This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

Posts about Architecture

Oh, great: dog flu

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: April 20, 2015 - 12:23 PM

You think they’re safe from such things, but then this comes along: dog flu.

"The dog population here has never seen this strain before," said Dr. Keith Poulsen, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The canine sickness causes symptoms similar to those of the human flu, such as coughing, nasal discharge, fever and loss of appetite, though a small percentage of dogs can be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms, Poulsen said.

A cough. That’s the strange part. Every dog sneezes from time to time, but I’ve never heard a dog cough. There’s a vaccine en route in case the current dog-flu vaccine is ineffective.

TURN IT OFF. It's anti-social-media week. Digg says:

In partnership with Showtime and HAPPYish, Digg presents Anti Social Media Week, a five-day exploration of the relationship between technology and happiness. Looking to science, philosophy, religion, technology, and just about everything else, we've found tips, tricks, and hacks that make us happy, or at least happy-ish. And before you send us a million emails decrying hypocrisy, yes, we appreciate the absurdity of using the Internet to tell people to unplug and take a break. But honestly, how else do you expect us to get get your attention? We've already lost too many carrier pigeons.

The article links to the sponsored video for Steve Coogan's new series. I am a big Coogan fan. This left me cold. As for not participating in social media, if that means not looking at Twitter, fine. If it means not checking texts, no. 

ARCHITORTURE  The New York Times reviews the new Whitney Museum, and the article itself is one of those Snowfall-type fancy things. The building itself looks like most modern museums, inasmuch as you can’t imagine a private company wanting to pay for something that ugly. The article also has nice things to say for the previous Whitney, which was hated by everyone until they just got used to the damned thing.

VotD Oh my. He doesn’t grab the wall, and the angle on the pizza joint is wrong, but otherwise this is perfect.

I Am Grout

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: March 31, 2015 - 12:15 PM

The downside of living in a house lined with tile would be the acoustics, right? It’s possible to imagine a sound ricocheting through the house for several minutes until it finally gets smothered by a quilt in the spare room. On the other hand, this is an amazing piece of work: the Tile King House, now for sale in Minneapolis. Go look. Almost 70 pictures of an unspoiled midcentury house that could have come straight from a Better Homes & Garden spread. Here's the lower-level room for rumpusing:

Realtor's page here, with many photos. Retro Renovation's piece with photos and commentary, here

SDALE More on the sad failure of the original design for Southdale. Yes, yes, Victor Gruen was a socialist. Yes, yes, he wanted the interior courts to be public spaces. But if there was a utopian idea that failed, it’s because it was a utopian dream. One quote says malls bring out “the mini-Marxist in all of us,” and if only that was true; I could tie the bearded little troll to a bench and leave and never come back.

Gruen was an interesting chap, but his criticisms of post-war downtown's sterility don't quite jibe with the Dayton's block he designed for St. Paul.  That thing killed street life for blocks around.

ONE-CLICK: THE NEXT STEP Amazon has invented a button you stick on the wall in various places in your house. Push it, and it automatically orders what you’re almost out of. The Verge article, written in the necessary tone of boredom and cynicism, describes it thus:

The future where you can just be lazy and spend money with a push of a button from Amazon is here, and it’s very real.

Yeah, Murca! Because that’s what it’s about. Being lazy and spending money!

I’ll admit that the woman seems to be taking the lack of Maxwell House pretty hard here:

Looking for ghosts

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: March 11, 2015 - 12:10 PM

But first, some movie remake news.

 Tim Burton will do a live-action Dumbo. Expect Johnny Depp as a quirky, strange clown who purses his lips and looks out of the corner of his eyes a lot.

You too can get spun up over unnecessarily gendered Ghostbuster franchises! Here’s how. Share with like-minded friends who’ve run short of things to be incensed about.

Big Hero 6 sequel: in the works, it seems. Good. The first was charming, even if it did lean on the Evil Mr. Business trope a bit.

The Alien 5 news is all over the road; first everyone was excited because Neil Blomkamp said he wanted to forget 3 and 4 ever happened, and then he said no, that’s not it exactly. The Mary Sue:

Blomkamp won’t be “undoing” Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection, but all signs do point to him bringing back at least one character from their untimely demise. At Pensacola Comic Con last weekend, Michael Biehn was allegedly asked by a Reddit user if he planned to join the Alien 5 cast, “to which he replied, ‘Looks like it!’ and smiled.”

Which would be great, because the start of “Alien 3” was stupid and cruel. Nothing like ruining everything you took away from the end of the previous movie.

STREET ART Via Coudal, a site devoted to old urban sign typography gleaned from Shorpy posts. 

Did Minneapolis once look that rich? Sure. But an aerial view of the city hall district shows how much the city had been scrubbed by the 50s. The billboards provide the only color. Here's a detail:

Logo literacy test: what's the one in the middle on the bottom row?

Another detail:

That one can be glimpsed today, if you use your imagination:


View Larger Map

Let's boost the contrast and see how much remains:

Every city is full of ghosts.

No, the Mall isn't dead.

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: March 10, 2015 - 12:20 PM

Not all of them, anyway. So: Is it possible for a writer to describe the end of the enclosed shopping mall and contain their glee? Let’s see: here’s the latest, in the Atlantic.

In case you haven't heard, suburban malls are on the way out (sorry Paul Blart). Some have become abandoned wastelands popular for ruin porn. Others have been torn down and turned into industrial sites.

According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and professor at Georgia Tech, there are about 1,200 enclosed malls in the United States, and about one-third of them are dead or dying. That's because developers rapidly overbuilt malls in the 20th century, she said: The U.S. has twice as much square footage in shopping centers per capita than the rest of the world, and six times as much as countries in Europe.

As anchor brands such as JC Penney, Sears, and Macy's close stores and Americans show a preference for shopping online or in walkable urban centers, more malls are expected to close.

A few problems with this. Google around and you’ll find different predictions, from half of all malls closing in 20 years to the same number shuttering within a decade. We’ll see.

Second: as for developers “rapidly overbuilding malls in the 20th century," hard to see which other century they could have done it. And it was only the second half they built them.

Third, the European comparison isn’t useful. Europe has significantly less retail, but is that a good thing? By Europe do we mean southern Italy or southern England? Poland or Portugal?

Fourth: “Americans show a preference for shopping online or in walkable urban centers, more malls are expected to close.” Big difference between shopping online or “walkable urban centers.” And it’s not some Americans, or many Americans, but Americans, period? Wrong. Americans en masse have decided we want to shop in walkable urban centers? Tell that to the MOA.

It’s wishful thinking, based on a dislike of cars and suburbs. Now, you can make the case that walkable urban environments have their own advantages, and I like them fine. B ut they’re an additional option, not a replacement. In the New Urbanist’s dream, people might take the streetcar to Trader Joe’s to pick up a bag of salad, but they’re not going to do it when they want a case of Three Buck Chuck and two sacks of groceries.

Malls do not die because the shoppers think “I have tired of driving to an enclosed retail space, and prefer to take mass transit to a suddenly vibrant downtown.” They die because a better opportunity opens up elsewhere AND the demographics around the old mall shift. When an area gets poorer, the stores close, to state the obvious.

You could say that the preference for retail environments has changed, and people now like open-air retail centers that mimic pre-mall environments; no doubt true for some. But then we’re saying that the Mall is dying because it has as roof

As they say: location, location, location. During the Mall’s heyday downtowns across America attempted to compete by building their own enclosed retail structures, and even though suburban malls continued to make money, the downtown versions withered and died. When I was growing up in Fargo they built a small enclosed mall on the north side of town; it closed less than a decade later. The first mall in the area, in Moorhead, had a Target - but it closed and died as well. Downtown had two malls, Elm Tree Square in the hollowed out Sears building, and Block 6, in a vacated department store. Both perished. No one could compete with West Acres, the ur-Seventies mall on the edge of town. Fargo’s downtown has revived, thanks to NoDak prosperity, student housing, and a marvelous sense of pride in the town’s old bones. But West Acres is thriving, because it is surrounded by people with disposable income and cars.

But not all malls will die, and the story has some interesting examples of new use. They’ll always look like malls, though. And someone will always drive past and remember when it was new, and they went there as a teen, and life was pretty good. Without the mall, they’d have had no town square at all.

An ugly thing you're supposed to admire

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: March 9, 2015 - 12:09 PM

. . . and a forgotten building you should. First: The head-scratching conundrum of Brutalist architecture: it seems as if the bigger the building, the more the public didn’t like it. Isn’t that just odd? And it had a theory behind it, too. But don’t take it from me. ArchDaily.com:

 . . . few ideas suffered a more tragic death than the nascent school of brutalism. A late addition to the modernist repertoire, it was vivisected in its prime by critics and the public alike for its perceived coldness and inhumanity. In a particularly cruel twist, its downfall was triggered not by its oversights but by the unpopularity of its strengths. The greatest masterpieces of North American brutalism—Kallmann, McKinnel & Knowles’ Boston City Hall, Murphy’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building, Pereira’s Library at UCSD—became its greatest liabilities.

In the derogating full-frontal assault on brutalist teleology, it seemed as if the higher the profile a building attained, and the further it pushed against the boundaries of the familiar, the harder it fell when the chair of social disapproval was pulled out from underneath.

This wasn’t tragic, unless your heart sings at the sight of dead concrete pressing its grey boot on the face of the city in perpetutity. There’s a reason the Chair of Social Disapproval was yanked out: the people who lived in the cities weren’t asked if these monsters should be invited to sit with the rest of the family.

The author discusses the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. It wasn’t going to abide by your uptight rules, pop; it was going its own triangular way. Dig?

Breaking free of the prescriptive Cartesian grid that had become ubiquitous throughout the previous half century of architecture, the design was guided instead by an isometric grid derived from the sixty-degree angle. Right angles are all but abandoned in the plan, which takes the shape of an equilateral triangle with smaller, triangular masses protruding from its sides. The three main profiles of the library, each one hundred meters long, assert a jarring interjection into the rectangular street plan of the university campus[.]

Some people just love it when buildings disrupt the grid, particularly if such a thing can be seen as a blow against Cartesian prescriptions. But if you like your library to remind people of a guard house and a crematorium, this is your baby.

Hail! The watchers have seen our Queen Insect approach! Make ready!

Pictures from Google Street View. Now, elsewere in modern ideas, here’s something that looks equally blunt, but has a rich and glorious past.


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And what’s that, you ask, and who cares? Let’s take another look. It curves:

Brutalism didn't curve. The Philly Ink architecture critic explains:

For many years, I also wondered what the peculiar, blank-faced behemoth at 1020 Market St. was used for. Because it has no windows, I thought it might have started life as a movie theater. It wasn't until 2013, when the building made the Preservation Alliance's endangered properties list, that I discovered its impressive pedigree. Thanks to the Alliance's Ben Leech, we now know that an older building at that address was taken over by Robinson department store in 1946. The new store was designed by Victor Gruen, a prominent Viennese architect who fled the Nazis in 1938 and ended up becoming the father of the American shopping mall.

That's one of Vic's? Indeed:

Before Gruen (originally, Grunbaum) rocketed to fame for the Northland Mall outside Detroit, he toiled away in traditional downtowns, giving modernist face-lifts to dowdy commercial buildings.

Northland Center opened before Southdale, but it wasn’t enclosed. That came later. This year Target moved out and Macy’s said it was giving up the ghost as well; this page says it’s closing for good in March. Anyway, the article notes that the blank facade once held an illuminated sign, and man, did it ever. A detail from this Flickr page:

Detail from here. The last days of downtown . . . before Gruen's work gave people another place to go. If only his Dayton's building in St. Paul had been so alive.

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