlor and bar, and has taught me the unexpected delight of inebriated bowling.  But this is different: it’s a high-dollar collaboration between corporate behemoths, and in all likelihood an expensively “engineered” experience, born out of the methodology and rhetorics of innovation consultants like IDEO.

The café/bank could have, for example, come out of a “Zwicky Box” exercise, where a product—either a bank branch or a toothbrush—is broken down into  its constituent functions (“hold toothpaste”, “hold money”), purposedly reconstituted in random combinations, and repackaged as “disruptive innovations”.  Methods like these are now part of the standard lexicon of design schools and, by way of its infatuation with design thinking, business schools as well.  And as more and more industries—be it retail or health care—begin to deal with their innovation anxiety, “disruptive innovations”, of the sort embodied by the 360 Café, will only become more common.


Fritz Zwicky, Swiss astronomer, might take some credit for the 360 Cafe.

It’s instructive to think about what all this means for architects and urban designers, whose traditional purview it is to creatively imagine the use of space. Certainly many things will keep going the way they have.  But for a certain class of high-dollar, high-concept building and public realm projects, they will increasingly and somewhat uncomfortably share the job of defining program and user experience with consultants whose sole job is to “cause some trouble” with ideas and not worry about their physical materialization.  The irony is just that this latter group read the same design thinking textbooks in business school, and now justifies its value based on the same notion of creativity, of which we designers have for so long thought of ourselves as the sole custodians.