Archive for September, 2009

An urban escape in Dallas

Thursday, September 24th, 2009


Sited on the edge of downtown Dallas, the Nasher Sculpture Center combines innovative architecture, open spaces, and sculpture in a single urban oasis.

The building is Renzo Piano’s experiment in lighting. It has a modular ceiling supported by rough marble pylons, which filter and direct sunlight. The ceiling appears to float magically, and reminds me of Piano’s lighting design for the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. The wonderful light quality, and excellent spacing of pieces contribute to an excellent interior presentation.


But the garden is also amazing. The rigor of the building pylons compliment the rigor of the landscaping. There is a wonderful Wolfgang Puck café at the far end of the building with an outdoor terrace where you can eat lunch overlooking Perter Walker’s enclosed sculpture garden. I come here whenever I visit Dallas and sit, looking at a Picasso concrete sculpture I’ve long admired. I used to think it was huge, but now I see what a wonderful human scale piece it really is. The perfect setting has a lot to do with my reassessment.

In the distance are Magdalena Abakanowicz‘s headless figures standing at attention. The back of the garden contains one of my favorite figurative pieces by Rodin, like the one used by Mies in the Barcelona Pavilion. The Richard Serra wall is like a walk through a canyon.


The parade of trees on the lawn is wonderful. Hedges span the length of the wall, providing some limited transparency into the city between the gaps. Fountains produce white noise, camouflaging the traffic, and  shallow ponds with lily pads line the back wall.

This is a beautiful and precious human-scale garden in the middle of a major city.

Every city needs a beautiful escape like this. Minneapolis has one–albeit much larger–where pieces by Klaus Oldenberg are in a park next to the art museum. I will try to feature this one later. You can enjoy the Nasher Sculpture Center all year round, while the wintertime experience in Minneapolis is sprinkled with snow. The garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park is comparable in ways as it’s also in the middle of the city, but the experience isn’t as individualized as at Nasher.

Every detail is important at Nasher: the roof, the vertical walls, the horizontal enclosing walls, the landscaping. It’s a beautiful confluence of art, architecture, and landscaping.

Don’t miss the Nasher Sculpture Center on your next visit to Dallas.

Learn from play

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

BBC television host James May enlisted the help of 1,000 people to build a full-sized house out of 3.3 million Lego blocks to use in his show James May’s Toy Stories. Problem is, it can’t stay on its vineyard site in England, and can’t be moved. Legoland won’t even take it.

article-1214729-068183FB000005DC-413_634x423In a move that would break any architect’s heart, May planned to sell the blocks, but Lego won’t allow it. Lego says putting 3.3 million bricks on the market will dilute sales of their product, so May is left with donating the bricks to charity. Consider the silliness: If he built the house from real bricks he bought from a brickyard and then tried to sell them, would the brick-maker be able to say a resale would “dilute” his sales. Doubtful.

Lego states they are disappointed May did not consult with them to discuss how to make a structure that could be moved, so now they’re forbidding him to sell it. Is this a story of legitimate ownership of a brand, or how one can buy and use tools to make his own creation? Why does one have to build what is approved by the brand holder?

Mimg_01Questions of approval and ownership aside, the actual construction is amazing. You can easily see how Lego has inspired famous architects like Mario Botta of Lugano, Switzerland. I wonder if Mario had Legos as a young man to use to experiment with rhythm, color and structure. You can see similarities in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Kyobo Tower, and the Samsung Museum of Modern Art, which has stripes like those in James May’s masterpiece. Botta’s design for the Church of Santo Volta uses blocky proportions reminiscent of Lego constructions.

article-1214729-068181E8000005DC-280_634x836The graphics inside the house are cool, enlarged versions of rastor output. It’s a Bauhaus-like typographic creation akin to Deborah Sussman’s signs for the Apple Campus in Cuppertino or when tilemaker artists create modern motifs.

Of course, the structure does feel more like a plaything than a house. May’s use of high chroma color is unusual, and although the interior of the house is amazing, I wouldn’t exactly say it’s “cozy.” (Neither does May.)

May conducted an experiment in life-sized construction with materials intended to house half-inch figurines. And he did it without Lego’s help. It worked (despite the fact the house has a leaky roof). Legos may not be a practical building material, but they sure can give us an idea of new ways to approach old ideas like the simple four-walled house.

Like May, Botta and Frank Lloyd Wright, we can all learn from play.

Faces everywhere

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

To paraphrase the kid from The Sixth Sense: “I see faces.”

I see faces everywhere, from fire hydrants to airplane seat-back tables.

So when I saw this commercial from American Express, I had to post it. Enjoy!

‘What Is Exhibition Design?’ book being published in Polish

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

img_28314-224x300The textbook I wrote with Craig Berger and Lee Skolnick is being published in my native tongue: Polish.

‘What Is Exhibition Design?’ provides an overview of exhibition design techniques, from crafting narration to fabrication, and provides a portfolio of the excellent work being done by firms across the globe.

SEGD wrote a mention of the new publication on their blog, including a call to action: “Rozpowiedz to wszystkim.” (It means “pass the word to everyone.”)

Thanks, Craig, Lee, SEGD and everyone who has contributed to making this book a huge success…in English, Russian, Polish, Chinese, and soon in Korean! You can buy the book (in English) through

Detroit’s surprising Art Deco and the Henry Ford Museum

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there is Art Deco architecture in Detroit. And what an amazing building it is.


The Guardian Building is the home of the Smith Group Architects in downtown, near the lake and the Renaissance Center. This part of Detroit is the vintage downtown with an urban density not typical for the open spaces of most of the city.

The building–finished in 1929–is a cathedral to commercialism. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland, the detail, layering, and the translucency of the glass block all compose what is one of the best Art Deco highrise buildings I have ever seen. The banking hall has commercial components, and the entrance is sculpted with a cavernous layering effect.

DSC_0790Automobile pioneer Henry Ford collected all kinds of things, and one of them was buildings of relevance to the Midwest and general American history. Greenfield Village–an 80 acre historical theme park at The Henry Ford outside of Dearborn, Michigan–features Ford’s collection of 83 houses of the famous: the buildings of the Wright Brothers, Noah Webster’s home, the labs of Thomas Edison, and other buildings from the Midwest. Some of the originals have been moved, while others have been replicated.

As you’d expect, the architecture varies, from American colonial to farm house style. It’s all very well done and solidly constructed. In a trick borrowed from Disney’s theme parks, I noticed on one of the buildings that the upper floor had been reduced in height.

DSC_0865Getting around the place involves walking or getting a horse-pulled coach like the ones on Mackinac Island. The setting is realistic, and the landscape is open and fresh. It reminds me of skansens, the utdoor architectural museums in Sweden and my native Poland.

Greenfield Village has become a tourist attraction to allow people to see how people lived and worked in the not-too-distant past. It is especially beautiful at dusk on a clear day.

Cranbrook Academy hosts an evolving school of design thought

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Just outside Detroit in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Cranbrook Academy of Art endures as one of the best campuses in the world, if not the country. It is filled to the brim with great architecture, great spaces, and great art, and to this day, Cranbrook is one of the most highly regarded post-graduate programs for the arts.

DSC_0836Cranbrook was founded in 1926 by George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. Booth was the Detroit-based publisher of several newspapers and radio stations at the beginning of the 20th century. The Booths desired two major elements for their project: a coed elementary and high school, and an academy of art. Mr. Booth invited Eliel Saarinen to design the campus and most of its buildings after learning about Sarrinen’s work through his entry in the Tribune Tower competition. The design of the campus is a meeting of old collegiate gothic and modern. Some of the housing units are more modern, and some of the studio buildings reference the European industrial style.

Booth later asked Saarinen to recruit the faculty for the school. Saarinen’s wife taught fabric design–her designs are highly respected to this day. He also hired his longtime friend and collaborator Carl Milles, who would create most of the beautiful sculptural elements placed across campus. Milles’s sculptures engage the spaces, making them rich, open public areas. The sculptures feature horses, mermaids and beasts of burden.


Cranbrook’s influence is seen around the world. New graduates continue to influence the field of industrial design, graphic design, architecture and sculpture. You can recognize Cranbrook’s legacy in American design through the work of former students and faculty such as Charles and Ray Eames–of furniture and exhibit design fame–and Eero Saarinen. Eero was Eliel’s son who went on to design the St. Louis Arch, the JFK terminal in New York, the GM Technical Center, and the “Tulip Chair” featured on the sets of the original Star Trek series. Eero’s firm expanded Ceasar Pelli’s international architectural practice, which thrives to this day.

Walking through campus, you can see the evolution of its design, from Sarrinen the Elder’s classical Beaux-Arts to the organic modernism of Sarrinen the Younger (different from Meisian modernism, which is much more rigorous and controlled) to Cesar Pelli’s take on modernism (elegant, and embracing classical proportions of base-middle-top). The campus’s style evolves; it is dynamic.


Starting with a vision by Mr. Booth, Cranbrook attracted talent from across Europe to the Detroit suburbs. Booth and Saarinen convinced them to stay and form a school of thought, allowing it to evolve, thrive and maintain significance. This is different than the story of Talliesin, formed by the genius Frank Lloyd Wright, and which was based on a single man. Because of its lack of pluralism, Talliesin has not evolved like Cranbrook.

I have loved this campus since I first visited for SEGD meetings in the 1980s. For the past 6 years, I have helped to evolve a program in exhibit design that occurs every August. The light quality of the Michigan summer is wonderful, and reminds me of Saarinen’s native Finland, where this light level is typical going late into the night.

Back to the Future at Mackinac Island

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

We’re hearing a lot about Michigan in the news these days. Auto company bailouts, high unemployment and other political and economic stories dominate the headlines. But there’s still a lot of to love about the Great Lakes State. My next few posts will cover a recent trip to Michigan during which time I visited Mackinac Island, the Henry Ford Museum, Detroit and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

DSC_1019Many people imagine what it would be like to travel back through time, to get rid of those pesky cars, to have a place where one can ride a bike and not be run down by those dastardly pickup truck drivers. We dream of being able to walk, ride horses, and enjoy the breeze of the simple island life.

Mackinac Island–a Native American word transliterated by the French, shortened by the English, and pronounced “mackinaw”–is near the intersection of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. Native Americans came to the island centuries ago and referred to it as “Mitchimakinak,” meaning “big turtle.” Europeans later built a fort on the island to protect their fur trade.

I recall passing over the Western Hemisphere’s largest suspension bridge from Mackinaw City (spelled as it’s spoken) to St Ignace and looking toward the island across the bay. When we arrived in St. Ignace, we parked, bought our ferrry tickets, and enjoyed a 20 minute cruise to the island.

DSC_1052It was beautiful to see the town along the edge of the island, passing the Grand Hotel that sat on the brow of the island overlooking the bay. We made our way to our bed and breakfast and were surprised we had been beaten there by the hotel’s luggage clerk who had picked our bags up on bicycle–the airlines should look at this old-fashioned system to improve their own baggage handling processes.

You see, motor vehicles are not allowed on the island (at least, not during the non-winter months). The street is filled with bikers, walkers, horse-drawn carriages, garbage vehicles, and street cleaners. Semi-trailer trucks–brought by ferry–park at the dock and have their contents transported to their final destinations by horse-drawn wagons. A sanitation worker bikes around, cleaning road apples throughout the day. A flat bed wagon with brown horses carried packages for UPS. Wow.


Mackinac Island felt a little like Fantasy Island. We even saw “De Plane!” land at the small airport.

In winter, there’s cross country skiing, horse-pulled sleighs, and those pesky snowmobiles that provide the only way to return to the mainland via an ice bridge. Guides map the thickest section of ice and place stakes for others to follow. A couple of our waitress’s family members did not follow the ice bridge last winter and perished in the icy cold water when their snowmobiles crashed through the ice.

We made our way around on bikes, even riding on an island loop road with no beginning or end.

DSC_1081The quality of the architecture is high, and despite my previous reference to Fantasy Island, it is a real place, a mix between colonial Williamsburg and the Wild West. The styles mixed Colonial, Victorian, and Cape Cod. There was even a bit of arts and crafts. The houses, churches, and grand hotels were built because families live here all year round as people did a hundred years ago. Yes, it’s a place of fantasy, but the residents live it every day.

Perhaps the best example of Mackinac Island’s fine architecture is the Grand Hotel. We walked uphill to the hotel after 8 in the evening, and noticed signs that stated gentlemen must be wearing jackets and ties to even approach the hotel. Alas, I wasn’t dressed the part, so we had to stop in our tracks.

Mackinac Island is a fun escape from what’s become normal in our lives. It’s a place you can go for inspiration–to write, paint or design. It’s a place where you can see real, live people amongst older styles and methods. It’s a reminder that people haven’t changed and can live modern lives in different environments. Mackinac Island is an experiential environment from start to finish.