we are what we build

master plan (April 2012)

What follows is an op-ed piece regarding a proposed development to the former site of the Applied Composites factory in St. Charles, Illinois, as a residential project called Lexington Club (see more about it on the city website).  Although an issue of particular importance to its immediate community, it is a case study for similar developments that are unfortunately being approved all over the country. (image: from this source)

As is true of most places, the history of St. Charles is written in its buildings.  Not only are they the backdrop for the regular festivals and daily activities that draw people to the town and help to keep them here, but they are also symbols of how the city’s people have lived and what they value.  This is an obvious lesson for famous places: from the cathedrals of Europe to the casinos of Las Vegas, travelers can immediately tell what was important to the people of a place by virtue of what kinds of buildings attracted the investment of their time, effort, and money.

Likewise, the buildings of St. Charles tell its story.  From the modest start of the town (visible in two-room stone houses that dot older neighborhoods) to its rise as an entertainment destination (expressed in the extraordinary architecture of the Hotel Baker and Arcada Theater), the city’s growth and values are evident in its buildings.  Beyond these few examples stand hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of structures of diverse style, age, and use, and for all their differences, the great majority of them have in common an obvious concern for quality: quality in design, and quality in construction.  Even when buildings were economical, they prove their builders’ investment in the city, for their own use, and in preparation for the future.

We now call that concern part of “sustainability in architecture,” although that concept has been so obvious to architects and builders through most of history that they had no need to remind each other to do it.  That is not the case any more, and Lexington Club, the single largest development of residential homes to be proposed in the core of the city in many years, does not reflect the values that have long been part of St. Charles’ identity.  The design of the individual houses is a poor reflection of the city’s heritage; they are, at best, cartoons of the houses that make up the majority of St. Charles.  Their minimal variations within the enclave would actually express a dull redundancy across the project rather than connect it to its surrounding neighborhood and the abundance of architectural styles that presently are a hallmark of, and asset to, the city.  The street plan does not follow the traditions of St. Charles’ grid but rather is a low-cost, thoughtless solution that will ensure that the zone is isolated from, not knit into, the existing city.  The building materials are specifically chosen as a cheap alternative to those used throughout the city; the builder has requested a variance from the municipal building code to allow the use of substandard materials inferior to the standard set for residential construction by law.  The very name chosen for the development is isolating: “Lexington” means something in Kentucky or Massachusetts but it has no significance in Illinois; likewise, a “Club” is defined as much by the members it admits as the ones it excludes.

Just as the naming of the development reveals the degree to which the developer has no interest in the city, the choices to make the development an island of second-rate houses express miserly values of cold economy, not the concerned interests of community development.  The developers have little understanding of St. Charles except as one more mine from which to draw profit before they walk away.  They have no investment in the place except for a financial one.  And that is absolutely their right in a capitalist society.  But it is not their right (nor the right of any business) to demand a certain profit margin from the community where they offer their wares.  That is also part of capitalism: there are no guarantees that the public will buy what you are selling.  This is a point that surely the developers are not unclear about, but they have been very cunning with the means by which they have sought city assistance through variances in the zoning laws, TIF financing, and other means, to ensure profits on their investment.  The property is simply not as good an investment as it appeared to be before the bubble burst in 2008, and the developers are eager to recoup what they can.  They have tried to stretch the limits of the law to cheapen the product they are selling below the quality of what is acceptable in the city, ignored the dictates of the Comprehensive Plan and thus the voice of the community, and basically asked the city to offset their own losses.  It is their grasp for a bailout, paid for by the residents of the city.

It is past time to say no to this flawed proposal.  No is an option; no has a proud history in St. Charles.  In 1937, a proposal to build a new post office was encouraged (as the general idea of residential development on the Applied Composites site has been); but the design sent from Washington was met with immediate rejection (as the specific design by the developer has been).  The community at large refused the simple, economical box designed by an architect in a federal office hundreds of miles away because it would detract from the visual quality of the city.  Community leaders stepped forward: Mayor Ival Langum and citizens E. J. Baker and Lester Norris told the feds no, and arranged for the project that was constructed, and still stands, on Second Street: the beautiful Neo-Classical building that, even when the post office facility moved, was deemed valuable to preserve, and now houses a business (Doc Morgan).  The building is a memorial to civic engagement and strong leadership that was willing to say no to a bad idea and worked to make sure a good idea was raised in its place.

At some point the voice of the city must, finally, say no to Lexington Club.  No to a development that will flood an already bloated housing stock, no to houses that are cheap and boring, no to a development that will be physically segregated from the rest of the city, no to architecture that will fail to contribute to the character of the city.  When the parcel of land is developed, it must be done in a way that enhances, not diminishes, the city.  It is the City Council that has the power and voice to do so, to act in the stead of the people who have trusted them with their offices, and vote, not only for the current situation in mind, but also on behalf of the heritage of the city.

One might say of a city that we are what we build.  The diverse and interesting buildings of St. Charles express the many ages and characters of this special place.  The values of Lexington are not ones worth recording in built form.  The city we pass on to the next generations should express our belief in the heritage of the city and our hope for its future; it should not epitomize absence of political will and abundance of greed.


freeman, swine or slave? another reason why William Morris matters

William Morris, photographed by Halliday Sparling (ca. 1890)

In his essay, “The Lesser Arts of Life” (available in its full form here), William Morris distinguished between the “Greater Arts” (those that appeal to a person’s spirit and emotion by the direct path of his senses) and the “Lesser Arts” (those that serve physical needs).  Articulating a fundamental idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, he explained that the Lesser could act like the Greater, if craftsmen were able to infuse the works of their hands with their emotions.  His argument calls for people to consume in a way that increases the opportunity for the Lesser Arts to be enhanced by the spiritual activity of imaginative work.  Morris’ challenge was for his listeners to do with less, and especially less of what was produced by machines: “see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves.”  At the time, this was a particularly hard sell to the expanding middle classes of the Victorian era, and today is likewise challenging even to those Occupants, denizens of the very upper part of the 99%.

Morris believed that all things in the material world–house, clothes, furniture–could be described either as works of art or “wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”  The artfulness of a chair, or teapot, or balustrade, was dependent on the degree to which it revealed the distinct trace of a hand guided by a brain, with only the bare minimum interposition of machines.  Tools, machines, equipment, technology were not the enemy in and of themselves–otherwise Morris’ beloved Medieval masons, with their chisels, mallets, borers, winches and pulleys, would be cast out.  His belief was that a man is dignified through the direct activity of brain and hand working together as closely as possible to achieve the desired and artful, end.  A growing problem in post-Industrial Revolution England, it’s only harder given the even greater globalism of the recent decades, resulting in unintended hypocrisy (maybe there is no other kind), even among the most tasty concerns (we have commented on the buzzkill of a social conscience prompted by the Liberty goods available at Target, for example).

Teacups, lampshades, buildings: then and now, they all had to be made, all human artifacts, all the product of work: work that can dignify or degrade the worker.  In any economy, every person depends on another to make things.  To a great degree, the consumer dictates the condition under which those things will be made.  Morris believed that work was a noble, essential part of life; like the Lesser Arts, capable of being elevated to a spiritually fulfilling role, or degraded to the meanest of enterprise.  He hoped for all people to find worthy work, and to balance it by periods of wholesome rest; this simple goal was the end of three basic social structures:

Such rest, and such work, I earnestly wish for myself and for you, and for all men: to have space and freedom to gain such rest and such work is the end of politics; to learn how best to gain it is the end of education; to learn its inmost meaning is the end of religion.

Although Morris found his early audience for his lectures among craftspeople, his real message was for consumers, for every dollar or pound spent propels an economy of dignity or degradation.  Making those choices for the former was not always easy; as Morris pointedly said, it could be “troublous:”

Consider after all that the life of a man is more troublous than that of a swine, and the life of a freeman than the life of a slave; and take your choice accordingly.

This single sentence must have sounded, and felt, like a piercing blow through the optimism of ballooning nineteenth-century consumerism; its sting still bites today.

Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery

Our friend Clio, the History Muse, addresses this essay in this posting

ode to St. Barbara: masonry walls

“Saint Barbara Crushing Her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio ca. 1473 (detail)

Although she was edged out of first place (by St.-Denis) for the honors of Best Martyr in a highly influential and absolutely definitive study (read the full account of My Favorite Martyr here), St. Barbara (d. 306; see full image detailed above here) is associated with more tangible elements that ought to draw one’s attentive devotion to her on a regular basis.  Because of her imprisonment in a great tower, artistic renderings of which are normally included in her portraits, she is associated with masonry, and properly named the patron saint of masons (initially stone masons, but claimed by brick masons too).

By further association, she has been identified also as the patron saint of architects.  Doubtless, architects would have preferred a saint with more apropos accoutrements (they’re still hoping historical research–conducted by someone else, of course–will reveal a martyr stabbed to death by his own trendy glasses).  The list of possibilities was quite short, since the architects’ martyr faces the tall order of out-martyring architects themselves.

Although designers and builders honored St. Barbara with their craft for centuries following her martyrdom, St. Barbara has been rarely honored in the more recent era.  To help remedy this sad state of affairs in some small way, and in honor of St. Barbara’s feast day, December 4, MoT presents the following  collection of images that capture Significant Achievement in Masonry: Walls We Have Loved, presented here as a pictorial prayer.

Praise be to thee, St. Barbara, favored of the Lord and exalted by Him,

For your manifold graces on masons—and even architects, too. 

Your grace knows no bounds.

Hallowed be thy memory among men and women,

Especially those who make buildings of brick and stone.

Philadelphia: Christ Church

Give us this day reverence for those who passed before us: intuitive minds and skilled hands

Barcelona: S. Pau de Camp

Who wrought timeless beauties from the brute geology of Creation.

Milan: Palazzo Castiglione

We pray for your continued blessing on them: those who worked in brick,

Newark DE: Gore Hall

Prague: Church of the Sacred Heart

those who worked in marble,


Beijing: Forbidden City

those who worked in granite,

Wilmington DE: Hagley

Chicago: May House

and stone we can’t name,

Granada: the Alhambra

Washington DC: DuPont Circle

and spiffy glazed masonry,

London: Debenham House

and sometimes all of them at once.

Surrey: Standen House

Bless the Romans, 

Rome: Baths of Caracalla

And the medieval masons,

Paris: S.-Denis

And the nineteenth century architects and builders,

Bishop Hill IL: Steeple Building

And even those few radical Modernists who dared to work in a traditional material.

Barcelona: German Pavilion

Bless those who could organize bricks like they were sewing a quilt,

London: All Saints, Margaret Street

and those who could spread mortar like it was butter,

New Orleans: somewhere in the French Quarter

and those who recognized mortar as a design element.

Philadelphia: UPenn campus

We ask your special blessing on those devotees of yours who really knew how to build a wall:


Florence: the dome


New Orleans: Taylor Library


Manchester: Midland Bank

and Pope.

Washington DC: National Gallery

We beseech your grace and your intercession, through which may we be spared the glare of glassy curtain walls.  Forgive us our double-skin facades.  Deliver us from concrete panels and lead us back to ashlar.

Norristown PA: county prison

May we ever be blessed by thermal mass, color and sculptural richness.

Barcelona: Gothic Quarter


Baltimore: Eutaw Baptist Church (portrait of the author)

Barbie® dolls of the Dolls of the World® Landmark Collection® collection

demoiselle d’plastique (actually, this one is not horrible)

Midway through the convulsions brought on by Museum Collection Barbie® (see it here if you dare) we came upon this fresher hell: significant cultural landmarks have been channelled through the special aesthetic vision that can only be described as Barbiesque®.  As reported by MoT‘s only news source for all things Barbie®, Barbie Collector, Barbie® commemorates the 30th Anniversary of Dolls of the World® collection with the Landmark Collection®, featuring Barbie® dressed in gowns inspired by famous architecture (no “®”–architects do not enjoy such rights over their creative property as designers of plastic dolls).

The broader framework represented by the World Culture Barbies® is a project that reveals the global reach of Mattel’s objectification of women.  The “ideal” is defined by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Beauty Queen-Computer Scientist-Racecar Driver-Cheerleader from Malibu.  Mattel allows some variations from this standard to reflect differences of ethnicity (as long as they’re not too ethnic, of course): Barbie® doesn’t have to be blonde (like Diwali Barbie®); she might even have textured hair (like Nigerian Barbie®); occasionally she may have dark skin and dress like a hippie (like Kwanzaa Barbie®).  But most denizens  of the Barbieverse® stick pretty close to the exemplar.  Even the All-Purpose Asian (“Oriental” in Barbie-speak) is not overly-ethnicized.  Still, the greater number of World Cultures deemed worthy of Barbification® leans heavily toward the Eurozone, but in highly caricatured versions.  Barbie française is cancan-ready (in a progressive move, the more recent France Barbie® Doll wears better-fitting shoes and stockings than her thirty-year-old mother, Parisian Barbie®); Scandinavia is represented not by a contemporary Ikea manager with excellent maternal-leave benefits, but instead as Princess of the Vikings.  MoT‘s house ethnographers are rather fond of  Italy Barbie® Doll, mostly for their theory that (1) she is modeled on Giada de Laurentis and (2) could probably take any of the blonde Barbies in a fight.  A curious representative for America almost looks like a progressive political statement, until one realizes that cross-dressing George Washington Barbie® is just a weird and possibly misguided exercise in patriotism.

It is within this rich cultural milieu that Barbie® makes her homage to world architecture through the Landmark Collection® collection, although the results (not surprisingly) don’t really live up to their advertisement.  The dolls wear clothes that are inspired by architectural things, but not exactly architecture–i.e., buildings.  All of their sources are recognizable in a tourist-post-card kind of way, and decent enough examples of what they represent, but they’re not all really the most extraordinary landmarks out there.  Once again, Mattel reaches for the low fruit on the inspiration tree.  Although–or maybe because–drawing fashion inspiration from architecture is not a new idea, the lackluster way these exercises mimic and parody cultural landmarks is kind of a joke.

What did Utzon say about “Blunderland”?  (Google it)

Sydney Opera House Barbie® is the only doll in the collection that is tricked out like a whole real building, although it is a structure with only limited visual interest as a one-note achievement.  The mildly daring and definitely expensive structural shells of the Opera House are translated into paper plates that have blown off a picnic table and stuck to her bodice (we suspect Vegemite).  Her skirt is colored like the harbor over which the opera perches (“ocean blue chiffon,” we are told).

Only two points about her design keeps MoT from falling asleep: (1) the fact that her hair is not just sprayed from here til Tuesday, but is meant to be perpetually windswept, like she’s by the water.  (Get it?  Get it?!)  And then there are the shoes.  MoT is impressed by the shoes.  Do they come in size 8.5, for real people, perchance?

Even with these small items of interest, Sydney Opera House Barbie® is a pretty indifferent interpretation of the only vaguely relevant architecture from this little nation.  Sorry, Australia, we’re just not that into you.

Give me your ugly fabric, your wretched pleats, your dreadful draping yearning to breathe free. . . 

la tour de pouvoir

The closest-to-right Barbie® in this collection is the French offering.  Eiffel Tower Barbie® actually reveals some real inspiration from her monument–along with some significant missteps that sort of ruin it all.  MoT can really do without the cheap earrings and definitely would scrap the oversized charm bracelet that looks like Barbie® could not bring herself to say non, merci to the tschotske hawkers on the Champ de Mars.  And then there’s the print on the dress: sacre bleu, another giant picture to say I AM A MONUMENT (suddenly we are inspired for Robert Venturi Barbie®).  All this is very sad when the profile of the dress already echoes the graceful curve of the building, and the actually clever detail of the fish net sleeves recall the metal latticework of the original monument while still being like clothes.  And although the actual thing is a tired and nasty sort of brown-bronze, they just went black and white here.  As if a designer did this work.

The Dolls of the World® Landmark Collection® Collection is disappointing as a lost opportunity for something fun and interesting and clever to happen with architecture in popular culture.  Although the problem is probably shared between the somewhat lackluster models chosen for inspiration and their interpretation by somewhat lackluster designers, perhaps some blame should be laid at the tiny feet of the doll herself.  It coud not hurt to get a new doll.  Perhaps one should not call in a plastic princess to do an Empress’ job.

Zaha doll (should be an action figure) by Olivia Lee