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“Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all it’s flavour”*…

Possibly the most remarkable city block in the world…

The Illa de la Discòrdia (Catalan pronunciation: [ˈiʎə ðə lə disˈkɔɾði.ə]) or Mansana de la Discòrdia [mənˈsanə ðə lə disˈkɔɾði.ə] — “Block of Discord”; Spanish: Manzana de la Discordia — is a city block on Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. The block is noted for having buildings by four of Barcelona’s most important Modernista architects, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Enric Sagnier, in close proximity. As the four architects’ styles were very different, the buildings clash with each other and the neighboring buildings. They were all built in the early years of the 20th century…

Wikipedia

From the left in the photo above:

Casa Lleó M Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1905)

Casa Mulleras Enric Sagnier (1906)

Casa Bonet Marceliano Coquillat (1901/1915)

Casa Amatller Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1900)

Casa Batlló Antoni Gaudí (1877/1906)

* William Cowper

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As we marvel, we might send boldly-sketched birthday greetings to Sir Peter Cook; he was born on this date in 1936. An architect, lecturer, and writer, he was a founder of Archigram, a group that championed neofuturistic design as a challenge to the complacency of modernism…. every solution becomes the next problem…

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“As long as art lives never shall I accept that men are truly dead”*…

From a self-portrait by Giorgio Vasari [source]

An appreciation of Giorgio Vasari’s seminal The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the beginning of art history as we know it

I found Giorgio Vasari through Burckhardt and Barzun. The latter writes: “Vasari, impelled by the unexampled artistic outburst of his time, divided his energies between his profession of painter and builder in Florence and biographer of the modern masters in the three great arts of design. His huge collection of Lives, which is a delight to read as well as a unique source of cultural history, was an amazing performance in an age that lacked organized means of research. […] Throughout, Vasari makes sure that his reader will appreciate the enhanced human powers shown in the works that he calls ‘good painting’ in parallel with ‘good letters’.”

Vasari was mainly a painter, but also worked as an architect. He was not the greatest artist in the world, but he had a knack for ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, so his career was quite successful. Besides painting, he also cared a lot about conservation: both the physical preservation of works and the conceptual preservation of the fame and biographies of artists. He gave a kind of immortality to many lost paintings and sculptures by describing them to us in his book.

His Lives are a collection of more than 180 biographies of Italian artists, starting with Cimabue (1240-1302) and reaching a climax with Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). They’re an invaluable resource, as there is very little information available about these people other than his book; his biography of Botticelli is 8 pages long, yet on Botticelli’s wikipedia page, Vasari is mentioned 36 times…

Giorgio Vasari was one of the earliest philosophers of progress. Petrarch (1304-1374) invented the idea of the dark ages in order to explain the deficiencies of his own time relative to the ancients, and dreamt of a better future:

My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.

To this scheme of ancient glory and medieval darkness, Vasari added a third—modern—age and gave it a name: rinascita. And within his rinascita, Vasari described an upward trajectory starting with Cimabue, and ending in a golden age beginning with eccentric Leonardo and crazed sex maniac Raphael, only to give way to the perfect Michelangelo in the end. It is a trajectory driven by the modern conception of the artist as an individual auteur, rather than a faceless craftsman.

The most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labours, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which is even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession.

This golden age was certainly no utopia, as 16th century Italy was ravaged by political turbulence, frequent plague, and incessant war. Many of the artists mentioned were at some point taken hostage by invading armies; Vasari himself had to rescue a part of Michelangelo’s David when it was broken off in the battle to expel the Medici from Florence.

And yet Vasari saw greatness in his time, and the entire book is structured around a narrative of artistic progress. He documented the spread of new technologies and techniques (such as the spread of oil painting, imported from the Low Countries), which—as an artist—he had an intimate understanding of.

This story of progress is paralleled with the rediscovery (and, ultimately, surpassing) of the ancients. It would take until the 17th century for the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes to really take off in France, but in Florence Vasari had already seen enough to decide the question in favor of his contemporaries—the essence of the Enlightenment is already present in 1550…

Art history, cultural history, tech history, the history of ideas– a review of Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by @AlvaroDeMenard.

* Giorgio Vasari

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As we frame it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the first Cannes Film Festival opened.  It had originally been scheduled for September, 1939 as an “answer” to the Venice Film Fest, which had become a propaganda vehicle for Mussolini and Hitler; but the outbreak of World War II occasioned a delay.

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“Of course I’d like to get beyond the concrete. But it’s really difficult. Very difficult.”*…

Felix Salmon is fascinated by concrete…

Greetings from my apartment in the most beautiful Brutalist tower in New York City (sorry not sorry, I.M. Pei.) My bookshelf contains such works as “Concrete,” “Concrete Concept” and “Toward a Concrete Utopia;” on my desk is “Concrete Planet.” Tl;dr: I’m a lover of concrete, not a hater. But… it’s still very problematic. And, as you’re about to find out, much more expensive than architects and contractors might have you believe…

He goes on, in his “Capital” column for Axios, to explain…

Concrete construction no longer lasts thousands of years, like the Pantheon in Rome. Instead, its lifespan is roughly 50-100 years, thanks to the way in which modern concrete is reinforced.

That means a multi-trillion-dollar bill is coming due right around now, in the form of concrete construction that needs noisy, dirty, expensive repair. 

Why it matters: The collapse of a residential tower in Surfside, Florida is a stark reminder of how catastrophically concrete can fail. Just as the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa caused Italy to start paying much more attention to remedial infrastructure projects, the Surfside tragedy might help focus America on the urgent need to fix buildings that are nearing the end of their initial lifespan.

The big picture: As Robert Courland explains in “Concrete Planet,” modern concrete is poured around steel rebar, which gives it tensile strength. But tiny cracks — found in all concrete — cause water to start rusting the steel, which then expands, cracking the concrete. 

Photos of the Surfside basement taken before the collapse show steel rebar breaking all the way through the concrete to the point at which it is fully exposed to the salty and humid Florida air.

By the numbers: One of the most famous concrete buildings in America, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, cost $155,000 to build in 1936 — about $2 million in 2001 dollars. The cost of repairs in 2001 came to $11.5 million.

Similarly, repairs to Wright’s concrete Unity Temple are estimated at roughly 20 times the original construction costs, even after adjusting for inflation. 

How it works: Once rebar starts corroding, the standard fix involves jackhammering the concrete to expose the steel, brushing the steel to remove the rust, reinforcing the rebar as necessary, and then covering it all back up again with carefully color-matched new concrete. 

That labor-intensive extreme noise and dust is actually the green, environmentally sensitive solution. The only alternative is demolition and replacement with an entirely new building — something that involves a much greater carbon footprint.

Between the lines: Because concrete fails from the inside out, damage can be hard to detect. And because concrete looksso solid and impregnable, necessary maintenance is often skipped, causing massive bills later on.

Local governments are in charge of ensuring building safety, but their willingness and ability to do so varies widely. The owners and residents of concrete buildings often try very hard not to think about corrosion, just because the costs of fixing it are so enormous.

The bottom line: The amount of money needed to fix existing infrastructure (nearly all of which is concrete, in one way or another) stands at roughly $6 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That number does not include homes, offices and other private buildings.

If you live in a concrete building that’s more than 40 or 50 years old, it’s an extremely good idea to check carefully on just how well it’s been maintained, lest you find yourself with an unexpected seven-figure repair bill — or worse. 

Go deeper: WLRN’s Danny Rivero clearly explains the collective action problems involved in persuading condo owners to pay for expensive repairs.

The tragedy in Surfside is just one indication that “America’s trillion-dollar concrete bill is coming due,” as @felixsalmon explains.

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As we muse on maintenance, we might spare a thought for Angelo Mangiarotti; he died on this date in 2012. An architect and designer, he made an early career stop in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology, during which met Frank Lloyd WrightWalter GropiusLudwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann. While Mangiarotti learned from them an appreciation of materials (perhaps especially concrete) and industrial process for buildings and design production– on both of which he built– he is perhaps best remembered for his insistence, borne out in his work, on “never forgetting the real needs of users.”

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“I propose to build for eternity”*…

Florence Duomo as seen from Michelangelo hill

Sent back in time 600 years and tasked with building the world’s largest dome, how would most of us fare? Most of us, of course, are not trained architects or engineers, but then, neither was Filippo Brunelleschi. Known at the time as a goldsmith, Brunelleschi ended up winning the commission to build just such a colossal dome atop Florence’s Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, which itself had already been under construction for well over a century. The year was 1418, the dawn of the Italian Renaissance, but a break with medieval building styles had already been made, not least in the rejection of the kind of flying buttresses that had held up the stone ceilings of previous cathedrals. Brunelleschi had thus not just to build an unprecedentedly large dome, in accordance with a design drawn up 122 years earlier, but also to come up with the technology required to do so.

“He invented an ox-driven hoist that brought the tremendously heavy stones up to the level of construction,” architect David Wildman tells HowStuffWorks. Noticing that “marble for the project was being damaged as it was unloaded off of boats,” he also “invented an amphibious boat that could be used on land to transport the large pieces of marble to the cathedral.”

These and other new devices were employed in service of an ingenious structure using not just one dome but two, the smaller inner one reinforced with hoops of stone and chain. Built in brick — the formula for the concrete used in the Pantheon having been lost, like so much ancient Roman knowledge — the dome took sixteen years in total, which constituted the final stage of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’s generations-long construction.

Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, still the largest masonry dome in the world, has yet to quite yield all of its secrets: “There is still some mystery as to how all of the components of the dome connect with each other,” as Wildman puts it, thanks to Brunelleschi’s vigilance about concealing the nature of his techniques throughout the project. But you can see some of the current theories visualized (and, in a shamelessly fake Italian accent, hear them explained) in the National Geographic video [below]. However he did it, Brunelleschi ensured that every part of his structure fit together perfectly — and that it would hold up six centuries later, when we can look at it and see not just an impressive church, but the beginning of the Renaissance itself…

How Filippo Brunelleschi, untrained in architecture or engineering, built the world’s largest dome at the dawn of the Renaissance.

For more on the dome, see Ross King’s marvelous 2013 book, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture.

And for more on Brunelleschi— whose other accomplishments include the first precise system of linear perspective, which revolutionized painting and opened the way for the naturalistic styles of Renaissance art– see here.

* Filippo Brunelleschi

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As we go big, we might recall that it was on this date in 330 that Roman Emperor Constantine the Great consecrated Constantinople (on the site of what had been the ancient city of Byzantium; today, Istanbul). Constantine identified the site of Byzantium as a place where an emperor could sit, readily defended, with easy access to the Danube or the Euphrates frontiers, his court supplied from the rich gardens and sophisticated workshops of Roman Asia, his treasuries filled by the wealthiest provinces of the Empire.

The city became famous for its architectural masterpieces, such as Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Built by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople for the state church of the Roman Empire between 532 and 537, the church was then the world’s largest interior space and among the first to employ a fully pendentive dome. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”… It set the bar for Brunelleschi.

Hagia Sophia

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“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy”*…

Believers in the “Tartaria” conspiracy theory are convinced that the elaborate temporary fairgrounds built for events like the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 were really the ancient capital cities of a fictional empire.

In 1908, architect Ernest Flagg completed the Singer Building in Lower Manhattan, a Beaux-Arts showstopper made for the Singer sewing machine company. From a wide base, a slender 27-story tower rose, topped by a mansard roof and a delicate lantern spire.

Every inch dripped with sumptuous detail inside and out; vaulted roofs, marble columns with bronze trim, window mullions with spiral fluting. The lobby was said to have a “celestial radiance.” A book was written just about its construction. For a year, it was the tallest building in the world at 612 feet, and a celebrated landmark for decades after that.

But not for too much longer. Despite its great height, the pencil-thin tower lacked office space. In the 1960s the company sold its ornate headquarters; demolition proceeded in 1967. It’s the tallest building to ever be peacefully demolished.   

By any account, it’s a fantastical tale: Once the tallest building in the world and a New York icon, knocked down in just a handful of decades.  

For some, it’s too fantastical to believe … or perhaps not fantastical enough. A dedicated group of YouTubers and Reddit posters see the Singer Building and countless other discarded pre-modern beauties and extant Beaux-Arts landmarks as artifacts of a globe-spanning civilization called the Tartarian Empire, which was somehow erased from the history books. Adherents of this theory believe these buildings to be the keys to a hidden past, clandestinely obscured by malevolent actors.

Who? Why? To what possible end? As in many other, more high-profile conspiracy theories, this baroque fantasy doesn’t offer much in the way of practical considerations, logic or evidence. But it’s grounded in some real anxieties, pointing toward the changes wrought by the modern world in general and modern architecture specifically — and rejecting both. 

Everything we know about the history of architecture (and the world) is wrong? Zach Mortice (@zachmortice) takes us “Inside the ‘Tartarian Empire,’ the QAnon of Architecture.”

* Zbigniew Brzezinski

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As we contemplate cabals, we might send ultra-modern birthday greetings to Michael Hopkins; he was born on this date in 1935. An architect, Sir Michael was (with his partner Norman Foster and with Richard RogersTerry Farrell and Nicholas Grimshaw) one of the leading figures in the introduction of high-tech architecture into Britain… and thus, presumably part of the conspiracy the Tartarians tout.

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