Sunday, July 28, 2019

RIP César Pelli

Another great modernist architect has passed away:
César Pelli, an architect whose soaring towers defined the skylines of cities around the world, died on July 19 at the age of 92. A versatile designer, Pelli penned museums, airport terminals, and hospital campuses. But he was best known for his skyscrapers, which departed from strict modernism in their integration of historic forms and broad palette of materials. 
Born in 1926, Pelli was raised in San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of the Tucumán province in northern Argentina, and graduated from university there before obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954. He then spent a decade working for the great midcentury designer Eero Saarinen, offering significant creative input on projects such as the TWA Flight Center and Ezra Stiles College and Morse College at Yale University.
Pelli later started his own practice. He was extremely prolific, but his most famous works include the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) in Manhattan, Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center in Minneapolis, the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, the Patronas Towers (which from 1988 until 2004 were the tallest buildings in the world) in Kuala Lumpur, and the recently-completed Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

César Pelli has also contributed much to the architecture of Houston. Between 1982 and 1983, the Four Oaks Place and Four Leaf Towers were completed. Four Oaks Place consists of four buildings of various heights and are covered by a skin of blue and gray ceramic glass. The Four Leaf Towers are two tall residential towers featuring curtain walls of pink and brown ceramic glass and topped with octagonal truncated pyramids. Their height and design made them landmarks of Houston’s Uptown skyline.

Pelli also designed the O'Quinn (formerly St. Luke’s) Medical Tower, which was completed in 1990. The 25-story building, located between Fannin and Main Streets, is characterized by two octagonal towers covered with a tight glass and mullion system. The so-called “Twin Syringes” have become an architectural focal point of the Texas Medical Center.

Pelli was the architect of record for 1500 Louisiana Street, which was commissioned by Enron; however, Enron collapsed before the building was completed in 2002 and never occupied it.

Pelli has also contributed to the architecture of Rice University as well as the University of Houston. Herring Hall, the home of Rice’s Graduate School of Administration, was completed in 1984. The Ley Student Center was completed in 1986. Both buildings conform to the Beaux-Arts scheme of Rice University while being decidedly modern, with a banded red brick façade. On the sides of Herring Hall, the brick is laid in a diagonal pattern, while the brick at the Ley Center is accented with blue, further reinforcing Pelli’s experimental use of color. On the University of Houston campus, Pelli designed the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex, which was completed in 2005. It features steel, buff brick and red clay tile as building material and is located prominently along Cullen Boulevard.

I studied César Pelli extensively as an architecture student at the University of Houston and I enjoyed his work. I am saddened that he is no longer with us.

Slovenia: Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bled and Ljubljana

Back-to-back Eurotrip posts, because it was exactly one year ago today that we made our way from Austria to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, stopping along the way to enjoy the natural beauty of Vintgar Gorge.

Vintgar Gorge is a ravine cut over the ages by the Radovna River. It was not accessible until the late 1800s, when a local mayor and a cartographer came up with the idea of building a wooden walkway along the ravine's sheer walls. The walkway was completed in 1893 and the gorge has been a tourist attraction ever since.

The wooden walkway follows the canyon walls just above the river, providing amazing scenery at every turn.

Along certain sections of the ravine, the wooden walkway crosses from one side of the canyon to the other. Below, the river passes through multiple rapids, waterfalls and whirlpools. The water is crystal clear; I even saw a trout swimming in it.

As the ravine continues, it widens a bit and the wooden walkway becomes a concrete path. The entire length of the walk is 1,600 meters, or one mile, and ends at the Šum Waterfall.

One of the smaller waterfalls along the gorge's walkway. Vintgar Gorge is open from April through November and the admission fee is currently €10 for adults (it was €5 when we visited a year ago). The pathway is narrow and can get very crowded, so visitors are advised to get there early.

After we left Vintgar Gorge, we drove around nearby Lake Bled, which is perhaps Slovenia's most famous tourist landmark. The lake's focal point is its island, upon which sits the Church of the Assumption. The 17th-century church is accessible by boats which dock at the bottom of a 99-step staircase to the church. The lake is also overlooked by Bled Castle, which is perched atop a cliff on the north side of the lake and today is a museum. We didn't visit either the church or he castle because we were in a hurry to get to our hotel in Ljubljana. That just means that we'll have to go back one day!

The Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, which dates to 1901. Although the outskirts of the city are dominated by large, Yugoslav-era apartment blocks, the center of Ljubljana is charming and comfortably walkable. The dragon is a symbol of the city.

A view of Stritarjeva Ulica (street) in central Ljubljana, with the  street, with Fountain of the Three Rivers in the foreground and the pink, baroque Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in the distance. The church is one of Ljubljana's better-known landmarks; its location in front of Prešeren Square and the Triple Bridge is visible from much of the old town and helps to orient visitors.

Ljubljana Castle, with the 1891 Philharmonic Hall in the foreground. (Apparently they were setting up for a concert in Congress Square when I took this picture.) A funicular takes you to up to the castle, which has a delightful courtyard as well as multiple exhibits (including a history of Slovenia through its Napoleonic, Austrian and Yugoslav eras to independence).

A portion of Ljubljana, as seen from the top of the tower of its castle looking west. Congress Square, from where I took the previous picture, is clearly visible to the center right. The gray-and-cream building with the green roofs adjacent to it is the headquarters of the University of Ljubljana. The building at the far end of the square is the Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity, which was completed in 1726. Behind that are the 1960s-era buildings of Republic Square.

Another view of Ljubljana, from the same location looking northwest. A portion of the castle itself (which has existed in some form at the top of this hill since at least the 11th century) can be seen to the lower right, and the green-capped towers and dome of Ljubljana Cathedral are visible just below the center of picture. The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation is to the left.

A close-up of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and Prešeren Square, which is the psychological center of Ljubljana. A portion of the Triple Bridge, which crosses the Ljubljanica River in front of the square, can also be seen. We took a boat tour of the Ljubljanica, which was a fantastic way to see the city from a different perspective.

We spent two nights in Ljubljana and tried to see a much of the city as possible. However, there was still a lot of the city - the University District, Tivoli Park, everything outside of Ljubljana's historic center and several museums - that we did not have time to explore. Again, it just means that we'll have to go back one day!

The people of Ljubljana were generally very friendly; we did not have a problem finding people who spoke or understood English or otherwise finding our way around. The food was excellent.

If you're planning a trip to this part of Europe, put this city (as well as Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge) on your list.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Berchtesgaden and Königssee, Germany

We've reached the one-year anniversary of the big 2018 Eurotrip, and I have just a few more posts regarding the adventure. It was one year ago today, in fact, that we made the second of two trips to the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden and environs.

Berchtesgaden is located in the very corner of Bavaria, near Germany's border with Austria. It is about 20 miles southwest of Salzburg, and was less than an hour from our timeshare in Schladming, which made it an easy place for a day trip. It is a popular tourist destination due to nearby attractions such as the lake Königssee and Berchtesgaden National Park.

Berchtesgaden is also near the location of the Berghof, which was Hitler's Alpine headquarters, as well as the Eagle's Nest. The compound was destroyed after World War II, and today the site is the location of the Dokumentation Obersalzburg museum, which contains information about the area's use by Nazi officials and about the history of the Nazi Party in general. (We did not visit Dokumentation Obersalzburg or the Eagle's Nest on this trip - too depressing - although we probably should see it some day.)

The first area attraction we experienced was the Rossfeldpanoramastrasse (Panoramic Road), a privately-maintained toll road which reaches altitudes of 1,570 meters (5,151 feet) and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Alpine countryside.

There are several places along the Rossfeld Panoramic Road where people can stop, get out and walk along pathways. One such path straddles the Germany-Austria border and provides amazing views of the peaks in the distance and the valleys below.

It was just a little bit hazy the day we visited, but the Alpine scenery was nevertheless stunning. The toll to drive along the roadway is €8.50 for passenger cars; just watch out for cyclists while you drive.

The town of Berchtesgaden is a typical Bavarian town, with the requisite market squares and biergartens. Today it is a major tourist center due to all the attractions in the area as well as its proximity to Salzburg and Munich.

The Marktbrunnen (Market Fountain) in Berchtesgaden's market square. Berchtesgaden was occupied by Allied Forces after World War II and had a United States military presence as late as 1995.

The Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist and the adjacent Berchtesgaden Palace, as seen from the Schlossplatz. The church has existed since at least the 12th century but has been rebuilt several times; the current twin-tower, neo-Romaseque façade dates from the 1800s. The Palace was originally a medieval monetary but in 1810 became the summer residence of the Bavarian royal family. The green-domed spire of St. Andrew's Church can be seen in the background to the left.

The Haus der Berge (House of the Mountains) is the Visitors' Center for Berchtesgaden National Park. Visitors to Berchtesgaden should put this venue at the top of their to-see list. 

Mom and dad explore the Haus der Berge. The museum's interactive "Vertical Wilderness" exhibit, in English as well as German, explains the four main habitats of Berchtesgaden National Park: water, forest, mountain pasture (Alm) and rocky terrain. As you climb up the exhibit pathway, you also "climb" through these four habitats.

The flora and fauna of the Bavarian Alps are exhibited an explained here, as well as the history of tis people. Unlike most museums, at Haus der Berge you are encouraged to touch the taxidermied animals and other items on display.

The exhibit's lights and sounds change to mimic the passing of the day or the seasons. The designers of the Haus der Berge clearly had a lot of fun putting these exhibits together.

The Haus der Berge offers a fantastic view of the Watzmann, which is the third-highest peak in Germany. The Watzmann is a key geological feature of Berchtesgaden National Park.

Another key geological feature of Berchtesgaden National Park is lake Königssee, which we visited a couple of days after our first visit to the area. A fleet of electric boats ferry passengers to a handful of destinations along the narrow lake. The boats depart from Schönau am Königssee, at the northern end of the lake, are used both by sightseers wanting to see the lake as well as hikers wanting to access hiking trails within the park.

Nestled between the lake and the Watzmann is St. Bartholomew's Church (St. Bartholomä). A church has been at this location since 1134, the current Baroque structure was completed in 1698. This is a popular attraction and the Königssee boats make a stop here.

The boats also stop at Salet, on the southern tip of Königssee. Several hiking trails begin here, as this display indicates. One trail leads to Obersee, another smaller lake just south of Königssee.

Sightseers admire and cool their feet in the Obersee. Corinne and I spent several minutes here, relaxing and taking in the scenery, before returning to Salet, where mom and dad decided to stay.

A view of the Königssee's Salet dock, looking north. From here we took the boat ride back to Schönau am Königssee, admiring the beauty of the Bertchesgaden Alps one final time before returning to Schladming. The following day we moved on to Slovenia, which will be the subject of my next post.

We made two day trips to Berchtesgaden and really only scratched the surface of everything there is to do there. If you have some time to spare while you're in Bavaria or Salzburg, be sure to visit this amazingly beautiful corner of Germany.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The end of First Pasadena State Bank

A piece of Houston (and more specifically, Pasadena) history came crumbling down last weekend:

Citylab's Kriston Capps explains why the building was significant:
For Texas architecture, and for modernist history, the loss will sting. Built in 1962, the First Pasadena State Bank is a rare example of a tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (and actually completed). The building’s architects, of the firm MacKie and Kamrath, were Wright devotees, and they made the building in keeping with his design principles. Vacant since 2002, the tower tells an unlikely story of Houston’s evergreen economy, the consolidation of American banking, and Wright’s lasting legacy—and its demolition will claim a bit of the history of all three.
“The building is very distinctive in terms of not only its spatial organization, but the way in which its detailing is derived from the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and lecturer at Rice University.
The First Pasadena State Bank building was remarkable not only because of its obvious Wright influence, but also because it was (aside from its refinery towers) the tallest building in the industrial town of Pasadena, located directly east of Houston proper and directly south of the Ship Channel. The building was readily visible from nearby freeways such as State Highway 225 and marked what was essentially the "center" of Pasadena: a large block that contained the tower along with the city's main post office, its city hall, library and municipal complex, and what was then known as the Pasadena Town Square shopping mall.

While such a distinctive building might today seem out of place in a low-slung, blue-collar town such as Pasadena, back in the early 1960s it served an important civic purpose:
The First Pasadena State Bank would be the only tower the firm ever saw completed, and the only building of distinction in poor Pasadena. It was not unusual for a Texas town to throw up a single skyscraper in the middle of the 20th century. Oil boomtowns across Texas built similar signature structures, one apiece, in the 1920s: a five-story bank building, an eight-story hotel, and the like. Often, by the time these upstart cities got the treasured tower open, the good times had already moved on. (San Angelo, the place where this writer’s family is from, is one of these one-horse towns: The Cactus Hotel, built in 1929, is the only feature of the city skyline.) 
“There was this impetus to go out and hire an architect and design a landmark building, which obviously is not the case any more,” Fox says.
Back then, banks were reliable suppliers of these community-affirming projects. They had the capital, but more importantly, they had the local imprimatur: Through the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. banks were required to be locally owned. “Deals were sealed with handshakes, and the bank’s president, Buddy Jones, waved hello to his customers,” writes Lisa Gray, columnist for the Houston Chronicle. That changed in the 1980s, when states began permitting the entry of out-of-state bank holding companies. Once-proud towers hosting state-chartered banks were relegated to branch status or closed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the number of U.S. banks dropped from 14,500 in the mid-1980s to 5,600 by 2014.
The great wave of consolidation hit First Pasadena, too, and the bank went through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. JPMorgan Chase got the bank, while another entity ended up with the building; it was shuttered in 2002. Yet another private investor held the tower from 2005 to 2018, but to no end. Finally, its space-age swag long since stripped, the First Pasadena State Bank building came into the possession of the Pasadena Economic Development Corporation. Harris County recently assessed the building’s value at a sorry $100.
The private investor who owned the building from 2005 until 2018 repeatedly made claims that they were going to renovate the building but never followed through. The vacant building continued to deteriorate, and was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike. What was once an icon of Pasadena had become an symbol of neglect and blight.
“When I first became Mayor, I was looking out my office window and realized I had a perfect view of the First Pasadena State Bank Building,” Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner told the Chronicle. “However, instead of looking out onto a stately piece of architectural history, I realized I was looking at a run-down, neglected and dangerous empty building.” 
The mayor added, “That’s when it really hit me: For a lot of people, this is their image of Pasadena. And I knew then, we needed to start changing perceptions.”
It's unfortunate that such a remarkable building - a local landmark, a symbol of civic pride, an excellent example of mid-century Texas modernism, a product of a different, more-forward-looking era - was allowed to decay to the point that there was no choice but to bring it down. But this building's story is all too common in the architectural world: the civic and economic conditions that brought the building into being change, the structure itself ages out of profitable use, collective inertia sets in, and eventually what was once a proud landmark becomes a blighted eyesore. And so another piece of the region's history is lost.

Paper City has more.

Half a century ago last Saturday

Yes, I posted this a decade ago. And no, it never gets old:

The legal supremacy of the automobile

In the United States, people are compelled to use the private automobile to fully participate in our society. Those that, for whatever reason, cannot or do not operate their own vehicle are essentially second-class citizens. University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill aregues that this is by legal design:
It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency on the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it. 
Let’s begin at the state and local levels. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.
Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. [More on this in a moment.] As the UCLA urban-planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.
Working in the transportation planning profession, I frequently hear the claim that private automobile use is the dominant form of transportation because "people love their cars," and that attempts to plan and promote alternative forms of transportation, such as pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure or more public transportation, are at best frivolous and at worst wasteful because "nobody chooses to use" them. As Shill points out, however, the automobile's dominance in our society isn't so much a "choice" but rather a "necessity" promogulated by almost a century's worth of policies that have favored its use over all other forms of transportation.

In addition to the factors he described above, Shill goes on to list policies such as tax deductions for mortgages and parking, design standards for vehicles, insurance requirements, and criminal law as examples that have prioritized the automobile. He continues:
Since the dawn of the automobile, governments have been slow to address its downsides. “We have gloated too much over the usefulness of the motor car,” said The New York World in a 1913 editorial. “We put it into reckless hands. We make no effective laws against its misuse.”
In the years since, American government at all levels crossed a line. Instead of merely accommodating some people’s desire to drive, our laws essentially force driving on all of us—by subsidizing it, by punishing people who don’t do it, by building a physical landscape that requires it, and by insulating reckless drivers from the consequences of their actions. To page through the law books today is to stumble again and again upon evidence of automobile supremacy. The range and depth of legal supports for driving is bewildering. But these laws, which are everywhere we look, are also opportunities.
Shill argues that all of these policies and laws encouraging and enforcing automobile supremacy could be reversed by the legislative bodies that enacted them to begin with, whether at the local, state or federal level. At the local level, zoning ordinances are one such example; city leaders could relax and reform these rules if they had the will to do so.* Other local ordinances that favor automobile use pertain to minimum parking regulations; in fact, and in regards to Houston and its parking-space-per-resident ratio that Shill mentioned earlier, City Council took a (small) step towards addressing that issue last week when it voted to exempt Midtown and the East End from the minimum parking regulations that the city imposes on development:
Market-based parking exempts areas from the citywide parking minimums, allowing property owners to provide the number of off-street parking spaces "they believe are necessary to service their customers," according to the planning department. "This change gives property owners more flexibility in the use o their property and removes a bureaucratically-imposed minimum that is based on one-size-fits-all analysis." The area, notes the planning department, has "sufficient multimodal transportation system, high transit ridership, and the existence of significant surface and parking garage spaces."
The expansion was supported by the East Downtown Management District and the Midtown Management District.
Even so, the "we need parking minimums because nobody chooses to walk" argument still made an appearance, courtesy of one councilmember who doesn't even represent any of the areas being exempted:
Councilmember Greg Travis, the only council member to vote against the amendment, insisted parking spaces were necessary because people wouldn't walk to destinations. "Today? Walk for two blocks, it's not going to happen."

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner was quick to point out that the majority of businesses in the affected areas were supportive. The Kinder Houston Area Survey, meanwhile, has tracked the increasing desire for walkable urbanism among Houston-area residents.
Look: no realistic person is going to argue that private automobiles don't provide tremendous advantages when it comes to personal convenience, comfort and mobility. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question the countless hours of our lives wasted by the congestion they cause, the 40,000 people killed every year by their use, the way they dictate our physical environment, or the way they essentially relegate those who don't own or operate them to second-class citizenship. It's well past time we as a society re-examined the laws and policies enacted at all levels of government that mandate automobile supremacy.

* I'd like to see more cities abandon conventional land-use zoning ordinances not only because they necessitate driving but also because they have become horribly misused. What started out as a way to protect residences from nuisance uses (e.g. factories, junkyards, slaughterhouses) has evolved into a tool to enforce socioeconomic exclusion. I witnessed this when I worked as a zoning officer in Denton and I am glad Houston does not have it (even though the lack of zoning obviously did not prevent Houston from becoming an automobile-dominated metropolis).

Friday, July 05, 2019

JetBlue to switch airports in October

JetBlue Airways will relocate its Houston operations to Bush Intercontinental Airport on Oct. 27, leaving the smaller Hobby Airport. 
In a news release, the airline said the relocation is "aimed at strengthening JetBlue's relevance in New York and Boston, while also growing the carrier's customer base in Houston." 
JetBlue flies nonstop from Houston to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and the Boston Logan International Airport in Massachusetts.
JetBlue's been serving Hobby for well over a decade, which makes the decision a bit unexpected. I guess they finally decided that being a bit player in Southwest's fortress hub - they accounted for 1.3% of boardings in fiscal year 2018, as opposed to Southwest's 93.4% - was simply no longer a viable business strategy. Pretty much every other airline is up at Intercontinental (including United, which accounted for 77.4% of IAH's enplaned passengers in 2018), so maybe JetBlue believes that Bush IAH offers advantages relating to economy of agglomeration or business traveler preference that don't exist at Hobby.

JetBlue is not the first airline to make this decision; Frontier tried to fly out of Hobby earlier this decade but switched its services back to IAH after less than two years. It's just hard to compete head-to-head with Southwest.

It's been over a decade since I last flew JetBlue, but I liked them and I hope their decision to switch airports keeps them participating in the Houston market. The HAIF forums have further discussion.