Design

On the Potomac

Last week I had the opportunity to sail on San Francisco Bay on the Potomac. The USS Potomac, built as the Coast Guard cutter Electra in 1934, two years later was commissioned as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. Roosevelt used it to sail up and down the Potomac until his death in 1945, when the ship was decommissioned. Subsequently, the Potomac had a checkered career. She was used as a ferry boat in the Caribbean, was briefly owned by Elvis Presley, was later used for drug smuggling and seized by the Customs Service, and finally ingloriously sank while at anchor at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. She is now owned by the Port of Oakland. The fully restored interior is much as FDR and his many guests, who included George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth, would have known it. The wheelchair-bound President had a rope-powered elevator installed that allowed him to pull himself up to the upper deck, and emerge through a door in the fake second funnel. What is touching is the unpretentiousness of it all; wicker chairs, a modest bunk in FDR’s cabin, and a broad settee in the stern where he could sprawl at presidential ease.

The Odd Couple

Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) is the subject of a new book. We don’t associate Bel Geddes with iconic designs, as we do his contemporaries such as Walter Dorwin Teague (the Kodak Brownie), Raymond Loewy (the International Harvester tractor), Henry Dreyfuss (the classic Bell telephone handset), or Eliot Noyes (the IBM Selectric typewriter). Rather, Bel Geddes is best remembered for his visionary sci-fi designs, and for popularizing the streamlined style. He has been criticized for indiscriminately streamlining radios and refrigerators as well as buses and cars, although this does not seem any different than architects giving décor or chairs the Bauhaus—or the Baroque—treatment. Bel Geddes was famously responsible for the Futurama exhibit in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Less known is that one of the people who worked for him on the design of the building was a young Eero Saarinen. As Jeffrey L. Meikle points out in his interesting essay in the book, Bel Geddes’s extravagant brand of “commercial modernism” (as opposed to functional modernism) was an important influence on Saarinen’s later work. Another influence: Bel Geddes pioneered the public image of the high-profile designer that would become a later fixture in the architectural world. Saarinen learnt from that, too.

GM Pavilion, 1939 NY World’s Fair

Hand and Eye

During a recent lecture, Princeton architecture grad Richard Wilson Cameron talked about how he designed Ravenwood, an estate in Chester County, Pennsylvania belonging to the  film director, M. Night Shyamalan. What turned into a five-year project involved transforming a rather nondescript Federal Revival house of the 1930s into a lovely Lutyenesque complex of buildings. The high quality of the craftsmanship, both inside and out, is impressive, but equally impressive is Cameron’s working method. According to the website of his firm, Atelier & Co., “We work closely with clients and draw every concept of our projects by hand—from initial sketches and renderings to fully developed design drawings. While we employ digital techniques in our work they are always secondary to our hand drawings.” During his talk, Cameron showed the development of the main entrance to Ravenwood: preliminary sketch, analytique, detail, and construction drawing. The finished product, with a raven sculpted by Foster Reeve, shows the happy result of this traditional working method. The free hand, guided by the eye, has served architects for more than two millennia. The shapes thus produced, whether they are traditional—as here—or modernist, have a distinctly humanist appeal that the machine cannot match.

Taken by Modernity

In 1971 I entered a competition for an addition to the British Houses of Parliament. My design blended Aalto with Le Corbusier—my two heroes. In hindsight, the large complicated project was far beyond my pay grade, but I was ambitious. Still, whatever in the world  made me decide to do all the area calculations for the complicated building on an abacus? Cheap pocket calculators did not become popular until the mid 1970s, but still! I didn’t win the competition, but I still have the abacus. I remember the pleasant clickety-click of the wooden beads. I’ve never had such a fond memory of a pocket calculator.

Parliament House Competition, 1971.

I thought of my abacus when I read my friend Andres Duany’s recollections of student life at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (in 1970-71). His essay is in Windsor Forum on Design Education. The writing is a witty, sardonic, perceptive (vintage Duany) take on architectural education. He describes the atelier, where shared drafting tables were regularly dismantled and assembled as needed.

“Needless to say there were no attached parallel rulers, only T-squares. Remember the thrill of walking around the streets carrying that incredibly charismatic instrument! And the pleasure of the visceral click as the T-square was snapped into orthogonal alignment before every line was drawn. And twirling and slapping down triangle and scale. And the ritual of systematic dismantling and cleaning the Rapidograph ink pens before final drawings, like soldiers checking their equipment before the assault. How much more satisfying than the effeminate typing on a keyboard, the sleazy sliding of the mouse followed by the infantile, gurgling and cooing of the computer! Forgive the nostalgia, but I am gripped by what has been taken from us by modernity!”

Amen.

Anything Goes

I’m starting to sympathize with Guy de Maupassant, who hated the Eiffel Tower so much that he is said to have regularly had dinner in its restaurant to avoid looking at it.  I’m not talking about the Eiffel Tower, of course, but the Orbit Tower, erected on the occasion of the London Olympics. Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s design surely represents the nadir of twenty-first century architecture, structurally feckless (at least to my eye), needlessly complicated, and downright ugly. It puts me in mind of the tower that appeared for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Its ostensible function was to support the retractable stadium roof, but its actual purpose was to satisfy Mayor Jean Drapeau’s desire for a vertical icon. The tower was unsuccessful, both technically (the roof never worked), and iconically. Mayor Boris Johnson says that the Orbit Tower is “definitely an artwork.” Well, it’s definitely a something.