Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

The largest clear-span wooden building in the world – Tillamook Air Museum

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

137  Just the sheer size of this hanger is incredible to behold. Tillamook Air Museum

The largest clear-span wooden building in the world, constructed entirely without glue wood, was built as a U.S. military air station hangar. It is now the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon. More info here and Wikipedia.

It’s nice to see communities saving these old military hangars. It is a tragedy that Vancouver lost its 5 vintage military hangars at Jericho Beach in Vancouver in the late 1970s. They were beautiful. I heard about the Tillamook hangar from Vancouver architect Mark Osburn who was, incidentally, responsible for the interior refurbishment of one of the Jericho hangars for UN Habitat 1976.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about wooden skyscrapers and large wooden buildings, as if it’s a new thing. The architecture of this hangar is an unsung feat far preceding these newer, much-hyped ideas.

There are different criteria for ranking wooden buildings by size; as noted above the Tillamook hangar is the largest clear-span wooden building. It is not the tallest, and it may not be largest when measured by square footage of usable floor space.

Other large buildings, based on various criteria:
Tōdai-ji in Nara, Japan
Metropol Parasol palace in Sevilla, Spain  (freestanding structure, not enclosed building)
Sutyagin House, Russia – largest wooden single family house, built by Russian gangster
Wooden skyscrapers are planned for Austria and Norway and more recently one has been proposed by Vancouver’s Michael Green. And of course there was the Wood Innovation and Design Centre to be built in Prince George, British Columbia, meant to be the tallest wood building the world, but so far unbuilt due to monies promised by the BC gov’t but not budgeted for or delivered.

Photos by hobbitcamera and Laurentiu Cristofor on Flickr and Mark Osburn.

Oregon military hangar

139 During WWII at Tillamook Air base Tillamook, Or

135 Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon

Hangar B interior view facing South

Hangar B West wall

128 Large hangars would hold blimps at Tillamook Air base during WWII

Ecce Vancouver

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Condo ad, Vancouver

Vancouver, is that your motto?

Out with the old, in with the new?

Condo ad, Vancouver

Meanwhile, this questionable object will replace The Ridge Theatre, one of Vancouver’s few historic repertory cinemas:

Condos replacing The Ridge Theatre

Apparently this passed a City of Vancouver design panel. Is there no end to the mediocrity of architecture in this city? Thousands of years of human activity culminate in this weak, destined-to-be-shortlived mess?

Why is any developer allowed to build housing developments a whole gargantuan block at a time, period, let alone a full block of this sort of architectural poverty? This town needs more small to medium developments, by widely respected architects, one or two lots at a time, not these overgrown disasters. Where is the porosity from the street, or texture, or true variety? On this note, see also the proposed Rize at historic Main/Broadway/Kingsway.

Apologies for the ongoing pathos; it’s just that others in this town are covering board-of-trade-style Vancouver boosterism so well, and so slavishly, it seems more worthwhile to concentrate on the city’s fast-accumulating wreckage instead.

“Contempo” – my term for the insincere faux-modern design style infecting our lives

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

There is a particular type of contemporary design that I deeply hate but for which there is no terminology. About six years ago, out of frustration, I came up with “contempo.” It is a deliberately cheesy term for a cheesy aesthetic, an aesthetic of dumbed-down, cutesy faux-modernism. The made-up word “contempo” somehow had the correct sound—the idiotic, faux-Italian, marketing-ish, self-conscious jauntiness that this style cried out for. It seemed the sort of term condo decorators might use on a target audience that believe it wants edgy, urban, modern design, but that really wants softened, comforting, domesticated  objects faintly reminiscent of children’s toys, or of an earlier, mustier era.

You know contempo when you see it. It often has a forced, strained expressivity or an almost wacky attempt at playfulness. Look at me! Look how creative and quirky and snaky I am!

Contempo makes no attempt to be true to materials or function. Nor does it abide by modernism’s ethic of minimalism and simplicity. It’s brushed nickel aping stainless steel, it’s Edwardian shapes but made from faux-industrial materials, and above all it’s elaborate and pointless curves instead of straight lines.


IKEA, which sometimes gets design right, does now produce a lot of contempo. Brushed nickel/plastic triffid fixtures and curved tracklights are the worst type of contempo design.

Why does contempo involve all those saucy, expressive curves? As my friend Michael put it, “why can’t we be the curve?” Is all this snakiness meant to make us feel more alive? Or is it in fact busy doing all our slinkiness for us? Did it ever consider that we might want some straight, restrained edges to be slinky in contrast to? Is it because people are desperate to make their objects offset the  experience of living in urban boxes by aping the fluidity of the natural environment? The thing is, if you want to make environments more sensual and human, why not just add a few soft, high-quality handmade textiles with some integrity, rather than this loopiness that’s doomed to failure?

Manufacturing-wise, it is more difficult to make curves than straight lines (though with algorithmic-based architectural software and with 3D printing this could, sadly, change. Look out.). But of course curves are only one of the ways contempo design trumpets that it’s trying too hard.

It’s generally accepted in cultural theory that aesthetics are not an autonomous realm separate from other pieces of the social puzzle. Aesthetics and culture are not subordinate to “more significant” components like economics and social relations, but are in fact an important player in the social enactment of our dominant patterns of thought (philosophy, politics, ideology). If you believe that, then you have to believe that all this “contempo” stuff has a meaning. So what is that meaning? Furthermore, why does this stuff always have a faintly creepy aspect? In its attempt at liveliness, why does it seem to have something deathly about it? Is that a paradox or does it only look like one? Is it because this stuff pretends to be organic and lifelike but is actually crassly commercial? Is it because these weak attempts to imbue commodities with “life”—the sense of life that we are slowly losing via the process of commodification—are inherently doomed?

Alessi (most of it) is contempo. Click the link for an extended discussion of some possible meanings behind the Alessi aesthetic. If Alessi products are “playful,” why do they all have a deathly, zombie sort of quality? Even Alessi knows, on some level, that its playfulness is married to death, to the inanimate or to zombies and robots. See for example its anthropomorphized human-shaped tools that often have deathly X’s for eyes, such as its suicide corpse bath plug.

Below, the “Bookend” building by Paul Merrick of Merrick Architecture in Vancouver’s Olympic Village (or “Millennium Water” condo complex). It’s totally contempo. But then contempo and condos do, so often, go hand in hand.

Condos are, generally speaking, the Ur example of contempo.

Above: The contempo Bookend Building. Below: great 1970s townhouses in Vancouver’s False Creek: the doors’ geometric pill-shapes are not an attempt at wackiness, and the effect is not contempo. See how fantastic art looks in the windows of the townhouses below? Compare to the above. The difference is obvious.

South False Creek low rises, Vancouver

Addendum: Thanks to reader Laura Cochrane of Make Magazine for pointing out the building below, which I want to rename “Contempo General Hospital.” Because when you’re rushing to Emergency, you will appreciate the feeling that an inappropriately jaunty, heavy curved roof is going to collapse on its bad, skinny circular columns and fall on you. From this Youtube video at 1:18:

West Coast cabin – Clayoquot Sound, B.C.

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Clayoquot Sound, BC

The cabin is probably the true vernacular architecture of British Columbia’s West Coast and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver must once have had some of these buildings, thought rampant demolition and ugly development are doing their best to eradicate any trace of this architectural past. All that’s left of the cabin is the practice of attaching big cedar decks onto the imported Victorian and Edwardian and Britishy styles that sadly crowd the housing stock where I live.

Meanwhile there’s little to no building code on islands like this one in Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino. Unlike in Vancouver, with its ridiculously restrictive code and its colonial fixation on transplanted European architecture, when you’re out on the remoter parts of the coast you can do what you want. This is why so many of our best architects prefer building cabins to city houses, and we stay bereft of their influence in the city.

These photos are from a remote West Coast island where my aunt and uncle built a small, simple octagonal cabin on log posts that sit on the granite bedrock without even a concrete footing to alter the landscape. (I can only include a few details out of respect for privacy.)

Over the Labour Day weekend we sat on the deck and watched a pod of orcas hunt and jump offshore, smacking their tails on the water.

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Clayoquot Sound, BC

The smooth round rocks are pretty but they serve a purpose: they’re the “laundry rocks,” keeping handwashed clothes from blowing off the deck while they dry.

Clayoquot Sound, BC - kelp in clear water

Clayoquot Sound cabin skylight

Ceiling and tiny skylight in the small sleeping cabin next to the main cabin – my woodworking uncle’s own design and handiwork. He’s a genius. Below, the tiny island deer are pretty tame and sneaky. No dogs or cats are allowed on the island, to protect wildlife.

Clayoquot Sound, deer

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Clayoquot Sound

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Clayoquot Sound, BC

Raven on deck. Also saw: kingfishers, kinglets, warblers, sandpipers, little red crossbills, bald eagles, harbour seals, harbour porpoises, orcas and grey whales.

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Taliesin West

Photography is only minimally allowed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter house in Arizona, Taliesin West, so most of these photographs are only exterior shots. I confess I’ve always been less impressed by FLW’s work that most are, so this post is not in praise of FLW or Taliesin West. I visited the place only experimentally, to see if it would change my mind, and though I was hoping it would,  it really didn’t. It’s an interesting place, an odd place, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by its architecture or interiors or design. So much has been written about Taliesin West already that I’ll just offer this potted version: FLW had been to Arizona for work, enjoyed it, and when he began to ail in the Eastern winters his doctor prescribed months in a dry climate and Wright decided to winter in Arizona thereafter. He set up a “desert camp” near Scottsdale and over the years slowly transformed the tent camp (with the help of a lot of slave labour by students) into a built structure. This is how he derived what later because the “desert style” he was famed for, and spawned sprawling ranchers all over American cities and suburbs.

The rooms are odd, with entrances so low you must stoop and. Wright used pony walls or sharp corners at room entrances to produce unexpected room vistas. Much of the furniture is built in. The living room was built to accommodate fairly large parties and encourage conversation while providing a view of the desert.

Wright tried to work around the angle of the sun and the sun’s heat. In doing so he somewhat reinvented the wheel, for of course this is not the world’s first desert friendly structure, but his innovations vastly influenced building styles in American’s Southwest, South and California. You can read more about Taliesin West here.

I’m not sure exactly why I find Taliesin West somewhat off-putting. It was built with local rock, among other locally available (if not local) materials, but all of the beams of imported Douglas fir are painted a sort of awful reddish brown that is all too familiar now if you’ve ever seen 70s tract housing. The whole complex is built on an obsession with the 30-60-90 triangle, which is not only deployed in roof angles but in very deco-flavoured design components including the furniture. There’s a certain pointiness to everything that I suppose is meant to mimic desert shapes, shapes I nevertheless didn’t identify in the surrounding hills. The triangular deco is juxtaposed with other decorative elements including the Chinese, constructivisim, Egyptian-tinged moderne and that same sort of medieval hobbityness that you see in the original Taliesin and his other houses. It’s as if FLW didn’t have faith in the simplicity of his “new” architectural form and needed to explain it through decorative historical reference.

As a textile person I’m always wary of the inattention to fabrics and surfaces, and the cheapness, thinness and clumsiness of the upholstered built-ins and furniture just suggest a failed concept of comfort. His celebrated “origami” armchair, each made from a simple sheet of plywood, is awkward and uncomfortable, as are the rooms in general. Bedouin desert camps seem far more comfortable than this. The manicured green lawns in the desert, and an angular over-slick pool, just suggest resistance to the environment rather than Wright’s much-discussed sensitivity to the landscape. Methinks the exaggeratedly rough mortaring of the local stone doth protest too much. The traditional European-style sculptures in cast bronze plonked everywhere are either an apology or corrective or I am not sure what. Parts of the place seemed a distracting, uncomfortable jumble verging on kitsch.

My sincere apologies to those whose architectural pantheons FLW presides over. I may just be trapped behind a giant wall of aesthetic prejudice built inadvertently by the commercial developers who subsequently riffed off Wright in lazy tract settlements all over America.

I have tried to photograph the place as flatteringly as possible, to make up for my criticism.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, a classical bronze sculpture half out of Lord of the Rings, plonked next to standing rock cemented into odd rock plinth. Below, quite a lovely red Chinese door oddly mixed into local rock somewhat swamped by rough mortar. I admit I like the triangular glass surround for that door. But of all FLW’s reds in the complex, that Chinese red was the only one that worked for me, and for me colour is inordinately important.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, the dinner cabaret room. Supposedly built for comfort but I didn’t find it that way. Its acoustics however are absolute genius. No parallel walls to produce sound reflection or any phase cancellation. Just superb. Apparently FLW’s wife used it to her advantage, being able to hear all whispered gossip at every table, or so our guide told us.

Taliesin West

Above, brutalist, concrete round window decorated with multiple chinoiserie.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, an illegal shot showing the interior of the drafting room, jammed full of the desks where FLW’s students laboured. Below, my favourite object at TW: a doorknob in the bathroom.

Taliesin West

World’s ugliest buildings?

Sunday, July 24th, 2011


The Pilgrimage Church in Neviges, Germany

These were listed among the world’s ugliest buildings, aggregated from various rankings in Forbes, Virtual Tourist and Oddee.com. Quite apart from blithely ignoring the complexity of the question “what is beautiful,” which philosophy has attempted to deal with for centuries and has only made more unanswerable, this list is pretty odd. Monstrosities in Thailand, Malaysia, the US, and the hideous Millennium Dome I understand. Even the Canadian Embassy in Washington, not one of my favourite Erickson buildings. But the Pilgrimage Church? More offending buildings at Vancouver Sun. PS I’m not a fan of the Experience Music project either; seems like Disney architecture. A selection from the list:


Van Gogh Museum; Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Two Columbus Circle, New York City


Canadian Embassy, Washington, D.C. (designed by Vancouver’s Arthur Erickson)