25 Years: Carus Residence

One hundred miles southwest of Chicago, the Carus Residence honors, in its formal and material expression, the agricultural buildings typical of the Midwest. We sited the 6,900 square foot house, located in Peru, Illinois, at the front of the property so that its long, horizontally oriented facade - a response to the region’s flat prairie landscape - would act as a privacy screen for the living spaces, pool and yard. The L-shaped plan opens toward the side and back of the plot, creating a sequestered enclave, and a screened porch provides additional private outdoor space.

Sign of the Times

I first read about the controversy of the sign to be placed on the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago back in February in Crain’s Chicago Business and didn’t think too much about it, other than how absolutely crazy the big tower sign issue was becoming. The seriousness of this issue didn’t occur to me until four days later when Joe Cahill, also of Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote an opinion piece in favor of the sign and defending Donald Trump. My first reaction to his commentary was to remember the words of the late New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. 

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.

What particularly struck me about Mr. Cahill’s opinion piece is that he quoted marketing professor Tim Calkins of Northwestern University saying, “He really has built a brand that means something. It stands for quality and elegance and luxury.” OMG! He really said that? Dean Blount should have taken a line from Donald Trump and told Professor Calkins, “You’re fired.” 

Mr. Cahill himself went even further, “Nobody knows more about branding than Donald Trump. He has turned his name into one of the most recognized brands in the world, reaching far beyond traditional real estate development.” Of course, it wouldn’t take much research to discover that isn’t true. The Donald has made his money in real estate, pure and simple, regardless of his forays into entertainment and non-real estate businesses. Even as a real estate developer, he has made some serious business errors to the detriment of others (while not being personally affected) and has a meager track record compared to other New York real estate developers. And by no means is he the wealthiest of them, not to mention he didn’t even come close to making the cut in Crain’s New York Business’ “Most Connected New Yorkers.”

I realize that Mr. Cahill might consider purchasing a tie with a Trump label attached to it—perhaps he is wearing one now—but for the rest of the world this is not a popular luxury item nor a coveted one. Perhaps he was seduced by Professor Calkins pronouncement that by Donald Trump “putting his name on these really spectacular buildings like the Chicago tower and similar high-rises in other cities…a consumer who is impressed to see Trump on an opulent skyscraper is more likely to try a cologne with the same name.” Mmmm, I guess next time I’m at Walgreen’s I’ll have to look for Waste Management’s new line of men’s deodorant, or BP’s skin care products. It’s unfortunate, if not embarrassing to his institution that someone like Professor Calkins cannot distinguish between good and bad branding, or even correctly define it in regard to its specific place in the market, but I guess now we know where the real estate people get these crazy ideas. Maybe the professor should look to someone immensely more successful in both business and in building a luxury brand than the Donald, such as Giorgio Armani who famously said, “Elegance is not about being noticed, it’s about being remembered.”

Which brings me to the point of why I am writing this. Why is everyone so upset about this sign in Chicago? Why should Chicagoans care? Well, because it is Chicago, and like few other cities in the world, architecture is Chicago’s brand. Chicago is one of the few cities in the world where you can stop someone in the general populace and more than likely they can point to a significant building and identify it by name. Not because there is a huge sign on the building, but because architecture is part of the public realm, it’s important to the city, and Chicagoans are proud of the fact they know something about it. And it is not only Chicagoans who appreciate the city’s architectural legacy, but also half a million people annually who take organized architectural tours while visiting, spearheaded by groups like the Chicago Architecture Foundation—the largest organization of its kind in the world. 

I understand why Kohl’s, Mariano’s, Burger King, Office Depot, Mr. Beef and thousands of other businesses need signs on their buildings. They are companies that would never consider architecture or, specifically, the good design of a building as part of their business strategy or success—quite the opposite—and they require something to mark their spot, like a dog and a fence. Nevertheless, for scores of high-rise buildings in Chicago, it is architecture that speaks to the public about the businesses that occupy them, and there is a tangible benefit and prestige for those that do. Where architects have been involved in the planning of a building’s signage, rather than a real estate broker, there seems to be a noticeable difference in quality and affect. A few dissimilar examples come to mind and in different cities: the Apple Stores designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, take your pick of which location but I prefer the Lincoln Park Store; the Inland Steel Building in Chicago (my favorite) designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; The New York Times Building by Renzo Piano; and in Washington, D.C., where the architect Cass Gilbert not only designed the placement of the signage for the Supreme Court Building, he penned the now famous lexicon that is inscribed in the entablature above the front entry, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ 

When it was originally announced that Donald Trump was going to build a tower on the Chicago River, there was a shared gasp and a sense of angst that built up among Chicago architecture enthusiasts, but when it was completed, there was a collective sigh of relief from the same group. It was, in the end, an elegant tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and it fit well on the river. In fact, in spite of its little flaws, it became a new Chicago architectural icon and part of its brand. We have Mayor Daley and Adrian Smith to thank for that, more than the building’s developer. And for plastering a bad hairpiece on the side of the building and deteriorating the city’s brand, we have none other than Donald Trump to thank for that.

BL

25 Years: Yamamoto Residence

Fifteen years ago we were asked to design a house in the suburbs of Indianapolis for Tom and Nancy Yamamoto after they had seen the Thompson House in a publication. They invited us to help choose the location and site in a planned development. Although surrounded by Neo-traditional houses on half-acre lots, the house adapts into a sloping site, which articulates views to a preserved area of woods and water. The plan and volumetric organization of the house was developed around a niche to display a pair of seventeenth-century six-panel Japanese screens.

The sequence of entry is defined by a series of horizontal elements including the garage, site wall and entrance canopy, which serves to both privatize and delineate the approach to the house. Setting the main living area of the house away from the street insulates the home from an area of typical suburban development, while reducing the impact of the design on that context. The intent is calm juxtaposition—not a radical statement.

The uniqueness of the design in suburban Indianapolis garnered Brininstool + Lynch a shelf full of awards, including two from the American Institute of Architects, and a host of publications, including a feature article in the second issue of Dwell magazine.

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.

BL

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. 

BL

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.

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