dancing with architecture: mies's pieces--downtown chicago

View out our hotel window of the Hancock Tower, inspired, in part, by Mies.

Here are various photos of Miesian buildings out and about town, some by Mies van der Rohe, some inspired by Mies. Happenchancingly, the cross street where we stayed was called Mies van der Rohe Way. How's that for serendipity!

Car parking in Hancock Tower.

Car ramp in Hancock Tower.

The Sears (I refuse to call it the other) Tower, inspired by Mies.

Actual Mieses

Pizza and salad we ate while surrounded by Miesian architecture.


Telltale Miesian corner.

Giant I-beams that telescope smaller the taller the building gets.

Mies with Picasso.

More Mies.

Inside Mies's post office.

A mini-Mies? Unclear if by Mies or an adherent...

Sears Tower.

Old and new: A Mies lurking behind a Trump.

An homage to Mies at the corners of the Hancock Tower.


the day the earth stood cool

The Simpsons meet Dwell!


In a recent episode, Springfield underwent a modern architectural renaissance with the arrival of a cool couple who move in next door to Homer, Marge, and company after finding the house has “Neutra bones.”


really? the heat's not working?

So here's an amazing thing that actually happened:

As we all know (at least those in North America), we had a heck of a cold front come pouring into the heartland over the past week. This front resulted in unseasonably cold temperatures in Texas, including record-setting below freezing temps at night and highs in the 40s in the Austin area. Here's the amazing thing: After the front came through, it took us two days to figure out our heat wasn't working. TWO DAYS!!!

Here's the cool thing: With no heat (excepting thermal loading from sunlight during the day, heat from appliances and cooking/baking, and warm kittens) our house seems to bottom out at 66 degrees (at least with the temperatures we've been experiencing).

That's pretty damn cool (cool wise, not temp wise).

Turns out something's up with the gas part of our dual heat system. We turned off the heat pump last season to minimize heating costs. At the time, I thought "Well, that dual heat option was a waste of money with cheap natural gas"; however, when the gas heat goes out, it's nice to switch over to the heat pump and have heat until the repairman shows up.

I guess all that insulation and sealing did something!


"Positively 38th and Guadalupe" by Wammo

Woe to us all
Our scabbarded wrists akimbo
This gem grows tiresome, musky
Micro dust settles on a bruised

Woe to the students
The dragworms
The gutter punks
Squeezed huddled phantoms
Rent crushing bones

Rally round the Treaty Stump
Yarn nostalgic
Twiddle thumbs

A new orifice for your cell phone
the carpal tunneled
grasp stuck in time carotoid high-
ways and constipated
streets rubber necked cubicle bon
bons in mouse wheel
torment klickity-klick you've got

Woe to the ghosts of breakfast
joints who lost their
smoking clientele
Woe to the river and her night-
wing guests
Raul's Foot
South Beach Vulcan Electric
Armadillo Cave Cannibals

The Les Amis Starbucks

Onward through the gulag
To the Tamale House
Her proud and noble roof
The last slack in town

Make way for the imports driving
Exhausting the last exasperated
Braking on the entrance ramp

Boomtown, you beautiful sleep-
ing dog
Shake the fleas
Come home

Come Home

how to be a fine architectural client

The fine folks over at Fine Homebuilding have a fine article about how to be a fine architectural client.

The highlights include having:

  1. a steady, upbeat attitude;
  2. patience;
  3. an understanding that your knowledge of design and construction has limits;
  4. candor;
  5. flexibility;
  6. timeliness;
  7. support for creative design and craftmanship; and (drum roll please)
  8. a desire to pay promptly (the bride nearly spit out her coffee on that one since it's so cheeky [but nevertheless important]).
The Dating Game reference comes from the fact that you are not only interviewing the architect and builder to decide if you want to work with them, but they are also sizing you up.


burgers (with a side of architecture)

Below is an article I wrote for the neighborhood newsletter that they recently published. They changed the title to "Of Burgers and Burgertecture" for some reason. Enjoy!

We are, dear neighborfolk, amidst a burger renaissance, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the golden age of burger shacks some seventy years ago. And Burnet Road is partaking in the largess with several new spots as well as a few reworked stalwarts. With the burger wars heating up, the patty-slingers are attempting to differentiate themselves not only with their sides but with their buildings as well.

The beginning of the burger is a topic of sizzling debate, but most agree that the modern era of the burger, and fast food in general, started with White Castle in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. Krystal imported the slider concept to the south in 1932. However, the boom of burger culture hit its apex in the 40s and 50s with the creation of Fatburger (1947), McDonalds (1948), In-N-Out Burger (1948), Whataburger (1950), Jack in the Box (1951), and Burger King (1953). Coming later were Sonic (1959), Hardee’s (1960), and Wendy’s (1969).

The late 40s and early 50s burger boom reflected post-war euphoria and a young back-from-the-war generation leaning eagerly toward the future. Architecture similarly responded with the sudden popularity of what would later be called Mid-Century Modern. Retail reacted with a space-age Jetsons form of Modernism called “Googie”, named after the exuberance of John Lautner’s Googie Coffee Shop built in Los Angeles in 1949. Burger shops similarly wrapped their griddles with Googie to attract attention—and hopefully sales.

The local burger renaissance seems to have started to sizzle in 2005 with P. Terry’s first shop in south Austin. Architecturally, P. Terry’s was inspired by Mack Eplen’s Drivateria in Abilene and its Googie architecture. P. Terry’s ninth shop, a mega-Googie masterpiece by the Michael Hsu House of Architecture (also a denizen of Burnet Road), recently opened up at 8515 Burnet. As P. Terry’s success rises, the Googie-ness of their buildings grow (yet the Fast Food Nation-friendly burgers and fries remain delicious).

Open since 2006, Phil's Icehouse, named after a founder and ably occupying a former filling station repurposed by Michael Hsu, slings up a number of locally-named burgers, including “The Allandale”, a cheeseburger with cheddar, onions, sliced tomato, lettuce, pickles, mayo, and mustard on a toasted sourdough bun. The warmly bricked garage bays provide ample space for ordering and inside seating while the gas pump canopy outside provides respite from the sun while watching the wee ones ride cows.

Started in 2008, the Hat Creek Burger Company (a name inspired by Lonesome Dove) transitioned from trailer to brick-and-mortar by moving into the old Arby’s building at 5400 Burnet. While I was sad to see that enormous Arby cowboy hat sign fade into the sunset (western Googie?), the recent remodel is amazing. Reach Architects sliced the end of the barn-like building like a loaf of bread, setting the “heel” back from the main loaf, creating not only a playscape and outdoor patio but a screen against the hot Texan sun. All in all Hat Creek is a great contemporary place to eat an avocado-topped turkey burgers with a side of fried pickles.

Hopdoddy Burger Bar (a fusion of “hop” from beer crafting and “doddy” from what the Scots in Aberdeen call their native moo-ers) started in 2010 and opened their second shop at 2438 West Anderson Lane. Hopdoddy slings deliciously messy gourmet burgers in a sleek and chic (yet toasted-bun warm) Modern shell. Levy Architects won an award from the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the reuse and redesign of the site (anybody remember the dreadful strip that housed Souper Salad?).

Hill-Berts, an Austin institution since 1973, wasn’t allowed to renew its lease in the gettin'-hipped-up Centennial Shopping Center at 7301 Burnet. The Food Network-featured Twisted Root Burger Company, started in the Deep Ellums of Dallas in 2005, will take its place after a remodel, completing a restaurant trifecta at the Center that includes Teriyaki Madness and Tacodeli (apparently only “T” restaurants are allowed in the revamped Center…). Twisted Root, a name inspired by a cranky hand-cranked French fry cutter, pitches gourmet burgers (including vegan and game) as well as adult shakes (Hear ye! Hear ye! Shakes with liquor!!!). Michael Hsu, the aforementioned master of repurposing and restaurant design, has hipified the tired 1980s architecture of the Center, but one of the owners of Twisted Root, Jason Boso, is taking the lead on reworking the old Hill-Berts building.

Are you really a burger joint if your butterfly roof yelps "FRIED CHICKEN"?

Speaking of local oldtimers (and one that hasn’t been run off), Top Notch Hamburgers at 7525 Burnet started in 1970 and still sports its Googiesque street sign and Mid-Century Modern butterfly roof over the drive-in. Featured in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”, Top Notch nearly closed twice after the original proprietors died before being saved by the owners of Galaxy CafĂ©. Despite the Galaxians adding Sunday hours and accepting credit cards, the place is oldskool through and through and still serves its straight-ahead delicious aburgers and chicken.

There are, of course, other burger joints in the neighborhood (Billy’s, Waterloo Icehouse, Big Daddy’s Burgers and Bar, Elevation Burger, Short Stop, Jack in the Box, Whataburger); however, none of these sport burgertecture that is particularly inspiring. Sonic continues to vaguely employ 1950s Googie in its stores, and the McDonalds at 7950 Burnet remodeled several years ago back into its early Googie roots.

Architecture doesn’t make a burger taste better, but as P. Terry’s notes: “…we think [our architecture] makes for a better dining experience.” I wholewheatbunheartedly agree. So the next time you head out for a burger, just say no to the fries, sit down, and look around. Have a side of architecture instead. Fewer calories (and hopefully no heartburn!).


dancing with architecture: mies's pieces--illinois institute of technology

In 1936 the Armour Institute, later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology, offered the director of architecture position to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies was looking for a place to land: After Hitler ascended to power in 1933, Germany was becoming more and more hostile to Modernism (Hitler preferred a Deco-stylized interpretation of the classics; furthermore, the socialist underpinnings of Modernism surely bothered the Third Reich). As the mavens of German Modernism left for friendlier fronts, many of which were in the United States, Mies found the music ebbing with many of the empty chairs of opportunity taken.

Nevertheless, Mies was being quite particular, demanding not only the full ability to reorganize the architecture department (understandable since he would be converting the group from a Beaux Arts approach to a Modern one) but also the ability to redesign the entire campus. The school responded that perhaps he needed to guest lecture for a semester to get a better sense of things. Mies balked while flirting with positions at Harvard (which the more worldly Gropius landed) and Vienna (dead after the Nazis invaded Austria) and a commission for the Museum of Modern Art.

It was a commission to design a house in Wyoming that brought Mies to the United States for a visit and, due to a happenchance day-long layover to change trains in Chicago, tours of Chicago's architectural sites. On the return trip from Wyoming, the Armour Institute asked Mies to visit the school. Mies could hear the music fading and see the last chairs being filled--he agreed to a visit. A one-day layover turned into three. At the end of his visit, he and school had an agreement. Mies would be the new director as well as the new architect for the department and campus.

After developing a master plan, Mies began designing buildings, and in the process developed the architectural grammar he used the rest of his career. His first built project for the school was transitional between the Bauhaus and America: the Minerals and Metals Building designed and built in 1942 and 1943. Here is where he first used I-beams as mullions.

Minerals and Metals Building as originally constructed, 1942-1943. The Mondrianesque pattern on the side indicates the structure of the building and foreshadows what awaits inside.

However, Wishnick (Chemistry) Hall (1945-1946) is where we see Mies start to fully develop the style he applied the rest of his career. Here are the corners with peeks into the inner structure of the building, a refined use of the I-beam mullions, and Miesian modularity.

A "peek" into inner structure.

Details of the brickwork. Mies was a bricklayer early on his pre-architect career.

Notice how the black I-beams stop before ground level.

Mies also designed and built a chapel for the campus between 1949 and 1952, the Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior. True to form, the chapel is an exercise is minimalism, a simple box (what the kids on campus call "The God Box"). This is Mies's only ecclesiastical building and his only masonry building outside of his early work in Europe.

Front of the chapel.

Inside looking toward the altar.

Close-up of the altar. Because the chapel can be used for other denominations, the cross and curtain is designed so the curtain can be easily placed in front of the cross.

Behind the curtain...

Cantilevered side bench.

View from the altar.

Detail of outside wall.

The back of the chapel from afar.

The most famous building on campus is S.R. Crown Hall (more simply known as Crown Hall). Designed and built between 1950 and 1956, it is considered a masterpiece. Unlike other buildings on campus, this one was only steel and glass. By classifying the building as a warehouse instead of a classroom, Mies circumvented requirements to imbed the steel structure in concrete. However, he wasn't able to build the stairs and patio, fashioned after the Farnsworth House, without railings.

The main entry.

Look familiar?

Note how Mies floats the I-beams off the ground so it is clear that they are not structural. Mies does;t want to lie, so this is an architectural nudge-nudge wink-wink.

The thicker I-beam goes to the ground since it is structural.

Was surprised to find a lower level!

An homage to Mies at the entryway.

The image at the top of this post is from the entry to the Rem Koolhaas designed student center. In an homage to Mies, the entry has all these small graphics depicting college life such that when you step back far enough, Mies's face emerges.