the Andersonville water tower

Clark Street

Days of yore

It’s been a long, long time since the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago was home to the majority of Swedish immigrants who gave the place its original identity and enduring name. Even as the neighborhood has changed hands, the memory of that particular heritage has remained prominent, largely due to a few remaining institutions (in particular, those dedicated to the hallowed traditions of manipulating flour, butter and sugar in exquisite combinations–one of Sweden’s great gifts to the world), and one great iconic element: the water tower on top of the Swedish-American Museum that, since sometime in the 1980s, has been emblazoned with the Swedish flag.

All neighborhoods go through transitions that reflect the character of their diverse residents; a large part of the richness of Chicago’s neighborhoods abides in these cultural layers.  The city is not a mothballed collection of quarantined ethnic groups, but a living, evolving thing that ought to reveal the waves of change that sweep through a place.

But it’s important to preserve the heritage of those who come and go, to create a kind of urban archaeology that accrues across time, like the patina on the Art Institute’s lions.  Unfortunately for Andersonville, a significant, violent, awful change has come to the 5200 block of Clark Street in recent months.  It’s especially terrible since this is the home of the Swedish-American Museum: one would expect if anyone was going to be the safekeeper of Swedish heritage in Chicago, it would be these guys.  In truth, there is  little they could do about the shifting nature of population and associated retail services that have left just a few truly Swedish joints on the street–although we hope they held some kind of Viking version of a Requiem Mass to mourn the tragic passing of the Ann Sather restaurant, which was their neighbor for years.

Ärngöt shed only manly viking tears as the cinnamon bun oven went up in flames

But they sure as herring might have taken better care of the icon that perched on top of their building for almost a century: the water tower that apparently experienced significant damage during the recent winter.  That, at least, is the word on the street; one wonders how diligent the museum has been in checking the stability of the tower since it’s not like a crummy long winter is a new thing in Chicago.  Due to neglect, the tower has been deemed too far gone to save, and on March 20, Clark Street was shut down to allow cranes to get in there and do the work of dismantling the great blue and yellow symbol.

Those of us who have looked, for years, to the rooftops around Clark and Foster for that beacon of we’re almost there!–much as our mighty ancestors likely looked upon the towers of Lindisfarne after their stormy sea crossing (yes, we are saying that a drive from the suburbs is just like that)–will be grateful that the local alderman is apparently making noise to have the thing fixed or replaced in some reasonable way.

But shouldn’t that have been the museum’s job?  First, where were you guys when the thing was starting to rust in the first place?  You’ve been in that building since 1987 and surely this wasn’t your first trip up to the roof.  Second, where’s your initiative to preserve and rebuild what is such an iconic reminder of Swedish settlement in Chicago for so many folks?

The Museum’s own mission claims its dedication to interpreting the immigrant experience, to be a “unifying force within the Midwestern Scandinavian community.”  It’s time to live up to that ideal.  One of your core values is to inspire the community and foster collaboration.  Efforts to raise cash to rebuild or preserve the water tower is just the thing to do that; we bet you dollars to dumplings.

sad thor

seriously, don’t make this guy mad.  we’ve had enough weather, tack så mycket

thinking about the profession on International Women’s Day

Galla Placidia () & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

Galla Placidia (392-450) & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

As you know, International Women’s Day was founded in the early twentieth century in places where socially-progressive people sought to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage women’s contributions in all aspects of life, including the professional world.  To commemorate the day, a few contemporary outlets of archi-news have compiled digital tips-o-their-(virtual)-hats (like this one and this one) that, predictably, focus on a small set of twentieth-century femmes moderniste whose work has been deemed worthy of taking a small, delicate place at the edge of a center that remains dominated by men.  And while it’s true we should know more about architects like Eileen Gray and Alison Smithson–not primarily because they were lady-architects but because they were interesting architects–, it’s also important to consider a broad sweep of history as a way to consider the important meaning in women’s absence from the historical record.  And it would not be bad to broaden the way we think about architectural contributions while we’re at it.

This is especially true since the way we typically look for women in the architectural record is, itself, skewed by a particularly modernist ideal of what it means to be an architect.  This image–the solitary genius blazing a new path with the white-hot brilliance of his unprecedented invention–obscures the fact that architecture is a collaborative venture and, for the most part, one that grows from, and is bound to, longstanding traditions.  Although one person may be responsible for key elements of inspiration or development, actually completing a building  requires a lot of established ideas, and a lot of hands.  Before we start counting the ones that are required to cut stone and hoist lumber, consider the ones that reach into deep, deep pockets to fund the project in the first place.  The people who pay for  buildings like to have a say in what they look like: true now as it ever has been.  By appreciating the role of patrons and clients in the development of architecture we not only arrive at a fairer understanding of the architect’s job, but also can start to give credit to the many and diverse people who are foundational to any building activity.

This is one way to acknowledge women’s contributions to architecture, around the globe and through all time, long before the slow progress into actual professional practice that starts in the late nineteenth century.  Before then, and in most places, architectural design was tightly tied to traditions of the building site, and thus much less likely to include a woman who might ascend through the ranks of manual laborers to a position of authority as a designer.  Yet in the record of great patrons it’s an easy thing to find  women who have made extraordinary contributions as patrons to some of the world’s great monuments: the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, Early Christian empress Galla Placidia, Ottoman haseki sultan Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana), Queen of France Marie Antoinette and American socialite-suffragette Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont all come readily to mind.  Each of them was a woman of extraordinary power and privilege who was intimately tied to building projects over which they extended significant influence.  Surely there are others.  Lots, and lots of others.

Admittedly, exerting this kind of influence is different than directing a design; that kind of control came slower to women, only after architecture emerged from the age-old traditions of manual construction as a profession that privileged the act of drawing as an intellectual and creative discipline.  One would imagine that once practice moved indoors, the welcome mat might have been laid out soon thereafter.  Yet architecture remained a tight fraternity, even as new educational programs were founded that might have taken a more liberal view.  Although MIT admitted women to its academic programs as early as the 1870s, their numbers remained relatively small until it provided dormitories for female students–in 1964.  The role model of MIT’s architecture program, the École des Beaux-Arts, admitted women as early as 1897 but for years the academicians thought it “improper” for women to have access to the workshops in which male students worked, effectively excluding them from the competition system on which the school was based.  And how about those allegedly avant-garde Bauhausler?  Not so avant afterall.  Although Walter Gropius admitted “the beautiful sex” into the Bauhaus, he steered them to the weaving workshop to ensure the architecture studios remained the realm of the “strong sex.”

Well into the twenty-first century, women have made great gains in terms of admittance to, and graduation rates from, architecture program.  The problem that persists is: what happens next?  The numbers of women who drop out of the profession are vastly different from country to country, but rare is a place where we see a 50/50 split.  Studies like this one and this one try to make sense of the data but there’s clearly a lot more to do to figure out the disparity between, say, Sweden and the US and Australia.  Findings from research on women in (and out of) architecture seem to explain a toxic mix of national policies concerning family/maternity/paternity leave and professional culture regarding the nature of the workplace.  Supporting legislation that supports women will support families, the profession, and architecture as a whole.  Redefining the nature of success as an architect makes room for lots of different people of different inclination to participate in and contribute.  These issues go way deeper than graduation rates–and certainly wayyyyyy beyond anything that a poorly conceived toy can do.

Down with dress-up dolls; up with real-life action figures like Marianne Cusato, recipient of the first-ever People’s Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2006 for her design of the Katrina Cottage, which represents the kind of contribution to the profession we’d like to see more of: beautifully designed buildings that recognize human dignity.  More of that, please, and more of anything that broadens the field to increase the talent in the pool, especially as that talent can be directed toward reminding the world that architects can be relevant.  Dude-bros, it’s time you found the strength to ask for some help; maybe even time that you gave yourself the freedom to break free of that open-office-plan prison and try out the kind of flex-time arrangements that work so well for women.  Maybe they work well for you, too, and you get more time to show your kids how cool you are.  While this day is on the calendar to shine some rays on “women’s issues,” we’re more than happy to share the spotlight; in fact, we think it might work out better, for all of us, that way.

a pink Katrina Cottage

a pink Katrina Cottage

I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote those lines to James Madison in September, 1785, the two were communicating long-distance about a new project underway: the State Capitol for Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) home state of Virginia. Jefferson was in France, where he had served for six months as US Minister Plenipotentiary.  Although exposure to practices of the French crown left him cold (or, actually, revolted) he was warmed by the glories of architecture, both ancient and modern, available to him in France.  Jefferson had gone to Europe feeling pretty enthusiastic about the arts, but became an even stronger proponent of architecture as a symbol of national health and strength.  In the next decades he turned the three major architectural projects of his life to fulfill the ideas he shared with Madison, designing in a way that not only delighted his own taste, but that promised to provide “models for study and imitation” by other American builders.  For the Virginia State Capitol he drew from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that he beheld in Nîmes, where he “gazed [at it] whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.”  By 1819 he had realized the “academical village” that he had theorized for at least fifteen years, crowning his plan for the University of Virginia with the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda.  With these two public buildings, Jefferson presented America with fully realized studies of the “most perfect examples” of what he called “cubic” and “spherical” architecture from antiquity.  In the meantime, he had continued to tinker with his own home at Monticello. Originally designed as a fine but unexceptional Palladian villa, it was imaginatively redesigned after the Hôtel de Salm (with which Jefferson admitted being “violently smitten”), recreating très moderne Parisian elegance as best he could in Albemarle County.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson is perhaps the most foundational: author of two of the country’s signature documents (this one and that one) and provider of the core of the Library of Congress collection.  Elevating architecture among those political, religious, and intellectual endeavors, Jefferson penned the clearest articulation in a president’s hand of the value of architecture to a country.  He put theory into practice by providing “proof of national good taste” and by seeking opportunities to develop that taste among his fellow citizens in the first place.

Read more of Jefferson on architecture here.

PAV 3 det 274

Pavilion III at the “Academical Village”

stop the madness: enough with the pumpkin spice everything already

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

Once upon a time we welcomed the change of season, especially the advent of autumn, for the sudden chill in the air that was still warmed by a golden sun, the easing of leaves from green to gold against a brilliant blue sky, and the joy of bundling up with opaque tights, great jackets, and fabulous scarves–the suggestions that we are ready to stave off winter’s blast without yet actually having to face nasty weather.

And then there is the food.  The passage of each season brings a new menu: clementines are a bright note in sleepy winter akin to the flash of a cardinal on a snowy tree branch; as the world wakes in spring we look for the buds on the trees and sunny asparagus on our plates; in summer we anticipate the huge bounty of garden goodness that culminates in the arrival of Queen Tomato; then with fall we look forward to an orchard outing to enjoy that crisp air, play farmer, and pick so many apples that, once home, we are forced to condescend into baking crisps and cobblers until the kitchen moans under the weight of all the oatmeal-ensconced goodness.

Welcoming those seasonal treats–fruits of the earth still very much tied to the earth–represent more innocent times before a relatively recent development that flavors our autumn in a much different, even sinister, character.  Having already co-opted every conceivable holiday as a festival of consumption, Big Business has conspired to marketize the very change of seasons.  Building on historic traditions of identifying favorite foods at particular holidays–cranberries at Christmas, latkes for Hanukkah, green bean casserole whenever two or three Lutherans gather–, the scourge of Pumpkinspiceitis is now foisted upon us.

Pumpkinspiceitis derives from a regrettable, but historic, inclusion of pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.  It is a curious phenomenon: pumpkin pie.  As a pie, it’s an inferior dessert; as a pumpkin product, just a clever way to get rid of something easy to grow but which no one really wants to eat.  (Like most of the Thanksgiving table, it’s also just bad history.)  Even if you think you like pumpkin, be honest: it’s just taking the place of something else that you know you’d rather have.  To make this horrid squash edible, all kinds of stuff is stirred in and gooped on top to actually cover the taste of the pumpkin.   More desperate than any other garden spawn (slightly worse than zucchini, but maybe not as hopeless as rhubarb), this homely orange orb demands not just special treatment to hide its natural flavor but the particular concoction conjured up by some set of Weird Sisters, probably in the nineteenth century.  Their brew of ordinary spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg,  allspice, and cloves–has achieved iconic status due to the ubiquity with which it is used to mask the natural grossness of this “dessert.”

trouble maker

trouble maker

With a name as creative as its inspiration is delicious, “Pumpkin Pie Spice” represents all that’s bad about home cooking, and by extension, food consumption, in America–which makes it especially sad and ironic to bring to the table on a holiday that is so completely American.  The blind ease with which the home cook grabs for the inevitable plastic jar, purchased years before, used annually but never between December and October, is likewise exemplary of the oh-you-shouldn’t-have-bothered ideal that is rampant across the country.  The idea of a pre-mixed spice blend is not so bad in and of itself, as we see from a very, very long tradition of Indian garam masala and Chinese Five Spice.  Traditionally, among those cultures each household will have its own version, ground to suit the family’s custom and taste.  The ‘merkan equivalent is only home-made by DIY-types with obsessive Pinterest habits.  Pre-packaged and sold at the grocery store, Pumpkin Pie Spice is the Hamburger Helper of baking–except that Hamburger Helper is consumed year-round, and Pumpkin Pie spice had a very narrow window of relevance, confined to Thanksgiving weekend, and therefore is even dumber.

At least that was the case before the rise of  Big Pumpkin (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin).  At least ten years ago, some genius at some mega spice dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 1000 company with a penchant for red lids) figured out a way to foist their product on the American public and increase their market share by popularizing a product that was irrelevant for  fifty-one weeks of the year.  Their target?  A product of great popularity among Americans, and which many Americans are more than happy to crap up with flavor additions rather than enjoy the actual flavor of what they’re consuming: coffee.  With the help of some genius at some mega coffee dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 500 company with a penchant for a nippleless, two-tailed mermaid), they found their opportunity, and convinced the masses that their lattes were not good enough as lattes, but ought to be made to taste like dessert, and not just dessert but the lowliest of desserts, pie; and not just any old pie, but a pie so stupid it is made out of mushy vegetables.  And so it was, and so it is, that Pumpkin Pie Spice lattes, introduced in 2003, are now welcomed by crazed Starbuckians the way the solstice must have been greeted by the ancients at Stonehenge: with religious reverence and enthralled enthusiasm, evidence that the gods have not yet abandoned the world (although to the rest of us, this flakey excuse for a coffee drink is just one more proof of our fallen state).

Pumpkin Pie lattes might not have been such a problem if the silliness around them had remained cloistered in Starbuckses.  But their mind-boggling popularity has launched a whole new ridiculous enthusiasm for the “flavors of fall,” and this is really where we need to draw the line.  Food should taste like itself.  Spices and herbs are meant to draw out and complement the natural flavor of a thing, not disguise it–especially if the base flavor is something quite respectable.  In the name of Taste, you must avoid, ignore, renounce and repudiate the following products, all of them evidence of the overreach of Big Pumpkin and foul offspring, the sinister seasoning:


The divine macaron is not a place to play fast and loose with intercultural fusions.  Non!

and pumpkin salsa is just wrong

Likewise:  salsa is a tomato product.  People who eat pumpkin salsa probably think that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping too, and we have nothing to say to them.


Since toaster pastries are already skimming the bottom of the barrel, maybe this is ok, except for the pumpkin part.  Pumpkin for breakfast? No.  You meant to bake a cinnamon muffin.

PP marshmallow

Whether you mash your marshmallows in s’mores or float them in hot drinks, no; this just won’t work.

This also raises the quation of judgemnt at TJ's, which only gets worse . . .

This is all kinds of wrong, and is one of a dozen bizarre missteps by Trader Joe, whose judgement we call into question due to the store’s amazing variety of bizarre pumpkin-themed products.


Let us guess: we are supposed to pair this with nutmeg hummus, right?


Please!  Yogurt is for fruit, not squash.

this would be bad enough on its own, but then yu see just a few aisles over . . .

This would be bad enough on its own, but then you see just a few aisles over . . .

seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start seasonally moisturizing

. . . this.  Seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start a seasonal skin-care regimen!

spieces associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?

Spices associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?  The horror!


Culver’s is currently offering Pumpkin Pie Spice shakes as well as “Salted Caramel Pumpkin Concrete Mixers,” with actual pumpkin stirred in, which MoT junior staffers can attest is a very, very bad idea.

et vos, Ben & Jerry?

Et vos, Ben & Jerry?

If you’re not yet swooning from the madness, read on for our candidates for Worst Spawn of Big Pumpkin’s Evil:

third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Vice President of Nyet

Vice President of Nyet

King of No

King of No

Although Pumpkinspiceitis has caught the CDC unawares, wise men saw this nonsense coming a mile away–indeed centuries ago.  Founding Father and Culinary Connoisseur Thomas Jefferson (a much more reliable T.J.) worried what would become of his nation, and left the following in manuscript form:

It is self-evident that not all flavor profiles are created equal; not all are endowed by their creators with honesty of expression and decency of marketing.  Sadly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer sketchy food products and egregious marketing, while evils are sufferable in their cheapness and trendiness, than to right themselves by abolishing goofball flavors as they ought to, and just drink coffee that tastes like, you know, COFFEE.

This is not a tirade against the spices in Pumpkin Pie Spice.  We, like Mr. Jefferson, want you to enjoy cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg (the last of which ought to be ground the moment before use, but you knew that, right?).  But enjoy them where they belong: coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, and stupid fruit desserts. (If you really, really feel compelled to eat trendily in October, you may have an apple cider donut but then, for Heaven’s sakes, pull yourself together.)

This does not address the matter of the pumpkin itself, which still has little use in the world.  The following is the best we can do to offer semi-legitimate, but still pretty sketchy, uses for citrouille (French for “yukky apple of the dirty vine”):


You may as well buy this as go through the motions of “baking a pie.”  If no one in the house has any real baking skills, or can be bothered to make a cheesecake, why not.  Mrs. Smith’s it is.


Pumpkin soup: at least this comes in a cute bowl. But we’d still prefer a decent shrimp bisque or French onion, thx, and you know you would too.

And then there’s this, maybe the reason pumpkins exist at all:

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

you can learn pretty much everything you need to learn about the history of architecture from the Lord of the Rings


“It’s a big house this, and very peculiar.”

Peter Jackson’s trilogy of 2001-2-3 is more than a sweeping, gorgeous adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, and more than a massive magnet of critical acclaim, public adulation and  a small army of award statuettes.  It’s also your easy-peasy guide to pretty much everything you need to learn about architectural history.  The combined  run time of the movies equals just over eleven hours, which is also a much more efficient means of absorbing the essentials into your noggin when compared with the drudgery of attending some forty 50-minute lectures across a whole semester.  And while your professor may fancy herself a wizard, when’s the last time you saw her do anything useful like zap away a Nazgûl?  We didn’t think so.

Comb your feet fur and join us on our epic journey through the architecture of Middle Earth:


“No parent should have to bury their child.”

1. Origins Stories

Every culture has a starting point for their architectural traditions; oftentimes it’s closely aligned with their beliefs about the actual ending point for its people.  Generically considered, the Egyptian benben-mastaba-pyramid, the Mesopotamian ziggurat, Buddhist stupas that become pagodas farther east, Mycenaean tombs and Etruscan tumuli are each related to its culture’s ideas about the start of things (elemental origins stories of the earth emerging from the deep; rounded rocks echoing the curvature of the heavens and so on) and the end of them (tombs for bodies and relics alike).  In Rohan the earthen mounds where the dead are laid to rest are adorned by apparently wild-growing Simblemynë; by the look of the movie it’s the only place where flowers grow in the realm of men, which is a pretty sweet idea in such a stark landscape.


“It is no bad thing celebrating a simple life.”

2. Vernacular Traditions

Until the Industrial Revolution came along and ruined everything, it was second nature (har, har) for builders to efficiently harness nearby materials to protect building inhabitants from particulars of local climate.  The Shire was blissfully removed from mechanical nonsense and exhibits the Hobbits in their element, building earth-dug Hobbit Holes and public houses that are economical, cozy, and sustainable, as well as having delightful arts-and-crafts interiors tucked into the thermal mass of earth.  Clever Hobbitses!

Helm's Deep

“Within these walls, we will outlast them.”  (Or not.)

3. Fortifications

This is once place LOTR is an object lesson in what not to do.  Helms Deep was sort of a disaster waiting to happen.  Stuck in a niche in the hills (rather than on TOP of the hill), it presented a broad wall easily assailed by an army of zillions of orcs standing five miles wide.  Granted, the ultimate entry was at the top of a tricky, skinny, defensible path (but which still allowed a full-on assault).  The rest of the thing was just asking for it.  And the big drain in the bottom?  Surely Gondor’s historic enemies were simple foes to have overlooked that not-so-minor weakness, as well as the advantage of rappelling in from above and behind.  The fall of the fortress would have been game-over had it not been for the last-minute appearance of Gandalf and the erstwhile disgraced horsemen.  The Riders of Rohan would have been smarter to build as did the Mycenaeans, who did not count on wizards to save them.  At Mycenae, a narrow path  forces the foe to march only a few across, with their (usually) weak, left sides toward the wall where they can be beat down pretty bad even before getting to the front door.  Take heed, Rohirrim.

minas tirith

“Merethrond” is the Westron-language term for “throne room” and also “place for grotesquely eating cherry tomatoes”

4. Roman-ish architecture

For expressions of empire and might nobody surpasses the Romans, and all the great halls of men (“Men, who above all else desire power”) in Middle Earth bear the strategies also seen in Imperial Rome: lengthy axes defined by architectural features and sculpture (or perhaps a straggly tree and/or diving board for self-immolation) and reinforced by soaring walls bearing elaborate ornament in the finest materials available (black and white stone in Minas Tirith, finely wrought Scandinavianish interlace in Edoras).  Sheltering stewards or bewitched kings, built of stone or wood with row upon and row of round arches: they’re all Roman basilicas.


sets for the Fair Folk

5. Gothic & Art Nouveau architecture

Just as the Elves are a fair bit superior to men, their architecture is finer as well.  What would you expect of a race of folk who don’t leave footprints in the snow, than architecture that is wispy, light, graceful, even an aesthetic improvement on the surrounding nature that inspires it?  (And don’t forget the jewelry !)  Men have (Roman) round arches; Elves have (Gothic) pointed ones in  buildings that seem to predict architects like Victor Horta who have graced our puny existence.


“a graveyard of unquiet dead”

6. Expressionism

What better to spell the end of the Elven Belle Époque than the same kind of thing that happened in our realm at the fin de siècle: out with the coup de fouet and in with the jagged langauge of Expressionism.  The creepy buildings of Isengard and Moria (below) are all sublime height, jagged edges, blackness and gloom.  The architecture of shivers for houses of dread and shadow.

And that’s the end of what you need to know about the history of architecture.  Of course in our realm there is more to follow, including a twentieth-century story heavy with metal and glass. But never you mind that in this survey of everything you need to know about the history of architecture: you don’t need that later boring stuff, and not because it’s not in the trilogy, but rather since Tolkien taught us why we don’t need it.  You know what happens to anyone who relies on metal and glass?  Giant walking trees ruin their yards, they get trapped in a tower with creepy dudes, and little dudes steal their stuff.  You’ve been warned.

don’t go there!