Iconic or Not


Octagon Houses And Utopian Dreams

By Kyle Pierson

The winding staircase pictured above suggests it leads to the heavens, but it wasn’t designed to reach the stars; actually, it is a stairway to Utopia. It’s a beautiful example of why I like architecture. Architects have inventive ideas about how to rearrange space. For example, these spiraling treads were conceived by one of the most influential architectural minds of the mid-nineteenth century yet he wasn’t an architect. Orson Squire Fowler, along with his sister,owned a publishing company that distributed his medical research and house designs. Fowler believed Americans were living in unhealthy houses. He dreamed of a DYI carpentry brigade of homebuilders populating the countryside with octagon houses.

He was the celebrity progressive reformer of a different mid-century, the populist era of 1825 – 1849, the age of Manifest Destiny, his vision was all about reaching Utopia by improving health and homes. People were living longer so diseases of old age were becoming more prevalent. Fowler offered a twofold prescription: first understand your own mind through the science of phrenology, and second, to breathe easier, live in an octagonal shaped house. One look at the suburbs proves that circular housing didn’t catch on, but Fowler did have a lasting influence on homebuilding. Phrenology head model

A persuasive speaker, he was a sort of a self-help TV guru preaching the benefits of organic eating and positive energy flow. Privileged people poured their faith in science hoping to discover cures for common ailments.  Even though cutting fat, sugar, and alcohol from their diets is an obvious answer now, nutritional science was new and nobody wanted to blame their health troubles on their favorite foods. So Fowler’s audience was eager to consider misalignments or imbalances within their bodies. In 1835, he was a celebrity physician of phrenology.  Phrenologists measured peoples’ head sizes and the contours of the bumps on their scalps; the size of the bumps determined their innate abilities and dispositions. His followers clamored to hear more.

As a reformer, he applied the principles of phrenology to other lifestyle choices too. He intensively studied architecture and concluded that houses should be round, specifically an octagon, because it was as close to the perfect natural shape as was practical to build. He pointed to eggs, fruit, and seeds as examples. The round shape, he argued, encouraged efficient airflow, and breathing fresh air was the path to health – a logical connection in the age of industrialization.

A group of vegetarians who took healthy living to the next level pledged to eat only specially grown wheat and planned to build a Utopian community in Kansas called Octagon City. The city never grew beyond a few settlers and even those true believers packed up and left within a few months. But it wasn’t because of the house. It was because they couldn’t convince enough recruits to buy into the extreme lifestyle.

Catskill, NY octagon houseFowler was among the first to claim that the right shape of a dwelling would improve health. I toured the house pictured here in Catskill, NY, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s one example of many that were built across the country and still remain standing.Plaque on Historic Place Catskill House

The phrenologist envisioned people building their own houses by following simple instructions. Thus, in 1848, he published a DYI option for the common man:  The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.  The new cheap material was an early form of concrete. Over 1,000 residences were built across the country using his plans.

Eventually phrenology was discredited as scientific racism. But, Fowler’s research helped advance neurology by confirming that specific regions in the brain control body functions. Charlotte, his sister, who ran the family publishing company, became a founding member of the New York Medical College for Women.

As a progressive, Fowler gave Utopian architecture a boost, and he was an early feminist. For instance, he thought corsets constricted blood flow and were unhealthy. He was a Utopian Modernist before visionary architecture was invented.

Plaque on Historic Place Catskill HouseLe Corbusier, who came along 70 years later, believed the beauty of a building was in the shape. Octagons create good thermodynamics, and Fowler’s house plans called for tall windows allowing natural light to flood into otherwise dark spaces, a very modern design concept. The Catskill house includes a cupola on the roof and a balcony on the top floor. But, one big drawback of the house is that placing furniture in the rooms creates design challenges.

Today, if the common man or woman is inclined to build an octagon house, they still can. Fowler’s book is available on Amazon. Check it out: The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, printed in the year 1848.







Students use smart phones to explore poetry in the city

In the heart of Pinellas County, a little oasis of natural Florida is hidden away on the SPC Seminole campus. I teach Composition 1 there and I know this is a popular site for staff and faculty.  It’s a boardwalk park through Florida upland scrub. Here you’ll find tall pines covering an understory of palmetto bushes surrounded by  a lily ponds. This landscape is the heart of the Florida environment and it is threatened by urban sprawl. Many of our students are new to college and new to Florida. So for their environmental sciences writing assignment, I take them to the Natural Habitat Trail on campus. They’re sure to see turtles, birds,  and butterflies. If they’re lucky, they might see the otters playing in the ponds or a hawk sitting on a tree branch. A few hundred yards away a four-lane highway rumbles with traffic. So this is a kind of experiment to prove that  this swampy  Florida environment can still exist within an urban area. I  celebrated the natural/urban juxtaposition with a project I called Poetry Spots, stickers with QR codes that link to a poetry webpage accessed via a smart phone.  The picture below shows three of my students  discovering  poetry  and botanical information as they walked the natural habitat trail.

Poetry on the Trail

Foiled: public art intrigues travelers

Art reflects past to show the future

© Piotr Janowski

In Dec. of 2016, artist Piotr Janowski created a mirage of shimmering awesomeness, a foil clad locomotive. Alas, it has faded into memory, just as this 1950s locomotive has.  But, if you missed it, here’s a chronicle of his massive public art project to commemorate the opening of the Łódź, Fabryczna’s new super modern train station.

Cleaning the locomotive before it is foiled

© Piotr Janowski

In Nov. 2016,  Janowski had visited Fabryczna, in central Poland,  to select  a locomotive to dress in aluminum foil for the commemorative ceremony.

Officials commissioned Janowski to convert a 1953 narrow gage steam engine into a work of public art. When he began the project, he had only seven weeks to complete it.

“I was nervous about this project. I was afraid it was going to look too Disneyish,” said Janowski. “The train is iconic in Łódź; it symbolizes optimism.”  The city is a transportation hub, so Janowski used the  locomotive to connect the history of the past and the future of railway transportation. The opening of the new train station is a key step in reviving the economy in this formerly rich textile-producing city

As the process started, the skeptical municipal workers mumbled under their breath. Finally, curiosity drew them closer to the team of 14 art students swarming over the machine applying a shiny new skin.

students applying foil

© Piotr Janowski

By the third day, the clean faces of her gages poked though their foil collars. Her smokestacks became a three-tiered crown, the beveled numbers on the nameplates popped in relief. Even the wheels sparkled. Cinderella was ready to make her entrance at the royal ball.

“The workers wanted to touch it,” said Janowski. They wanted to have their pictures taken with me standing in front of the train.” One said, “I didn’t know how beautiful the train was until it was covered.” Paradoxically, the cover reveals the obvious.

guys applying foil

© Piotr Janowski

The foil emphasizes shapes and precise angles, says Janowski. He discovered the sculptural fun of working with aluminum foil when he covered his house in foil as part experiment/part ecological statement about solar power. In 2015, he ditched his painting studio and took his art public. The house, named 402 Ashland Ave., created a worldwide buzz. He concealed  the power meter, driveway, and palm trees in the yard of his Tarpon Springs residence.

A few months later, he was invited to cover the palm trees in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The alchemy of the aluminum foil worked magic again for that exhibit, called “Curiosity.”

Back in his native Poland, he proposed an idea to rejuvenate a dead locomotive from several tons of scrap metal into an enormous new Monopoly game piece.

It’s  up to him to envision the potential beauty of machinery. To the person on the street, it’s an absurd idea. The pay-off for the artist is in seeing people smile when they see a familiar object in a completely new way.

Mother and son touch locomotive

© Piotr Janowski

It took more than waving a magic wand to get Cinderella to the ball.  Px 48, the vintage train, now had a new name, Get Off Łódź, Fabryczna.

night shot of locomotive

© Piotr Janowski

The name reminds people that “Get off, Łódź, Fabryczna” as a great place to finish the journey.

Tons of logistics required 

Art students worked in a garage  50 miles away from where Px 48  would make its public debut.

Workers using crane to unload locomotive

© Piotr Janowski

Moving it to the Fabryczna station “was a logistical nightmare.” The star of the show needed an entourage to roll out the red carpet ahead of its arrival. Officials in two cities worked to coordinate building tracks, platforms, and  hiring cranes to lift the train onto the semi for the piggyback ride delivering it to its final destination.

Upon its arrival, workers welded the wheels onto the new rails. Miraculously, Get Off Łódź, Fabryczna arrived right on schedule for the opening ceremony.

“They came — the mayor, the vice mayor, all the city workers and a thousand people from the town. It was significant and powerful.” Says Janowski.

People created their own memories. The art students described the foiling process as  “meditative.” One likened the shiny creation to a “huge crystal” because it changes colors throughout the day.”

Of course, kids loved it.

Father and son in front of train

© Piotr Janowski

“So many kids wanted to go in, touch it.”. Surprisingly, hardly a single little fingernail scratched through the thin foil covering.”

“Public art is for everyone,” he says. “It’s very important for me to involve the urban and the natural environment into my art and to open new perspectives. Life moves too fast. I want to provoke people to stop and think.”



















Zaha, flowers, and sleepwalkers on the High Line 2

I expected to make the 30-foot climb to reach  New York City’s High Line elevated railroad-turned-garden. It wasn’t the altitude that took my breath away; it was encountering the white backside of a sleepwalker.

Stumbling away from me, hands outstretched mummy-like, a nearly naked man appeared to be walking among the crowd. A group of Asian tourists had gathered around, but the man didn’t flinch. As I drew closer,  I smiled with relief at the joke pulled on all of us  unsuspecting participants. The man is a life-like sculpture.

Tony Matelli created the Sleepwalker sculptor. He is known for his lifelike figures.

Tony Matelli created the Sleepwalker sculptor.
He is known for his lifelike sculptures

The Sleepwalker is part of a public art exhibit called Wanderlust by artist Tony Matelli. The figure is one of  several pieces that remind travelers that encounters with nature, art, and architecture are the stuff of everyday life. The  painted bronze sculpture immediately shocked  me  into awareness of my surroundings. For me, it was a perfect introduction to the High Line, a big wake up call to notice the out-of-the-ordinary in the Big Apple.

The sleepwalker sombulates toward  the tranquility of the gardens above a noisy street in the Chelsea District. Even though I know he’s not real, a twinge of empathy bubbles up as I might relate to awakening in public wearing only my skivvies and asking Where am I?  Nearby, tired wayfarers have kicked off their shoes and  splash in the stream of water running over the sidewalk.

We stroll along in a throng of humanity while benches, water features, traffic observation platforms (yes, areas of stadium seating  for contemplating the traffic below), people watching, and flowers beckon.  The 1.5-mile park stretches from the Meat Packing District (Gansevoort St.) to the 34th Street Hudson Yards.

Ironically, I can’t imagine a more hostile landscape for pedestrians than The Hudson Street Yards.  It’s a massive parking lot for trains.  In 1934, the tracks carried an elevated freight train rumbling through buildings shaking windows and doors while transporting dairy products from the docks  into the city. In 2003, skeptical urban planners ventured into this adaptive reuse project  unsure that this was a viable  solution for a decommissioned railroad. Thirteen years later, this implausible idea is one of the trendiest redevelopment sites in the city.  It’s first iteration was also an unlikely success. It’s hard to believe that while standing in the quiet above a busy intersection we are now lifted out of the world of frantic “getting and spending” that William Wordsworth saw as the cost of modernity in his poem The World is Too Much With Us.

The High Line exposes space between the spaces. The park is a path of well-tended gardens  above the streets below. Only the underside of the steel girders are visible from the ground. Two stories above the commercial district, the High Line cuts between  the buildings on either side. The park gentrified the space above one of the least desirable areas in the city.  Wealthy apartment dwellers now  gaze down upon two lower economic stratospheres of the park and the traffic pulsing through intersections below. The park is a Jane Jacobs  sidewalk above a Jane Jacobs neighborhood, layered on a bustling historic city grid. It’s living anthropology.

It’s hard for me to fathom paying between $4 to $50 million to live above the High Line.But that’s what people are paying to buy into starchitect Zaha Hadid designed residences on 520 West 28th, Certainly, if you spend that kind of money, a park should come with the deal. The wealthy are the beneficiaries of a fascinating thing happening all along the Eastern Seaboard. A new generation has moved in and is repurposing dilapidated old architecture and infrastructure and making something trendy and desirable. But who was displaced? Were did they go?

The old spur of the New York Central Railroad metamorphosed  in two phases between 2006 and 2012. In that six-year span, the many gardens along the park have flourished; young trees defy logic and thrive in the planters between the rails of old tracks. Native plant species, some call them weeds, sprout between the concrete and the rusty steel.

Me and my husband and traveling companion, Dave, on the High Line.

Me and my husband and traveling companion, 
Dave, on the High Line.

City dwellers need a respite from the world of “getting and spending”. Color, texture, bees, and gardeners tending the flower beds attract people. So far, commerce is confined to kiosks and venders selling books, T-shirts, and tchotchkes. At the street level, near the Whitney Museum of American Art, a cheerful sandwich shop with orange and blue  umbrellas suggests it would be nice to have a coffee under the shade of rusting girders. The nook is a pop-up restaurant made possible by a visionary who saw a bit of crab grass growing between the cracks in the sidewalk and imagined a full blown park.

Iconic Berlin, MD: colonial history alive in 2017

My brother-in-law is a foodie. It was his idea to check out Una Bella Salute, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop, in Berlin, MD. He was there for the olive oil; I was there for the architecture. When I pulled open the screen door to the shop the door made a  soul-satisfying creak that reminded me of the whine of the rusty spring hinge on the door of the neighborhood deli of my childhood. The other features of the building, the plank flooring, exposed brick, and narrow double hung windows, transported me to the 1700s.

The town grew up around what was part of the Burley land purchase of 1677. The town’s name, Berlin is a result of a misunderstanding of Burley Inn. Travelers asked for directions to the Burley Inn pronouncing the first syllable with a strong accent. The establishment was thus renamed Berlin.This is a great example of how the vernacular shaped the place.

Berlin was a trade outpost for the Assateague Indians and the Pocomoke Tribe. Before the 1800s, the Stevenson family homesteaded here, so the town was first known as Stevenson crossroads. The agricultural history lives on in the acres of corn and soybean farms surrounding Berlin, Rehoboth, Bethany, and Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But more and more, the acres of farm lands are dotted with islands of new developments of pseudo-estates (McMansions) located just a couple of miles from the beach.

We were in Berlin for the olive oil trade. The olive oil shop is nestled into Broad Street and Gay Street. Oregano, basil and fruit scent the air filling the shop with a comforting smell of an Italian kitchen. The aroma encourages browsing a little longer. The polished stainless steel casks that line the shelves of the tasting room contain flavored balsamic vinegar on the left wall and infused olive oil on the right wall. The convenient single-ounce plastic sampling cups invite taste testing. I spied the chocolate flavored vinegar, and decided to be adventurous. My taste buds detected an initially tangy flavor, but the reward of sweet won me over and I bought a bottle. My brother-in-law bought $100 worth of balsamic vinegar and infused oil. While owner Deborah Nicolle wrapped our purchase, I asked how long had the building been there. She guessed it dated back to around 1850 and then added that she knew the space had previous incarnations as a massage parlor, a cigar shop, a spa, a restaurant, and the town jail.

Budget Travel voted Berlin the “Coolest Small Town in America” in 2014. The criteria for cool didn’t include history cool, but it should have. It could be a destination for history buffs who want to explore all 47 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Runaway Bride (1999) and Tuck Everlasting (2004) were filmed in this iconic town.  If your aren’t interested in the history, well,  at least you could get some tasty olive oil and vinegar. For me the reward was when Deborah Nicolle told me that Una Bella Salute was once a jail house.

Exposing the Invisible Women of Architecture

Women architects have been sidelined from history  for too long.  Take Ida Annah Ryan, for instance. Does this name ring a bell?

I didn’t think it would.

She was the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first American school to offer a degree in architecture.  She was designing model cities in college (1904), and she worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park Studio after graduation (1907). She and another of Wright’s female architects, Isabel Roberts, established a successful  practice in Orlando, FL in the 1920s. She is just one of 100 women who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright .

Remembering women in architecture

On May 3, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, Florida  (SAF) hosted the film A Girl is a Fellow Here: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. The film, produced by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, (BFW.org) resurrects the memory of forgotten women architects.  After the film, three contemporary Sarasota-based women architects discussed the state of women in the profession.

“A Girl Is A Fellow Here”: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright from Beverly Willis on Vimeo.


The executive director of the Sarasota Museum of Art, Anne-Marie Russell, moderated the panel discussion following the screening. Joyce Owens AIA RIBA, Tatiana White AIA, Selma Göker Wilson RIBA, say their male cohorts on the job often respected them once the women won the men’s trust. But, without much prompting, each woman could recall a story when she had endured overt sexism.

In the AIA Gulf Coast Chapter, only 12 percent of the membership is women. It’s a demanding profession. Those that stay in it accept that architecture is a way of life, and women need a supportive spouse if the couple plan to have children, says Joyce Owens.

Visionary architect Zaha Hadid was one of very few women commissioned to design famous public buildings. Why is that so? Is there sexism in design? How does one explain that there are very few women who are leaders in the field. Consider that designers influence culture. The question should be asked often because the architects are dramatically reshaping our built environment and we should know who they are.

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