Iconic or Not


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Finding my way home: Buffalo


I was thrilled to see this post from The architectural writer Alexandra Lange who visited Buffalo, NY. this summer.

Lange’s article gave architectural tourists like me  a good reason to rediscover my home town. The city has more than Chicken Wings going for it. It’s one of the country’s most architecturally and culturally  historic places.

As a native Buffalonian and garden lover, I was surprised to learn that Fredrick Law Olmstead designed the city park system. I already knew that Louis Sullivan designed the Guaranty Building and that the monumental City Hall was designed by John Wade in what he dubbed the Americanesque Art Deco style (1932). The city’s booming growth came to a grinding halt just 30 years later.  In the 1960s, the city became crusted over with the orange patina of rust when  middle class workers, such as  my parents, realized that steel production and other industrial jobs were disappearing fast. Their story is a familiar one. Typically, those with white collar jobs moved to the suburbs.  For instance, when my siblings and I reached school age, our parents moved us to the suburb of Amherst.  In 1969,  they  joined the great migration of educated workers who gladly moved to Florida, happy to leave the economic has-beens — the industrial cities of the Great Lakes region.  Little did I know that 40 years later, I’d return to rediscover it’s rich architectural  history.


Calatrava’s bridge for Florida, Poly Tech


These feather-like arbors surround the building

Two years ago Santiago Calatrava’s white feather-shaped arches stopped traffic on  I-4, just outside of Tampa, FL– even if it was just for a nanosecond.

Drivers may have assumed a new kind of fast food restaurant would appear on the roadside.  But, no. The arches were’t that kind of arches. They were the first sign of the newest Florida institute of higher learning –Florida Polytechnic.

Last week I had a chance to tour the fledging campus. My student tour guide Juan Rodriguez did exactly what Santiago Calatrava hoped an 18-year-old would do upon seeing the building – he took a detour off I-4 and onto the Research Way exit to look at Florida’s newest university. With that detour, Rodriguez changed the direction of his life.  On some level, the architecture gets the credit (or blame) for causing him to change the trajectory of his life path.


Student Juan Rodriguez talks to a group from the University of Chicago Alumni Association about the technology experiments in progress in one of the five labs located in the center of the building.Rodriguez plans to study artificial intelligence (AI), and he’s a model student the university hopes to attract. His talent and interest in a science,technology, engineering, math ( STEM) career made good economic sense. Rodriguez decided to join the first class of Florida Poly Tech students when the university offered a  full scholarship. Score one more student for the year-old Poly Tech; that brings the student population to 922. Florida has 137 institutions of higher learning, so Rodriguez had many colleges to choose from. A new university geared to STEM careers had better have futuristic architecture to grab the attention of a college student such as Rodriguez.

Rodriguez The recent high school grad already had been offered athletic scholarships to other Florida colleges.  But these students are the “pioneers” of a new digital age and they won’t be tied to a classroom or an inflexible schedule anymore. The building is designed to accommodate the leaders of tomorrow. But, the Saturday I was there, not a soul was in sight. Our guides informed us that innovators generally don’t get out of bed before noon. The classrooms are equipped with cameras so the inventors can stay in their PJs and  attend class remotely. They’re lab rats and they come alive at night. They hang out cyber gaming, in the Media Lab, or in the Visualization and Technology Collaboration (VTC) Lab

The flagship, the Innovation, Science, and Technology building is the only one on campus right now. Natural light fills the halls and when the Florida light is searing, rooftop louvers open or close to  control heat and light . Window walls provide light and double as white boards. The whole building is a lab. For example, the students are currently working on a project to take the building off the power grid.


Lindsay Dibble and Miguel Loy show these popular library chairs/ hammocks. The chairs  are designed to sink into them; the elastic fabric bounces like a trampoline, so that the seated person springs forward making it  easy stand up.

The real-world project represents a philosophy to solve problems by looking at the familiar through a future lens. It could be a simple thing such as rethinking a chair. University President Randy K. Avent saw an unusual one while visiting Google’s headquarters.  He was impressed  by a gravity-defying hammock that forces students to rethink the concept of a seat supported by four legs. The hammock chair is so comfortable, once you try it, you’ll want one for your home. The importance of seating is carried into the classroom. A limited number of comfortable armchairs are placed in the front row of a lecture hall as an incentive to get the students to come to class early and keep them there.

Lakeland now has two iconic colleges and they span 75 years of architectural styles. In 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright designed Florida Southern, while Florida Polytechnic opened last year (2014). The Florida Southern campus is truly iconic; the Polytechnic campus is calling itself iconic even though it is only a year old. Calatrava’s Innovation, Science, and Technology building may be well on the way to iconic. But, I think it’ll take another 50 years or so to know for sure.


Inside Russel Wright’s Manitoga

In my previous post, I focused on the grounds surrounding  Manitoga, Russel Wright’s garden. In this post, I’m taking you inside his house.

tablesetRussel Wright (1904-1976) believed so strongly that Americans should find their own cultural identity through architecture that he built an experimental house. He chose a cliff overlooking a granite quarry (later turned into a man-made lake). He saw no reason why Americans should copy European architecture; instead, he challenged us to  find our own style.  In 1942, Wright  purchased 75 acres situated between the Hudson River and the Appalachian Trail  in the town of Garrison, and he began building  Manitoga,  The name pays homage  to the native Algonquin people and the word translates loosely as “a place of great spirit.” His American home is hidden among the ferns and moss-covered rocks. One sort of stumbles upon it.  Continue reading

Russel Wright’s Manitoga Garden

ManitogaplaqueScientists say the sense of smell has the strongest power to bring back memories. That was true for me from the minute I stepped off the plane in Albany, New York. The air in the airport carried the scent of a familiar place. I can’t describe the aroma except to say I detected the trace of grassy hills nearby. That’s the kind of magic landscape can work on a person. Industrial designer Russel Wright surely felt that pull when he built Manitoga on 75 acres in nearby Garrison, NY.

Settlers had originally deemed the steep hillside unsuitable for farming so they harvested the trees for firewood and mined the abundant granite on the property. Thus, industrial hooks and cables were left as artifacts from the mining days. Wright took advantage of the leftovers by positioning granite boulders as sculptures in the garden and leaving the hooks where they had been abandoned.

Docents, like my friend Debbie Klein, try to correct the common misconception that Wright built his house without altering the landscape. That isn’t the case. He designed the site to flow into garden rooms. He followed the contours of the land as a palette and he enhanced what he liked. He added a lake, and he noted what type of native plants clung to the hillsides. He watched as dogs, deer, and rabbits tunneled through the grass making trails. He followed the wisdom of the animals when deciding where to locate the paths leading to his garden rooms.

Professionally, Deb is a curator of visual resources for Bard College; in her free time, she’s been a docent and/or volunteered for several historic houses around Hudson including Manitoga. She loves Russel Wright’s Manitoga and is helping to preserve this early example of a Modernist’s love affair with the land. Recently, Manitoga has been rediscovered as an under appreciated gem, as is evident in this Dwell article published August 2015.



Sliding glass doors made the outdoor room possible

Sliding glass doors

This picture of a screened back porch says, “Lazy summer afternoon.” Lucky me! It’s the view from my office chair.

Admit it. When you look at the picture to the left, don’t you see yourself with a tall glass of  sweet tea? Maybe you prefer to sip a mint julep as you slowly swing on the wicker bench? After 30 years of being frozen out of trendy architecture, Modernism is coming back.  The Southern charm ingrained in the picture on the left is built into my mid-Century ranch style house via the sliding glass door. I  snapped this picture while sitting in my desk chair.  In a way, I have Paul Rudolph to thank for this relaxing vista. Paul Rudolph and the Sarasota School Modernists  added sliding glass doors to Florida houses in the early 1950s. See-through doors connected the people inside the house to their surrounding environment. This inside/outside look is the central theme in Modernism and it is the key to making a Florida home feel like a Florida home. A half century later, I’m living it and loving my house built in 1969. The latest episode on the podcast North Carolina Modernist Radio discussed the group who brought you the sliding glass door — the Sarasota Modern School. You can learn more about  (SMF) and how they  took advantage of and  protected residential housing in harsh Tropical weather on  NC Modernist Radio, episode #9. So, is it any surprise that Modernism’s new found popularity coincides with the  desire to incorporate environmentally sustainable design and construction?

Architecture, alchemy, iron, and fairies?

eiffel-towerDo you ever feel like technology is magic?

When you experience an unexplainable computer glitch (often just as you’re about to hit send), do you wonder if gremlins are behind the scene giggling while they watch you struggle to find a missing document or get rid of something that appeared out of no where? I do. So I decided to ask writer Kathy Bryson, a fan of fairy mythology, if she knows of any sprites from underworld who like to disrupt technology.  Here’s her guest post on the magic behind the Eiffel Tower, iron, and fairies.  I hope you enjoy this post. Thanks Kathy! Continue reading

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