dancing with architecture: the hoover dam, nevada/arizona

I was uber fortunate a couple weeks ago to tour the Hoover Dam, a gorgeous collision of architecture and hydrology. Built between 1931 and 1936 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the project's intent was to dam the Colorado River for flood control, water supply, and hydroelectric power, thus creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir by volume in the United States. The dam is 726 feet tall with a 660 foot-wide base that tapers to 45-feet thick at the top. There is enough concrete in Hoover Dam to build a two-lane road from Seattle to Miami or a four-foot wide sidewalk around the equator (presumably under the assumption that concrete floats...).

The Bureau's initial architectural plans had the dam festooned with gothic details, criticized by many as being out of step with the simple structural lines of the dam itself. The Bureau's supervising architect at the time, Gordon B. Kaufman of Los Angeles, was brought in to redesign the facades and details, which he did in streamlined Art Deco. One of the joys of touring the dam is how the Deco styling exists everywhere, even on the turbine decks and mechanical rooms.

It's a beautiful, fascinating place, well worth a visit for many reasons.

Info above from Wikipedia and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The original dam site (image via Wikipedia)

The dam under construction (image via Wikipedia)

The upstream side of the dam nearing completion. The tall towers are intakes for the water as it moves through electricity-generating turbines (image via Wikipedia)

On the turbine deck.

Fun Art Deco details everywhere

One of the turbines

At the dam base

I believe this is one of the overflow outfalls

Beautiful detail

Functional rhythm

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is on safety: These are the administrative offices, at the foot of the dam.

Looking downstream from the base of the dam. Outflows from the turbines source from the openings on the lower left and right.

"I think I'll eat my sammich here."

Mechanics shop

mmmm: concrete curves and aluminum.

It's amazing how resilient the equipment is here.

Gorgeous Art Deco statue topside

Even the outbuildings are nicely done.

The intakes

This is the emergency spillway: When levels in the lake get too high, water spills over this wing dam (and another one on the other side) to relieve water pressure and prevent water from overtopping the main dam. They have only been used twice: in 1941 for a test and 1983.

Here's where the water goes to bypass the dam once it goes over the spillway. Looks like a great ride for a skater! The spill systems can collectively handle 400,000 cubic feet per second.

The reservoir is down quite a bit, about 50 percent, as the 16-year drought continues in the Colorado River watershed. Water folks often refer to the bleached stone shown above as the "bathtub ring". Las Vegas spent $750 million boring a large tunnel into the lowest place in the reservoir so extend their water supply if the unthinkable happens.

Believe it or not, but this structure on top of the dam houses the men's bathroom (as the original design intended). The women's restroom is on the Arizona side. Sadly, I forgot to go!

The intakes on the Nevada side and the Arizona side. Because Arizona doesn't adhere to daylight savings time, the clocks show the same time for half the year.

The structure at the far end is the newer visitor's center. Can't find who the architect was, but it's sadly overdone. The cladding choices evoke the materials of the dam (concrete, brass, copper), but are too flamboyant and disrespectful to the site. It would have been much better to have built a quiet concrete structure and let the dam sing alone. 

This structure on the top of the dam appears to have been the original ticket center for tours. Clean lines, long overhangs, redwood frames, and corner windows.

One last wave to the tuning-fork angel and then back to Vegas!


austin|architecture: Is this the first Modern house in Austin?

image via Luna

When the bride and I were first seriously looking for lots some eight years ago, our first serious foray into lot looking happened on Churchill Street where a sloping lot along Shoal Creek had recently been scraped. Ultimately, after a few calls back and forth, we bailed on the lot because the owner wanted too much for it. However, we couldn't help but gawk lovingly at a great Mid Century Modern house a few lots down.

That house has haunted my consciousness from time to time, so after I started putting together the Austin Architectural Tour, I looked into it.

Holy cow!

Having been built in 1941, it very well may be the first International Style house (building?) in Austin.

A facebook post by Modernism101.com is my primary source for this house designed by Chester Nagel. Nagel studied under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, hence the progressive nature of the design.

I've repeated Modernism101's post in its entirety below to keep it for prosperity in case the property is ever threatened:

In honor of the record-tying 112-degree temperature in Austin, we profile a house built in 1941 for those Central Texas weather extremes.

House in Austin [Texas] 32 degrees N. Latitude. The climate very hot with an average annual rainfall of 34 inches. A frost depth of 4 inches for usually short winters. "Where one builds essentially against the heat."-- Andre Bloc [Editor]: L'ARCHITECTURE D'AUJOURD'HUI. Paris: L'architecture D'aujourd'hui, February 1950.

"The house is situated on the outskirts of Austin [3215 Churchill Drive], on the edge of a slope at the bottom of which flows a creek." -- Kenneth Reid [Editor]: THE NEW PENCIL POINTS. East Stroudsburg, PA: Reinhold Publishing Company, Volume 24, Number 1, January 1943.

"The house was planned for today." -- Chester E. Nagel, ibid.

Austin was a small town in 1940: "From the living room, porch and sun deck can be seen almost the entire city of Austin, with the 40-story tower of the University of Texas dominating it."

The bed of Shoal Creek provides an almost never-failing breeze. The house designed so that with the windows open, there is always, at least, a refreshing air movement through the second floor.

This effect is designed: on the windward side, windows are small and high; on the leeward side windows are large. The second floor becomes in effect a venturi, which literally pulls air through the bedrooms.

Chester [Emil] Nagel [1911- 2007] was among the first architects to bring the International Style to Texas. Born in Fredericksburg in 1911, he studied architecture at the University of Texas, graduating in 1934. From 1935 to 1938 he worked as an architect for the National Parks Service, helping to design facilities for Bastrop and Palo Duro state parks. 

In 1939 Nagel received a scholarship to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Design where he came in contact with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. After receiving his Master's degree from Harvard in 1940 he returned to Austin and, inspired by Gropius' ideas, designed one of the first International Style structures in the state, a house for himself and his wife on Churchill Drive.

The Churchill Drive house is extraordinarily faithful to the programmatic style Gropius developed for building in New England. A few material tweaks and the early GSD residential style was adapted to Central Texas.

Materials include native Texas buff to cream limestone "laid by cheap labor," 1 x 4 tongued and grooved V. jointed vertical siding, steel casements, built-up roof, and a spiral stair cast by a local foundry at a cost of approximately $130.00. 

Total cost, exclusive of architect's fee: $6,600. 18,000 cubic feet, completed on May 7th, 1941.

This house is the result of a desire to achieve a group of spaces of such character, and so related and disposed, as to provide the utmost in livability. To this end the forms, colors, and textures used were the logical means.

Beauty was sought in its true and natural forms, not borrowed, not imposed. Natural laws were studied and made to act favorably.

Materials were not wastefully stacked, but chosen and used for what they could do structurally, as well as to satisfy esthetic requirements. The house was planned for today. -- Chester E. Nagel

 The Chester and Lorine Nagel House was posted to the National Register of Historic Places on April 17, 1997 [97000361]. The house remains in remarkably original condition except for the glass enclosure of the sun porch, the removal of the entrance trellis and the addition of a central air conditioning system.

The finest example of the International Style in Austin has not been expanded or demolished in the 70 years since its completion.


austin|architecture: St Edward's University, Austin, Texas

Old Main basking in its neoGothic glory

Last weekend, the bride and I wandered down to St. Edward's University in South Austin with the primary mission of visiting Alejandro Aravena's dormitory. We also wandered the grounds of St Eds since we were aware that there were other pieces of architecture on campus (and our fitbits needed the steps). The biggest unexpected surprise was the breathtaking panoramic view of downtown Austin:

What a view from the front lawn of Old Main!

Sitting atop an old volcanic neck, Old Main (show above) commands a spectacular hilltop view of the central city. A sunset with wine and cheese is in our near future...

St. Edward's Academy was founded in 1873 by Edward Sorin, the same dude that founded Notre Dame. The school was originally formed to provide primary-level education to the area's farm boys.  Under new leadership, the school was rechristened St. Edwards's College in 1885. In 1888 the college hired the architect Nicholas J. Clayton of Galveston to design the main building in Gothic Revival style (much of the building burned in 1903 but was rebuilt). In 1921 the school added college-level courses and in 1925 rechartered itself as a university. St Eds presently has 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Old Main (1888)

Over the past decade and a half the school has undergone a revitalization and a building boom, so there's a nice mix of old, transitional, and new architecture. By our eyes, the quality of that architectural boom has improved with time.

Fleck Hall by Andersson-Wise Architects is a solid Modern building built in 2007 that hugs the original 1958 structure.  It's a brilliant repurposing in that it's not immediately evident. The work also seems to have set the stage for other updatings on campus.

The Munday Library by the Massachusetts firm Sasaki (2013) is also a repurpose/reuse of the old library, not clearly evident from the street:

Munday Library (2013)

Mell Lawrence Architects had the lead (?; the consortium of architects involved in these projects is dizzying...) on the reworking of the gymnasium, which has a Donald Judd vibe about it:

There's a neat piece of water history associated with Fondren Hall, which used to house a natatorium fed with an early brackish artesian well:

The blue carpet tiles on the floor mark the old edge of the pool

I am not a big fan of Postmodern architecture (actually, I abhor it), so I'm not a big fan of the John Brooks Williams Natural Sciences Center–North designed by Research Facilities Design and Moore Ruble Yudell. (2006):

An addition to the Science Buidling was led by STG Design:

Trustee Hall (2002) by Andersson-Wise Architects is something of a mess, but it's an interesting mess. It's transitional in the sense that this was one of the first large new construction projects on campus; therefore, I suspect the administration was reluctant to step too far away from the revivalism of Old Main. The building smacks of King Arthur Revivalism if King Arthur had lived into the industrial age. 

Local firm Pollen Architecture and Design took the lead in handling the addition and garden for the quaint campus chapel:

The previous building boom appears to have occurred in the 1950s after WW II as there are a number of Mid Century Modern on campus:

You can see the Mies van der Rohe influence in these buildings. Interestingly, the dark vertical bands you see in the photo above that resemble I-beams are actually made of brick (even floating above the ground a la Mies).

It's unclear who designed the 1950s-era buildings on campus, but this structure above, protruding from a large multi-storeyed building, looks like a Roland Roessner a la his houses on Balcones Drive.

We didn't see all the buildings on campus; there are several more recent structures that we missed. All in all, like many universities, a great place to walk around and see a great range of architecture.