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.

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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.