Architect Jeanne Gang opposed to sprawl

An interview with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, designer of Aqua in the Loop, reveals her dislike for sprawl, and, along the way, the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright:

“Urbanization is the huge issue of our time,” she says. “We can’t survive if we can’t solve the problems of population growth, loss of clean air and water and loss of biodiversity.”

Gang and her firm, Studio Gang Architects, are pioneers in ecological urbanism, a field of design that considers rising populations and dwindling resources. Cities are key laboratories, and Gang says they must become denser and more nature-friendly.

She hasn’t hesitated to take on global icon Frank Lloyd Wright with her anti-sprawl approach. Chicago’s — and America’s — most famous architect spent decades promoting single homes on suburban lots where residents would savor nature far from downtowns and connect with society in cars.

“I want to turn Wright’s legacy upside down,” Gang says with no hint of doubt. “The way to be ecological is not by spreading out. It’s by clustering together. It’s by having a better relationship with nature in the city than you can have in a far-out suburb.”…

Taking on Wright is not an easy task. While he may have designed a number of single-family homes, he also designed a mile-high tower. Particularly in Chicago, Wright is someone revered for his ability to design in a Midwestern sort of way, drawing upon prairie influences and helping Chicago grow up. But, I’m sure Gang could find many people who agree that sprawl uses too many resources. Additionally, if new designs like that of Aqua can be more ecologically friendly, attract residents and business, and give cities iconic buildings, city leaders are likely to see this as a big win.

Comparing the architecture of a Phoenix Frank Lloyd Wright house to area McMansions

A letter to the editor in The Arizona Republic contrasts the worthiness of a Frank Lloyd Wright home and McMansions that are typically found in the area:

The horror of this melee about a Frank Lloyd Wright house is that the men who bought it claim they didn’t know Frank Lloyd Wright from the Wright brothers (New York Times, Oct. 25) and yet they, if left unhindered, decide the fate of a master work of architecture.

In this Mcmansion craze, people employ the horror of the unaesthetic, the death of art. Unlike Wright-designed and constructed homes that seem composed of what nature predicates, “living buildings” that fit the surroundings, these faux Tuscany tract homes on steroids rise up out of the ashes of demolitions in Arcadia, changing the entire landscape of what was once a unique Phoenix neighborhood with their attendant assault on beauty and proportion.

Phoenix does not need to buy the property for the inflated asking price. What the city and its officials need to do is vote for the historic landmark overlay on Dec. 5.

While McMansions can be defined by several characteristics, this letter’s argument relies exclusively on the architecture and design argument. The Frank Lloyd Wright home is a “living building” meant to fit into its surrounding landscape. In contrast, McMansions poorly mimic other housing styles (in this case, importing Tuscany to the Arizona desert), contrast with the landscape, and lack beauty because of their poor proportions.

Frank Lloyd Wright homes are of limited number and according to this Wikipedia list, there are not too many Wright designed buildings in Arizona. See more of the story about the house here and a gallery of images here. According to one of the captions, “The [spiral] house was designed to twist around a central courtyard and also offer views of Camelback Mountain to the north.” And the house may have been a testing ground for another famous work that came later: “Wright chose a spiral design akin to the Guggenheim Museum’s. He had drawn plans for the Guggenheim by then, but it was still some years away from construction.”

Discussing height limits of skyscrapers

Is there a limit to the height of buildings?

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a group interested in and focused on the phenomenon of skyscrapers, recently asked a group of leading skyscraper architects and designers about some of the limitations of tall buildings. They wondered, “What do you think is the single biggest limiting factor that would prevent humanity creating a mile-high tower or higher?” The responses are compiled in this video, and tend to focus on the pragmatic technicalities of dealing with funding and the real estate market or the lack of natural light in wide-based buildings.

“The predominant problem is in the elevator and transportation system,” says Adrian Smith, the architect behind the current tallest building in the world and the one that will soon outrank it, the kilometer-tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah…

One idea for a new system would be buildings with hollowed bases. Think of the Eiffel Tower, says Tim Johnson. He’s chairman at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and a partner at the architecture firm NBBJ, and he says any really, really tall building would have to be like a supersized version of the Parisian icon, otherwise the lower floors required to support the gradually narrowing structure would be way too big to even fill up.

For a Middle East-based client he’s not allowed to identify, Johnson worked on a project back in the late 2000s designing a building that would have been a mile-and-a-half tall, with 500 stories. Somewhat of a theoretical practice, the design team identified between 8 and 10 inventions that would have had to take place to build a building that tall. Not innovations, Johnson says, but inventions, as in completely new technologies and materials. “One of the client’s requirements was to push human ingenuity,” he says. Consider them pushed.

So perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t so crazy with his idea of a mile high building.

I would raise other questions:

1. Who has the funds/resources they want to devote to building such an edifice? Presumably someone might want to make a name for themselves.

2. Would anyone want to work or live at such a height? If not, what do you do with the building besides show off your accomplishment and perhaps hide television and other technological equipment?

3. Would it be “worth it” in the long run?

Rise of “the doggie equivalents of McMansions”?

The New York Times recently had a story about luxurious dog houses. A short blurb about the story in the New Yorker called them “the doggie equivalents of McMansions.” Here is a little bit from the NYT description of the world of luxurious dog houses:

Take, for instance, the Palladian-style mini-mansion that Glenna and Ed Hall bought at a charity auction three years ago for about $300. With Jeffersonian columns that match the ones on their home in Roanoke, Va., the two-foot-tall doghouse makes a perfect accent for the garden. No one seems to mind that the garden is off-limits to Maggie May, their 28-pound whippet-borzoi mix — least of all Maggie May…

As Michelle Pollak, an interior designer who creates custom doghouses under the name La Petite Maison, observed: “Half our clients say, ‘Hey, we’d like a replica of our home for the dog,’ and half say, ‘This is the dream house we’ve always envisioned but couldn’t afford in real life’ — like a French palace for the French poodle.”…

DOGHOUSE design tends to be popular with architects and home builders, who sometimes refer to it as “barkitecture” and donate their creations to charity auctions that raise money for animal shelters. Designers say they love doghouses because they’re small and fun and allow lots of room for creativity…

THERE are many designer doghouses, but perhaps the only one with a cult following was, not surprisingly, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The doghouse was created in the 1950s at the request of Jim Berger, a 12-year-old who wrote to the architect to say that his black Labrador, Eddie, needed a home.

This raises a set of questions:

1. Should McMansion doghouses come in for the same sort of criticism McMansions receive?

2. Are people who live in McMansions themselves more likely to build their dog a McMansion doghouse?

3. Are there critics of “barkitecture” in the architecture community?

When a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Wilmette is threatened by McMansions

McMansions don’t only threaten the unspoiled fields of America; they also threaten houses designed by notable architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.

A dollar can’t buy you much these days. But for Joseph Catrambone, a contractor, real estate manager, and self-proclaimed architecture buff living in Oak Brook, Illinois, one dollar secured him a 594-square-foot historic Prairie Style cottage, churned out by Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in its 1920 heydays. The only caveat: He has about two weeks to devise a plan and acquire the permits to dismantle and remove the building from its present location. “I wake up in the morning thinking how crazy I am,” Catrambone told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s exciting and crazy all at the same time.”

Exciting, crazy, and heroic. Catrambone’s plan to relocate the cottage from its original site has saved one of two endangered Frank Lloyd Wright-connected buildings in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette from imminent destruction. The cottage, which currently sits on 1320 Isabella Street, was designed by Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler, who was working in Wright’s studio at the time, propagating the American architect’s patented style before striking out on his own as a prominent modernist architect with an entire platform frame system attributed to his name (the Schindler Frame)…

As soon as talks of demolition began, alarm bells went off. Preservationists swiftly entered the scene, tracing the two buildings back to Schindler, Van Bergen, and Wright and meticulously unearthing original blueprints that would qualify the works as Wright creations. While any Wright association is usually enough to earn a reprieve for buildings facing ruin, Wilmette, unlike Chicago, does not have a landmark ordinance. Like the recently razed Palos Verdes beach house built by Lloyd Wright, Wright’s son, the Isabella Street houses are sitting on prime real estate for aspiring McMansion owners.

Fending off the stereotype of the big, bad developer, Hausen opened the door to the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Together, they arrived at an agreement, which placed the Van Bergen-designed house on the market for four months starting on May 1 at a listing of $599,000. The Conservancy is taking careful measures to monitor potential buyers, determined to find a future owner who will preserve the existing residence.

This sounds like a decent compromise: the homes are saved (though moved) and property owners and builders can utilize the prime property.

I’m sure there are some fascinating stories out there about preservation battles over structures like these. Why weren’t these homes given landmark status? Why do some towns move to preserve Frank Lloyd Wright homes and others do not? How much of a Frank Lloyd Wright home does a structure have to be to be worth saving – this home simply came out of his workshop.

Also, if an important building is saved but moved, is it still just as important?

Discussion over “Prairie Modern” McMansions in the Atlanta suburbs

A historian discusses “Prairie Modern” McMansions that have been built in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur:

For the past several years Decatur architect Eric Rawlings has been designing homes in a style he describes as “Prairie Modern.” Rawlings considers the eight Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes to be among the best examples in his portfolio. Others in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood call them out-of-place McMansions. All but one of the Prairie Modern homes have been built at teardown sites, single-family residential lots where smaller homes were demolished to make way for the Prairie Moderns…

Rawlings defends his Prairie Modern design and he strongly disagrees that his Prairie Modern homes are McMansions. He left this comment in a 2011 blog post:

I have over 60 built projects in Oakhurst alone and only 8 are Prairie Style, only 22 are New Construction. I have about 40 renovations, many of which preserve the original building with a minor addition not even visible from the street. KC Boyce’s house is only 2100sf with 4 beds and hardly a McMansion by the actual definition. Susan Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, invented the term McMansion and would completely disagree with your interpretation of the definition. His 2 story house with low slope roof is barely taller than the houses near it with steeper roofs. The house on the left is sitting more than 6ft lower because of grade elevations. Scale does not mean height or floor area. It refers to the proportion and size of the pieces and parts that make up the structure. A simplistic two story cube is out of scale compared to a one story house made of smaller forms. A larger house made of the same sized pieces and parts is in Scale with a smaller house made of the same size pieces and parts. The Fayetteville house is 25ft tall, 10ft shorter than the Decatur Zoning limit of 35ft. [Copy pasted as received.]

Despite Rawlings’s assertions that his Prairie Moderns are not McMansions, they are more than twice the size of the homes they replaced. They are also larger than neighboring homes that are contemporaneous to the ones torn down. And, they draw from an architectural vocabulary that is out of character with the community. All attributes that conform to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s definition of a McMansion.

Lots of interesting pictures of homes to illustrate the argument. Several things are worth commenting on:

1. Susan Susanka did not invent the term McMansion. The term dates roughly to the late 1980s.

2. There seems to be some discussion of what exactly constitutes a McMansion:

2a. The historian draws from a definition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it seems that the teardown dimension is big here: these houses are bigger than the surrounding homes.

2b. But there is an architectural congruity issue as well: Prairie style homes don’t fit in this particular community. This amuses me: the Prairie style is well-known in the Chicago area because of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Oak Park and Chicago and you could find a number of “Prairie Moderns” in the region. I suppose this style is tied to Prairie regions (Midwest) but wouldn’t the Prairie style make more sense than stucco houses in the Atlanta area? Of course, one could argue that neither style or perhaps any “foreign” styles are appropriate.

3. Adding to the intrigue is that one of the “Prairie Moderns” won an award from Decatur for “Sustainable Design and Energy Efficiency.” So perhaps not everyone has an issue these homes. If so, this would be common in teardown situations: you can often find people arguing for newer homes and owners being able to do what they want for their property and others arguing that new houses should have some architectural congruency with the existing neighborhood and that there should be some design guidelines or standards (perhaps through the creation of a historic preservation district).

h/t Curbed National