Architecture > High Museum

After graduating from undergrad, I decided to break free of Boston and the northeast region for the summer and resettle myself somewhere completely new for a change. Megan and I ended up in Atlanta due to the influence of our good friend Bobby, a native Georgian and frequent booster of all things ATL. Convinced that we could at the very least meet new types of people and understand life in this country from a different perspective, we decamped in the heart of Atlanta’s thriving Midtown neighborhood for nearly three months, subletting a spacious old apartment on Juniper St. from some Georgia Tech students who had relocated to California for the summer.

Our location in Midtown and proximity to the Highlands and Little Five Points placed us strategically among the most vibrant of Atlanta’s residents. The neighborhood’s identity as a leading arts district for the southwestern U.S. is summarily expressed by the Woodruff Arts Center,  a collection of museums and theaters that run along Peachtree St. NE and constitute the inner city’s most architecturally significant area. Anchoring this cultural district is the High Museum of Art, a complex of several buildings whose centerpiece is the 135,000 square foot, Richard Meier-designed museum which opened in 1983. In August when my ATL days were numbered, I made the short journey up Peachtree by bike to check out the city’s leading cultural institution and admire Richard Meier’s pristinely white  artifices under a blistering summer sky.

original axonometric

Richard Meier is an avowedly rationalist architect whose design aesthetic springs directly from the stripped down functionality popularized by modernist forebears such as LeCorbusier and Mies. Known particularly for his purely white geometries and familiarity with the art museum typology, in the past three decades Meier has garnered commissions for civic and cultural buildings throughout the world, with the Getty Villa in Los Angeles arguably being the most well known among them.

The High Museum predates the Getty by a few years, and began its life as the Atlanta Art Association in 1905. In 1926 the High family, who had been major donors to the Art Association, donated their home on Peachtree St. to house the group’s growing art collection, which eventually moved into a separately constructed museum building in 1955. By the late 1970s, as Atlanta was growing in population, economic vitality, and cultural significance, the High Museum saw it necessary to expand their facilities to adequately reflect the city’s growing importance as the unofficial capital of the southeastern United States. With $20 million to cover the cost of the new building, the High Museum’s fundraising efforts were matched by a $7.9 million grant from who else but the president of the Coca-Cola company, Robert Woodruff.

site plan

I imagine that the trickiest part of designing a museum is figuring out how the building’s tectonic form will communicate with the two and three dimensional artworks inside of them. While traditional museum design has encouraged visitors to enjoy the spectacle of the architecture as much the art, in some recent projects like Sanaa‘s New Museum on the Bowery, architects have taken deliberate steps to simplify their compositions and try to focus visitor’s attention away from the buildings themselves and back onto the exhibitions housed within. In the case of the New Museum, the designers were working in a highly dense urban context with long-established artistic bona fides. Such was not the case for the High in Atlanta.

Meier understood the High Museum’s importance as a cultural focal point for Atlanta, developing his design as “a series of architectonic responses to context in the broadest sense, understood to include not only functional, programmatic, and typological concerns, but also the physical, social, and historical context of the city”.  Recognizing the site’s unique location in a pedestrian-oriented section of a notoriously sprawling metropolis, Meier began with a simple parti of four quadrants or cubes. One of these cubes is carved out to distinguish itself from the other three and form the monumentally glazed quarter-circle atrium, with four levels of ascending ramps acting as the circulatory crux of the whole composition. This grand atrium is oriented towards Peachtree St. and connected to its sidewalk by a long ramp that diagonally bisects a verdant front lawn.

Although most visitors ascend this triumphant ramp and begin their exploration of the High in the grand atrium, I actually entered through a courtyard off to the right side, through the more recent Renzo Piano additions. The most remarkable aspect of Piano’s portions of the museum are the qualities of light created by his spherically coffered ceiling planes, found in the new lobby as well as the top floor of the additional galleries. These ping-pong ball negatives glow softly with indirect daylight and cast the galleries in an even and natural light, ideal for art viewing and preservation. Piano’s circular coffers at the High are a less explicit but more elegant solution to light diffusion than is found in his recently opened addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, where rows of tilted white blades rest simply atop a trussed glass ceiling to block strong southern rays from entering the gallery spaces.

While natural light plays an indirect role in Piano’s new galleries and lobby spaces, it is front and center in Meier’s spectacular quarter-circle atrium. Stepping into the ground floor of this space and viewing the stacked ramps immediately evokes the continuously spiraling ramp of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Meier deliberately sought to reinterpret the virtues of the Guggenheim while avoiding its excesses, namely the fact that circulation and gallery functions are not separated in Wright’s design and that those continuously curving walls, while beautiful, are famously difficult for hanging paintings.

Separating gallery and circulation functions, Meier’s atrium is almost completely free of artwork, serving instead as a reverent gathering space directly lit from above. The natural light that pours through this glass ceiling falls over a radial arrangement of structural beams and smaller mullions, casting the atrium’s white walls in an intricate play of light and shadow that changes with the sun’s position throughout the day. The walls that define gallery edges are clearly supported by a regular post and lintel system, but project into the atrium at irregular angles and distances, affording those on the ramps a constantly shifting perspective into the exhibition spaces and artwork.

When the museum first opened in 1983, its design was a huge step towards putting Atlanta on the American cultural map, and was praised by architecture press as “undeniably a jewel and Meier’s finest work to date”. Considering that Richard Meier won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, just a year later, this glowing assessment appears to be accurate. Although it has since expanded and Meier has gone on to better known and grander museum commissions, the High Museum continues to be a major draw for admirers of art and architecture alike, with a monumentally modern building and grand atrium forming the definitive base for Atlanta’s growing artistic caché.


Perception and Memory Architecture

The perception of built space is an integral consideration for the designers of inhabitable environments across a range of scales. In his book Points and Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City, architecture theorist and Princeton design school chair Stan Allen describes buildings and cities as a composition of individual elements that combine to make singular wholes. From the tiles that line a subway platform, to the windows in an exterior facade and street wall, to the infilled blocks that define neighborhoods, cities embody and consume fantastic amounts of energy to support the shared pursuits of many.

While informed architecture considers individual buildings as part of highly interdependent systems, design intelligence recognizes that architecture, infrastructure, transportation, and natural landscape are not to be siphoned into distinct spheres of action but are intrinsically tied to and informative of one another. Today the successful realization of building projects and urban planning strategies is dependent not on a single master-handed designer but rather a consortium of concerned interests. The architect’s job among all these players is to understand the goals of each and distill them into a product and artifact that not only satisfies programmatic functions but also imparts users with symbolic meanings and somatic responses.

In his discussion of perception’s importance to an individual’s experiences within built and natural environments, Allen establishes a binary distinction between smooth spaces and striated spaces. The former is defined by a standard that is explicitly organized and overwhelmingly apparent in its expression, while the latter stands in contrast, defined by complexity and ambiguities in every direction. The dualism between smooth and striated spaces is manifest physically in two prime examples, the ocean (smooth, infinite horizon) and the major cities of the world (striated, hectic) which have a seemingly infinite scope of vertical striations and unique permutations within them.

Smooth seas or deserts are composed of a dominant line where water or mountain meets the sky, while striated cities are a great multitude of temporarily fixed and ever shifting points, the perception of which induces the sensation of parallax within the individual. The effect of this phenomenal accumulation of objects shifting constantly around us gives big cities their own frenetic energy, whereas the overwhelmingly simple dichotomy of water and sky in nature has the opposite effect, inducing feelings of serenity by reducing surroundings to two pure planes whose sheer scale assures their immutability to human intervention.

Due to the alleged immutability of nature, civilizations have continuously relied upon buildings and sculptures as memory objects. In his book The Art of Forgetting, Adrian Forty describes the power of physical objects to preserve shared memories, citing the 20th century as an era of cataclysmic social upheavals, whether by world wars, genocides, or natural disasters. Architecture’s seeming permanence and role as historic symbol gives buildings a prominent role in shaping the memories of such events for future generations. In recent history, memory architecture has resulted in a great variety of museums and monuments being erected around the world, the commissions for which have become prized goals for architects and artisans alike.

A major challenge for those who seek to memorialize a more recent tragedy is how to properly enshrine events that have only begun to be considered within the wide arc of history. Memorial architecture is especially pertinent in 2011, as one of the most painful memory projects in history is opening later this year. The National September 11th Memorial, designed by architect Michael Arad is set to be completed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of that epoch-defining day and memorialize the people who died in the World Trade Center in 2001 and 1993.

The design and construction schedule for this hallowed urban space, the hole in the city’s heart, has been a huge source of media coverage and consideration over the past decade. As designed by Mr. Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial will consist of a leafy public plaza at street level, surrounding two sunken pools that occupy the tower’s footprints. Waterfalls will cascade over the edges and thirty feet down on each of the four sides of the pools, settling into a smooth and contemplative surface before falling again into another central absence, forming a closed loop system. Taking a cue from Maya Lin’s seminal Vietnam Memorial in Washington, the names of the victims will be etched into the four walls that define the edges of these two sunken pools.

Although commercial and institutional functions are to follow in the form of a museum and new tallest skyscraper for New York and the country, the memorial pools and plaza have been designed and timed as a solemn dedication to the men and women who died there on September 11th 2001. With only nine months to go until the nation recognizes the 10th anniversary of its darkest day, it will be truly remarkable to witness the completion of the memorial and the continuing stages of rebirth at the World Trade Center site over the coming years.


As the 9/11/11 date approaches, the memorial is nearing completion with the etching of thousands of names. For more on the finishing touches of Michael Arad’s design for this sanctified urban space, follow the jump.

Case Studies > Semester Reflection

After a semester of graduate school and a case studies course that critically examined the current state of architectural practice, I have learned that to be an architect is to be a leader of teams. From the get go, it was made clear by our instructor Daniel Hewett that Case Studies was not actually about specific buildings or details of design, but entirely devoted to how architecture is realized as actual built form, the delivery of designs today and throughout history.

To better understand the professional atmosphere into which we are about to enter, the course initially focused on individual horror stories from professional practice. Many of these tales of frustrated principals, unmet deadlines and late night CAD binges cite the lack of effective communication as the main reason for office hiccups. A group case study presentation on a series of canonical works of architecture followed these early conversations, and laid the groundwork for a more ambitious project for the rest of the semester, a proposal for revamping the current AIA Case Study format into an online database called Nucase.

The Nucase project ultimately stems from the need for architecture as a global practice to adapt to a new age of energy limits. Thinking beyond the operational energy of an actual building, the logistics of project delivery represent a substantial consumption of resources. To streamline the process of building delivery by reducing wasted fuel, raw materials, money, or personal design talent are implicit but vital means of making the construction of buildings a less environmentally destructive endeavor.

The purpose of Nucase is not only to provide the professional design community with a global forum for architecture case studies, but to address the wider implications of building and urban design in greater society, emphasizing the leadership role that architects play in complex collaborative endeavors.

To someone considering architecture as a high school graduate, as I did, I would say that you have to love a good challenge to make it through an architecture program. Rigorous surveys of architectural history, the physical and spatial complexities of structural design, the creation of clearly understood two and three dimensional representations, the ability to reconcile two opposing goals in your head at once, the exact amount of time it takes for the elmer glued joint of a model to dry. These are all challenges that you will confront in architecture school projects, but the reward for getting through them (and yes, missing out on some nights of sleep) in terms of new knowledge and skills is well worth the struggles it takes to realize them.


Lollapalooza 2010

I returned to my original hometown of Chicago last week for the sole purpose of seeing Lady Gaga and a few other bands play at Lollapalooza. Started initially as a touring show by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, this event has been a weekend destination festival since 2005 when it found a permanent home in Chicago’s “front lawn” of Grant Park.

My only previous festival experience was at Bonnaroo in 2006, when Radiohead was the headliner. Spending three days baking under the June sun among hundreds of thousands of tents, cars, and people on a Tennessee farm was certainly a memorable adventure, and I had the third degree sunburns to show for it. Because it was in rural Manchester TN, many Bonnaroo attendees who had traveled from across the country had no choice but to stay for the entire long weekend, including me and my convoy of eager college undergrads who had never heard of the festival until meeting all the heady kids at their first year of college. Four years later, I’m still wistful for the experience but have since developed an unabashed love for pop music and its reigning matriarch, Lady Gaga. I’ve also become wary of spending an entire weekend living out of a tent surrounded by cars, making the urban location and single day ticketing scheme of Lollapalooza music to my ears.

After arriving in Chicago and staying with my family for a night, I was excited to head into the city and meet up with my friends Megan Rose and Sarah Sweet.  Megan had only been to Chicago once before, last Christmas break during the absolute worst weather that Chicago offers. She was excited to return to the city during the summertime and I shared in her enthusiasm, especially since I hadn’t spent any warm weather time in the city since 2006. Sarah Sweet is a Chicago native, by way of prep school and college in New England. She graciously hosted us in her mom’s West Loop loft, located in a former printing press building with all the typical loft trappings: high ceilings, exposed wood beams and ductwork, and a beautiful rooftop patio with views towards the Chicago skyline.

After donning our concert outfits we headed to the festival first by foot and then CTA, Chicago’s subway system. Arriving in Grant Park around 2:30, we caught the tail end of Mavis Staples’ performance before moving onto the Semi-Precious Weapons show. This band has been opening for Lady Gaga all summer, which explains why she appeared on the stage halfway through their set and incited a frenzy in the sweaty, camera equipped crowd. The picture at left shows her right after making out with SPW lead singer and Chicago native Justin Tranter, and just before she leaped off stage and into the ecstatic throngs below. I was close enough to the stage that I managed to get a hold of her fishnet-wrapped wrist for a few seconds, which made me unashamedly giddy. The video below captures the moment quite nicely, from a few different angles:

After this Lady Gaga primer Megan and Sarah were in dire need of sustenance, so we proceeded to the beverage and food tents where they were able to get a burrito while I went to catch the second half of the Dirty Projectors show nearby. From the back of the crowd I heard Useful Chamber and Stillness is the Move, and even made it up to the front line for their encore performance. I was close enough to recognize the two ladies at right from their Bitte Orca album cover.

After Dirty Projectors were done it was mid-afternoon and time to head towards the Parkways stage where Hot Chip and Lady Gaga were performing. Arriving in the crowd midway through Hot Chip’s set, we danced around to this British electropop band’s hits like Ready for the Floor and One Life Stand as the sun went down over the city. By 8 o’clock the crowds were standing shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see, and people were ready for Gaga to take the stage and for the “Monster Ball” to begin.

Launching into her set with my latest favorite Dance in the Dark, Gaga then proceeded through her best known tracks off The Fame and Fame Monster, pausing inbetween for theatrical vignettes and outlandish costume changes. She related to us several times her upbringing as a freak, wearing her role as gay activist on her sleeve (literally screaming “for gay equality!” at one point), trying to endear herself to the crowd. The more I learn about her Upper West Side childhood and swift rise to stardom, the less I buy this “outsider freak” persona, for she’s definitely been a popular attention magnet for a good while now.

Throughout the concert I was standing near a braces-clad fourteen year old girl who had already seen the Monster Ball and therefore knew how the entire set would play out. Not only did she clue me in to the next song during every theatrical break, but her pure teenaged excitement was absolutely infectious. Needless to say I was dancing around like a pre-pubescent girl the whole time. As the show wound down and 10 o’clock approached, I was still waiting to hear my favorite Gaga song, Paparazzi. Sure enough, she ended her show with that sweet confectionary treat followed by the powerhouse finale of Bad Romance.

After the show ended and the massive crowds filtered out of the park and into the loop, overtaking Michigan Avenue by sheer numbers, we were exhausted, thirsty, and riding a Gaga high. She may be overexposed and exhaustively radio played, but you can’t say that she doesn’t know how to belt inescapably catchy pop tunes and put on a fun show for tens of thousands of people. The whole day was a string of memorable moments, from the Gaga wrist touch to seeing Dirty Projectors to dancing among throngs of screaming monsters. Well worth the price of admission.


Neighborhoods > Midtown, Atlanta

I have been living in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood for nearly two months now. With a single speed bicycle serving as my only means of getting around this driving city, most of my explorations and discoveries have been focused around Midtown and its immediately surrounding environs like Poncey Highlands, Little Five Points, and East Atlanta.

As a byproduct of being Atlanta’s unofficial gay neighborhood, Midtown contains many of the city’s best art museums, theaters, bars and restarants, along with a host of other cultural diversions. There are a number of thriving commercial districts centered mainly along Peachtree and 10th streets, while the neighborhood’s residential fabric is a diverse mixture of sleek high rise condos and older single family homes that border on the neighborhood’s crown jewel, Piedmont Park. The photo below is from a recent walk around that park, looking towards a portion of Midtown’s impressively evolving skyline. Alternatively known as Lake Clara Meer, this is the largest body of water within the 189-acre park and is particularly stagnant and algae-covered at the peak of the summer. There are several signs posted to discourage swimming, but they hardly seem necessary given the smell and soupy consistency of the water.

Looking west from along Piedmont Road you can see the contrast between Midtown’s varied residential districts. Whereas eastern Midtown is characterized by leafy streets lined with wood frame Victorians and mid-century brick apartment blocks, the western portion that borders on I-75 is a spectacle of glassy offices, condos and hotels that have only gone up in the past twenty years. Looking northward from the rooftop of the Georgian Terrace Hotel, the photo below shows the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Midtown.

Also seen from atop the Georgian Terrace is our apartment building at the corner of 3rd and Juniper streets. The yellow brick structure contains roughly twelve units and occupies a transitional zone between the leafy low rise blocks of old Midtown and the spacious condo towers of new Midtown.

The aerial shot above was taken from Google Earth and is looking vaguely southeast, with Piedmont Park highlighted to the left and Interstate 75 (a vital North-South throughway) highlighted in fuchsia at right. The Nook on Piedmont Park is a cozy neighborhood bar and restaurant where Megan and I have both been working since our second week here. The proximity between work and home is ideal, with the blue line tracing my <5 minute commute by bicycle. The orange and pink lines trace varied return routes along Myrtle and Juniper streets, respectively.

The yellow line in the upper right follows Ponce de Leon Avenue, the unofficial border between Midtown and Downtown and a historical division line between the mostly caucasian districts to the north and their black counterparts to the south. Today Ponce de Leon’s reputation as a border seems increasingly irrelevant, as both sides of it are characterized by newly developed residential buildings, rising land values, and sporadic pockets of street life.

A westward looking view over Ponce shows a number of condo and apartment blocks in the foreground, with the comparatively suburban Midtown and Poncey Highland districts in the distance. With close access to major business districts, an idyllic city park, and substantial swaths of street life befitting of a city with higher population densities, it’s obvious why Midtown has become  a desirably urbane neighborhood for Atlanta’s upwardly mobile classes. Though I am perfectly comfortable around the condo dwellers of the world, my search for the city’s bohemian and hipster enclaves has lead me to nearby Poncey Highlands and Little Five Points, the latter of which has an old high school converted into trendy lofts, but that’s a whole different post. Stay tuned!