Iconic or Not


Author: Kyle (page 1 of 11)

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.







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.

Portlandia, the icon that isn’t

Portland Building image taken by MaccoinnichIn 2014, Michael Graves’ postmodernist Portland building almost became another casualty in the trend to renew downtown.

What would Wall Street be without its massive charging bull?

Probably just another New York City street among the concrete canyon of gray skyscrapers.

Michael Graves’s postmodernist Portland building stands out as a strong recognizable symbol in that city because it has cool colors and an iconic statue guards the west entrance.

So why would the city want to tear down the Portland Building, their defining image?

To fix shoddy construction, says the city.

The wrong-headed idea was short-lived. The city of Portland dropped the plan when Graves stepped in to defend the building.

Still, architectural historians were shocked by the proposal and  Architect’s Newspaper| blog  and ArchDaily both covered the story.

The building and the  38-foot-hammered copper sculpture hovering over the west entrance, Portlandiaare the symbols of postmodernism. Raymond Kaskey, created the statue, and I’ll get to how he fits into the story in a moment.

Demolishing the building could have been a double tragedy.  If  people recognize the building, they probably aren’t as familiar with the statue that holds a trident over the west entrance. She was commissioned by the city of Portland as a work of Public Art. Her image would be a logical choice for police cars and the city seal, but it’s not used for either of those purposes, although a female figure is on the city seal.

Who owns Public Art?

The story of why we see so little of Portlandia brings up an interesting debate about who owns public art. Sculptor Raymond Kaskey owns all rights to the image of the statue he created and he  guards the use of her iconic likeness as fiercely as she guards the building.  He has sued  several people for using pictures and drawings of his Portlandia. Tourists won’t find many postcards with her image. So, I provided a link to the image rather than posting it here. John Locanthi, in his story, So Sue Us, explains why Portlandia hasn’t become an icon for Portland. He examines the unintended consequences  that result when artists hold complete control over the use of images they created for a  public space.

Even the  IFC cable sitcom Portlandia starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein does not feature the image prominently —  Kaskey gave permission for the statue to appear only briefly in the opening.

What would Portlandia be without her building? 

Who destroys the city’s iconic image?

So, the city has an icon it wants to destroy? In 2014, the city wanted to demolish the building that is  the first major structure designed by a member of the postmodernist school, Michael Graves, and it is as significant as “Bauhaus was to Modernism, ” says architectural critic Charles Jencks.  In 2011, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Those two pedigrees should be enough to protect its place within the city fabric, right?

No. The city of Portland debated  demolishing it just 14 months ago.

Modernist buildings are getting the foundations knocked out from under them all over the country. It looks like postmodernism is under attack too. Postmodernists intentionally used a mash-up of old and new styles, adding bold ornaments such as the figure Portlandia, and bright paint colors, on the government building.

Decades later, the bold colors of postmodernism have faded and some of those buildings are targets for destruction. The complaints have a familiar ring: the interior of the building is dark, leaky, and claustrophobic, say city workers.

After Michael Graves traveled to Portland to express his outrage at the idea of tearing down the building,  the city council was convinced to renovate it instead.

It looks like Portlandia has won the battle to save her building.  But if you want to use an image of her defensive stance,  you better get permission from the artist before you use a picture.



Getting lost in the Barbican, or creative strolling

Stairs inside the Barbican; searching for the theatre.

Photo by Katherine Pierson, Inside the Barbican sent to me via text message.


Recently my daughter was in London, so I asked her to go to an architectural landmark and take a selfie. I suggested the Gerkin.  As it happened she went to a play at the brutalist  Barbican.  She forgot to take the selfie, instead she called to complain that she was lost in the  huge building while searching for the theatre. She walked up one flight of stairs and down another and wandered around but still couldn’t find the the theatre. In fact, she missed the play she went there to see.

My research on architecture  taught me that one hallmark of iconic buildings  is that it reorganizes space.


Photo by Katherine Pierson, Inside the Barbican sent to me via text message.

Architects are sort of like traffic cops, directing where people walk by design. They create drama by planning narrow corridors that open into cavernous spaces. Just by virtue of connecting one area, say a lobby, with another, say a theatre, the walker’s path has been predetermined.   My daughter was annoyed by the confusing Barbican.   Jonathan C. Molloy would probably support the random organization of space because it  often fosters creativity.  He found that uncomfortable spaces such as sharp corners,  dead ends, and moveable walls sparked interaction.  I can’t help but picture a maze with rats running around and bumping into each other. Hello mate. Haven’t I seen you here before? Spontaneous conversations happen and before you know it, ideas are flying.

Meandering is what  I.M. Pei  had in mind when he built the Residences (1967) on the campus of New College in Sarasota, FL to encourage community among students.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 7.25.53 PM

The concept is that of a Mediterranean village, with hidden courtyards and entryways that were intended to protect the student body from too many outside distractions. — Harold Bubil, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

It was brilliant. Think about it. The population in a college dorm rotates constantly. Residents come and go every 3 to 4 months. Getting lost is a common experience and it immediately generated sympathy and identification when an anxious first year was forced to ask directions from a seasoned senior.  Almost 50 years later, The daughter of a friend who attended New College in Sarasota, FL and lived in the Residences confirmed that it still works today (even though she could probably use a way finding app.)

She described her experience traveling labyrinth-like turns in  the hallways. My friend’s daughter said she met the student who became her closest college friend. By design, the students exchanged ideas, passions, and probably phone numbers. So, the design of the dorm was uncomfortable at first, a little like listening to someone else’s unfamiliar  ideas.

Update:  my daughter returned to the Barbican four more times to see four wonderful plays. With each visit, she navigated her way through the building confidently. Alas, she still rates the building a failure. She considers herself pretty good with directions, but  ultimately the lack of signs in the Barbican caused her to feel anxious.

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