New Bedford’s Pride + Joy

If you make the (highly worthwhile) trip to New Bedford, be sure to take a ride in the City Hall elevator—apparently the oldest continually operating elevator in the United States.  It was custom designed and installed in 1912 by Otis Brothers & Co. (yes, that Otis: the guy who made the skyscraper possible with the design of the safety elevator).  But beyond the historical wow-factor is the thing itself: a graceful semi-circular steel and wrought iron cage—with plush seating for six—that rides within the building’s main wrap-around marble staircase.  There is a full-time operator who’s thrilled to tell you the history as you ascend the very few floors to the top floor of the building.



Kennedy Motorcade

While visiting Parcel 14 (future home of the Harbor Park Pavilion) earlier today, I managed to take a quick capture of the Kennedy motorcade passing by. From a March 2009 press release announcing legislation for funding the project:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who played a critical role in securing the resources said, “I’m delighted that construction of this beautiful pavilion connecting the Greenway to the Harbor Islands will begin this summer,” said Senator Kennedy. “The Islands are a treasure for countless residents and visitors, and I commend the Alliance for making them more accessible as part of our City’s extraordinary heritage.”



Wikipedia… for Type

Typedia is a new user-generated ‘Encyclopedia of Typefaces’ (thanks for the heads-up, swiss-miss).  

From the Typedia welcome page:

“We love type, and we have a burning desire to learn as much as possible about typefaces: where they come from, who made them, and why they look the way they do. We want everyone to be able to share in that rich knowledge and enjoy the art and artists of type design.”

Well said.  If you confuse typeface and font or if you want to expand your type vocabulary, it’s definitely worth a look.



Eclectic Domestic Spaces and Thick Letters

We recently viewed a small but excellent show on Robert Indiana at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine and took away a few lessons.  The first was a confirmation that artists create the coolest domestic environments for themselves.  Indiana spends the summer in Vinalhaven, a relatively remote island in the middle of Penobscot Bay (and adjacent to North Haven, summer-time haunt of our very own Matthew Littell and Toshiko Mori and Jamie Carpenter, New York’s favorite architect-couple). 

Indiana bought his building, a former Odd Fellows Lodge on Vinalhaven’s main street back in the late 70s when the purchasing power of artists was in alignment with the price point of historic urban real estate with big open spaces.  The show includes a video of Indiana in his house and few large format photographs of the interior, scenes that look like they are out of the pages of the World of Interiors, an excellent British publication focused on off-beat and idiosyncratic domestic interiors, both historic and contemporary.

The second lesson was provoked by recent discussions in the office about cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary design practices.   Many of Indiana’s pieces in the Farnsworth show riff off of his iconic Love sculpture/graphic of the mid-1960s; a moment when his experimentation of letter forms as a subject of painting hit its stride.  Perhaps it took someone outside of the discipline of graphic design to conceive of letterforms with depth that almost equals the front (and legible) face that allows us to “read” a letter to make words.  Indiana, through this thickening, was also able to literalize a graphic designer’s interest to make shapes out of the white space of the page and the leftover bits between letterforms. Certainly, graphic designers had thought about these issues before, whether as commercial sign-makers or the professionally self-conscious version of the discipline that emerged in America and Europe after World War II (Saul Bass comes to mind, but more than a dozen innovators fit the bill).  Perhaps Indiana could conceive of the Love sculpture precisely because he wasn’t a graphic designer.  Or more accurately, because he wasn’t a graphic designer, painter, or sculptor (strictly speaking).

Interestingly, Ivan Chermayeff’s No. 9 in front of 9 West 57th Street in New York (1974), benefits from the strategic lessons of the Indiana pieces.  In one way Chermayeff’s giant number is less interesting than Love because the inside edges of the nine are the same color and texture as the face, but more sculptural because the fat and almost-sagging shape seems to respond to the forces of gravity and Gordon Bunshaft’s threatening sloped plane above.



Paul Rudolph and Orange County, NY

In anticipation of my trip home to Westtown in Orange County, NY next week, the images below are the Orange County Government Center by Paul Rudolph in the neighboring town of Goshen.  Built in 1967 (and hated since shortly thereafter), it houses the county court, historic archives, DMV, and county government, among other government programs.  Frequently, local politicians lobby for its destruction, pointing out that the design has not held up over the years.  In addition to leaky roofs and a heating system that has been problematic since day one, the floors have been turned into a labyrinth of ADA compliant ramps, even connecting level changes within single rooms.  An addition was built in 2000 to replace a portion of the original building that had to be abandoned because of structural failure.  Each time Rodolph’s work is considered for demolition, there is enough noise about the building’s architectural/historic significance that it remains standing to wait for the next election cycle.

(first photo from the NYT)



Exemplary Urban Facades


Boston is known for the consistent facades that define the streets in historic residential neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, and the South End.  But less noticed is the superb sequence of buildings that run along the west side of Washington Street from Bromfield Street to Temple Street in Downtown Crossing.  The mostly late-19th and early 20th century eight-story terracotta buildings remind me of the façades that line the Grand Place in Brussels.  The coherence of the buildings is more apparent now that the Filene’s block has been hollowed out.  The giant void across from the buildings has opened up views of the facades from more vantage points and provided more opportunities for the sun to rake across the heavily modeled spandrels and window frames.  Except for a few modern and undistinguished exceptions in this street wall, perhaps this entire row of buildings should be landmarked.


The Medici’s Flexible Visual Brand

While visiting Tuscany recently, we began to notice the Medici coat of arms over doorways and on the corners of prominent buildings.  When in color, such as the stained glass windows at the Laurentian Library, the symbol includes five or more red balls embedded in a yellow shield.  Typically, the ball at the top of the composition is a contrasting blue ball with three white or yellow fleur de lis.  When depicted as architectural decoration in monochromatic sculptural relief, the logo is still legible because of the strong shadows cast by the balls and the idiosyncrasy of the graphic design. The origin of the iconography is not clear, although the most compelling myth suggests that the symbol depicts cannon balls embedded in a shield.

While the center of the emblems are memorable and consistent, the decorative embellishments at the perimeter of the symbols vary from application to application, based on the whims of the artist and/or the particular iconography of each family member.  The crown cantilevered above the emblem is my favorite below. 

Perhaps the Medici coat of arms is a model for a more flexible approach to visual branding: a strategy that combines a strong core design motif (that works in color, black and white, and sculptural relief) with the flexibility of customization.