Author: Brady Dorman (page 3 of 22)

Frank Lloyd Wright in Iowa

Frank Lloyd Wright's Stockman House in Mason City, IA

Today I went to see several Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright-inspired buildings in northern Iowa on a field trip for Dan Naegele’s FLW seminar course I am taking this semester. Our day trip took us to Mason City and Quasqueton.

We visited the Stockman House (photo above) in Mason City, which was an example of Wright’s $5000 “fire proof homes” concept, though this one was actually built of wood frame, not concrete, so it was not actually fireproof. It was moved from its original location back in the early 1990s to a site along Willow Creek, across the street from Rock Glen, an early 20th century housing development of Wrightian Prairie and Usonian style homes (though not designed by Wright himself). We walked along the creek, which was beautiful with the trees in the fall. Bob McCoy, a local FLW enthusiast showed us around and allowed us inside his own home, the Blythe Residence designed by Walter Burley Griffin, overlooking Willow Creek.

While in Mason City we also stopped by to see restoration work at the Park Inn Hotel, one of Wright’s only hotels, located in downtown across from the town square. Built around 1910, this building incorporated a hotel and a bank, and is thought to be a prototype for Wright’s much larger Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which was demolished in 1962. I must say I was pretty impressed with Mason City, contrary to my previous judgement of the town based solely on the outskirts view from I-35.

In the afternoon we drove to Quasqueton, which I did not realize was so close to Cedar Rapids, located in Buchanan County not far from US 20. Near Quasqueton we visited the Lowell Walter House, also known as Cedar Rock, perhaps one of the more well-known Wright houses in Iowa. This is a Usonian house, designed with the most basic domestic needs in mind, at least in Wright’s view. Estimated to cost $5000, the total cost ended up being $150,000 – in 1950 dollars. Extraordinary cost overruns were evidently quite common for Wright, but his clients seemed to put up with him anyway. The Walter House also includes a boat house next to the Wapsipinicon River.

It was interesting to see a few of the several homes and buildings Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Iowa. The state actually has a considerable collection, and most in good condition as well. View my photos at the link below.

> Flickr: FLW in Iowa

Impression of Boston

Boston Harbor

Now online is a photo collection of my visit to Boston last month for a studio field trip. Boston was an incredible place to explore – in addition to seeing our project site in Cambridge (read my response to our site visit on our studio blog), highlights included the ICA, walking tours of MIT and Harvard, and a day trip to see Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library in New Hampshire. Most of all I enjoyed seeing the different neighborhoods and the diversity of historic and contemporary architecture Boston has to offer. My first time to the city, I found the modern financial district built within the confines of the historic winding street system particularly interesting.

Boston appeared to be a very clean and pleasant city, not quite like the other big cities I’ve been to on the East Coast. It felt rather low-key for such a large city, perhaps in part due a lack of congruency because of the harbor and the Charles River separating distinct areas. Also there is an overall scale to much of the city that provides for the human and pedestrian experience, rather than the automobile so familiar city noises of “hustle and bustle” seem to be mostly absent.

> Flickr: Boston trip photos

University partnership key to Campustown success

LANE4 Property Group is a development company hired by the City of Ames to devise an implement a plan to redevelop Campustown into a more vibrant and attractive commercial district serving the Iowa State University community. Campustown has great potential as illustrated during a public meeting in the MU on Sept. 29, where LANE4 presented a preliminary concept of what the neighborhood could become.

Major components proposed include bringing back a small grocery or drugstore, a small hotel – which would take the place of the existing MU Hotel, office space (much of which will be leased by ISU) to increase daytime activity, a greater variety of dinning options, and a unique movie theater that could double as lecture hall space for the university. While specifics are yet to be determined, the redevelopment project would likely replace a majority of the existing buildings, which I have some reservations about. However, if certain historic and architecturally significant buildings can be restored and integrated, it is certainly worth some demolition of less critical buildings. Campustown redevelopment will occur in phases over time, but some construction could begin within a year according to LANE4.

A letter in the October 7th Iowa State Daily expressed concern over university offices and lecture facilities locating in Campustown, so I wrote a response explaining why it is critical for the university to be involved. Certain new uses and business likely could not be sustained without the partnerships that are being proposed. You can read my letter in the Iowa State Daily here.

> Iowa State Daily: Opinion – University partnership key to Campustown success
> LANE4 Property Group


We are traveling to Boston tomorrow through Monday for studio, to visit our project site for the velodrome and experience the great architecture and urbanism the city has to offer. I have never been to Boston before so am really looking forward to it. Our studio progress is going well. I set up a collaborative blog at for my project team to document our process and self-critique as a way to keep progressing and clarify the expression of our design. I’ll post more about the trip upon our return.

Schematic Design for Velodrome

Now in the third week of 5th Year comprehensive studio now, my section has been divided into teams of three and are studying the site and beginning to develop massing studies for the velodrome. I suppose we could refer to this as schematic design. The images above taken from Google Street View show our current project site, viewed from the road bounding it on the north and a panoramic view from across the Charles River to the south. Our site is located in across the road from a residential neighborhood sandwiched between the campuses of Harvard University to the west and MIT to the east. Across the river to the south is the campus and athletic facilities of Boston University.

Everyone seems to approach the design challenge from a different angle. Many have focused on creating a dramatic [curving] form evoking a sense of movement expressive of the velodrome program. Alternatively I am much more interested in context and how the building interacts with its surroundings and the existing urban pattern. I tend toward thinking of buildings as compositions of spaces and pieces that can offer human scale, rather than a singular form. Before pairing up we all developed massing studies individually.

One of my partners created an expressive curving mass with modeling clay, while mine were much more generic and planar, but attempted to respond to the surrounding site conceptually and practically. My model decisions were generally based on [preconceived] notions about how buildings should respond to supposed “urbanism” and how architectural elements can be used purposefully to announce entry and the program within. Shown below are my two models (top two) and my partner’s model at the bottom.

The floor plan shape of my first model draws from the curving form of the Charles River, visible in my previous “Mapping Conversations” diagram. The overall massing of the north facade is flat and rectangular, intended to relate to the street, anticipating urbanism. One corner is cut out, intended to be glazing, to announce the entry. A new open space along to river opens up along the southern curving facade. A pass-through is meant to improve access and encourage connectivity between the river and the residential neighborhood beyond. The separated portion was proposed to house administrative offices and other programs not directly related to the functioning of the velodrome. As I presented this option I quickly began to dismiss it, in favor of my second model. The shape, albeit representational of the river is frankly just awkward and provides no variation or interest in the vertical dimension. However, differentiating the street side versus the river side and the method of announcing entrances and circulation are concepts I carried through to the second iteration.

My second mass model was somewhat of a rejection of the general presumption of a curving form. Wanting to maintain the more regular “urban” edge along the street, I used straight facades and angular shapes all over instead of attempting to incorporate curves. I first embellished the announced entry at the same corner, now with a [glass] prow extending out that would act as architectural signage marking the signature point of arrival and circulation within. I stacked three basswood shapes to represent setbacks in the facade, but not necessarily floor plates throughout the building as it was interpreted. (Obvious a large open space would need to be carved out of the center for the velodrome arena.) The north facade along the street maintains consistent and could house the offices and administration functions on the upper level, providing variation and transparency. The river side is stepped back more, with shifted angles on the top that begins to subtly convey the rotational expression of the velodrome within.

The lowest basswood shape would be the entry level, raised above ground level parking underneath. An exterior terrace on the east end provides a clear entry condition. Vertical circulation (example: stairs or escalator) from the enclosed parking area up to the terrace would direct all spectators (those who arrive by car and those who walk, bike, or take transit) to the same main entrance. Of course there would be additional auxiliary entrances, but I think it’s important to provide the same arrival experience to those driving and those arriving and foot or bike. Not shown in the photos, but existent on the model as presented was a piece of paper representing a new at-grade plazascape along the east side that connects the street [and neighborhood] to the river and accommodates large crowds during events.

A significant critique by my peers was that this form, at least as modeled, is too arbitrary and could easily be any other program. I would agree, but believe a more expressive building form could still be developed without the use of curves.

The last photos are of the curving mass model that my partner created out of clay. It is certainly expressive of the velodrome’s essence of movement and rotation, and begins to consider an entry condition with a ramping platform wrapping around the river side, which he imagined as the “front” and primary entry point.

Our two models appear to be completely contradictory of each other, but it is now our task to attempt to integrate the aesthetic, contextual, and conceptual ideas embodied in each. I expect to concede to a more curved, visually expressive form, but am determined it will be a composition and not a singular form alone. As I realized in my first model, it is challenging to integrate curved and angular forms and avoid an uncomfortable juxtaposition. But additionally, as I investigate our site and its context further, my original notions about an “urban” response may not be appropriate. In fact, opposite of our site (across the street) is a very low, sprawling middle school that hides from the street behind fencing and a dense layer of trees and overgrown vegetation. The road is busier than an urban street but not quite a highway. The most pedestrian-feeling corner is to the northwest and characterized by a filling station with an amusing oversized Shell sign.

How to connect to urban grid of residences blocked by the middle school and the two universities beyond will be a challenge, but a better focus than blind assumptions about a street necessarily being “urban”. Reasonably accommodating 12000 spectators as the project [ridiculously] demands with minimal parking and no immediate transit connection must drive the notion of context that informs an architectural expression that embodies the spirit and essence of competitive cycling.

Mapping Conversations

This semester our 5th Year Architecture comprehensive studio project is for a 12,000-seat velodrome (an indoor competitive cycling track) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on an open site along the Charles River that is currently used for athletic fields. During the first week we were challenged to choose a past theme from Cabinet Magazine, from which to construct a conceptual frame and thesis relating to the discipline of architecture, the City of Boston, and competitive cycling. I was quickly drawn to the Spring 2001 issue theme, “Mapping Conversations” and became even more intrigued upon reading its features.

In Frances Richard’s article Utterance is Place Enough she explores what maps are and how we create and use them to define our places and communication spatial comprehension (directions perhaps). Mapping is a method for articulating the existing of things in our physical environment – by showing them on a map, it establishes their importance or permanence. In regard to conversation, it is abstracted as an unscripted verbal exchange between two or more participants. Since it is unpredictable and not pre-established, conversation is not permanent in the way things and places are in space, rather it is a temporary discourse. Continuing, how is mapping conversation different from writing? Richard argues maps and writing are artifacts experienced once removed, whereas conversation is experienced up front and necessarily interactive.

Mark Lombardi created “narrative structure” drawings using lines and notations to index or “map” discourse between political and financial leaders to expose fraud and abuse of powers. Warren Sack looks at mapping very large-scale conversations through the contemporary medium of the internet. Historically mass conversation took place in large-scale public spaces, but the internet can reach a much greater audience with anonymity, but also allows for more direct feedback or discourse. Sack looks at social media networks, “mass media,” and other digital dialogue, using several different kinds of graphs and charts to establish themes and comprehension of these large-scale conversations.

From these articles, which I admittedly summarized pretty poorly, I took the mapping aspect and began to consider the different kinds of actual, spatial, and conceptual conversations active in Boston that would or could in some manner contribute to or have an effect on the proposed velodrome. Utilizing the colors of Boston’s subway lines, I devised five different categories or layers of “conversation” to be represented. Particular institutions and places are mapped geographically, which are significant participants in their given color-coded conversation. Then I was able to create a framework for the design of the velodrome and how it will engage and contribute to these conversations currently taking place in the city. I often use word diagrams, arrows, and notations to organize and plan out objective and key components of a design or piece of writing, so this was actually a very constructive exercise for me.

1. Influence of significant educational institutions nearby (Red)
2. Consideration for public space (Blue),
3. Impact of other athletic facilities and traditions in Boston (Green)
4. Transport and physical connectivity to different parts of Boston (Orange)
5. Contextual relationship with existing urban pattern and significant architecture (Silver)

Mapping Conversations by Brady Dorman

Language of Architecture

As an initial exercise in this first week of comprehensive studio we were charged with writing a critical response to a 2008 Charlie Rose interview with four of today’s leading architects, regarding the way they talk about architecture and the kind of vocabulary they use. The ways architecture is discussed amongst the general public, within the profession, and between the two groups is an interesting study. My response follows:

In Charlie Rose’s hour-long interview with four Pritzker Prize laureates – Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Renzo Piano – they all speak about architecture as an exploratory process, an adventure of making space in reality and enhancing a contextual dialogue with place. They use expressive words to describe not-only the physical qualities of architecture, but the process, tectonics, and especially relational qualities as well.

As a means of creating architecture, all four agreed on the need for parameters and, similarly, a partner in design – a client. The notion of complete design freedom was not comprehended as a virtuous, or a plausible condition. Through practical criterion and vision of the client [typically], the program is applied and the architectural idea must be maneuvered in, according to Zaha, which challenges creativity. There also needs to be a strategy or vision with civic projects.

This challenge of sustaining an idea through layers of restraint provides direction for realizing and expresses meaning behind an architectural conclusion. For this reason, “clone architecture” is not valued because they often don’t respond to their contextual surroundings.

Interestingly, much of the discussion examines cities and designing new architecture in the urban context. These individuals are often criticized for their buildings because they look different and are unlike most buildings we are used to. How to build relationship with existing buildings without simply reproducing it, is critical to them, which Jean Nouvel expressed almost immediately in the conversation.

Perhaps the most profound difference between architects and non-architects – or, rather, good architects versus bad ones – is their comprehension of building and site relationships without direct interpretation of what is already made.

Renzo Piano speaks romantically of the cities in Italy, made up of layers as if naturally. He sees architecture as fragments of cities, which can provide a diverse context to build upon. Context is beneficial to build from, forcing the design to focus on a smaller angle, assembling a more intense architectural expression. An alliance of time and space stimulates imagination of a building’s enfilade of space, mediating the user experience through architecture. Cinematic influence was especially powerful for Nouvel. The implication of light and space is the tangible language of architecture.

Sustainability was talked about not only in terms of environmental and energy conservation, but livability, social implications and spatial quality as well. Frank believes the mantra of sustainability can be greatly misused to promote a false architectural regard. Zaha continues, that sustainability is ultimately to do with the way space is made and advancements in environmental systems cannot be the sole merit of a building’s essence. Renzo argues that buildings need to breathe and work with the earth.

Good architecture is the exception, despite much contemporary building activity says Frank. “There are very few people like us,” contending their work is not making an impact since the vast majority of new architecture lacks greatness or validity by some standards. The consistency for great buildings is limited because we allow [“bad”] architecture to happen and put up with it.

How to be bold and create a meaningful architecture that is also engaging to the public and societal context, so it may be accepted and celebrated, is the challenge I take away from this discussion. Their focus on civic conditions inspires my thought for designing architecture, regardless of its program, that will be dynamic, respectful, and uplifting to the identity of the city.

Architecture + Life

Fall semester begins tomorrow at Iowa State. I am back in Ames for my last year, 5th year in the architecture program in the College of Design. I am looking forward to being back after spending the spring in Rome for study abroad and the summer in Cedar Rapids interning at OPN.

My internship experience this summer gave me a wealth of new perspective on my career in architecture or whatever it may come to be. This was possibly the last summer I’ll be living in Cedar Rapids, or perhaps just the last summer I’ll be living at my parent’s house. I am constantly begging the question whether bigger and better things are really out there, elsewhere, other than here; or is bigger and better simply what I make of where I already am. I honestly believe the answer could be either but have yet to come to a conclusion without experiencing more first.

Of course a career in just about any profession is not static and it is not odd to change what you are doing a number of times throughout your life. Regardless, where ever I end up, I want to be in a place where I can be rooted to my community and truly be engaged and belong. This seems a difficult notion, alongside the prospect of an uncertain future, which is both exciting and a bit disappointing at the same time. I have always been a planner, despite often poor execution of them – at least in the short term.

For long I have attempted to figure out where and what I intended to be doing in the future. It is perhaps comforting, but more so, it is something to look forward to. However, trying to plan your whole life out in bullet points can be demoralizing once you get past a couple of years, and particularly in the old age years, as nearly every aspect of life (family, friends, relationships) that gives people lifelong joy is, to a large extent, yet to be determined or discovered.

Certain expectations about life also muddle this planning and require constant modifications to ones’ plan. Companionship, particularly, cannot be blindly written into a five or ten year plan. Aside from these more serious matters, there is no problem to have specific dreams and desires, but an understanding and acceptance of them changing is a necessary accompaniment. My ideas of what I’d be doing beyond college has changed almost annually ever since high school, and to every change, I have found them to be good and generally more refining.

Perhaps this is not so unusual and I am just more aware to analyze my ambitions than most. The idea of career development and goals has always made me uneasy, especially as I get closer to that stage in my “career.” I consider my personal and professional goals essentially one in the same. As an architect, it seems, they would almost have to be. Architects should be invested in their place (community) with a desire to serve and contribute just as they would as citizens, otherwise they are just working to work and might as well be the ubiquitous business person with an anonymous job.

So with that I am looking forward to my last year as an undergrad, and am becoming much more accepting and comfortable with not knowing exactly where the future will take me. I have new tendencies of where I might like to start out but I am learning that the outcome, and more importantly the journey of “career development” will be much more beneficial if I keep an open mind and resist my innate impulse to make a decision before one is needed or even plausible.

I value the experience and insight I have gained from my experiences working, living and exploring in all the places I have. Cedar Rapids, Fargo, Ames, and Rome are all places I have called home and each one I appreciate for the things I have learned there and the impressions they’ve made on my character. They have shaped my perception of community and urbanism and provided a benchmark to move forward from and discover or create something bigger and better.

Regarding my blog, which has developed into a largely Cedar Rapids-focused report on urbanism and transit development, I’d like to get back to a more analytical approach. Over the course of my blog, I have written a number of key posts that tend to be more in-depth and thoughtful writings that concern a greater idea or expression beyond the subjects alone. As I get back into the school year and my posting frequency inevitably goes down, it seems an appropriate time to accept this change and look forward to a bit less content, but much more substance.

New Blog Design

Urban Thinking has a new look. I created this new design to better reflect my own aesthetic approach and give Urban Thinking more of an identity and a visual branding. I also intend to use this site to publish and communicate my architecture studio work, as well as other the projects. At the moment, however, the portfolio page is still under development. An enormous thank you goes out to Michael Dorman, who meticulously coded the entire new theme according to my visual specifications. Let me know what you think.

Public Hearing on CR Transit Improvements

A public hearing will be held at the July 27 Cedar Rapids City Council meeting to consider bus route and schedule changes recommended in the recent Cedar Rapids Fixed-Route Transit Analysis. Any interested individuals or groups are encouraged to attend and speak for or against any of the proposed changes. The meeting starts at 5:30pm and is held in the Council Chambers at Hiawatha City Hall.

Several improvements have been made already to the transit system, since a change in leadership and departmental reorganization a few years ago, which separated transit and parking into separate divisions. A greater emphasis has been placed on safety and customer service, and some improvements have been made in marketing. The purchase of new low floor buses has started to modernize the very old, rundown fleet, which, in fact, was the oldest fleet in the country of any transit system based on average vehicle age.

Route and schedule changes being proposed to the City Council are the result of a Fixed-Route Transit Study conducted this past fall by SRF Consulting and Bourne Transit Consulting. Recommendations were intended to be implementable right away, focused on improving legibility and efficiency of the system without significantly increasing costs. These changes are an important first step to improving transit in Cedar Rapids. Learn more about the transit study and recommended changes here.

If you are interested in the future of public transportation in Cedar Rapids, please attend and show your support for these changes. For anyone unable to attend, written comments can be sent to the Office of the City Clerk, 3851 River Ridge Drive NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402 prior to the hearing.

WHAT: Public Hearing on Proposed CR Transit Improvements
WHEN: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 5:30pm
WHERE: Council Chambers, Hiawatha City Hall, 101 Emmons Street

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