Tropolism Books: Lucio Costa: Brasilia's Superquadra

Author: Fares El-Dahdah
Publication Date: February 2005 
Publisher: Prestel Publishing

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Speaking of Brasilia, one of the amazing books to come across my desk this year was the not-new-but-still-excellent Lucio Costa: Brasilia's Superquadra.  The book is part of The Harvard Design School's also-excellent CASE series.  Composed of ten essays about Lucio Costa's design for Brasilia, and how the resulting city has evolved since the majority of it was built.  The essays, starting with an excellent interview with Costa himself, focuses on the specific, unique character of Brasilia.  Costa sums it up well:

In a normal city, urbanism's objective is to create conditions that allow a city to sprout like a plant, unlike Brasilia, which is a product of reason imposed by an act of will that occurred with the expressed objective of transferring the country's captial.  The intention was to create a city that had a pleasant way of life, yet remained truly administrative with its own characteristics well defined, meaningful.

By focusing on the Superquadra, Costa's brilliantly devised solution to residential living in Brasilia, the reader enters into the life of the city, and the uniqueness of its organization.  The Superquadra are composed of housing blocks, and at its edges are commercial strips and public buildings.  The aggregation of these building blocks works, and works well, creating a modern city that is unlike any other.  Having just visited said Superquadra, I was struck by how well this book captures the very special nature of these neighborhood units.  The housing blocks, suspended above the ground, leave the ground floor almost entirely open.  The result is wonderful: one is truly moving through a park full of residential buildings.  Some of the newer blocks compromise this aspect but overall the city is as intended.  The essays do a good job of delineating this evolution, and the laws supporting them.

As a case study in how an entirely new urban idea evolved and played out, this book is valuable.  Everything from the shape of the buildings to the politics underlying them, to the way laws shape buildings is captured here.  Because Brasilia is so young, and is an entirely designed city, it is a good subject for this kind of case study: micro adjustments in code alter the buildings that go up immediately after.  For those interested in diving into some good urban design reading, as well as those who love Brazil and Brasilia, or those who study city design, this book is a must.

Tropolism Corrections: Oscar Niemeyer Did Not Design Brasilia

pp_final.jpgTropolism Corrections: we almost never do them!  But this merits one.

In my last post, I stated that Oscar Niemeyer designed Brasilia.  This is wrong!  In fact, the city was designed by Lucio Costa in 1956-7.  It was Costa who developed the city's distinctive curved-cross shape and the shape of its blocks and transportation cores.  Oscar Niemeyer was the principal architect, with Roberto Burle Marx as the lead landscape architect.

Thank you Adriana Marasca for being our Brazilian Architecture fact checker!

Rights Of Way: A New Politics of Movement in New York City?

Rights of Way 12Nov09 1.jpgAs you know we generally don't announce events here on the Tropolism.  However our trusty radio scanner came through with a discussion that is being led by David Smiley up at Barnard, and anyone who knows David knows his conversations are always productive.

So it's with pleasure that I invite you to Barnard College on November 12, 2009, at 6:30pm, on the 4th floor of Barnard Hall, to Rights of Way: A New Politics of Movement in New York City?  The discussion will explore the possibility of an urbanism after that of the automobile-dominated city.  In short, they are declaring the era of the auto over.  Which is nothing short of a radical conversation, even in this era of Lawn Chairs In Times Square.  Run or bike or MTA it up there.

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Video Life Of Small Urban Spaces

One of my favorite, formative books, The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces, was of course a transcription of many written, photographic, and filmed records of how people actually use public space.  So you imagine my excitement when I saw that some of the video is now on youtube.

Tropolism Lectures: Gentrification Begins

washmews2.jpgGentrification, suburban sprawl, homogenization----we all have our takes on it. Inflated rents, overpriced restaurants, and multiple Starbucks are the clear symptoms. At the Municipal Arts Society talk at the Urban Center on Wednesday night, Francis Morrone takes us back in time to examine the origins of gentrification in New York City. Strikingly, it may have been started by a handful of progressive and socially conscious women.

Click here to read the rest of the lecture report...

Less Stuff Is Better Design


I know I've been harping about this since I first got the idea for the Two Dozen list in 2004: the Roaring Two-Thousands created a lot of drek by designers because they were "designers", not because the designs were actually great. A lot of my writing has been focused on pushing designers to do better. What better opportunity for designers to really push design when all this money is sloshing around? Why not make things more efficient, more accessible, more inventively designed, and more beautiful, even if it costs a bit more? When the cycle downturns, we'll be happy to get scraps from the woodpile to make our stuff. Since September, most of us have been looking for that scrap pile.

Michael Cannell over at The Design Vote wrote a great article in the New York Times encapsulating these sentiments, looking quickly (as in long-blog-post quickly) at where product designers and architects are going to go from here. He champions sustainability in the production of goods and a good project by Lorcan O'Herlihy architects in Los Angeles that champions density over size of lawn. Welcome to the end of the decade, folks. We couldn't be more thrilled.

Harvard Dorms, The Sert Sequel

The new graduate student housing dorm has opened at Harvard. As a friend of ours put it: "I'd be stoked to live in that dorm". We would too! The dorm is by Kyu Sung Woo Architects. Woo studied and worked with Jose Luis Sert, whose iconic Peabody Terrace Housing is next to the new building. The new building does a lot to mitigate the sometimes harshness of Sert's buildings: Woo frames the courtyard entrances to the existing housing, and cantilevers the major masses to preserve sight lines for the community. More importantly, his buildings are rich in warm materials: wood ceilings and walls outdoors, well-detailed masonry above, in deep contrast to Sert's austere concrete and painted metal. Woo wisely continues Sert's tastes for highly patterned, textured building envelopes. What's best is that the old and new begin to work together as a city, probably as Sert originally intended, but in a way that is very livable. So stoked.

Click the slideshow to see larger pictures in our photo album.

Albert Ledner's Maritime Awesomeness


Regional Modernism, a great blog devoted to modernist buildings in the New Orleans Area, stopped by Albert Ledner's National Maritime Union while we were sleeping here at Tropolism. It sounds like some unwelcome modifications have been made to the exterior during its renovation.

Which then led us to more pictures of this freaky great building over at Alan Rosenberg's blog. Which of course led us back to good ole New York, where Ledner's other wacky building for the Union is in a preservation fight.

Tulane Continues With New Orleans House Prototypes


Tulane School of Architecture announced that its URBANBuild program has broken ground on yet another prototype house for New Orleans. The program was started in 2005 and has produced several houses to date. The houses can be see at URBANBuild's website, as well as a great overview from Life Without Buildings, who tipped us off to this.

Beautiful At Barnard


Recently the P/A Awards were announced, by whatever magazine is announcing them these days. Our enthusiasm for these awards faded not because of some nostalgia for the days of Progressive Architecture magazine. It's simply that the cutting edge of architecture has gone blog viral. By the time the print media gets to it, it's old news. The newest of the new gets chewed up and tested by the internets, and the increase in chaff is easily matched by the increase in voices talking about design.

The one highlight in this year's P/A award comes from old-fashioned great building design, from Weiss/Manfredi. It's their Barnard Nexus project, at Barnard College in Manhattan. It's not just a pretty rendering: the details of the glass curtain wall, mimicking the brick and terracotta of Barnard's and adjacent Columbia University's main building cladding, is sophisticated, beautiful, and yes, progressive.

NYC Bookstores


Awesome NYC bookstore alert: Storefront for Art and Architecture is having a micro-bookstore in the "eastern end" of the gallery. The bookstore is curated by Storefront luminaries known for their amazing book collections (ie Beatriz Colomina).

NYC has a dearth of great Architectural bookstores, at least in terms of the scale of those to be found on the west coast. Daily Dose, which pointed us to the Storefront bookstore, has also compiled a list of NYC bookshops.

Urban Age


We have long known about the conferences sponsored by Urban Age, but only recently did we discover their wonderful website. It's a handy repository of all the data generated do date from their conferences and research. Some of this work undoubtedly shows up in their new book (note to Phaidon: send us a review copy already), but it is irresistible to flip through it online.

Not only do they have pretty, if simple, comparisons of basic information of their key cities. They also have some extensive raw data from each city collected in both PDF and protected spreadsheet formats. Happy reading.

Library Of Congress Images Goes Web 2.0


Long fans of the Library Of Congress image website (which has been around for 8 or 10 years, they were one of the first free online image banks), we are now excited to see them moving to the next phase of the interwebs by creating flickr albums. This department obviously has gotten a lot of money to play with the 'net. Good for us!

Many of the images do not carry copyright restrictions, such as the pictured This girl in a glass house is putting finishing touches on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber, Long Beach, Calif., and they all include links back to the LOC website.

Bob Stern Gets Some Respect


We've made no secret about our admiration for Bob AM Stern's approach to education. The Times throws some respect his way today, too. Not enough to get mentioned in Ourousoff's article, but he probably prefers to be the sole subject of an article than to be grouped together with everyone else.

Wellness and Sustainability Tips For Design Students


Inhabitat gives us a list of ways design students can live sustainably. What is intriguing is that the tips include not only actions that affect our physical environment, global and local, but tips for personal wellness. Nothing earth-shattering, to those of us in the working world who must manage our time and commitments, but to students, this will be front page news.

AdHoc Charette


From Tropolism's inbox comes this:

I wanted to tell you about AdHoc: a 6 hour fast-and-dirty charrette competition for students resulting in the actual construction of a small-scale element for the school.

We're doing this to promote actualized design in an otherwise hyper-theoretical environment. We want to encourage students to think towards building instead of presentation boards. Vito Acconci is going to act as head juror in conjunction with a jury of faculty.

Next year we're going to expand the competition to include other schools in the hopes of spurring interactions among otherwise isolated institutions.

The charette is Saturday, March 31st, starting at noon, Princeton, New Jersey.

Iowa University's New Art Building


Iowa University's New Art and Art History Building is "opening" on September 8. At least that's what the press release said. The building appears to be knitted into its site the way only a Steven Holl-design building can be: smartly entwined with a touch of fussiness. We aren't complaining, the two pictures in this post (above and after you click Continue Reading) indicate something special. The slideshow at UI's website is more complete, yet also shows some skylights and stair details that appear to be a tad overdesigned. Overall, a gorgeous building. I'd want to study there. Or walk by it every day.



MoMA has named Barry Bergdoll the next Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. Mr. Bergdoll will take his post January 1, 2007; until then, Paola Antonelli will continue as interim curator.

The speculation about who would succeed Terrence Riley had us preemptively dejected about this position. However, this choice puts us squarely in the "interested" column, because it brings some weight and academic rigor back into the crazy dialogue of New York's architecture world. We had Mr. Bergdoll as an instructor in Architectural History I about ten years ago. He was the only professor who wasn't from Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation: he was from the Art History department. As such, his historical constructions were based on things that actually happened, not current theoretical speculation. Yet his views were always refreshing, particularly when applied to subjects I was just being introduced to. We're happy to see him elevated to a prestigious position. We hope MoMA can handle it.

Alerted by The Architect's Newspaper.

Los Angeles Downtown: Coop Himmelblau On Grand Avenue


More on Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Coop himmel-blau had an article in the sunday LA Times about their school for the arts that is starting construction, across the 101 freeway, but still on Grand ave. The New school is directly across from the Moneo Cathedral, creating architectural bookends, or a gateway at the 101. The image is pretty great, a little surreal, completely Los Angeles. The article also goes on to say that the school may go under a bit of value engineering in an attempt to cut back some of the bulging budget. This might actually have a positive effect on the building which is pretty wild. Excerpts of the article can be found at DesignShare

Another fabulous rendering of the crash landing after the jump. So LA.

Contributed by Colin Peeples.

Slice der Republik


Okay, last post about Eastern Block projects for a while, I promise.

Slice der Republik is an interesting little website about a student project to re-use the Palast der Republik, with a Gordon Matta-Clark-inspired cutting that would do two things: cut the building into useable chunks, while opening it up to the urban fabric. And, of course, "the angled cut expresses the violence the building has experienced in the years since its closure".



If you are still attached to your computer tonight at 7:00 PST, click over to SCI-arc live. SCI_arc's lecture series is now being broadcast in real time over the web every week. SCI_arc's lectures run a wide swath of topics, and Tonight's lecturer Taft Green is no exception. A Los Angeles based sculptor recently featured in the fantastic Thing exhibition @ UCLA's Hammer museum. Taft's work is like cartography on silly putty.

I tuned in to the lecture last week and was impressed with the quality of sound and image, it's almost better than being there live. Special bonus for those of you who start at 7:00 sharp; Eric Owen Moss typically gives a baffling epic introduction occasionally focusing on the guest lecturer.

Contributed by Colin Peeples.

The New Real City, Future Architects Edition

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I went to SCI_ARC's Thesis presentations this weekend.

It appears that Maya-, Nurbs-, and Script-based form making have established a strong place in the visual language of the school. The majority of the work has a quietness, a demur sexiness. In contrast to the explosion of splines and reflections it was a few years ago, to softly lit, smoke like models and renderings. The evolution and advancement of the work in this specific area is interesting, but it has sapped much of the chaotic energy that Thesis at SCI_ARC feeds from. Selected works will be on exhibit in the SCI_ARC Gallery JAN 20th -29th.

Contributed by Colin Peeples.

How-To, beta edition


Tropolism means discovering that construction is not mystical, just time-consuming.

While we prefer to let our friends over at The Gutter plumb the depths of the New York Times' House and Home/Garden section, today's how-to Q&A, while clearly intended to soften Mr. Meier's image as a cold-hearted spender of cash on shower doors, is useful because it demystifies design and disassembles the pieces of a home, creating a toolkit for designing your own place. Out of wenge, ipe, and corian, of course, with 1/4" reveals at the base of each skim-coated wall.

(Unlike last week's piece on what kind of ketchup he uses on his grill, which was completely mystifying.)

My favorite magazines are the ones that break it down. Martha Stewart Living, which is a fantastic source for things like making your own lamp shades (none of my lamps have shades, but hey, it's useful information anyway). Dwell, for lining your living room with gingerbread. And the list goes on. What's great about this piece is that it divulges secrets of the Very Famous, and for architecture, not just decoration. The possibilities are greater: a non-architect could create something original out of these secrets. More, please.

Design+Technology Exhibition

One of the people in my studio is an inventor/artist/circuit board designer/sex toy defacer. It's a fascinating profession. He'll walk over and ask what I know about injection-molded plastics (little) or to review the relationship between his circuit board performance diagram and his final footprint (which is so totally like how I model programs for big buildings, it's like I can do his job. Or not.)

At any rate, his milieu centers around the Design+Technology Annual Exhibition at Parsons. I have no doubt you'll find inspiration. Especially if you design big buildings.

Aronson Galleries

66 Fifth Avenue

and Gallery at 2 West 13

Mon-Fri 9-9, Sat-Sun 9-6

The galleries are closed Memorial Day weekend. Try happy hour instead.

Architecture School Show

Graduates of Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation have a frenzy of work at the end of the year: they are working on their final portfolios (which are the tool the faculty uses to grant school awards) and models and drawings for the End of Year Show. The work always ranges from last-year to last-decade to next-year to next-decade. But it never fails to be inspiring in its exuberance. I like the show because I get to see the latest in modeling and drawing techniques. This year, I'll be taking names of people to contact as possible part-time employees of my office.

The opening reception begins at 6pm on Saturday, May 14, on Columbia University's main campus. The show is exhibited throughout Avery Hall and Buell Hall.

The show is up until May 27th.

Pratt Architecture School Nearly Done Nine Years After Fire


Nine years after a fire destroyed Pratt Institute's Architecture School (because someone propped open the fire doors), it's nearing completion. Higgins Hall, which houses the Architecture Department at Pratt, is becoming rejoined again by the Central Wing, designed by Steven Holl in 1997. The project is being executed with Rogers Marvel Architects (where I worked from 1997-2004) as the architect-of-record.

I was at Pratt monday for architecture reviews. What astounded me was that none of the critics had toured it, even though it's been under construction for at least a year. The building appears small, crafted, and beautiful. They're rumored to be done in the fall, but no one was clear on "fall" as in "before the fall semester" (aka August) or "sometime before the end of November". Because there aren't a great deal of interior finishes (budget and the program both dictate this) it's entirely possible a late August move-in date is possible. Until then, you'll have to enjoy the renderings and progress photos.

Steven Holl Architects

Rogers Marvel Architects

Mies Says This Aint The Demolition Derby

Last week, IIT announced that they were auctioning a chance to smash the first pane of glass removed from Crown Hall.

The cheekiness of the whole event is nothing short of astounding to me. I am appalled, as if someone tried to mug me after I just moved to New York.

I have nothing against the renovation. I get that single-light windows don't meet today's energy code. And I'm not one of those people who thinks the Barcelona Pavilion should not have been re-built in 1986 because they didn't have the original stone slabs to work from. However, the idea that panes of glass that Mies specified and selected are going to be simply trashed, and turned into a public spectacle, makes me nothing short of angry. It strikes me as a rube's amusement, and I fail to see the implicit humor in it. It's just not funny to me.

I suppose being Chicagoans, the IIT folk are still in the Mies-hating period of the late 1980's, and bizarrely haven't read any of the critical theory written about Mies in the last twenty years, including Robin Evans' breakthrough essay from 1990, Mies van der Rohe's Paradoxial Symmetries. The importance of the single pane of glass to Mies' work is well-documented. Mies was influenced by the Crystal Chain, the German movement of the 1910's headed by Bruno Taut. Glass would come to be an almost mystical material for Mies, with transparency being the least interesting quality. It was its prescence, coupled by its transparency, that was important. Double panes of glass dilute this effect. Don't take my word for it, just go to the buildings and notice it.

Mies' frames for the glass are constantly presence-ing the glass, and he created reflections that consistently give one the sensation of having xray vision. The reflections from the Lakeshore Drive Towers (of the highway below: one thinks one sees the highway flowing through the buildings). The reflections from the Seagram Building (one thinks one sees McKim, Mead, and White's Athletic Club behind the facade). The reflections from the Farnsworth house (one thinks one sees through the glass mullion itself into the steel below it).

At IIT, the buildings resonate with each other. It's not difficult to see. When I was there with Juan Abalos and Inaki Herreros in 1997, we were in the very dark lobby of one of the IIT dorms, on a gray February day, and were suddenly presented with a strange red glow. There was no foliage anywhere on the campus, so we assumed the light was from a building across a walk, about 50 feet away. We looked out, and it was a reflection. We walked outside. The reflection was coming from a red neon 7-11 sign in the old student center, tucked deep inside that building, in plane with the building we were in, which means the light was doing a bank shot across 200 feet of dead grass. Every lobby between here and there had a laser-like red line reflecting on it. Some fellow students were tsssking the fact that neon had been allowed to sully a Mies structure, but not me. I cried, because it was so beautiful.

The panes of glass are not small at Crown Hall: they are many meters high and wide (sorry, my fact checker has to get a drawing set out this afternoon). Mies was pushing the boundaries of the glass manufacturing capabilities of his day. Mies conceived of this glass, apart from what the trades thought they could actually make at the time. They don't deserve to be smashed. This ain't a demolition derby.

What makes this all really difficult is that the auction was won by Dirk Lohan, the grandson of the architect of the building, for a measly $2,705. Obviously, being Chicagoan, he isn't reading writing about Mies either. The circle of patricide is complete.

I propse a different strategy to IIT. Auction that piece of glass for sale. Treat it as an artifact and make some serious dough. Either that, or have the students, or a real architect like Koolhaas (who at least has a fetish for Mies that tempers his patricidal tendencies), discover new uses for those crystals.