If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

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Every time we’ve gone into a Baroque building I’ve said this joke, my favorite line from Beauty and the Beast. I swear it doesn’t get old.

Here’s my favorite, the Salzburg cathedral:


Airports big and small

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When a person (say…me) googles “world’s coolest airports,” she encounters several lists of huge, modern airports in some of the world’s most technologically advanced cities in the world. Think Singapore, Tokyo, Berlin, Hong Kong, Dubai. But, while some of these structures are indeed incredible, I tired quickly of their strikingly similar aesthetics. They’re all modern monoliths, designed to usher millions of travelers through their permeable walls in the most efficient manner possible. Yes, some of them include art installations or flora, but too much art occludes the primary functionality of the buildings.

Barajas airport in Madrid: more pain than it's worth

Take, for instance, Madrid’s new Barajas airport. This airport appeared on some of my google lists of “cool airports,” but I must say that the experience of trying to use this airport drove me crazy. Terminals are painfully far away from each other and, due to the open plan of the gates, there are no announcements over any loudspeakers (speakers are only used to pipe in bird noises). Passengers crowd around the departure screens instead and must wait–sometimes until just before their flight is boarding–to find out at which gate their plane awaits them (and then must go charging to a faraway terminal). Who cares about an innovative design if it makes me miss my flight?

Thus, I switched the operative superlative in my searches from “coolest” to “smallest” and “most dangerous.” Success! I found about about Courchevel airport in the French Alps, with such a short runway that pilots must land on an incline to decrease speed and take off on a decline.

Barra Airport: the red sign warns visitors to stay off the beach "when the airport is active"

And I was reminded how the runway of Gibraltar’s airport intersects a four-lane highway because Spain won’t let the British colony use its airspace (can we detect a grudge?) Thus, the highway must close every time a plane is taking off or landing.

And I learned of the world’s only beach runway in Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. You know why no one else has put their runway on a beach? Oh right, because the tide washes it out. Yes, Barra Airport only operates during low tide and, if there are emergency landings at night, helpful citizens have to come illuminate the runway with their cars, as Barra has no artificial lights. Now that’s cool.

Let’s take a look at a Courchevel Airport departure, shall we? The views, if you can get your heart to beat at a normal rate, are certainly lovely…

World’s coolest libraries

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As I said on Monday, libraries have been some of the world’s greatest treasures. No wonder, then, that they are often so beautiful you might think you were inside a palace (sometimes there’s no differentiation). Here are a couple old-world libraries that are visually stunning:

Abbey Library St. Gallen Switzerland

Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada

Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Sansovino Library in Venice, Italy

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont, Austria

Biblioteca Geral University of Coimbra in Coimbra, Portugal

Modern architects have created some very beautiful, if quite different, libraries as well. Alexandria, Egypt, which once held the world’s most important library, now has an updated version that is anything but ordinary. Here are a few contemporary library designs:

Exterior of library in Alexandria, Egypt

Interior of library in Alexandria, Egypt

Central library in Seattle, USA

National library of Belarus

Aaaaand my own hometown library in Minneapolis, USA


DIY: Design a house like Frank Lloyd Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

No childhood as the offspring of an American architect is complete without a visit to Fallingwater, Taliesen, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Yes, our family road trips often veered off course to pay homage to one of the greatest architects of all time: Frank Lloyd Wright.

While researching FLW, I came across this design website, which gives you a few facts about Wright and some basic tips and information about the business of architecture. Then you get to do it yourself: choose a client from a group of about twenty, pick a location, and start designing! Create a floor plan, add walls, windows, and openings, and finally tour your house in 3D. If you find that you’re more of a pro than you realized, you can even submit your design for others to view and critique. I know what I’ll be doing all weekend…


Looking up in the Guggenheim museum

Dartmouth architecture

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Sanborn: a good place for a secret society to gather

The most interesting lecture I’ve ever attended was one on the history of Dartmouth College’s architecture. Seated with fellow members of my secret society (yeah, yeah, it’s not a secret anymore) in ornate Sanborn Hall on a dim winter night, the talk had an aura of mystery around it even before Professor Marlene Heck began to speak.

College is a strange institution in the United States for many reasons, not least of which is its inherent long-term memory loss. We arrive one year assuming things have always been a certain way and leave four short years later, assuming they will always stay the same. Of course that is not the case. But when an architectural project intrudes upon those four years, it feels as though the very earth is shifting beneath our feet.

Professor Heck’s talk illuminated all the ways in which Dartmouth has changed over the centuries of its existence. The green, now so sacred as an open space it would be unthinkable to have a building there, once hosted the president’s house. A plan for the river once included a huge outdoor amphitheater. She also talked about plans that were in the budget in 2007, ones that have since shifted social foci and destroyed things that seemed permanent, ones that have already made “my Dartmouth” a thing of the past.

My favorite story of the evening was about a former natural history museum that housed dinosaur bones and taxidermied animals. At some point, the college decided the building was no longer necessary, and the fossils were shipped out to other locations. The museum was prime real estate on campus, and what was really needed was a library, an axis mundi that would recognize the importance of books in such a community. The library would go where the museum had stood. But what to do with this large, existing building? The solution: a construction crew dug a huge hole right in front of the museum and, after emptying it of all its treasures, pushed the building into the hole. When maintenance crews were called in a few years ago to work on Baker Library’s plumbing, they dug in front of the library only to find an archaeological site just a half-century old.

It’s strange to think how quickly we become history.

The bones of another building are buried in front of Baker tower

Oh my Gaudí


Inside the Sagrada Familia

The great thing about visiting any new place with my dad, the architect, is that his perspective is so different from my own. Check out that mansard roof! he exclaims. Is that really faience glazed clay tile? Thus, with him, I notice the architectural detail in new cities much more often than I would on my own.

Visiting Barcelona once in spring of 2009 and again in July of 2010, I was sorry he was not with me. The city is a phantasmagoria of architectural innovation; every block, it seems, holds some fantastic creation. In fact, one gets so accustomed to buildings that curve, bulge, ripple, flash, that something like this looks commonplace:

Yeah? So your exterior looks like waves. So what?

Of course, when you talk about architecture and you talk about Barcelona, there is one man so important that he overshadows everyone else: Antoni Gaudí (literally–the Sagrada Familia bristles out of a relatively flat skyline). In fact, it’s hard to think of another architect who has as completely reconfigured the nature of a city, or another city that lures tourists with the treasures of just that one architect. Without Gaudí, Barcelona would be just another European city with a nice old cathedral and street vendors willing to sell you individual beers from six-packs they store in the sewer system (don’t tell me you can’t find that in Munich).

In fact, I was skeptical about Gaudí’s style before I visited Barcelona. It just seemed so, well, gaudy. Up close, though, his work is so utterly intricate and it so perfectly combines elegance with whimsy that it’s nearly impossible to resist. I found myself gaping in awe at the heights of the Sagrada Familia, a structure that attempts to define the word “exaltation” through stone. And then there’s Parc Güell, which feels like a multi-layered underwater Disney creation.

Gaudí is one of those architects who did not base what could be done on what had been done. In his building designs, Gaudí used shapes common in nature seemingly irreconcilable with the rigid materials necessary for the buildings to stand. Yet his pillars mimic trees perfectly, his tiles take on the form of tropical fruits with ease. Balconies settle like sand dunes. I can only imagine what more my dad would point out if he were there.

How to be an architect

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What you’ll need: A good understanding of geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and design; an eraser

Songlist: Master of the House from Les Mis, House of the Rising Sun by the Animals

Further Reading: Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks

Keep that eraser handy!

Just over a quarter century ago, a recent college grad like me was wondering what the #$%& he should do with his life. Instead of starting a blog (which would have been quite the innovation at the time and surely would have made him a million times richer than the profession he chose), he opened the University of Minnesota’s graduate programs catalog. Starting at “A” he ran his finger down the list. Accountant? No. Agricultural Engineer? No. OH! Architect! Why not? And so this man became an architect.

For a few years, I told this story as though it were my dad with the alphabetical impulsivity until he gently informed me that it was a friend he’d met at the U of M’s architecture program, and not him. Architecture was a more obvious fit for my dad, a person who is both extremely creative and mathematically precise. He’s also quite adept at writing in all capitals–architects’ script–and not look like he’s shouting on paper.

Since my dad is an architect, the profession always seemed normal to me, yet whenever I told friends or teachers their eyes would light up with respect and interest. Thus, I began designing houses as well. Dad would bring home graph paper and I would create mansions with swimming pools, movie theaters, indoor dog parks. Sometimes I would accompany him to his office in Minneapolis and look at the drawings that he and his colleagues were producing (though usually I was more interested in hanging out at the children’s bookstore below his office, the Wild Rumpus, that features real animals in and around the shop).

I hadn’t given much more thought to be an architect myself until about two months ago, when I was lying awake at night trying to figure out my future. To get my mind off this quarter-life-crisis stress, I turned on my light. I’ll just design a Mexican hacienda, I thought to myself. So I got out my sketch book, and began to dream up some key elements of this house: a courtyard with a fountain in the middle, a library with views out into the jungle beyond. But I ran up against the problem I always had as a kid: I wanted the house to be big, but I didn’t know what to do with all the space. That is, I had plenty of ideas about how to fill in this box of a Mexican hacienda, but no sense of how the rooms would flow from one to the next. There was no function in my form.

Yeah, that's pretty much how I designed it

Last week I was talking to my dad about his day at the office. He was excited because he at his favorite stage in a project: he was figuring out all the dimensions to add to the final drawings for an addition. This, he said, is like a very intricate puzzle in which he must keep hundreds of numbers in his head at once to put it all together.

I had recently dealt with a similar puzzle, though on a much smaller scale. For Christmas, I decided to create a cover for my brother’s new Kindle out of leather; my least favorite part was all those measurements I had to keep in mind–how large the chipboard needed to be, how much leather to cut, where to sew on the elastic (actually, my least favorite part was how many times I stabbed myself with the sewing needle, or perhaps the night I lay moaning on the carpet about how this *&#%-ing Kindle cover was unsalvageable). Seeing how excited my dad was about measurements, and remembering my despair when the leather I’d cut didn’t quite fit, I realized that the kind of puzzles one needs to solve in architecture are just not for me. Function is not my forte.

On a final note, my Kindle cover did end up fitting and, as they say, if the Kindle cover fits, use it. At least, that is, until the decorative elements fall off and you realize they were only there to cover mistakes, or the elastic snaps off when riding the subway and your Kindle slips into the abyss of slush-covered designer boots.