Are we designing spaces to inspire the next great American Novel?

Cafe Reggio, NYC

Cafe Reggio, NYC

Ever wonder what inspires the writing of a great novel?  At first blush, I would surmise that passion, desire, craft and experience all play a large role in crafting the prose for a great literary work.  As someone who is a casual reader of great fiction, I find it hard anymore to read anything for pleasure.  My last foray in fiction revolved around the Dan Brown books about the some Harvard prof and his travels through ancient buildings throughout Europe (you may have heard of them!).

But I’ve always fantasized what it would be like to have a conversation with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand or George Orwell.  One of my first questions would be “so where did you physically write your book?”  This may seam trivial to most (except for us architects), as questions of inspiration and technique might make for a longer conversation.  But I find myself thinking about this every time I walk into an interesting cafe or bar or bookstore.  Is there something about a place that can ignite the creative senses (and thus bears great creative, thought-provoking work)?

max's allegheny tavern

Max’s Allegheny Tavern. Pittsburgh, PA

Part of it could be the location.  Urban centers throughout history (see the Athens of Socrates and Plato, Florence during the Renaissance, Paris in the 1920’s, or New York in the 1960’s) have always seen a clustering of creative intellects.  Rural locations can give the isolation needed to connect with oneself or with nature to unlock the creative juices.  But what about the actual building where the creative process unfolds within?  Is there some formula that helps to set the stage for the playwright?  Could it be the scale, or the sights/sounds of the location?  I feel there’s got to be something within a physical construct that affects creative cognition.

As architects, I wonder if we’re paying enough attention to the spaces that we’re charged with shaping.  Do we really take into account the interaction of inhabitants within our spaces?  The boundary (or lack thereof) between public and private?  What about light and sound?  Do we pay attention to the changing of the seasons, and how a space may feel good on July 4th, but lousy on January 4th?  What about material and texture?  Scale and height?

I know there’s other factors outside an architect’s control that foster this creative environment (usually involves the company, or what’s on that plate or in that glass).  But my fear is that we concede the “feel” factor to typology or branding.  I think it would be sad if Ryan Homes or Starbucks would be the future incubators for the creative talent in America.  Doesn’t seem very democratic to me.

Next time you grab that coffee or beer, take a look around and soak in the atmosphere of where you are.  If you find a good one, let me know…I’m always looking for great cafe or saloon for some inspiration.

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Learning in Las Vegas

The Vegas Strip

I’m back from a trip to Sin City for my buddy’s bachelor party…so I thought I would share some thoughts related to my wanderings around the place (at least the experiences that won’t get me or the participants in hot water!). This was my first trip to Las Vegas, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a city whose beginnings and growth have been well documented. But inhabiting the place for a couple of days, and seeing its magical spell on people really bears some closer inspection from an architectural (and sociological) perspective.  

The great 1960’s book Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, surmised that Las Vegas was the new evolution for an “American” Architecture.  The decorated box, along with the larger than life signage of the Strip, would become a conversation in all the academic circles (good or bad).  The “65 MPH architecture”, as it was coined.  But the Las Vegas that I encountered fell well short of this imagery.  Yes, the signage is still there, along with all the decadence that Las Vegas portrays itself in being.  But Las Vegas changed somehow over the years.  I’m not saying it grew up, but it definitely took some steps towards becoming something more than a glorified mafia hangout.  

The new Strip is more like Disneyland now.  You can close your eyes, and imagine yourself in any part of the world.  It has Ancient Rome with a fresh coat of paint; Venice without the smell of the canal; Paris without the rude French citizens.  The architecture is much more rich and detailed that I would expect, both on the interior and the exterior.  The detail has to be experienced like any other city, by walking and inhabiting.  The car really has no advantage in the new Las Vegas.   

The sidewalks of the Strip are now the areas for human interaction (and an escape from the dreadful interiors of the casinos).  The addition of pedestrian overpasses now allow for interaction between the tourist and the street life of the city.  As you move around, up and over the street, you experience people from all parts of the globe, and all kinds of fashions, languages and gestures.  Your path now takes you right into casinos and shopping.  You are constantly moving from interior to exterior.  To me, this is a fascinating way to experience the city.  You would be hard pressed to find another city where you are constantly changing elevations to move through a built environment.  

City Center. Las Vegas, NV

Another interesting development in the Strip is the much-publicized City Center.  The $8 Billion development, mostly designed by internationally renowned architects, is a curious dichotomy to the dream world of the other developments on the Strip.  I appreciated that buildings as singularly interesting works.  It’s hard not to have some admiration for Foster, Jahn, Libeskind and others.  The volumes, use of materials and the detailing of the buildings (both from an interior and exterior perspective) are worth viewing.   I did enjoy the ability to move from one building to the next, and feel the “silence” that these designs brought to a very noisy town.  Although this development is the product of a building boom that we may never see again in America….I appreciate the Burnham-esque audacity of their birth, and hope that they ignite future developments that are just as architecturally significant.   

But there are two questions that I took away from my visit.  First, what constitutes a “City Center”?  To me, the center of a city has a lot to do with the creative mix of mass, void and interaction of its inhabitants.  Think the Pantheon in Rome, Piccadilly Circus in London, or (why not) Market Square in Pittsburgh.  City Center really has no public forum for interaction….for voyeurs or exhibitionists.  This really falls short of the potential that this development had……to finally give Las Vegas the civic center it needs.  

City Center. Las Vegas, NV

Second, is this collection of “starchitects” an honest gesture towards legitimacy as a global city, or just another (very polished) fantasy?  As I walked throughout the development, I wondered whether I was in Las Vegas, or Tyson’s Corner VA, or Frankfurt.  Even though Las Vegas is a place for mirages, I felt the wackiness that is the built environment creates the typology, the expectation for the inhabitant.  City Center, although an honest attempt at architecture, may be the girl in the beautiful dress who showed up at the ball a little too early.  My guess is that, over time, we will have more of an appreciation for this attempt to make Sin City into an honest town.   

So as I finally get over my malaise from travel (and a bad head cold), I do appreciate Las Vegas for what it is….an escape from reality.  I look forward to visiting again….hopefully bringing back more of an education.  Although…I’ll keep throwing some chips on Black 11….it’s gotta hit sometime, right?!?

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Building and Baseball…

So I’ll use this post to introduce myself to the world of blogging.  I’m very excited to be talking about some of the things that I have a lot of passion about.  I plan on talking a lot about my views and experiences of a designer and a community advocate.  But we’ll start off easy, and talk about one of my earliest passions in life….baseball.

As a young kid, I was enthralled with the sport of baseball.  I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and was lucky enough to be in a city that had a Major League team (ok…the Indians weren’t much of a Major League team in those days).  My grandfather was a huge Indians fan, and loved to listen to the games on the radio.  I think my passion for the sport (and football as well) was nurtured by his passion.  The radio, a cigar and a cold beer on a warm Sunday afternoon….that’s what I remember of my grandfather.

Watching the games on TV was more of a treat back then.  But the radio was magical.  My dad would comment that he could tell whether the team was winning or losing based on how the crowd sounded when he turned to that station.  The crack of the bat, the organ, and the sounds of the crowd was intoxicating.  The anticipation of whether the hit was foul or fair, or whether the player caught the ball was exciting.  The play-by-play man (the late Herb Score) was like an old relative telling stories about events he had witnessed.  And that was what it was….storytelling. 

I would pretend in our neighborhood wiffle ball games that I was playing at Cleveland Stadium; surveying the giant edifice from the batter’s box, and waiting for the roar of the crowd after I hit a home run.  My imagination would help me to create the experience of being at the stadium.  I went twice to the Stadium before my family moved, and could never get that place out of my mind.  The building is now gone, but obviously not forgotten. 

As I grew older, I started to draw this stadium.  I became interested in how these grand sports venues were constructed….and how the details of the building became the backdrop for the games we watch.  I could imagine the historical events that had taken place in them.  Some legendary, some heartbreaking, but memories, nonetheless.  I think that passion I had for sports, and the buildings that housed those games, spawned my passion for design and building.  It probably led me down the career path that I straddle right now…that of an architect. 

I had the thrill of a lifetime when, in my first job out of college, I was able to work on the construction of PNC Park, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was a dream of mine to work on a ballpark project, and it was delivered to me very early in my career.  I cherished the experience, but maybe it happened too soon.  I’ve obviously matured as a professional, and have found other avenues for my creativity.  But I’ll always remember walking into the Park that first game, and seeing all the joy that the crowd had for this new place….and knowing that I played a small role in that joy. 

Sports are obviously a pass-time for our culture; not an essential element in our well-being.  But one thing they can do is help create connections, and frame our memories.  Architecture is pretty similar in that sense.  We as architects are charged with creating spacial constructs that incubate, maintain, and preserve the values of our society.  We must always allow our imagination to pursue these new designs, and not rely on the technological tools to create these for us….thus becoming “armchair architects”.  Our imaginations are the key to finding new and better ways to build.  Hopefully our buildings will help to elevate the imaginations of the people who inhabit them. 

So maybe it would be wise to find a social place sometime….and just look and listen to the atmosphere around you.  Who knows….maybe something there will trigger your imagination….and lead to greater things.  Batter up!

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