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Engaging Mies

Gehry in the desert

    Driving out in Las Vegas beyond "the strip", towards the old downtown I come upon these

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health exterior piecesclick an image to enlarge it

    pieces of metal, out so long baking in the desert they curled at the edges, no?

    No. They're for the back ofFrank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health exterior pieces
    Frank Gehry's "The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health."

    --Dedicated to the conquest of Alzheimer, Huntington, Parkinson,
    ALS and all forms of memory disorders.
    The highly specialized clinical center aims at advancing research,
    early detection and treatment of neurological diseases.

    Las Vegas businessman and philanthropist Larry Ruvo planned the center after his father Lou Ruvo fought Alzheimer’s disease and then passed away in 1994. Larry Ruvo sought to create a center for compassionate care, cutting-edge treatments and high-level research into cognitive diseases.  He asked Frank Gehry for a place to entice and educate people and to celebrate life.

    It is similar to and quite different from all other buildings in Vegas.

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
    Walk around it and you see it's in two parts, as Gehry often designs. The left side mainly absorbs light, the right side reflects it in so many ways. 
    In the photo just above, on the left side is the medical clinic- the calmer, more traditional piece before the explosion on the right- it contains a tent-like space in which to hold fundraisers and other events.  The two moods bring us the calm before the storm, as in the desert.  Does this also show us the left and right sides of the brain?
    The left side of the brain processes information in a linear manner. It takes pieces, lines them up, and arranges them in a logical order.

    The right side of the brain processes more holistically, from the whole to the parts. The right-brain sees the big picture first and breaks it down into the details. It works in a more random way; and the right-brain is color sensitive.

    To oversimplify: the left-brain is more reality-based; the right-brain processes using fantasy. I wonder which side dominates in Frank Gehry?

    Gehry's work brings to mind a quote from Le Corbusier, whom Gehry calls "number one on my hit parade." Building housing in France after World War II with inexpensive materials and without highly-skilled labor-- (Gehry confronts and accepts similar issues) Le Corbusier made beauty by crashing forms and colors into one another. He said,
    I have decided to make beauty by contrast. I will find its complement and establish a play between crudity and finesse, between the dull and the intense, between precision and accident. I will make people think and reflect, this is the reason for the violent, clamorous, triumphant polychromy of the facade.
    Back to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The left side (which is open and operating) of white boxes with smallish vertical windows, stacked like a wedding cake, feels appropriate here in the desert. Something like SANAA's New Museum in New York mixed with Tel Aviv Bauhaus, built on sand. The Gehry stack is pleasing and calming, yet the torquing of the boxes makes it come alive and affect your emotions-- causing pleasure.

    But it's the "crazy, melted" back side of course, the part people think of as "Gehry-esque," that will get attention and photographs and that's okay because it might call attention to the cause of brain health. This building, though still in need of funding itself, may ultimately help the clinic to fund raise. In Las Vegas - famous for its neon signs - they now also use Architecture to get attention.

    I remember a quote I just read in The Architect's Newspaper from super engineer/designer Guy Nordenson:
    Frank Gehry’s relationship to engineering and construction says: the cruder the better. You visit the Disney Concert Hall and, in the office of the musical director, there’s this gigantic gusset plate that’s part of one of the trusses in the system. It’s exposed and fire-protected. One of the architects who worked on the project described it to me as a train crash in a room. It’s monumentally messy.

    Gehry's composition tells stories of a crash - and it makes you wonder what happened to cause this? Which is what the research center is all about.

    The storytelling and the movement of his architecture invoke a passage of time. While we're looking at what our eyes see we can help but wonder, what happened to cause this to be shaped this way? How long will these ruins last? Aren't we all balanced precariously between formation and decay? Gehry's over-baked composition with the contrast of two parts-- one seemingly more organic, the other of mangled metal-- recalls an Edward Weston photograph shot not far away:

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
    Edward Weston: Burned Car, Mojave Desert (1937)

    From a Philips Collection essay:
    While his earlier work emphasized magnification and fragmentation, in the 1930s and 1940s Weston often stressed the wholeness and interrelatedness of things....
    His style evolved toward looser compositions, focusing on pattern, texture, and line. (Weston foreshadows) the spatially indecipherable and gestural characteristics of abstract expressionism.
    Frank Gehry will pick up on "the spatially indecipherable and gestural characteristics of abstract expressionism" along with the methods of the painters, sculptors, collage makers and multi-media artists of his artistic era and he'll turn it all into architecture.

    Once you've made the joke about this brain health center: "Has Frank Gehry lost his mind?" you see that parts of this - even unfinished - are quite lovely, especially in the desert sun.

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

    Across the street stands this:

    Las Vegas contemporary architecturealso beautifully catching the sun; and sending more of a message of rootedness, of place. Not the less site-specific, more cosmopolitan message Gehry is after.

    The Gehry seems more real than most of what is built here and its interior will certainly be a genuine architectural experience. Still very much under construction - the interior space swirls up and around - as Gehry is so good at. Here it may recall a dust storm in the desert; under construction Xanadu meets Piranesi.

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health interior under construction

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health interior under construction

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health exterior
    That last one, that column, is sure to grow into a "tree" (like this one - below - at Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.)

    Frank Gehry Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall interior wood tree
    It's time for me to leave Vegas. (It's always time for me to leave Vegas.) As the car pulls away I see in the Gehry the movement and the dance that he seeks to inject into each of his projects. Some have sailing references, some wash up like waves to the shore. This one here in the desert - especially after the bling and the flash of the casinos - shimmers and shines and as you drive toward it these simple white cubes vibrate like a mirage. Under the hot sun we have

    Frank Gehry Las Vegas The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health mirage oasis
    a mirage crashing into an oasis. I need a drink.

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Libeskind opens his act today in Vegas

    Now in Vegas you won't just see

    No, there's a new culture on the Strip. Daniel Libeskind opens today in Vegas, starring in "Crystals" - that's the name of his Las Vegas A-list retail and entertainment complex:

    There it is in the foreground left in a photo I took about a week ago. You can't mistake the Libeskind brand for another. Libeskind's line of shops for Louis Vuitton, Roberto Cavalli, Ermenegildo Zegna, etc. - looks like he dolled up and performed cosmetic surgery on

    an old western Frontier Village.

    Daniel Libeskind, told the L.A. Times about this great mega-project in Vegas of which he is a part,
    My first impression was 'This was either completely crazy or the greatest project in the world. It turned out to be the latter."
    The Vegas mega-project opening this month is CityCenter, featuring acts by Norman Foster + Partners - the blue curving building in the upper right - sort of a "London Gherkin"-lite, but capturing the colors of the desert sky and turning them into something like cinemascope; you can also see Gensler, Kohn Pederson Fox and Associates, Rockwell Group, Rafael Vinoly and Pelli Clarke Pelli perform. The names of architecture designers like the names of handbag designers like the names of Vegas acts, it's all the same. Helmut Jahn's act actually leans towers into a "V". The all-residential "Veer Towers" - "V" for "Veer" and maybe also "Vegas"?

    Why, Jahn "sounds like" Elvis singing "Viva Las Vegas!" Oh, part of this mega-project is Viva ELVIS™, a permanent show dedicated to the icon. That's it, that's what CityCenter reminds me of! Did you see this year's season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm? The one with the Seinfeld show reunion? Seinfeld is talking about the cast and says, "I'm an icon! He's an icon! She's an icon! He's an icon!"

    Icons all around.

    It's a good joke on TV, but not a good way to plan cities. "I'm an icon! That building is an icon! Next to us is another icon! Every building here is an icon!"

    Remember Robert Venturi's sketch from "Learning from Las Vegas"

    We need a new one: "I AM AN ICON" over Libeskind's Crystals.

    CityCenter - 8.5 billion dollars, 18 million square feet, 6,000+ hotel rooms, 42 lounges, restaurants and bars, 4 spas, and almost 900 of us can live there - that's how many residences will open. Call it the largest privately funded construction project in North America. With billions of the dollars invested by our good friends at Dubai World.

    But don't worry - most of CityCenter gets a LEED Gold rating for sustainability. In the desert?

    Dubai is/was sustainable too.

    CityCenter broke ground five years ago, since then the sands have shifted under it. It went through near-bankruptcy and a myriad of legal problems. It made it through. Many projects don't. We must really want this.

    Next: a new building in Vegas that seems to be curling up like an old shoe left out in the hot desert sun. Frank Gehry does Vegas.

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Wanna buy a Tatra?

Peter Zumthor and "Spider-Man" Tobey Maguire

    But wait, there's more!

    Peter Zumthor

    Not only is the Pritzker Prize winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor coming up with ideas for a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), when we spoke with Peter Zumthor he also told us:
    Well, by chance, Michael (Michael Govan - CEO and director of LACMA) took me to some dinner and there was a lady at the table who said, "You are the favorite architect of an actor friend of mine but he can not reach you, or he doesn't dare to reach you!"
    Peter Zumthor

    Zumthor has had a reputation as a hermit, a recluse, a difficult man. An image he is trying to change.

    Peter Zumthor
    And then Michael Govan- clever guy- he told me, "you can work on our big ten year project...

    On the side you can also do something real which comes true in a shorter period of time."
    Peter Zumthor
    And he told me, 'this is a tradition - that all good architects have designed a home in L.A.! He said 'Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra and others did it and so this will be good for you!'
    And so I accepted to do a home in Westwood for
    Tobey Maguire Spider Man Spiderman Peter Zumthor

    Tobey Maguire Spider Man
    ("Spider-Man") Tobey Maguire!

    I find Mr. Zumthor to be personable and charming - in that Swiss way. I asked him what the Tobey Maguire house might look like and what materials he might use. Zumthor, would only say with a laugh,

    "I have an idea of what to do but I think
    Maguire deserves to be the first to hear it!"

    Is the Pritzker Prize laureate thinking, "'With great power comes great responsibility.' This is my gift, my curse." That's what Spider-Man says.

    Photos of Peter Zumthor at LACMA by Edward Lifson.

    Our interview with Peter Zumthor
    from last April when he received his highly-deserved Pritzker Prize is here.
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Zumthor working in Los Angeles

    A Zumthor zinger! We break the story on the big plans in L.A. by this year's Pritzker Prize laureate Peter Zumthor. Read it here.

    Peter Zumthor listens to
    LACMA's Wallis Annenberg CEO and Director Michael Govan
    introduce him before a lecture.
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A Mies sugar high

    Christie’s Haunch of Venison gallery in New York recently showed this

    Barcelona couch (by Mies, 1930)

    which turned out to be


    A life-size chocolate replica of the couch, by the artist Leandro Ehrlich.

    Modern Taste. Thought you'd want to know.


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Chicago tears down a Mies

    And so it will happen. This week powers that be in Chicago will demolish a little work by Mies van der Rohe. A small part of his extraordinarily important campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology will bite the dust.

    Another small piece of when Chicago ruled the architecture and planning worlds will be gone forever. In the hopes that maybe we will save the next small piece of our history to be threatened with sacrifice in the name of progress (see Stock Exchange, Chicago, Louis Sullivan; Arts Club Chicago, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe...) I send this open letter to a friend, the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, Blair Kamin.

    Dear Blair,

    You know I respect you immensely as an architecture critic, but I must differ with you for accepting without loud cry the unnecessary demolition of a work in Chicago by the great modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

    We speak of what is called the "Test Cell," at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) on the south side of the city. It will come down this week, maybe even today, because nearby- not even directly on its site- the commuter rail line Metra will erect a new station on its Rock Island District Line which chugs through Chicago’s South and Southwest Sides to the Southwest suburbs. The station will be used by local residents of Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood and also by fans going to White Sox park right across the Dan Ryan expressway and by IIT faculty, students and staff. That's all good - no one is more in favor of train stations and public transportation than we are.

    But honestly, Blair, wouldn't it be easy to have the train station on site it is planned for and to not touch a brick of Mies's building and adjacent walls? You don't address how easy that would be. Look - here's the Test Cell, in the lower left corner:

    Test Cell and walls to be demolished- bottom left.
    -Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

    And here is a rendering of the planned station:

    SOM Metra station Chicago Mies IIT White Sox Cellular park
    The lower left corner is basically - empty! Couldn't the existing works by an acknowledged master have been easily incorporated into the new station? Wouldn't that make the site more interesting, not less? It seems to the Test Cell and its adjoining walls could easily be saved and incorporated into the station project.

    Is there some other force at play here? Some antipathy to Mies or Modernism or as sometimes happens in Chicago, antipathy to anything that strives to be a little better, a little more designed, thought through and significant.

    Blair, in your most recent writing on Mies's Test Cell you cite another excellent critic, Richard Lacayo of Time Magazine who wrote about the Test Cell issue: "Buildings occupy land, and in a densely settled city every acre is contested ground." This makes it sound like the Test Cell is in mid-town Manhattan, standing in the way of some great development with no alternative but to remove it. The truth is that near the Test Cell are many lots that look more like Detroit - not so "densely settled," not so contested, not so desired even. You and I know that much land to the south and to the west stands vacant and with a little creativity, vision and sensitivity the station could be built on any of those three sites. Here's the view directly across the street from the Test Cell.

    Mies Test Cell IIT ChicagoA densely settled city?

    Chicago - a Midwestern city in a tough climate - ignores the lessons of Detroit at its own peril. By destroying heritage buildings and making the place less interesting the city alienates and risks losing the creative class. Tearing down an asset such as a part of a masterpiece campus by Mies van der Rohe - one of the most important architects in history - is short-sighted and will lead to more blight, not less. A Google Earth photograph already shows desolate land by the Test Cell.

    Figures from the year 2000 put population density for Chicago at about 13,000 people per square mile. But the area around IIT housed only about 4,000 people per square mile. That is hardly "densely settled."

    Berlin, Germany has about 10,000 people per square mile and they manage to preserve their minor and major works by Mies. Berlin officials are now trying to rebuild a brick monument Mies designed.

    Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Berlin, 1926
    -Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
    Unappreciated and torn down by the Nazis.

    Rather than demolishing works by the masters who made Chicago great, the city ought to preserve and project the greatness of this legacy to the world. Sadly at the same time we lose a part of Mies's IIT campus we also lose important works nearby co-designed by another Bauhaus master Walter Gropius.

    Chicago tried to take a world stage with an Olympic bid and it failed. In recent memory it has gone from being the city internationally famous for Al Capone to being more famous for Michael Jordan of the Bulls and then of giving the world Barack Obama; but now Chicago seems to be slipping backwards, enduring slurs about "the Chicago Way" in politics. The great Mayor Daley sees his power and his popularity dissipating, after his triumph of imperial proportions at Millennium Park. Financially the city is doing the equivalent of tearing down the Test Cell by mortgaging its future for short term "gain" however it can, such as by leasing out its parking meters and maybe also its water supply.

    This week, the best news for the state of Illinois, seems to be that the Feds might use an Illinois prison to house terrorists. Is that Illinois' future? We need to support what is great in Chicago, which includes the incredibly important work of Mies van der Rohe.We should work together to have all of the Illinois Institute of Technology designated a World Heritage site.

    We all know that at fifty or sixty years old buildings go through a phase where they have aged and are decrepit and look ugly and are under-appreciated. They are "your father's buildings" and we want new. History teaches us that that is not the time to pass final judgment.

    By the way, we know the Test Cell is by Mies. The work is listed in his published archives.

    The Museum of Modern Art which holds his archives contains dozens of pieces of documentation of Mies's firm working on the building.

    I advocate a sort of "Hippocratic Oath" for architects, one tenet of which would be: if you must tear down something of value, you must replace it with something of equal or superior value.

    From renderings the new Metra station and plaza by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill looks rather bland as seen above and here:

    Images Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP

    More uninspired infrastructure, from a design point of view. This is worthy of its place along the Dan Ryan expressway. It's far inferior to, for example, this more exhilarating work by SOM Chicago for China (Ross Wimer - SOM Design Partner for the project). Why is that? Are Chinese cities today ambitious and experimental in ways Chicago was when Mies was around?

    Blair- when you write of the Test Cell you do not write of it as part of the Mies van der Rohe-designed IIT campus. You consider it in and of itself. But you have written eloquently in the past of how individual buildings make a fabric. You have written well of how not every building should stand out, how some should be background players; and that's what the Test Cell is. In my opinion what is important there are the brick walls that extend from it, and connect Mies's IIT campus to the city around it.

    I know you and I agree that Mies is one of the most important architects who ever lived, and certainly who ever built anything in Chicago. Mies is the man who said, "Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins." There are several important words in that quote. One is that you must work and think "carefully." We are not doing that by tearing this down. The word "Architecture" is important - he does not mean building, he means Architecture. There is so precious little of it in all the buildings we put up today, but the campus of IIT is one of the most important Modern Architecture sites in the world; why are we altering it, desecrating it? And finally, it is important that Mies is talking about bricks.

    The Test Cell offers those who will listen a quiet message of doing much with little, of not wasting, of honesty, of each American citizen being like a brick- our common material- and when you arrange them into a wall, each supports the other and you create a society, a self-reliant society that does honest work and stands on its own. Each building at IIT is like a state, made of citizens. Together they make a nation. E Pluribus Unum. Each part is important, each brick is important. Mies, coming from post-Enlightenment Berlin was impressed with Karl Friedrich Schinkel's neo-classical buildings that also sought to build strong, enlightened, progressive citizens .

    Only when you have enough little buildings like the Test Cell are you perhaps ready for a masterpiece such as Crown Hall - Mies's great "temple" just around the corner. The one needs the other. And if we can not value the Test Cell, then we can not fully appreciate the masterpiece. The Test Cell is your foot soldier, your pawn, your second baseman (turning a corner), your factory worker, your proletarian. It exudes decency. Are we so besotted with spectacle that we no longer value decent, little honest "supporting actors" of buildings?

    Mies is one of Chicago's great triumvirate - Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe. We've lost so much of their work. Perhaps it was a fluke that they built there at all. The U.S. was a different place then- in their time Chicago was the center of the architecture and urbanism world. Since then Los Angeles and other cities have siphoned off much of Chicago's creative talent. New York developed a super-rich architecture scene, the warm southwestern cities grew in population at Chicago's expense. By chance, I write this from Las Vegas of all places, where life has taken me for a few days. I would argue that Mies's little Test Cell is worth more than just about every building here.

    Mies Test Cell Gunnery demolished Chicago south side IIT
    I wrote that tearing this down is like destroying forever a minor work by Mozart. You support the counter-argument that sheet music can be stored in a drawer. I counter that with this: architecture can only truly be experienced by walking up to it around it and through it. No photograph, computer or drawing can completely convey the architectural experience. By tearing down the Test Cell - when it does not need to be in order to build the station - we are depriving all future generations the chance to experience a progression designed by Mies van der Rohe. No one will be able to walk underneath that bridge at 35th street, see that thin brick wall reaching out, forming a plane in space, just beginning to form an ensemble, becoming something great and historically important, making a turn to reveal to the viewer a great Modernist street and cathedral-like power plant - to herald a new world and a new way of life. A democratic way, a technological way but one with art - technology and new materials through sensitive artistic handling to help to give us dignified lives - that is Mies's lesson for us.

    Mies power plant modernist street Chicago Test Cell Gunnery IIT
    Why not clean up these nice yellowish bricks and turn this into a kiosk dispensing information to all who pass on the importance of the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology? It's hard for many to see it now, but people always come around to appreciating quality. Unfortunately, that's often not until it's gone.

    Best regards to you and yours,

    More on Mies's Test Cell here and here.

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Timeless Mies - The Lake Shore Drive Apartments

Fall light falls on Mies in Chicago

    On this fine fall day I have an afternoon meeting near downtown Chicago.

    Chicago skyline IIT Mies aerial birds eye
    17th floor. Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Yes, that's Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall you see in the center.

    Mies Crown Hall aerial view bird's eye Chicago seen from above
    And Helmut Jahn's IIT dorm on the right, "kissing" Rem Koolhaas / OMA's student center just behind it - the one with the "groove tube" to dampen the sound of the elevated train as it roars through the campus.

    IIT aerial view Rem Koolhaas Office of Metropolitan Architecture OMA McCormick Student Center and Helmut Jahn dorm
    Meeting over, I come down to approach Crown Hall as autumn sun set.

    Crown Hall Chicago Mies IIT west facade at sunset with shadows
    Thirsty, I visit Mies van der Rohe's Commons building, in which they advertise diet soda.

    Mies van der Rohe Less is More IIT Chicago
    Koolhaas stacked his student center right next to Mies's Commons; you get intriguing reflections. Mies made contempo.

    Mies Commons Rem Koolhaas student center reflections
    Dusk. Time to go. In the car I pass Crown Hall having windows washed.

    Crown Hall at night Mies van der Rohe Chicago IIT
    Wait! I need to see Mies's little "Test Cell" before I leave IIT-- they're going to tear it down soon. It caps the end of one of the greatest modernist streets in the world, just past the power plant on the right.

    There it is. Where the campus ends and the city begins,

    Test Cell or Gunnery by Mies to be demolished at IIT in Chicago
    I bid the "Test Cell" adieu. I may never see it again.

    Better swing past Crown Hall one more time, to not leave with sadness.

    Crown Hall at night east facade lights lit IIT Chicago Mies

    Crown Hall is eternal. I head home. I promise you tomorrow a timeless photograph of Mies's Lake Shore Drive Apartments restored.
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