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Pueblo archaeological site at Bandelier National Monument

Pueblo archaeological site at Bandelier National Monument. Photo by Diana Painter.

by SAH/MDR President Diana Painter

Commemorations! Anniversaries! Celebrations!  The theme of this year’s SAH/MDR conference is commemorations.  I had the good fortune last summer to attend a celebratory symposium of the 100-year anniversary of the US National Park Service and the 50-year anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in Santa Fe, NM entitled, “A Century of Design in the Parks.”  I joined like-minded National Park Service employees, State Parks employees, consultants and academics to discuss and debate the future of our professional practices and the future of our parks, with a particular focus on preserving the built environment.  It was a privilege to contemplate questions of conservation of natural resources and preservation of the built environment in our amazing parks resources with these colleagues.  In three intense days, two tracks of investigations were explored, the enormous contribution of the Civilian Conservation Corps to our parks, and legacy of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program.  Overarching themes were also explored, such as “Assessing Climate Vulnerability in Cultural Landscapes of the Pacific Northwest” (Robert Melnick and Noah Kerr, University of Oregon) and “Landscape Processes and Cultural Resources” (Laurie Matthews, MIG, Portland).

The NPS Region III Headquarters in Santa Fe is the largest Adobe office building in the U.S. Built in 1937-39 by the CCC.

The NPS Region III Headquarters in Santa Fe is the largest Adobe office building in the U.S. Built in 1937-39 by the CCC. Photo by Diana Painter.

I look forward to similarly rich discussions at our conference in Victoria, June 16-18, 2017, at the newly restored, 1863 Wentworth Villa.  We will help our fellow Canadians celebrate their 150-Celebration and – I anticipate – also explore our common concerns with preserving our architectural and landscape history through research, documentation and – celebration! Victoria offers a rich environment in which to explore these topics, with its layered cultural history and beautiful buildings and parks, all in a spectacular natural setting. Please consider joining us in Victoria.

Friendly reminder – Abstracts are due March 15th for conference papers.  Please remember that travel scholarships and free memberships are available to students whose papers are accepted for the conference.  Visit our website for more information and the Call for Papers: http://sahmdr.org/conference.html

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The Construction History Society of America (CHSA) will meet in Austin, Texas, from May 26-28, 2016.  Twelve sessions covering a wide range of topics, from Colonial Latin America to Plastic Composite Construction, will be augmented by four tours covering Austin and its environs.

The overall theme of the meeting is:  Knowledge Exchange and Building Technology Transfer.  From the CHSA website:

“The History of Construction has evolved by experimentation, refinement, and by the transference of knowledge across different cultures and continents. The cross pollination of ideas, methods of construction, and even styles is characteristic of the development of the architectural discipline. In the Americas these encounters of cultures and modes of operation have created a rich scenario in which buildings emerge as result of the cultural exchange, insertion of new social orders, industrialization, and adoption of new technologies. As cities change and mature the exchange and influences have become an intrinsic part of this ongoing evolution (and revolution) that impacts the built environment and its methods of materialization.

This conference seeks to establish a discussion within the frame of the knowledge exchange and building technology transfer. We seek for research work that depicts the spectrum of scenarios, building solutions, industry, and cultural transformations that are the result of those exchanges and transferences. The discussions aim to  reflect on the assimilations, education, and transformation processes necessary when importing or exporting building technology reflecting on the particular solutions that emerged from the process itself.”

Tyler Sprague in action, presenting The Rise of the Exterior Bearing Wall, or "Tube" Skyscraper: An Alternative Perspective from Seattle. Photo by B. Niederer.

Tyler Sprague in action, presenting The Rise of the Exterior Bearing Wall, or “Tube” Skyscraper: An Alternative Perspective from Seattle. Photo by B. Niederer.

The CHSA is part of the larger International Congress on Construction History (ICCH), which meets every three years.  Last year, for the first time, the Congress ventured to the United States to meet in Chicago in June 2015.  At the Congress, more that 300 attendees represented at least 25 different nationalities.  Over the course of the five day conference there were 52 paper sessions, each featuring three to five papers (in published form, that’s around 1800 pages).  With such a proliferation of papers, it was natural that most attendees were also presenters.  In addition to paper sessions, there were also daily keynotes, social hours, and a full day of tours in and around Chicago.  The MDR Chapter of the SAH was well represented among the presenters, mainly due to Tyler Sprague (University of Washington), who presented not one, but two papers during the Congress.  Tyler Sprague will also present as part of the the upcoming Austin conference.

The question of, “What is construction history and why should we study it?” was raised multiple times.  Based on the Congress’ content, construction history is a happy combination of historical narrative and technical analysis.  That said, architectural and structural engineers who happen to like history appeared to be the dominant form of attendee.  As to the “why,” to quote Brian Bowen, the Chair Emeritus of CHSA:

“We use history not to predict the future—a common misunderstanding—but to prepare for it and to learn how things change and, more particularly, what causes change.  Knowledge of this kind is especially helpful now, as the American construction industry goes through a period of significant transformation. However, we also study history for other purposes that are important for our self-esteem: to ensure that great deeds are not forgotten and to instill a sense of pride in the industry to which we belong. This endeavor is important today as we struggle to attract people to build their careers with us.” (“Does Construction History Matter?,” Engineering News-Record, 5/11/2015)

Though these points can easily be translated to the Society of Architectural Historians, construction history shifts the focus away from the architect and toward everyone else.  As James Campbell (University of Cambridge)  pointed out during his keynote “Bricks, Books, Cathedrals, and Libraries,” about Christopher Wren’s library for Trinity College, it is likely that Wren only visited the library twice during his lifetime, and never after its completion.  So by calling it “Wren’s Library” a vast number of contributors are omitted, from clients to craftsmen to couriers and beyond.  So how did this shift away from architects express itself during 5ICCH?

The Willis (Sears) Tower, SOM, 1973. Photo by: B. Niederer.

The Willis (Sears) Tower, SOM, 1973. Photo by: B. Niederer.

Sessions tended to group papers into overall themes.  In some cases, presenters focused on very small elements.  For example, during a session on “Equipment and Elevation,” Ilaria Giannetti (University of Rome) looked at the far-reaching impact of tubular scaffolding, or more precisely, a “clamping bolt with a T-shaped head and a hinge,” patented by Ferdinando Innocenti in 1934.  The resultant scaffolding system was much used in cast-in-place concrete construction in Italy, including bridges of the Autostrada del Sole and Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palasport domes.  A much larger scale was addressed in the “Skyscrapers” session, which included an analysis of the 1969-1974 construction of Willis (Sears) Tower by John Zils; Skidmore, Owings, Merrill (SOM) Associate Partner Emeritus.  The structure’s modular “bundled tube” design employed by its structural engineer Fazlur Khan combined with extensive off-site prefabrication and streamlined personnel management (around 2400 people worked on the site each day) resulted in a building that was particularly efficient in terms of resources used, time, and costs.  The tale of the Sears Tower’s efficient progress, around two stories per week, contrasted with the tale of another building discussed during a keynote lecture:  “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mile High Tower,” presented by William F. Baker, Structural and Civil Engineering Partner at SOM.  The primary difference between the Sears Tower and Wright’s Mile High Tower (also known as “The Illinois”) is of course that one is very real while the other remains hypothetical.  Could Wright, known for his “ground scraping” residential projects such as Chicago’s Robie House,” design a viable skyscraper in 1956?  Though conceptual drawings for the Mile High Tower rather resemble the half-mile tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai (for which the presenter served as the structural engineer), Wright’s foundation system, the “taproot” he employed at the Johnson Wax Research Tower (1950) would be ineffective in a mile high cantilever.  All structural issues aside, it is on the logistical end that Wright’s design would have fallen apart.  Contrast the construction progress of the two story per week Sears Tower with the five story per year Johnson Wax Tower.  The 18 million square foot interior would also present a commercial real estate nightmare.  In contrast, the Sears Tower’s 108 stories contain nearly 4.5 million square feet.  Sears initially intended to occupy 26 levels of the structure, leasing out the remainder, but eventually intended to occupy the ENTIRE structure.  That never quite happened and thus the Sears Tower became the Willis Tower, whose current largest tenant (United Airlines) occupies 20 floors.

Architectural Models at the Chicago offices of SOM. Photo by B. Niederer.

Architectural Models at the Chicago offices of SOM. Photo by B. Niederer.

SOM not only provided presenters to the Congress, but also hosted an evening reception at their Chicago offices.  Located in the Railway Exchange Building (Burnham & Root, 1904), the firm spreads the roughly 300 employees of the Chicago office over three floors arranged around a central atrium.  A large reception area, located on a lower level, is dominated by oversize renderings and models of the firms projects throughout the world.  Another large reception during the Congress was held at the Ballroom at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (formerly the Illinois Athletic Club; Barnett, Hayes, and Barnett, 1908).  Titled “We Built Chicago,” the event was sponsored by the Builders Association of Chicago and featured representatives from four construction firms talking about their history.  The companies were family businesses, one founded as early as 1856.  There was a certain jealousy of this west coaster for the continuous construction history and expertise represented on stage.

While the conference’s content skewed highly technical, occasionally resulting in rather overheated grey matter on my part, I can highly recommend attending a meeting of the Construction History Society, whether it be the upcoming Austin gathering or the next international meeting in Brussels in 2018.

For more on CHSA, go to http://www.constructionhistorysociety.org/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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by Diana Painter (August 7, 2014)

I recently had the opportunity to present a paper at the Society of Architectural Historians Australia New Zealand’s (SAHANZ) 2014 conference, held in Auckland this year.

Auckland skyline.  Photo by Diana Painter.

Auckland skyline. Photo by Diana Painter.

This offered an excellent opportunity to share my love of Pacific Northwest modernism, meet fellow historians in another hemisphere, and of course see some of New Zealand and Australia.  My paper, entitled “Regional Modernism on the West Coast: A Tale of Four Cities,” focused on the shared tenets and similar design expressions in mid-century modern residential design on the west coast of the United States, as seen in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. (At least two attendees told me they realized I wasn’t talking about Australia when they did a mental assessment of major cities in western Australia and came up with one.)  One avenue I explored in the paper, in support of the thesis, was the personal and professional relationships among many of the practitioners on the west coast at the time, which accounts in part for the spread of new ideas.  Relationships between the west and east coast of the United States also helped support the spread of progressive ideas from the west.  For example, the architect William Wurster, one of the most highly regarded Regional modernists in the Bay Area at mid-century, married housing advocate Catherine Bauer in 1940.  Catherine’s sister assisted in curating the highly influential exhibit Built in USA 1932-1944, which was mounted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1944.  She also edited the catalogue.  Not terribly surprising, west coast architects made a showing in this exhibit, and Wurster’s work was called out as particularly noteworthy.  One of the advantages of talking about Regional modernism in other places (I also presented a paper on Pietro Belluschi at this year’s VAF conference) is that people come up and tell you about similar trends at mid-century in their own region, and this was no different.

About 100 papers were presented at the conference.  The theme was “Translations,” which – appropriately – lent itself to many interpretations.  Within this framework topics ranged from the effects of the international spice trade of the 16th century on the built environment across the globe, to the design of new housing, post-Katrina, in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.  All the papers exhibited a high level of professionalism and collectively, a broad range of interests, both historical and contemporary.  Two of my favorite papers addressed the scientific iconography incorporated into biotechnology firms’ laboratory buildings (the author, Sandra Kaji-O’Grady won the prize for the best paper), and “facadism as urban taxidermy,” by Hannah Lewi and Andrew Murray.  The first paper focused in part on the number of buildings worldwide that incorporate double helixes in order to [superficially] portray the purpose of the building, among other visual metaphors from the sciences.  The latter paper used examples from Washington DC, Perth, and Melbourne to portray and analyze the range of feeble and/or distressingly misguided attempts to incorporate portions of historic buildings in new development schemes in the name of historic preservation and/or urban design.  (We are all familiar with these.  See for example George Kramer’s recent blog post on the Moore, Gerst & Barber Store, from July 19, 2014).  This paper drew from a thesis by Kerensa Sanford Wood from Columbia University on facadism in Washington DC, which is well worth looking at, particularly for the typology of facadism employed in her analysis (the thesis, “Architecture of Compromise: A History and Evaluation of Facadism in Washington, DC” can be found here).

Most of the presenters were academics from Australia or New Zealand and were from public universities, which prevail there, and quite a few papers were presented by PhD students.  The non-academics I met were mostly architects or architectural students with a practice or interest in historic preservation.  I ran into a few Americans, from the University of Michigan, Atlanta (author of the paper on post-Katrina houses, mentioned above), and Keith Eggener, our own Marion Dean Ross Chair of architectural history at the University of Oregon.  Keith, who attended our conference in Salem last year, presented a paper on a Christopher Wren church that was bombed by the Germans in World War II and was a ruin.  It was brought over from London and reconstructed in Fulton, Missouri, the site where Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech.  Today it houses the National Churchill Museum.

As part of the conference, I went on a walking tour of Auckland led by historic architect Tony Ward.  Because Tony had worked on many of the buildings we saw, the tour was particularly insightful.  Auckland reminds me a lot of Seattle, where I grew up.  The weather, for one, is very similar.  In was winter when I was there in early July, and the wind, rain and chilly damp was truly like December/January in Seattle.  The topography is similar, as is the extensive waterfront and view of nearby islands and peninsulas.  The contemporary architecture was also similar.  Like Seattle, Auckland is oriented toward redevelopment and even has their own version of the Space Needle!  They retain some excellent parks and key historic structures, often adapted to new uses.  The new addition to their art museum is particularly noteworthy.  It incorporates all previous additions on a challenging site and is simply very beautiful, particularly the wood columns, part of the new addition, that recall Maori carvings in a modern interpretation.  More about the prize-wining building can be found here: http://www.dezeen.com/2013/10/04/world-building-of-the-year-2013-winner-auckland-art-gallery/.

Auckland Art Gallery.  Photo by Diana Painter

Auckland Art Gallery. Photo by Diana Painter

A few aspects of the conference were particularly memorable, which we might take into consideration for our own conference planning in the future.  For one, the history of indigenous peoples was incorporated into the conference.  In just one example, a tour of Unitech’s (the university that hosted the conference) Te Noho Kotahitanga Marae was part of the conference opening.  A Marae is like the long house associated with the Pacific Northwest tribes, but in addition to exterior totems and carvings, the interior includes elaborately carved posts and colorful woven maps that tell tribal stories.  A special welcoming ceremony, performed by Maoris and members of the university who spoke the Maori language, was part of our visit (an interesting side note; signage in Auckland appears in English and Maori).  Secondly the food was excellent and wine and beer was freely poured!  This may not be everyone’s top priority, but it certainly does enhance the atmosphere and makes for livelier conversation!

Entrance to the Marae on the Unitec campus in Auckland.  Photo by Diana Painter.

Entrance to the Marae on the Unitec campus in Auckland. Photo by Diana Painter.

Here are a few terms that may be important to know for anyone attending an architectural history conference in New Zealand or Australia, for future reference.

  • How are you going? = How are you doing?
  • Flat white = coffee with steamed milk, identical to a latte, which you can also order
  • Tall black = Americano with a double shot of espresso, as far as I can tell
  • Nibbles = appetizers
  • Building consents = building permits
  • Earthquake strengthened = seismic retrofit
  • Breeze block – as in concrete screen walls
  • Hit and miss brick – when there are gaps between the bricks
  • Pivoting glass louvers – jalousie windows.

Oh yes, and definitely remember “no worries!”

 

 

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