Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day

    Yesterday was Memorial Day in the States, the holiday where we commemorate outdoor grilling and the arbitrary beginning of "summer".  That wasn't always what the day honored, though.  In fact, Memorial Day was known as "Decoration Day" until as recently as 1967, or about 100 years after it was first observed -- so named because the graves of the soldiers would be decorated with wreathes of flowers.
   The first widespread observation of Decoration Day was in 1868 to honor the fallen soldiers in the American Civil War.  Today, the United States Code declares that
       (a) Designation.— The last Monday in May is Memorial Day.
(b) Proclamation.— The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation—
(1) calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace;
(2) designating a period of time on Memorial Day during which the people may unite in prayer for a permanent peace;
(3) calling on the people of the United States to unite in prayer at that time; and
(4) calling on the media to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer.
   Typically the President or Vice-President will fulfill this request by laying a wreath and making a short speech at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery (pictured below).
All images not otherwise credited provided by stock.xchng
   When talking about Civil War memorials it would be impossible to overlook Gettysburg, but for today we'll use a higher f/stop and concentrate on a broader set of monuments.  Below is the tomb of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
   Lincoln provides a fantastic introduction to monument design -- his tomb, designed by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, incorporates possibly the oldest of monumental forms by its use of an obelisk, while architect Henry Bacon's more widely known Lincoln Memorial on the Washington, D.C. Mall takes its form from Doric temple design.  Inside, Lincoln sits with an imperial solemnity, gazing back towards the Washington Monument (another obelisk) and the Capital.  It's impressive that the exterior structure and the interior sculpture can both be so iconic.
   Nearby is the (Ulysses S.) Grant Memorial (cavalry group pictured), which takes an entirely different tone than the previously shown monuments, despite that it reflects on the same period of American history.  As is the case with several other monuments on the National Mall, the Grant Memorial is oriented in a very specific direction; then GGrant faces his then-president Lincoln while Grant was a general in the Union army.
   After World War I, Memorial Day became a more generalized holiday to remember all those who died in military conflicts for the United States.  Just for comparison, consider the sculpture and Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate...
Image Credit: Flickr user Resident on Earth
...with the Doric columns of the WW1 Memorial in D.C.
Image Credit: Flickr user cliff1066
   The Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, erected by the Soviet Union in 1945, has an uncanny resemblance...
Image Credit: Flickr user Olivier Bruchez
...to the World War II Memorial on the D.C. National Mall.
Image Credit: Flickr user Bernt Rostad
   There are certainly architectural differences in style distinct to political movements, but there can be unusual overlaps that transcend dogma.  Monoliths are awfully impressive on an instinctual level.
   The Hiroshima Memorial Cenotaph rejects the Roman Tradition, sculptures of famous people, and the obelisk in favor of a more experiential piece.  The saddle shaped cenotaph, which harbors the names of all the victims of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, is reminiscent of a shelter.  Still, as was mentioned about the Grant Memorial, this piece has a very intentional orientation -- below the sculpture you can clearly see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, unintentionally designed as a monument by Czech architect Jan Letzel in 1915.

   So many similarities between commemorative structures begs the question that despite cultural differences, we all reflect on wartime casualties in similar ways, but remember that there may be another cause at work here. In order to be commissioned to design something of exceptional cultural significance, an architect needs to have already attained a certain level of prestige.  Kenzo Tange, who designed the Hiroshima Cenotaph Memorial, professed his influence to be Swiss architect Le Corbusier.  Tange would later win the Pritzker Prize.
    The only outlier here is the above ruins of a building nearly obliterated by new weaponry.  On the other hand, we've left the actual weapons of war on battlefields such as Antietam (below).
   These monuments have clearly captured the attention of millions of tourists every year, but are they successful in terms of the original purpose?  Have we "unite[d] in prayer for a permanent peace"?  Or, by commemorating the dead, have we glorified battle and violence for the disaffected youth whose greatest fear is being forgotten?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

7 Great Buildings

Well, the rapture has come and gone, and we're all still here. Not much of an apocalypse, really. I guess it's too much to expect something like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, which has got to be the definitive book of surviving post-humankind. In the best self-congratulatory fashion, today let's take a look back at some of the great works of architecture we humans have managed to design. There are so many amazing designs that for this list i've decided to narrow it down to the best design in a few categories: Home, Religious, Governmental, Military, Commercial and Industrial, as well as a bonus Honorable Mention.

Safe House, KWK Promes
I had to open this list with something a little bit unusual. This house, by Polish firm KWK Promes, has popped up as something of an internet phenomenon for being "zombie-proof"... which it probably is. The only access when all the walls are closed up is a 2nd story drawbridge.
The most obvious criticism is that it looks a little bit like a prison, and i can see that when the walls are all closed up, but it's really quite beautiful when it's opened.

All images provided by KWK Promes
Photographer: Aleksander Rutkowski
Bath Abbey
This was probably the most difficult category for me to choose. There are so many great cathedrals and mausoleums -- not to mention the Pyramids -- that i couldn't find one that had all the qualities i wanted. Admittedly, Bath Abbey is a bit shy on gargoyles, and it doesn't have the macabre shock of the Capuchin Crypts, but the fan vaulting is just absolutely breathtaking (the ceiling structure). Its location right next to the ruined Roman Baths in Bath makes for a great shot upwards out of time, too.
All images provided by author.
Roman Forum
This was an easy choice. When talking about governments and architecture, you can't go bigger than the Roman Forum. Forums, or plazas, were the center of most Roman cities, and this one in Rome was by far the most important. For hundreds of years this was THE place to be for trade, justice and entertainment. Now, thousands of years later, we're still imitating their styles for our own government buildings. For sheer density of cultural importance and iconic design, the Roman Forum takes the cake (and eats it, too).

All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons
Great Wall of China
This one seems like a no-brainer, but i had to think twice before i decided to include it because it never really served its purpose. This seems to be a recurring theme with country-sized walls, from Hadrian's to the one we're building on the border with Mexico. Still, in a field that's tends more towards engineered design than aesthetic design, the Great Wall is pretty impressive. It's just SO BIG. One estimate puts the total construction at 3.8 BILLION stones, which, if true, is just mind-boggling. For all our advances in technology in the centuries since it was built, we may never build its equal.

All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Burj Khalifa (Burj Dubai) SOM Architects
I didn't choose these last two exclusively because of their size, although it did play into my consideration. The technical prowess required to build something of this magnitude is incredible.
SOM Architects, who also designed the Sears/Willis Tower, have cemented their place as the leaders in mega-skyscrapers. As one of their more recent and also their largest piece, the Burj Khalifa wins its place as the title holder for my commercial architecture category. If there's a more potent symbol of capitalism and commerce than the skyscraper, i don't know what it is.
The last picture here is looking down from the observation deck.

Image credit: neekoh.fi, flickr.com
Image Credit: nlann, flickr.com
Image Credit: jodastephen, flickr.com
Falkirk Wheel, RMJM
This is one of my favorite constructions of all time. First, it brings elegance to what is otherwise a fairly dirty business of moving boats around. Second, it's amazingly efficient at what it does. Because boats displace water equal to their weight, the top and bottom of the wheel are perfectly balanced, and rotating the wheel takes as little as 1.5kw-h to complete.

All images provided by author.

Honorable Mention
Wudang Mountains
This is the sort of place that inspires all those fantastic wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There's an ethereal quality to these places, hidden so far up in the mountains, that lends weight to the mythical legends of heroes and villains of the past.

All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The First Post

   Welcome to F/stop Architectural, a blog about architecture, design, and the world. This blog is owned and operated by Trevor Weltzer (that's me), and the views and opinions contained within are exclusively my own.
   Chances are that for the first few months of this blog anyone reading this knows me personally already, but i'll introduce myself briefly anyway. I live and work in the mid-west for a small architectural firm doing mostly restaurant remodels. Recreationally i'm interested in music, games, and technology, and those will likely emerge as topics within this blog as well.
   Whenever i find myself in this sort of position of introducing myself as someone who works in architecture, i often hear responses along the lines of "Oh, i don't know anything about architecture."
   That's ridiculous.
   Everyone knows about architecture. If you've ever eaten in a restaurant, or gone to school, you've experienced architecture. Almost every job engages with architecture in some way or another (in fact, i challenge you to come up with a job that doesn't). And whether you live in a mansion, apartment, or trailer, you've lived architecture, and you know what you like.
   So, everyone knows architecture. Architects just know how to design architecture. After returning to school for an M.Arch degree, i hope to be able to call myself an architect as well. In the meantime, i write a blog, and you're reading it, so let me talk about the blog.
   First off, the name. An f/stop is a photography term which describes the ratio between the focal length and the aperture size, and it roughly measures the depth of field of the photograph to be taken. In general, a low f number (confusingly named for the math oriented) like f/1.4 has a shallower depth of field than a high f number like f/16. Wikipedia's article on this is fairly complete, so if you're looking for more information i'd start there. Each post on this blog will carry a f/stop tag to describe the general scope of the article.
   The reason for the f/stop reference is because of the importance of context in architectural discussion. Context is what determines good or bad design, so to critique design we have to be careful to specify in what context we're discussing it.
   Finally, please comment! This is a blog about architecture, yes, but it should be accessible to everyone with any passing interest in design. If i bring up a more technical topic (like the structural properties of flying buttresses), or even just use some words that are specific to the field (like EIFS), i'll do my best to explain them, and post lots of pictures. Not this time though, you have to look those up.
   So, welcome to F/stop Architectural! Tell your friends!