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Showing posts from January, 2013

Infrastructure and Urbanism in 1920s Sarasota, Florida

This post is based on research I did for "History of the American City" taught by Gwendolyn Wright this past fall.

As an undergraduate in architectural history I was encouraged to think critically about my home town as part of an exercise in historical writing.  This past semester, for a course focused on the history of American cities, I decided to take this further and research the history of the city as a whole.  I was surprised to find that Sarasota, Florida, has a much richer architectural history than I had understood from living there as a teenager.  Settled as a frontier outpost in the 19th century, it grew thanks to tourism, the circus, and real estate speculation, resulting in an incredible expansion in the 1920s that died with the Great Depression.  The city grew again after WWII, and in the 1950s was home to the Sarasota School of Architecture, a nationally-renowned architectural style and movement (not a physical school) that produced early attempts at climate-a…

Movie Review: Architecture & Action Movies

In a sense, many action movies are "about" architecture or engage directly with buildings; think of Ethan Hunt scaling skyscrapers and crawling through ducts in all the Mission: Impossible movies, or car chases through city centers and urban parcours in the Bourne movies.  Some other obvious ones are Blade Runner, known for its futuristic nighttime cityscapes that launched a thousand architectural dreams, and, apparently, Die Hard, as described eloquently in BLDGBLOG.  (Also thanks to Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG for inspiring this entire line of thought.)  Here are a few more action + architecture movies I've seen recently that I think are of particular interest.

The Towering Inferno (1974): architect as hero, building systems as dangerous adversaries or heroic resources (but ultimately the architect is instructed, at the end of the film, to subordinate himself to the firefighter, who apparently knows best about how tall to make buildings)

Earthquake (1974): engineer as …

Movie Review: "Urbanized"

Of the three Gary Hustwit documentaries I've seen, this being the third and last, I thought Urbanized was the best by far.  It's like a primer on the most-discussed issues of urbanism today.  So while I can't say I learned much from the movie, Urbanized is a great introduction to this range of topics, and I'm supposed to know this stuff anyway as part of my profession.  The visuals are also great: if you're an urbanism buff, you'll enjoy trying to figure out which city is being shown before the titles are given; the aerial views comparing cities are pretty spectacular; and there are some fun interviews with people around the world, including government officials in Santiago, Chile; Bogota, Colombia; and in New York City.  I should warn the urbanism buffs, though, that you may get impatient sometimes with the pacing, since so much will already be familiar.  But it's still worth a viewing.  For everyone else, you will probably learn a lot, including some thi…

Three American Houses

We Americans have a special cultural pedestal reserved for single-family homes.  Think "house with a white picket fence," "the American dream," etc etc.  American architects and architectural historians generally have their own ideas about what makes an iconic American house, and lately I've had the good fortune to be able to visit a few of these, all now converted to house-museums.  Not your typical houses by any means, and certainly not what most people think of when they think "house," but houses nevertheless.  And, probably fortunately for us all, not likely to become the next big thing in residential construction, as you'll see below. 

Biltmore House
Client: George Vanderbilt
Architect: Richard Morris Hunt (with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmstead)
Construction: 1889-1895, steel and brick, with Kentucky limestone veneer
Location: Asheville, NC

The Biltmore touts itself as "America's largest home," and while I question it…

Book Review: "Collapse"

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by scientist and geographer Jared Diamond was not a book I intended to read, but it was sitting around the house after being lent to us by a friend, so I picked it up to read on the plane.  Collapse describes how different factors have contributed, to different degrees, to the collapse of various human societies across time and around the world, with a focus on the role played by environmental degradation.  Diamond is better known for his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel,and has a journalistic rather than academic style, addressed to educated laymen.  While I wasn't very impressed with his writing style or his overly pedantic presentation of the material ("Now we will discuss X, then we will discuss Y"..."As we saw in X, we will now see in Y," etc), I was interested enough in the topic to make it through all 500+ pages of the book.  In short, Diamond lays out how human impact on the environment, especially defo…