Thursday, November 29, 2012

More on DC Architecture: Row houses near U Street NW

When you think of typical DC architecture the neo-classical White House, Capitol, & Memorials come to mind. And these of course are remarkable and beautiful buildings, but the reality of DC is that they represent just a small albeit much more famous side of DC architecture.
The building type you’ll actually see more of in the neighborhoods of the city is the row house. These are the small city houses found in most east coast American cities and of course throughout Europe. The blocks of the city are divided into lots which when developed usually had a small or no front yard, a narrow 2-3 story residence and usually a larger back yard. These houses would share side walls with the neighboring houses. They are some of the city’s first housing, especially the famous colonial and federal style ones found in Georgetown and Alexandria, VA. When we lived in the city my son attended school in Northwest DC in a neighborhood called “U” Street.
The school was housed in a former laundry- a gem of a streamlined moderne building. And it was surrounded by a neighborhood of mostly Victorian row houses. The city experienced phenomenal growth in the years after the Civil War and most of the classic DC row houses are of this vintage.
Victorian architecture is famous for turrets and bay windows but what comes to mind more often are the freestanding wooden “stick style” Victorian houses. It’s quite something to see that language rendered in brick and shoulder to shoulder with other similar style houses.
There are also much simpler houses that integrate a front porch, usually with Tuscan columns; these houses were from more of the turn of the 20th century and the years after. The DC variety have a particular scale to them not found say in Baltimore or Philadelphia, or say the brownstones of New York City. They also seem to have more whimsy and more protrusions and details, those other cities tend to have flat fronted row houses, but of course DC has its share of those, mostly “Federal” in style.
Many of these row houses have been restored, and are often painted in interesting ways. Now they are often converted into apartments and condominiums, with even the basements being turned into individual units.
There are also a few interesting new modernist condominium buildings that have been built in this neighborhood alongside the historic houses. The modern building pictured has a glass wall that looks similiar to the glass facade of the laundry that housed my son's school. But most probably find the old houses much more charming to look at and they make up much more of DC’s streetscape then the memorials and government buildings the city is famous for.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A city of magnificent intentions

Washington, DC is like a European city with an American accent. It has a Parisian quality to it, with its broad avenues and neoclassical buildings, and what with the influence of French city planner L’Enfant it is understandable. It sits along the great Potomac River, like London on the Thames or Paris on the Seine. Washington was a planned city though; it took 200 years to fill in according to an ambitious design whereas the great capitals of Europe developed organically over many more centuries. Charles Dickens mocked it's slogan "The City of Magnificent Distances" and called it "The City of Magnificent Intentions", for it's broad avenues were muddy ruts and it's buildings were unfinished at the time of his visit. It is fascinating how Washington appropriates the forms of neoclassical architecture in ways that are so different from European and classical precedent.
Take the White House, although certainly a grand house was it really that much more elaborate than the home of a successful Colonial planter? Washington’s influence and that of his beloved Mount Vernon undoubtedly had something to do with that.
It was modeled on an Irish country house, and not a Versailles or a Buckingham Palace. This was to be the seat of the chief executive of the new nation.
The capital looks similar to St.Paul’s Cathedral in London and it borrows the dome of the great churches. In a church the dome would be placed farther away from the entrance where the 2 wings from a cross over the altar. At the capitol that axis is turned so that entry is in the center of the long side, and the dome marks not a crossing but the joint between two large meeting rooms. The dome is placed above the symbolic gathering place of the representatives of the people.
The Washington Monument takes the form of an Egyptian obelisk, only at a gargantuan scale, and it is a single obelisk when Egyptian custom was for obelisks to be paired. It represents the emerging American technical prowess of its time as it remains the tallest masonry structure in the world.
The Lincoln Memorial is a modified Greek temple to the man who saved the union, like the capitol it is rotated so that entry is through what would be the side if it were the Parthenon.
The Jefferson Memorial recalls the Pantheon in Rome that inspired Thomas Jefferson in his own designs for Monticello and the library of the University of Virginia.
Union Station recalls both Roman triumphal arches as befitting a ceremonial entry to the capital city; its arches frame a distant view of the capitol dome. The station also evokes the great Roman baths(large communal gathering places)for use as a railroad passenger terminal. These formal adaptations reflect the way in which America evolved from and sought to improve on the western democratic tradition.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of Presidents and Emperors: a look at Lincoln Continental & Chrysler Imperial

I am not only a fan of mid (20th) century architecture, but of the history, design, culture, and film of the period. So I have decided to branch out from my blog’s initial focus, a specific look at architecture and widen that net to encompass other fields of artistic expression. Specifically I would like to share some of my passion for automotive design on this post. I went to the Hershey, PA Auto Show & Swap Meet this year and took tons of pictures of cars that moved me, rolling sculpture really. This post sort of grew around my favorites; Lincolns, Chryslers & Imperials, and a few other Forward Look Mopars(other Chrysler Corporation cars of the late 50's & early 60's.) I am a pretty big car nut, have been since as far back as I can remember, in fact as a toddler I entertained adults with my ability to name the kind of car they drove, I was particularly good at identifying a car by the wheel covers, the part of a car a small child sees up close pretty often. Unlike most car nuts I care not one bit about engines, power trains, or mechanicals. My love has always been for the shape, the design, the styling of the automobile. My favorite cars are luxury cars, the sleek, long, and elegant cruisers of the mid 50’s through the 70’s.
I have a fondness for some cars even through to the present day. The Chrysler 300 since 2005 has been my favorite contemporary car as it clearly recalls the great land yachts of old. My interests often overlap and will lead to exposure to something from one area to another. For example, as a child my favorite cars were Continental Marks by the Lincoln Division of the Ford Motor Company. I found the spare tire motif of the deck lid especially distinctive, and it probably nurtured my love of sleek, long, and elegant luxury cars.
My history hobby over lapped with my car interest when I discovered the Lincoln Continental limousine associated with the administration of President Kennedy. Perhaps the historical interest reinforced a childhood predilection, at any rate I “fell” for the slab sided Lincoln Continentals of the 1960’s. Jacqueline Kennedy had a stunning 1960 Imperial Le Baron limousine for her use as first lady that would turn up in my Kennedy studies. The elegant black limo boasted gigantic fins, and an intriguing leather half roof. These cars were extremely rare having been hand built in Italy from Chrysler Corporation built body components in Detroit.
Pop-culture would reinforce and provide further exposure to things, after all not only President Kennedy rode around in Lincoln Convertibles, so did Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres- another childhood favorite. And Milburn Drysdale on the Beverly Hillbillies was driven in an Imperial, Bruce Lee’s Kato and the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty was a custom Imperial and the only good thing about the recent remake. You can’t be exposed to the Kennedys, slab sided Lincolns and mid-century pop-culture without eventually coming across the incomparable Imperial.
It’s pretty much accepted that Cadillac was THE luxury car standard, but style and innovation leaders could be found at Ford and Chrysler. General Motors had a “branding” advantage in that no division of the company was burdened with the reputation of another division in the public consciousness. Most didn’t think of a Cadillac as a fancy Chevy.
Unfortunately the opposite was never the case with Ford and Chrysler, a consequence of the parent company sharing a name with a component division. Mercury was rarely thought of in the same league as Buick or even Chrysler, but more often as a “fancy Ford”, and indeed no longer exists. Ford has the Lincoln Division to ostensibly go up market but what with “platinum & titanium” editions and even the original 4 seater Thunderbird Ford has always been willing to cannibalize the up market potential of its “premium” brands. In the 1950’s however there seemed to be an agreement that GM’s success with its brand ladder was the strategy to copy. And for a brief time in the late 50’s you could nearly find a brand for brand matchup in all “big 3” lineups. For the “low priced three” you had Chevy, Ford, Plymouth, for the lower mid price market you had Pontiac, Edsel, Dodge, the mid price market found Oldsmobile, Mercury, & Desoto
the upper middle/lower upper price field would find Buick, a slightly demoted Lincoln, and Chrysler, and at the top of the market allegedly going toe to toe with Cadillac would be the new “Continental" and “Imperial” divisions. These lineups wouldn’t survive the early 60’s, which by then would see the end of the De Soto (61), Edsel (60), & Continental (57, but would live as a nameplate through 1960) divisions. Continental division was spun off of Lincoln, the original Lincoln Continental having started as a custom cabriolet for Edsel Ford's vacation. It was rumored to be so popular among Edsel's wealthy Palm Beach contemporaries that it was put into limited practically handbuilt production. (1940-1942, 1946-1948) It was this first Continental that was the inspiration for the Continental Mark II a mid 50’s masterpiece of elegance and restraint at a time famous for outlandish aerospace inspired rolling jukeboxes.(Equally loved by yours truly) It was hoped that this new Continental might be the first step in establishing a premium luxury brand for the Ford Motor Company.
The standard Lincoln was no slouch, and was historically among the finest cars in America, but by the early 50’s in size and content had been pushed downward into near Buick territory. But the Continental was not given enough time to develop into a credible luxury division and was reabsorbed into Lincoln after only 2 seasons (1956 & 1957) and approximately 3000 cars. They were nearly 10,000 dollar cars at a time when a Cadillac was about half as much. Chrysler had similar aspirations when they spun off their top of the line Imperial model into its own make for 1955. The Imperial had been the finest model available in the Chrysler lineup for many years.
A Chrysler was a fine automobile, its namesake founder had successfully run the Buick division for General Motors before setting out to develop his own well built, luxurious, yet affordable car. He would reorganize the struggling Maxwell into the new Chrysler Corporation.
Chrysler division was meant to be an affordable aspirational car, probably equivalent to a Buick, and would develop the Plymouth as an entry level mass market car and the DeSoto for the mid priced field before acquiring Dodge.
They faced a somewhat similar problem as Ford in trying to craft a make out of a model. But whereas the Continental division was short-lived and ultimately reabsorbed into Lincoln division resulting in the legendary Lincoln Continental of the 1960’s, the Imperial would struggle to establish itself for 20 years before being dissolved, and largely forgotten, Although there have been 2 attempts to re-launch the Imperial as a premium Chrysler and both attempts have failed.
Even the storied Lincoln Continental nameplate disappeared early this century, and Lincoln struggles in the current luxury market while Chrysler has a somewhat successful niche as a luxury oriented aspirational mid priced car line. Most people never recognized the independence of the Imperial line, and it was commonly referred to as “Chrysler-Imperial”.
Much in the same way that people call Continental Marks of the 70’s through the early 80’s “Lincoln Continental Marks” even though they never said “Lincoln” on them, after all they were sold alongside “Lincoln Continentals” in Lincoln-Mercury Dealers, but such is the way things are in the world of automotive nomenclature. And I think it is much preferable to the alphabet soup of the present day “MKZ, MKS, etc.”. The Imperial was a distinctive, powerful, well engineered car, if not always well-built. Sales were never terribly high, although they did surpass Lincoln briefly in the late 50’s before Lincoln Continental seized the number 2 spot in the luxury market.
Imperials have several distinctive traits among their 20 years of independent marketing, the earliest cars are known for freestanding taillights, or taillights integrated with oversized flamboyant tailfins. In fact the quintessential Cadillac the outlandish 1959 Cadillac with its enormous fins and twin rocket pod taillights can be clearly read as a reaction against the 1957 Imperial. That the mighty Cadillac felt the need with its enormous production numbers to answer the challenge of the Imperial with its meager sales says a lot about the real style leader.
But it was of little consolation to the slow selling Imperial, which would end up following Lincolns slab side lead in 1964. The 1964 Imperial is largely a riff on the stunning 1961 Lincoln Continental, and it was designed by the same man, Elwood Engel.
Passed over for the head of styling at Ford on the heels of the exquisite Continental, Elwood ended up at Chrysler. Chrysler having set the tone for the late 50’s with its long low rakish designs and daring fins under the design of Virgil Exner , had stayed at the party too long, and Elwood was brought in to replace Exner and apply his signature shear, slab sided corner filled out design language to the entire Chrysler Corporation line. This “corner filled out” look would be the hallmark of all subsequent Imperials. Virgil Exner deserved better, he came along when Chrysler was dead last in the looks department and reinvigorated the stodgy cars with style and flair. Introduced gradually starting in 1955 Exner’s design language was called the “Forward Look”. It generally gave the cars a lower wedge like profile, with canted fronts and ends to denote motion.
Fins visually lifted the rears of the cars, each make in the Chrysler Corporation was given a signature fin, and the motif was developed over several years.
The Imperial trademark was daring fins with distinctive freestanding taillights, in some cases integrated with the fin or suspended or mounted on the fin. Sales followed across the line especially in 1957, unfortunately the production side of things was neglected and quality control was so bad that so many customers won over by the daringly beautiful cars were turned off by the horribly put together machines Exner would end up taking too much blame for things out of his control. Imperial never managed too many sales, perhaps there wasn’t enough distinction between the standard Chrysler line to justify the price premium. And although they were feature laden cars that performed superbly they lacked the prestige of other luxury cars, limiting their “snob appeal”. They have amazing attention to design detail, each medallion on the car is a mid-century work of art as is the script work on the name plates. The freestanding headlights are meant to recall classic automobiles of the 1930’s, and are suberb examples of retrofuturism.
GM always had more sales, and I have soft spots for Oldsmobile and Buick but I have always thought that there were many more unique cars to be found at Ford and Chrysler. The famous Eldorado of 1967 owes more to the Continental Mark II than anything at GM. And the 59 GM lineup is an attempt to marry Exner’s finned Forward Look with the jet bomber bulbous motifs that were GM trademarks in the 50’s. The shear coke bottle look that was established by GM in the 60’s owes a lot to the slab sides and rear hop-up of the 61 Lincoln Continental. I was such a “Lincoln man” for many years I had a hard time fully embracing the Imperial, in fact my first car was a 1964 Lincoln Continental, and I also owned a 1969 Continental Mark III, and 87 and 96 Town Cars. But something about the quirky styling has called to the googie lover in me. The 57-62 Imperials really do have an out there retrofuturistic quality that I think is more Saarinen and Lautner-ish than say the Bauhaus feel of a 61 Lincoln Continental, and the 64-68 Imperials are Danish modern on wheels. So in many ways the Imperial won me over, much in the way the Populuxe/Googie style inspires me. I have never owned an Imperial, I came close but then the owner decided not to sell. It was a 67 Imperial Le Baron, and if the interior could have been sold on ebay they would have said “Eames L@@K!”, the seats looked like Eames chairs and the dashboard was like a Danish modern hi-fi cabinet. I have since owned a Chrysler LHS and a PT Cruiser, and I like them, but then they are more aspirational mid priced cars than true luxury cars and that was largely what did the Imperial in, they none the less have a bit of that American style that made Chryslers and Imperials so special.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Adventures with Frank Lloyd Wright

If I had to pick one Architect whose work I most admired it would be tough, Ideally I need at least 3, but since 2 of those 3 favorites worked with Wright(Neutra & Lautner) and the third was Wright than I should probably pick Wright as my favorite Architect. I discovered Wright in high school, right around the time I decided to pursue a college degree in Architecture. The Eisenhower High School library in Rialto, CA was built in 1959, so lots of books were circa 1959, one of those books was a monograph written for young people by Olgivanna and Iovanna Lloyd Wright(Third and final wife & youngest daughter). I believe it was titled "Man in Possession of his Earth", I don't remember much of the text but the images were a revelation.

I am a doodler and I love sketching, particularly perspective sketching, the classic perspective that I learned pretty young was the one point perspective. It usually involves a streetscape, later I'd learn the 2 point perspective which is great for doing corner buildings. Learning to sketch in freehand perspective allowed me the freedom to create my own worlds- I became known in school for my sketches, including an aerial view of a fictional town with shops named for all of my classmates. I have it somewhere back in California in storage, I hope. To draw like that quickly you start to see the world as a series of abstract shapes and planes, it allows you to quickly communicate depth on the two-dimensional paper surface.

Wright's architecture is derived from the geometrical abstraction of the natural world, I found that his work so clearly meshed with how I had come to see the physical environment around me. I studied his drawings for style and content and would earn the nickname in Architecture school of "Frank Lloyd Cueto". He was pretty much the only Architect I was widely aware of when I entered college. He would become the gateway to so many other architects whose work I admired and studied, I would later intern at the Cal Poly Pomona owned Richard Neutra House, and lived in the John Lautner designed Tolstoy Residence in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

My parents are from the same small mining town in southeastern Arizona, and even though I grew up near San Bernardino, CA their stories made Arizona very real even after we stopped making frequent visits once most of the family relocated to Southern California. So I felt the Arizona connection to Wright and his Taliesin West compound. I imagined myself in another life if only I were my Grandparents age joining the Taliesin Fellowship, and with the proximity to Arizona it was a believable scenario.

I recently finished the book "The Fellowship" a history of Wright, and his wife Olgivanna and the Taliesin Fellowship. It was a real behind the curtain look at the operation. It was written in a page turning fashion as it promised to reveal the dark side of Wright and is filled with gossipy stories about the Wrights, the relationships between Fellows, and Olgivanna's strange obsession with Eastern mysticism. How it motivated her to mold the fellowship and then consolidate her power after Wright's passing. It was a fascinating, and sometimes disturbing read.

A lot of historians obsess over the idea that Wright was an artistic genius and yet was in many ways a selfish jerk as if those qualities were somehow mutually exclusive. I've never really cared that he had a reputation for as one biographer put it being "barely a human being". I don't think that is entirely fair. He inspired devotion in many people and not just for his work which hardly seems compatible with the notion that he was such a completely horrible person. So much harm has been done in the world by people clinging to the notion of the perfectibility of man on earth. We are flawed creatures that we are capable of transcending that is the real miracle not that if we just try hard enough Utopia will be within our grasp. I have no doubt he had many serious personality flaws but really who doesn’t? I have never seen anything to make me expect that success and ability in one aspect of your life necessarily translates to success in other aspects. For the most part nothing in the book caused me to change that assessment with the exception that Wright is alleged to have been physically abusive to his wife and step daughter. I was aware of his temper but had not heard any stories of him being a wife beater, so that was a shock and a disappointment if true. I have read many books and memoirs on Wright and the picture they paint of him is entirely different, but who knows.

I was never a huge Olgivanna fan, and the book didn’t give me any reason to change my mind. Certainly a case can be made that the Fellowship and the great later period of his career might never have come into being, without her having been at his side. Her contribution to stabilizing his later career or perhaps the coincidence of her being there will always be debated. They always presented such a unified front in public with such seemingly obvious devotion to each other that there are revelations in the book that are somewhat shocking. Olgivanna was captive to the teachings of mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and this is the heart of this book. The emphasis on self denial as the path to self-enlightenment and immortal salvation is given as the motivation for most of her cruel and manipulative actions. She learned this when she was an acolyte of Gurdjieff and the unpleasantness he put her through would supposedly strengthen her. This was her justification for her manipulation of people, it sounds like the typical rationalization of most tyrants. Josef Stalin's daughter (Svetlana Alliluyeva who recently passed away, R.I.P.)recognized this when she was briefly pulled into the Taliesin orbit having seen the cult of personality surrounding her own father.

I have been fortunate to see several Wright sites over the years. I have visited Taliesin West in Scottsdale many times, been to the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles and seen the outside of the Textile block houses in LA. In San Francisco I visited the V.C. Morris Gift Shop and the Marin County Civic Center. I made the pilgrimage to Fallingwater, a thrill to be sure, and in nearby Alexandria, VA I have toured the delightful Pope-Leighey House.

Fallingwater was a sublime experience; we went on a pretty hot and sticky late spring day. Probably the best description of it is by Robert A.M. Stern in Ken Burn's Frank Lloyd Wright documentary. He says something to the effect that you travel through the woods with the trees and the bugs eating you alive and then there you see it, Mr. Wright's Masterpiece. I was struck by how timeless it felt, it is a project of the 1930's but it looks like it could have been 25-30 years later. The scale of is it is remarkable, it seems to spread out forever, even the low ceilings do not create an atmosphere of claustrophobia because your eye is always being drawn out of the building towards the forest. The house is luxuriously appointed and yet it remains very modest in feeling, while no cabin in the woods it is also no palace either. Having seen the Pope-Leighey House a typical Usonian it is remarkable that although the textures and materials are different the same modesty is expressed, both houses feel classless, they could be the homes of millionares or a middle class family, as in fact they were, it is an uplifting and yet democratic architecture.

I have two complaints at Fallingwater, the scale is so specific clearly designed to Wright's 5'7" frame that most people throw it off, especially on the terraces, the parapet must be 30" or lower from the terrace floor so people look like they are going to tip over the edge- and the window mullions in my opinion are visually redundant, larger panes of glass would be a dramatic integration with the site and wouldn't have sacrificed horizontality, but these are minor points on what is otherwise a practically perfect design.

The Pope-Leighey House is a wonderful jewel. It was relocated to the grounds of George Washington's step-granddaughter's estate (itself a wedding present from the General) to save it from the path of a freeway. Phillip Johnson made a good point in Ken Burn's FLLW Documentary; he was speaking about the Johnson Wax building. He felt the genius in that design was the quality of light that filtered through the columns, that made the space so magical. Wright would go on and on about the strength of the columns to which Johnson thought was no big deal. "Anyone can make you a column, you just pick up the telephone and get someone...” It's a humorous story that illustrates that the great architect makes great spaces this is the higher calling, not engineering structural loads. I have a similar outlook, and it came to mind with this Usonian house. Wright would often go into detail about the plywood sandwich walls, plywood panel weatherproofed and faced with board and batten siding. The walls are super lightweight and are screens between masonry cores that support the roof structure. It is a detail you don’t need to know about to appreciate the warm grandeur of the space, which was Johnson's point. Although I might add the ease at disassembling the walls came in handy as the house has been relocated twice, so maybe the structural ingenuity is just as important as the aesthetic considerations.

This particular house has a high ceilinged living room a welcome touch that addresses the change in level of the site and sets it apart from most Wright designs without sacrificing the all important horizontality. I have heard it said the living in a Wright house is to subordinate yourself to living in his head. While it certainly is a total unified environment I think they lend themselves to more customization and personalization then people give credit for. I think they are marvelous backdrops for collections of interesting objects and books. There are also a lot of integrated closets and storage walls. The bedrooms are almost oppressively small, but then if you really think about how much time is really spent in bedrooms they are entirely acceptable. The square footage of more conventional bedrooms is then transferred to the living area. The living area becomes deceptively spacious with zoned areas for different uses, dining, working, reading, etc.

I lived in a house designed by former Wright apprentice John Lautner and had a similar experience, the house provided lots of interesting overlapping spaces and integrated storage and display shelves. It accommodated my possessions without subordinating me to the aesthetics; it really was like being in a vacation home all the time. I have included pictures of Fallingwater and the Pope Leighey House to illustrate this post.