Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brunelleschi's Dome

Photo of the Day: Brunelleschi’s Dome (Florence Cathedral, begun 1292.  Dome 1420-1436)

I have been slacking on the posts lately; it has been a busy week.  I will keep this one short and to the point.  In Florence, the dome of the Florence Cathedral, known as the Duomo, is inescapable.  You experience this structure repeatedly from various vantage points within the city.  Here are a few perspectives of Brunelleschi’s Dome. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Getting Kicked Out of Buildings

Photo of the Day: Palazzetto dello Sport (Pier Luigi Nervi, 1958)

If you are an architecture student, or even just a casual admirer of the art of architecture, it is important to occasionally get kicked out of a building. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for illegal or deviant behavior, but sometimes, you just have to go see a space – even when you know that you are probably not supposed to be there…..

Our journey to find the palazzetto dello sport in Rome, by engineer/ architect Pier Luigi Nervi was kind of like this. Nervi was known for his revolutionary use of reinforced and precast concrete. His palazzetto dello sport, which was built in 1958 for the 1960 Rome Olympic Games is one of his masterpieces, featuring a domed structure that was constructed largely out of prefabricated concrete pieces. We ventured to this building knowing full well that we would not be able to see the interior of the space, including the underside of his spectacular ribbed dome. Since the structure is still a functioning sports pavilion / stadium, I knew that unless we were going to see an event and had a ticket, that most likely we would only be able to admire this structure from the exterior. Even with this knowledge we still deemed that finding this building was worth the effort. (involving several trains and a torrential downpour)

When our group arrived at the building, however, we noticed that one of the doors had been propped open. It seemed like there was some work being done on the interior, setup work for an upcoming event, and the workers had left one of the entrance doors slightly open. Of course, being architects and students, we went right in (I mean, the door was open – like they were expecting us or something).  As you might guess, it didn’t take long for the security guards to promptly shoo us away, but we were there just long enough to get this rare shot of the underside of Nervi’s magnificent structure.
Like my father always says, “ask for forgiveness, not for permission”. And don’t be afraid to get kicked out of buildings from time to time.

The COD group, braving the rain and the security guards

Monday, June 25, 2012

St. Peter's at Night

I wish I had some deep poetic thoughts about the night we ventured to St. Peter’s to take night photography, perhaps something about seeing this iconic space devoid of tourists on a warm Roman evening.

To be honest, these images of St. Peter’s at night were simply a minor side detour to the real destination of the evening, gelato at the Old Bridge Gelateria! At least we had our priorities.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happy Sketches

Rather than post a photo today, I thought I would share with you some of my sketches from this recent trip.
Duomo, Florence

Santa Maria Novella, Florence

San Gimignano, Tuscany

San Gimignano, Tuscany

Sienna, Tuscany (I had to try to use the color 'burnt sienna')

Pantheon Exterior, Rome

Pantheon Interior, Rome

Campidoglio, Rome

Campidoglio, Rome

Piazza San Pietro, Rome

San Pietro, Rome

Baths of Diocletian, Rome

Why We Draw?
As architects, and students of architecture, when we travel we draw.  We draw to learn, to understand, to record, and to remember.

Sketching is a very personal activity for me.  It is a process of observation, examination, documentation and memory.  The sketch is both a tool for communication as well as an act of thought.  The travel sketch in particular is a process of recording and understanding the world we experience.  I can vividly remember the places I have drawn far more than any place I have photographed.  Each sketch holds a depth of meaning far beyond the object itself, as I can often recall specifics about each occasion.  These travel sketches are more than just documentation of research; they are my memories, each place inscribed in my mind’s eye as the lines are etched on the page.
Marvin Malecha, FAIA (Dean of the College of Design at NC State and former president of the AIA) sums up this feeling nicely in a wonderful little book that he wrote on sketching:

“Draw what you see, how you remember it and contemplate it.  Draw what you understand.  Draw to understand.  Draw with whatever medium you are comfortable.  Draw to enhance your skill of seeing.  Draw to remember.  Just draw and draw and draw.  It will bring you an acute awareness of who you are.”  Marvin J. Malecha The Urge to Draw, The cause to Reflect

Me sketching at St. Peter's

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Santa Maria Novella

Photo of the Day: Santa Maria Novella (Leon Battista Alberti, 1456-70)
Speaking of Alberti (in the previous post), here is a façade that is definitely designed by him. 

Leon Battista Alberti was a humanist and a philosopher, who saw architecture as a means to address societal order.  For Alberti, a renaissance architect should be a universalist, an intellectual, and a man of genius.  (no pressure there!)

Alberti designed this façade at Santa Maria Novella onto an existing medieval church.  His design is based on whole number proportional relationships driven by the circle and the square, the idealized mathematical forms of the renaissance.

Monday, June 18, 2012

San Miniato al Monte

Photo of the Day: San Miniato al Monte (1018 AD, attributed to Bishop Hildebrand)
The previous panorama of Florence was taken from directly in front of the basilica of San Miniato al Monte.  So today it seems fitting to write about this stunning basilica which sits atop one of the highest points in Florence, adjacent to an Olivetan Monestery.

This Romanesque basilica was one of the most surprising and unexpected finds of the trip for me.  We originally hiked up the hill to see this church because we thought that the exterior façade was designed by Alberti during the Renaissance.  This turned out not to be the case, as the façade dates from the 12th century.  
What I was totally unprepared for, however, was the interior space, as shown in today’s photo of the day.  Upon entering the basilica you feel as if you have suddenly entered into a very old space.  The interior is extremely dark, and once your eyes adjust to the light levels you begin to appreciate the detailing of the architecture.  I was fascinated with the age of the interior space, as well as the beauty of the detailing.  I was really struck by the roof detail in particular, with its beautifully ornate painted wood trusses.  In the image you can also see the rounded arch “Romanesque” construction, typical of this style. 

I am interested in how our perception of places is framed by our initial experience of that place.  Part of what made this place special for me was that while we were being tourists, taking photos and admiring the detailing, there was a service going on in the crypt.  The interior spaces has an interesting section, with a raised choir above a partially subterranean crypt, and the monks were chanting and holding mass in the crypt below while the tourists were doing their thing above.  I have no doubt that part of the magic of this space for me is due to the beauty of the architecture, but an equal part of the experience is strongly framed the echoed sound of the service being held within.  This interior space left a powerful impression on me in part due to the ‘atmosphere’ of the space.  The characteristics of light penetrating into the dark interior, the smell of a really old space, the sounds of chanting monks, and the experience of movement through this space all contributed to making this place special.  This space, as unexpected as it was, is one of the highly memorable experiences for me of this trip. 

 (as a bonus, here is an image of the exterior, which I am pretty sure is NOT designed by Alberti.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Photo of the Day: Florence from Above

Photo of the Day: Florence from Above
On our second day in Florence we hiked up to San Miniato al Monte, a small Romanesque basilica overlooking Florence, and we were rewarded with this panoramic view.  Florence is still very much a city of the Renaissance, with its “skyline” dominated by the profile of the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) as seen here in today’s photo of the day.
The ‘Duomo’ is an Italian gothic cathedral begun in 1292 by the architect Arnolfo di Cambio.  It is most significant, however, for its dome which was designed, engineered and constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi between 1420-1436.  Brunelleschi is the quintessential Renaissance man.  He engineered this massive octagonal dome and figured out how to build it without the use of wooden centering, or formwork.  The dome’s structure is a brilliant double shell dome that is a combination of vertical and horizontal ribs braced by chains.  Brunelleschi also incorporated a herringbone pattern of brickwork into the construction of the dome so that it essentially supported itself during construction.  Oh, and by the way, he also invented many of the machines and hoists used during the construction of the dome. 
Enjoy this panorama of Florence looking toward Santa Maria del Fiore, a monument of the rebirth of humanism, in the city where the renaissance was born.
Posts will resume next week.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Phot of the Day: Pantheon, Rome

Photo of the Day: Pantheon, Rome (built by the emperor Hadrian in 125AD)
Perhaps I should be a little bit less philosophical today, and just post the “photo of the day”.  Today’s image is of the Pantheon in Rome, which I chose simply because I think it is a cool photo.  It might be the best shot of the entire trip.  I spent a lot of time on this trip running around Rome at night trying to get some decent night photography.  I am pretty excited about the results considering my camera is a 5 year old “point and shoot” (with a lens that only sometimes retracts) and a 3” bendy tripod.  Hopefully someday I will get a big boy camera and really be able to do some serious stuff, but in spite of my lack of sophisticated photography equipment, I am thrilled with this image.

As far as the pantheon….. Well, quite simply this is the most significant piece of architecture in western history, as far as I am concerned.  The interior volume with its 42m hemispherical dome is one of the most awesome spaces I have encountered. The interior space of the pantheon is the perfect blend of the tectonic and the poetic, or the art and science of architecture.  Maybe I should expand on these thoughts in a future post, but for now I think I will just enjoy the photo, and daydream about being in Rome.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Photo of the Day: St. Peter's Basilica

This past May I taught a course on the architecture of Florence, Rome and Tuscany, spending 10 days in Italy with 18 COD students.  I plan to begin posting a “photo of the day”, most days, from this recent trip.  This is partially as an attempt to revitalize this blog, and partially to record my thoughts and memories before they slip away into the summer.  I will keep this going until I lose interest, or until I run out of material…… whichever comes first - enjoy!

Photo of the Day: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (Bernini’s baldacchino below Michelangelo’s dome)

Why we Travel?
For me, architecture is primarily an experiential art. We understand spaces and places through our bodily experiences of them.  We measure, record, and interpret the spaces we encounter by our movement through space and with our senses.   The art of architecture is experienced through our bodies, and seared in our memories by firsthand experiences of spaces and places.   

Contemporary culture is extremely imaged based, and while I too enjoy the proliferation of the “image” of architecture spread worldwide by blogs like this and other media platforms, nothing can replace the firsthand primary experience of place.   It thrilled me that several students on our visit to St. Peter’s commented on how they really did not fully understand the spatial characteristics of the basilica until they experienced it firsthand.  They commented that learning about the building through slide lectures in their intro architecture course at COD did not sufficiently prepare them for the grandeur and scale of the space.  And really how could it?  How could we possibly expect that a student truly understand the spatial qualities of St. Peters from a book, or a slide in a lecture course.  The truth is that nothing can really prepare you for the spatial awesomeness of the central nave at St. Peter’s.  The only way to really understand it to experience it, move through it, and “measure” the space, volume, scale and quality of light through sensory perception.
So as a student of architecture (and I still consider myself to be one), we travel to learn.  We travel to understand significant places and spaces through firsthand sensory experience.  We travel to understand spaces as we move through them, and to imprint this understanding of space in our memories.  These memories become a part of us as designers, and ultimately influence the way we understand the world and respond to it creatively.