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October 04, 2008

Photo of the Day


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Something I don't think I've ever talked about is my fascination with architecture.

I love buildings. All kinds of buildings: old ones, modern ones, skyscrapers, churches, old gas stations and houses and factories.

I'm not sure why. But although I'm not particularly prone to taking pictures, last year when the Spousal Unit was gone and I was traveling on weekends the one thing I consistently found myself taking pictures of was buildings, bridges, various architectural features of places I visited. I'm fascinated by the changes in design through the ages; by what we choose to leave behind for our children.

When I was in junior high, we were assigned one of those experimental 'cross discipline' projects that were intended to make students use all subjects - math, English, government - to solve a large problem. Ours was to redesign Dulles airport for the 21st century. It was one of those rare times when I actually completed an assignment in school - usually I relied on my test scores to make up for all the make-work homework assignments I refused to do. I never minded doing work if I could see the point in it. I just hated pointless exercises.

I like ironwork too. I took this the summer before last in St. Louis. We were eating dinner in a little bistro and the motion of light and shadows on a building across the street was so peaceful. There was no way to capture it on film, but I wanted to remember it even though I'm a lousy photographer. I'm afraid I'd had a few martinis :p


This is a bridge in Pittsburgh. I don't know that it's anything special, but I liked the ironwork and it just struck me that we never take the time to make ordinary things beautiful anymore. That seems sad to me:


Posted by Cassandra at October 4, 2008 09:03 AM

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The first photo is remarkable in it's portrayal of movement. In the future, this structural "Windjammer" could include solar panels in it's sails as walls.

The second photo is urban beauty, pure and simple. The highlighted support columns offer a bit of urban whimsy seldom found in architectural designs currently in vogue.

The Iron Bridge, always my favorite, is probably a converted railroad bridge built by some defunct iron works to last a hundred years or more under normal load. Girders and steel held together by a blizzard of rivets strategically placed convey the comfort of capacity to support heavy loads spread out across the entire structure and transferred to the earth it rests upon.

Nice job!

Posted by: vet66 at October 4, 2008 10:42 AM

I wish you all could have seen the wind rustling the leaves in that tree. There is something magical to me in the sound of leaves in a soft breeze, and in the play of shadows. I could watch it forever.

The bridge that day (you can't see it, but it was truly lovely) was very rusty down by the pilings and the water below it was this steel grey color. It was getting ready to rain, and you know how the light gets sometimes - kind of intense - just before a storm - like someone is holding their breath. It was beautiful.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 4, 2008 10:57 AM

The steel bridge is very similar to the one spanning the Delaware at Washington's Crossing (PA/NJ). When the original masonry bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in '54, the 50th Engineer Battalion of the NJARNG erected a temporary steel bridge in 36 hours.

The "temporary" bridge is still in use -- and it gets pretty interesting driving the steel grid roadway in a windy rainstorm...

Posted by: BillT at October 4, 2008 11:49 AM

I've been across that one :)

I love bridges. It fascinates me how many of my female friends are afraid to drive across them.

I have the opposite reaction: my heart just lifts when I drive across a bridge. I am amazed that men have the audacity to design such beautiful and amazing structures. To me, a bridge is a visible demonstration of faith.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 4, 2008 12:18 PM

...but I liked the ironwork and it just struck me that we never take the time to make ordinary things beautiful anymore.

Architecture, like every practical undertaking, is secretly motivated by philosophy. The point you raise precisely mirrors, for architecture, the question about movies we discussed yesterday.

Yesterday we talked about how movies that claim to be 'true to life' are really no more true to life than movies that claim to be idealistic: as art, both are equally removed from life, but influence life in certain directions. One form chases after what is unheroic, and ends up defining society down. People watching such movies become less heroic than they were already, as they seek to emulate the art (which then takes their new levels of depravity or apathy as the baseline for the next 'true to life' portrayal).

The other form of movie sets a standard above what is usual, and finds that people chase after it. The vision of beauty brings the people up, instead of chasing them down.

Architecture as a profession had this split about twenty years earlier than Hollywood. In the 1930s, when the Empire State Building was still new, there were two models for 'high' architecture that were in competition. The Empire State Building was the new model ("Art Deco"); the older model, which is used on a number of government buildings in D.C., was from a French school called Beaux Arts ("the beautiful arts").

Both styles made a great deal out of decoration, of beauty for the sake of having beautiful things.

Today, of course, there are two types of buildings commonly made: glass-and-steel, and steel-reinforced-concrete-blocks. Both of these styles have their root in a common philosophy, which began to succeed in Europe and particularly in Germany after WWI. The glass-and-steel concept is rooted in what has become known as "the International Style," and began to appear in the 1920s; the blocky buildings are rooted in Germany's Bauhaus school.

The operating philosophy in these cases was to use the cheapest materials that postwar industry knew how to make, so as to create modern buildings for 'the people.' Whereas the earlier forms of architecture had aspired to be beautiful, these aspired to be efficient: while a few architects played with the new forms, especially the glass-and-steel style, artistic purpose was something that had to be added onto them, whereas it had been the critical nature of the earlier Art Deco and Beaux Arts schools.

Glass-and-steel buildings were much cheaper to construct than Art Deco buildings; and the concrete block buildings cheaper yet.

These (and especially the latter) were hooked to political movements that aspired do things like 'modernize housing for the poor.' This is how we got housing projects: the earlier living arrangements of the poor were bulldozed, and these sorts of places built instead. The philosophy believed this was a kindness of sorts, taking the poor out of their homes and giving them new homes; at this remove we can see that it was a spirit-crushing thing to do in several respects.

The philosophy that began to appear in post-WWI Europe, and spread to the Americas during the Great Depression, that set aside the beautiful in favor of soulless government-backed redesign of human life.

Now, the irony: the revolt against that philosophy in Europe also linked itself to government action. The attempt in the 1940s to restore beauty and purpose to life in Europe was used by totalitarian governments, both fascist and Communist, to tap a popular dismay at the end of beauty for political purposes. Hitler and Stalin alike had beautiful architectural plans, and design influenced everything from buildings to uniforms to music.

With the defeat of the fascists, Europe returned to the soulless movements as a statement of purpose. It was precisely to reject the love of the beautiful, preferring empty and joyless things to the horrors of war. That philosophical decision is the heart of the soft-socialist, industrial European state that exists today. It intentionally rejects passion and beauty, in favor of the easy, the non-dangerous, the sedative.

Posted by: Grim at October 4, 2008 12:42 PM

I have never cared much for iron bridges.

They are just too difficult to burn behind you.

Posted by: Pile On at October 4, 2008 01:25 PM

" The "temporary" bridge is still in use -- and it gets pretty interesting driving the steel grid roadway in a windy rainstorm..."....Heh ..ride across it on two wheels, the gridwork roadbed causes an interesting bit of unsteadiness in two wheeled vehicles. The narrowness of the lanes also, at times, adds a bit of drama to the crossing when in a four wheeled vehicle.

Posted by: Edward Lunny at October 4, 2008 01:32 PM

Traversing the narrowness is a revelation.

You can actually get two Ford Explorers past one another with neither scraping the guardrail or bumping side-view mirrors.

Don't try to stick a piece of cardboard between the mirrors as they pass, though...

Posted by: BillT at October 4, 2008 02:23 PM

great sites for architectures

btw, i very much enjoy your blog

Posted by: huan at October 4, 2008 09:57 PM

Pile, You slay me :)

Posted by: unkawill at October 4, 2008 10:16 PM

Grim, I really like your comment.

Posted by: unkawill at October 4, 2008 10:18 PM

Thank you, huan. I'll check them out :)

I have a bunch of other photos somewhere of older structures. There are some beautiful ones of carved stonework and custom metal doors that are just stunning. We just don't produce anything that detailed anymore.

It is a shame. Grim's comment mirrors something I was talking to a friend about while I was taking the photos. We don't aspire to greatness in our buildings anymore. Novelty, perhaps.

But I don't know about greatness. Still, I enjoy looking and every once in a while you do see something magnificent.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 4, 2008 10:50 PM

We don't aspire to greatness in our buildings anymore. Novelty, perhaps.

Sad, but true. Whoever designed our bunkers was a Bauhaus grad -- less concrete, more sandbags.

Ever try to make a decent flying buttress with woven nylon?

Posted by: BillT at October 5, 2008 01:04 AM

"We don't aspire to greatness in our buildings anymore."

We don't aspire to greatness in anything anymore. I suspect it's because for thirty years now the left's socialist education agenda has *taught* that to be "great" is bad/wrong and no longer a goal worthy of attainment. That "everyone" is *equally special* (WTF is that?) so there's no need to have letter grades. Now one is either *Satisfactory* or *Unsatisfactory*.
Nice pixs!

Posted by: DL Sly at October 5, 2008 09:03 PM

We don't aspire to greatness in our buildings anymore. Novelty, perhaps.

You sound like the Fountainhead's Howard Roark ; )

(Or at least I think that was the architect's name)

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 5, 2008 10:13 PM

That "everyone" is *equally special* (WTF is that?)

If everyone is equally special, Sly, that means that when the government needs to do something about the people, they can create and shoot off a one size fits all package. Convenient, right?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 5, 2008 10:14 PM

> Something I don't think I've ever talked about is my fascination with architecture.

And now... A sketch about... Architecture!

You may find Tom Wolfe's book "From Bauhaus to Our House of interest, if you have not read it. It was the followup to The Right Stuff, and he was on a roll at the time. Pretty good.

Posted by: OBloodyhell at October 6, 2008 09:23 AM

Also, if you like bridges, you should cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge if you are down in the Tampa, FL, area sometime, and have not done so.

Posted by: OBloodyhell at October 6, 2008 09:31 AM

Fans of architecture also should find this amazing housing development of interest....

Posted by: OBloodyhell at October 6, 2008 09:35 AM