Monday, May 28, 2012

Let's Hear it for the Quonset Hut

Quonset hut unloaded during U.S. occupation of Japan, ca. 1945
On Memorial Day people throughout the United States gather at sites dedicated to our veterans.  Most monuments to fallen soldiers are impressive and many are beautiful.  Yet no structure says "military" more than the humble Quonset hut.
G.I's in with Bob Hope in Quonset Hut, ca. 1944
Small and squat or lean and mean, however you want to describe it, this prefab, easy-to-assemble, multipurpose building provided shelter for thousands of soldiers and sailors during World War II.
      Today, over seventy-five years later, Quonset huts are enjoying a revival as restaurants, offices, and inexpensive housing.  In some places they have even been revived as the latest thing in innovative, "green" living. 
     A little historic background here:  Though Quonset huts are almost always associated with World War II, they actually made their debut as Nissen huts during World War I. Designed in April 16, 1916, by British engineer, Major Peter Norman Nissen, the original huts used the familiar half-cylinder shape but were made of a heavier and less pliable grade of corrugated steel.
     When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the military needed an easily transported shelter that could be assembled on the spot.  Army engineers settled on a larger and more lightweight version of Nissen's hut.  By early spring of 1942, the  first of these shelters rolled off the assembly line of the George A. Fuller company of Quonset Point, Rhode Island. The Nissen hut was soon renamed the Quonset hut and Quonset it remained no matter where it was manufactured.
Post War Housing
   After the war, a surplus of Quonset huts became of boon for universities seeking to accommodate thousands of new students attending college on the G.I Bill. Other Quonset huts became diners, medical clinics, or elementary schools.
   For many decades, Quonset huts seemed forgotten but far from gone. Repainted, run-down, abandoned, or otherwise anonymous Quonset huts pocked the post war landscape.  Sometimes they were regarded as eyesores, other times, they were ignored. 
Daniels House, Knoxville, TN

 Then, in 1982, Tennessee architect Peter Calandruccio purchased an unusual Quonset hut home. Built in 1948 and known as Daniels House, after the family that owned it, the home had been designed by James W. Fitzgibbon.  Fitzgibbon was friend and colleague of Buckminster Fuller, the father of the famous geodesic dome.  Fitzgerald took the Quonset hut and combined it with  Fuller's space age style and some of the traditional materials of the Tennessee countryside--a sort of deconstructed version of the hut nestled into a hillsiade.
     The house had deteriorated by the late 1970s, but Calandruccio knew an architectural treasure when he saw one.  He restored much of the house and sold it to a family equally committed to keeping it intact.  In 1998, Daniels House became the only Quonset hut style residence on the National Register of Historic Places.
   Now it seems we are in the midst of a Quonset hut resurgence.  Quonset huts have their own websites, fan clubs, and followers.  They are now on the cutting edge of affordable, eco-friendly housing.
   Each May, we reserve a special day to recognize the sacrifice of war veterans. That doesn't mean, however, that we should forget them the rest of the time.  Quonset huts, with their unique history and unmistakable design, remind us that we can both preserve the past and look to the future 365 days a year.

You can learn more about the history of Quonset huts from the U.S. Naval History Center.  For some great pictures of Quonset huts in the late 1940s and early 50s visit Quonset Hut Habitats.  And Green Passive Solar Magazine has an excellent article on the green renovation of a Quonset Hut in Montrose County, Colorado.

Photo Credits:
U.S. Navel History Center
Wikipedia Commons
National Register of Historic Places.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lotus Temple, Baha'i House of Worship, New Delhi

Lotus Temple, New Delhi, India
Whether you count yourself as a believer or not, you'll probably admit that the world's great religions have given rise to some great buildings.  If you had to name the most visited religious site in the world, what would it be?  Mecca, the site of the annual Muslim hadj? The Western Wall, or Kotel, of Jerusalem? Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome? 
    If you've already taken the picture to the left as a hint, then you know the answer is the Lotus Temple, officially known as the Baha'i House of Worship, in New Delhi, India.  If you've never heard of the temple, then you're in for a surprise. Completed in 1986, the Temple attracts around 4 million visitors a year, or about 13,000 each day.  According to CNN, that makes it not just the most visited religious building in the world, but the most visited building, period.
Lotus Temple in daylight
     What makes this statistic even more interesting, is that the vast majority of those visitors are not members of the Baha'i faith. Baha'i is an international religion with an estimated 5-7 million followers worldwide. The temple, however, is open to all.  No religious rites may be carried out within its walls, but any religious text may be read out loud there.  In India, many Hindus converge on the Lotus Temple on major festival days. The beautiful and unusual architecture also attracts visitors of every faith and persuasions year round.
Interior skylight

     As the name implies, the temple is constructed in the shape of a lotus. Three concentric circles of nine "leaves" come together to form a single dome. All Baha'i temples are required to have nine sides.  Architect Fairborz Sahba chose this particular design, though, because the lotus is a symbol of life throughout India. 
   Born in Persia and educated at the University of Tehran, Sahba was only 28 years old when he received the commission to build the Lotus Temple in 1976.  He had already started to make his mark though, having been recognized for his low cost housing plans in Iran and for the design of the Baha'i administrative center in Haifa, Israel.
Architect's model for the Lotus Temple
    Before he started designing the temple, Sahba traveled through India visiting sites large and small, from the famous Taj Mahal to the ancient caves temples of Ellora and Ajanta. Everywhere he looked he encountered the image of the lotus, whether created from precious stones or sketched with charcoal on stone walls.  As he recalled later, "The deep respect for the lotus, spontaneously evoked in Indian hearts everywhere, and their loving attachment to this sacred flower convinced me to end my search for further ideas for the design."
Interior of Lotus Temple
Ariel view of temple showing ponds.
    The next challenge was translating his inspiration into concrete--literally. The light and airy structure was to be built entirely of steel, concrete, and marble--materials that are light and airy.
       The temple presented a geometric puzzle as well as a structural challenge.  There was not a single straight line in Sahba's design. It took over two years for engineers to complete the calculations necessary for the construction to begin.  Basically, each of the lotus petals was conceived as an outer section of a sphere.  (Think of a three-dimensional Venn diagram, with only part of each circle visible.)  In addition, Sahba wanted to rely on natural ventilation, rather than air conditioning to keep the temple cool during New Dehli's legendary warm season.  To accomplish this, he surrounded the temple with nine pools of water. These pools not only provided a lovely landscape, they cooled the air flowing into the temple via the arched entry ways.  Air is then drawn upward via fans and exits through the central skylight.  This system is both ecologically sound and aesthetic.  The gentle, continuous flow of cool air becomes part of the temple's spiritual as well as physical climate.
   When the temple finally opened to the public in 1986, it was immediately embraced by people of all faiths.  The architectural world was equally impressed. In its first few years, India's Baha'i House of Worship received numerous international awards. One of the most unusual came from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America which bestowed the Paul Waterbury Outdoor Lighting Design Award on the temple in 1989. In 2000, the Architectural Society of China called the temple one of the 100 most significant buildings of the twentieth century.  That same year, Sahba received the GlobArt Award in Vienna Austria.  In the past 26 years, over 500 articles on the temple have appeared in newspapers and magazines in nearly every major world language.
   Yet all these honors are secondary to what Sahba has called, "the spiritual nature of the place."
    "It is a concrete embodiment of the unity of mankind," he told one interviewer.  With millions of visitors from all over the globe flocking to the temple every year, it is clear that on this issue at least, mankind agrees.

The Baha'i House of Worship site is the main source of information on the temple.  Click on the virtual tour for some breathtaking views.  The Architecture of Faiborz Sahba gives further details of the architect's works and career. 

Photo Credits:  Wikimedia Commons
Interview Quotes: Baha'i House of Worship: Interview with the Architect

Saturday, May 5, 2012

This Week in Architecture

Butterfly House, Thailand
Inexpensive, sustainable, architecture is more than a fad: It's a necessity in many countries. The Wall Street Journal addresses this issue in a review of the book Design Like You Give a Damn: Building From the Ground Up by Architecture for Humanity.  Check out the Butterfly Houses in Thailand. Cool in every sense of the word.

We've always known that the World Trade Center would rise again.  The only question was "how high?" On Monday, April 30, a steel column placed atop the exoskeleton of 1 World Trade Center made it New York's tallest building at 1271 feet.  The skyscraper is still a work in progress. The column is meant to support the 100th floor of the completed building. This New York Times article gives the whole story along with some good quotes from architect David Childs.  If you want to learn more about the plans World Trade Center, New York's Skyscraper Museum maintains and excellent page on their website. 

Coney Island Carousel
While we're on the subject of New York, the city has also been selected as the site of the 2012 Partners in Preservation Program.  Jointly sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, this program will award a total $3 million in preservation funds to a few lucky sites in the city.  The catch?  The public gets to choose the sites via online voting.  This year, 40 places are in the running, among them the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Coney Island B&B Carousel, and the former home of jazz great Louis Armstrong, now a museum devoted to Armstrong and his music, located on 107th St. in Corona, Queens. To find out how you can vote visit the Partners in Preservation website and follow the steps to register.  You can vote up to once a day until the contest closes on May 21.

Photo Credits: Architecture for Humanity
                       New York City Economic Development Corp.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

Can a flight of steps be considered a building?  Yes, if you define "building" as part of the built environment and not just a structure with four walls and a roof.  If bridges can be "buildings," steps can too.  Especially when we're talking about the Scalla di Spagne, or Spanish Steps, of Rome, the widest staircase in Europe and a masterpiece of baroque design.
      Why are they called "Spanish?"  During the 17th century, Spain maintained an embassy by the piazza now at the foot of the steps.  The piazza became known as the Piazza di Spagne, the Spanish Piazza.
Trinita dei Monti
   Rome, as both tourists and visitors will attest, is a city of hills.  Sometimes steep hills.  High on a hill overlooking the Piazza di Spagne sits the Trinita dei Monti, the Church of the Trinity on the Mount.   Built by the French in the sixteenth century on a former vineyard, the Tinita dei Monti is an architectural gem in its own right.   The twin bell towers were added to the facade in the seventeenth century, creating the view from the  we still see looking up from the piazza today. (Interestingly, the church and the land surrounding it remain French property.  Two clocks, one on each bell tower, tell the time in Rome and Paris, respectively.)
Design by di Santis
For over a hundred years getting from the Piazza di Spagne to the Trinita de Monte and back again meant traveling a steep path along a rough, wooded hill.   Once more the French "stepped" in and offered to finance the construction of stone steps.  The original French plans called for an enormous statue of King Louis XIV, France's great "Sun King," astride a horse as the focal point of the steps.  Fortunately, at least for Romans, most of the people involved in the original planning, including Louis XIV himself, had died by the time the Italian architects Alessandro Specchi and Francesco di Sanctis won the commission to build the steps in 1717.  Di Santis had submitted the winning design to the architectural competition, though Specchi, the better known of the two, received most of the credit.
Engraving by Pinini, 1756
    Di Santis based his design on the terraced gardens popular in country estates.  A total of 138 steps rose in tiers from the piazza to the entrance of the church. The finished staircase was actually a bit off center from the church towers, which gave it an even more graceful appearance, as can be seen in the engraving by Giovanni Panini, made around 1756, about thirty years after the steps had been completed.  Officially, the steps commemorated a peace treaty between Spain and France. Unofficially, they became the place for Romans and visitors to meet and greet for generations.  The neighborhood bordering the steps was a favorite haunt of writers and artists. One of Romes oldest coffee shops, the Antico Cafe Greco, opened beside the steps in 1760 and is still going strong.
Keats-Shelley House
    Among the cafe's more renowned literary patrons was the English poet John Keats, who spent the last days of his young life in a house right on the east side of the steps.  He died there at the age of 25 in 1821. In the early 20th century his former residence became the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, a museum devoted to Keats, his friend Percy Busby Shelley, and other romantic poets.  Today it possesses one of the largest collections of manuscripts and letters devoted to English romanticism in the world.  What better location for such an collection than one of the most romantic locations in one of the world's most romantic cities?
Fountain of the Boat
And speaking of romance, no description of the Scala di Spagne can end without including a bit about the Fontana della Barcaccia, the Fountain of the Boat, located right at the foot of steps.  Designed by Pietro Bernini and his illustrious son Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the fountain predates the steps by about 90 years; it was completed in 1627.  The lyrical shape blends in so perfectly, though, it almost seems as if the two were made for one another.  According to legend, the fountain commemorated the story of a boat that was carried up to the piazza when the Tiber River flooded in 1598.  After the waters receded, Romans saw the abandoned boat as a symbol of God's mercy and hope for a better day.  There's also the theory the Berninis chose the sunken boat motif because the low water pressure in the area would not support the more spectacular jets of water that distinguished some of the city's larger fountains.  No matter.  The Fontana della Barcaccia may not be one of Rome's biggest fountains, but it is one of the most beloved.
  Every spring the steps are decorated with pots of flowers to welcome the season.  Needless to say, they are packed with people too. Few historic sites get such rigorous daily use.  The Spanish Steps remind us that we don't always have to look up to see great architecture.  Sometimes it is right beneath our feet. 

You can learn more about the Spanish Steps from Great Buildings on Line or watch a panoramic video at Italy Guides. The Keats-Shelley House has an online tour of the museum as well as some e-cards featuring the house and the Spanish Steps.  If you want to read more about Gian Lorenzo Bernini, this biography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will give you a start.

Photo Credits:
Wiki Media Commons
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
National Library of Art and Archeology, Rome

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum, New York

Top of the Edridge Street Synagogue
From the late 19th through the early 20th century millions of East European Jews immigrated to the United States.  Thousands of them congregated on New York's Lower East Side and among those who congregated on the Lower East Side, hundreds congregated (literally) under the roof of the Edridge Street Synagogue. Completed in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was anything but ordinary frotm its beginning.  With its combination of Romanesque, Gothic, and Moorish elements, the dramatic new building swiftly became a neighborhood treasure and source of pride.
    Oddly enough, the architects, Peter and Francis Herter, were known largely as designers of tenements--the stolid, and even grim, apartment buildings that became the symbol of struggle and poverty to generations of immigrants.  Yet, at Eldridge Street they spared no expense to create a genuine work of art, from the stained glass window facing the street, to the intricate carving on the interior pillars, to the magnificent chandelier. 
   In part, this opulence reflected the prestige of the synagogue's leader, Rabbi Eliahu Borok, otherwise known as Eliahu the Blessed, who had been the Head Rabbi of the entire Jewish community in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was not just a show piece, though.  It functioned as a community and religious center for Jews from all countries and social classes.
     As the children of those people grew up, however, most moved from the Lower East.  After 1920, the population of synagogue gradually declined. By the 1960s, the main building had been closed and only a small congregation still met in the basement.  In 1971, New York University professor Gerald R. Wolfe founded the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in an attempt to restore the building. Progress was slow.  For the next fifteen years it seemed as if little could be done to save this wonderful building.
Interior Detail
Enter Roberta Brandes Gratz, journalist, urban historian, and preservationist  When she visited the synagogue in the late 1980s she saw pigeons roosting in the rafters.  She also saw enormous potential.  As head of the Eldridge Street Project, she marshaled all her fundraising resources. The Project conducted architectural surveys, contracted craftspeople, and launched an outreach campaign. The ultimate goal was two-fold:  To revive the synagogue as a house of worship and to create a museum that would be open to all.  In 1996, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was named a National Historic Landmark. Eleven years later, in December 2007,  the synagogue's 120th anniversary, the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum was opened to the public.
One of the new "jewels" of the restoration was a stained glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith with the assistance of architect Deborah Gans.  It is situated above the sanctuary and opposite the original rose window of 1887.  Today museum receives thousands of visitors every year and the synagogue is actively used by an Orthodox Jewish congregation.  The two functions support and enhance each other.  Once more, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is the center of a thriving community that continues to care for this architectural treasure as it enters its second century as one of the great buildings of New York's Lower East Side.
The Ark


Links: You can discover more about synagogue and museum at their main site.
For information on the history of immigration and the Lower East Side, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a great place to start.  And the New York Times Artsbeat blog has a great video on the Kiki Smith window.

Photo Credits:
The Museum at Eldridge Street.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The original Library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world.  Constructed around 300 B.C.E. under the rule of Ptolemy Sotar, it must have contained hundreds, possibly thousands, of scrolls in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and other languages.  Unfortunately, the Library was burned to the ground during the Roman conquest of Egypt in 48 CE.
  After that, the Library of Alexandria existed only in history and legend for nearly two millennia.  Then, in 1974, a group of scholars at the University of Alexandria approached UNESCO with a proposal to establish a new library and cultural center on the site of the ancient library by Alexandria's Mediterranean shore.  
Bibliotheca Alexandrina from above
  Building the new library took over a quarter of a century. The wait was well worth it.  Designed the Norwegian architectural firm, Snøhetta, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is an awe-inspiring structure.
   The roof, slanted at an angle, appears both ancient and modern. Some people claim resemble a sundial, others say it looks like a  micro-chip. Measuring 160 meters in diameter (525 ft.),  rises 32 meters (104 ft.) at its highest side to accommodate a main reading room 11 stories high. 
Main Reading Room

In addition to housing millions books, visual media, and audio tapes, the library also includes four museums, a conference center with over a thousand seats, 15 academic research centers, and VISTA--the Virtual Immersive Science and Technology Applications system that allows researchers to create "virtual reality" environments.  It even has its own planetarium.
Detail of outer wall
The architectural centerpiece, however, is the outer wall of Aswan granite covered with inscriptions in 120 human languages.
   Three years after its opening, the Bibliotheca received the 2004 Aga Kahn Award for Islamic architecture.  The judges lauded the library as "truly global in its outlook."
 But while the outside world may have loved the library, some Egyptians were not so sure.  Why have such an impressive building in a country where nearly half the population was still illiterate, the asked.  Was the library going to become just another show piece for the dictator Hosni Mubarak and his government?

Protestors join hands to protect the library
     The answer came with the Arab spring of 2011.  That February, millions of Egyptians gathered in public squares and streets to protest Mubarak's rule.  Mubarak dispatched the army to quell the protests.  Violence ensued. Despite the risk to their own lives, many protestors rushed to save Egypt's landmarks from potential destruction.  In Alexandria, they locked arms on the steps of the library and unfurled an Egyptian flag to deter looters.  The Library of Alexandria had proved truly a library for the people at last.
   As of 2012, Egypt is still politically volatile.  The revolution remains a work in progress. Not all the news is good, yet much of it is hopeful.  And the library stands as a beacon of hope amid all the strife and controversy.  A place where all Egyptians can meet, and the world can meet Egypt, too.

You can visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina  online. E-Architect has further details on the building and its history.  If you want more pictures, Egyptian photographer Fady Zaki has some wonderful images of the library's wall of languages  for you to peruse and even use free of charge.

Carston Whimster, Wiki Media Commons
Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

Borobudur, Java

There are few cultures on earth that seem to excite as much wonder in outsiders as that of Java.  The Javanese are renowned for their haunting gamelon music, exquisite dancing, shadow puppets, fabrics, and other delicate crafts.  Monumental architecture, though, does not seem to be on the list of things people praise when they speak of Java.  Perhaps stone seems too heavy, too permanent, for a land we associate with an almost ephemeral beauty. Yet Java is home to one of the world's greatest works of monumental architecture.
Layout of Borobudur
   Called Borobudur, it rises some 115 (35 m) from a gently sloping plain.  The terraced sides recall the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia or similar stepped pyramids built by the Aztecs of Central America.  Viewed from above, however, it becomes clear that the aim of the builders in creating the terraces was not height, but shape.  Borobudur is shaped like a three-dimensional mandala, or lotus, the Buddhist symbol of the universe.
Stupas at the top level
     And indeed, Borobudur tells the story of the universe in a series of 2,672 intricately carved stone panels along the walls of the terraces.  The panels take the visitor on a journey or pilgrimage from the lowest plane of existence, through the transition to the spiritual realm, and finally to transcendence, as represented by the 72 bell-shaped stupas at the top, each of which encloses a statue of the Buddha.
      The 9 levels of Borobudur are like a continuously unfolding book, one that reveals more and more as you study it. 
Detail of
 A vast number of tales, both historical and religious are depicted by these carvings which cover at total surface of approximately 27,000 square feet (2.500 sq. m).
     What do we know of Borobudur's history?  It was probably built between 790 and 860 CE. (Some historians give a much earlier completion date, around 825 CE.)  Archaeologists believe that the stones were put in place first and carved afterwards. According to Javanese tradition the name of the architect is Gunadharma, though little is known about him as an individual.    
    For up to 500 years, Borobudur was an active center of worship. After the 14th century it was gradually abandoned.  Political upheavals, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions all took a toll.  By the 18th century it had been almost completely deserted and covered by jungle growth. It was not entirely forgotten by the local population, but it was little used.
   In 1814,  the Dutch archaeologist H.C Cornelius and Thomas Rafferty, the local British administrator in the area, brought Borobudur to the attention of the western world.  That instigated a long series of attempts to restore the monument.  The need for restoration had become especially acute, as Borobudur was constructed from volcanic rock, which is relatively soft and vulnerable to the jungle climate.  At one point in the 1880's, colonial Dutch officials in Indonesia even suggested that the only way to save Borobudur would be to dismantle it entirely and send the panels to European museums.  Fortunately, it was left intact.
   A complete restoration was finally conducted nearly a century later by UNESCO. Between 1975 and 1982 over 600 people worked to clean the panels, install a drainage system, and shore up the sections of wall that had become weak.  In 1991, UNESCO declared Borobudur a World Heritage site.  Today, it is Indonesia's most popular tourist attraction.  Even more important, it has once again become a center of Buddhist culture. Each year thousands of worshipers gather there to celebrate Vasek, the Buddha's Birthday according to the lunar calendar. 

Statue of the Buddha in one of the Stupas
  Like so much in Java, Borobudur seems to touch everyone who sees it. It is a source of wonder, mystery, and beauty.  Truly one of the great monuments of the world.

The web has a wealth of information on Borobudur and new discoveries about the art and architecture are being made all the time.  UNESCO's World Heritage page is a good place to start.
Australia National University has an extensive research project   and Virtual Masterpieces has an excellent site on the lower so-called "hidden" panels here. 

Photo Credits:
Gunkarta Gunawan Kartapranata, Wikimedia Commons
UNESCO World Heritage