High Rise Hell

Manhattan: Esplanade Apartments and Lake Shore Drive Apartments

American urban architecture is, for the most part, a series of rectangular Kleenex boxes fronted by rows of large glass windows, requiring scandalous amounts of electricity for air conditioning. When Mies van der Rohe and other postwar architects pioneered their glass towers, they little thought that they were creating unhealthy environments for companies and their workers, and even more so for the dwellers of apartments and condominiums built in that style.

For a quarter of a century, I worked in two such glass towers in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, just south of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). They were right across Westwood Boulevard from each other, and both had what I feel is a baneful effect on my health.

It was only when I retired that I discovered I was not always coming down with colds and headaches. The way that air is circulated in these towers reminds me of giant free-standing Petri dishes.

With global warming, it is becoming more expensive than ever to cool these buildings, at a time when the air outside is requiring even more juice for the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system. In Los Angeles during the frequent heat waves, I remember dreading going down to the parking lot to get my car. It was almost like crawling through a sewer.

All these architectural fads are based on what seems cheap and feasible at the time they are introduced.

I Spent 16 Years Here

I remember once taking a course in commercial real estate at UCLA. One of the things I learned is that building owners could request—and get—higher rent for suites which have corner offices. Just the sort of thing for a CEO with a swelled head! And that’s one of the reasons for all the Kleenex boxes.

Maya Nuns?

Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood

The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.

By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.

One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today

So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.

The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.

Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)

As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.

Next: The Palace of the Governor



Greene with Envy

Front Entrance to the Gamble House

Yesterday, Martine and I drove to Pasadena to visit the Gamble House. No, it’s not a casino. It was the home of the Gambles of the Procter & Gamble fame. Situated on Orange Grove near where the Tournament of Roses Parade makes the turn onto Colorado, the area is a turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) millionaires’ row. We had visited the house before, years ago, but it’s a good thing to renew one’s acquaintance with great works of art from time to time.

the house is the work of the architectural firm of Greene & Greene. While their works are usually characterized as “arts and crafts bungalows,” what we have here is a sizeable mansion.

Gamble House Exterior

There is something infinitely pleasing and subtle about the works of Greene & Greene when they are at the top of their game, and the Gamble house was definitely at the top of their game. The architects decided not only the exterior feature of the building, the room layouts, and the grounds—but even the furniture in many cases. In one room, everything is made to resemble a vase on the dresser.

Although the architects had never been to the Orient, they did stop at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on their way to California, where they saw a number of examples of Japanese architecture. That glimpse was sufficient to get them thinking about how to use wood not only for weight-bearing, but also for decorative purposes.

Gamble House Sample Interior

Note the way all the features in the above room blend in with one another. The pottery, the lighting fixture, the table and chairs seem all of a piece. At one point where the servants would injure their hip by banging into a sharp counter corner, the architects made the counter trapezoidal, eliminating the sharp corner. At another point, the very short Aunt Julia Gamble had a special chair made for her to work with the fastenings on her high-button shoes. (Also note Aunt Julia’s little step stool in the above photo for her comfort.) In the boys’ bedroom, there is a low, wide drawer for storing their shoes. In the kitchen, there is a super-wide drawer for storing tablecloths without wrinkling them along the folds.

Everything is on a human scale. And strikingly beautiful.


Why Fix When You Could Demolish?

Wiping the Architectural Slate Clean in Salt Lake City

Los Angeles is particularly intent on demolishing its architectural history. And it’s so wasteful when there are so many interesting old building about. I know that many old buildings are not quite earthquake-proof, but they could be made so without driving ugly bolts through them visible from the outside. A classic example is a building in West Los Angeles at the southeast corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Butler. Its rear has a beautiful old mural showing the aftermath of California falling into the ocean “after the next big one.” Unfortunately, the owners of the building have dozens of ugly bolts sticking out of the mural (see below).

Mural Entitled “The Isle of California” with Earthquake Bolts Destroying the Image

This is a typical tendency in California. We know how to build, but we don’t know how to preserve. Instead, we prefer to wipe the architectural slate clean and build something inadequate, with the specious reasoning that we could always ’doze it and start over again in a few years. It’s all part of a larger tend in which we throw up new buildings, but have no interest in maintaining old ones. I for one would love to see the mural above touched up with the bolt heads either covered or removed.

We are not just talking about buildings. Our freeways were so lovely when I moved to Southern California in 1966. Then they started getting rattier and rattier, with ugly potholes. When CalTrans started using concrete to re-pave several freeways, what we got stuck with is an ugly patchwork of variously colored concrete patches interspersed with asphalt, the whole thing looking like a crazy quilt with enough transitional bumps to send your wheels in unwanted directions.

Then, too, are our fast trains that have to go twenty miles per hour because the tracks in many urban areas cannot take higher speeds.

It’s time to consider such things as repair, maintenance, and refurbishment when we look to evaluate our structures and transportation.

It’s a Wexler

Back Yard of Wexler House at 499 Farrell Street

Back Yard of Wexler House at 499 Farrell Street

Until I spent a few days with my brother in Palm Springs over the Christmas Holiday, I had no idea of the work of architect Donald Wexler. Apparently, he has had an outsized influence on the architecture of Palm Springs and the more posh Coachella Valley cities adjoining it. My brother rented a Wexler house at 499 Farrell Street at the corner of Alejo in Palm Springs’s “Movie Colony” neighborhood.

I tend to take a dim view of much modern domestic architecture, but I must admit that Wexler’s work looked good in its lower desert setting, with Mount San Jacinto looming in the background. Not that his houses are particularly comfortable: The house that my brother Dan rented had no windows per se, only massive sliding glass doors that tended to superheat in the afternoon sun, plus a few glass ceiling panels.

If I had to rate the Wexlers I saw, I would give them an A for looks, but only a C for comfort. The lower desert can be fiercely hot, especially in the summer months with temperatures soaring to 115-120 degrees in the afternoons. Many of these houses were built in the 1950s and 1960s, when energy costs were low. During the summer, I would expect that one’s electric bill would likewise soar. Perhaps that’s where the pool and patio (see above) come into play. December can be pretty cold in Palm Springs, so Martine and I didn’t bother to bring our swimsuits.

Apparently, Donald Wexler is still alive, though, in his eighties, I am sure his architectural career is a thing of the past. Still, it is interesting to view his work, which you can do by clicking here, here, and here.