The Ames Gatehouse Rocks!

Thanks to architect Chris Milford and members of the Ames family, Utile was treated to a comprehensive tour of the gatehouse (designed by H.H. Richardson), main house, and grounds of the Ames estate in Easton, MA. 

There are many comments to make about the building, but most surprising was the audacious size of the boulders that make up the veneer of the building (a “real” wall of brick sits behind the stone).  In some places within the pattern, the boulders take on an expressiveness that is almost gargoyle-like (each stone was hand-selected and positioned in the wall) – but gargoyles that are camouflaged by the allover pattern of the stones.



Central Burying Ground

I highly recommend a quick lunchtime field trip to the Central Burying Ground on the Boston Common. The entrance is located on Boylston Street directly across from Emerson College and next to the driveway to a stone park maintenance building. Until today, I didn’t know the cemetery was accessible – I had only seen the mysterious excavated and raised tomb mound – like something you would find along the Via Appia in Rome – when walking through the Common to/from the Park Square entrance. Evidently, I am not the only person who thinks you can’t visit the grounds. Except for an unusually large number of song birds and squirrels taking a break from the annoying humans that fill the Common on a sunny May day, I was the only visitor.

Some facts about the burial ground from the City of Boston website:

Dating from 1756, the Central Burying Ground is located on Boston Common on Bolyston Street near Tremont Street. It was established to alleviate overcrowding in King’s Chapel, Copp’s Hill, and the Granary Burying Ground. Bostonians considered this cemetery the least desirable because it was the furthest from the market center of town. The 1826 ordinance on the burying of the dead closed the burying ground, banning the opening or digging of new graves.  The ban was temporarily rescinded in 1836 when Mayor Armstrong’s administration cut off a corner off the cemetery to allow for the connection of Boylston and Tremont Streets. The large free-standing tomb construction – The Dell – along the west edge of the burying ground houses the remains of the graves disturbed by the street construction.



The Story of a Tilted Lawn and a Revisionist Ouroussoff


Popular for years in student proposals up and down the East Coast, Diller Scofidio Renfro’s most recent addition to Lincoln Center in New York might be the first built example of a walk-able tilted plane/roof in North America (not quite counting Weiss Manfredi’s waterfront park in Seattle).  What’s most interesting to me about the proposal is the way the architects have gamed the code for maximum slope (5%) and the requirements for railings.  It seems from the photograph that the curving railing on the outboard side of the lawn (but very smartly – NOT at the edge of the plane) is determined by the boundary between >5% and <5% (at least that’s my misreading of the solution – for our future deployment of the strategy!). 

See Nicolai Ouroussoff’s slightly bitchy critique of the project in the New York Times – an excerpt: 

More important, however, is a surprising insensitivity to the way bodies flow through space, something that is as fundamental to architecture and urban planning as to ballet and theater. . . . The problem is especially apparent in the north plaza. In Dan Kiley’s original design for the space, for example, the shallow reflecting pool in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theater was flanked on two sides by rows of low square planters, which allowed people to filter through the site from various directions. Diller Scofidio & Renfro replace this grid with a more linear scheme that feels comparatively oppressive.

Since when has Ouroussoff been a people-sensitive behavioralist? Maybe after all of the grief he has been getting in the blogosphere about his pampered and pampering approach to architectural  criticism. See Alexandra Lange’s hilarious (and spot-on) takedown of Ouroussoff in Places/Design Observer.


The BRA’s 1967 Plan


Bob Kaye of MassDevelopment passed this image along to me with the original label taped to the back:




Some things to notice:

1.       Government Center is depicted as “done” but including Pei/Cobbs proposed bar buildings parallel to Congress Street – thus eliminating the Blackstone Block and the Union Oyster House.

2.       Nothing is proposed on the future Federal Reserve Bank site

3.       Please note elevated pedestrian walkway from South Station to Washington Street by way of future One Financial Center and parking garages

4.       A third Harbor Tower

5.       A surgical approach to high-rise development that fairly accurately predicts the build-out of Downtown Boston during the ensuing thirty-plus years (generally, if not in the details)


Vegetated Columns

As we work on conceptual options for the Medford Garage Study, we have looking for ways to include wall screens of vegetation that are macho enough to stand up to the bulk of a concrete parking garage structure. As a guest critic on MIT thesis reviews yesterday, I saw this take on Patrick Blanc’s hydroponic walls: irrigated felt wrapped around PVC pipe – creating Avatar-inspired vegetated columns.  Ethan Lacy’s proposal was entitled “Emerging Stasis: A New Typology for the Public Building in Centro Havana.”  To be clear, Ethan’s proposal was NOT a parking garage!




Gravity Balls

While on design reviews at the University of Virginia, I had time to visit one of the most instructive pieces of urbanism in North America – Thomas Jefferson’s Lawn – important to our practice because of the careful weaving of public, private, and service space.  On this trip, I was reminded of the clever hardware on the garden gates – gravity balls that keep the gates closed.







GIS Maps

Two maps I have produced in the last few months. The information comes from (mostly) free GIS layers that I collect from various websites. Each panel of the Boston print is 21” x 14” and each of the DC print is 20” x 36”. Both are printed on canvas.


Disney’s Magic Highway

This 1958 film, produced for an episode of the Disneyland TV show, comes on the heels of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and parallels the development of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland Park (1955) at Disneyland and prefigures the Contemporary Tower at Disney World (1971). GPS and reverse-view screens (a cool feature in my Mom’s Lexus) are both predicted, but we’ll need to wait for most of the technologies. Please note the complete disregard for the environment and existing cities (this was produced three years before Silent Spring and the Death and Life of Great American Cities) and the Mad Men-like sexism.

The film was brought to my attention by John Fregonese, an urban planner who spoke at the recent The Reinvented City conference at Harvard/The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.