Architecture and the TdF

In many ways the Tour de France is analogous to the process of creating great architecture…

Today is the final stage of the Tour, which means the end of our month-long wake-up-early-to-catch-the-beginning-of-the-Stage and then media-blackout-all-day-until-catching-the-end-of-the-Stage that night. It’s been exhausting.


We’re big fans of the Tour for a few reasons. Every year it puts on incredible feats of individual performance and teamwork. The aerial architectural shots of France (and Belgium, England, Andorra, and Spain) let us see masterpieces of the vernacular and fantastic urbanism from a unique perspective. We also love it because in many ways the Tour is analogous to the process of creating great architecture.


There’s a Team Leader (the Client), for which all the teammates are working to help achieve victory. Without the Team Leader, the team doesn’t exist, nor does it have a goal to work for.


There’s the Team Director (the Architect), who is responsible for coaching, and the design of the strategy, tactics, and decisions for the team. Without a Team Director, the team lacks focus, direction, and oversight.


There are the Domestiques (the Engineers) who look after the team leader, provide a wheel to follow, ferry food and water, and even will surrender their bike if the leader has a mechanical problem. They are self-sacrificing, and rarely acknowledged individually, but without them, the Team Leader can suffer.


There’s the Peloton (other projects, permit departments, review boards, weather, schedule) which is comprised of all the other squads and competes against the team for time and resources. The Peloton represents all the aspects that can hinder or derail the team from accomplishing its goal.


There’s the Time Limit which is obviously equates to the Schedule for the project. (“We need to be in the house by the holidays!!”)


And finally there are the Stages of the race (Project Phases): some are flat, easier, and made for sprints, and some are longer or much more grueling, like producing the Construction Documents or obtaining a permit in Chicago.


So what’s the point? Great accomplishments can rarely be achieved without a great team, particularly when epic efforts are required! Congrats to all the riders who finished the Tour this year, and to Chris Froome for his third win!

 

Urbanism To Me

Urbanism is people-watching. Urbanism is walking the dog at night. Waiting for the bus in the rain, comparing boots and disliking umbrellas.  Streets with or without cars; paths for wheels; sidewalks for eating, or shopping, or strolling. Bundling the baby in a stroller to get to daycare on cold mornings.  Riding the train to work.  City living and dreaming of owning a yard.  Visiting relatives in the suburbs to remember it’s not worth the yard. Traveling and walking, walking, and more walking.  Skyscraper views out the window, due South.  Baseball park views due North.  Fire-escape gardens and neighborly noises.  Studying strangers on the street corner. Calculating the groceries that fit in one backpack and 4 reusables bags. Anonymity amongst familiar crowds. Parallel parking and paying to park. Big parks, small playlots, and potted plants. Towers with elevators, third floor walk-ups, carriage units, roommates in houses with envious gardens, and double-loaded corridors. I’ve had the great fortune to experience life from all of these perspectives, which has catalyzed the urbanist in me. I’d love to know, what is your urbanism?

Submitted by JS ::: This is the first in a series of short posts that intend to further shed light on each of our interests.

Things Are Looking Up With Stile Liberty!

Two years ago, E and I had the great fortune of spending a month in northern Italy taking in the Stile Liberty masterpieces there, as well as many of the anonymous-but-still-magnificent fabric buildings that fill the cities we visited. Our primary method of transportation was the original one: walking. In doing so, not only did we attempt to destroy ligaments and tendons, and in the case of E, discover old-but-previously-unknown sports injuries, but we also had an opportunity to observe architecture from all distances and at nearly every scale.

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What became more and more apparent  to us was the disappointing lack of scale and depth that contemporary architecture utilizes. Or more accurately, ignores. As we power-viewed block after block, mile after mile, in complete agony and ecstasy, we were shocked and appalled at how mundane and banal contemporary architecture has become. Mind you, this shock was not because of what we were seeing, but rather, we were comparing architecture seen here to what we know and experience in other environs. (More on that “knowing” in another post).

The Stile Liberty, Stile Floreale, or Italian Art Nouveau is an extension of the Classical Tradition and as such we were viewing the progression of the “humanist” architecture, frozen in that moment in time. And the details were so sumptuous, so supple, that the only way to describe it really is through metaphor: what we saw and experienced in artistic detail on buildings 100+ years old, is the functional equivalent of finding a computer in an archeological dig.

Let me explain that a little better: Given what we know now about how architecture and urbanism affect our daily existence, THIS kind of architecture and detail might as well be from the future. By that I mean, IF buildings are designed to maximize the human experience and promote health and welfare (AS THEY SHOULD BE), and given what we now know about the way our built environment impacts us, architecture going forward from this knowledge, that is to say architecture of the FUTURE, would be designed following the details seen here, from the PAST. And so finding these buildings in neighborhoods over 100 years old, is the equivalent of finding something futuristic, or more accurately, designed to help humans in the future, in an archeological dig.

I have always been aware of the lack of detail, the lack of depth, the lack of scale in contemporary architecture. Hell, I think everyone is to a certain extent, while not always able to put a finger on it. But these beauties made it all more depressingly conspicuous – what with how they all contribute to the built environment, all work to celebrate their place, and all add visual delight to users and passers-by. All replete with architectural ornament.

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After marking the “must see” buildings, we would take a cab or public transit to the most remote mark on the map (at least remote from our hotel) and begin walking back. What happened though, which wasn’t expected, was that we were continually drawn down streets and around corners by a glimpse of something great. Before long, it became a game between us to find the most interesting architecture first, but part of the fun was that it seemed impossible. We were constantly finding something new and interesting. CONSTANTLY.

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More to the point (of this article at least), it wasn’t just a matter of being drawn down the street and then doing the dance of trying to capture as much of the building’s facade as possible in a single photo while negotiating traffic, locals, parked cars, dog shit, and street poles or lamps. After getting the “overall” shot, I was continually and inevitably testing the patience of E drawn across the street right up to the face of the building by some element or another, and what I discovered in those moments is what you see in these photos. It gave me the chance, or perhaps the eyes, to contemplate the elements that make the difference between good architecture and bad architecture so discernible.

That difference comes in the delight of interacting with architecture not just from multiple distances and observing its multiple scales, but also its multiple angles. So many different ways to view a single building, not the least of which was looking directly up! To be fair, contemporary architecture tries to do this on occasion, but generally only as what I call, a “single move.” In other words, if the building engages from multiple angles, and encourages the viewer to walk around it, it fails miserably on the other measurements: multiple scales, details, proportion, ornament, texture, materials, etc. It is a single move, and to use an analogy from figure drawing, it is akin to simply portraying the shadow of the model. Compelling from one perspective or two, but ultimately banal.

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So this is my demand for the world and our goal at MGLM: Architecture which operates at all scales, speaks (nay, sings!) across all distances, employs ornament and detail, draws the viewer closer in wonder and delight, and contributes beauty to the fabric of its environment.  Can you dig it?

Post Script:

The AIA has a current social media campaign that is identified by #ilookup and attempts to elevate the profession by talking up the lofty ideals and efforts of architects. But how is the general public supposed to be inspired or encouraged when the contemporary tripe that is constantly built is nothing worth looking up at, much less looking up to?

Art Deco? Yes. Art Freakin Deco.

Here at MGLM we are extremely passionate about Art Deco and practice it whenever we have the chance. One of the more interesting aspects about Art Deco is that it wasn’t a consistent style, with each country, each region having their own variation of, and in some cases even their own name for, the aesthetic which spanned generally from inter-war periods of 1919-1939. Many items are considered deco that were created before and after that timeframe. Plenty of experts point to the 1925 Paris Exhibition as the introduction of high Art Deco but more research has revealed that a lot of designers were simplifying their forms and adding elements that previewed the style even as far back as 1900, especially here in Chicago. Even though at the time it was considered quite “modern” with the main tenets of modernity, movement, angularity, and luxury of materials, we now look back on Deco and its design language as a logical extension of traditional classicism with its emphasis on proportion, hierarchy, and use of architectural ornament. Deco above all was concerned with the beauty of design, something that Modernists of the same era, especially those involved in the Bauhaus movement and the International Style, considered abhorrent and superfluous. Thus, during the heyday of Modernism (1940’s-1970’s), many Deco gems were destroyed due to lack of appreciation. Fortunately, many people now, including us, consider Deco as the last great flourishing of traditional vernacular language before the advent of the stripped down monotonous steel and glass structures. And it is our intention to pick up the mantle and restore the place of art in architecture! Submitted by MG

Gingerbread Architecture

Guest Post by MGLM’s Gingerbread Starchitect Mallory Mecham

Dec. 24, 2013

December is a time of year filled with holiday traditions, from the religious to the secular to the…architectural?

In my family, gingerbread is a tradition we take very seriously. Each year on Thanksgiving, we’d break out the bottles of molasses and bags of powdered sugar and whip up several batches of gingerbread and royal icing. We’d make a village that included four small, basic gabled-roof houses and one large church, complete with a steeple and stained glass window.

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Over the years, my interest in architecture grew, and our villages grew more and more elaborate.

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We diversified our patterns, added dormers and chimneys, and got more creative in the styles of the houses.

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It seemed a natural progression to apply this family tradition to the work we’re doing in the office. This year I made a quarter-scale model of an Arts & Crafts house that the office had designed for a competition.

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It has a lot of great architectural elements that presented some interesting challenges for the gingerbread/icing construction method – bay windows, columns, engaged dormers, a cantilevered wing with arches and brackets – but as in full-scale architecture, it was these details that really made the gingerbread house special. The following are some photos of the process:

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And some photos of it all coming together.

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As you can see, it has its similarities to actual construction! Foundations, walls, then the roof.

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Despite a few mishaps – broken walls, misshapen edges, and a near collapse – the house came together.

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While it may not stand the test of time (it is gingerbread, after all), it brought some holiday cheer to the office and some novelty to a time-honored tradition.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from MGLM Architects!

A Machine for Turning Coffee into Designs

How does MGLM make it through demanding (and sometimes unrealistic) deadlines? With the world’s most popular drug of course. To paraphrase the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, here at MGLM an architect is a machine for turning coffee into designs. We recently used these to help complete more than 40 art glass designs.

MGLM and Lavazza Cremespresso

Our preferred delivery system, and coffee of choice in deadline conditions, is Lavazza’s Cremespresso. The coffee purveyors at our local Lavazza Espression – 27 W. Washington St., Chicago – know us by sight. We need an account there.

Note to Lavazza: we are now accepting sponsorships!