Archive for August, 2009

A nice drive on Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway

Monday, August 17th, 2009

The Merrit Parkway is a scenic road in Fairfield County, Connecticut, just outside of New York City . It was planned in the 1930s to be a parkway that had unique overpass bridges with contemporary architectural details: art deco, modern, and neo-classical. It is an example of how DOT bridges can be designed thoughtfully with attention to detail on the columns and the spans, not always adhering to the one-size-fits-all model.

Merritt Parkway bridge 1Architect George L. Dunkelberger designed the original bridges. Some of them are limestone, while some are rough stone. Some are steel spans yet, together, they make the composition that is the Merritt Parkway. None of the original bridges are alike. At points, they appear to reach from one side of the forest to another. The parkway as a whole is narrow, but the setting provides comfort, especially the parts covered by tree canopies. The signage was completely redone in 2001.

It feels good to be on this road. The only other road that is similar is the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia. It, too, is wooded and lacks the sterile feeling of simple concrete and steel bridge architecture. There, however, most of the overpass bridges are made of stone, giving a more rustic feeling than the Merritt Parkway provides.

Merritt Parkway bridge 2

PepsiCo headquarters is the real thing

Friday, August 7th, 2009

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The grounds of PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase, NY are an amazing marriage between art, architecture and the landscape. This particular cola company’s headquarters is very different from the one in my hometown of Atlanta, whose urban campus really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of environmental design. Pepsi’s campus is pastoral and accessible by the public who go there to see the extensive gardens and the scupture collection, which is one of the largest in the U.S.

The grounds were designed by a father and son team: Edward Durrell Stone and Edward Durrell Stone, Jr. The father was the architect, and you can immediately see he was inspired by modernism and Frank Lloyd Wright. I had the honor of meeting the son–who passed away last month–a couple of years ago while working on the Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai. Trained as a pilot in the Air Force, his design philosophy focused on natural beauty.

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I’ve collaborated with his firm–EDSA–for over 21 years on projects in the U.S., Dubai, and Korea. As Edward Jr. got older, his disciples took over the firm and have carried on his fine legacy in desiging resorts around the world.

The Pepsi headquarters was the only project I’m aware of on which the father and son collaborated. The environment is amazing. The buildings are powerful yet unassuming amidst the landscape, where there’s some great experimental use of prairie grasses. They cluster around a center court with 3 different gardens, each of which has its own spacial personality. A road goes around the property, placing the buildings in the core and parking around the outside–no one sees cars, only see landscape. A French gardener comes in once a year to give the landscape a tune-up.

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Most stunning is the internationally recognized Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens, filled with pieces by Moore, Brancusi, Calder, and even Eskimo totems–a great mix of classical, modern, and folk art. Former PepsiCo chairman Don Kendall worked with the design team to create the gardens that still bear his name. I think he may even still have an office on-site.

pepsi_lilyThe variety of outdoor spaces on the site is amazing. There’s a rectangular lily pond recessed around a small yard with a Classical-type temple face at the far end. Some of the other areas contain more industrial-looking pieces, while still others appear more organic. Despite the large number of different pieces, none of the areas feels cluttered or cramped.

I highly recommend a visit.

Oklahoma City memorial gently communicates tragedy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

I visited Oklahoma City for the first time last week and took the opportunity to view the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The site is very moving, honoring the people that perished in attack in a quietly dignified way.

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The former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is cleaned off with very little of the building remaining other than some of the retaining walls that remained intact following the blast.  The memorial itself includes a set of emptty chairs made of a glass base–that, I assume, glow at night–with a granite seat and bronze frame. The name of each victim is silk screened or frosted onto cast glass bases

The way  the chairs sit on the lawn along the reflecting pool is peaceful. There is a gateway on either side, where there is a ramp, allowing visitors to wind down to focus on the space. It reminds me somewhat of the entrance to the Parthenon in Athens, where you move from one portal to the next and then climb to the top. This, of course, is not as dramatic of a climb, but the effect is similar as it helps you to decompress as you enter the memorial from the hustle and bustle on the street.

OKC memorial- pool

There’s a functional asymmetry to the space. One side of the memorial is entered from a street with a church, while the other has a long chain link fence and a memory wall. The memory wall is different than the rest of the modern memorial, as it’s folk art created by visitors and families coming to the site. All the artifacts and signs attached to the wall are textural and rough, which reminds me of the mess the explosion caused.

The museum is quite another experience. The museum sits on a hill next to the memorial. After I bought a ticket in the lobby, staff guided me to the third floor, where I began to make my way down. I didn’t get any shots of the museum to share, but I think the designers failed to communicate the somberness of the moment. The exhibit is a chaotic experience with an awful multimedia presentation of video and sound systems fighting for dominance. Perhaps this was done intentionally to communicate the chaos of the event, but I’m not so sure. I didn’t get moment of peace until finished.

OKC memorial- gateway

All in all, I don’t think it’s worth going to the museum, however, the memorial itself is a wonderfully respectful place. The mass of federal buildings in this downtown area makes one think any of them could have been targeted, yet the bombers chose the newest building. To this day, the more classical federal buildings from the 30s and 40s remain intact. Perhaps the porosity and transparency of the Murrah building’s modernism gave the bombers insight as to the devastating effect of their attack, given the building’s glass construction on the street level.

Charleston’s Calhoun Mansion garden sparkles

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Late last month I visited Charleston following the wedding of a family friend. During the visit, I had the chance to stop by the largest private residence in town: the Calhoun Mansion.

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The 24,000 sq. ft. Italianate-style home was owned originally by railroad financier Patrick Calhoun. The Howe family purchased it after the stock market crash on “Black Thursday” in 1929. Recently, a litigation lawyer bought it for $9.5 million to showcase his extensive antiques collection.

It was run-down in the 1970s and almost bulldozed before Gedney Howe III put millions of dollars into renovations. Now, it’s immaculate.

DSC_0615The house is filled to the gills with antiques from all over the world. It reminded me of the Sir John Sloane House in London, which is an architectural museum of antiquity. But, honestly, it’s overpacked, and that takes away from the overall interior presentation.

The most beautiful aspect of the house, I think, is its garden. The topiary and sculpture are well kept, with Mercury–messenger of the gods–showcased. Hints of Japanese design are interspersed. All around, the garden feels more classical than southern, but it works, and definitely creates a unique sense of place amongst the palm trees that line the street.

While in town, I stayed at the Two Meeting Street Inn, which is down the street and owned by Calhoun’s daughter.

Terror House communicates time and situation

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I wrote this article with my son Richard for segdDESIGN magazine earlier this year. I visited Budapest in the summer of 2007.

The slow, viscous drip-drop of oil fills the entrance lobby with an eerie, unsettling noise. A continuous flow obscures the faces of hundreds of victims of tyranny who were tortured and killed in the very building that now memorializes them, a wing of an infamous government complex that sits at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, Hungary.

Terror House exterior

The Terror Háza Museum—opened in 2002—is a reminder of the mass brutality of 20th century wars and revolutions, and a monument to the people who played roles both inside and outside the building’s cavernous underground prison cells. It documents the period beginning in 1944 when the Nazis gained power in Hungary, to the early 1990s, when the Iron Curtain fell and Hungarians fi nally gained freedom from Communism.

Hungarian architects János Sándor and Kámán Újszászy designed the museum as a monument to failed ideas and innocent victims. Working from a mindset beyond simple architecture, they recognized the need to create the right ambiance to guide visitors through recent history in a respectful and subtle way.

Thematically, the museum juxtaposes the dual hazards of the Nazi-supported Arrow Cross Party and the Soviet-backed secret police. This comparison is clear from the beginning. A large cross and a large star each cast shadows on the street below the building. These logos are flanked by the word “terror,” which casts its own shadow. The designers placed these features onto a large awning that hangs over the roofline of the building, which otherwise appears unchanged from its time as a prison.

DSC_5507Many of the rooms inside the museum have been preserved to appear as they did before Hungarian liberation. The director’s office is still luxurious, and his receiving area still resembles an Austro-Hungarian Imperial-era room that has been painted over so as to erase the memory of the past. There is even a limousine parked inside the museum, its lights slowly rising to reveal plush red seating areas and champagne glasses reserved for the perpetrators.

But just as the museum highlights the excess of criminals, it focuses on the deprivation and inhumane treatment of their victims. The architects preserved the expansive prison, which not only fills the basement of 60 Andrássy Street, but also had been expanded by the Communists into the basement areas of a number of other buildings on the block.

Visitors descend into the basement in a slow-moving freight elevator that is illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights. The prison is generally dark and dank, and the only real light comes from the desk lamps that sit inside interrogation rooms.

The gallows are preserved in their final resting spot, and artifacts from inmates line the claustrophobic corridors.

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Beyond preservation, the museum presents a subtly modern flavor on the upper levels. A room resembling a church depicts the role the state-controlled media played in the terror. Its windows, floor, pews, and desks are plastered with pages from newspapers, and the front wall contains a television display that plays a video on the impact of misinformation and government propaganda.

Religion, too, suffered under Hungary’s dual tyrannies. Dramatic sculptures and blue lighting characterize an exhibit that literally depicts political icons presiding over symbols of religious rubble. A long corridor with a rounded ceiling houses confiscated religious items in small alcoves, and the floor contains a long, illuminated cross that looks as if it has been exposed from a brick grave underneath.

The room dedicated to the memory of the prison’s victims may be the most moving of all. Lit from behind, metal stencils with victims’ names line the walls, and low-level lights produce an ambiance reminiscent of a candlelight vigil. Brass plaques indicate the end of the road for the victims, and are capped with skulls and crossbones. There is also a room reserved for their aggressors, which depicts them in black and white photos on crimson walls.

DSC_5570Spaces can convey deep levels of meaning in ways unlike any other form of storytelling. The Terror Haus is a well considered museum that simultaneously informs, impresses, and cautions. Its story is made that much more accessible by its modern design and high level of craftsmanship. The designers’ use of color, light, material, media, and era-specific furniture contribute to an intimate understanding of the place whose mission is now to teach, and whose visitors will leave with a better picture of the atrocities committed in the name of politics not that long ago.

Jan Lorenc is the president and design director of Lorenc+Yoo Design, an Atlanta-based environmental design firm. Richard Lorenc is the director of outreach for the Illinois Policy Institute, the state’s free-market think tank, and he also serves as director of communications for Lorenc+Yoo.