Architecture and Community

Flood Me Please

I can’t decide whether the architect is too inexperienced to recognize the damage that even a minor downpour could cause, or whether the photo/essay is deliberately obtuse about the heroic yet hidden measures that have been taken to avoid catastrophe. Either way, could any architect look at this photo and not wonder?

What’s the Story?

A rather aggressive coworker from many years back always greeted me with the line, “What’s the Story?” (Yes, he spoke in title case.) This greeting was followed by a critique of my response, which was generally along the lines of “No story today, John.” Annoying.

I suppose some of the KU Architecture students whose projects I reviewed yesterday may be thinking of me as I thought of John.

The program for the projects being reviewed consisted of a cultural interpretive center, auditorium, and auxiliary uses to be set in Nicodemus, Kansas. Nicodemus is a virtual ghost town today, with 11, or 14, or 17 current residents depending on which group of students was doing the presentation. But it has a powerful history that derives from one of the great stories of the ongoing evolution of the United States – namely the question of the meaning of human liberty in our nation’s laws and culture.

Briefly, the town was settled by freed African-American slaves following the end the Civil War. Established in 1877, it is the oldest and only remaining all-Black town west of the Mississippi. It is now a National Historic Site designated by the National Park Service. It represents a unique aspect of the larger story told by Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, of which I am a Trustee.

In other words, the students were challenged to design a building that embodied a powerful, even epic, story.

Of the four groups whose presentations I heard, three made mention of the Nicodemus story by way of background, then described how the various programmatic components were conceived in relation to one another and to the larger site – the usual architectural crit stuff.

All the projects succeeded to varying degrees in resolving the architectural tasks that the students set themselves in their choice of conceptual frameworks. It was heartening to see a high level of design competence in the making.

But only one of four was able to articulate an architectural vision of the historical struggle that created the place and that defines its national significance. That group lead off with a description of a long, underground, uphill path from parking lot to the site culminating in a “light at the end of the tunnel.” They described their main organizing axis as a “spine.” The forms of their building repeated the motif of upward sloping rooflines gesturing toward the historic town site.

They were the only group that was happy to hear me ask, “What’s the Story?”

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Enjoying Architecture

Let me state the obvious: architects love experiencing and exploring buildings. When we travel, we go out of our way to identify and seek out buildings of interest, from ancient icons to contemporary iSores. (App developers take note: “iSores: a guide to locating controversial and downright ugly new buildings in world travel destinations”).

It is rare, on the other hand, to find architecture clients who actively seek out new ways to experience and transform their own buildings, and to broadcast their architectural presence to a larger community. That’s one of the many reasons that I love the Lawrence Arts Center.

Yesterday I climbed up a maintenance ladder and opened the roof hatch so that a rather excitable group including arts center staff, botanist Kelly Kindscher, and poet/environmentalist/community arts supporter Beth Schultz, could survey the possibilities of creating a kind of green fringe of planters filled with native grasses along certain edges of the building. Here are a few of the participants “waving the wheat” to demonstrate the visibility of tallgrass prairie plantings on the Arts Center roof.

As an informal (meaning unpaid) consultant, my duty was to be the stick in the mud — make that the “voice of reason” — who reminded the group of OSHA regulations about working near roof edges, of roof warranty issues, and the like. The rest of the group listened and then proceeded with enthusiasm undimmed.

I hope their project succeeds. From an environmental point of view, of course, it’s a gesture, at best. Had we covered the whole roof with a couple feet of soil and planted the entire surface with prairie grasses and wildflowers, we might have made a significant contribution to environmental conservation. We also would have spent a lot of cash that could have gone into serving the building’s main mission as a community focus for the arts instead. But that mission in a broader sense is about raising peoples’ awareness of the world around them, and if some fronds of tall grass appearing unexpectedly over the parapet of our arts center can do that, then I’m on board.

And if that unexpected sight causes some citizens to get excited about a building, so much the better.

House Tours, Old and New

Lawrence Modern and the Lawrence Preservation Alliance may seem an odd couple, but they held a very successful joint event on April 15. Participants toured two North Lawrence houses, facing one another across Walnut Street, that could hardly have been more different. Dueling houses! Bring on the banjos.






The first was a 1908 Victorian farmhouse renovated over the last decade or two, the second a 2006-present minimal modernist affair. Every surface in the Victorian and its outbuildings was covered with artifacts from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. Its owner, David Baird, owns a company called Ethnofacts that trades in these art and craft materials. Every surface in the contemporary house seemed to reject the possibility of artifacts. This house is owned by Scott Tettel, design-builder and owner of Gria Inc.






They were both wonderful. Both houses reflected personal, thoughtful labors of love. Neither could have been created by owners seduced by the idea of “re-sale value.”

The event revealed a common ground between the two organizations: that buildings of quality  deserve recognition and respect because of the human capital that has been invested in their design, construction, maintenance and/or resurrection. And that respectable buildings can coexist comfortably in spite of radical differences in their makers’ notions of architectural style.

It should go without saying that most of the buildings erected during any period of time are mediocre (since “all of the children” cannot be “above average.”) Some acquire distinction merely by surviving their peers. Others, like the Walnut Street Victorian, acquire it through single-minded efforts to revive a failing structure. A few begin their lives as outliers, awaiting the judgement of generations to follow.

Redbuds and Mr. Ishii

I always think of my brief time working for Osamu Ishii in Osaka, Japan when the redbuds bloom. Ishii-Sensei was a pioneer of green architecture in Japan, having started his design studio — Biken Sekkei, meaning “Beautiful Architecture” — in the early 1970s. Although he designed office buildings, apartments, and resorts, he was known mainly for suburban houses built into steep slopes and awkward sites that would deter many designers. Ishii used the challenge of those sites to create dramatic buildings that sometimes nearly disappeared into a dense landscape of stones and greenery. He loved having his buildings reveal themselves in small fragments, and in his buildings’ occupants constant access to views of nature, both close at hand and borrowed from the surrounding hillsides.

For that reason, he always placed the main living spaces on the highest floor of what were often three to five story structures, with landscaped roof terraces. This slide shows Ishii-Sensei on one such roof terrace. (I designed the “lawn-friendly” lawn furniture in the foreground.) And yes, those bushes comprise the guardrail for this roof edge.

Ishii’s practice was a very different world in many ways. Clients who hired Ishii-Sensei learned to accept his convictions, some of which were a bit eccentric. Western-style beds and bathtubs were superior to their Japanese counterparts, so that’s how his bedrooms and baths were designed (although he did follow the hygenic and aesthetic practice of placing the toilet in a room separate from the bath). When I worked for him in 1990, he was 70 years old. Here Ishii-Sensei and my son stand on the roof of his own house, built in 1978. He passed away a few years ago.

But back to the redbuds. Although I knew that Ishii-Sensei invested enormous effort in his landscape designs, it wasn’t until I toured several of his houses that I saw that he liked redbuds. In fact, he planted them at every house I saw. I remarked to him that redbuds were natives of my home state, and he became quite excited. They were one of his favorite trees, he said, and not common at all in Japanese garden designs in spite of their extraordinary beauty. Then he exclaimed that Kansas must be a very beautiful place. And sometimes it is indeed.

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Who Designs These Places?

And why are they allowed to do so?

Too true

if that.

Built Like a Brick Gas Pump?

A recent report of the renovation of a gas station designed by modern master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe makes a nice point of departure for viewing an issue here in my little neighborhood.





Just down the block from the new Dillons store, another neighborhood business is looking to redevelop – our Kwik Shop – generating lively discussion on the neighborhood googlegroup. There are a number of legitimate planning concerns. But one hurdle for the project is its need to receive the blessing of the Historic Resources Commission’s (HRC’s) “environs review.” This is a strange and unique requirement of Kansas law, and one that I have always found troubling when it isn’t borderline absurd.

The Kwik Shop case belongs to the latter category. I am a supporter and promoter of historic preservation, and a believer in architectural design that is respectful of its context. But there is a reason that Kansas stands alone in its environs review statute, and it’s not because everybody’s out of step but dear old Kansas.

For example, here’s a recommendation from the staff report on the Kwik Shop environs review: “Fuel island design should be compatible with the environs. Gas canopy columns should have brick enclosures.” Brick enclosures on a gas station canopy? Justified by the environs? I don’t believe there is a single gas station canopy in Lawrence that has brick-clad columns. In fact, I’m not sure such a thing has been built anywhere since, say, 1925. And it was anachronistic then.










If any building type demands modernist architecture, surely it’s the gas station, as Mies’ building, above, demonstrates. Now imagine those black columns custom-welded from steel plates covered in nice red brick. No, don’t do that.


Returning to the mundane realm of Mass Street, this is the historic fire station which has created the need for environs review, and its neighbor, a former gas station…with steel columns standing there all naked, supporting the canopy.  Like, well, a gas station.

To me the whole process is sort of embarrassing, and a poor use of the time and effort of staff and especially of the volunteers who sit on the HRC. I want to apologize to the HRC members, who are going to have to evaluate this redevelopment as if anything that happens to that site can possibly diminish the fire station any more than its neighbors of the last five decades have done.

Please don’t think I’m asserting any architectural value in the design of the Kwik Shop. It’s going to be no better than any of its neighbors, and worse than many. But the fire station is an anachronism in its “environs,” a lone survivor of a long gone time. It’s coexisted for decades with a typical mid-twentieth century shopping strip. And we are now going to assert that one new building across the street will “significantly encroach on, damage, or destroy the landmark ?” That’s strange.

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Best Small Library

Congratulations to the Independence Kansas Public Library for their recognition by the Library Journal. I’d like to think the building design played some small part in that designation.

An Intersection of Affordable Housing and Architectural Education

Over Thanksgiving weekend, our son Lee and friend Amanda, both aspiring architects, visited us here in Lawrence. Amanda mentioned that she had heard Dan Rockhill speak about the Studio 804 projects that his students have been building over the last decade and more. She was both impressed with the nature of the program, which has architecture grad students design and build buildings over the course of an academic year, and a bit put off by what she heard as condescension in Rockhill’s references to the lower-income clients for the studio 804 houses subsidized by various city agencies and non-profits. So we decided to take a tour of the local 804 houses. (I’ve written previously about the latest 804 project, KU’s Center for Design Research.) Read more »

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