Why Do Architects Still Draw?

                       Energy-Roof-Perugia, sketch (Wolf D. Prix, 2009)

Paolo Belardi recently wrote the compelling work "Why Architects Still Draw?" (MIT Press) and it’s a thoughtful read on why dedication to this basic skill is a font for creativity, meditation, and serendipity. He responded to my queries below and you’ll find that his responses are also creative and meditative.

In your introduction, you talk about training architects who know both technical skills and have a certain sense of culture. Have these worlds grown so far apart in the training of architects?

For anyone who works in architecture, the culture dimension is is so fundamental that you can’t do without it—though today it tends to be overwhelmed by digital techniques. This above all when you draw, because the eye sees what the mind knows. It’s not a coincidence that the more thing we know, the more things we see. The beauty of a landscape, for example, doesn’t exist in and of itself but rather is a mental construction that we perceive only after someone has revealed it to us, and only after we’ve made it our own after study. In other words, the beauty of a landscape is not a cause but rather an effect of the culture of the observer.

In his Italian Journey, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, arriving at the gates of Rome, confesses to not feel free in his judgment of what he will see, as he feels conditioned by the knowledge of the ancient classics. Just the same today—keeping in mind the fundamental role played by cinematographic production in the field of defining the identity of places—when we have to ask ourselves what the idea of the Eternal City is for foreigners. Is it the one of the cursed heroes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the intrusive paparazzi of Federico Fellini, the solemn balance of Peter Greenaway, or the banal lies of Paolo Sorrentino?

You speak of the importance of serendipity in architecture, and  more broadly, in the time we have on this Earth. What are the moments  in which we can feel the closest connection to the built environment?  Might you share with me a couple recent “Eureka” moments

I’m used to drawing a lot and without immediate goals (especially during boring business meetings) so that later I can page through my notebooks and feed my figurative repertoire with a healthy, creative misunderstanding. It’s perhaps the most effective technique for planning serendipity through an “emotional push” that only imperfect comprehension can give to the act of imagining. In that sense, my creativity (if I have any) is cultivated in a continuous way, not sudden Eurekas.

That said, there was one moment where I was present at a Eureka moment. It was when I involved Wolf Prix, the leader of a Viennese studio called Himmelb(l)au, in the project to cover a street made in the sixteenth century by the great architect Galeazzo Alessi in the heart of Perugia, the city where I live and work. Prix didn’t know Perugia at all, only by the graphic and photographic documentation I had sent him via email. Despite that, when he got to the place and sat down at a café table for a caffè americano, he grabbed a napkin and—in just a few seconds—sketched out the idea for the project. It was a helix à la Leonardo that wouldn’t just protect the street from the weather, but would also produce the energy necessary to sustain itself with the wind and the sun (see here).

Has there ever been a moment where you were without pencil and paper and thought “Drat, I wish I had captured that.” Can you give us an example or two?

Yes, when my daughter Angela (now eleven years old) was born. Knowing that I would be there for the birth, I did what all fatehrs do: I got a videocamera. But when my daughter’s head emerged from my wife’s body, I felt the powerful desire to capture a moment that in a certain way is miraculous. It’s a moment when happiness and pain are one and which, for a second, I felt linked in an ideal way to humanity. A few years ago the artist Marni Kotak gave birth to her first son in a New York art gallery to a crowd of onlookers. She justified her performance by affirming that “giving birth to a baby is the most direct testimony of the creative force of life and, therefore, the highest form of art” though she was roundly criticized as being an exhibitionist. Personally I think that the reality show dreamed up by Kotak was right on.

During your travels in the United States, have you ever found any buildings or sections of the built environment that speak to your own personal preferences as an architect?

I’ve traveled widely in the States, along with my students. Inevitably, I was impressed by New York precisely because there is no space, and by Los Angeles because it’s so difficult to orient oneself there. But I was even more impressed by the lighthouses on the coast of New England, by the covered brdiges in Quebec, and by the colonial-style houses in Flordia. To be even more specific, I was moved by two environmental conditions that were complete opposites, but which open the doors of architecture in the third millenium: one hung towards the heaven and the other sinking into the earth. I’m talking about the ancient Acoma Pueblo, better known as Sky City because of its dominant position on the peak of a mesa in New Mexico, and the underground addition to the law school designed by Gunnar Birkerts on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Is there a city that you have yet to visit which you would like to  map and explore with your mind, pencil, and a sketchbook?

Precisely because they have not yet been founded and not yet discovered, I would like to have the privilage of walking throgh the “invisible cities” that are the protagonists of the work of the same name by Italo Calvino. I’m thinking here of Laudomia, the “double city”, and of Melania, “the city of dailogue”, or Zoe “the city of indivisible existence”. Of course it would be a trip bumped by the difficulties of perspective, but it would be worth it. At the end of it I could draw a magical atlas like Marco Polo gave to Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Tartars, in which the invisible had been rendered visible by drawing.

There is much fetishizing of signature architecture landmarks (the Colosseum, Burj Khalifa and others) What can close explorations of those everyday, hum-drum, quotidian buildings tell us? The common post office? A low-slung suburban mall? Or others?

Architecture is the art of the real world. Consequently the quality of a city, much more than signature architecture landmarks, depends on the diffused character of anonymous normality. This is even more apparent in the era of sustainability, above all in Italy. It’s hard to deny that, paging through architectural magazines, it’s almost as if lightness, immateriality, and transparency capture by themselves the concept of sustainability. Just like it seems that a building covered with double-paned windows and equipped with photovoltaic panels is necessarily more sustainable that a building covered in cut stone. Nothing is more false.

It’s true that designing in a sustainable way means avoiding wasting natural resources and putting leftovers to good use, so it’s not hard to realize that the most sustainable complexes in the history of architecture are Italian city centers. They grew by implosion, minimizing the use of space, where each stone, each brick, each capital was not thrown out in some suburban junkyard but rather was reused to build on the already built: over, under, in the middle, and inside of the pre-existing structures. I’m thinking here of the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence, made of marble slabs from the ruin of some even more ancient building. It’s the same with the Cancello neighborhood in Formia: a Roman amphitheater that in the middle ages was converted into a huge apartment building. Because sustainability—for those of us who are children of Leon Battista Alberti and Donato Bramante—is not a chimera, but rather is part of our everyday life and work. And, as always, it’s a guarantor of personality and identity.

Interview translated from Italian by Zachary Nowak

Building a Bridge With Flowers

In every town there is a bridge

It might be a railroad trestle, an unloved worn out road, or perhaps a pedestrian overpass that makes a foot journey a bit more pleasant.

Shelburne, Massachusetts has a bridge with flowers. Yes, this former trolley bridge is alive with day lilies, resplendent with evening primrose, and decked out in hydrangeas.

A point of pride for the community, it is tended by a veritable army of volunteers and others who see this as a valued member of the family, just as important as the humans who live and breathe around town.

This fine avenue of flora is lauded in guidebooks, celebrated online, and it even has a place of pride on the city’s police cruisers. It is a bulwark of the built environment and an icon along the Mohawk Trail.

And why should we have just one bridge of flowers? Every town, every community might have one, no matter the climate, no matter the season. After all, flowers don’t know race, gender, age, sexual orientation. They need someone to care for them and they might be seen as a type of community empowerment project, a place that folks can point to and say “Oh, I was there at the beginning” or “My children helped plant the wisteria”.

As a small moment, a type of floral benediction, a point of community enthusiasm, a bridge of flowers isn’t a bad place for communities to start with their own rejuvenation and reimagination.

Go out there.

Build your own bridge of flowers, modest or monumental.

On Mount Greylock, a monument

On the highest point of Mount Greylock, a monument to those who served the Commonwealth stands and looks out.

Locals wanted stone from the Berkshires, no, no, not that Quincy granite they said. The stone from south of Boston prevailed. Curious indeed, as the mighty tower was meant to grace the Charles River basin.

Can you see it now? Head of the Charles, sweat on the brow, they look up and are are reminded that some gave all, someplace far away.

Up to the top, 3491 feet up from below it went and dignitaries came out and talked a bit about the past. Old men sat down, most did not move much.

Still it remains, eighty plus years on.

Walk around the summit, look out yourself.

More veterans are coming.

Dear Superdawg: How Do You Tweet?

                               Where all the super dawgs hang out

I’ve been an unabashed fan of Superdawg for years. Back in the last millennium I made a special trip from Hyde Park via CTA to get a couple of their fine dogs and a milkshake. So when I found out that they had an ambitious and fun Twitter account, I had to pass along my queries about their tweeting practices. Ben Ustick and his wife Laura are at the helm of their account and Ben was kind enough to take time away from the world of celery salt and such to answer my questions.

What’s the goal of your organization’s Twitter feed?

Customer service has always been the sole mission of our joining social media. We see Twitter as an extension of walking out into the dining room and asking someone how their meal was. Thirty and forty years ago, if people had an issue with their meal or just wanted to say that they enjoyed it, that interaction played out at the restaurant and it was that commitment to customer service that made Superdawg stand the test of time. Increasingly those interactions are happening online, which doesn’t make them any less legitimate or meaningful, so we want to be there to provide the same customer service that we’ve always been known for. And our secondary goal is to make people who aren’t in Chicago jealous of the great food they’re missing..

What are your other responsibilities at your organization?

Laura is the General Manager at Superdawg’s Wheeling location while I am a social media strategist for a Northcutt inbound marketing, a boutique agency in the city. But it’s a family business, Laura’s grandparents are Maurie and Flaurie, so Superdawg is a big part of both of our lives.

What’s the mix of tweets you like to send out on any given day?

The first thing is always responding to any interactions that happen throughout the day. We also like to keep people up to date with any Superdawg related news and share some of the aforementioned food pictures. On top of that, we just try to have fun with it, mixing in any hot dog related news or interesting Chicago stories. As we’re only in Chicago (and now Wheeling), it’s pretty easy for us to keep a local focus and use Twitter to stay in tune with what’s happening around the city. So we’ll definitely get involved in some things in the moment and that has led to some of our more successful posts.

How do you interact with other organizations in (or outside) of your field?

We try to interact with every Twitter account, whether it’s a business or a person, like they’re someone who eats at Superdawg. We talk about other businesses and restaurants that we’re fans of on our Twitter account and try to have a very natural dialogue that goes both ways. We’ve had a lot of fun opportunities come about as a result of social interactions with other businesses, so we definitely don’t shy from interacting with anyone.

What’s the most valuable aspect of Twitter for your organization?

Our Twitter use has been at the root of some great partnerships and brought a good deal of attention to the restaurant, but the most valuable aspect will always be that it provides a great customer service outlet. For over five years we’ve built up a level of trust that people really know that they can bring any issue to us on social media and rely that we’ll get it taken care of.

What types of social media software do you use to manage the organization’s Twitter account?

Since it’s just the Superdawg and Superdawg Wheeling accounts, we both use the Twitter app and regular desktop login almost exclusively. There’s really no software to get in between us and the customer. When you send us a tweet, it’s going to the cellphone in one of our pockets.

Have you ever had any new and compelling partnerships come together via Twitter?

We’re actually involved in one of those partnerships right now. Through Twitter, we built a relationship with a local craft brewery called Lake Effect Brewing, who are also located on the Northwest side of the city. After months of planning and testing (mostly eating Superdawgs and drinking beer), we just recently put Superbier into production. We had a release party at the Garage Bar recently and it will be in bottles around the city this summer. The friendship with Lake Effect was started by a simple follow on Twitter.

How you respond to critics/complainers on Twitter?

We respond to everyone just like we would if they came to the counter with an issue. We generally try to move the interaction into direct messages so that it’s private or preferably email, so we’re not dealing with character constraints. There’s a tendency by some businesses to deflect legitimate complaints as troll-like behavior or ranting and raving, but I think it’s important to remember that just because someone is typing in all caps or seems like they’re irrationally upset on social media doesn’t make it less valid. We try to solve every issue. Now if someone just tells us we suck, we’ll generally ignore that.

Do you ever sponsor any special events (Tweet-chats, etc) to get a bit of buzz going around?

No. For us, Twitter is more about the day-to-day interaction and connecting with customers on an ongoing basis. We find that happens best organically.

So tell us: What are your go-to-Twitter feeds in your field? For fun? For Chicago goings-on?

We follow thousands of people and feel like our Twitter feed would be empty if any one of them was missing. We try to follow everyone we can in the hot dog industry mostly so we remember where we should be going to eat when we travel out of town. Obviously we follow all the big local news sources (ABC, NBC, CBS, DNAInfo, WGN, the Tribune, the Sun Times, Eater Chicago, Chicagoist, Huffington Post Chicago, yada, yada, yada), so we always know what’s going on in Chicago and the local food community. Since Superdawg is 66 years old, we’re fans of some of the other old-school Chicago places that are our kindred spirits on Twitter, like Eli’s Cheesecake, Lou Malnati’s, and Garrett Popcorn.

How does your company cover your feed? 24 hours a day? Weekends? Holidays?

Pretty much 24/7.

Any “aha” moments in your Twitter usage? Great revelations? “Uh oh” moments?

The “aha” moment would definitely have to be seeing the coverage of the hot dog emoji petition on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Long story short, encouraged by a Twitter conversation Superdawg had with some fellow Chicagoans (Jenny Pfafflin and Jonathan Surrat) Laura and I started a petition for a hot dog emoji to be added to the emoji language pack.” This was an almost entirely Twitter based campaign which gained local and then national attention and really just showed us that by doing things the right way and having fun with it, we’ve really created a captive community. No uh-ohs. Twitter has been an incredibly positive experience since the first day we joined. I even remember people welcoming us to Twitter on day one and thinking, “Awww, isn’t this nice.”

If you have more than one person responsible for your Twitter account, how do you keep the voice & tone consistent?

In over five years, every single tweet has been sent by my wife or me, so that’s allowed us not to have to worry about voice or tone consistency.

Who would you like to see interviewed next for this feature?

A local brewery. I’m into craft beer and would love to hear how one of the many local breweries is using Twitter to reach a growing and passionate customer base.

How does your organization promote your Twitter feed throughout your industry?

Twitter isn’t really about promotion to us. We have an incredibly active group of followers and by having real and honest interactions with them, we’re creating relationships that will hopefully last longer than Twitter.



Oh, you have twins?

Must be a lot of work.

How are things at Microsoft?

Glad to hear it.

Does your dad still work for Boeing?

Early retirement, sure.

Terse in their construction, any number of one liners dominate the patter of the event space, banquet hall, lounge, family-style restaurant or VFW hall where high school reunions take place. Doesn’t matter if it’s Sausalito or St. Petersburg, I can guarantee you the interactions will be mostly mundane.

By their very nature, they are placeholders, a type of simple cipher that stands in for questions that are much more baroque, weighty, and perhaps just too damn much to talk about over crudites and cocktails.

At my own twenty year high school reunion this past week in Seattle, I came for the good times, a bit of pleasantry, and the promise of “heavy hors d’oeuvres”. (Yes, hors d’oeuvres can be heavy. Wait, you didn’t know?)

Count me as among those who fell back on lazy inquiries (see above) and just mumbled out a few casual, noncommittal responses. In our own time, everyone can keep score in the Game of Life via Facebook (Divorced? Yup, showed up in the feed last week) and a host of other social media venues.

But, but, but: there’s something to just Being There. I mean, for god’s sake: we grew up in Seattle, right? I mean the early 1990s were the beginning of the boom, the Starbucks explosion, the grunge invasion, and so much more that stands in for broad generalizations about what the Emerald City is about to that broad swath of the Outside World.

I was there and it was just as I suspected. The cool girls showed up briefly and left, the laid back friendly folks chatted hard, fans of herbal essences took frequent breaks outside, and the people no one thought would show up did not in fact show up.

At the end of the night, we went to a club in the tres yuppified Belltown neighborhood called Cellars. Ludacris was in the (re)mix courtesy of the DJ, a large aquarium was a prominent decor element, and a fine time was had by all.

My mom called me the next morning to see how things went. After a brief discussion of the venue, the heavy hors d’oeuvres and the refined playlist (MTV Party to Go compilations, naturally), she asked “How is everyone?”

I felt my eyes close for a moment, then replied :”Twenty years have passed, but not much has changed”.