José Miguel de Prada Poole and the
Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles

Aerial view, Instant City, Ibiza, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Essay by Antonio Cobo.

The Spanish version of this text was originally published as part of the catalog of the exhibition Prada Poole: The Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles, curated by Antonio Cobo and coproduced by the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC) and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC). Essay translated by Iker Gil and copyedited by Lance Patrick Sy.


In 1974, the literary magazine El Urogallo dedicated its first issue of the year to a collective reflection on “The Contemporary Human Dwelling.” Under that ambiguous framework emerged about twenty contributions with very diverse considerations. In “The City and the Conception of the World,” Enrique Tierno Galván defends the need to develop the city as utopia, understood as a rational solution. Alain Arias-Misson, in “The Public Poem,” describes the city as a focus of signifiers turned into a “language machine” that would serve to construct its concrete poetry. This diversity mirrored the complexity and multiplicity of ideas that the political, cultural, and global context favored in defining concepts related to architecture and the city.

Among the most thought-provoking contributions to this issue was “The Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles,” by José Miguel de Prada Poole. [1] In the essay, the architect promotes an architecture in which its material would reflect the temporal nature of its own existence. Therefore, in a significant nuance, he avoids, as early as in the title, the term ephemeral—commonly used in architecture to define a short-term construction—and uses instead the word perishable: the ephemeral is short-lived; the perishable lasts as long as the material that defines it.

The text by Prada Poole sets forth the reasons that he believed the urban configuration to be too rigid in the traditional city. For him, the economic and social structures in an urban context make the city “last too long.” For that reason, the city is incapable of adapting to new and ever-changing demands. By this premise, which takes into account the factors that shape the city and its architecture, Prada Poole conceives the city of the future through what he calls “the three stages of a nonexistent architecture.” In this conception, the traditional city would, in successive transformations, morph into an immaterial city, without inertia, in which the solid buildings would be replaced by the accumulation of foam that would “appear and disappear, converge and disperse according to the different needs.” Each building would become a “bubble” defined according to the physical and atmospheric conditions best suited to its intended use. The city, as it was known, would be replaced with an “intangible reality permeated by stimulatory waves.” That city, vanishing and shapeless, might seem a chimera, but it is ultimately a clear declaration of principles.

Maybe we shouldn’t interpret the essay by Prada Poole as a naïve description of architecture but rather as a poetic manifesto of his own work projected into the future, which is the standpoint from which we consider it today. Not coincidentally, the text was written while he was developing one of his most unique projects: the ice-skating rink in Seville. According to his own words, architecture must be the “adaptation of the natural order to the human order in some cases and, in others, the adaptation of the human order to the natural order,” and to achieve that delicate balance it “must meet, in both cases, the same goal: life.” [2] With its organic shape that is the result of the construction system used—pneumatic structures akin to soap bubbles—alongside the functional scheme of its plan, the ice-skating rink was considered the first vitally satisfactory “sensorially sensitive architecture.” Immersed in American counterculture, nomadism, and body art, Prada Poole in this moment understood architecture as a wellspring of stimulus, built of a technology rooted in lightness, capable of altering both psychological and environmental conditions. In his city of soap bubbles, “information would travel through information channels accessible to every citizen, creating a tight network more important than the networks of transportation.” Those channels—which today exist and are known as the internet—would allow “the networks of information, accessible to all, to facilitate the construction of a global city and society.” Perhaps that magic city, built of stimulus, information, and pure energy, has more in common with the global city of the twenty-first century than we might imagine, and the propositions put forth by Prada Poole then, as like a visionary, form in part the reality in which we live today.


Technological Optimism

As technical advancements played an increasingly larger role in everyday life, optimism for technology, too, advanced within the new consumer society. The moon landing on July 20, 1969, could be considered the highlight of this technological apogee: one giant step for mankind saw its hopes for a better world renewed, thanks, paradoxically, to that old, nostalgic feeling of conquering new territories. The event took place in a present with grand visions for the future—a future that was the obsession of at least some part of society and more than a few of its architects as well.

Within this atmosphere of technological optimism, the Calculus Center of the University of Madrid (CCUM) was born at the beginning of 1966. The CCUM was the result of an agreement between the university and the US company International Business Machines (IBM), which donated, among other equipment, an IBM 7090 computer. This powerful machine, which years earlier was used for the calculations that allowed the arrival of the Saturn rocket to the moon, was one of the first to include transistors, which multiplied sixfold the computational speed of its predecessor. The conditions stipulated by IBM for installing the computer at the university was that it would not be used solely for technical or administrative tasks; it had to be put at the service of faculty and students as a tool for research. To encourage this goal, IBM allocated a budget each year to provide scholarships to explore new possibilities for academic research that could be advanced by the use of the computer.

Proposals by the artists José Luis Alexanco and Manuel Barbadillo to initiate computer-aided research spurred the creation of the Seminar on the Automatic Generation of Plastic Shapes (SGAFP) at the end of 1968. [3] At that time, seminars on “Composition of Architectural Spaces” and “Linguistics” were already on their way at the CCUM, and their initial success explains in large part the support that was extended the new seminar.

The SGAFP officially opened with a meeting on December 18, 1968. Among a considerable group of artists and architects, the meeting was attended by Prada Poole and his then-wife, artist Soledad Sevilla. The meeting minutes reflect the initial intent of the seminar to explore the “application of computers to sculptural composition and perception,” for which “the generalization of the models of a generative grammar for the description of the formal structure of a painting” was deemed possible; it considered particularly useful the initial study of the work of Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Kazimir Malévich.

Antecedent to producing a “generative aesthetic” was the establishment of an “analytical aesthetic,” based on known works of art, that would seek to reveal aesthetic structures such that they could be described in mathematical terms. Prada Poole, already involved in the study of applications related to art, tried to translate and quantify specific aesthetic values with the help of computer processes. The outcome of his research was the software program Estetómetro (1971), which he used to try to measure those values, with the goal of achieving a “quality index.” With Estetómetro he was trying to put this goal ahead of the direct translation into a language or the elaboration of a new grammar applied to the generation of new works of art. In this sense, an important aspect of his research was the marked interest in the physical and perceptive values that define a beautiful and balanced work of art and, thus, allow the objectivization, through an aesthetic reality, of certain indices or elements traditionally considered subjective in art history. The goal of Prada Poole, then, was to reveal the specific elements of an aesthetic, at once empirical and numerical.


Estetómetro, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


In the project for Estetómetro, Prada Poole identified three aspects that needed to be considered when tackling an analytical experience in a work of art: the conceptual field, the perceptive field, and the physical field. The conceptual field—relating to culture, sociology, or politics—needed to be approached through the preparation of surveys, the taking of samples, and direct observation. Regarding the perceptive field, Prada Poole demonstrated a strong interest in systems of perception—of a physiological and psychophysics basis—that affect our appreciation of a work of art. Yet, without question, his greatest interest lay in the description, in mathematical terms, of the aesthetic elements that were going to be needed in future investigations. This led him to focus his research on the third aspect: the physical field.

For his tests, Prada Poole chose the work of Piet Mondrian. The characteristics of Mondrian’s paintings correlated directly with the type of analysis proposed, such that any results were as evident as possible. With the development of Estetómetro, Prada Poole proposed the application of linguistics and psychology through a transposition of the semantics and the syntax of those sciences for art. But the most novel and remarkable aspect of his research was his methodology of previous analysis using the computer: a lineal method, with evolutionary ability and, thus, the ability for adaptation and improvement of its functions—a quality fundamental to understanding his analysis and proposals for “pneumatic structures of variable response” or what today we might call “smart structures.”


Architecture and the Computer

With the principles of the Modern Movement in crisis, Prada Poole developed his first architectural projects within a very polarized context. On the one hand, there were architects who believed that change was necessary but were unable to dissociate themselves totally from the past. They chose postmodernism, which, although it left the past behind, didn’t totally reject it but used it as a reference or point of departure. On the other hand, there were other architects who opted to abandon the past and fully trust in technology, convinced that this was the definitive solution to the question of architecture’s role in society. Prada Poole found himself among the latter group, which was in the minority against the former.

With the CCUM experience, Prada Poole had already understood the role that computation ought to have had in the field of architecture. It wouldn’t be a mere tool or aid in design, an approach that was most common among architects who were originally interested in computers. From Prada Poole’s point of view, computation needed to be integrated into the building, becoming a part of it, as like another architectural element; computation needed to serve towards the generation of a “computationalized architecture”—that is to say, an architecture that was not merely designed with the aid of the computer but that constituted a computer in itself. It was a type of architecture that necessitated fluid communication between the building-computer and the field of its insertion, each relating with the other in an active way as part of a continuous exchange of information.

Some of the academic projects of Prada Poole of that period already demonstrated a prior interest in material structures in architecture. That is evident in the project of a Gas Station (1962)—where he explores light structures applying models by Robert Le Ricolais—or the design of a Folding Structure Pavilion (1963)—where, for the first time, he considers the possibility of using a double-layer pneumatic envelope to achieve the best thermal insulation with the lightest weight possible. His concern can be summarized very clearly in the drawing of the structure of a single-celled alga (the diatom Navicula), dated 1964, where he wrote: “a structure is only useful if it affords maximum performance with minimum material (or energy).”

His fascination with the organization of material structures alternated with other types of structures—in this case, organizational and informational—tested in his projects for universities. For the competition to design the new campus for the University of Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares (1969), he proposed a new model of distributing the different departments, in the form of a network. Through basic relationships, the project emphasized the way of organizing the spaces and the information of the different knowledge areas that come together in the education of students. The project cast the building as a vast knowledge repository, contained in a structure that allowed the synthesis of as much data as possible: a building-computer? The result is a campus without departments, organized around cross-curricular topics, through which each student could flow as desired, gaining a knowledge founded on the transmission and exchange of information.


University of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, 1969. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


University of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, 1969. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


University of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, 1969. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


In 1968, coinciding with his early research at the CCUM and under the influence of cybernetics, he began his first projects in “pneumatic structures of variable response.”

Cybernetic science is based on the premise that both humans and machines are part of a system of control and response—that is, a system of messages. Aware of the work of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, Prada Poole accepted the paradigm shift that turned communication into the essential tool for understanding society. To illustrate this principle and its operation, Wiener had compared society with the new model of the universe proposed by physicist Josiah W. Gibbs. According to that model, the universe would be defined by a series of systems that are organized, closed, and tending to chaos. Gibbs called that tendency “entropy” and proposed a new scientific method for its analysis: thermodynamics. In a manner analogous to the principle of constant increase of entropy, in society, information would start from a regulated system that, moving through different entities, would progressively degrade in terms of what remained that made sense.

With his structures, Prada Poole laid out the possibility of establishing a new system of active communication between the medium and the building through the building’s structure (understood here as an open system), enabling it to adapt to the various structural forces extraneous to the system. In this case, the structure would be similar to a contingent but organized system that, with a reactive response, tries to counteract its own entropy or structural failure. The different forms of communication would be tools that would help the organization of the structure, turning it into a kind of “anti-entropic” entity, where the exchange of information would in fact allow equilibrium: “just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, information is a measure of organization.” [4] By contrast, traditional structures are fixed; they respond to passive structural models that do not take into account their own degradation. Their behavior as it relates to the world beyond does not depend on the complexities of that world. These structures thus operate like a clock or any other preprogrammed complex mechanism, which make no considerations of their surroundings: deaf, dumb, and blind automatons, incapable of altering their activities with the changes in their environments.

In this light, the proposal by Prada Poole regarding traditional structures can be understood as the difference between behavior that was preestablished and one that was contingent. While traditional structures are severely limited—calculated for the maximum load that the structure might withstand in its lifetime and oblivious to the factor of time—smart structures can take infinite variations within a preestablished range. For its operation, Prada Poole proposed a series of sensory elements or receptors connected to a computer that was able to receive inputs—the changing conditions of the environs—emanating from the outside world. In this way, one achieves a structure not only designed for a hypothetical maximum load but also adaptable to a variety of forces. This signaled the transition from a fixed and invariable structure, inevitably overdesigned, towards a reactive structure, with a capacity for adaptability.

The way in which these new types of structures adapt to their environments is the result of a complex process. This type of response takes place when the data received (input) requires a large number of operations in order to obtain effective results with exterior effect (output). In this case, that effect is caused by the behavior of the structure against the external factors that affect it, both past and present, which in turn allows the evolution of the responses with the passing of time. Prada Poole defined this evolution “structural learning,” and it was what made it intelligent. Its behavior is determined by the combination of two types of information: on the one hand, the information received by the sensory elements and, on the other hand, the information stored in the memory. The combination of both factors—data and memory—allow a responsive reaction, in a learning and evolutionary process similar to an organic structure.

Prada Poole found in nature the models that allowed him to understand these principles. In technology, especially in electronics and computation, he found a way to translate those principles into a “living architecture” using pneumatic structures. [5] His interest in form and in using the least amount of material and energy possible link his ideas to those set forth by the projects of Buckminster Fuller. The Fullerian concept that perhaps most clearly describes the principles that most interested Prada Poole was that of “ephemeralization.” [6] This concept can be defined as the evolutionary progression that allows a system to achieve better results with fewer resources. From a theoretical point of view, the aim is to do everything with nothing, hence its name.


Expoplástica Pavilion, 1969. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


The evolution of the natural system rewards those that use the least amounts of resources and energy to satisfy their needs. From the point of view of artificial systems, technology is the tool to achieve that goal. Various principles put forth by Prada Poole follow from this tenet and aimed at achieving the optimum result with the minimum use of energy. This technologically driven process is directly linked to the better use of natural resources, and, in this respect, form plays a fundamental role. It is not coincidental, then, that the formal scheme chosen by Prada Poole for the design and construction of the Expoplástica Pavilion (1969) was Fuller’s dome. Nonetheless, the choice of a spherical geometry was based on a formal approach more strictly than a structural (and, thereby, Fullerian) one. Whereas in the Fullerian geodesic domes, the loads are supported by the bars, in the structure proposed by Prada Poole, those loads are supported by the membranes spanning the voids between the bars. Regardless, the subdivision into pentagons and hexagons would prove useful in achieving a precise formal definition of the individual elements comprising the sphere, one whose individual elements would then be assembled with the use of zippers, the end result being that it could also be completely disassembled.


Expoplástica Pavilion, 1969. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


An aspect in architecture that is traditionally variable and controlled is climate: exchange between the building’s sensors and the environment provides the required comfort for its users. However, the challenge proposed by Prada Poole was to consider what is conventionally the most stable element of the building—the structure—as the variable solution. Once active and reactive communication between the building and the environment had been addressed, his next step was to apply that technology to foster communication between the building and the user as well as between different buildings. That was the ambition for the Casa Gusano (Worm House) or Casa Jonás project (1970): a floating movable structure where the exchange of information between the user and the house allowed the latter to change its position depending on the unique characteristics of each occupant. With this project, Prada Poole anticipated, forty years ago, a model for a smart city where new exchanges of information would have a direct impact on the relationship between urban dwellers and urbanism, proposing a socially networked architecture.


A New Idea of Community

The second half of the 1960s saw the birth in the western world—primarily France and the United States—of numerous underground movements highly critical of traditional life. What they had in common was their inspiration in the so-called “irrational philosophies.” Urbanist and writer Luis Racionero, guru of some of the underground movements that timidly emerged in Spain during that time, considered those philosophies not as irrational but as different from rationalism and, as such, equally structured, consistent, and effective.

In a world that was increasingly more technical, replete with machines capable of automating large swaths of industry as well as domestic tasks, there was a surge in the creation of leisure spaces where existential and philosophical questions began to surface. There was a need to organize extraordinary events and new forms of freedom that became the basis of a revolutionary period. In this “new era,” for some people, the shorter the duration of architecture, the greater was its value. What this group of people began to prize was the architecture of the event, of a celebration and a party, where the specific qualities of location and weather conditions defined the project: a device of permanent change, where the architect was but one of the actors that determined its configuration.


Aerial view, Instant City, Ibiza, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


“The people, the youth of the New Culture will meet in Ibiza to be together, to listen to music, to dance, and to build the space in which we will live for a few days. We ask designers from the world over to help us create the instant city that our minds will shape over those several days. In an event centered around environmental design, behavior and form can come together over a week of design, construction, music, mime, fair, festival, and improvisation.” [7]

Luis Racionero was the author of the manifest that gave name to the Instant City in Ibiza, which helped the self-determined ad hoc committee launch an international call to students who wanted to attend the VII Congress of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) that was going to take place in Ibiza in 1971. Due to the unexpected success of the call, the organizers, led by architecture students Fernando Bendito and Carlos Ferrater, asked José Miguel de Prada Poole for the design of a plan to help build a city in which participants could stay. Asked in an interview about how he would define the project, Prada Poole answered that it would be “a City of Freedom not anarchic, because the greatest freedom is always found within a superior order. Not the unique order that is typically found in the city, but an order.” [8] That is, a flexible order that allowed the greatest number of possibilities within a range previously established and, thus, avoiding as many frictions as possible: freedom born out of a new rule.


Plan, Instant City, Ibiza, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Prada Poole designed the project based on a simple formal structure comprised of a series of cellular units able to develop a system of aggregation, seemingly without limit, that could be configured to varying scales in accordance with the needs of the moment. During the construction and aggregation of the units, there emerged an interesting dialectic between order and disorder that would allow the inhabitants of the city to adapt the overall scheme to the variable needs and circumstances of the project. The result was a city that was the product of a collective creation, emerging from individual needs, and, at the same time, conforming to a general scheme that allowed organic growth in a continuous evolution.


Diagram, Instant City, Ibiza, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


The Instant City project appeared in many international underground magazines but also in mainstream publications such as Architectural Design. In its December 1971 issue, the British title dedicated several pages to the project, along with other proposals by Superstudio and Peter Cook. It emphasized the self-built and self-sufficient architecture that aimed to shape a social structure, where individual freedom was able to “act against the most basic ideas of the Instant City, if desired.” [9] The project aligned itself with other proposals that were the legacy of the May of ’68 protests, as well as experiences like the Woodstock or Isle of Wight music festivals, where the individual could not be separated from the collective.

The irrational philosophies that activated the underground movements tried to endow society with an ostensible purpose. The values they promoted subordinated technological means to human ambitions. These values were, perhaps, closer to the technology and order defined under the City of Freedom proposal by Prada Poole, which favored new uses of the mind, different from those traditionally advocated by the rationalists.

A large number of the inhabitants of Instant City, who came from different parts of the world, favored or were part of the hippie movement. The success in participation and the desire to test new types of living by means of this experience cannot be understood without the emergence of some of the fundamental values of this movement, born in the US in the mid-1960s. The hippie movement had inherited from the Beat Generation a taste for the nomadic life, inspired by the renowned 1957 novel On The Road by Jack Kerouac—a life that rejected the growing consumerist lifestyle in favor of other ways of engaging with nature, anticipating new environmental values. The best demonstration of this attitude was the pneumatic cell built by several Canadian students, which incorporated an existing tree in its interior, an image that would become one of the icons of the project.


Interior, Instant City, Ibiza, 1971. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Instant City was a purely experimental project, as it was not strictly addressing real needs. It was a perishable architecture, unprecedented until then in the Spanish architectural field. It was a pivotal moment of change as much for the use of pneumatic structures and flexible materials as for the activities, relationship to place, self-construction, and, in general, for its approach to the process as a collective creation that reflected and extended the experience of the city itself.

In art as well, the spectator stopped taking a passive role and came to embody an active part of the artistic act. This trend was evident in the Encuentros de Arte de Pamplona (Pamplona Encounters) that took place between June 26 and July 3, 1972. The art festival, modeled after Documenta in Kassel, took over the city with art projects, concerts, performances, and installations of all kinds, done by over 350 national and international artists. [10] The Huarte family, who sponsored this initiative, asked painter José Luis Alexanco and musician Luis de Pablo to take charge of the organization of the event. Both artists asked Prada Poole, with whom they had coincided during the research about art and computation in the seminars at the CCUM, to design a large pneumatic structure for the Pamplona Encounters.


Aerial view, Pamplona Encounters, Pamplona, 1972. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


After a failed proposal—the first project was designed to be installed at the Plaza del Castillo—the final project involved building eleven large domes, of twenty-five meters in diameter and twelve meters in height, and two proposed but unbuilt “tunnel-routes to nowhere.” [11] In total, the project covered 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet) in the area around the Citadel.

The colors chosen for the PVC membranes (white, yellow, and red) filtered the light and spread it across the space, creating an undefined interior atmosphere. On top of the optical effects created, there were slight variations in pressure and temperature, as well as the presence of perfume used to conceal the smell of plastic. “I know of little or no architecture that takes as its emphases the aspects of sound, tactility, and olfaction. Those are words that are never included in the repertoire of professional architects.” [12] That is what Prada Poole said about the ingredients of an architecture that explicitly addresses “sensorially sensitive” experiences. The domes turned out to be an evocative space, built solely of air and plastic. Nobody remained indifferent, as demonstrated by the description of the space by the artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina: “The space possessed something magical, so immense, with light coming through the domes to create an orange effect and the steady sound of the fans.” [13] It was a heightened experience, in line with some of the artistic interventions that took place during the Pamplona Encounters.


Interior, Pamplona Encounters, Pamplona, 1972. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Several setbacks during its construction forced the opening to be delayed until June 29, 1972, three days after the original date. The next day, hundreds of people got together in the interior in the afternoon. The gathering, which had not been authorized, had to be dispersed when a heated debate around political repression started. It is important to note that the Pamplona Encounters took place during a time of strong social and political tension: the terrorist group ETA had detonated two explosive devices on June 26 and 28 in Pamplona and distributed pamphlets against the event across the city.

Maybe the short duration of the “Pneumatic Mosque,” the nickname that some locals used for the project, made it a truly ephemeral event: a collective party that identified itself with the celebration of place, in the form of a proposal that rejected the idea of a specific architecture for an extraordinary event. In the Pamplona Encounters, Prada Poole succeeded in exploring the possibilities of architecture in the artistic field, where the role of the architect was increasingly ambiguous as the work took over the landscape and acquired greater technological complexity. Like the large pneumatic monolith by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for Documenta in 1968, the domes posed the question outlined by Jasia Reichardt in the issue of Architectural Design dedicated to pneumatic structures: “Where does the art stop and the engineering and aerostatics begin?” [14]


Form and Universe

Within the same timeframe, some Spanish artists started to shift away from the conventional puritanism of geometric abstraction, moving into more kinetic definitions of the works of art, as in op art. In that sense, art also introduced the element of time as an artistic concept using, as in architecture, series and variation, attempting to focus the debate on the relationship between art and reality.

One of those artists was Soledad Sevilla. Prada Poole and Sevilla got married in 1967, and it can be assumed that their personal experience, plus the strong interest in geometric art during the second half of the 1960s, had an effect on the work of both. During the first years of her artistic career, her works were influenced by normative art, a Spanish movement that proposed art that was serial, had chromatic purity, and was atonal; one of its main characteristics was the rejection of subjectivity.

In the preceding years, between 1964 and 1967, Prada Poole had developed most of his doctoral thesis at the School of Architecture in Madrid. The research project, supervised by the architect Alejandro de la Sota and disguised under the title “Urbanism and Prefabrication: Analysis of the Industrialization of Housing,” analyzed the need for a structural and dimensional coordination of space. It, in itself, constitutes a complex geometric analysis aimed at the objective definition of morphological relationships in architecture. This work, applied to architecture, connected him directly to the work developed by Sevilla and the rest of the artists of Spanish geometric abstraction. This fragment from the introduction to his thesis illustrates this point:

“There is no unit that does not have an order that is specific to it, just as there is no predetermined order without a unit that is determined by the type of order. Unit and order, form and organization, are aspects of the same thing. […] It is clear that, in a pragmatic way, this means that, to prefabricate, there must previously be either a precise model of a repetitive form, or a formal model that can be deconstructed into common elements (a system). In any case, it seems evident that we need to know what we are going to prefabricate. Sketch out the shapes to try to determine the maximum number of shared dividers and define the solution. Know from the beginning the catalog to establish later the grammar—if possible, a generative grammar.”

This generative grammar of division and organization outlined by Prada Poole could be used to define some of the works that Soledad Sevilla did during the following years and that defined the rest of her career. Before coming into contact with the “geometrics” of Madrid, Sevilla met José María Yturralde and Jordi Teixidor, both members of the Catalan group Antes del Arte, a pioneer group of machine art and technological art. From that moment on, Sevilla abandoned her normative art and aligned herself with geometric art via optical, perceptive, and structural proposals.


Edificio Picos, Leon, 1967. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Drawing, Edificio Picos, Leon, 1967. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Prada Poole also implemented some of those principles in one of his early works, built in Leon in 1967. He called the project, a housing complex, Edificio Picos (Peaks Building). In the design of its façade one can notice, as if it was a large painting, his interest in modulation based on geometric grids. It is a game of volumes that co-opts the perambulation of the pedestrian to produce a certain kineticism, underscored by the variegated shadows cast by it over the course of the day. The project was published three years later in a special issue of the French magazine L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui dedicated to Spanish architecture from the schools of architecture in Madrid and Barcelona. The text that accompanies the publication, written by Prada Poole, highlights the experimental character of the proposal. In the text, he self-criticizes the archaic, albeit obligatory, construction system and praises the scientific aspects that can be appreciated with the play of light and shadows. It is precisely this quality that relates this project with the work that Soledad Sevilla and other Spanish geometric artists started to produce during that time.

Prada Poole continued to think about form beyond architecture, understanding it as a question of general knowledge. In one of his most unique theoretical studies, done in 1981, during his time as a guest researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he sought to determine if it would be possible to assign a form to the universe. He imagined a flat and graphic universe, finite but unlimited. He created several conceptual and geometric analogies, starting from the mutual agreement about its large-scale isotropy and homogeneity. This universe, translated visually, would look the same in any direction an observer might cast their gaze. Translated mathematically and geometrically, it would imply a mathematic continuum and perfect symmetry.

Prada Poole approached the problem in a systematic and ordered way and explored the model of a Euclidean universe, taking into consideration that the world of matter, contrary to the mathematical one, is discontinuous. Starting from that model, he generated a series of images about how someone would perceive the universe, in ideal conditions, if it was as homogeneous and isotropic as possible. In those images, Prada Poole assumes that there exists not one single image, no matter the model that is chosen, as the image would depend on the direction of the symmetry of its axis or if it is random.


Form and Universe, 1981. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Morphology has been an important aspect in the work of Prada Poole, especially from a relational point of view. Many of his works can be understood as grouped forms that establish a structure of relationships between them to complement the initial formal structure. The grids of his projects, even when they don’t allow spatial divisions—the domes for the Pamplona Encounters are a good example—are the basis for understanding the connections that can be found between them. From the point of view of the construction of his architecture, the projects by Prada Poole have been coherent with the formal analysis outlined in his doctoral thesis, where he proposed the study of industrialization, finding its origin to be located most profoundly in form. Through that, he explored the principles of solids and voids, as well as the notions of order, connection, and relationship, from their most abstract notions. Ultimately, it is the establishment of grammar that makes everything possible.


The Energy Crisis

Issue 563 of the Italian magazine Domus, published in October 1976, carried on its cover a photograph of a strange grouping of shiny white domes reflecting the last rays of the light of day. Neither its shape and placement nor the landscape of olive trees and grains that surrounded them offered any clues about their function. Something similar must have happened to many people, because, during its construction in the periphery of Seville, a rumor spread about the construction of a sophisticated and secret installation to support the US Army, already present in the nearby base of Morón de la Frontera. On the pages within, the magazine cleared up any doubts about the building: a harmless ice-skating rink designed by José Miguel de Prada Poole— indeed, a strange structure, able to generate great conjecture but whose interpretation and analysis posed a significant challenge. Other publications such as the French magazine Techniques & Architecture and the US magazine Fortune were interested in the project and dedicated several spreads to it, replete with photographs where, in a thoroughly succinct way, they mentioned, beyond the sports and entertainment program, the constructive system and the deployment of a pneumatic structure. [15] [16]


Domus, Issue 563, 1976. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Prada Poole received the commission for the ice-skating rink in 1973, a time in which social, economic, and manufacturing structures, increasingly interconnected and interdependent upon each other, had an Achilles’ heel: the sources of energy. This reality was made clear that year, when the embargo from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) provoked the spike in petroleum prices that gave rise to the first energy crisis of our history. The dependency of society on economic structures and on petroleum necessitated hitherto a renovation in the relationship between humans and architecture and between architecture and nature.

The projects by Prada Poole understood much earlier the role of architecture in mediating this relationship. His proposals were not objects in a field but devices that interacted both with their users as well as the environment that surrounded them in a continuous exchange of energy. The ice-skating rink, commercially known as Hielotrón (Icetron), is the best example of this dialog. The name itself is confusing, as it connotes of machine or device more so than a building. Hielotrón was indeed a perfect cold machine installed in one of the most extreme climates in Spain. It was an inhabitable device that had to maintain a huge thermal differential (up to 30ºC / 86ºF). It was subject not only to variations in outside temperatures but also to fluctuations on the interior resulting from the varying flows of the public. The project was successful in its aims, achieving the lowest energy consumption of any ice-skating rink at that point.


Aerial view, Hielotrón, Seville, 1975. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Architecture de l’air, the 1961 project by Yves Klein in collaboration with the architects Werner Ruhnau and Claude Parent, had certain similarities with the project in Seville. Similar to the ideal architecture proposed by the French artist, the mechanical systems that control the climate of the Prada Poole project are buried underground. [17] These two different realities serve in mutual complementarity to generate a single architecture: the material beneath the ground and the immaterial above. The function of the latter is to maintain, as in the roofs of air of the project by Klein, the necessary temperature and humidity conditions by means of an impossibly thin membrane, while the ground beneath hosts the requisite mechanical systems that make those precise conditions possible.


Plan, Hielotrón, Seville, 1975. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


The end of the era of cheap oil also required a rethinking of some of the most fundamental aspects of architecture as they related to energy. Among those who grasped the importance of energy was the Italian group Superstudio, who, instead of proposing a nonexistent architecture, imagined an architecture coursed through with conduits for energy. The ducts, hidden under a Supersurface, facilitated life in a controlled environment that would give rise to a habitat without obstacles. In a similar way, in the ice-skating rink, the mechanical systems were coursed through hollow concrete rings that circumscribed the edge of the domes, at once serving as a structure for anchoring the membranes as well. By means of those rings, the conditioned air circulated the perimeters of the domes and flowed into the rinks through a series of ducts. The result was a pool of cold air, denser, that settled on top of the ice rink, while the height of the domes, equivalent to a five-story building, kept the warm air, less dense, high up enough above to create a perfect thermal gradient. In this way it was possible, even in the warmer months of the year, for users to skate in short sleeves over a perfect ice, kept up with a minimum usage of energy.


Interior, Hielotrón, Seville, 1975. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Prada Poole did not pursue an immaterial architecture, built only of pure energy, as Klein had dreamt. However, he did take into account numerous aspects related to the immaterial condition. The building had a white translucent membrane that was designed as a very large screen on which to project images. On the interior he envisioned hundreds of speakers and misting stations for essences that, when in operation, would have created a new equivalent space: a virtual atmosphere of material-immaterial elements—images, sounds, and smells—where users could experience places they had never experienced before.

The short life of the Hielotrón—it barely lasted three years—did not frustrate Prada Poole, who acknowledged this fact as being part and parcel of his conception of that evanescent soapsud that gives rise to the perishable architecture of soap bubbles. Nevertheless, this brief interlude saw Prada Poole awarded the National Prize for Architecture in 1975, the biggest and essentially only Spanish recognition befitting the work of an architect as uniquely singular as his architecture.

Prada Poole’s erstwhile mentor and thesis supervisor, Alejandro de la Sota, wondered once if meteorologists would become the architects of the future. [18] Prada Poole worked as such, even claiming that “microclimate control” would be a new science capable of combining engineering, architecture, and urban planning. During his time at MIT, between 1981 and 1983, this stance started his initial investigations around tensile structures aided by computer models. Using those light structures, he envisioned large venues climate-controlled through an architecture that was better adapted to the climate conditions of its environment.


Techo Plegable al Aire Libre, Killian Court, MIT, 1981. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


The project for the Techo Plegable al Aire Libre (Open-Air Folding Roof) in the Killian Court at MIT (1981) allowed him to approach a new line of experimentation with tensile structures that would lead to the construction of the Palenque for the Expo ’92 in Seville. The original idea for the building was to use transparent membranes to create a large artificial cloud supported on a network of poles towering some thirty meters (ninety-eight feet) above the ground. The cloud would be able to control the light that would blend with the misting water above the roof. Prada Poole sought to create an air of unreality: an ethereal experience that—in conjunction with the landscaping, another key aspect of the project—could amplify the experience of a traditional plaza, turning it into a plaza-park-building.


Model, Palenque, Seville, 1992. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Model, Palenque, Seville, 1992. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Aerial view, Palenque, Seville, 1992. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Interior, Palenque, Seville, 1992. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


In some of his subsequent works, architecture ceases to serve as shelter for humankind against (or within) nature. This is the case of the floating city of Sea Colony (1986) and La Casa del Paraiso (Paradise House) (1991), where architecture engulfs the landscape, becoming an artificial nature that serves both to defend and regenerate the landscape. On its interior, human beings coexist with animals and plants in a closed and transparent ecosystem: the interchange between interior and exterior would be perfectly controlled by means of computers. Architecture thus becomes a regulatory system, where the cycles of ventilation, relative humidity, and temperature are modulated to achieve climates privileged to foster life.


Aerial view, Sea Colony, 1986. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Axonometric view, Sea Colony, 1986. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Plan, La Casa del Paraiso, 1991. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


Section, La Casa del Paraiso, 1991. © José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


From his earliest work, Prada Poole has approached architecture as a probabilistic, predictive exercise in the face of an increasingly unstable, unpredictable reality. Alternative visions of the future have been a constant in his projects, on occasion extending into “architectural fiction” in which the project dabbles speculatively, albeit rationally, on scientific, technical, and social advances anticipated of the future.

On one occasion, he mentioned that his interest in anticipating the future can be traced to his childhood, when he started to read science fiction novels. [19] These stories, published since 1953 in the form of bolsilibros (pocket books), were part of the Future, science-fiction novels collection that were the first collection dedicated to that genre in Spain.


Future, science-fiction novels, cover of the second issue of the collection, 1953.
© José Miguel de Prada Poole. Courtesy of the author.


The second issue of the collection, titled “Prisión Sideral” (Astral Prison) and published by the under the pen name of J. Hill, had actually been written by José Mallorquí, a screenwriter and author best known for his series El Coyote. On its cover there were three characters, protected by space suits, walking away from a strange construction. The extraordinary resemblance between the building from the cover and the Hielotrón domes helps us understand the close relationship between those science-fiction stories and the captivating visions given expression in Prada Poole’s work on the “Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles,” a work in which science and fiction come together to refute the maxim “Ars longa, vita brevis . . .” (Art is long, and life short . . .), which alludes to the fact that the a priori conditions will always already have changed by the time the construction of the building reaches its completion.

The well-worn adage by Hippocrates continues: “. . . occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”; to wit: “. . . opportunity fleeting, experimentation perilous, judgment difficult.” It is necessary to examine other approaches, some of them implicit in the projects by José Miguel de Prada Poole, where the proposition, resolution, and dissolution of architecture come together in a fleeting moment: a lethal triple somersault that the current perspective allows us to revisit, with fresh eyes, unencumbered by the uncharitable reception Prada Poole’s ideas have received.



1. José Miguel de Prada Poole, “La arquitectura perecedera de las pompas de jabón”, in El Urogallo, nº 25, January-February 1974, 72-78.

2. A. F. de la Reguera, “Hielotrón de Sevilla. Premio Nacional de Arquitectura”, in Jano Arquitectura, nº 36, April 1976, 23-32.

3. See: Various Authors, Del cálculo numérico a la creatividad abierta. El Centro de Cálculo de la Universidad de Madrid (1965-1982), catalog of the exhibition. Complutense University of Madrid, Humanities Area, Madrid, 2012.

4. Norbert Wiener, “The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society”, in Garden City, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 21.

5. José Miguel de Prada Poole, “La arquitectura viviente,” in Nueva Forma, nº 63, April 1971, 7-9.

6. R. Buckminster Fuller, “Nine Chains to the Moon,” Anchor Books, 1938, 1973, 252-259.

7. Luis Racionero and the ad hoc committee for the Instant City. Manifest published as part of the invitation for the Instant City in Ibiza and distributed internationally.

8. José Miguel de Prada Poole, “La ciudad instantánea, la ciudad cambiante,” Arquitectura, monthly publication from the COAM, nº 157, January 1972, 23-36.

9. Toal O’Muiré, “Instant City, Ibiza,” Architectural Design, nº 12, December 1971, 762-767.

10. Documenta is one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. It has taken place in Kassel (Germany) every five years since 1955. Among its main features is the occupation of public spaces around the city during the one-hundred days that each edition of the event lasts.

11. José Miguel de Prada Poole, Notations from the second version of the project for the domes for the Art Encounters in Pamplona. Unpublished text from the Prada Poole Archive, Madrid, May de 1972.

12. José Miguel de Prada Poole, “Cuando el cocinero es el arquitecto o la arquitectura de las judías con chorizo,” ON Diseño, nº 9, 1980, 40.

13. Statement gathered by Pepa Bueno, “Esto se hincha”, in “Encuentros de Pamplona 1972: fin de fiesta del arte experimental,” catalog of the exhibition. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2009.

14. Jasia Reichard, “When is art, art?,” Architectural Design, nº 6, June 1968.

15. “Piste de patinage à Séville”, in Techniques & Architecture, nº 304, May-June 1975, p. 45.

16. Robert Phillips, “A new air age in construction”, in Fortune, October 1977, 228-235. Fortune is an established magazine dedicated to the financial sector. It is not an architectural magazine and that is where the interest resides. In its article, it looks strictly at the functional and economic qualities of the pneumatic structures.

17. In the project Architecture de l’air, Yves Klein imagined a world in which traditional architecture disappeared to be replaced by areas of privileged climate and where the condition of the “New Eden” would be controlled by an immaterial envelope of air.

18. “… ¿serán los meteorólogos los nuevos arquitectos?” (Alejando de la Sota about R. Buckminster Fuller), “La arquitectura como arte y necesidad”. In: Moisés Puente, Alejandro de la Sota: escritos, conversaciones, conferencias, (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2002), 166-169.

19. Conversation between the author of this essay and José Miguel de Prada Poole.


Antonio Cobo is professor at the Department of Science, Materials, and Technology of Design at the School of Design of Madrid (ESDMadrid). He completed his studies at the University of Rome (Sapienza) and the School of Architecture of Madrid (UPM) where he obtained a Master in Advanced Architectural Design and is currently developing his PhD dissertation “J.M. de Prada Poole: The perishable architecture of soap bubbles.” Pneumatic Serendipity is a pedagogical project that is part of his doctoral research proposed as a tool based on the design of prototypes with pneumatic structures. As part of this initiative, he has taught and lectured at the Schools of Architecture of Madrid (UPM), Alicante (UA), Ambato (UTA), Birmingham (BCU), and Aarhus (AAA) among others. As an artist, he has developed several projects upon the concept of space and atmosphere, with air, light, and smells as fundamental immaterials of their work.

Groundscraper City
Touring the Subterranean Structures of Minneapolis-St. Paul

Williamson Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2019. © David Schalliol


Essay by Andy Sturdevant excerpted from the forthcoming book Midwest Architecture Journeys (Belt Publishing) edited by Zach Mortice. Photographs by David Schalliol commissioned for MAS Context.


On a typically chilly Upper Midwestern afternoon on April 5, 1980, after a day of seminars and presentations, a group of about twenty architects, engineers, geologists, urban planners, and policy experts, all clad in winter jackets, piled into a charter bus outside the old Leamington Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. They were headed out on a two-part tour of four notable underground structures in the Twin Cities, all of them constructed within the past five years.

Early April is still winter in Minnesota. The bus was unheated, but the interiors of the four buildings were considerably more comfortable. As the deeper earth surrounding them maintained a subterranean temperature of 50 degrees year round, each structure required only minimal heating to reach room temperature. “Energy savings of up to 75% are possible in underground space,” the conference literature cheerfully reminded the attendees.

These four buildings represented a new wave of progressive architecture making its home in the region. The Upper Midwest was a perfect test site—both geologically and politically—for trying out big ideas about how underground architecture could reflect a new type of environmentally conscious post-oil society. The state legislature, under the guidance of a bipartisan commission on natural resources, had kicked off a boom in underground structure construction in the state with a number of funding recommendations for study of the topic, and later, a handful of building projects. This included a dedicated Underground Space Center at the University of Minnesota, who were co-sponsoring the event. The attendees were there to see what these structures looked like up close, to poke and pry and ask questions.

Most on the bus were already involved with the underground space movement, but in-person visits were an important tool for introducing underground buildings into the mainstream of American architecture. The director of the Underground Space Center, Ray Sterling, wrote that year that “such firsthand inspections often serve as a major turning point in people’s perceptions and assessments of earth sheltered housing.” The hope is that the conference-goers would return home and take with them the lessons that Minnesota engineers, architects and planners had learned the hard way. If it could work in Minneapolis, maybe, it could work anywhere.


If you’re a person who finds yourself interested in utopian architectural plans of the Whole Earth Catalog era, there are vast sections of the design-focused internet devoted to intriguing scrapped ideas, gauzy proof-of-concept illustrations, and faded snapshots of lone geodesic domes out in the high desert. Unlike so many of those plans, however, progressive architectural and engineering ideas originating in Minnesota in the 1970s and ’80s exist outside gouache painting renderings and out in the world, on a fairly large scale. These underground buildings still exist. Together, they represent an ecological and architectural legacy that is, by design, hidden from view.

For the most part, it’s possible to recreate the 1980 tour of earth-sheltered structures in the Twin Cities almost four decades later. At least six noteworthy earth-sheltered structures from this era remain in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and their immediate first-ring suburbs; of the three that don’t, two were demolished in the 2010s, and one collapsed in the 1980s.

Retracing this tour today provides some insights into how an earlier generation, galvanized by the energy crises of the 1970s and a distant but quickly approaching sense of ecological disaster, hoped to address energy and environmental issues that have still not been resolved in the four decades since. “During the late twentieth century it became evident that human activity has the capacity to alter the natural history of the world, destabilizing the global climate and poisoning the natural environment,” wrote Minnesota architect David J. Bennett in those years. “Some new directions have to be tried.” In the 1970s and ’80s in Minnesota, that direction was down.


Williamson Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2019. © David Schalliol


Williamson Hall, on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota, is the first stop. When it opened in 1977, the awards had been piling on for a few years: before it even opened, the design won a special commendation from Progressive Architecture in New York. It later received special commendations from regional landscape architecture organizations.

The building was constructed as a facility for the office of admissions and records, the campus bookstore, and the Minnesota Book Center. It’s a diagonal, angular structure, bold in appearance but also quite reticent, peeking up through the ground in parts, but ceding the spotlight to the old stone piles that surround it.

The bookstore is now gone and with it, public access to the open, light-filled atrium that was meant to provide social space for thousands of students. The building today still houses the office of admissions, along with the offices for the physics and astronomy department. The underground configuration solved a number of problems for the university in the mid-1970s. For one, it preserved the sightlines in an important stretch of the campus’ most historic section, creating thousands of square feet of usable space without cluttering up an already crowded part of campus.

More importantly, though, it served as a showcase for how the university could rise to meet the challenges of the era, and conserve energy at a time when fossil fuel seemed to be running out. Not only was it earth-sheltered for maximum energy efficiency, but with support from the Department of Energy, it was arrayed with a system of solar collectors not dissimilar from those President Carter had installed on the roof of the White House. Those would, unfortunately, be made obsolete as photovoltaic technology improved over the next few years. By the mid-1980s, oil prices had dropped again, and most Americans forgot there had ever been an energy crisis. From the perspective of the early part of the decade, it began to look a little like a relic of a bizarre, pre-”Morning in America” era of heedless countercultural experimentation. Students called it “Lake Williamson,” as the windows in the atrium frequently leaked, pooling water on the floors.

Williamson remains, though, looking more or less as it did in 1977. Its lead architect David J. Bennett, speaking with the soft Brooklyn accent of his childhood in Manhattan Beach, complains today that it was “butchered,” but remains proud of the building. Bennett’s website, a vast compendium of images and text relating to his work and architectural practice, highlights it prominently. Of all of these underground structures, it’s the most easily accessible today—you can just walk in during regular campus hours. When you enter the elevator on the lower concourse, you find a pleasingly counter-intuitive, upside-down format for the buttons: B is at the top, going down to 1, 2 and then 3. A walk through the concourse leads out onto the sunken courtyard, surrounded by concrete and a lush layer of plants, and giving you an opportunity to crane your neck upwards slightly for a brochure-ready view of the ring of historic buildings looming over you.


Williamson Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2019. © David Schalliol


It feels a little like standing in an excavation for a future that never quite happened. The poured concrete forms, forty years later, call to mind not historical structures, but instead the dystopian science fiction of that period. It’s the hard-edged, modernist vistas of A Clockwork Orange or Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which of course made heavy use of the existing brutalist architecture of postwar London.

It’s a little funny and a little gloomy that the only context we have for experiencing these types of structures today is science fiction. Walking through the concourse out into the courtyard, it calls to mind what some writers like Mark Fisher have dubbed “hauntology”—an uneasy nostalgia for lost futures, a new society promised and hinted at in those idealistic years, but never fully achieved.

Underground architecture was, in this context, not connected to utopian (or, if you prefer, dystopian) ideals tumbling down from a distant centralized planning committee about how the future should be. It was, instead, built into the earth of the Midwest as a regional movement. Bennett recalls that what fascinated him was integrating buildings into the landscape of Minnesota. “It irritated me that the attitude of landscaping was decorative,” he said. “The earth was just a platform, and everyone celebrated the objects and forgot the relationship with platform was somewhat tenuous.” To this end, Bennett worked with the university landscape architect Clinton Hewitt to create a system of containers containing a species of native deciduous vine plant. In the summertime, the vines grew rapidly, shading the interior space. In the winter, it retreated, allowing light to stream in and warm the common spaces. “The whole idea,” he explains, “was to make an integrated system.”

Bennett had moved to the Midwest from his native New York, in part because of the lure of the Prairie School. “What was unique about the Prairie School,” he says, “is that the architects looked at the land, and the geometry and geology, and said what we need to do is develop buildings that express the land—the horizontality. It’s a uniquely Middle Western concept.”

He pauses and smiles wryly. “I learned something that only naïve young people learn—culture is a function not only of place, but also of time. The Prairie School was done. All I’d hoped to find were not there.” What he found instead was a community of like-minded architects and planners, including fellow East Coast transplant and dean of the architecture school Ralph Rapson—even if the Midwesterners he worked with found his Brooklyn-bred forthrightness and aggressiveness as a young man perplexing. “I had not anticipated it, but I suddenly found myself in a very supportive, collaborative environment. In New York, you had to fight like hell to do something that wasn’t a penis. All the students wanted to do the next Chrysler Building.”

At the time, Bennett wrote about the work in an expressly Midwestern way, with innovations like underground architecture following in the tradition of the Chicago and St. Louis architects of the previous century. In a 1983 issue of Architecture Minnesota, Bennett asserted that “we are equipped to deal with our unique climate in a unique way,” and that “what is required of us is to shake off our timidity, re-assert our self-confidence and instead of purchasing an ersatz culture from elsewhere, risk creating one of our own.”


Seward Townhomes, Minneapolis, 2019. © David Schalliol


The next stop is the Seward Townhomes, on the other side of Interstate 94, at the corner of 9th Street and 24th Avenue. As in many large metropolitan areas, the promise of the interstates in the 1950s and ’60s was to connect automotive commuters to the centers of population quickly and efficiently. Even as late as the 1970s, the interstates still had a vaguely futuristic, technologically sophisticated sheen to them—Minneapolis’ favorite son Prince’s first synth-funk band was called 94 West. They did connect the two downtowns, but they also resulted in the mass displacement of established neighborhoods—particularly neighborhoods of color—and brought with them noise, pollution, and a shredded urban fabric.

In 1979, Mary Tingerthal was a recent college graduate working as manager of home improvement programs for the Minnesota Housing Authority. In addition to her regular work with the agency, she’d also volunteered to help administer a Minnesota legislature-funded demonstration program on earth-sheltered housing, managing a number of design contests for structures around the state, mainly just out of the urban core. Work around earth-sheltered structures became a large part of her job.

She was on this 1980 tour, as well—one of many across the US she attended through the late 1970s and early 1980s. “It was a brief but intense phenomenon,” she recalls cheerfully. “They trotted us around between conferences all over—Colorado, New England. I’d talk to people about considerations when they were getting mortgages. I never expected to be involved with this, and never more than as an interesting thing I’d do at work.”

But the connection became quite personal for Tingerthal when she moved into one of the Seward Townhomes: “I was so swept up! I wanted my own earth-sheltered housing.” Since it was for sale in the open market, there were no conflicts of interest, and so she bought one of the units. She lived there for nearly a decade, first one her own, and then with her husband, ultimately selling it to a nurse at the nearby university hospital.

The Townhomes were meant to be a showpiece for earth-sheltered architecture, and to correct some of the damage the interstate had done to the urban fabric. The townhomes face I-94 and are, by all accounts, exceptionally quiet considering the amount of traffic just feet away. The reason why the site was developed in the way it was, with such a willingness to try out new ideas, is that no one else wanted to develop a site so close to the freeway. They’d rendered the site almost unusable.

Walking the sidewalk in front of the Seward Townhome today, you’re confronted with that distinctly ’70s-era mixture of hard-edged concrete and billowing greenery spilling out of planters. The entrances are set back into the earth, appearing almost as if on the side of a hill. One of the reasons why underground architecture took hold in the imagination of the Upper Midwest of the time is that it drew heavily on popular narratives about and self-perceptions of the region: the Underground Space Center at the University of Minnesota was funded in part after an late 1970s trip to Sweden to visit underground structures there, and an enthusiastic group of returning academics and Minnesota legislators drew direct connections, as so often happens in the Upper Midwest, between the culture and geology of Scandinavia and Minnesota. Early writing about underground structures in Minnesota took lengths to point out that it was nothing new in the region—the sod houses of prairie homesteaders and pioneers in particular were invoked early and often, guarantors that this new way of thinking wasn’t too out there, but rooted in centuries-old Midwestern traditions.

It’s true, though, that underground architecture is uniquely suited to the landscape of Minnesota, both above and below ground, where the unique geology of the region layers soft sandstone and hard limestone in a way conducive to subterranean construction. Public-private partnerships such as the townhomes were meant to show that such buildings could fit into the landscape, and create modern, energy-efficient structures that were suited for the climate, as well. Heating and cooling an aboveground house requires accommodations for an external temperate that can swing between a hundred degrees and negative thirty degrees. An underground structure, however, surrounded by fifty-degree earth at depths of twenty feet or more, needs only to be heated by twenty degrees to room temperature, and doesn’t need to be cooled at all, once solar energy is taken into consideration. In the period of time between the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979 energy crisis, such a model looked very attractive, even viewed strictly from an economic perspective.

The roof of the Seward Townhomes no longer has visible earth-berms, as it did in 1980, when the conference attendees walked through it. The residents, in response to leakage problems, sued the contractor and had a conventional roof built over the sterilized earth cover—if moisture problems aren’t addressed early in the process, or your builder cuts any corners, it’s much harder to make repairs later. In this case, repairs put an end to the moisture problems.

“It absolutely worked,” Mary says of her home. “It was really quite quiet. And my energy bills in January were astoundingly low. I learned a lot about concepts of energy conservation, about taking advantage of passive solar. That’s a part of the lasting legacy—how passive solar can fit into a design. It’s a natural marriage.”

These units are some of the quietest structures in this noisy part of the city. They’re private homes, but if you have a chance to step inside one of the units sometime, do it. The way the light streams down at an almost 45 degree angle through the south-facing windows in the afternoon, and the stillness that surrounds you, is quite sublime. It is a little like stepping into a machine engineered to keep its occupants concealed within a perfectly balanced and nearly monastic state of light, warmth, and silence.


474 Concordia Avenue, Saint Paul, 2019. © David Schalliol


The third stop, at 474 Concordia Avenue, is an unremarkable-looking brick box housing the Minnesota Safety Council. The building that once lie below this site was known as the Criteria-Control Data Corporation Building, or the Terratech Center. Control Data Corporation (CDC) was a leading supercomputer manufacturing firm in the 1970s and ’80s, and when the Terratech Center opened in 1981, it was hailed in the pages of the New York Times as “the most ambitious of the nation’s corporate groundscrapers.”

Nineteen eighty-five was not a great year for underground spaces. “The decade of business and finance,” sighs Ray Sterling. “Everybody sort of forgot about worrying about energy—there seemed to be money and energy, and the whole second half of the decade went towards how to maximize your profits and financial status than the environment and energy.” Bennett echoes this thought: “All the greedy people wanted to buy as much as they could, burn as much as they could, and go home with their loot.” Energy-related funding for the Underground Space Center had dried up by the mid 1980s, and the center shifted its focus to other equally important though less visible applications –management of underground utilities, for example.

It remains unclear what happened to the underground building at 474 Concordia, but after a particularly heavy rain, the steel culvert structure in the building’s north-facing wall collapsed, a 49-year-old CDC librarian named Maxine Ann Murray was killed in her sleep. Murray was sleeping on a couch outside the apartment she also lived in; the building incorporated some living space along with the office space and a fruit and vegetable garden in a greenhouse. The architect, Jerry Allen, was interviewed in the paper the following day. He was quoted as saying he had no idea what had happened.

When the site was redeveloped a few years later, the current aboveground design was chosen, and the space in the earth was filled in. Two other underground structures built in the late 1970s in the Twin Cities met less traumatic but no less conclusive fates: the underground Walker Library in Uptown Minneapolis closed in 2014 for two years of renovations, and the visitor center at Fort Snelling historic site a few years later. Both were built to preserve sightlines, conserve energy and—maybe just a touch here—to show off a little by big clients eager to get in a on a hot trend, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense for the sites.

“It had no neighborhood presence,” said Jennifer Yoos, an architect working on the redesign of the library, which opened atop the site of the old earth-sheltered building in 2016. “People didn’t know it was there.”

The visitor center at Fort Snelling, though it succeeded in preserving the sightlines along the bluff it was built into, apparently had moisture issues from the beginning. The writer of a 2007 report on the facility threw their hands up in something approaching disgust when addressing the core issues: “There is no clear evidence whether the ongoing water infiltration is due to static pressure in the bluff, the location of the building on an underground spring, the fact that the building roof is the lowest point on the site, or more likely a combination of issues.” As of the beginning of 2019, the old center is scheduled to be shuttered and abandoned in favor of a repurposed cavalry barracks elsewhere on the site.


Girl Scouts Building, Saint Paul, 2019. © David Schalliol


The final building on our trip, the Girl Scouts Building at 400 South Robert Street in St. Paul, is an example of how some of these structures have survived, and are hiding in plain sight. The building has been renovated twice since it was constructed in 1979—an expansion in 2001 that surrounded much of the original earth-sheltered features, and a total remodel in 2017 that added several thousand square feet, but further obscured what remained of the original design. Unless you note the earth-sheltered windows on the south side of the building, which offer a glimpse into a subterranean concourse, you’d never realize it was anything other than a standard administrative building on a commercial strip of St. Paul.

The vision of the late Girl Scout Council of St. Croix Valley Executive Director Thea Childs drove the fundraising and then construction of the building, then known as In Town Center. Coming not from academia but from the nonprofit sector, Childs was an idealist and passionate environmentalist who wanted a site that could serve as model to both other organizations, and to the girls her organization served. It was, she said, “a teaching tool,” complete with color-coordinated pipes that could be used to educate girls on alternative energy and conservation. A waterless, Scandinavian-designed composting toilet called the Clivus Multrum was installed, after a period of initial resistance from the plumbers union, who had lingering professional concerns about installing a waterless toilet. Featuring a green roof with solar and wind power features, the centerpiece of the building was a two-story earth-sheltered atrium that served as a living library of plant life. In the original design, you entered the building through the atrium, into an airy, light-filled and humid greenhouse oriented around a water feature and fountain. The atrium was also home, apparently, to a number of pink flamingos, who made their home among tropical fishes and prairie grass.

The flamingos, fountain and Clivus Multrum are all gone now, along with many of the original features. The bravura bank of windows lighting and heating the atrium is today a suite of cubicles in the rear of the building, but it still retains the sleek, angular glass and blonde wood contours that suggest its 1970s roots. Over time, the solar and wind features atrophied and were removed, piecemeal, from the structure. One of the few remaining elements of the original design is tucked away in the boiler room: the pipes still retain their bright blue, green and red color-coding. The pipes that run over the atrium, however, have been repainted a flat gray.

In some respects, a tour of this kind is not a great format for appreciating these types of buildings. As helpful as it is to see each building in its environment, singling out specific structures also privileges the uniqueness of each site, as opposed to how they might work as part of a larger system. Underground buildings work best when they’re part of a system, suited for the site and working in concert with the surrounding urban and natural environments. And of course, it doesn’t work everywhere, even in landscapes best suited for them.

“We might promote the consideration of underground space use,” Ray Sterling says of the work of the Underground Space Center, “but we were not in the business of promoting it for building without regard to whether it made sense or not. I think you’ll find some of the examples around Minnesota in that mix—some which were fairly successful or appropriate for the site, and some which were . . .” He pauses. “Well, people just liked the idea, and shoehorned it into a site.”

That stigma of trendiness can be difficult to shake as time goes by. “It’s a challenge to get that balance,” Sterling tells me. “Where I think they really make the most sense is where the ecological and environmental aspects work with the energy aspects and the site to form a natural success. Because if you’re only interested in an energy-efficient building, it’s reasonably true that you can heavily insulate it and put in solar, and you can get a building that uses a very small amount of energy, and you can do that without building underground. But when you take a site where you want to preserve the characteristics of the site, or not intrude on the natural environment, and you want a good energy performance to fit with the landscape, then using the underground space and putting all or part of the building underground starts to have more success factors associated with it.”

The mechanics of earth-sheltered buildings aside, the emphasis on energy performance during the period has had a long and lasting effect on architecture. Solar power and earth-sheltering went hand-in-hand, and even when the latter fell by the wayside, the innovations in solar energy specifically and energy efficiency developed alongside earth-sheltering remained, and gradually entered the mainstream conversation after decades. Minnesota adopted some of the earliest energy efficiency standards for new buildings, and many of those standards came out of the work pioneered at the time.

“It raised awareness of the impact of design and siting of residential buildings on energy performance,” says Tingerthal. “In terms of green building standard, I think it got a practical start then. We financed thousands of affordable units of residential housing, and they were all required to be built in accordance with those standards. It’s now a part of what we do.”

Near Williamson Hall, built three years after the 1980 conference, stands the Civil Engineering Building, also designed by Bennett and also an award-winner, edging out the Epcot Center for 1983’s Outstanding Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s a truly remarkable building, an inverted high-rise plunging seven stories in the earth. When it’s written about, what’s most frequently highlighted are its most fantastical features—a passive lighting system that would spread light into the bottom stories, though now inert through an evident lack of interest in maintenance from the university, as well as a device called the Ektascope, meant to provide a 3D view of the outside courtyard optically reflected in a screen on the bottom floor, and intended to mitigate the psychological discomfort that comes with being below ground. Today, it’s a black mirror.

But fantastical as those features are, they’re not the primary draw of the building. Despite some ongoing challenges with moisture and leakage, the building remains one of the most energy-efficient on campus. Standing on the bottom floor, seven stories below the limestone cap, in an artificially lighted hallway looking at an elevator bank where the numbers runs backwards, there’s a quiet, odd feeling of being displaced from a future that didn’t turn out as radically optimistic as planned for the Upper Midwest.

Perhaps it didn’t. However, there’s also a parallel feeling that, decades removed from the specific political and ecological discussions of the period, nonetheless still registers as powerfully, viscerally Midwestern. These are buildings created to harness the most basic characteristics of the surrounding landscape and the larger environment. Those lessons remain.


Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, architecture and history for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications, including ArchitectureMN, City Pages, and MinnPost. He is the author of three books of nonfiction, and also runs Birchwood Palace Industries, a small press that publishes art books and printed novelties.

A Career in Five Projects
Carlos Ferrater

West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Joan Guillamat. Courtesy of OAB


Barcelona-born architect Carlos Ferrater started his career in the early 1970s. His first project was fifty-four dwellings in Sant Just Desvern, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona. Completed in 1977, the brick housing complex was designed with architect José Antonio Coderch in mind—to Ferrater the last great maestro. Single- and multi-family homes as well as civic and sports facilities followed in the next decade.

Ferrater left an important imprint on the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. After winning public competitions, his office designed four key projects for the Games, one in each of the four Olympic areas in the city: three city blocks, in the Olympic Village, that housed the referees; a housing complex in Vall d’Hebron that accommodated the journalists; the Juan Carlos I Hotel on Diagonal Avenue; and the Botanical Garden in Montjuïc that, while it would not officially open until 1999, was used for the cross-country race in front of the Olympic Stadium.

Over his now nearly five-decade-long career, Carlos Ferrater and his office, OAB (Office of Architecture in Barcelona), have designed a wide range of projects, from housing, offices, and hotels to train stations, airport terminals, waterfronts, and public spaces. Today, the award-winning work of OAB can be found not only in his native Barcelona but also across many other Spanish cities, and countries like France, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and Mexico, to name but a few.

In 2006, MAS Context editor in chief Iker Gil (who had previously worked with Ferrater) curated the exhibition Synchronizing Geometry at the historic S. R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The exhibition showcased a selection of his key projects at a moment of transition, when the office of Carlos Ferrater became OAB. His son Borja Ferrater, daughter Lucía Ferrater, and his son-in-law Xavier Martí-Galí joined him in the new partnership, with Nuria Ayala becoming Project Director.

This past February, Iker Gil sat with Carlos Ferrater in his office in Barcelona to talk about his career, focusing on five built projects from across the decades. Selected by Ferrater, these projects represent key breakthroughs in his career, defining new directions for the office.


Estartit Yacht Club
Estartit, Girona, Spain


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Building: 1,000 square meters / 10,764 square feet.
Total area of intervention: 1 hectare / 2.47 acres.

Carlos Ferrater
Gerardo Rodríguez

Associated Architects
Juan Diaz


In the 1970s, I started my career by designing small and intimate domestic projects. They were small houses located in Barcelona and L’Estartit, a coastal enclave in the Costa Brava area in Girona.

I then won two competitions: one to design a sports pavilion in Torroella and another, a yacht club in L’Estartit, both in the province of Girona. From a fishing town, L’Estartit became a touristic town in need of a yacht club, and the location chosen was a remarkable site that had been reclaimed from the sea.

Winning that competition was very important for me as it allowed me to define a new way of approaching architecture. At that point, I was working on my own in the studio, assisted by two or three people. I was designing Mediterranean houses located by the sea that were very successful. I was labeled as a Mediterranean architect who paid attention to details, classical composition, layering, the horizontal plane, the sea, and in-between spaces. All those aspects were true, but the yacht club had a different approach.


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


The approach was to design a container defined by a structure and a void. It was a structure with a roof and a façade that appeared in a new pier. In this project, like in all the ones from this first period of my career, you can see the reference to architect José Antonio Coderch. In this specific case, it relates more to his 1951 Ugalde House in Caldes d’Estrac: more organic, free, and removed from the urban context that define some of his other projects. Similarly, there was no city in my project, no place—just an area reclaimed from the sea. That gave me a similar freedom towards design as it did to Coderch with the Ugalde House.


Estartit Yacht Club. © Joan Guillamat. Courtesy of OAB


The whole complex was built on a podium that presented its inhabitable areas as protruding from it. Under the podium, a concrete hull rests on the foundations at the water-table level and forms a series of accessible underground chambers that house the networks of cables, plumbing, and overall infrastructure. Above this hull appears a new structure that is neither a yacht like the ones moored in front of the building nor the traditional houses found in the town. It is an open structure that relates with the mountains on the back and the Medas Islands on the front, renowned for their rich and beautiful underwater wildlife.


Plan, Estartit Yacht Club. © Courtesy of OAB


The building was organized into two pavilions that define a pedestrian walk along the waterfront. The main pavilion, which has a triangular plan, houses the yacht club’s offices, small nautical library, and bar. The second pavilion houses the bathrooms, personal quarters, transformer room, antennae, etc. Each pavilion has an independent roof, and the void between them becomes the open atrium of the club, the place that articulates the two volumes.


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Estartit Yacht Club. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


All the building elements, including the pavement, finishes, and furniture, contribute to integrating the architecture with its context while establishing an ambiguity between the land and the sea.

For the project, I developed a construction notebook as a kind of logbook, as it was built directly with the different trades and with no general contractor. I did hand drawings for the whole project, from the Miesian shapes and the corners to the bathrooms and mechanical systems.


Hand drawings for the Estartit Yacht Club. © Courtesy of OAB


Hand drawings for the Estartit Yacht Club. © Courtesy of OAB


It is a building that was very important for me at that moment, as I changed from being an architect of houses, of details, of pergolas into a different kind of architect: one who was working with marine plywood, metallic roof-cladding, aluminum frets made in France, and an altogether new approach to architecture.


IMPIVA Technology Park
Castellón de la Plana, Spain


Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Carlos Ferrater
Carlos Bento
Jaime Sanahuja

C. Martín
Joan Guibernau
Carlos Escura


This project represents a second key moment for the office. It is a project located in Castellón and designed for IMPIVA, the Institute for Small and Medium Industry of the Generalitat Valenciana.

The brief for the project was fairly simple. They wanted a building that was around 2,000 square meters to host small industrial spaces, laboratories, workshops, and offices to provide rental space to incubate innovative tech companies. I worked on the project with two local architects from Castellón, Jaime Sanahuja and Carlos Bento. It was a project with which I was very involved, constantly going to the construction site.

Sketch, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Courtesy of OAB


Plan, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Courtesy of OAB


I divided the program of the project into five different boxes. The boxes were organized with stepped setbacks to follow the shape of the site, located on the outskirts of the city, by the road that connects the city to the sea. It was a chaotic area of the city, with the orange groves in front and the mountains behind. Each box is an autonomous piece, but all the pieces are connected through light and circulation, becoming an organism of a superior order. It is a system of interconnected autonomous pieces that now work as a complex organism. I separated the boxes in order to create interstitial spaces where vertical circulation, such as the stairs, was located, allowing the boxes to maximize their façades. In a way, it reminds me of a Donald Judd sculpture. These ambiguous interstitial spaces became the essence of the intervention, connecting all the parts of the program irrespective of any particular hierarchy. The organization also helps to provide independent access to each of the boxes.

Interior, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Interior, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


In this project I applied aspects first studied in the yacht club in L’Estartit, mostly conceiving the façades as an abstract whole. The boxes had a different material: metal cladding, wood paneling from Prodema, and white bricks. They were chosen depending on the program that the box contained and its insulation needs. The end views are static and monumental, the interstitial spaces are ambiguous and transparent, and the side views, with their superposition of different planes, convey a dynamic quality to the complex.


Façade, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Façade, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Façade, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Façade, Impiva Technology Park, Castellón, 1995. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


From a fairly banal program on a site located on the outskirts of the city, we were able to create a unique and very successful building. It received a lot of national and international recognition through both the press and with awards. For me, it was another evolution in my work: I discovered the concept of a system that I later used in projects such as the Catalonia Convention Center, the Auditorium and Convention Center in Castellón, and the Science Museum in Granada, to name a few.


Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche
Barcelona, Spain


Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


81,265 square meters / 874,729 square feet

Carlos Ferrater

Josep Mª Muntaner
Bet Figueras


The third project that I have selected is the three housing blocks for the Olympic Village, designed for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. The project asked for 560 housing units to be located on the site of the former Torras factory that used to manufacture steel structures. The three blocks are located between Ramon Turró Street, Llull Street, Zamora Street, and Àvila Street.

From the moment of the project’s inception we took into account that it could become a guide for future interventions in an area that was transforming from an industrial into a residential area. I thought that this was an extremely important project for the city, and I wanted to engage with an interlocutor to explore the possibilities for the project. For that reason, I worked with architect and critic Josep Maria Montaner, who would later become the Barcelona City Councilor for Housing. I also had multiple conversations with architect and urban planner Joan Busquets, who was the head of the Urban Planning Department of the Municipality of Barcelona during the preparations for the Olympic Games.


Sketch, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Courtesy of OAB


At that time, some of the housing proposals that were being done for the Olympic Games were exploring open blocks, with houses placed inside and with strange shapes—all experiments contrary to the Cerdà Plan. Taking a different approach, we wanted to study closely the traditional block of Barcelona, with the chamfer corners, that came out of the Cerdà Plan, and, after studying it, optimize it. But in Barcelona, Ildefons Cerdà was not the only person who had been thinking about the design of the city; we also had the Macià Plan, proposed by GATCPAC (the Spanish branch of CIAM), Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret. There had been a lot of thinking around the city and the waterfront, and we wanted to pick up these modern ideas that tried to change the city and see how they translated to the present in this area in transition.

Plans, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Courtesy of OAB


As we had three blocks to work with, we wanted to make them individually autonomous but also internally connected so that they became a superblock, leaving the existing streets intact while providing a new pedestrian pathway that connected all three blocks. Zoning allowed for a ground floor plus five floors above. We designed a ground floor that was slightly taller than three meters to create spaces for local commerce that could face the street and the gardens inside—that way people could see the gardens from the street. There was a canopy facing the street so there was shade for each of the shops, which are slightly removed from the edge. We wanted to differentiate the south façade, to react to its orientation. As the late architect David Mackay, of the architecture studio MBM, said when he saw the project, the buildings have an identity, an orientation, a face. It is not a building with four equal façades.


Sketch, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Courtesy of OAB


Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Courtesy of OAB


The buildings are 13.5 meters deep, so the units have front and back façades. This was also a break from the Cerdà block, where some of the building had become 25 meters deep. The 13.5-meter depth plus the 1.5 meters of the sidewalks on the interior of the block provide the optimum 15 meters for the parking spaces located at the perimeter of the block. We designed for three regular floors and then two floors above as duplex units. The duplexes have access to the roof, which features terraces, which are typical of Barcelona and also of the modern ideas of Le Corbusier.

The frontage facing the sea includes the towers, which also comprise a ground floor plus five floors above; but instead of 3-meter-tall ground floors, now they have ground floors almost 6 meters tall. This variation provides the project with a clear urban presence. The whole project followed the zoning rules, but by rethinking one parameter—in this case, the height of the ground floor—the project was able to achieve a distinct, variegated volume.


Exterior façade, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Exterior façade, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Another aspect that we worked on quite a lot was the typology of the units. Banca Catalana was the developer and was very happy with our decision to use 5-meter modules. With two modules, you have housing units of 10 meters by 13.5 meters that, excluding the space for the patios and stairs, are about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) in size. The bedrooms face the interior garden, and the kitchen and the living room face the street. If you combine three modules, you have a width of 15 meters for a three-bedroom unit. The duplex has four bedrooms and also the rooftop. The rooftops have what are now known as the “butterflies,” the sloped roofs over the stairs that give access to this level. With all these configurations there is a richness in typology.


Courtyard façade, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Courtyard façade, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


For the façade, we used prefabricated concrete panels, unlike in Vall d’Hebron, where we used GRC (glass-reinforced concrete). Between the Olympic Games and placing the units on the market at the culmination of their use for the Games, the only thing that we had to do was to incorporate the kitchen; all the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems were ready for the transition. We worked a lot on all the small-scale details of the project.


Courtyard façade, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


This was the first collaboration with the late landscape designer Bet Figueras. (After this project, I worked with her on the Botanical Garden in Barcelona, and the last project we worked together on was the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona, when she sadly passed away.) I contacted her to design a new type of landscape in the interior of the blocks, with the grids, the Populus deltoides that connect all three blocks, plazas within plazas, reflecting pools with a water depth of a mere one centimeter, and the benches. We even designed the streetlights in collaboration with Pete Sans. Here kids can walk down the stairs and go out from the lobby of the buildings directly to the garden, so there is no need to go out into the street—their parents can see them from above.


Landscape, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


Lanscape, Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche. © Lluís Casals. Courtesy of OAB


I was lucky to work on four key projects for the Games, one in each of the four Olympic areas in the city, each won through public competition: three city blocks, in the Olympic Village, that housed the referees; a housing complex in Vall d’Hebron that accommodated the journalists; the Juan Carlos I Hotel on Diagonal Avenue; and the Botanical Garden in Montjuïc that, while it would not officially open until 1999, was used for the cross-country race in front of the Olympic Stadium. This was an important project for the city, for the Olympic Games, and for my studio, which, at that time, hadn’t yet become OAB.


Benidorm West Beach Promenade
Benidorm, Spain


West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


18,000 square meters / 193,750 square feet

Carlos Ferrater
Xavier Martí Galí

Luca Cerullo
Núria Ayala
Sofia Machado dos Santos
David Jiménez
David Abondano

Structural Consultant
PONDIO, Juan Calvo


The first decade of the twenty-first century was the busiest one for us, as we worked on such projects as the Zaragoza-Delicias Intermodal Station, the Science Park in Granada, and the Mediapro Building in Barcelona, to name just three of many. They were prolific years and also marked the transition of my office into OAB. My children, Lucía Ferrater and Borja Ferrater, and my son-in-law, Xavi Martí, were working in the office, and, in 2005, we formed OAB. We worked on a series of large-scale projects, and, among them, I want to talk about the West Beach Promenade in Benidorm.


West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Joan Guillamat. Courtesy of OAB


It is an urban project, a landscape project, and a place of transition between land and sea. It is the waterfront of a city of half a million people, much maligned by some but one that I find very interesting, with its small footprint, the skyscrapers that follow the topography, water that still reaches the sea—everybody is ten minutes away from the beach; there is no need to have a car. It is a city that is occupied twelve months a year and has an extraordinary cultural, economic, business, and leisure density. It is a city that is more sustainable than you might think.

What was missing there was a public space. There was a terrible promenade, with balusters, with a 4-meter drop between the land and the beach, solved with small stairs. Our project covered about 1.6 kilometers and addressed the urban area of the west beach. We removed five lanes of traffic, so we had a width of a little over 30 meters to work with. We couldn’t take any space from the beach as it is the main destination of Benidorm and considered sacred. So, what we did was to overhang it. In that 30-meter-wide area we left a lane for emergency cars, a lane for bicycles, and the rest for pedestrians. That width and that length create almost 5 hectares of new public space in a place of privilege: a place hung between the land and the sea, between the city and the beach. The promenade is not understood as a hard edge but as an intermediary space rendering this transition permeable.


Sketch, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Courtesy of OAB


West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Courtesy of OAB


We started the project by doing sinuous shapes using computers. The sinuous interwoven lines were evocative of the fractal structure of a cliff, as well as the motion of waves and tides. We didn’t have a software like CATIA, and there was a moment during which the project was going faster than us. We stepped back from the computer and started working with physical models. They were 1-meter-long models made out of foam-core that were connected to form a model of the whole project, which extended over 20 meters in length. We would cut the foam-core with an X-ACTO knife to create the sinuous shapes, and then, using pins, we would connect the layers and document it through photos. We would digitize each layer and create a 3-D model of the promenade that we could adjust as needed.


Plan, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Courtesy of OAB


Plan, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Courtesy of OAB


Renderings, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Courtesy of OAB


From that, we created the ramps, the stairs, the location for the vegetation, the upper promenade, and the lower promenade, and we incorporated an old section of the existing wall. At that point, we went to a town close to Benidorm to visit a traditional shipbuilder so that he could build the wooden molds for the different sections, which we could then combine.


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


We made a 12-centimeter-thick shell made out of white concrete and stainless-steel rebar that is very strong structurally. The shell generated two voids: one is the void behind the shell that, with a series of structural ribs, supports the upper promenade, which is made out of colorful tiles and under which all the mechanical systems are placed; the other is the void in front of the shell that provides shade to the lower wooden promenade, at the level of the beach. An older couple from Benidorm told me once that they always walk on the lower promenade and that, due to the undulating shape of the shell, they can hear the sound of the waves from back there. With the colorful tiles you can define specific areas within this long intervention and identify where to meet with someone. This project has been very successful, both as a public space and as a way to increase the economic return around it.


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Lower Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Upper Promenade, West Beach Promenade, Benidorm. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


It was a key project in the office and one that helped solidify the new structure under the name OAB. At this point, Borja was instrumental in providing an international vision to the office—now we work all around the world thanks to that global vision; Xavi and I are more local in that sense.

There is a drawing of the project that Lucía and I did with lipsticks of different colors. Until that point, we had never done any projects with colors. We took some risks with this project. It was kind of a crazy project, but I think that in architecture, if you don’t take some risks, you don’t push enough to get to your best work. You have to be on the razor’s edge. We accepted a risk and we thought that if there was a place to do a project like this one, it was here in Benidorm.

We also didn’t have sinuous shapes in any of our early works, but if you see the Botanical Garden in Barcelona, with its deformed grid applied to the Montjuïc mountain; the fractal shapes of the Juan Carlos I Hotel; the folds of the Confluence Museum in Lyon; or the topography of the Science Museum in Granada—at that point we were exploring a series of geometries that we captured in the book, Synchronizing Geometry, that we presented in Chicago, in the exhibition you curated. Benidorm is perhaps the project that best captures that effort and that moment in the office, with its open, flexible, and non-hierarchical geometry. The promenade left nothing to chance but grew out of setting up a number of specific laws, a geometrical ground plan, and modulation. An established design logic secures the project in case there are to be future changes or additions. In the end, we try to bring the culture, the traces, and the traditions of the places in which we design, and we do that through geometry. In Benidorm, that is the sea, the sun, vacation, celebration, and hedonism.


Office Building in Guadalajara
Guadalajara, Mexico


Office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Carlos Ferrater
Xavier Martí Galí

Associated Architects
Estudio Hidalgo

Montse Trilla


For the current decade, I have chosen the office building that we have recently completed in Guadalajara, Mexico. It is an interesting project, as it addresses local and global conditions. On the one hand, we needed to design an iconic building that could become an international referent, but, on the other hand, we needed to take into account cultural and environmental demands so that we could design with a clear understanding of vernacular traditions as well as design with geographic and cultural specificity.

In Mexico you have had great architects who understood the vernacular context, like Luis Barragán, Francisco Artigas, and Ricardo Legorreta; but there are also a lot of new buildings that could be placed anywhere: repetitive towers and skyscrapers employing generic curtain walls that disregard climate, orientation, and location. Ours is not what I would call a franchise building that can be placed anywhere; it understands the local conditions.

The site was quite complicated, with an irregular shape, located at the intersection of Patria Avenue and Americas Avenue, two major roads. It has three primary orientations, and, as the building grew and rotated, we wanted to maintain one façade parallel to one of the orientations.


Plans, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Courtesy of OAB


Section, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Courtesy of OAB


We wanted to design a building with a certain autonomy but also one that was generated with an understanding of the role of the car, which is quite important in this area. As we could not design a conventional parking lot due to the size and shape of the site, we decided to build a continuous helicoidal ramp that could adapt to all the odd shapes of the parcel. We made the ramp as long as was needed to fit the number of spaces that was required, which was over fifty.

Structurally, the building has a central core and a series of columns on the exterior that adapt to the shape of the site, adjusting their location to the allowable building area for each floor while freeing the internal space of any interruptions. The depth of the columns allows us to include a continuous glass façade on the interior; this façade is operable to ventilate the space and can be easily cleaned through a small catwalk. On the outside, we placed a deep latticework of squares made out of GRC (glass-reinforced concrete) panels, locally built. Each square in the lattice is 60 centimeters by 60 centimeters, with the size of the full panel being 3.6 meters square. The panels don’t touch, leaving a small gap between them. The latticework creates a porous tectonic image of the building. The area for the mechanical spaces and stairs is covered with microperforated metal mesh.


Façade detail, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Courtesy of OAB


Façade detail, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


The façade provides an extraordinary light to the offices and is good thermally and also acoustically, which is important given the location of the tower next to a high-traffic area. We used metal deck for the floors, without providing a dropped ceiling. We also left open to the tenants the possibility of deciding the material of the floor, from a raised floor to carpet. That flexibility allowed for different price points when renting the space.


Façade, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Façade, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Entrance, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


Interior, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


All this generated a very Mexican building, very sustainable environmentally and, in a way, related to Barragán, with its latticework. Once the daylight disappears and the interior light becomes more prominent, it becomes a building without a scale: a pixelated object—a digital element that turns into a global icon that could be in Texas, Shanghai, or Dubai. The latticework relates the local aspects and traditions to a global context.


Night view, office building in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2018. © Alejo Bagué. Courtesy of OAB


This building helped us understand how to approach a local context that is not our native Barcelona and is already influencing projects that we are currently working on in other cities abroad, like Beirut, Dubai, Montevideo, and in Kazakhstan. This project represents a new phase for the Office of Architecture in Barcelona.


This interview was conducted in Spanish. It was translated and edited by Iker Gil and copyedited by Lance Patrick Sy.


Carlos Ferrater is a Barcelona-based architect and founder of OAB. He is Professor at the School of Architecture in Barcelona (ETSAB, UPC) and Director of the Cátedra Blanca. Throughout his career, he has designed, among other works, four project for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, the Catalonia Convention Center, the Scientific Institute and the Barcelona Botanical Garden, the Intermodal Station in Zaragoza, the Aquileia Tower in Venice, the Science Park in Granada, the Benidorm Waterfront, and the Michelin Offices on the banks of the River Seine in Paris. In 2006 he set up, along with Xavier Martí, Lucía Ferrater, and Borja Ferrater, the Office of Architecture in Barcelona (OAB), with Núria Ayala as Director of Projects . He has received many awards throughout his career, including the 2009 National Architecture Award by the Spanish Ministry of Housing for his overall career.

Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is the editor in chief of MAS Context. He is the editor of the book Shanghai Transforming (ACTAR, 2008) and has curated several exhibitions, including “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” as part of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club and has been recognized as one of “Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century” by a jury composed by Stanley Tigerman, Jeanne Gang, Qingyun Ma, and Marion Weiss. | @MASContext

Hurricane Harvey, the Golden Triangle, and the Inequality of Relief

Markings indicate the date that a flooded home on the north side of Beaumont was checked for survivors. © Elizabeth Blasius


Essay by Elizabeth Blasius

A school bus pulling up in front of an extended stay hotel. Debris ages to a dull gray against a cemetery fence. Church services are held inside the parish gym. RV parks have no vacancies. The landscaping is new. While many of the wounds inflicted by Hurricane Harvey six months after the storm made landfall, when I arrived to assist with the recovery effort, had been treated in the area of Southeast Texas known as the Golden Triangle, they were only topical fixes.

This is a place where the big Texas sky looms over bayous and swamps. There is Tex-Mex, but there is also boudain and crawfish, and last names ending in eaux. This is Texas Cajun Country, where residents remember their grandmothers exclaiming “ca fait chaud!” in the excruciating summer heat. In the Golden Triangle, the petrochemical industry has been ubiquitous since the Lucas Gusher at Spindletop blew crude oil into the air for nine days in January 1901, the beginning of the East Texas oil boom. An hour and a half from Houston, an hour from the Louisiana boarder and only four to New Orleans, the region is pulled like cultural taffy. While cacti are present—clustered beneath highway underpasses and railway embankments (at least that was the only place I saw them)-this is also the swamp. A dampness hangs in the air and fogs up your eyeglasses. It hugs the back of your neck and when combined with intense heat and sun acts like a steam table with your extremities as the loins and chops. Trees are mossy and heavy with wetness. There are rivers and bayous and channels and all sorts of natural and man-made elements to hold water in, keep water out, keep water clean, or keep it moving. Each of these features seemed to almost sit above the ground, like the actual water table was above it, floating.

The Golden Triangle knows natural disasters well. Hurricane Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008, and the Tax Day Floods in 2016 all caused property damage, some of it becoming cumulative with every event. And then in August 2017, there was Harvey, where wind pushed rain through every crevice it could find, falling from the sky like a high-pressure showerhead, and finally causing deep, dark flooding that stayed that way for days. The city of Nederland, between Beaumont and Port Arthur, received a record 60.58 inches of rain during the event, topping the previous record for tropical cyclone rainfall recorded in the United States, making it the wettest location during the wettest hurricane in American history. Bodies of water swelled to capacity, turning the entire area into a dystopic bayou, leaving the rooftops of buildings as the only indication of civilization. Water infiltrated and saturated, but it also acted violently, blasting through windows, creating underwater projectiles, and sweeping vehicles and people away. Evacuees reluctantly left their homes for shelters, until the shelters too began to flood. Once the flooding receded, the Golden Triangle was without power and potable water, littered with debris, inundated structures and vehicles, the results of an unprecedented 1 in 1,000-year flood event.

Hurricane Harvey was a paradigm shift in climate violence. Harvey proved that a Katrina could and would happen again, and that little had changed in twelve years to prepare people or places for a similar event. Harvey was the first natural disaster of the social media age. Those outside the hurricane’s path watched in horror from their feeds, while those within it used posts as an ad hoc emergency network, a lifeline for survivors. Within a Twitter scroll, I would see my first image of Hurricane Harvey, a rushing, white-capped river that was once an interstate, the origin point of my own, now permanent experience with climate anxiety. As the Golden Triangle was drying out, Hurricane Maria was becoming violent and hyperactive, hitting landfall in Puerto Rico and causing incomprehensible damage. With mainland America seemingly more capable to handle a catastrophic hurricane, the sympathy and anger shifted to the commonwealth, exposing the fissures in our outdated and inequitable response and recovery matrices. Climate change was now an existential and unpredictable threat. The tenderhearted nature of “reduce reuse recycle,” pitched relentlessly to elementary school children a few decades earlier now seemed comical. We should have prepared for war instead of reciting alliterations.

Despite the brevity of damage inflicted on the Golden Triangle during Hurricane Harvey, the worst in terms of total flooding and destruction, it was Houston that received the coverage, and those ever-trending thoughts and prayers. Volunteers and truckloads of donated supplies symbolically flooded into Houston but never seemed to extend east, like nothing but valueless bayou separated Houston from the westernmost border of Louisiana. Suddenly Harvey became the picture of Houston’s suffering, a story of reckless land-use and sprawl. Those in planning shook their fingers at Houston from afar but found nothing worthy of judgement in other harder hit areas. The Golden Triangle’s largest city, Beaumont, tops off at 120,000—not urban, but not rural. Perhaps it was a matter of the area not having enough distinctive characteristics at a national level, or being devoid of good design, urbanism or applicable zoning tisk-tisks.

Or perhaps it was a greater systemic disinterest in the Golden Triangle as a part of America perceived as anti-placemaking. Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange are partially defined in part by components of America that we have made strides to move away from—the oil industry, chain restaurants, and racism. The nearby city of Vidor is almost completely white, and tales abound of the cities’ history as a notorious sundown town, where the Klu Klux Clan is rumored to frequent local diners. Sour Lake, a community only reachable by boat during Hurricane Harvey, is proud of their community history as the place where Texaco began. There are Golden Corral’s, Hooters, Waffle Houses, and Chic-Fil-A’s lined up in quick succession along Interstate I-10, repeated mile after mile.

While flooding didn’t discriminate between McMansions and pier on beam shotguns, a picture of what relief is, and to whom, is complicated to parcel together. It involves a gallimaufry of agencies, documentation and paperwork, hinging dangerously on insurance companies, many of which played god through policy. Receiving formal aid requires those that apply to narrate their purchases, insurance coverage and hierarchy of ownership, a series of processes that many residents on the economic fringes chose not to do. This is an area that has suffered from uneven investment, where many people live with the specter of institutional racism and the long-term effects of segregation. The built environment carries this weight too. It’s difficult to parcel out cumulative neglect from Harvey damage, which the hurricane undoubtedly exacerbated.

Some residents within the Golden Triangle without insurance simply walked away from homes and businesses, consolidating their lives and belongings to weekly hotels, or moving their modular structures elsewhere. Others are still quietly rebuilding over weekends and evenings. Here, the presence of an RV in a front yard doesn’t mean a vacation is eminent, it may mean the homeowner is living on site, repairing their home as they go, not a labor of love but a labor of necessity. Homes are jacked up high on piers, often a requirement of insurance payouts. Rural roads are still closed, their damage marked with discolored orange cones. Debris and garbage floated into the woods and settled there. Churches are stocked with canoes and sandbags, armament against an unpredictable threat.


A formerly flooded neighborhood repairs itself, Vidor. © Elizabeth Blasius


Sandbags and canoes at the ready, Winfree Baptist Church, Orange. © Elizabeth Blasius


A home elevated on piers, Rose City. © Elizabeth Blasius


Many survivors of Hurricane Harvey have moved themselves and their homes to higher ground, Beaumont. © Elizabeth Blasius


Area trailer parks are full, Beaumont. © Elizabeth Blasius


Elizabeth Blasius is an American architectural historian whose work encourages people to consider placemaking through existing buildings and vintage communities, and explores the potential for historic preservation to examine more personal stories and bring them into the practice. Her work seeks to build trust and collaboration between agencies that protect historic resources and the public. She develops innovative solutions that discourage gatekeeping and allow room for those that have stock in cultural resources to realistically manage development. Ultimately, her work strives to kick the doors wide open for underrepresented aspects of heritage, built and cultural. | @blaservations

Stanley Tigerman (1930-2019)

Stanley Tigerman © Tigerman McCurry Architects


A young generation of architects remember Stanley Tigerman


Iker Gil
MAS Studio & MAS Context

Architect and educator Stanley Tigerman was one of the pillars of architecture in Chicago, the backbone of the discipline and the city. For over five decades he designed and built hundreds of buildings, curated dozens of group exhibitions, and mentored generations of architects. He was always instigating discussions about architecture and Chicago, whether in lectures, interviews, essays, or informal conversations. We all grew accustomed to his presence, his energy, his honesty, his wit, and his wisdom. It felt that it would last forever. I wish it would have lasted forever. Unfortunately, it didn’t. On June 3, Stanley Tigerman passed away at the age of 88.

Throughout the years, I was fortunate to spend time with Stanley and his wife of 40 years, architect Margaret McCurry. While I had met them earlier, it was for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial when I had the chance to work with them after inviting both (independently) to participate in the exhibition I was curating. Architect Ann Lui and I later interviewed him in his office surrounded by his and Margaret’s architectural book collection for an issue of MAS Context. He discussed his education under a notoriously tough Paul Rudolph, the influential symposia he organized during the 1970s and 1980s, rewriting the established architectural history of Chicago, his role model Mies van der Rohe, ethics, and the next generation of architects. As we mentioned in our introduction to the interview, Stanley shared his central belief that vigorous debate—including harsh criticism, strong positions, and the prioritization of powerful new ideas even at the cost of one’s own comfort—is essential to the forward movement of architecture. But besides these noted moments, we got together more informally, along with Margaret, for many engaging conversations about architecture, Chicago, and just life. He was curious, generous, attentive, and always honest. The conversations resonated many days after our gatherings, and sometimes things that seemed insignificant at the moment became important over time.

He built a lot and drew even more. The Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Pacific Garden Mission, and the Children’s Advocacy Center are just three examples of what he stood for: carefully considered projects that demonstrated a deep care for social justice in general and the users in particular. Stanley and Eva Maddox founded Archeworks in 1994 “on the premise that good design should serve everyone.” It gave them a framework to explore community-based needs aided by many accomplished faculty throughout the years. It demonstrated the capacity of Stanley to rally talent around a powerful, and sometimes quixotic, idea. For the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, he designed container housing for the disabled that would allow a disabled person and a caregiver to live together with a courtyard acting as a communal zone. He envisioned a place where people, no matter what challenges they were facing, could thrive. He was excited not only to present it within the framework of the Biennial but also to explore where in Chicago he could build this development. Ideas needed to be built. Many of his renowned projects during his five-decade long career range from visionary to symbolic, joyful, and clever. They all tell a story and none of them leave you indifferent.

Along with his buildings and bringing together people, as he did by organizing several renowned symposia and the reconstitution of the Chicago Architectural Club with the “Chicago Seven,” his influence was felt in the nurturing of the generations of architects that came after him. He truly believed in passing the baton (he even organized an event to symbolize that when he and Eva stepped down as directors of Archeworks in 2008) and supporting new ideas that could move the discipline forward. He held us accountable for our words and actions, always pushing us to do better. Along with Margaret, they organized salons to make sure that young architects had a forum to discuss ideas and could have a place at the table, making introductions to those with the capacity to develop those ideas.

During one of the last times I met with him, he showed me the ink drawings he was methodically working on again to fill his sketchbook. He was excited about his drawings and knowing more about what we, the younger generations of architects, were doing. It was pure Stanley until the end.

His passing leaves a huge void in architecture, Chicago, and me. It is hard to capture his character and all that he did (his interview for the Oral History project is highly recommended to begin to grasp his rich and complex life) but what is clear is that his imprint can be found across the city. In a way, he was the conscience of the architecture discipline and was not afraid to take a position, which granted him both friends and enemies along the way. It will be impossible to find a substitute for Stanley but hopefully the next generation of architects can continue what he led for many years in some capacity. Chicago and the architecture discipline will benefit from building a strong network of support and mentors for the current and next generations.

I am extremely grateful for the conversations, support, and encouragement from Stanley and Margaret throughout the years. My condolences to Margaret, his family, and all who mourn his loss.


Jimenez Lai
Bureau Spectacular

Stanley Tigerman asked me to take the baton—run with it, stab him with it, stab someone else with it, pass it forward and be stabbed by it—just don’t decline it. In the baton, he asked for courage, strength, diligence, intelligence, generosity, and demanded a younger generation to take care of their own time period—even if it means laying yourself down to help your peers succeed. The idea of the baton, to me, is an idea of dedication to the ongoing cultivation of the field of architecture—something that does not die with the death of individuals, but an idea that remains alive because of all our mutual love for architecture.

I will think of Stanley often as I go on with life and work. There are lessons I will continue to think about, such as the fine line between skepticism and cynicism, irony and critique, the ineffable and the fantastical… To Stanley, architecture was a way of life, and he imparted that value onto me. Stanley Tigerman was the soul of Chicago, and he made his city a better place.


Stewart Hicks
Design With Company

Stanley loved things, but I don’t mean things like objects. He deeply loved everything in his orbit, like the organizations he participated in and the people in his life. He had high expectations for the things he loved, but in exchange he was generous with them. I believe it takes a lot of courage to be committed to things in the way Stanley was, a level of courage that few of us can ever muster. It requires you to proud yet humble, confident yet careful, and thoughtful yet determined. His Jewish heritage, the Navy, architecture, music, Yale, etc. He was their advocate, protector, and instigator.

When I first sat down to write about him, I wanted to write something that would warrant his approval by criticizing the establishment and to explain how his confidence and F.U. attitude is instilled within me. The first time I went to his office we engaged in a lengthy conversation until he switched tone immediately. “Why did you come here?” he snorted. I could see him realizing he had an important role to play for me and he spoke about the importance of bravery, uncompromising dedication, and ruthlessness in the face of weakness. But, over the years, I’m afraid I was more a sponge than the spear he was demanding. I was worried this meant I was failing to live up to his expectations, but he continued to accept and encourage me anyway. His approval wasn’t contingent on me being like him in the way I thought originally. What he was really demanding was for me to be a better version of me―to take a piece of him and be its steward, in my own way. I aim to love things like Stanley did.


Allison Newmeyer
Design With Company

The first time I met Stanley was at his office for an appointment at our (with Stewart, my husband/partner) request. We just moved to Chicago after being away on various adventures with grad school and work. We were excited to be back and there was a feeling we returned home. Naively, we wanted to meet with Stanley to seek his guidance—to introduce ourselves and let him know we looked up to and respected him. He got right to the point by questioning why we needed to move around so much. He said, “You’re not from Chicago. We’re not going to embrace you just to have to move in a few years.” Basically, he told us it would take time and dedication to the city in order to really belong here—and then we could talk. We walked away, not with an ‘I’ll show him’ attitude, but inspired by the ‘Okay, let’s do it’ challenge.

Over time, we began proving our dedication. Fast forward to a panel discussion on drawing, set within an exhibition of his sketchbook collection. I was a little nervous. At one point, he cut me off as I was talking. “Don’t be so timid. You have a voice, and everyone wants to hear it.” I was a little embarrassed, but that was outweighed by my feelings of encouragement. Stanley wanted to know what I was thinking as a younger person and challenged me to be passionate about my own endeavors. This interaction was one of many that inspired me to know that my opinion, attitude, and outlook is valid and important—that I shouldn’t shy away from or apologize for my passions and convictions. The world is a much more interesting place when we challenge old ideas, build on them, sometimes tear them down. Thank you for your gift, Stanley.


Ann Lui
Future Firm

Before I met him, Stanley’s complicated brilliance and ferocity loomed large, in his writings, practice, and the stories I had heard and read about him. He was well-known to be blunt, someone who didn’t suffer fools or ignorance, and judged others by their ability to engage in and receive critique. After I had the honor of meeting him through Iker Gil and through attendance at a few of the Sunday “salons” that he and Margaret hosted for young architects of the city, I learned that these sharper sides were paired with a rare kindness and generosity. In a discipline known for eating its young, for closed doors and ambivalent gatekeepers, Stanley actively worked across decades to both publicly cultivate architecture discourse—through exhibitions, debates, gatherings, publications—as well as through personal encouragement, advice, and support of the next generation. Maybe because he also often felt like an “outsider,” as he told us, he prioritized spaces for others to have the opportunity to rise. At first, I read his kindness as characteristic of the support my partner and I had found in Chicago’s architecture community; after some time, it occurs to me that this tradition of engaging young architects in the city was, in part, his legacy. When Iker and I first presented the ideas around the U.S. Pavilion to him and Margaret, he showed us a collage of Chicago’s Trump Tower sinking into the lake, like his infamous Crown Hall image. He wanted to know why we weren’t being pushier, fiercer, more pointed in our critique. Don’t hold back, he told us. No other Chicago architects had yet embraced our engagement with politics at a precarious moment in this direct and open way. I felt very lucky to have his toughness at our backs: Stanley Tigerman was a unique force of both criticality and sweetness that, in his absence, is marked by an incredible loss for the city and for the discipline.

Memory Card Sea Power

Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Cape Town-based photographer David Southwood’s work asks questions about place and its inhabitants, focusing on peripheral economies, privilege, power, and interstitial spaces along infrastructures. His project Memory Card Sea Power focuses on the Foreshore region of Cape Town’s city bowl and the Tanzanian stowaways that inhabit it while they wait for their next move.

Iker Gil talked to David Southwood to learn about the origins of the project, the history of the area, his relationship to the stowaways, and the broadsheet produced.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Iker Gil: When did you first come across the Tanzanian stowaways who live by the N1 Highway? Why did they settle in this specific area of Cape Town?

David Southwood: In 2010 I became aware of a community of men living under the bridges near the Cape Town harbor. Because these guys are masters of camouflage, the actual realization that the same group of men was occupying this littoral section of the urban plan, consistently, was a gradual one.

The short version of the very complicated story is that the Tanzanians come to Cape Town to use the port as a springboard to reach other port cities by stowing away on ships. This primary arc is underpinned by a lively heroin smuggling network, naive and youthful urges to see different lands, the old yellow brick road promise of a “better life,” and the traditional idea that strong Tanzanian men go to sea.

The stowaways occupy this particular area in Cape Town because of several reasons: it is close to the harbor; exactly who has jurisdiction over the area is unclear which leaves a regulatory void; it is inhospitable which means there are no turf wars; and it is close to the city which provides what little economic transaction the community needs for survival.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


IG: The stowaways inhabit an interstitial space, the reclaimed area of Foreshore. Can you describe the history of Foreshore and its current role in the city?

DS: What is now the Foreshore area of Cape Town was established on reclaimed land in the 1930s and 1940s. Cape Town’s harbor and pedestrian zone were replaced with the commercial Duncan Dock, completed in 1945, which was designed for larger ships to attract international sea trade.

In the run-up to the actual construction, tensions between the city of Cape Town, and National and Provincial planning authorities emerged. In that sense, the Foreshore has been, and will always be, a zone in which heavily contested political decisions get made.

In the 1950s, new ideas about transport planning were channeled through increasingly racist ideas that the South African government had about separating communities, establishing networks that enhanced the ability of white people to extend their privilege.

This racist and technocratic set of values find their form in the highways extending from the Foreshore region through District 6, a formerly “colored” area which was compulsorily acquired and demolished. Through the Cape Flats, the concrete structures effectively split the city along racial lines.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


The stowaways occupy a no man’s land in the sense that the area has always been surrounded by a lack of clarity and intelligibility. This has meant that it is a perfect spot to colonize because no one has their eyes trained on it despite the intense intellectual high tide which engulfs it.

The men who live under the bridges always desire to be elsewhere. Their modus operandi is to have as little to do with the city as possible, and therefore their bodies occupy the underpass world. Their minds, however, are attached to the next destination, which they seek to attain.

Some of the men that I met have their makeshift quarters between the steel barriers on the median between the dual highways. For me, this is the most profound indication of a will to exist at the interstices, at the emblem of an international nowhere.

Historically, this part of Cape Town was a place designed for embarkation. In the way that the stowaways haunt the Foreshore, they represent contemporary surrogates for the original users. They exist in the shadow of design and have worked out how to extract what they need from the various vacuums that poor planning and policing open up.

These guys exemplify the idea of hiding in plain sight. Most of their daily routine, when I first saw them, was lived-out in the bowl, which the highways at the Foreshore delimit.

When the hundreds of thousands of motorists enter and leave Cape Town, they y observe the men often at quite close proximity, but because they are moving and stuck in their vehicles, the stowaways don’t really amount to much. The tableau is both spectacularly intimate and private at some times of the day but also invisible because of the relative speeds and modes which the two communities function at.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


IG: How did you first approach the stowaways? Was there a person that stood out for you?

DS: The stowaways don’t like intruders, silo their lore, and don’t speak much English, so it was challenging to find a way to engage with the community.

My first approaches were false starts. First, I simply walked up to a group of men on Saturday morning and I was met with extreme hostility. A high proportion of these guys use heroin and other potent drugs, and a thin white guy with a big grin didn’t cut the mustard. I then asked a Swahili-speaking friend of mine to come and help break the ice, but he had an approach characterized by a slightly analytic distance that also fell flat.

Finally, I met Adam Bachili, a brilliant English-speaking Tanzanian who was also a seasoned stowaway. We got along very well, and this relationship proved to be the key. It is through Adam that the entire project happened and he is Memory Card Sea Power.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


IG: The project is presented as a broadsheet designed by Francois Rey of the graphic design studio Monday Design. Can you talk about the election of the format and what you wanted to convey in print?

DS: I wanted to make a low-cost object that could be circulated widely. A one-color litho broadsheet provided this opportunity. The process was not beholden to multiple suppliers and many expensive hours of post-production and color correcting.

My instruction to Francois on a Monday was, “Here are the photos and the texts, see you on Friday!” I aimed to explore print and medium territory, which I knew nothing about, and disown (briefly, it seems) the earnest formalist approach that I had become used to.

It was difficult for me to maintain a single technical approach over the years of the project’s making because different cameras suited different modes of photography and the same chemicals and film were not always readily available. Early on, I realized that a cheap newspaper would provide some sort of parity over all the varying idioms, films, and processing techniques and lend a rough, contingent quality to the final product.

Owning and sponsoring the entire process allowed me to control the means of distribution and it was imperative for me to show the work in spaces which were not bound by the self-aware, rote debates in art criticism, and the gallery world.

I sold the broadsheet to friends, had a show in the space of a prominent architect friend [Wolff Architects], and pasted the newspaper around the city, under bridges mainly. Under bridges and pasted onto concrete urban infrastructure is the natural habitat of Memory Card Sea Power.

The life of stowaways is transient, violent, unrestrained, and unpredictable, and the underpasses where they choose to live have a hazy, leaden ambience. I hope that how I force the text and saturnine photography into a violent collage gives the reader these senses. There are no page numbers on the newspaper so reconstituting the broadsheet results in chance juxtapositions and unintended narrative arcs much like stowaway life. In the same way, the community of men who I knew has mostly dissipated, and so too the flimsy newspaper will give itself up to the vagaries of life.

The decision to use a newspaper format was a decision to forget.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


IG: Along with the photographs, the broadsheet includes a series of messages by the stowaways and diary entries by your collaborator, writer Sean Christie. How do the photographs and text complement each other?

DS:The relationship between text and photo is loose because when the broadsheet is put back together, after it has been laid out, and the composite photographs completed, the photo/text juxtapositions change.

The aleatoric nature of Memory Card Sea Power leads to a constant recontextualization of the photography, which is what I wanted to happen.

The bold, chunky text is transcribed stowaway Pidgin, and it is designed to be legible from a distance (motorists) and/or draw the potential reader closer. At closer proximity, the photography becomes legible, and finally, Sean Christie’s text becomes readable. What I tried to do is modulate the size of the various components so that Memory Card Sea Power functions at all distances.

Sean’s text is diaristic and offers multiple types of information: Sean’s own sensual impressions, dialogue and truncated historical contexts of Adam, the stowaway community, and the city of Cape Town. This variation makes time, and the overall story contracts, expands, and fractures, with the narrative continually coming unmoored.

Sean wrote an unbelievable book called Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (Jonathan Ball, 2016) about his experience with Adam and friends in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and traveled with these heroin smugglers down the East Coast of Africa back to Cape Town. It is an excellent, risky work, which tells a very complicated story with empathy and insight.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


IG: You have worked on another series that also involves the N1 highway. Can you talk about your interest in the highway and how it relates to your work?

DS: The N1 highway links Cape Town and Zimbabwe and splits South Africa North/South. The road emanates from the harbor precinct where the stowaways live and runs for 2,000 kilometers straight up the map.

The N1 project only has two traditional “road” photographs. The rest of the body of work is comprised of random cameos, landscapes made from the road, and still lifes. I intended to construct an idiosyncratic picture of the road that negated the typical “road” photo essay.

The modalities in which N1 and Memory Card Sea Power function are very different, but share DNA in their attempt to elucidate how unintended users of infrastructural design occupy space. These unintended users are more often than not migrants and both projects try to tell migration stories in new ways.


Memory Card Sea Power © David Southwood


David Southwood is a South African photographer based in Cape Town. Southwood’s contact with his subjects is carefully organized, generally protracted, and is designed to shift power away from the author in as far as possible. His corpus of work is a miscellany of personal projects and jobs each of which identifies problems and asks questions with craft, humor, and empathy. In 2000, together with some township photographers, he set up the first nonprofit organization for street photographers in the Western Cape called Umlilo. His latest book titled HUSTLES, co-authored with Local Studio, chronicles Local Studio’s first twelve built projects and five years of practice in the City of Gold.

Pittsburgh as a Project:
Reimagining the Modern

Alcoa Building. © Clyde Hare. Courtesy of the authors.


Essay by Rami el Samahy, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo excerpted from their book Imagining the Modern (The Monacelli Press, 2019).


Imagining the Modern extends from a research initiative and exhibition of the same title held at the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2014-15. As curators and “architects in residence” for the nine months of the exhibition, Grimley, Kubo, and el Samahy were invited to unravel the city’s complicated relationship with modern architecture and planning through an archival history of the sites, actors, and voices of intervention that shaped the Pittsburgh Renaissance. The material presented in this book builds on these efforts, offering a nuanced view of this crucial moment through original documents, photographs, and drawings supplemented by scholarly essays, analytical maps and diagrams, and interviews with key protagonists of the city’s transformation. Addressing both positive and negative impacts of the era, Imagining the Modern examines what the Renaissance meant then and now, what was gained or lost, and what reengaging these histories might suggest for the future of the contemporary city. In looking to Pittsburgh as a specific case, we seek to reassess the broader narrative of urban renewal in U.S. cities, arguing for a deeper understanding of the complexities and concerns which underlay the evolution of architecture and urbanism.


We shall not be able to say that we have created a modern style until Architects cease to condemn all that is modern, or all that belongs to the past.
James A. Mitchell & Dahlen K. Ritchey, 1937 [1]


In 1946, in celebration of the year-long Diamond Jubilee of his department store in downtown Pittsburgh, owner Edgar Kaufmann commissioned the young architecture and planning office of Mitchell & Ritchey to produce Pittsburgh in Progress, an exhibition that offered a visionary projection of the city’s future. Led by Kaufmann as client and James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey as designers—all three among the principal advocates for modern architecture in Pittsburgh after the 1930s—the exhibition imagined a radically new era for a city then shrouded in pollution, threatened with the loss of its industrial base, and in need of significant reinvention following economic and physical stagnation during the Depression and the Second World War. In their accompanying publication, Mitchell and Ritchey described their ambition to provide “an exploration of Pittsburgh’s possible future” that might envision “what the city and its region can become” at the outset of the postwar boom. [2] This transformation, they wrote,


       calls for a partnership between us and our descendants for the continuous improvement of living….
       [It] has been prepared on the premise that there will be an expansion in the civilized use of intellect,
       heart, science, and technology and that the atomic age will be one of construction. [3]


The following year, the newly formed Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) issued a publication of similar format, titled Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response. In explaining its mission, the ACCD compared its ambitions for postwar Pittsburgh to the democratic origins of the U.S., arguing that large-scale redevelopment was both urgently needed and crucial to the city’s future. Pittsburgh’s environmental and urban problems, according to the Conference, required visionary thinking at a scale commensurate with


       the genius of our country which has been its love of progress, its restless explorations, its unwillingness
       to relax in the smug worship of things as they are. Each generation of Americans has gone farther, and
       produced more, that than which came before it. The broad sweep of the Conference program can be found
       in its profound acceptance of the inevitability of change. [4]


Together, these parallel documents marked out the breathtaking ends of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh as well as the means by which this change would be effected. Both initiatives were driven by private interests in alliance with government: companies with leadership invested in the economic welfare of the city and determined to improve it. These corporate leaders sought out the talents of architects, planners, landscape architects, and engineers to help them envision a city renewed, one that was advertised to members of the public and elected officials alike as a necessary path toward a desired future. Viewed from the present, both documents reflect the great divide between that era and ours in terms of the power of architecture and planning—real and perceived—to reshape the built environment. What is today regarded as hubristic was, at the outset of Pittsburgh’s redevelopment, seen as both idealistic and urgent.

Imagining the Modern revisits the complex history of urban change that followed pronouncements like these, during the period that came to be known locally as the Renaissance and elsewhere as the urban renewal era. An ambitious program of revitalization in the 1950s and ‘60s transformed Pittsburgh and quickly became a model for other U.S. cities. Politicians, civic leaders, and architects worked together through sweeping local and federal initiatives that aimed to address the social, economic, and environmental problems that confronted the postwar city. This era of superlatives has often been identified with visionary mayors and business leaders, powerful urban planning authorities, and architects and designers of international as well as local renown. [5] Yet Pittsburgh’s progress also included less-well known designers, writers, photographers, and community groups who played important roles in envisioning, projecting, and contesting the modern project from their particular vantage points. The result was a contentious legacy of intervention whose social impacts continue to be debated, but whose buildings and landscapes remain among the most powerful examples of modern architecture and urbanism anywhere in the U.S.


Aerial view of the U.S. Steel Building during construction, 1969– 70. © Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center. Courtesy of the authors.


Renaissance and Renewal

It is important to revisit the factors that sponsored the optimistic mindset behind urban renewal in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Uniquely among the protagonists of the World War II, the U.S. emerged with its physical and industrial fabric relatively unscathed, the only industrialized nation whose economic engines were not devastated, but rather vastly empowered, by the conflict. In 1950, the country, containing roughly half a percent of the world’s population, was responsible for more than a third of the world’s economic output. [6] By 1960, the U.S. share of the world’s production increased to 40%. [7] By this time the gross national product had more than doubled in the fifteen years since the end of the war, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion. [8]

In this climate of postwar prosperity, both civic institutions and private corporations shared a willingness to fund ambitious construction projects following the stagnation of the Depression and the war years, particularly in Pittsburgh, a national industrial center that was actively seeking to reshape its urban fabric and its image. At the same time, the end of the war drove a need to retool the economy, and the nation, for the imperatives of the Cold War as well as for the needs of an expanding population and a booming consumer culture. [9] The steel and aluminum industries, both with significant ties to Pittsburgh, redirected their production from the war effort to more domestic concerns, in the process developing new needs for their materials. These included a wide range of new building and consumer products, from the development of new structural possibilities in steel to the use of aluminum for everything from vases to facades.

At the same time, major metropolitan areas faced real and pressing challenges. The need to house returning veterans and their families dominated political discussions and led to sweeping new programs of federal legislation. The American Housing Act of 1949 widened federal subsidies for low income housing, while the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 inaugurated the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways at a cost of $26 billion, the most ambitious infrastructural project in the nation’s history. Together, these new mechanisms transformed the American landscape, nowhere more so than in its cities. In Pittsburgh, such federal initiatives were preceded by local environmental efforts to clean the city’s heavily polluted air and water and reduce traffic congestion, thereby shedding its national reputation (as well as its persistent image) as “the Smoky City.” [10] After the war, the city began to enforce a law passed in 1941 that required factories to use treated coal. Combined with the introduction of natural gas piped into most residential buildings and the transition of regional railroads from coal to gas, these efforts had a profound—and seemingly instantaneous—effect on the city’s air. Not least among the benefits of this transformation was a vastly altered visual landscape, from a dark atmosphere of haze and pollution to a bright setting for luminous new buildings that reflected the economic and material abundance of the renewed city.

In postwar Pittsburgh, national efforts toward urban renewal were bolstered by the unusual combination of civic authorities with a profound desire to meet basic needs and a wealthy corporate class willing and empowered to do so. Indeed, the story of the Pittsburgh Renaissance is deeply interwoven with the city’s attempt to evolve from a wartime industrial powerhouse to a peacetime corporate and civic center. These particularities of Pittsburgh’s situation led it to become one of the first cities out of the urban renewal gate, for better or worse. The city’s transformation in this period includes some of the earliest instances of successful public-private partnerships as well as grassroots efforts, both in support of and in opposition to urban renewal efforts. These complex relationships and competing aspirations were made manifest in the types of projects that were built—including corporate headquarters and suburban office parks, public landscapes, cultural and recreational facilities, university buildings, and housing districts—and in their aesthetic expression, often as a direct reflection of local means of production in steel, glass, aluminum, and brick. Meanwhile the press releases, brochures, newspapers, and magazines that narrated and promoted this construction boom were frequently filled with superlative boasts: Pittsburgh celebrated the world’s first aluminum-clad building (Alcoa), the largest retractable dome (the Civic Arena), and the tallest exposed steel structure (U.S. Steel). In this sense, the Renaissance is what we might refer to as Pittsburgh’s “Dubai moment:” an era when the world’s eyes were turned to the city’s spectacular firsts as emblems of the future metropolis.


Architecture and Urbanism

As architects and historians, our interest in Pittsburgh’s modern heritage stems not only from our appreciation of its buildings and landscapes, but from the experimental spirit that these projects continue to embody. The best products of the era share an expressive confidence that can be found in works built in other cities at the time, but there is a distinctiveness to their formal and material manifestation in Pittsburgh that makes them worthy of renewed attention. Renewal efforts in Boston, for example—also among the cities that received the largest proportion of urban renewal funds relative to their size—were dominated by governmental initiatives to remake the public sphere, often without the support of the city’s wealthy Brahmin class and expressed primarily through robust civic and institutional buildings in concrete. [11] By contrast, the Pittsburgh Renaissance was largely wrought in shimmering glass and metal, propelled largely through private interests in consortium with a cooperative local government.

Many of Pittsburgh’s finest buildings of this era were built as national or regional headquarters for industrial corporations. The period is bracketed by Harrison & Abramovitz’s towers for Alcoa (1953) and U.S. Steel (1971), both of which played key roles in reshaping the downtown area known as the Golden Triangle into a symbol of the city’s progress and power. Moreover, both buildings stood as essays in developing a corporate expression by pushing the boundaries of what was technologically possible for the industrial materials associated with each entity. At Alcoa, the architects deployed the company’s products to numerous ends, including the first aluminum stamped panel facade system, the first aluminum wiring and plumbing, and the first combination of acoustic ceiling panels with a radiant heating and cooling system. [12] Harrison & Abramovitz made similar use of U.S. Steel’s material expertise to create its corporate headquarters two decades later. Here exposed plates of weathering steel, known as Cor-Ten, snap into an exposed steel frame to create a rugged exterior that recalls the dark atmosphere formerly associated with the city’s steel industries, now chemically absorbed into the building’s surface. Situated on a difficult triangular site, the innovations of U.S. Steel extended to structure, with six massive supporting columns positioned outside the building envelope, and to systems, including the fireproofing of these external columns via a pioneering water-based solution.

Such technical achievements were not reserved for industrial headquarters alone. The external structural diagrid of the IBM Building (Curtis & Davis, 1963), clad in stainless steel, was also the first of its kind. Nor were the city’s architectural and material innovations exclusively the domain of corporations. The Civic Arena (Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961), originally conceived as a home for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Orchestra, boasted the world’s first large-scale retractable dome, comprising nearly 3,000 ton of stainless steel supported by a single cantilevered arm. Innovations also occurred on a more modest scale, as when architect Tasso Katselas designed a non-standard brick for the construction of low-income housing in East Liberty, incorporating a notch in the brick to accommodate the mason’s maximum reach and thereby save time and labor. [13]

Perhaps the project that best exemplifies Pittsburgh’s eagerness to innovate in this period is Mellon Park Square, designed by architects Mitchell & Ritchey and landscape architects Simonds and Simonds and completed in 1955. The project was the brainchild of Richard King Mellon, then president and chairman of Mellon Bank, who sought to keep Alcoa from moving to New York City by aggregating properties in the Golden Triangle to create a site for Alcoa’s headquarters next to a new public plaza at the center of the city. The design of Mellon Square addressed the change in grade between Smithfield Street and William Penn Place through the first integrated design of a modern park above a garage, accommodating seven floors of parking below grade and lining the exposed edge along Smithfield Street with retail to create a modernist, multi-level open space in the heart of downtown. [14] Significantly built through private initiative with the full backing of city government, Mellon Square remains one of the city’s most popular landscapes. [15]

Beyond the built legacy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance, a number of ambitious unbuilt proposals for the city continue to loom large in the architectural imagination. The most significant of these are Frank Lloyd Wright’s two proposals for the Point Park Civic Center. [16] Wright was approached at the behest of Edgar J. Kaufmann in the late 1940s to reenvision the Point following his magisterial design of Fallingwater, Kaufmann’s summer house southeast of Pittsburgh (1934–37), at roughly the same time that Kaufmann commissioned Mitchell & Ritchey to design the Pittsburgh in Progress exhibition. [17] Wright proposed an enormous corkscrew ramp, nearly a quarter-mile in diameter, that would provide access to a variety of large-scale cultural and entertainment venues, including an opera house, a planetarium, an aquarium, exhibition halls, and a sports arena. The complex was to be connected via two multi-level bridges to the North Side and the South Side, with a third connection leading to a 500-foot tower at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Following a muted reaction from the Point Park Committee, Wright proposed a second, slightly more subdued version, featuring two cable bridges hanging from a shorter 100-foot tower and retaining the mammoth ramp as a parking podium. This second scheme met with no more success than Wright’s initial design, and the project was abandoned.

Other corporate patrons commissioned visionary schemes to remake vast areas of the city for cultural and commercial uses. In the early 1960s, Harrison & Abramovitz were hired by the Oakland Corporation, a consortium of private interests, to look at the potential of Panther Hollow, a ravine in the heart of Oakland that divided the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museums from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). The firm designed a megastructure that would have filled the entire 150-foot deep gorge to the brim, a mile-long research city linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions and expanding Schenley Park with rooftop terraces culminating in a hanging garden at Panther Hollow Lake. In the same years Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was hired to design a center for the arts on the Lower Hill, envisioned by civic leaders as “a cultural Acropolis.” [18] Lead designer Gordon Bunshaft and his team proposed a vast plinth containing an art museum and symphony hall at opposite ends of a landscaped plaza that would have afforded dramatic views of downtown Pittsburgh. A large glass box encasing the symphony hall was flanked by monumental travertine columns supporting a waffle-slab portico and roof, while the three-story art museum was to be enlivened with an undulating roof structure of low vaults.

At the same time, other designers were developing counter-projects for Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods that were extremely different in their methods but no less visionary in their intended impact. In the late 1960s, Community Design Associates, led by Troy West, worked with residents of the Lower Hill to produce “Our Way,” an ambitious response to the city’s official plans for the area. The project strategically located programs in two long buildings on both sides of the existing Our Way Alley, with the larger of these two bars organized in a stepped mass containing multiple types of housing units. A superstructure covering the upper floors was to be planted to provide residents with shading and food. West’s ambitious proposal, developed through innovative methods of community-led design, synthesized concerns for housing, environmental conditions, and food production in a radically modern project that was in many ways the antithesis of the top-down planning that typified other schemes for the neighborhood.

While these neighborhood-scale projects never made it past the planning stages, they had a significant impact on the development of the city as well as on discussions of urban renewal era beyond Pittsburgh. These proposals often helped galvanize support for subsequent plans that did come to fruition, in some cases leading to the critical rethinking of designs that were ultimately built. Moreover, the national attention garnered by these proposals affirmed the importance of Pittsburgh’s transformation as a touchstone for postwar debates on architecture and urban planning, one that provided architects with new models for thinking about large-scale solutions to contemporary urban problems.

Pittsburgh’s postwar architecture and urbanism represented a transformative moment in its history. At a point when the city is currently experiencing a new resurgence in energy, Imagining the Modern is especially relevant to those who seek to understand an era when Pittsburgh was at the center of the world stage. Using the city as a case study, this book frames questions that extend beyond the region, reassessing this important period in twentieth-century architecture at a time when many of its products are under threat across the nation.


Pittsburgh Projects

A compilation of built, unbuilt, proposed, and demolished projects provides a rich history of the city’s transformation during the past century. When overlaid with traces of what was and what might have been, a map of Pittsburgh reveals that the concentration of the era’s efforts was localized to six areas of the city. In each of these neighborhoods, differing circumstances and constraints resulted in urban interventions that varied widely in their methods of planning and execution, as well as in their perceived success or failure.

The building texts in this section were written by Adam Himes, Phillip Denny, Martin Aurand, and Rami el Samahy.


The Point

The aptly named Point, where Pittsburgh was founded and the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers converge to form the Ohio River, developed into a major node in the city’s industrial network. By the 1930s, however, pollution, abandoned railroad structures, underused warehouses, dilapidated housing, and periodic flooding had brought the Point to a state of disrepair, and it soon became a focus for government and business-led redevelopment efforts. Following a number of studies, including two bold designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and a Robert Moses plan that placed the Point at the center of an automobile-driven metropolis, civic leaders proposed Point State Park and Gateway Center. The former, a state-designated 36-acre parcel, was designed by an impressive group of local, national, and international landscape architects, architects, and engineers, including Ralph Griswold and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Gordon Bunshaft. Point State Park, which opened in 1974, features an iconic fountain at the Point’s tip. To the east of the park, Equitable Life, a New York-based insurance company that was committed to large-scale investment in Pittsburgh, developed twenty-three acres of land. Gateway Center became a commercial and high-end residential development that epitomized modern life through its architecture, landscape, and planning. Its distinctive modernist buildings included three cruciform towers, the IBM Building with its “diagrid” facade of diamond-shaped panels, and the massive Westinghouse Building. Gateway Center was considered a huge success, and became a model for urban renewal throughout the nation. The Point’s revitalization embodied hopes for a competitive business climate for Pittsburgh and increased employment in the city center, and the potential spread of this growth to other parts of the city.


IBM Building Pittsburgh, Joseph Molitor, 1969. © Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs,1935–1985, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. Courtesy of the authors.


IBM Building
Curtis & Davis, 1963

Formerly the IBM Building, and now fittingly the headquarters of the United Steelworkers, this gem of a building beautifully expresses the structural potential of steel. Each exterior wall is composed of a diamond grid of steel infilled with alternating bands of opaque and transparent glass. Five varieties of steel are used to accommodate differing loads, which are brought to the ground via two concrete pylons on each side of the building. The structural facades free the interior from all vertical supports except the central core, eliminating 200 tons of steel when compared to typical frame construction. This approach met IBM’s desire for flexible office space in the six floors it leased from the Equitable Life Assurance Company (the building being the fifth in the latter company’s Gateway Center development). The regular grid also enabled the prefabrication of large portions of the facades off-site, simplifying on-site construction. Here and elsewhere, IBM cultivated a modernist architectural image under the leadership of designer Eliot Noyes. Curtis & Davis, a noted modernist architectural firm from New Orleans, designed the Pittsburgh building. Structural engineer Leslie E. Robertson, of Worthington, Skilling, Helle & Jackson, designed the exoskeleton, a technical precursor of his designs for the World Trade Center in New York City and Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Tower.


The Golden Triangle

Pittsburgh’s downtown Golden Triangle is in some respects the most visible aspect of the effort to reshape the city during the Renaissance era. Lead by civic and corporate leaders, this effort included a series of new towers that served as the corporate headquarters for Pittsburgh-based companies and showcased the materials that led to these companies’ successes.

Among these are the Alcoa Building and two U.S. Steel buildings, each designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, then the architects of choice for corporate America. The Alcoa Building used aluminum in new and innovative ways, from the cladding to the insulation to the wiring and plumbing. The second U.S. Steel Building is an architectural masterpiece that evokes not just the client in its bold use of material but the entire city in a formal resolution that celebrates the Triangle’s two grids.

Nearby, the modernist landscape of Mellon Square offered the city a fascinating new prototype: the underground garage disguised as a plaza.

A number of other architecturally notable parking garages were built during this period. Each celebrated the automobile—sometimes with dramatic gestures—and endeavored to provide efficient means of visiting the Golden Triangle by car.


Workmen installing the first aluminum panel on downtown’s Alcoa Building, Newman-Schmidt Studios, 1951. © Newman-Schmidt Studios. Courtesy of the authors.


Alcoa Building
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1953

The 30-story tower was built as an experimental showcase of the construction applications of its namesake’s product: aluminum. The first building to be clad in stamped aluminum panels, it also served as a test case for aluminum wiring, plumbing, and a combination acoustic ceiling panel and radiant heating and cooling system; even the venetian blinds were made of aluminum. Though designed for the mundane purposes of lightweight economy and ease of assembly, and to demonstrate the insulative and fireproofing capabilities of an aluminum envelope, the building’s facades achieve a high level of refinement. They are punctuated by round-cornered aluminum-frame windows that pivot 360 degrees to allow for cleaning from the interior. As a final demonstration of aluminum’s light weight, the entirety of the four-story glass entry vestibule hangs from two cantilevered girders.

Harrison & Abramovitz were tasked with studying the use of aluminum in building in 1945. They designed an aluminum-faced low-rise office building for Alcoa in Davenport, Iowa, completed in 1949, as a trial run of sorts for the Pittsburgh tower. Alcoa was looking towards a site in Manhattan for the latter; but Richard King Mellon persuaded the company to remain in Pittsburgh by offering Alcoa a prime downtown site and proposing an adjacent garage topped by a public plaza, which became Mellon Square. The square offers excellent views to and from the tower. Alcoa relocated to the Alcoa Corporate Center on the North Shore in 2001. The building then became home to government entities, regional nonprofits and small start-up companies; in 2015, it was converted into residential apartments.


Lower Hill

City planners had eyed the redevelopment of the Lower Hill as early as 1939 with Robert Moses’s Pittsburgh Arterial Plan, which advocated clearing the area in order to develop a more efficient highway system and new housing. The site was the commercial, institutional, and cultural heart of the city’s African American community; yet it was characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitation, absentee landlords, and property values that were falling faster than anywhere else in the city.

Beginning in 1953, local architects Mitchell and Ritchey developed a master plan for Pittsburgh’s “Cultural Acropolis.” In 1956, with backing from several civic leaders and foundations, significant federal funding, and some community support, a large swath of land was cleared for the construction of the Civic Arena, displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses. Claiming the largest dome in the world at the time of its construction, the Arena was originally intended as an all-purpose facility, including a home for the Civic Light Opera and local sports teams. Because its acoustics proved incompatible with musical theater, it remained primarily a sports venue.

Subsequent plans to add the equally ambitious Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Washington Plaza, a three-tower luxury housing project designed by I. M. Pei & Associates, did not receive the same support. Displacement and failed relocation efforts left the local community deeply distrustful of further development, while a lack of consensus among civic leaders combined with a slow market for high-end housing in the area. Only one of Pei’s three towers was completed, and the SOM project was scrapped completely. The grand project stalled, and the Civic Arena was left stranded in a sea of parking lots for more than sixty years. With the demolition of the Arena completed in 2012, the midcentury dream of a cultural district adjacent to downtown was finally put to rest.


Lynette May, Gerri Walker, Shirley Jenkins, and Alberta Thompson hitting golf balls at Washington Plaza putting field, with Civic Arena in the background, Charles “Teenie” Harris, August 1969. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archives. Courtesy of the authors.


Civic Arena
Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961

The Civic Arena dominated Pittsburgh’s Hill neighborhood for half a century. Initiated by Edgar J. Kaufmann, the department store magnate and patron of legendary residences by Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, the arena was initially intended to serve as a venue for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, though it was never well-suited for this purpose. Mitchell & Ritchey, the premier architects of the so-called Pittsburgh Renaissance, designed the structure. James Mitchell was the lead designer, and took out a patent on an early softshelled version of the design. After many compromises, the final design featured a massive stainless steel dome, supported by a single cantilevered arm, which provided a clear span across the diameter of the building and was the world’s first retractable roof over a major venue. A complex, automated system allowed for the roof to be opened in under three minutes.

Site clearance for the Lower Hill Cultural Center, including the arena, controversially displaced over 8,000 residents and hundreds of small businesses. Yet the Center’s planned apartments, a Symphony Hall, and other facilities remained almost totally unrealized. Variously referred to as the The Auditorium, the Civic Auditorium, the Civic Arena, the Mellon Arena, and more colloquially as the Igloo, referencing its shape and latter-day role as the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, the arena hosted an extraordinary number of concerts, sporting events, and distinguished visitors. Truly one-of-a-kind, the building’s demolition in 2012 was controversial as well.



The urban redevelopment of Oakland during this period was driven largely by educational and cultural institutions. Chief among them was the University of Pittsburgh as it transformed itself from a regional to a national university by harnessing the energy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance. Although other Oakland institutions built notable modern buildings and additions, including the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History and Carnegie Tech (Carnegie Mellon University after 1967), none rival the University of Pittsburgh’s scope or scale.

Following World War II, the university spread out along the Forbes Avenue and Fifth Street corridor, a trend that only accelerated with the selection of the ambitious Edward Litchfield as chancellor in 1955. In one of his first acts, he retained Harrison & Abramovitz to consult on Pitt’s campus growth. The university quickly committed to twelve major capital projects including the new Hillman Library, Trees Hall (which at the time of completion housed the largest indoor pool in the country), and the Tower Residence Halls (later Litchfield Towers).

When Pitt purchased the land under Forbes Field, the city’s disused but venerable baseball stadium, Deeter Ritchey Sippel produced several versions of a new Forbes Complex Master Plan, of which the Forbes Quadrangle (later Posvar Hall) was completed. Troy West’s practice Architecture 2001 led an alternative effort to repurpose the stadium structure, transforming it into affordable housing and other uses. Other unrealized visions for Oakland included Harrison & Abramovitz’s breathtaking Panther Hollow development. Designed for the Oakland Corporation, a jointly owned, Pitt-dominated consortium of seven institutions, the project proposed a built structure to fill in the entire ravine that sat between Pitt, the Carnegie Museums, and Carnegie Tech. Although soon shelved, it remains a fascinating idea as well as a symbol of the era’s optimism.


Oakland Research Park (Panther Hollow Project), sectional perspective, Robert Schwartz for Harrison & Abramovitz, c. 1963. © Harrison & Abramovitz. Courtesy of the authors.


Panther Hollow Project
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1963

Stretching for nearly a mile, and filling a ravine as much as 150 feet deep and 900 feet wide, Max Abramovitz’s Panther Hollow Project envisioned a megastructural “research city” linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions. The massive complex would have filled the hollow to the brim, and expanded Schenley Park with a series of roof terraces and gardens. Only in the first of three phases—between the Forbes Avenue and Schenley Drive bridges—would buildings have risen above ground level. As the megastructure grew from north to south it was to expand from four to seven levels with transit and utilities buried beneath. Terraced courtyards would have provided ample light to the research facilities, commercial areas, and auditoria within. At its southern end, the megastructure was to fan out around Panther Hollow Lake, creating a public “hanging garden.”

The megastructure would have integrated services and amenities within itself and supported a series of residential developments in the surrounding area. A complex structural system would have enabled the replacement of portions of the complex so that it could remain up to date. The community consortium driving the project, the Oakland Corporation, was dissolved in 1966, and the project was abandoned due to insufficient investment.



The once-prosperous Allegheny City, annexed to Pittsburgh in 1907, featured a civic core with public buildings, a ring of parkland, and an abundance of architecturally rich neighborhoods that would ultimately be preserved and revived. But by the 1950s, the Northside, as it came to be known, experienced high crime rates, traffic congestion, derelict housing, and a population drop of nearly a quarter in a decade.

In response, the city began razing over 500 buildings in the civic core to create the new Allegheny Center, with the support of Alcoa and the federal government. In keeping with the prevailing thinking of the era, thirty-six city blocks were transformed into a new pedestrian super-block surrounded by a one-way, four-lane loop designed to facilitate vehicular traffic. The center included office buildings, mid-rise apartment slabs, townhouses, and a shopping mall with 2,400 parking spaces below. Deeter Ritchey Sippel master planned and designed much of the project. Tasso Katselas added townhouses along the edge (Allegheny Commons East), and the Office of Mies van der Rohe designed an office building (East Commons Professional Building). An international competition chose the design of William Breger, a former employee of Walter Gropius, for the Public Square at the Center’s new heart.

Despite some initial success, the plan proved ill-fated. The traffic circle cut off most of the Center’s commercial space from pedestrian reach of the surrounding neighborhoods, and it could not compete with the ease of vehicular access offered by suburban shopping centers, despite the new road network and mega-garage. As a result, most of the mall’s stores were eventually replaced by back-of-house office space, populated by businesses that did not rely on foot traffic. The housing remains popular to this day, and the public square has been rebuilt along with the surrounding public realm. New owners have injected life into the complex, upgrading systems and bringing new programs and pedestrians back to the area.


Allegheny Center Commercial Complex, commercial area including “bazaar,” Helmut Jacoby for Deeter Ritchey Sippel, c. 1962. © Helmut Jacoby. Courtesy of the authors.


Allegheny Public Square
William Breger, 1967

In October 1963, Mayor David Lawrence launched an international competition for a new public space intended to serve as a centerpiece for the Allegheny Center development. The square was to replace the historic public square of Allegheny City. The competition jury was chaired by Hideo Sasaki, a modernist landscape architect and chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard. Other members included Henry J. Heinz II; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and Pittsburgh modernist architect Dahlen K. Ritchey.

Over 300 entries arrived, nearly a quarter from overseas; yet the jury deemed just one entry to be acceptable. “Altogether too many of the submitters felt the need to clutter up the square with kiosks, pavilions, pilons [sic] and other self-conscious architectural and sculptural elements,” they wrote. The only design “of high enough quality to receive an award” was submitted by William Breger—a former employee of Walter Gropius and the Chairman of Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture—and a team of students, James Terjesen and Warren Winter. They proposed a stark suite of concrete walls, with benches and steps that punctuated a continuous brick-paved surface and created places for walking and sitting around a slightly sunken pool and fountain.

Breger’s design was built; but the square was underappreciated and badly neglected over time. In 2007, its neighbor, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, organized another competition to usher in its removal, won by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. The new design, known as Buhl Community Park, filled in the sunken pool, softened hard surfaces with plantings, and strengthened connections with the fabric of the city.


East Liberty

Long considered Pittsburgh’s second downtown, East Liberty was the commercial core of the East End, historically a preferred location for the city’s upper and middle classes. As those with means increasingly relocated to the suburbs in the postwar era, local merchants and other civic leaders asked the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for assistance in saving East Liberty from through-traffic congestion, a high rate of commercial vacancies, and deteriorating housing stock. In 1960, following its successes with the downtown Renaissance and its challenges with redeveloping the Lower Hill, the URA took on its largest redevelopment project to date with an unprecedented amount of community input. Absorbing Gruen’s ideas of reestablishing human-centric social spaces in the face of growing sprawl, through-traffic was diverted via a boulevard looped around the commercial core, with surface parking lots available for those intending to shop. The business corridor was transformed into the East Liberty Pedestrian Mall, designed by landscape architects Simonds and Simonds, with wayfinding and signage by Peter Muller-Munk. Tasso Katselas was tasked to design 1,800 new residential units in a mix of townhouses, mid-rise apartment buildings and towers, including the heroic East Mall Residential Tower that spanned Pennsylvania Avenue.

Built by private developers who benefited from government subsidies for building affordable housing, the new residences changed the demographic of the area, but did nothing to stem the tide of middle-class flight. Many retailers relocated, further contributing to the downward slump. The success of the road loop hinged upon a new highway from East Liberty to downtown, which never materialized, and East Liberty Boulevard became famously known as the “road to nowhere.” Today, most of the built plans of this era have been undone. With the formerly malled streets reopened, residential towers demolished, new housing in place, and the loop road gradually reintegrated into the street grid, East Liberty is again looking at revitalization.


East Liberty Housing. © Martin Aurand. Courtesy of the authors.


East Liberty Housing
Tasso Katselas, 1965, 1967, 1971

As part of the urban renewal plan for East Liberty, 1,800 new units of housing were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Designed by Tasso Katselas Architects, the mix of towers, mid-rise apartments, and townhouses changed the landscape of the neighborhood. As a result, the project inevitably came to symbolize all that was wrong with urban renewal, despite its best intentions and interesting use of basic materials in a low-budget endeavor.

The most notable element was the tower that straddled Pennsylvania Avenue, establishing a brick and concrete gateway to East Liberty, and allowing vehicles to pass underneath. This landmark was complemented by a series of low- and mid-rise apartment buildings, arranged in T-shaped plans that helped define the public spaces around them. The brick walls running perpendicular to the long facade of the building are load-bearing; protruding beyond the main elevation, they are expressed as fins that cast shadows along the length of the project. The facades are further enlivened by a playful placement of floor-to-ceiling windows. This playfulness is not arbitrary, but instead determined by the dimensions of the structural bay and its ability to accommodate one-, two-, and three-bedroom configurations.

Despite earning some early accolades from critics and new residents, the projects have been much reviled. In 2005, the towers were demolished, and several of the lower and mid-rise elements as well. Many of those remaining were given face-lifts beyond recognition. The owner recently asked tenants to vacate the premises, and it has since been completely demolished.



1. James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, “Impressions and Reflections, Part 2,” Charette, August 1937, 2.

2. James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, Pittsburgh in Progress Presented by Kaufmann’s (Pittsburgh: Kaufmann’s, 1946), 1.

3. Ibid.

4. Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response (Pittsburgh: Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 1947), 3.

5. See Albert M. Tannler, Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2013).

6. Michael French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997), 199.

7. Peter Dicken, Global Shift: Transforming the World Economy, 3rd edition (New York: Guilford Publications, 1998), 28.

8. French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945, 199.

9. See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). On the reorientation of architects and planners during the Second World War to the anticipated tasks of postwar renewal in U.S. cities, see Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

10. See Joel A. Tarr, Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).

11. We have elsewhere described this period of concrete construction in Boston and other U.S. cities as the Heroic era. See Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, ed., Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (New York: Monacelli Press, 2015).

12. On the material innovations of Alcoa’s aluminum facades in contrast to the glass skins typical of other postwar office buildings, see Thomas Leslie, Saranya Panchaseelan, Shawn Barron, Paolo Orlando, “Deep Space, Thin Walls: Environmental and Material Precursors to the Postwar Skyscraper,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, no. 1 (March 2018): 77–96. Following their invention at Alcoa, Harrison & Abramovitz designed similar aluminum cladding systems for corporate clients in other U.S. cities including Republic Bank in Dallas (1954) and Socony–Mobil in New York City (1954–56), though no longer symbolically associated with the products of their respective companies.

13. Rami el Samahy and Chris Grimley, Interview with Tasso Katselas in Imagining the Modern: HACLab Pittsburgh Broadsheet #3 (April 2016), 7.

14. In its combination of a surface-level urban park with a subterranean garage, Mellon Square was preceded by Union Square in San Francisco, a nineteenth-century park to which underground parking was added in 1938–42 after three years of research on the feasibility of its construction. See Gregory J. Nuno, “A History of Union Square,” The Argonaut 4, no. 1 (Summer 1993). Union Square was among Mellon’s inspirations for creating a modern landscape in Pittsburgh that was integrally designed for the first time to combine park space with shops and a multi-level garage.

15. See Susan Rademacher, Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

16. On the evolution of Wright’s designs for the Point, see Neil Levine, “The Point Park Civic Center and Traffic Interchange for the Heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, 1947,” in The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 261–333.

17. Wright also designed Kaufmann’s office for his downtown department store (1935–37) in the same years as Fallingwater. See Richard Louis Cleary, Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright (Pittsburgh: Heinz Architectural Center, 1999).

18. William Mallet, “Redevelopment and Response: The Lower Hill Renewal and Pittsburgh’s Original Cultural District,” Pittsburgh History (Winter 1992), 182.


Rami el Samahy is a founding principal at OverUnder, an architecture and design firm. Currently a Visiting Professor at MIT, he has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, the Boston Architectural College and Wentworth Institute of Technology. His research has focussed on a wide variety of urban issues including the contemporary Arab city, the logics of main street retail, and the legacy of urban renewal. | @overcommaunder

Chris Grimley is an architect and designer at OverUnder, an architecture and design firm in Boston, Massachusetts. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Rhode Island School of Design, Northeastern University, and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is coauthor of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015), and the designer and editor of Henry N. Cobb: Words and Works 1948–2018 (2018). | @overcommaunder | @heroicproject

Michael Kubo is Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Architecture at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. He was previously the Wyeth Fellow at the Center For Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art and Associate Curator for the US Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice. He is coauthor of numerous books on twentieth-century architecture and urbanism including Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015) and OfficeUS Atlas (2015), and is currently preparing a book on The Architects Collaborative and the authorship of the architectural corporation after 1945.

Liminal Frontier
Climate Adaptation and the American Coast

Bolinas, California © Virginia Hanusik


Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik


When Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams made photographs of the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were trying to familiarize people with an entirely “new” frontier. Of course, this land was by no means “new” or uninhabited, but the images were used as visual propaganda for manifest destiny.

Images of land have always been used to tell us about who we are as a country and as individuals. Our national identity is tied to American landscape paintings just as much as portraits of the Founding Fathers. At this moment, we are experiencing a truly new frontier as we are re-imagining how to live along the coast and the boundary between land and water continues to shift with the impacts of climate change.

Visualizing climate change is a challenge that is evident in our collective inability to process, understand, and imagine what the future world will look like on a grand scale. We are told with more regularity than ever before that certain weather events are the most severe, the most catastrophic, and the most rare. But many of us around the world—those fortunate enough to have been spared from a terrible environmental disaster—don’t experience these events in a way that encourages, or demands, lifestyle change. Despite continuous media coverage of disastrous events such as flooding in the American South or wildfires in California, we are still able to dissociate and remove ourselves from the current situation. Because of this distance, climate change remains an abstract concept for a majority of people, even for those who actively want change.

As a photographer, I focus on daily life in landscapes most vulnerable to environmental changes or landscapes already undergoing adaptation measures. I approach scenes that are reflective of the everyday, but incorporate symbols of a changing physical world with details that become more apparent when viewed together. Architectural style and land use patterns of a region provide details and insight into the values of a certain place.

For the past several years I have been building a body of work that seeks to document the changing relationship that we have with coastal land. Liminal Frontier is an ongoing project to document, analyze, and generate discussion about the coastal spaces of the world in order to capture and learn from the current paradigm shift in development and spatial thinking. This moment in time forces us to re-conceptualize how and where we live, and to acknowledge that the right to build along the water without restrictions will likely cease to exist in the coming decades.

I have spent a majority of my time photographing the American Gulf Coast—particularly South Louisiana—and the impact that climate adaptation is already having on communities there. In the past year, I have focused more on cities along the East and West coasts in order to build a collection that compares urban and rural areas across various geographies. The photographs presented in this essay demonstrate the diversity of form and use for structures, land use patterns, and personal behavior along the water.

As conversations around adaptation and managed retreat become more common in communities around the world, it is important to understand the sentimental value we have historically placed on the coast. Documenting these spaces and learning from the mistakes of past development can assist in planning for a new system of inhabiting coastal land that is symbiotic with the natural world.


Arverne-by-the-Sea, New York © Virginia Hanusik


Touring New York Harbor © Virginia Hanusik


Ocean Beach, San Francisco © Virginia Hanusik


Sheepshead Bay Resilience District, Brooklyn © Virginia Hanusik


Broad Channel, Queens © Virginia Hanusik


Plum Island, Massachusett © Virginia Hanusik


Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn © Virginia Hanusik


East River, Manhattan © Virginia Hanusik


Brighton Beach Boardwalk, Brooklyn © Virginia Hanusik


Wellfleet, Massachusetts © Virginia Hanusik


Noel Road, Broad Channel, Queens © Virginia Hanusik


Waveland, Mississippi © Virginia Hanusik


Rockaway Beach, Queens © Virginia Hanusik


Route 1, Pfeiffer Beach, California © Virginia Hanusik


Flamingo Visitor Center, Everglades National Park © Virginia Hanusik


Brighton Beach, Brooklyn © Virginia Hanusik


Muir Beach Overlook, California © Virginia Hanusik


Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn © Virginia Hanusik


Point Lobos, San Francisco © Virginia Hanusik


Virginia Hanusik is an artist and architectural researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as Domus, Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others. She received her B.A. from Bard College and is currently working on a project about the architecture of climate change in South Louisiana with support from the Graham Foundation. She is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University and was ranked as one of Planetizen‘s Most Influential Urbanists in 2017. She lives in New York City. | @virginiahanusik

Atlantic City

Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


Atlantic City is a place where the real and the projected meet. The beach resort was founded in 1854, the year that the first train arrived from Camden, and a year after the Belloe House, the first commercial hotel, was built. The Lenni-Lenape indigenous people, grand hotels, famed boardwalk, popular entertainment, renowned nightclubs, Miss America, casino gambling, devastating storms, countless mentions in popular culture, and many other moments have all been part of its history. Promises, hopes, uncertainty, and decadence. A place, like many others, where the fate of the earnests is determined by the rigged game controlled by the opportunists.

The 2016 US election prompted photographer Brian Rose to drive to and document a city that he considers a metaphor for the overall state of affairs in the United States. The result is Atlantic City (Circa Press), a book that features over fifty photographs accompanied by his own comments, news headlines, lyrics, and tweets, forwarded by an essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger. A powerful look at the effects of unscrupulous business models and long-term urban planning failures.

Below is a conversation between Iker Gil and Brian Rose accompanied by a selection of photographs and texts from the book.


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


Iker Gil: What was the origin of the book?

Brian Rose: When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I saw it as an immediate crisis, a threat to our democracy and the freedoms we take for granted. I can’t put it any other terms.

That’s the origin of the book in a nutshell. I felt an obligation as an artist to address things. And as I looked around, I was disturbed to see a lot of complacency on the part of artists. If you become so cynical about politics that you can normalize Trump, we have a serious problem.

So, within a couple of weeks of the election I rented a car and drove down the Jersey shore to Atlantic City and began photographing. I knew the broad outline of how Trump had operated multiple casinos, had sucked them dry, and left the city bankrupt and worse off than ever. But the visual presence of Atlantic City, an impoverished city dotted with a dozen gigantic casinos was more powerful and shocking than I had imagined.


IG: When was the first time you visited Atlantic City? Was your experience similar or different from the one of your recent trips to work on your book?


I first visited Atlantic City in 1984, just a few years after casino gambling was introduced on the premise that it would radically change the fortunes of a resort city that had been in decline for decades. I was staying at the newly opened Trump Plaza casino, working for a someone who sold poster art. We were attending a trade show at the convention center next door. I was broke, and asked my employer for some cash to play the slots. So, with a $20 limit I began slowly feeding the machine with quarters. All of a sudden, I hit the jackpot, and quarters came cascading out of the machine. About $400 all together. I took the money back to my room, and have always said that I won $400 from Donald Trump.

Like typical visitors to Atlantic City, I spent most of my time in the casino hotel. I couldn’t afford anything but fast food, which was available on the boardwalk, and I did not walk the adjacent city streets, which were scary. That hasn’t changed. The highways feed visitors directly into the parking garages attached to the casinos. There are even bridges across Pacific Avenue so that it isn’t necessary to go down to street level at all. And several of the newest casinos are located on the bayside of the city far from the boardwalk and the tawdrier aspects of the city.


IG: Some of your previous photo series, such as the ones dedicated to NYC’s Lower East Side and the Berlin Wall, focus on an area over a long period time, documenting the drastic transformations of a place. In this case, the book is a snapshot of a place at a very specific time. Can you talk about these different approaches to place?

BR: The Lower East Side and Iron Curtain projects did not start out as extended studies of transformation. In 1980 I spent a year shooting the LES with a view camera, and then in 1985 did two trips along the East/West border—with side excursions to Berlin—and then returned in 1987. It could have all stopped there. But the opening of the wall in 1989 (thirty years ago) provided impetus for adding to the project. After that, I continued going back to Berlin and focused on the former no man’s land where the wall once threaded through the city.

I decided to re-photograph the Lower East Side after 9/11. I wanted to reconnect with the city that is such an important part of my identity, that was staggered by the attack, but began, soon after, almost inexplicably to rebound. The Lower East Side, which I had always perceived as a world apart, no longer seemed as separated from the rest of the city. I did not do before/after photographs. I wanted to rediscover this place that had such historical resonance as well as personal meaning to me.

Atlantic City could turn into a long-term project, but I doubt that it will. It is so much about this particular moment with Trump having just abandoned the city after causing such destruction, and now bringing his TV billionaire act to the whole world. The fact that he was able to parlay abject failure in Atlantic City into a successful campaign for the presidency is mind boggling and deeply troubling. It’s as if facts don’t matter any more. But visual fact-finding is what I do, and I believe on some level, that hard truths still have currency.


IG: The book combines your photographs with text. Sometimes it’s a brief commentary by you but it also includes news headlines, lyrics of songs, quotes, and tweets by Donald Trump. Can you talk about the relationship between text and image?

BR: Text came in quite early. I created a website that served as a flexible book-like format that I could add to. First I put some of my own comments next to the images, and then began finding quotes from the many articles written about Trump and Atlantic City. I spent hours googling, and even dropped in song lyrics from the Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen. I noticed the other day that in one of my image folders I had included a De Chirico surrealist painting, a desolate view of landscape and architecture. It’s not in the book, but some of my pictures were obviously informed by it.

The big discovery was that Donald Trump had tweeted about Atlantic City—16 times. Trump’s voice and his semi-literate writing style are sprinkled throughout the book. Over and over he disavows having anything to do with Atlantic City’s failure, and complains that no one gives him credit for making a lot of money and getting out before things collapsed. The tweets are hilarious, but they also show Trump’s disturbed personality, which is not very funny.


IG: The book opens with a quote from the movie Atlantic City (1980) directed by Louis Malle. It points out the decadence and decline of Atlantic City, a city “once beautiful.” Where does the book fit into the history of the city?


The once beautiful city was always a mirage. The idea was that the white middle class could go to Atlantic City with its fantasy architecture, dress in their finest clothes, eat in grand restaurants, and ride the wicker rolling chairs on the boardwalk. Behind the scenes, however, African Americans who had come to Atlantic City as part of the Great Migration did the serving and chair pushing. And behind the veneer of wholesomeness there was gambling, prostitution, and political corruption.

After World War II, Americans gained more mobility, bought cars, and moved to the suburbs. Atlantic City lost its unique hold on vacationers, and the city entered a long period of decline. You can see the seediness in the movie Atlantic City, which was shot on location just as casino gambling was brought in. My book was made at a similar inflection point—the twilight of Trump dominance and the increasing competition from casinos in other states and cities.


IG: In one of your initial texts, you ask, “is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as whole?” It is interesting that, while focusing on a specific place, the book deals with larger topics familiar to cities across the US. What is the takeaway of this tale of broken promises and unfilled dreams?

BR: I worried a bit while making Atlantic City that I was indulging in a familiar photographic trope known as ruin porn. I think it’s too easy to do hit jobs on decaying rustbelt cities and hollowed out farm communities. What exactly is the point of that. Atlantic City, however with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, bloated casinos with streams of cars entering and exiting, drifting sand and drifting drug addicts, is a twisted paradigm of the American dream. People come to Atlantic City with hopes of striking it rich, not by working hard and getting ahead, but by doubling down on a losing hand. In the same way, they elected Donald Trump even though anyone with a pulse knew that he was the latest in a long line of snake oil salesmen.

Atlantic City still has the ocean, though it is fighting a losing battle with the waves. People hope for a resurgence of the city, but they can’t think beyond gambling, over-the-hill entertainers, and endless waves of nostalgia. As Lou Pascale said in the movie Atlantic City: “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“‘There is a lot of reason to hope that the reintroduction of two or even three casinos to Atlantic City may be a net positive for the resort’ said Rummy Pandit, a gambling and tourism expert at New Jersey’s Stockton University. ‘That is not to say that Atlantic City won’t experience some growing pains in the process. The pizza analogy is an accurate way of describing the situation facing Atlantic City: No matter how you slice it, if you don’t grow the pie, someone will go hungry.'”

– Wayne Parry, “At 40, are Atlantic City casinos healing or courting danger?,” Associated Press (May 11, 2018)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“In May, Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: ‘The money I took out of there was incredible.’ It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America — he’s not coming back for us.”

– Arielle Brousse, “Donald Trump’s greed helped ruin Atlantic City. Is the rest of the country next?,” The Washington Post (October 6, 2016)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“‘Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,’ he [Trump] said in a recent interview. ‘Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.'”

– Russ Buettner and Charles V Bagli, “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions,” The New York Times (June 11, 2016)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“I would absolutely consider investing in Atlantic City again, great and hard working people, but much would have to change-taxes, regs., etc”

Donald Trump, Twitter (October 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“‘Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,’ he [Trump] said in a recent interview. ‘Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.'”

– Christopher Palmeri, “Atlantic City’s Failed Revel Casino Sells for $200 Million,” Bloomberg (January 8, 2018)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“I walked out on the beach opposite Caesars and Playground Pier (originally the Million Dollar Pier), and took several pictures of its huge wall signs. At my feet in the sand I picked up a cigarette carton with Russian lettering on it. I thought reflexively, ‘The Russians are coming!’ But the Russians are already here.”

– Brian Rose


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should ‘pick up a mop’ to help with flooding—a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue ‘is not a crisis’.”

– Michael Edison Hayden, “Atlantic City Gambles on Rising Seas,” National Geographic (May 4, 2016)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop.”

– Ben Carey and Billy Linker, “Portrait of a Place: Atlantic City,” Nowness (March 7, 2017)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions.”

– Nick Paumgarten, “The Death and Life of Atlantic City,” New Yorker (August 31, 2015)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“Now baby everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City”

– Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“Standing on the Boardwalk looking inland-if you leave things vacant long enough in Atlantic City it will revert back to the sandbar that it naturally is. I assume that this block-long party wall was meant to abut another casino hotel. But this being Atlantic City, windowless casino walls become virtually permanent features of the urban landscape.”

– Brian Rose


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“[Reuben] Kramer shows us the shuttered Trump Plaza, which will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic City’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the Trump Plaza facade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.”

– Matt Katz, “Trump Is Gone From Atlantic City But Not Forgotten,” WNYC News (August 26, 2015)


Atlantic City, 2019 © Brian Rose


“As for [Michael] MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can joke now about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire.

Giving a slide presentation of his work to an architectural firm two days after Trump swept the New York Republican primary in April, he slipped in two photos — one showing one of the elephants, the other showing Trump’s name on the casino marquee in red lights.

‘This guy never paid me,’ MacLeod deadpanned. Everyone laughed.”

– Bernard Condon, “‘Little guy’ contractors still angry at Trump Taj bankruptcy,” Associated Press (June 28, 2016)


Brian Rose contributed to the Boundary issue of MAS Context with the article “The Lost Border”:


Brian Rose studied at the Cooper Union with photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Larry Fink. His documentation of Lower Manhattan over a twenty-five period resulted in three books- Time and Space on the Lower East Side, Metamorphosis, and WTC, a chronicle of the Twin Towers and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. His study of Berlin after the fall of the Wall led to The Lost Border, The Landscape of the Iron Curtain. His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. | @brosenyc

En-Medio: Súper Servicio Lomas

Súper Servicio Lomas, designed by architect Vladimir Kaspé in 1948. Image courtesy of the Vladimir Kaspé Foundation, Universidad La Salle.


Text and interview by Departamento del Distrito (Francisco Quiñones & Nathan Friedman)


En-Medio is produced by Departamento del Distrito in collaboration with illustrator Arina Shabanova. The interview series highlights the delicate status of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City with the evolving stories of six mid-century masterworks. Individual issues are dedicated to the Casa Ortega (1942), Súper Servicio Lomas (1948), Museo Experimental El Eco (1952), Restaurante Los Manantiales (1957), Casa Cueva (1958), and Torre Insignia (1964). Through conversations with those who have lived and worked in the projects of interest, historians who have studied them, activists who have fought for their preservation, and iconoclasts who have wished them dismantled, En-Medio drops into architectural narratives of the city, long underway, to ask what possible futures lie ahead.

Issue two features Súper Servicio Lomas, one of the first multiuse buildings in Mexico City designed by Manchuria-born émigré Vladimir Kaspé in 1948. In contrast to the residential context in which it was built, Súper Servicio Lomas employed a rationalist structure that echoed the Modernist principles of Le Corbusier, complete with pilotis, a free plan, roof garden, and horizontal strip windows. The most radical element of the project, however, was the unprecedented mix of programs integrated into the building’s interior: a gas station; auto repair shop; car dealership; retail space; dance hall and party venue; offices; and executive apartments. In 2007, then mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard, together with a series of real-estate developers, began a redevelopment campaign for the site of Súper Servicio Lomas. The first proposal, the 300-meter tall Torre Bicentenario designed by OMA in Rotterdam, was shelved after receiving harsh public criticism and government opposition. The proposal that followed soon after, the 121-meter tall Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León, was ultimately approved. Completed in 2015, the construction required a section of Súper Servicio Lomas to be demolished and the remaining structure remodeled for commercial lease. Today, the site serves as a symbol of the city government’s preference for private interests over the preservation of public space and national heritage.

The following conversation was held in March 2017 with Dr. Ramón Vargas Salguero, UNAM professor and former head of the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI). We met to discuss the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas and the challenges that face the preservation of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City.


En-Medio No. 2 with front illustration by Arina Shabanova, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.


Súper Servicio Lomas
A conversation with Ramón Vargas Salguero


Ramón Vargas Salguero: I was invited to head the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI) exactly when the controversy surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas began.[1] It was a very interesting time, very illustrative, and I really believe I did my part to fight for the building during this difficult situation. Today, even though everyone agrees to defend pre-Hispanic or colonial architecture as icons we need to safeguard, architecture of the twentieth century in Mexico is truly unprotected. Mexican law establishes that everything constructed before 1900 must, in principle, be safeguarded. If you discover archaeological remains today they are already protected and there is no need to apply for their preservation, no need to discuss it. However, architectural monuments built in the twentieth century can easily disappear. There aren’t many people who agree to defend these works, let alone accept that architecture of the twentieth century is also a representation of our current society.

All of this is a very important philosophical topic, because one of the manifestations of postmodernity and globalization is the destruction of the past. It is clear that society must evolve, and that this process of evolution will bring with it new ways of living. Evidently, this must also impact certain buildings from the past, but I believe only when necessary and justified. This was not the case with Súper Servicio Lomas, which was unreasonably bulldozed.


En-Medio: When you arrived as the Director of DACPAI in 2007, had Marcelo Ebrard, then mayor of Mexico City, already announced the project of the Torre Bicentenario?

RVS: Yes, the polemic was in full swing. Marcelo Ebrard even dared to say the new tower would be a contribution by the government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence!


E-M: What did you think of Súper Servicio Lomas and the legacy of Vladimir Kaspé at that time?

RVS: Kaspé taught in the second year at the National School of Architecture starting in 1943.[2] He had come from studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he met Mario Pani, who later invited him to Mexico. Kaspé’s work, both as a teacher and as an architect, had great prestige at the school.

Súper Servicio Lomas was an interesting case in his early built work. Kaspé arrived to Mexico in 1942 and already by 1943 was building major projects. In 1948, six years after his arrival, he was also directing Mario Pani’s magazine Arquitectura Mexico, for which he first worked as a correspondent while living in France. From the very beginning Kaspé had the sensibility to understand the materials being used at the time by local architects. These materials were primarily brick and concrete. If one looks at his work, even now, one goes, “Wow! It’s very well executed.”

Súper Servicio Lomas was an important architectural work, but not a masterpiece. The building was interesting because it housed various architectural programs under one roof, which everyone was fascinated by. It was also featured in movies—the ramp was especially popular because it was very plastic, very aesthetic, and had angles that looked great on film.


Súper Servicio Lomas, designed by architect Vladimir Kaspé in 1948. Image courtesy of the Vladimir Kaspé Foundation, Universidad La Salle.


E-M: The ramp was, without a doubt, the most iconic part of Súper Servicio Lomas. Did you have the chance to visit the building in its early years?

RVS: Yes, in particular to the terrace on the building’s upper floor. It was a space for dancing in front of the Bosque de Chapultepec, where the famous orchestra directed by Everett Hoagland played. It was a delight; an entire era was reflected in that space.

Kaspe’s oeuvre was in general highly recognized. However, I don’t believe any of his buildings were considered a model for study until the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas arose. After it was threatened with demolition, everyone started studying it in more depth, and only then was it determined to be well-resolved. The building needed to be defended from a source of aggression that was truly unbelievable. Our fight was about far more than just its demolition.


E-M: What concerns were associated with the Torre Bicentenario proposal by OMA—the first scheme promoted by the Mexico City government and its partner developers?

RVS: To begin, the Torre Bicentenario project included a giant parking lot that invaded a section of the Bosque de Chapultepec. Since the site of Súper Servicio Lomas didn’t have the capacity to house the parking requirements for such a tower, it was proposed to construct a parking lot underneath the park towards Periférico. In addition, with the excuse of relieving traffic congestion in the area, a direct exit from the building to the Petróleos Fountain on Periférico was proposed. The aggression was very serious: the project not only required the complete demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas, it also proposed to alter the surrounding roadways and illegally use the site of a public park. And all of this proposed by the mayor of the city! I would ask myself, “In what country are we living? How can Marcelo Ebrard have the nerve to propose a project designed by a foreign architect and partially financed by a Spanish company to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence?”[3]

Voices of protest initially came from within the architectural discipline—historians who wrote and theorized—because those who lived in the neighborhood did not immediately understand the great consequences connected to the Torre Bicentenario. Soon, meetings were organized with the architect who represented the real-estate developer. During these meetings there was heated discussion between those who supported the project and those who opposed it from a critical and historical position. Later, journalists gave voice to a local neighborhood population who publicly opposed the project.

It was then that various question were raised: What is architecture? What is conservation? What is preservation? To what point can one preserve the past in a society that is experiencing continuous change, and how can that form of preservation be achieved? All of these questions were used as a starting point from which to form a strong argument to protect Súper Servicio Lomas from demolition. Teresa Franco, then director of INBA, took a very firm position. She decreed the building national heritage and therefore, in theory, it would not be able to be touched. But, of course, those that were promoting the Torre Bicentenario had many connections and resources. They continued fighting for the project to move forward. By that time, however, the mayor of Mexico City packed up and cancelled the project. At the same moment, various studies and articles analyzing the value of Kaspé’s work emerged.


E-M: Not long after the Torre Bicentenario was cancelled, a more moderate tower—the Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León—was approved for the same site.[4] Were you still the director of DACPAI at that time?

RVS: Yes, I was still the director. Unfortunately, when the problems associated with the Torre Bicentenario and its great height were removed, and the building by Teodoro was proposed in its place, all of the public outrage behind the project subsided. Those who had opposed the first project ended up accepting that the site would be developed. And, of course, Grupo Danhos, one of the real-estate companies involved in the project, went to court arguing they should be allowed to develop a property they owned in any way they wished.[5]

The case ended up in the office of the Attorney General. The real problem started there. When the public prosecutor called on us to defend Súper Servicio Lomas we began to discuss an area of knowledge that was foreign to the context. We went there thinking as architects—speaking about the distribution of space, about how the building is well-oriented, about its circulation, about it being multiuse—but we were speaking with a public prosecutor and few people are more disconnected from such concepts. He listened to us and commented, “That’s interesting. Is Súper Servicio Lomas the only building with these characteristics?” To which we replied, “No, there are others.” And, of course, he responded, “Why do we need to preserve this specific building, and not the others? Why do you speak about the use of space and its continuity? What does that mean?” That’s when you realize that as architects we’ve created our own, insular narrative. In a fight of this kind, such arguments do not interest anyone but us.

In addition, the public prosecutor asked us, “OK, and why do you argue that this building has a very important aesthetic value? What does that mean?” That’s a very hard question! That’s a question Socrates asked himself in Greek philosophy. As you understand, starting to discuss an axiological problem with a public prosecutor—the issue of aesthetic value—is very difficult if not impossible.

During this episode, a theoretical problem about architecture emerged. It made us realize that Súper Servicio Lomas must be defended with arguments that could be understood by the general public. In that regard, Súper Servicio Lomas was very illustrative. It generated a discussion on philosophical, archeological, and aesthetic issues of architectural theory. It even made us recall Socrates, a founder of Western philosophy, who spoke about beauty as the product of utility, a thesis that we have not discussed enough. To which point can an architectural work be perfectly useful and appear beautiful? These are the kind of discussions that we must have in the classroom, in magazines, in books, in order to defend architecture.


E-M: In this case, was it possible to convey such a message? What was the outcome of your discussion with the public prosecutor?

RVS: In the end, Alonso Lujambio, then director of the Ministry of Education, authorized the partial demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas. Ironically, he was the official who should have declared the site national heritage. He authorized the demolition with the absurd belief that the building could be sectioned off in service of the Torre Virreyes and still be preserved. On top of it all, the design of the Torre Virreyes completely deviates from the ideals Teodoro once followed in his architectural practice. Beyond the pseudo-technical requirements of the building’s cantilever, the tower is generic—covered in glass like any other.


The remaining structure of Súper Servicio Lomas, adapted for the Torre Virreyes ground floor, Mexico City, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.


Torre Virreyes, designed by architect Teodoro González de León, seen from the Petróleos fountain, Mexico City, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.


E-M: And in regards to the relationship between the Torre Virreyes and Súper Servicio Lomas—how do you view Teodoro’s approach to preservation?

RVS: I would start from this premise: If you’re going to preserve, preserve with dignity. But do not preserve by changing or mutilating and do not approach the task by thinking that whatever is there must work around your design. Teodoro had another project, Reforma 222, in which he also had to preserve a preexisting building and literally forced it into his project.


E-M: In closing, we would like to return to the struggle you described in conveying the importance of Modernist heritage to a public audience. After your experience with Súper Servicio Lomas, how would you argue for the future preservation of Mexican architecture of the twentieth century?

RVS: The work that I’ve developed over many years has the following basic motivations: To fight for a national architecture of our own and to recognize Mexican architects who have been unjustly marginalized from our professional history. In 1900, during the anchoring of Porfirio Díaz, Mexican architects raised the question of what kind of national architecture should be produced. They held a theoretical debate about the profession and to what point one could produce new architecture through understanding the work that had come before. Such debates were really commendable and have no parallel with contemporary discussions being held at that time in Europe.


E-M: It’s remarkable that these questions were posed as a collective. Nowadays, that dynamic is difficult to imagine.

RVS: That’s right, the architects functioned as a guild. They asked themselves, “What kind of architecture should we build?” Their answer was that architecture couldn’t only be modern and it couldn’t only be national—it needed to be modern and national! In addition, the moto was created in 1900 at a ripe moment to apply the criteria of a new architecture, our own, by following the precepts of a new era: that of the revolution.

Mexican architects have produced, written, and debated an incredible amount, and that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. And it’s not only about recognizing it, but continuing to ask ourselves, “To what point is it still valid to strive for a modern and national architecture?”



1. DACPAI is an arm of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), which was founded in 1946 and currently operates under Mexico’s Ministry of Culture. The principal mission of INBA is to preserve and promote national artistic and cultural heritage. In addition, this government agency is responsible for the protection of twentieth century architectural projects in Mexico.

2. The history of the National School of Architecture, known today as the School of Architecture at UNAM, goes back more than two centuries to the San Carlos Academy. During the 1950s, and under the name the National School of Architecture, the school moved from Mexico City’s Historic Center to UNAM’s national university campus.

3. Amancio Ortega is a Spanish businessman and co-founder of Inditex fashion group, a corporation which counts among its brands the retail giant Zara. He also owns Pontegadea Inmobiliaria, a real estate company that oversees several properties in Europe, America, and Asia. Currently, Ortega is considered to be the richest man in Europe.

4. Teodoro González de León (1926–2016) is considered to be one of the pillars of twentieth century architecture in Mexico. After studying at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), González de León was awarded a grant by the French government and worked for 18 months in Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris. During this time he was involved with the iconic Unité d’Habitation housing project for Marseilles. González de León’s most emblematic projects include the National Auditorium, Rufino Tamayo Museum, and Arcos Bosques Corporate Center, all of which are located in Mexico City.

5. Grupo Danhos is a Mexican real-estate company founded in 1976. The group is largely associated with the development, operation, and management of office buildings and shopping centers. González de León collaborated with Grupo Danhos previously on the design and construction of the Reforma 222 multiuse complex located in Mexico City.


En-Medio No. 2 at Metro Chabacano, Mexico City, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.


En-Medio is supported by funding from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

For more information about En-Medio, you can watch Nathan Friedman’s lecture as part of the MAS Context Spring Talks 2018:


Departamento del Distrito is a Mexico City-based architecture practice founded in 2017 by Francisco Quiñones and Nathan Friedman. Their work lies at the intersection between politics, identity, and space. In addition to built projects, including the new technology headquarters for the Mexican Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities and a set of apartments in the historic mining town of Real de Catorce, their practice engages archival research, writing, and speculative work. Recent projects have been supported by the Graham Foundation, Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

Spontaneous Uses

São Paulo Cultural Center (detail) © SIAA


Text and drawings by SIAA. Photographs by Lauro Rocha.


In 1974, the French writer Georges Perec proposed to write down every moment and action that could be perceived at Saint-Sulpice square, in Paris, over three consecutive days. All of these notations can be seen in his essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1982), which showed us how observation and notation are not enough to exhaust all the possible uses of a place.

Patterns can be recognized and relationships can be established, but the exhaustion of uses is impossible.

To create possibilities, which allow any interpretation, might somehow increase the vivacity and the numerous ways to use the proposed space. In this sense, the São Paulo Cultural Center presents itself as an open place, offering spaces that can engage new means to interpret and to use them in a totally different way.

Ordinary daily activities, in parallel to programmed events, are capable of bringing an autonomous life to this building. Although constantly repeated, these everyday actions are always changing and evolving. They are able to build the imaginary as a collective memory.

Based on the interpretation of George Perec’s essay with the spatial experience of the São Paulo Cultural Center, we developed some texts and drawings in an attempt to, utopically, exhaust the possibilities, to represent in a modest and sincere way the vivacity of this special place.


Continuous pathways from city into building in CCSP

“The public space is movable. The public space is scattered. The public space is empty, it’s imagination. The public space is undetermined. The public space is information. The public space is the holder. Finally, the public space is in an unstable balance. The private space is static. The private space is concentrated. The private space is full, there are objects and memories. The private space is functional. The private space is opinion. The private space is the message. The private space is, by necessity, stable.”
(Soriano, 2006 – translation by author)


São Paulo Cultural Center © SIAA


Different uses in various sections of CCSP building

“We should go about designing in such a way that the result does not refer to an unequivocal goal, but it still permits interpretation, so that it will take on its identity through usage. What we make must constitute an offer, it must have the capacity to elicit, time and again, specific reactions befitting specific situations; so it must not be merely neutral and flexible – and hence non-specific – but it must possess that wider efficaciousness that we call polyvalence.”
(Hertzberger, 1999)


São Paulo Cultural Center © SIAA


A longitudinal section along the building

The São Paulo Cultural Center (Centro Cultural São Paulo – CCSP) is a public institution under the Culture Secretary of the city of São Paulo. Located in a 46,500 square meter building along the Vergueiro subway station, the cultural center gathers countless programs and activities that motivated its construction in the 1970s.

Its main program is constituted by the city’s collection of paintings, the Discoteca Oneyda Alvarenga, a collection of documents of Mario de Andrade folklore research mission, five libraries like the Sérgio Milliet Library (second largest public library in São Paulo), the Alfredo Volpi Library which includes numerous art, architecture, and photography catalogues, a vast collection of comic books, the Louis Braille Library for the differently abled (hearing and visual), a large reading room dedicated to children and teenagers, a multimedia archive of articles on contemporary Brazilian art, and the City Art Collection, in addition to exhibition spaces, ateliers, theater, and cinema.

Designed by the architects Eurico Prado Lopes and Luiz Telles, the building establishes a friendly relationship with the city through its multiple access points and its connection with the subway station. A special designed urban condition and its horizontal form intensifies the public aspect of this building.

Although the apparently oversized proportion of circulation area in relation to program areas, a ratio of 1 square meter of circulation to 4 square meters of program, its floors are never empty or idle. Roof garden, ramps, patios, and wide passages, all these free places disputed by its users, are often more vivid than the program areas which have specific events or uses.

The so-called cultural actions (a type of association between public groups and its administration to use the building rooms and corridors) and the spontaneous uses of its spaces along with the officially programmed routine have the capacity to keep this building active and occupied by the most heterogeneous group of people from every part of the city.

A combination of a frequent use of these undetermined spaces guaranteed by an administration which gracefully deals with the diversity of people and activities is the reason why CCSP is so present in the memory and in the everyday life of its users and its city, as a legitimate public space, frank and democratic, capable of provoking and offering the opportunity to imagine new ways to occupy and to use its openness spaces.


São Paulo Cultural Center © SIAA


Everyday usage

People are already gathering close to its doors before it has even opened.
All people are welcome. Diversity is present in colors, forms, and groups.
At 10 am, CCSP opens its doors. It connects itself with the city, with the metro station.
Sidewalks are expanded, life echoes through its emptiness.
After opening, people occupy the tables in front of the library entrance.
The place is disputed, crowded.
A three year-old girl maidenly holds her mother’s dress and looks around with an expression of astonishment.
The void’s ramps are monumental.
Her mother smiles and waves when she realizes her friend is across the space.
The sun reveals the surfaces that configure this place.
A boy plays with a ball. He kicks it several times towards the administrative block. Short passes of a lonely game.
Time passes by.
Library tables are already filled. The shelves receive numerous visits.
The Metro access square becomes a meeting point.
At the Caio Graco floor, in front of an exhibition, a woman positions a camera on a tripod and films herself talking alone. The surrounding sound doesn’t seem to bother her.
People cross the space.
The lounge area is dominated by a group of five young men wearing Japanese clothes with fans. They start to dance, to choreograph, to k-pop.
Colors shake through the space as they dance.
Music is spread through the building.
The cafeteria tables begin to be filled.
There are people eating.
Near the 23 de Maio suspended garden, a couple of elderly people sit in a bench to admire the view.
The traffic looks distant.
In one of the study tables, close to metro access, a girl sleeps over her open notebook.
In front of the administrative entrance, a significant group of young people dance hip hop, alternating in their individual performances. The sound is loud and the rhythm is exciting.
People are stopping to watch the movement.
Laughter seems to cross all these activities.
Some people enter the building just to use the toilets.
The central square is empty. A group crosses this space.
One of them takes a picture of this moment with his cell phone.
Between the Tarsila do Amaral room and the toilets, two people dance, enjoying the reflective glass which composes the frames of this place.
Children are playing with some pigeons close to the external stairs.
Board tables are crowded.
People get to know each other.
Kids run up and down the ramps.
Inside the Sérgio Milliet Library, readers try to preserve silence.
There are no tables available.
Children are playing around.
A bus stops right in front of one of the entries and a group of children heads to an exhibition. The red school uniform t-shirts stand out as they move through the space.
CCSP’s public feature is put to the test.
In front of the Luís Telles garden, two men play chess as a third one watches mindfully.
At a lounge area, a young woman dances spontaneously with her own reflection over the glass, as if there was nothing around, just her and her opposite image.
Natural light is changing, the shadows cast themselves differently.
People are gathering in the sunny area.
Others walk towards the reading room.
Some pigeons fly at the same time. At the Vergueiro suspended garden, two friends sunbathe in the afternoon sun.
The exhibitions coexists with all that.
Corridors are occupied all the time.
A popcorn seller gets closer to the foyer entrance.
Bus stops dictate the flux along the cultural center.
At the lounge area, a couple sits on a bench to watch people dancing.
A group of foreigners visits the building. They walk through its corridors impressed with this spaciality. They capture the space.
A group rushes towards the elevator that gives access to underground ateliers.
The wind announces the nightfall.
On the terrace, some people practice sports. From the lower floor, it is possible to keep up with the activities.
In front of the Adoniran room, an old man gives dance classes. Samba seems to reverberate the enthusiasm of his students.
At the foyer, some people lay on the ground scattered around the room. They don’t seem to know each other.
A line is forming. While waiting for the event opening, some people observe what happens around them.
The movie session begins and this cluster unravels.
At a restaurant table, six young people chat excitingly about something, ignoring their open notebooks in front of them.
Time is disperse.
Everything happens at same time.
Various uses coexist simultaneously.
All the benches are filled. People are sitting on the floor.
Children play on their cell phones. WiFi is free at some areas.
Close to the Flavio de Carvalho exhibition area, a girl lying down uses her PC on her lap. She seems very comfortable in this situation.
Looking towards the void of the ramps, a woman takes a picture of herself with the building as a background.
The lights are on and the night has finally come.
From the terrace it’s possible to see the lights of the cars and the filled buildings in the landscape.
People are still dancing in front of their own reflections. Various groups, side by side, don’t look bothered with the music on. They seem to be in a trance.
There are no conflicts.
A couple is inspired by the young dancers and tries to waltz with the ambient sound.
People walk towards the metro station.
There are still few people coming to the programmed events. Determined activities.
A theater play is about to begin.
CCSP is shutting down its public life. At least in its corridors.
The library is already closing. Only the employees are still working.
The cafeteria stays open because today there is a presentation in one of the auditoriums. It smells like fresh coffee.
Free spaces start to get empty.
At 8 pm, the doors close and the access is restricted.
For a few hours, everything looks so static.
But it is almost 10 am and people start to gather.
CCSP opens its doors.


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


São Paulo Cultural Center © Lauro Rocha


The texts, images, and drawings are part of CCSP: CARTOGRAPHY OF USES, an exhibition and a catalogue organized by SIAA in 2018, an architecture office based in São Paulo. The catalogue, drawings, and pictures of the exhibition can be found at

This research was supported by the Municipality of São Paulo, Centro Cultural São Paulo, and the 11ª São Paulo Architecture Biennial.

Texts and drawings: SIAA
Images: Lauro Rocha


SIAA is a collective of architects with different backgrounds and experiences based in São Paulo. They value professional practice and academic research as opportunities to design and reflect on issues related to architecture, culture, and the city. Participation in competitions is treated as a continuous exercise of collective reflection and debate, allowing them to investigate diverse architectural concepts exploring diverse sites, programs, scales, construction systems, and forms of graphic representation of space. In their practice, they try to improve the transdisciplinary nature of their work, allowing them to bring other areas of knowledge closer to the strict universe of architecture and urbanism, whether in research, practice, or experimentation. Currently, the architects Andrei Barbosa, Bruno Valdetaro Salvador, Cecilia Prudencio Torrez, Cesar Shundi Iwamizu, Eduardo Pereira Gurian, Fernanda Britto, and Leonardo Nakaoka Nakandakari collaborate in SIAA.

Lauro Rocha is a São Paulo-based photographer who studied Architecture and Urbanism at the Escola da Cidade and who works as a photographer since 2006. He collaborates with publications such as Casa Vogue, Projeto, AU, Monolito, The Architectural Review, and Prisma. His work focuses on architecture, infrastructure, as well as cities and their inhabitants.

Connections: 48 Years

Architectural Site 17, High Museum, 1988 © Barbara Kasten


Lecture by artist Barbara Kasten co-presented by the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) and the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. Introduction by Karen Irvine, Chief Curator and Deputy Director, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.

An Enrichment of Vision

Barbara Kasten (American, b. 1936) is an architect’s photographer. All of her works address the perception of space, the interplay between two and three dimensions, the physical qualities of materials, and, ultimately, how all of these aspects of her work are affected by light. For Kasten, in fact, light is a medium. Her photographs of light-saturated sculptural forms and architectural sites are geometric, colorful, layered, and almost, but not quite, abstract.

Trained in textiles and painting, Kasten began making photographs in the 1970s. Unburdened by the conventions of formal photographic training, she was passionately experimental from the start, and approached photography much as a painter or sculptor would. Her earliest photographic works are cyanotypes―a blue-hued process created with liquid emulsion on paper. Made from direct impressions of materials such as window screening on the treated paper, Kasten’s cyanotypes recall architectural blueprints. In the late 1970s, she began to design and build sets to be recorded with her camera—arranging forms made out of materials such as painted wood and plaster, mirrors, plexiglass, screens, furniture, and fibers, and then carefully, to use her term, “directing” the light onto them in order to make a dynamic composition.

Although most of her works have been studio-based, Kasten has also executed ambitious projects in the built environment, most notably her series Architectural Sites (1986–90), set in locations like office buildings and museums designed by well-known architects such as Richard Meier and César Pelli. Often working overnight with film crews, Kasten sets up elaborate arrangements of colored lights and mirrors in the spaces, transforming them into vibrant two-dimensional compositions, toying with the legibility of the original space and rendering it nearly indecipherable. She has also recently projected video imagery in museum and gallery spaces, adding movement to the experience of light and color, in sequences that transform both the sculptural forms she places in the space and the architecture surrounding them. Reminiscent of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic Light Space Modulator (1922–30), which she cites as an influence, these installations are exhilarating and complicated. Kasten further expressed her interest in Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus Movement when she was an artist-in-residence at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2018, where she arranged steel table frames and colored plexiglass to make a site-specific installation recorded in photographs that add a chaotic and colorful touch to Mies’s austere modernism.

For nearly fifty years, the hallmark of Barbara Kasten’s work has been to mine tensions between highlight and shadow, representation and abstraction. Interested in “changing the reality of things,” she extends many traditions of the Bauhaus Movement through the interdisciplinary and experimental nature of her work. Indeed, Kasten’s works provide formal proof that, as Moholy-Nagy once observed regarding one of his own photograms: “The organization of light and shadow effects produce a new enrichment of vision.”

Karen Irvine
Chief Curator and Deputy Director
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago


Collision, 2016 © Barbara Kasten


Connections: 48 Years
Lecture by Barbara Kasten delivered on Thursday, November 29, 2018 

For this lecture, I decided to put together my own little survey of work and show some things in my work that I think have connections to each other. I hope that you will find some other works that connect as well. It is always really interesting to put together a slide show because you see your own work in different ways. I will cover forty-eight years, from 1970, the year I got my graduate degree, until now. I took about ten years between undergrad and grad school, so I encourage students to give yourself a little time in between to find out who you are and what you like to do. I am still trying to figure it out so it does take a while.

I am not giving any chronological order to the works. I am starting with a project titled Artist/City Crown Hall that I did this past summer at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). I grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, and that is not too far away from IIT. I moved with my parents to Arizona when I was out of high school so I didn’t know about IIT or the people who were going to influence my life that came to IIT like Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe. But the people that have taught at IIT have really influenced my career.

Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


The idea behind the project was to merge Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, and myself into a perspective that would be unique to me but also reflect some of the ideas that were important to them. Crown Hall is like the epitome and one of the most iconic buildings that Mies van der Rohe designed. Used as IIT’s College of Architecture, during the year the entire space is filled with worktables that the students use and those were the objects that I used to make the sculptures.

The project is a series of worktables stacked one upon another in different formations. To that, I interjected brightly colored plexiglass that I have recently discovered and fallen in-love with as a counterpoint to the very solemn gray, black, and white of the architecture of the building. But the building has the most incredible diffused light that I have seen in any place. In the summer, it was really glorious. I wanted to make work in that space and also comment on it, make independent sculptures, make photographs, and use the entire space as an ad hoc studio.

I had about six weeks to assemble the pieces. IIT was very generous in allowing me to use the space and all of the tables. I would go in and start with one arrangement. The next time I came, I added another one and then, the next time I came, I added a third one. After that, I started mixing them up, so they never stayed the same. It was like being in the studio. You go in, you experiment, things happen, and you are motivated to do something else. That is the way I treated the project. I made beams out of the same colored acrylic that I fell in-love with. Crown Hall’s floor was so shiny that it acted like a mirrored surface. If you know my work, you know that I have used mirrors a lot.

There were all these elements in there that I was really happy to use. I think I made a total of twenty pieces but I ended up with eight pieces that actually remained as “finished” constructions. They stayed up for a week after which we had to take it down because the students were coming back for the fall semester and all those tables had to be put back to work. None of these sculptural elements were attached. They were just there by balance, finding the right point for that to happen.

Intervention marathon, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Intervention marathon, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Intervention marathon, Hairy Who artists and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


From that, I took that same concept and used it for a stage sculpture titled Intervention that I made for the marathon interviews that Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted on September 29 at Navy Pier during EXPO Chicago and as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

There, I used the same tables. IIT allowed me to take some with me and I reconstructed and reproduced some of them because by now, I felt they were my own and I needed to have more. But I started making more beams, beams that reflected some of the real architectural and industrial construction beams, and one or two that were based on the iconic beam that holds Crown Hall together. It is a structure that has four great beams across the roof holding the open area inside up without a visible support system.

I worked on it for many weeks in my studio at Mana Contemporary and then, it went up for one afternoon in this giant space of the ballroom at Navy Pier. It had to go up in two hours and come down in fifteen minutes, and it was up for just the time of the event. I think you might be able to see something similar in March for Mies’s birthday on March 28. We will put up a sculpture and there will be a performance with a dance group. 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus which, of course, Moholy-Nagy was connected to as well and brought the New Bauhaus to Chicago.

Parallels, 2017 © Barbara Kasten


These are forms that I made for an exhibition at Bortolami Gallery in New York last year titled Parallels. These are again, individual pieces that are not attached, but stacked one against another and held in very precarious positions by the balance and the weight of each form. The reason I ended up making these box-like forms was that plexiglass doesn’t have any strength until it is constructed into an object that holds it together. I made these boxes, which made them very strong, that could be leveled one on top of another.

Progression Nine, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Progression Eight, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Progression Four, 2017 © Barbara Kasten


At the same time, I did a series I called Progression that was exhibited at Bortolami Gallery in New York. It is an object that has a photograph as the base, a sculpture relief attached to it, and light going through it creating another level of shadows. This is the epitome of everything I have been working with, which is the illusion of photography, the sculptural identity of the work that I photograph, and light, which is an element that is essential to everything that I do.

These are unique pieces and very difficult to put together. This is a whole new process for me where first, I make the photograph. I use the same material in the photograph that I attach to the piece itself afterwards. The printed photograph is inside a plexiglass box frame. To make the design on top of it, I work with an architectural student from IIT, Devin Gora, and he puts it into a plan. Ten steps later and probably a few thousand dollars, each piece is complete. It really does match the whole idea that I have been after for years. I am really excited to be working in this physical space as well as with the illusion of the photograph, and putting it all together.

Yurakucho Asahi Gallery, Tokyo, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


Yurakucho Asahi Gallery, Tokyo, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


It reminded me of an exhibition I did in 1986 at Yurakucho Asahi Gallery in Tokyo. What I did there was also make sculptures of the same material that I used in the photograph. All the objects in this sculpture are independent pieces, not attached to anything and so, it comes apart. Everything I do needs to be flexible and rely on balance. All the objects that you see in my photographs from that time period reappear in newer works. I have used some of them just recently to make a proposal for a mural. I never let go of any props. I store them or reuse them.

Barbara Kasten, Warsaw, Poland, 1972 © Barbara Kasten


Seated Form, 1972 © Barbara Kasten


Seated Form, 1972 © Barbara Kasten


This is me in 1972 in Poland. I was on a Fulbright grant right after grad school. At that time, I was working with three dimensional form, but in textile. I was exploring abstraction, an abstraction that relied on reality such as identifiable body forms. I hand-wove them out of sisal, big, heavy ropes that came from the ports in Gdańsk. I would unfurl, dye, and I reweave them. They were made on a tapestry loom in shapes that then I could pull together to create these forms.

Seated Forms solo exhibit, 1973 © Barbara Kasten


Figure Chair diazotype, 1973 © Barbara Kasten


Diazotype, 1973 © Barbara Kasten


This is a show I did when I came back at my alma mater, California College of Arts and Crafts [now California College of Arts] in San Francisco. You will notice that there were a few pictures on the wall. It is probably one of the first “installations” I ever did where the objects and photographs related to one another, but it is the same as I do now. They were not photographs of the sculpture. They were companion pieces that interpreted the same concept differently. These are diazotypes, an architectural blueprint process, and they were 8 x 10 contact prints on film that were made using a model. One of the only times I think I have ever photographed a human. Of course, I couldn’t let it go at that. I had to abstract it.

Exhibit at UC Irvine, 1981 © Barbara Kasten


This is a little survey of installations from the 1980s. All my work has always been involved with three-dimensional space and making photographs of it, or just making installations. In the show, they were not installations that were photographed, but they come from the way that the photographs were made in the studio. I found fiberglass screening material that I have used ever since, and that was some of the material in this small setup at a show at UC Irvine. Photographs that were made in a similar manner were on the wall.

Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


This is to show you the scale of where the photographs went to very quickly in 1982. I did a show called Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs at Cal State University, Long Beach. There was this 30 to 40-foot room and, on one side of it, there was an ongoing set of multiple little vignettes that I made Polaroids of. At that time, I showed sculptures in different venues but it was all much more related to the photographs than what I do today.

Capp Street Project, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


I was invited to the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, which no longer exists. It was a house that was a residency offered to three or four artists a year, and one would go there, live there, make work in the space and then, exhibit it in the space. It was open to the public for part of the time of the residency. Here I saw that I could incorporate this spatial placement in a home, a different type of place than a big stage or a big gallery. I wanted the human element in it, so I invited Margaret Jenkins from the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, who had her troupe down the street not too far from the house, to dance in the space, which she did. Consequently, she invited me to collaborate with her. I never made photographs there however.

Wright State University, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


Wright State University, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


The next slide shows how the elements that came from one place went to another one, and into another arrangement, into another environment in an exhibition. This is at Wright State University. I have to note that those big pyramids came from the San Francisco Opera. I like all these hand-me-downs, using articles and objects, and repurposing them for different things. These came in very handy and I used them for several exhibitions. Here is the downward view because it was a two-story gallery with a mezzanine, and on the mezzanine, I had shown some 20 x 24 Polaroids.

Polaroid Corporation Studio, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


Barbara Kasten at Polaroid Corporation Studio, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


These are few setups of the Polaroid studio, the 20 x 24 studio that I was invited to use. I was very fortunate to be part of an early group of photographers who were invited to use this big camera that, at that time, was not available to the public. You can see the size of it. It was a very makeshift camera, but it ended up with great 20 x 24 instant photographs. Polaroid was very generous by offering the use of this camera to artists. You could work for a day or two, or however long they invited you for. In return, one of the images would have to be given to their collections. They amassed a huge collection. At that time I lived in California and they were located in Cambridge, so I had to do a lot of planning to have mirrors cut and ready for me to assemble into a stage setting that I would then photograph. It was probably the most that I have ever planned a studio photograph. Now, I rely on materials that I am interested in and find shapes that I like or make them. I have a more free-form attitude about it. But, at that time, it was much more planned and it took so much orchestration to get things ready as I only had a day or two to make photographs. I relied on mirrors and a big backdrop, and the thing that was the most important for me was the instant feedback. Coming from being a painter and not liking the darkroom, I had to find a way to visualize the work. I usually worked with one setup until I was happy with the results. Then, it came down when I went to the next setup. This is still my photographic process today.

Construct 2B, 1981 © Barbara Kasten


Construct 5A, 1981 © Barbara Kasten


Construct IX, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


When making photographs, I didn’t ever shoot many things at the same time. I never shot many angles. I only set the camera up and then, made changes to the set in front of the camera. I didn’t move the camera. It was a different way of working than I think a lot of photographers are trained to. I learned by doing. If I wanted to do something, I found somebody who could help me do it or tell me what to do. I only took one class in Photography at CCAC and that was it. I learned a lot about photography during a great well-paying job I had at the Presidio where they ran a photography program for the military on base, as it was a base at that time. I didn’t know what a darkroom really was. But, I said, “I know the job.” You take chances when you are young. I told them that I knew what I was doing and I bought the photographer’s handbook, talked to a lot of people, and ran the darkroom. That is one of the ways I got started. But I never liked the darkroom, it was too smelly for me. My magic comes in the studio when the light gets turned on, not when I see it coming up through the chemistry. This is a different mentality. These are the types of images I was making and the kind of things I was looking at that time: mostly constructivist painters such as Moholy-Nagy, Malevich, and Lyubov Popova, a fantastic Russian woman-painter from that time period.

I was not looking to photography as my inspiration. I knew photographers because I started a collection of photography with my husband Leland Rice who actually was the professor that taught me that one photography class at CCAC. He became my husband afterwards. You know, those romances that happen. He is the one that taught me the most about photography but mostly about the history, not about the technique. I also learned more about history by observing and seeing things firsthand, which of course in the 1970s was a lot easier to find and do than it is right now. Great photographs are much rarer to collect now than there were at that time.

NYC studio, 1984 © Barbara Kasten


This is my studio in New York. I moved to New York in 1982 from California, where I had been since I came back from Europe in 1973. I taught a little bit at UCLA, married Leland, and when I got divorced, I moved to New York. In this photo I am cheating as I am standing on the backdrop with my shoes on. You don’t do that in my photographs because you have to look down and it has to change the illusion of the space with no idea of horizon lines. I always had a sweep that is curved and I was always looking downward into that. These are some of the first images I made with an 8 x 10 camera. Polaroid Corporation had given some 8 x 10 Polaroid to my husband and he wasn’t interested in it. According to him, he gave it to me. According to me, they gave the material to me. I am not sure which is the real story but, in any case, I used it and that was really the beginning of how I used a camera. I had no reason to use a camera before as I was making photograms.

Construct VI B, 1981 © Barbara Kasten


Construct XI A, 1981 © Barbara Kasten


Construct XVIII, 1982 © Barbara Kasten


I made sculptural sets related to things that were made in the Bauhaus by set designers using a lot of found industrial materials and relying on constructivism for the imagery and the spatial ambiguity of the photograph. Again, light was the essential thing that made everything become very ephemeral and lose its reality, especially if it had mirror and those shapes bounce to other mirrors or to other walls and surfaces. It was, and still is, very magical to be there in the set and because, of the scale of most of the sets, I was really in the set. It wasn’t a matter of a tabletop where I was moving small things around. I actually physically moved around in these sets, so it had a performance-like aspect to what I was doing. I soon became very attached and involved in the spatial construction as much as what happened when that construction was transformed to the back of the view camera and it then became a flat piece of paper in my mind where shapes had to be rearranged. If I wanted a red half-circle moved up there, I got into the set and moved it up there. I was back and forth between the construction of the subject and back to the back of the camera, and saw things very differently from both points of view.

Some are titled Construct NYC. I have these codified titles that just means they were constructs and made in New York City. It is just a way of tracking it. I never went for metaphoric titles or explanatory things. I liked keeping it very clean, straightforward, “This is number one. That is number two.” Everything has a very theatrical feel to it because of the performance aspect and the whole idea of moving around in it myself.

Dance collaboration, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, 1985 © Barbara Kasten


Here are some images of the collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that I mentioned earlier that came out of Capp Street Project. It was a real, true collaboration. It wasn’t that she danced and I made the sets separately. We actually worked together. I made the sets so that the pieces were movable and the dancers could move them from one place to another. The lighting changed so I worked with the lighting designer to replicate the colors in the way that I make photographs. The movement was really important to me because I followed the Bauhaus philosophy of interdisciplinary ways of art making like they did then. I liked the idea of adding motion to these large-scale settings. The imagery ends up looking somewhat like my photographs and I liked the idea that the lights could change and the people changed. It inspired me for many photographs that came afterwards.

In 2011, the idea of performance and a space including people came about when I got interested in video. This is a short clip from a video piece that I did in Chicago in 2011. The sound was from the Lucky Dragons. They gave me sound clips and I put together the music. They were very generous to allow me to do whatever I wanted to do with it. It was really a great environment to see people walking in and out of the changing lights. In a way, it was my own dance routine, but it was all of you involved to make it happen.

That issue of scale, the idea of being in an environment that was very architectural, inspired me on a project that was commissioned by Vanity Fair. The project was to photograph in architectural settings in New York for an article that was being written about the new architecture, the postmodern architecture of the 1980s and the big, open, glorious entryways, and atriums, that are still prevalent in many buildings. It was a huge production. It was like a movie production. I had to photograph at night because lighting could not be controlled unless it was dark outside.

Architectural Site 17, High Museum, 1988 © Barbara Kasten


Architectural Site 17, High Museum installation, 1988 © Barbara Kasten


I had a crew of ten twelve people including experts in lighting from the cinema world. If I thought about it too long, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it was exciting and I learned a lot. You can see all these are mirrors that are set up and that are visible in the view of the camera. I had to use a 4 x 5, not an 8 x 10 because of the lighting that would have been required for 8 x 10 film. It took a lot of pre-planning to make sure everything was in the right position and then you get one shot, that is all you get. I don’t know how many sheets of film we used just in case something went wrong when they got it developed. You don’t shoot one piece of film and spend $20,000 a night to do it.

I got into these buildings because it was Vanity Fair. You can’t just go up and knock on the door and say, “I want to use your atrium all night long.” But they were getting something in exchange, or that’s what they thought because, in the end, they never got published. I ended up being moved out by Leona Helmsley or somebody like that who had some kind of an affair, and that was the end of that. But it started me on a whole new track and it really got me excited about working in large-scale, big product, which has paid off for things that I am doing now.

Architectural Site 6, World Financial Center, NY, 1986 © Barbara Kasten


This is at the World Financial Center by Cesar Pelli, across the street from the World Trade Center, so it still exists. I remember seeing a photograph of it after the Twin Towers came down and it was just covered in white. It was the eeriest thing to see. But this series was a very joyful and playful look at it, and also commentary on how our money is spent. After that, I thought, “Oh, dear. Now, what do I do? I’m hooked. Where am I going to photograph?” I used connections that I had, which were directors of museums, people who knew who I was and trusted me. I also had the Vanity Fair shots to show that I could do it. This is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta designed by Richard Meier. If you know Richard Meier, you know that all his buildings are white. He would be horrified if he saw this photograph. It is totally against his sensibility, which is something I did in the same way I did the work at IIT with Mies van der Rohe. Inserting those really lurid, huge, colorful pieces was the antithesis to what they do. In a way, this was my commentary on architecture, maybe a little too blatant, but it worked. I liked it and the imagery changes your whole perspective of the place. If you go to there now, you’re going to say, “Well, where’s the red wall?” This is what it looked like around the camera: lots of cables, lots of big lights, and a lot of people moving them around. I would do two photographs in one night, but they had to be very pre-planned. I knew exactly what I was doing. There was no, “Go in and let’s see where the camera should go.” It had to be totally orchestrated.

Architectural Site 8, Loyola Law School, LA, 1986 © Barbara Kasten


This was Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. I don’t like the most recent architecture of Frank Gehry. I can’t say I am crazy about his Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. But I liked this. It had a more modernist look to me and it was pre-computer architecture. Everything was pre-computer: my photographs, the architecture. This is a much more modern point of view. Then, I did Isozaki’s MOCA in Los Angeles practically the week after it opened. We had to carry lights into the museum so that the skylight could be lit with that color….traipsing by a Jackson Pollock with one of those big lights…that was a little scary but we got things in there. These men were so professional and they did it partially as a labor of love because I couldn’t pay them what they get paid for their commercial jobs. They did it because they were helping an artist make art, which is something I found really great in the world. People are always interested in helping other people make a creative gesture, and I think that is really something we have to preserve and we have to keep alive in this time that we are in right now where creativity will be the thing that gets challenged and put out of any of our minds before we know it. We just have to keep being artists so that doesn’t happen.

Architectural Site 19, LACMA, LA, 1989 © Barbara Kasten


This was the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It is right next to the main part that they are now going to tear down but this will remain. This was one of the biggest events because it took two nights just to set up the lights. We were working totally at night and we were lighting only the parts that were appearing in the image. It was a huge cross-section view of the building, not just a little corner. I was lighting the front, scanning the whole front of the building.

This one is a second shot at MOCA in Los Angeles. The cinematic lights are Tungsten balanced and the film is also Tungsten so it responds to daylight in this blue. Because of needing to work very quickly, in this image I relied on the changing daylight as well as what I was coloring with gels. I had to have some knowledge of what was going to happen if exposures were made when the light was changing and it did. I have varying degrees of this blue in many pieces of film that I made as the sun was coming up.

Architectural Site 15, Whitney Museum, NY, 1987 © Barbara Kasten


This was at the Whitney Museum in New York designed by Marcel Breuer. The people in charge of these buildings knew who I was and I was able to convince them that I was a low security risk. But I also enticed them with a photograph for their collection and an image that they could sell as a poster in their bookstore, so they made money back from that. I had to get a little entrepreneurial and make a deal there, but they saw the value. For me, it was valuable because it was a lot more exposure than just making one photograph. A lot of people saw it and they sold out the posters.

Juxtaposition Site 2, 1988 © Barbara Kasten


Juxtaposition Site 4, 1988 © Barbara Kasten


New Mexico Puye Cliffs, The Cliffs, 1992 © Barbara Kasten


I was invited to do the Jackson Pollock Studio, which was in Springs, New York. The floor that he painted on was covered over by Lee Krasner, his wife and also a great painter who used the studio after Pollock’s death. When she passed away, they started taking out the flooring and they discovered the painting created by drips while Jackson Pollock worked on his canvases. My work was made as a commission for a series that they offered for fundraising. I also did some work out in the real outdoors because I wanted to go back to the nature that I loved and the architecture of that was in Santa Clara in New Mexico. These are the Puye Cliff Dwellings that were shot at night, lighting them dramatically and changing it to a very eerie landscape. I did a similar project in 1992 in Tarragona, Spain, where I made a 40-foot mural that was backlit.

Scenario Video, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2015 © Barbara Kasten


Scenario Video, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2015 © Barbara Kasten


Corners, MOCA, 2016 © Barbara Kasten


Corners, MOCA, 2016 © Barbara Kasten


Untitled 79 25, Silver Gelatin, 20×16, 1979 © Barbara Kasten


Untitled 79 9, 1979 © Barbara Kasten


I am going to show another video piece that was part of the 2015 Stages exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia when I really started getting into video. I did this piece with the help of my good friend Kate Bowen. The next iteration of the exhibition came to the Graham Foundation in Chicago later that year. There we created a different video (Scenario) because we didn’t have another 34-foot wall like the one at ICA. I constructed this set, which is an assemblage of cubes and geometric forms that are three-dimensional and then overlaid it with a video of the same cubes going through various colorations. These are some of the stills from the whole set. When the show went to MOCA in LA in 2016, we did a third video (Corner) that we fit up into this skylight corner. Each exhibition really was a whole different show. The work was all the same but it got rearranged and put into a different architecture. Each video made its own statement about the space as well as about the show. This reminded me of the very first pieces I did in 1979 on silver gelatin photograms. They were shots from the studio, then projected, and finally, the photogram on top. (Amalgam) I also painted on some of them. It just keeps coming around, the same props, the same obsession with geometry and photograms, and a concept of a similar nature.

Scene III, 2012 © Barbara Kasten


Scene IV, 2012 © Barbara Kasten


Studio Construct 8, 2007 © Barbara Kasten


Here is some of that same material in 2012 that ended up in an abstraction that came directly after my experience here teaching in Columbia. I wanted to make a photograph that was truly abstract, and I didn’t want to have anything identified or representational. I wanted it all to be a matter of form and light. I took away the color and I worked with the moiré. I worked with sheets of plexiglass that would stop the light and create shadows, but you could also see through and would create form. But it was the shadows that really became important to me, and that is what I looked for. These are just two or three pieces of plexiglass, but the form is really the shadow, not the plexiglass. I was really interested in that illusion and the ephemeral light. It is hard to identify what is really there, but there is form there. I chose something that couldn’t be labeled.

When I was teaching here at Columbia College, I was the first artist faculty member that they gave a Faculty Distinguished Artist award to. They gave me a studio and a couple of years release from teaching most classes. It came at a time in my life where it was very, very important to get back into the studio. I received the grant in 2006 and I worked while I was teaching. But when I retired, I was on my way to creating, having a practice that I could develop and really concentrate on. If I hadn’t had that, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get to where I am now, and have the work that I had in order to have that big ICA survey. I have to say that I am really grateful to Columbia for this support that they have given me.

I still work with film. It’s not that I don’t like digital. There are things and qualities about digital that are very helpful. But there is something about film and the way that it records light and color that I still respond to. It is getting more difficult. I use positive film as I can’t use negative film because that means you have to transpose it. I can’t do that. I have to see what I am doing just like I have to see the sculpture, move it around, and touch it. I can’t take many pictures and edit them. It is too hard for me. I have to work in one direction.

Photogenic Painting, Untitled 21, 1975 © Barbara Kasten


Photogenic Painting, Untitled 23, 1975 © Barbara Kasten


Photogenic Painting, Untitled 19, 1976 © Barbara Kasten


I work with film and I work with photograms. I have done a lot of photograms in my career and these are some of the earliest. These were done using cyanotype for the photograms. Moholy-Nagy said that photogram is the most direct route to abstraction, and I believed him and I still do. I really love photograms because they relate to painting. I started it so that I could incorporate photography into my painting. It was a whole another perspective that I approached using a photogram for, and these were the results of those first things.

Shadow at the Met 43, New York, 2006 © Barbara Kasten


Shadow at the Met 63, New York, 2006 © Barbara Kasten


Again, I am enthralled with shadows. They allowed me to go to the MET in New York and photograph. I headed towards the African masks sections, as I loved all those fetishes. But when I got there, I photographed the floor. I loved what happened with the light and the shadow. The boxes, cubes, plexiglass… It is amazing how I always keep coming back to the same thing.

Incidence 1, 2009 © Barbara Kasten


Incidence 3, 2010 © Barbara Kasten


These are a few things you probably have never seen. They are 8 x 10 contact prints featuring very simple objects relying on light and shadow. They are very nondescript forms, very minimal, very painterly in an approach of how they are positioned and how I record them. This is a series that came right when I was on this mini grant from Columbia, and I worked with the way light interacts with surfaces, different materials, and scratch materials. I love the idea that one can see the application of the human hand and how the materials might have been cut or altered in some way.

Elemental 2, 2015 © Barbara Kasten


Elemental 3, 2015 © Barbara Kasten


These are some of the largest pieces I have made to date, experimenting with cardboard boxes. Simple shapes. Geometry has always been an interest of mine even from high school days. It has always been something I aim to try to solve and it is reflected in my choice of shapes and forms. It seems very natural.

Transposition 3, 2014 © Barbara Kasten


Transposition 27, 2016 © Barbara Kasten


This was when I decided, “Okay, I think now I’ll add a little more color.” But I needed to add it in small doses so I added shapes of gel that then got reflected and didn’t fill the frame in the same manner as it did earlier. This was the beginning of working with plexiglass and the reflection, and the reflection of light on different surfaces. I am trying to figure out how I could capture that and balance it into an abstract form. It reminds me of drawing. In making my own work, I feel like I am drawing on the back of the camera. That is how I interpret it.

Collision 7 T E, 2018 © Barbara Kasten


Triptych Composition, 7D, 7T, 7E, 2016 © Barbara Kasten


It is all kind of coming full circle back to form and light. It seems like I have had a very zigzag course through my practice but eventually it comes together. Zigzag might happen with years in between but it still seems to be reliant on who I am as an artist. It keeps going back to that same message inside myself that says, “You got to do what you love to do.” And thank goodness, I have been able to do it for all these many years.

Thank you to all of you for being here tonight.


Barbara Kasten is known for photographs that transform architecture into formal abstract compositions using lighting, color gels, and mirrors. Originally from Chicago, Kasten is the recipient of many prestigious awards, and her work has been widely exhibited by major museums in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Her photographs are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; International Center of Photography, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, Lodz, Poland; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, among others.

Courtesy of:
Bortolami Gallery, New York:
Kadel Willborn, Dusseldorf:
Thomas Dane, London:

Karen Irvine is Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. She has organized over forty exhibitions of contemporary photography at the MoCP and other institutions and written essays for numerous artist monographs and magazines. Irvine is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague, Czech Republic, and an MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago. | @MoCP_Chicago

A Receding Coast

Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik


Founded on the deltaic plain of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has been described as the impossible, yet inevitable city because of its complex geography that tests the boundaries of human engineering. Hurricanes, floods, and sinking land have forced structural innovation and adaptation in the city and its surrounding coastal communities. As a result, a distinct sense of place has been perpetuated through the built environment.

Louisiana is experiencing a land loss crisis more severe than any environmental disaster in the state’s history. Aerial photographs of the coast and national media coverage of the “first climate refugees” have told a piece of the story of what it means for a physical place to disappear. However, this type of exposure is one small part of a larger picture. A long-term Slidell resident whose home, newly rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, now floods with every hard rain; a fisherman in Plaquemines Parish whose livelihood is being threatened by river diversions; the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw whose ancestral home is dissolving into the marsh: these powerful stories, when paired with in-depth research, serve to educate the public around the relationship between nature and architecture in this vulnerable region.

Particularly given the fraught political moment we all find ourselves in, this project seeks to convey a collective vision of place through architectural portraits that describe the history of building practices in Louisiana. Ultimately, this knowledge can be used to inform future design in the age of climate change. I believe the best way to do this is to combine the accessibility of visual art with academic research in climate adaptation. In doing so, the opportunity to connect Louisiana’s environmental challenges and architectural history to other communities around the world may assist in the fight against climate change.

The time to act has never been more urgent. The Louisiana Office of Community Development is currently outlining the state’s resettlement plan that dictates which communities are able to be saved from encroaching water and which are not. Those who are unable to remain on the land that has been passed down through generations must re-create their lives elsewhere. The built environment, both architecture and infrastructure, are the tangible symbols of this change and deserve to be looked at in depth as a means of understanding the future of human settlement.

With funding from the Graham Foundation, I was able to research throughout South Louisiana by visiting the architectural archives of Tulane University and conduct interviews with residents in coastal communities. The portfolio presented here seeks to capture the complexity and precariousness of the built environment at this moment in time and engage the viewer with daily life on the frontlines of climate change. Rather than photographing scenes of disaster or aerial footage—which allow the audience to dissociate—these images present the everyday landscape.

This project seeks to position itself as a means for connectivity, awareness, and empathy across communities with the aim of thereby strengthening our collective environmental stewardship.

Delacroix, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Pierre Part, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Ruddock, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Flood wall in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Lafitte, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Lake Verret, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Attakapas Landing, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


New development in Holy Cross, New Orleans © Virginia Hanusik


Hopedale, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Lake Maurepas, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Chalmette Refinery, Chalmette, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Holy Cross, New Orleans © Virginia Hanusik


Orleans Avenue Canal, New Orleans © Virginia Hanusik


House on Lake Verret, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Our Lady of Blind River, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Lake Verret, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Venice, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Fort Proctor, Lake Borgne, Louisiana © Virginia Hanusik


Virginia Hanusik is an artist and architectural researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as Domus, Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others. She received her B.A. from Bard College and is currently working on a project about the architecture of climate change in South Louisiana with support from the Graham Foundation. She is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University and was ranked as one of Planetizen‘s Most Influential Urbanists in 2017. She lives in New York City. | @virginiahanusik

Almost Perfect

Gallery © Brian Scott Peterson


In October 2018, art director and illustrator Luis Mendo and owner of ethical fashion brand INHEELS Yuka Martín Mendo opened Almost Perfect. In a former rice shop located in an almost 100-year old building in Taito-ku, they have established their house, studio, a temporary living space for creative people, an artistic gathering space, and ultimately a hub for the community to come together around events. It is a hybrid space that aims to shape the work of its residents, their guests, and the community they want to embrace. A personal investment in establishing a space where creative people have time to think, focus, make, and share.



Luis Mendo is not a stranger to MAS Context, having contributed the essay “Tokyoites” to our Communication issue and having curated the Tokyo issue that featured the work of thirteen illustrators who drew Tokyo in different ways.

Iker Gil talked to Luis and Yuka to know more about their plans for the new space, the history behind the building, and the activities they aim to host.


Luis and Yuka © Iris Humm


Why did you decide to open Almost Perfect?

Luis: We didn’t really decide it, it just happened in a very organic way. We were living in a small apartment in Shinjuku and I was coming to this area once a month because there is a shop where you can make your own sketchbooks. Every time you buy the custom-made sketchbook, you have to wait 20-30 minutes until it is made. I would take that time to walk around the neighborhood and I really liked the area. I asked Yuka to come with me to explore it and when we came, we bumped into friends who happened to live in the neighborhood. They mentioned that there was a building near their house that was empty and that it used to be a rice shop. We inquired about it but the space was a little too big for us. We just wanted a house and maybe a small studio, but we never had getting a larger place in mind. Because this building was bigger than what we needed, we started to think different ways how we could maximize the use of it.

Yuka: Indeed, it all started with the size and qualities of the building. But we were also constantly meeting visitors from all over the world, mostly friends and friends of friends of Luis that were designers, photographers, and illustrators. We always enjoy welcoming people to Tokyo. We thought about ways of combining this building and hosting creative visitors. If people come to Tokyo for a couple of weeks, they have to book a hotel or Airbnb and we thought it was a bit of a waste. Also, they never got to see what “real” Tokyo life is like. If we had a place, they could enjoy their stay in Tokyo and we could connect them to other creators in the city. They could also study and work on their different interests, from illustration to ceramics and photography. So all those ideas came together thanks to the space.


Neighborhood © Almost Perfect


Did you have any model for this type of space while defining Almost Perfect?

Luis: We did not. What happened was: we got married in May and we got the place around June, at which point we could start the renovations. But we were going on our honeymoon, so we had to quickly brief the renovation team, which are friends of ours. We gave them the keys and briefed them with a simple: “make it nice modern Japanese and stay on budget” and then left to Majorca. While we were in Majorca, we kept thinking about how we were going to live, how we were going to decorate the space, and make something interesting out of it. It all grew in a very organic way.


Gallery © Brian Scott Peterson


Can you explain the story behind the name?

Yuka: I have a fashion brand called INHEELS. It is a sustainable and ethical fashion brand, so I focus on the environment, how it is produced, and the wellbeing of the workers. Recently I was very concerned about waste in the clothing industry. I have a tiny brand but I still produce waste once in a while. Imagine how that affects a large brand. My idea originally was to create a brand called Almost Perfect that would buy this excess of stock or something that was slightly faulty, like the stitches are not perfect. Nothing major so, if you wear it, nobody would notice. Not perfect, but almost perfect. As we were talking about this over lunch in a restaurant, Luis saw that the domain was available and bought it. My business idea didn’t really take off so we just used the available domain for the building.

Luis: But we thought that the name really suited the building. We did a limited renovation to the building so it is still a little cold in the winter, it might be a little hot during the summer, and nothing is really straight so it made sense to call it Almost Perfect.

Yuka: Luis always says that perfection is overrated.


Studio © Brian Scott Peterson


Can you describe the history of the building?

Yuka: It is almost 100 years old, which is an old building for Japan. In general, buildings here are quite new because of the earthquakes and the destruction of WWII. It was built right after the 1923 Kanto earthquake that destroyed pretty much everything in Tokyo and killed over 140,000 people. The building was built around 1924 using timber beams that the United States had donated as part of an international relief effort to help rebuild the city. Twenty years later, during WWII, the US bombed the city and this area was badly damaged. This house was one of the few that survived. We like that the house has this history of construction, destruction, and survival.


Old rice machine © David Schalliol


Luis: There have been three generations of rice sellers in the building, using the downstairs to sell rice and the upstairs to live. We kept the old rice machines in place to honor its past. The building has this atmosphere of a family place, where you work and live, which is something you find a lot in this neighborhood. Many of the houses here have a small workshop on the ground floor and the residence above. You can see printers, tatami makers, craftsmen working with leather, and makers of bags, buttons, and belt buckles etc. When you walk around, you get to see people actually making things. The Township is very conscious about keeping the makers in the neighborhood and we love that. We are not so much art residents but creatives and makers.


Studio © Brian Scott Peterson


Guest room © Brian Scott Peterson


Guest room © Brian Scott Peterson


You have already welcomed a few guests to Almost Perfect. Can you talk about that experience, the work they did, and how they shared it in the space?

Luis: Having the guests is great. We love that they are from different places around the world, from the UK, France, and Italy to Canada and Australia. We get to see very diverse people. But it is also intense because the house is not that big. It has three floors but they are small, so you live with your guests. It is not like a normal art residency where you don’t see the owner. We share the kitchen, the bathroom, the shower…. We make sure to tell the guests from the beginning that they are essentially going to live with us. They are very conscious of it and seem to like it. It is nice to see how they react to the space and the neighborhood. The first guest, Caroline Lavergne from Canada, did an amazing project where she drew the space of the makers around us. We recently had two Italian photographers, Iris Humm and Luca Campri, who also documented the area with their cameras.


Drawing © Caroline Lavergne


Did they exhibit their work in the space?

Luis: Yes. The idea is that all the guests have to organize an exhibition, a workshop, or some type of public event in the space. We have already had exhibitions and has been very interesting because people can see what the artists do and be part of a community gathering.

Yuka: One of the concepts is to have things for the neighborhood, not only for artists. We are very careful about not being an island. We talk to neighbors as much as possible and invite them to our events. We are doing our part to contribute and belong to the community.


Tokyo Illustrators Meet-up organized by Andrew Joyce © Almost Perfect


Do you organize events that are not related to the work of your guests?

Luis: Yes. We have done a couple of events already and we plan on doing more. For example, the Finnish Institute in Japan organized a talk by the Finnish-Swedish painter and installation artist Maria Wolfram. It was very cozy as the space can hold around twenty people seated in stools. We want to do more workshops to make things. We also have what we call a permanent collection on one of the walls that includes a series of framed prints and drawings from friends of ours. We ask them to give us one or two prints that we can sell to support their work. We try to create a sense of community as much as possible with artists and neighbors beyond our guests.

The idea is to organize inclusive events, invite the neighbors to come in and enjoy what is going on. We want everybody to feel comfortable coming in, have a drink with the artist, and enjoy the art. Nearby there is an old school that has been turned into the Taito Designers Village, full of creatives who are starting their careers. They get to rent an old classroom as a studio space for three years for a very reasonable price. As they are so close to us, they often drop by our space to see the shows, enquire about having a pop-up shop or meet the guests. We welcome these types of activities and collaborations with other creatives in the area.


Congratulations on establishing a great space for creative people and the community nearby.


Detail © Brian Scott Peterson


Detail © Brian Scott Peterson


Detail © Brian Scott Peterson


Sketchbook © Brian Scott Peterson


Gallery © Brian Scott Peterson


Yuka, Luis, and Señor © David Schalliol


After working as a graphic designer and creative director for 20 years in Europe, Luis Mendo moved to Japan where he changed his career to drawing. His eclectic approach and versatile style, combined with his art direction skills makes him a relevant addition to creative teams and projects. His work is found on websites, magazines and ad campaigns, but also in art galleries and clothing. You can bump into him in the Tokyo streets where he draws daily on his sketchbook. | | | | @luismendo

Yuka Martín Mendo is the founder of the Tokyo-based award-winning ethical fashion brand INHEELS. INHEELS produces stylish casual wear using environmentally friendly material and fair trade labor in Nepal. She is the co-founder of Almost Perfect, a 100 year-old house renovated into a creative residence/shared studio/cafe/gallery. | | |

Rebel Garages

Rebel Garages © Future Firm


Essay and policy proposals by Future Firm included in their book Rebel Garages published by the Chicago Architecture Center.



The ethos of the rebel garage is more than a secondary use: it reflects and produces a completely different and unique way of seeing architecture in Chicago, one that depends on both the physical parameters of a building but also the specifics of time, use, and engagement with its surroundings. In his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault defines the idea of heterotopia as sites defined by their otherness: spaces of crisis, juxtapositions of incongruous uses, and territories that are temporally rather than spatially delineated. [1] A boat, separated from the world, running under its own rules that circumnavigate land-bound realities, or a motel room where two lovers meet, temporarily constructing an alternate life—these are Foucault’s heterotopias par excellence.

We understand the rebel garage as Chicago’s own ubiquitous and quintessential heterotopia: an architectural condition not defined by the lines and materials notated on an architectural drawing, a Department of Buildings permit, a zoning ordinance, or an owner’s use on any given day but rather a combination of all these parameters, including the myriad uses that transpire every day and every night. The rebel garage allows what Foucault describes as “deviant” uses, broadly understood. It is a space where the activities that cannot take place in the house, the office, or the street, but require certain conditions of both privacy and publicness, begin to flourish. It’s a space which allows those activities—a side business, a private hobby, or a dream of an alternate lifestyle—to grow. It is a space whose openings and closings are precisely orchestrated by the closing of the garage door and the illumination of a single overhead light. The garage can be completely transformed by these simple operations: think, for example, of the complete otherworldliness of a punk garage band playing live at full volume. [2]

Unlike, however, Foucault’s heterotopic cruise ships, psychiatric hospitals, or prisons, which are singular spaces, constructed as communities isolated from the rest of the world, the rebel garage is both individualized and distributed. Chicago’s mundane garage, when considered as an ecology of interiors, can be read as a system (rather than singular example) of heterotopic otherness that is, in fact, often legally required to be delivered along with your place of residence. The way that the garage becomes a potent site for heterotopic conditions, simultaneously personalized and yet also ubiquitous, reveals our collective need for secondary spaces—“other” spaces for both private and public pursuits.

The idea of a heterotopia that is both personalized and distributed occurs everywhere, in different forms. In Tokyo, Japan: consider photographer Noritaka Minami’s work, documented in his book 1972, on the Nagakin Capsule Tower. [3] The apartment tower, designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, was intended to be a prototype for a new, customizable, and mobile form of modern life. Today, these early dreams have calcified: yet in their wake, each living unit has become increasingly eccentric, unique, and architecturally transformed by its inhabitants. [4] In Barcelona: consider architect Andres Jaque’s project, IKEA Disobedients, which critiqued IKEA’s marketing campaign describing one’s home as a personal “kingdom.” [5] Jaque visited, photographed, and interviewed Barcelona residents who use their houses and apartments as businesses, LGBT support group headquarters, farms, video studios, and more. Or, lastly, in New York: consider the provocative series of Manhattan Mini Storage ads, one of which featured an image of a man in drag surrounded by a wardrobe of clothing in a storage unit, titled: “I like my wife and kids, but I love my storage room.” This ad featured in a series of others in which the storage unit might be used to grow hobbies (“I like film festivals, but I love…”); avoid pet hair (“I like pet adoption, but I love…”); or nerd out (“I like special issue no. 364, but…”). All over the world, contemporary urban life produces, in parallel to more generic architectural building types, these odd personalized spaces of eccentric pursuits: a storage locker or garage where one can engage in and imagine alternative presents and futures.

What do you do in your garage other than park your car? What rules and status quos—architectural, economic, social, or cultural—do you break or slip around in your garage? Who do you break those rules with? Understanding the ethos of the rebel garage is to understand it not just through the physical characteristics of its size, or materials, but also as a condition situated in the gray areas of both time and culture. Temporally, it opens when the door closes and the light turns on, and closes when you pack up your hobby or side business for the night. Culturally, it holds space in gray zones: in territories of behavior, business, and desires which cannot exist in the main home or in the street.

Imagine lights on in a network of garages in the city at night: the tens of thousands of seemingly mundane architectures, each with its own unique yeasty interior of otherness, incubating the B-side cultures that are inevitably produced by the exhaustively routine conditions of everyday life outside.



1. Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Spaces of Visual Culture, 2006.

2. For more on garages and garage bands, see: Fischer, Marc, and Public Collectors. Hardcore Architecture. Chicago, IL: Half Letter Press, 2015.

3. Minami, Noritaka, Julian Rose, and Ken Yoshida. 1972 – Nakagin Capsule Tower. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

4. For more, see: Koolhaas, Rem, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks… Edited by Kayoko Ota and James Westcott. Köln; London: Taschen, 2011.

5. For more on this, see: Andres Jaque, “Politics Do Not Happen in Squares,” in Urbonas, Gediminas, Ann Lui, and Lucas Freeman, eds. Public Space? Lost and Found. Cambridge, MA: SA+P Press, 2017.



What is a “garage” in the eyes of the law? Today, a variety of intersecting regulations in Chicago’s Municipal Code, Building Code, and Zoning Ordinance regulate the architecture, location, and use of garages in the city. Here are nine policy proposals which aim to provoke conversations about the rights and restrictions which govern our garages today, and the ways that these frameworks might evolve in the future to accommodate or inspire change.



The Chicago zoning ordinance currently has a regulatory mechanism called an “overlay district.” The ordinance describes this regulation as a tool for “special situations or to accomplish specific city goals that cannot be easily or efficiently addressed through the use of base districts.” Currently in the city, thirteen zoning overlays exist which add either additional rights or restrictions to a certain area. This proposal introduces a “Rebel Block district overlay,” which would allow more creative uses of garages, while also opening the opportunity to set new limits on heights, areas, and signage. These “Rebel Blocks” could allow the rebel garage ethos to be limited to areas where an entire block of Chicagoans have decided together to allow the following transformations in their alleys. The overlay district would also allow the city overall to regulate the locations of rebel garage alley blocks—for example, in consideration of existing base districts, nearby other incentive programs such as transit-oriented development, or in partnership with city programs, such as the Dollar Lot Program which is already often used by Chicagoans to create suburban-style garages and driveways. This overlay district would allow for an urban-scale calibration of the following proposed changes, as well as a time-based approach which might introduce prototype or pilot-versions of these code revisions over a longer period of time.


An example of the way the “Rebel Block” code changes could be applied to limited areas in the city, based on location, need, or consensus. © Future Firm


“Rebel Blocks” could also be designated through collaborative decision making at the scale of a neighborhood, such as if all block residents agree. © Future Firm



Imagine an alley where you can buy fresh eggs, have your fortune told, and get your oil changed—all by your neighbors. Currently, Chicago businesses that operate out of residents’ homes are regulated by the Municipal Code. This code limits what kinds of businesses can be located in a domestic space. However, the landscape of small businesses is transforming in the context of the sharing and “gig” economies, freelance labor, and the increasing number of individuals pursuing self-employment outside of 9-to-5 jobs for economic or personal reasons. Additionally, commercial space in Chicago can often be difficult to secure for new businesses, especially women and minority-owned businesses with less access to initial investment capital, as they are often restricted to longer-term leases in the 3- to 5-year range. Recent trends in “micro-retail,” such as small commercial spaces and pop-up shops, have started to address these issues through new building types. In contrast, this proposal takes advantage of existing small buildings by expanding the range of businesses that can be operated out of one’s own home—including the garage—to construct an infrastructure for small-scale entrepreneurship.




Landscaping, salon, and auto shop—a few of the many types of businesses which are currently prohibited from being licensed for home (or garage) occupation. What would it be like to share your alley with neighbors and their clients running these businesses? © Future Firm



Steve Jobs famously started Apple in his garage. How many other significant businesses may have started in the unique space of the garage: out of the traffic, bustle, and quotidian burdens of the main house? Can we describe the Chicago garage as a possible space of dreams? Currently, the Municipal Code regulates how garages can be used by home occupation businesses. The code dictates that a garage cannot be the primary site of your work: according to the code, the garage can only be used to store extra papers and documents for business. This proposal allows the main work of home businesses to expand into garages and also removes the overall square footage restriction that limits the size of home offices to 300 square feet. This change, which has also been proposed by Chicago’s Small Business Advocacy Council, reflects how many Chicagoans already see the garage as an architectural type which can incubate, foster, and provide the unique necessary conditions for starting something new.


This section of a building shows the way a business might be expanded from the home into the yard and garage, creating a bigger and more diverse space for work. © Future Firm



Two vanguards of architecture’s post-modern movement, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, famously described two ways that buildings can be designed to convey (or “signify”) their uses to the public: “the duck” or the “decorated shed.” “The duck” uses its shape or figure to convey an idea, such as the basket-shaped headquarters of a basket manufacturer. The “decorated shed,” in comparison, is a simple, utilitarian building with a large exterior sign; in this case, Venturi and Scott Brown were inspired by Las Vegas roadside motels and convenience stores. In Chicago, the Municipal Code currently restricts home occupation businesses from displaying signs, having dedicated entrances, or using shelves to display wares. This proposal argues that the “decorated shed” is an economically efficient and symbolically powerful way to transform simple garages into vibrant spaces open to the public. While preserving the residential character of a main street has a certain value, this proposal speculates that the alley sides of Chicago homes can become a little more flexible.


This image shows a garage outfitted with three currently prohibited components: an exterior sign, a dedicated entrance, and shelves to display wares. How would these components support a growing business or change the character of an alley? © Future Firm



Any small businesses owner will tell you their business is a network of connected people, not individuals: they comprise communities of clients, employees, supporters, investors, friends, and colleagues. Currently, the Municipal Code restricts the amount of people who can visit, be employed in, or make a delivery to a home business. Building on the goals of Proposal #3—which allows more areas of accessory building to be dedicated to businesses—this change suggests increasing the limits on daily visitors to a home business. Garages and alleys in Chicago are already bustling quasi-public spaces. In our interviews, we learned that alleys are often transformed into social areas for different groups: from kids playing between a block’s backyards, to residents fixing cars with the garage door open, to teenagers playing an alley-long game of street hockey, to a space of exchange driven by the daily passage of scrappers, trash pick-up, and Craigslist swaps. By extending the limits on the number of visiting clients, non-resident employees, and daily deliveries that can visit a home business, this change reflects the existing productive bustle and opens alleys to further commercial traffic.


This image shows an active garage hosting visiting clients, non-resident employees, and multiple daily deliveries, producing a vibrant and collaborative atmosphere. © Future Firm



Would it be convenient to have a guest house or a roommate’s unit in the backyard? How about extra rental space which would generate extra monthly income? Or a space for in-laws upon the arrival of a new baby? When Chicago’s alleys were planned at the turn of the century, they functioned as access lanes for horse-drawn carriages. The small buildings flanking these alleys were used to store coaches after returning home. Since the car replaced the horse-drawn coach as a primary means of transportation for Chicagoans, new small buildings along the city’s alleys are designed for the size of the automobile. However, coach houses that remained have been transformed for new uses by their owners—many of them into dwelling units with a bathroom and kitchen. Looking into the future, with ride sharing and autonomous vehicles on the horizon reducing the need for private cars—and increased concerns about combustion engines’ negative effects on public health and the climate—this proposal anticipates that alleys will transform once again. Currently, Chicago’s zoning ordinance only allows certain structures in the rear setback (the area between a house and an alley) of a building’s lot. Allowances today currently include: garage, shed, and shading structures like pergolas. This proposal suggests bringing back the “coach house,” with limits at three stories and up to 1,200 square feet.


How can the historical categorization of the “coach house”—a larger building with infrastructure like gas or water—inspire new, unexpected, and diverse accessory buildings in the future such as those shown here? © Future Firm



In the current zoning ordinance, garages are categorized as “accessory buildings,” which is defined as a structure that is secondary to a main house. By defining garages in this way, the code also restricts owners from constructing them before the main building. This change proposes that garages should be allowed to be built first. In this way, garages might function as early investments, fiscal collateral, or the first step in phased construction. The Cook County Land Bank (cclba) currently holds 4,000+ lots, all of which have been cleared for back taxes and are made available to the buyer at sub-market prices. However, in order to purchase a lot from cclba, one is required to show the financial means to develop the site. If accessory buildings were built first, this may allow a broader populace to begin to invest in vacant lots. An auto-mechanic, for example, might build a small garage and relocate his business there—over time, he may eventually build the main structure. A new family might build a coach house structure to live in, while saving the funds to build a main house, eventually transforming that accessory structure into a rental unit for extra income. With this change, the city’s numerous vacant lots, currently untended or being tended at a cost to the city or county government, could be re-distributed to residents more quickly by re-defining the “accessory structure” as a cautious, but hopeful, architectural investment.


Garages constructed before primary residences could serve as investment strategies, neighborhood resources, or support other individual or community needs. © Future Firm



In Chicago and other U.S. cities, there are currently stringent parking requirements for dwelling units. These requirements emerge from a post-war ideal of nuclear families organized around an automobile-focused life. This proposal reflects the way in which the landscape of 21st century domestic space and transportation is more complex, diverse in its forms, messy, and nuanced than the post-war ideal. While some Chicagoans may continue to need space to park a car, many others prefer to use that space for secondary uses such as the ones described in the Rebel Garage Archive. Additionally, we argue that the conditions of contemporary transportation are moving away from privately owned cars—just as it moved away from the horse-drawn coach a century ago. For example, major cities such as Oslo are banning cars from their downtowns and others, such as Paris, are banning combustion engines entirely in the coming decades. Additionally, in recent years, Chicago’s Department of Transportation has been investing in urban streetscape upgrades for bikes and pedestrians; in parallel, private corporations are leading research toward shared autonomous vehicles. By reducing parking requirements and providing the option to use accessory buildings for creative secondary uses, this proposal argues for a change in regulation to both reflect and incentivize these broader changes in transportation.


This map shows parcels within residential zoning (possible garage sites) that fall within the range of requirements for Transit Oriented Development, an existing incentive to develop business or commercial lots near public transport. These areas might be good candidates for “Rebel Blocks,” where parking for cars is less necessary in lieu of other modes of transport. © Future Firm



Chicago garages are currently uniquely limited in their architectural expression—both by regulation and by cost—in terms of building systems, materials, size, and form. With increasingly diverse uses occurring inside garages, this proposal would allow for garage architecture to begin to reflect the plethora of activities that are going on inside them. This proposal also expands on current limitations in order to open up possibilities for unexpected future activities. Could a garage be used as a drone landing pad, a political organizing space, a kombucha production kitchen, or another activity we have never seen before? Second, Rebel Garages argues that the alley may be a productive space for architectural experimentation off of the main street. While consistent character of residential streets has a certain value, we believe that the small scale and relative affordability of accessory buildings might help cultivate a potent testing ground for new building technologies. A garage or accessory building may be a good site for architects or designers to test new energy-efficient roofing details, or unconventional exterior walls, using experimentation to drive architectural innovation in Chicago. Already, alleys are sometimes known as spaces of vice or quasi-legal activities, this change proposes that the code make allowances for rebel or experimental architecture, as well.


These whimsical garage buildings are inspired by familiar shapes in iconic architecture. What other shapes or functions might emerge in the future when we stop assuming garages are only for parking? © Future Firm


Future Firm designs spaces, big and small, for people to come together in new ways. Founded by Craig Reschke and Ann Lui in 2015, the Chicago-based architecture practice spans diverse scales: from pop-up exhibition spaces, to residential and commercial buildings, to urban and territorial speculations. Future Firm’s work has been exhibited at Storefront for Art & Architecture, New Museum’s Ideas City, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation and published in MAS Context, The Architect’s Newspaper, Chicago Architect, and Newcity. Future Firm also currently operates The Night Gallery, a nocturnal exhibition space on Chicago’s south side, which features video and film works by artists and architects from sunset to sunrise. | @FutureFirm

Visual explorations of our daily environment

New York City Elevation


Visualizations by Scott Reinhard


From the ground, the scale of our landscape is slightly too large for us to comprehend its full character. Sometimes the features are too subtle, too substantial, or obscured by fixed elements. It can be difficult to understand the larger systems at play. That valley, the ridge, the shape of the mountains, the walk up the hill. They seem fixed and forever.

Mapmakers use caution when representing the topography of the Earth. There are other pieces of information to convey in a map along with physical geography, and besides, the range of elevation is quite small compared to the radius of the Earth. But unconstrained by formal training in cartography, and empowered by curiosity and the tools to process and review geographic data, I turned everything up to 11. At the graphic extremes, patterns emerge: glaciation, collisions, erosion, deep time. In its elevation lies the story of the land.

Working with geographic data also presents a new graphic medium to play with. These visualizations push representation in many directions—from hyper-detailed and realistic 3D renderings derived from LiDAR data to heavily abstracted and barely legible formal experiments. I don’t have an end goal, one map leads to the next, and there is an endless pool of data and tools to work with.


Western North Carolina


World elevation, long shadows


Great Lakes


Southern Lake Michigan Region Elevation


3D elevation + 1954 USGS Denali map


3D elevation + 1894 USGS Asheville region map


3D elevation + 1916 Geological Map of California


3D elevation + 1878 USGS Yellowstone Geology Map


Central Canada Plains


Confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers


Mississippi River


Great Lakes Bathymetry


Coteau des Prairies Geographical Feature, South Dakota


Texas Topography


Washington State


Northern Ohio Topography


Central Park


Eastburn Farm Lidar visualization, Greenwood, Indiana


South Brooklyn Lidar Visualization


Processing + elevation data of the conterminous United States










Silver Lake, Wisconsin Bathymetry combined with a 1963 map


New York State


Ohio State


You can purchase a selection of maps by Scott Reinhard at


Scott Reinhard is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer. He works at the New York multi-disciplinary design studio 2 × 4 and was formerly a Senior Designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and VSA Partners. Scott has taught in the Graduate Communications Design program at the Pratt Institute and holds a Master of Graphic Design from North Carolina State University. | |@scottreinhard

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