25 Years: Thompson House

A little over twenty years ago we completed the second to last of a number of projects that we worked on as both architect and contractor—the Thompson House.

It was the first project that received national and international press attention; it was also the first of a long line of projects for which we received both the Distinguished Building Award and the Interior Architecture Award from the American Institute of Architects, valuing the building design holistically. Interestingly, it received attention recently when it sold for five times what it originally cost to acquisition the land and build it.

25 Years: Architecture Is a Lot Like Cooking Eggs

My favorite scene in the movie Big Night is the final one. Shot in a single five minute take, it contains almost no dialogue, only the sounds of a kitchen at breakfast. Secondo cooks eggs for his brother Primo and the waiter Cristiano after an almost endless night of preparing and serving one of the most amazing gourmet feasts ever represented in film. The scene is not only a visual record of how to cook eggs, but a testament to getting up in the morning and moving on to the next thing, to doing what you have to do.

Similarly, no matter what happens in a studio of architecture—no matter how many mistakes are made, how many projects are unrealized, or, inversely, how many successes are celebrated—you are right back at it the next morning with a routine of tasks. If you believe in it, there is no escaping it other than to leave it altogether.

When we were in a third floor loft on North May Street twenty-five years ago, there wasn't much there. The neighborhood was dark and empty after 5pm and the views to the skyline down the railroad tracks were expansive and uninterrupted. The wind rattled the single pane windows in winter and the jets from the Chicago Air and Water Show rattled them in the summer, given our location at their turnaround point.

Our desks were 4' by 8' sheets of MDF on metal legs topped with Borco and large parallel rules with Luxo drafting lamps mounted on the sides. Our side tables were hollow core doors on wood horses. Our conference room table was identical to our drafting tables and we had eight old banker's chairs arranged around it. Our office was the epitome of simplicity and frugality.

In 1989, CAD was still relatively new to architecture. Computers were huge (in size, not in speed or memory) and we used word processors. Almost no one used email and the Internet was a vast wasteland of informational opportunity. Cell phones looked and felt like small phone booths, there were no PDAs, digital photography was in its infancy and no one transferred files digitally. Our office technology consisted of a fax machine, a copier and an underutilized phone system; we tended to “drop things off” rather than use a messenger service.

We drafted by hand, used press type and sticky backs for schedules, titles and specifications, and hand-lettered notes on drawings. We used plastic lead on sheets of Mylar and some of us also used technical pens. The sounds of the office were the tearing of tracing paper, triangles and scales clacking against the edge of the rule, lead pointers grinding, electric erasers whirring, drafting brushes sweeping, eraser shields clinking on the desk and, of course, the sound of the parallel rule rolling up and down the sheet. A quiet background of classical music filled the room since there were no personal MP3 players. My favorite sound was that of a technical pen cutting into the Mylar, making an unmistakable etching sound as it crossed the surface—much like the sound of eggs hitting the pan at just the right moment, metaphorically speaking.

While the process within the studio is as vigorous as ever, the tactile sounds of architecture are mostly gone. What can be heard if you do not have earbuds in are the tapping of keyboards, a computer mouse dragging and the sound of printers in the background. Fortunately, there is still the tearing of trace and the sound of felt tips sketching; and the routine of showing up every morning and running through the tasks at hand is still here, as is the belief in doing good work.


25 Years: A Blog Series

2014 marks the 25th year of business for Brininstool + Lynch. Throughout the year we will be blogging about our firm’s experiences, projects, and challenges as a way to reflect on this milestone. Don’t worry – we’ll continue posting our Studio Playlists, Heard in the Elevator quotes, Watch This Film and Read This Book Now recommendations, and other blog subjects alongside this new feature, which will be subtitled 25 Years.


The Ice Storm

2013 came to a close in the city of Toronto with an ice storm and, as luck would have it, I was there. I arrived on Thursday, December 19, in town for a few meetings and an annual holiday party at my cousin’s house. Saturday morning I was booked to fly back to Chicago, but the day began with a series of flight delays that turned into cancellations that continued for the next four days, until I was finally able to board a plane the evening of the 24th.

Having grown up in Wisconsin and lived in Chicago for almost thirty years, I have experienced plenty of ice storms, including one in rural Quebec four years ago over Christmastime where power was lost for five days, and a small wood-burning stove kept everyone warm and melted snow for water. This storm was different.

This is what happens in an ice storm: it is the result of an ice formation process, influenced by general weather patterns. Ice accumulates when super-cooled rain freezes upon contact with surfaces, such as tree branches, that are at or below the freezing point. This generally occurs when a winter warm front passes through an area after the ground-level temperature reaches or falls below freezing. Accumulations of ice can increase the weight of a tree branch by 30 times or more, and branch failure occurs when loading from the weight of ice exceeds wood resistance. Strong winds substantially increase the potential for damage, particularly as the temperature drops.

A light rain began in Toronto late Thursday afternoon; it was not continual, but it didn’t completely stop until the following Tuesday. Temperatures hovered just above 32F during the day and a few degrees below freezing at night. By Sunday at noon, thousands of fallen trees and tens of thousands of broken branches filled the streets and yards of the city after the rain-turned-ice began snapping trees and branches in the early morning with magnificent force and the loud crackling of wood splintering. After an uproarious year of political folly, this storm gave a new meaning to ‘crack’ for Torontonians, but not the kind of international press coverage that was realized by their mayor the previous three months. In this circumstance, the mayor was firm in stating that the ice storm did not constitute an emergency - even though 300,000 people were without power that Sunday, two-thirds of which were not restored until late Tuesday. (And, at this writing, hundreds still remain without power.) Yet with financial losses in the tens of millions, if not the hundreds of millions of dollars, the mayor was, once again, steadfast in refusing help.

Toronto is the sister city of Chicago, both figuratively and literally. Their climates are the same. Their urban population is the same. They both are in the political-economic centers of their countries. They are both situated on beautiful lakefronts. Of course, there are pronounced differences. One has had a prodigious master plan for its lakefront and city center for more than a hundred years; the other still does not. One city identifies with the east coast, dresses in black, and is truly international; the other one dresses in Eddie Bauer and thinks it is (international). One city has a mayor whose appetite for alcohol and drugs is insatiable and who believes he is the boss; the other city’s mayor IS the boss.

The one absolute thing these two cites have in common is the people that inhabit them. They love their city, they know their city, they are self-critical, and they are interesting, intelligent, inquisitive, and warm. Sometimes it takes something like an ice storm to bring clarity to people’s character, and that is what I saw in Toronto. In spite of any faulty leadership, when the lights went out and people moved from their homes to friends, neighbors, relatives and hotels, there was no insurgence of crime, there was no looting, but there was collaboration, or as one dear friend said, the reliance on community. The holiday parties continued on dark streets with glowing fires and candlelight, generators to run the microphones and amplifiers, not the furnaces, and before the city crews could get out to remove the trees blocking the sidewalks and streets, neighbors were there to help each other first, laughing as they did, holding onto each other’s arms on the ice, and calling out to dodge the next falling limb.

One of my favorite things about Toronto is its topography - ravines that create a geographical space unique among large cities, like a web of wooded canals and rivers, where pathways of gravel surrounded by dense foliage replace water. At 2 a.m. a week ago Monday, I left the comfort of indoors and went outside to a disserted neighborhood. I walked along the ravines and through the streets to a symphony of percussion that was created by the movement of tree limbs, and I stared at the glistening of reflected light from the glazed canopy of trees. It was extraordinarily beautiful, but also very dangerous, and slowly the sounds of branches surrendering to the ice gave way to the memory of listening to the piano of Keith Jarrett the night before. Obviously, I was taken by the storm. My delayed return was not disastrous, but a wonderful gift in many ways. From the time the first guests arrived at my cousin’s party, to the sun appearing five days later, I was fortunate to experience the intimacy and warmth that you can only find on the edge of a potential crisis.

As the year comes to a close, the ice storm has reminded me of the fragility of our own conditions, but has also framed the beauty and optimism that exists with them. The residential streets and ravines of Toronto will not look the same in the spring, but trees and plants will grow again with time. It is more difficult to replace people and, fortunately, the ice storm didn’t take them away in Toronto - it just made them better.

In the world of architecture we lost a few people this year who lived very full and long lives, like Ada Louise Huxtable, Henning Larsen, and Paolo Soleri, but unfortunately we also lost some far too early, such as Allen Eskew. Allen was a true gentleman and an architect’s architect, and if there was a storm in your town, he was the person you would want leading your community to better things.

As David Brininstool and I embark on our 25th year together as a firm, we are keenly aware of the fragility of our world, yet we are perhaps more optimistic than ever about doing good work, creating new experiences, and working with wonderful people. 


Independence Day: The First Laptop

In 1776 Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence on a portable lap desk of his own design. Featuring a hinged writing board and a locking drawer for papers, pens and inkwell, the desk was Jefferson's companion as a revolutionary patriot, American diplomat and President of the United States.

Jefferson was an architect, but he could also write:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Home for the Holidays

Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, in what would later become part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 after a winter of starvation and privation. Reportedly, all of the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans shared a feast that happened to include four wild turkeys. Almost one hundred and seventy years later, George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789. It was not until the middle of the civil war that Abraham Lincoln—upon the urging of feminist, editor, and writer, Sarah J. Hale—created the national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November beginning in 1863. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt pushed to make the third Thursday in November the official holiday, but it was in 1941 that Congress passed a joint resolution to make the fourth Thursday in November the law.

Not to be outdone by the Americans, Canadians can trace their first Thanksgiving to Martin Frobisher holding a formal Thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland in 1578 to celebrate surviving his voyage searching for the Northwest Passage. However, it wasn’t until almost four hundred years later in 1957 that Canadian Thanksgiving was officially declared to be the second Monday in October—coincidently, the same year that Fernand Lachance came up with the idea of poutine: "Ca va te faire une maudite poutine."

Many decades before there were parades and football games and, in fact, before there was a Macy’s or a football, there were families traveling home for the holidays. Historically, families lived closer geographically, so perhaps it was an easier trek in distance, if not in convenience of transportation.

On the first official Thanksgiving Day, ninety percent of the United States population were farmers and during the Lincoln administration, fifty-eight percent were. At the end of World War I, twenty-seven percent of Americans were still farming, and the end of World War II, that number had decreased to fifteen percent. Today, farmers represent less than 2.5% of the American population; however, there are more acres under till than ever before producing more agricultural products per acre. What began in this country as a family-based agrarian culture is now predominately a large, industrial complex.

Going to grandmother’s house by sleigh in Louisa May Alcott's time was not just a romantic plot idea for the March family of Little Women fame. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was reality. The March’s were not a farming family but they were one generation removed and lived in a town that was more rural than urban. Other realities in New England at this time also meant close philosophical ties to a community of Transcendentalists, people like Emerson and Thoreau. Mr. March, like the real life Bronson Alcott on whom he is based, was one of these enlightened, forward-thinking people. It was later in the nineteenth century that these transcendentalist ideals strongly influenced designers in the Midwest, such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, the latter also being one generation away from working the farm. In Little Women, the March sisters travel the globe—Jo goes to New York, while her sister Amy embarks on a European tour—but they always come back to the family home where their pride in the democratic ideals of independence and advancement through hard work is obvious.

Over the years, this agrarian heritage also gave families a sense of practical know-how. In learning how to construct and make things, repair and maintain them, they developed an ability to recognize quality, craftsmanship and lasting value, and established a criterion for evaluating aesthetic achievement. The further we get away from knowing how things work, and indeed, working with our hands, it seems the further we remove ourselves from appreciating craftsmanship and thoughtful endeavors in our built environment.

This year, though, I am thankful that someone still knows how to make good bourbon and author a good book.


Architecture Relates to Everything

In 2000, the New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, wrote about the importance of architectural preservation as a means to raise the public perception of “architecture from the economic and political to the cultural plane.” Muschamp proclaimed, “We live in relativistic times. And architecture is a deeply subjective matter. One of its glories is that even stupid people get to have an opinion about it. Nowhere is it written, however, that architecture must appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. Or that there’s no difference between an opinion and an informed opinion, educated and uneducated taste, a prejudice and an idea.” Specifically, he was referring to Docomomo, an organization whose mission is, in the organization’s words, “to document and conserve building sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement.” Muschamp’s words still resonate, as they are as applicable to the preservation of modernist buildings, as they are to the evaluation of architecture in general.

This blog will be used to talk about architecture and how it relates to everything else, and how everything else relates to architecture – at least on a cultural plane. And, of course, attempt to write about why good design is important to us all, and as a firm, how we are trying to be good designers. We hope to surprise occasionally by straying from writing about buildings and structures, but most often we will try and relate our words back to architecture, because in some ways, everyone can relate to it.