Teardrop Windows Crying in the Sky

How many times do musicians write an entire song devoted to a building? I can think of the occasional reference (e.g. FUN.’s “We Are Young” – my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State), but not one sustained throughout a whole song.

Then when listening to 102.7 the Peak, their “1 thing about 1 song” feature came on which I’m always eager to hear since I love discovering the stories behind songs. So I learned about “Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard that personifies the Smith Tower in Seattle.

Smith Tower: the hero in this story

Completed in 1914, it reached 38 stories and 149 metres – the oldest and tallest skyscraper in the city and on the West Coast until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It’s a rather sad song that goes in circles. The Smith Tower starts off lonely because there are no other friends to share the view with when it’s first built. Then the Space Needle comes and steals the view. Teardrop windows of the Smith Tower are left vacant, Seattle rain falling from their shutters. The building goes from lonely to lonely.

Space Needle: the antihero

Gibbard gives the Smith Tower such character, as if it’s a real person – not just named after a real person, Lyman Cornelius Smith. He gives the building architexture. His song demonstrates how similar people and buildings really are – the same relationship the Argentinian movie Sidewalls emphasized.

This story makes me want to drive down to Seattle and give the neoclassical building some love. Who doesn’t love the fallen hero? I also want to ride its elevators that are still operated by people (yes, actual people!), or at least were as of 2008 according to Wikipedia.

Elevator operators in the Smith Tower, Seattle – one of the last buildings on the West Coast to use them.

I even love the slogan on the Tower’s website. Instead of “brand new” which is such overused marketing speak, they call it Grand Old. Grand New. Simply Grand. There’s so much nostalgia captured in that phrase. Grand has that connotation: magnificent, eminent, distinguished, but also old. Like a grandfather. Like a person with many years, like a building with many stories. Forgotten stories to pass down to a younger generation with eyes open wide like windows. To fill.

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
He is all alone and wonderin’ why
Ivory white but feelin’ kind of blue

Cause there’s no one there to share the view

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

Built and boast as the tallest on the coast
He was once the city’s only toast
On old postcards, was positioned as a star
He was looked up to with fond regard

But in 1962, the needle made its big debut
And everybody forgot what it outgrew

He wonders where the workers are
Who once filled every floor
The elevators operate
But don’t much anymore
Anymore
Anymore

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
How the years have quickly past her by
Gleaming white ‘gainst the deepest baby blue
He is lonely just like me and you

Cause there’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And when the maids they turn out the lights
He just goes to sleep

-“Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard

Sidewalls

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and if you’re looking for a quirky, indie-type film about finding love in the age of urban alienation, I recommend Sidewalls (2011). It’s in subtitles. I’m not just recommending it for couples — in fact, I think it appeals more to those who often find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to love. Like the store windows Mariana designs and displays her mannequins in, the film navigates that lost space between inside and outside where you don’t really know what space you want to stand in and commit to. You want the city to see you but you also want it to swallow you.

I knew nothing about Buenos Aires before watching the film. I still don’t know much, but I did learn that it is a poorly planned city, a hodgepodge of architectural styles that looks like a blindfolded kid was handed way too many pictures and not enough cardboard and was told to make a collage. Just glue them all down!

Next to a tall one, a small one.
Next to a rational one, an irrational one.
Next to a French one, one with no style at all.
These irregularities probably reflect us perfectly. A esthetic and ethical irregularities. These buildings, which adhere to no logic, represent bad planning. Just like our lives:
We have no idea how we want them to be. We live as if Buenos Aires were a stopover. We’ve created a “culture of tenants”. (Martin)

the sidewalls between Martin’s and Mariana’s apartment buildings

There’s one way out of the oppression that results from living in a shoebox. An escape route: Illegal, like all escape routes. In clear violation of urban planning norms, there are a few tiny, irregular, irresponsible windows that let a few miraculous rays of light into our darkness. (Mariana)

You can probably already tell the film delves into the philosophical – and, of course, the architectural. I really liked the emphasis on how the architecture of the city reflects the architecture of our lives. People are not that different from buildings.

Martin and Mariana live in next-door apartment buildings and are perfect for each other in a city where they keep meeting other people who aren’t perfect for them. The only problem is Martin and Mariana have never met. A sidewall (medianeras) between their buildings separates or connects them, depending on which way you look at it.

I responded to the film with a poem. It probably only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie and, if you have seen it, you’ll recognize some lines taken directly from it:

Sidewalls by Charlene Kwiatkowski

power lines crisscross

rooftop to rooftop

apartment to apartment

 

buildings stack like dirty dishes

new china with old paris

a leaning tower of pizza

 

there is no view

behind this curtain of concrete

 

where’s waldo?

you find him at the airport, at the beach, at the mall,

but never in the city

 

if you can’t find a person when you know who you’re looking for

how can you find a person when you don’t know who you’re looking for?

 

winter is always long

full of existential questions

 

where’s waldo?

are his red and white stripes

these power lines connecting us

or dividing?

 

these buildings like faces

fronts and backs

boarded-up entrances

we don’t use anymore

 

we slip in and out by the sidewall

walk the same street, watch the same people

live such parallel lives

our lines never meet

 

Don’t let my poem mislead you though – watch the film yourself. And on the subject of side-by-side lives, check out this piece.

Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?

The Excitement is Building

If I was into Lego, I would be all over this new Architecture series, launched in 2008.

On their website, they have over a dozen products including the Burj Khalifa, the Sydney Opera House, Fallingwater, Robie House, Big Ben, the Seattle Space Needle, Brandenburg Gate, the Guggenheim Museum, Rockefeller Center, the White House, and more.

Big Ben:

Big Ben

Big Ben. Neo-Gothic clock tower in London. 1843-1859. By Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry.

Rockefeller Center:

Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center – 19 commercial buildings over 22 acres led by Raymond Matthewson Hood. Modern, Art Deco style. 1930-39. New York.

Lego store in Rockefeller Center

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum:

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright. 1943-1959. Art museum, New York.

Villa Savoye:

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. Modernist style. 1928-31. Country residence, outskirts of Paris.

Farnsworth House:

Farnsworth House

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. Modernist style. 1945-51. Glass pavilion/one-room weekend retreat outside of Chicago.

Fallingwater:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – most famous private residence. Pennsylvania.

Kids have the coolest toys these days. I’m sure this new series actually appeals more to adults though–the styles of these structures, the materials used, why they’re landmarks, etc. To apppreciate the significance of a house built above a waterfall, so that the inhabitants would hear nature instead of just see it, or an art museum that orients the viewer to experience a new way of walking and viewing an art gallery–in circles.

If you visit the Lego website, you can learn a bunch of cool facts about the buildings and the stories behind them. What a way to make architecture come alive to young, curious minds and small, active hands.

Reach for the Roof

Passing by these neon silhouettes at night, I felt I could have been in New York’s entertainment district, not Vancouver’s Gastown – the oldest part of the city characterized by brick and historic facades rather than modern silkscreen silhouettes that, from a distance, look like they belong on an iPod commercial as they raise the roof.

Silkscreen silhouettes on 60 W. Cordova, Gastown

On closer inspection, they’re actually standing on the shoulders of each other as they reach for the roof (or the sky). Gregory Henriquez, the architect of this condo project at 60 W. Cordova, explains their symbolism: “[The] silkscreen silhouettes of people standing on each other’s shoulders, holding up the building, is a metaphor for rising higher.” He has used visual art and poetry on other buildings in the Downtown Eastside:

Bruce Eriksen Place. Photo by Derek Lepper

The recently finished condo at 60 W. Cordova aims to turn renters into owners for those who have been shut out of the market. A partnership between Westbank Projects Corporation, Vancity, and Henriquez Partners Architects, the project intends to provide affordable homes to people with a Downtown Eastside connection – those who live/work here and desire to give back to their community.

Hence another metaphor for the silkscreen silhouettes – that of support, both physical and figurative. A building needs a sound structure and the support of people to come and stay into existence. It highlights the idea that architecture is a marriage between the hard city (the physical site and materials) and the soft city (the people who begin a building—architects, developers, and the the people who continue it—occupants, community members). This cycle is summarized on Henriquez Architects’ blog as people supporting people.

Even if this metaphor is lost on passersby, the silhouettes at least make great beacons at night showing 60 W. Cordova residents the way home to their stand-out condo.

Photo by Martha Perkins.

A New Face on Terry

In between visiting some friends from out-of-town in Vancouver this weekend, I hopped over to BC Place to see the new Terry Fox monument (new as in September 2011).

New Terry Fox memorial designed by Douglas Coupland. 2011.

“Monument” seems like the wrong word to describe these Terry Fox statues. Yes, there are statues plural — four of them actually, each showing a separate stage of Terry’s distinct step-hop gait. The figures become progressively larger as he runs westward (his final destination was to be Stanley Park), indicating Terry’s growing legacy since 1980, when he started his Marathon of Hope run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The old Vancouver monument for Terry Fox more accurately reflects the characteristics I associate with a monument: weighty, grand, symbolic, a structure of heroic proportions. The old classical triumphal arch designed by Franklin Allen surely is all that. I never saw this monument in real life (I tried once but it was covered up with a big white tarp while construction was being done on BC Place’s new roof), but apparently it received a lot of criticism and many people considered it an eyesore, which is not hard to see why.

Old Terry Fox monument designed by Franklin Allen. 1984.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy marks the old Terry Fox monument as the beginning of the postmodern era in Vancouver architecture in his essay “Plastic Lion’s Gate: A Short History of the Post Modern in Vancouver Architecture.”

Franklin Allen’s 1980s postmodern monument has all the signature moves of its time – a polychromed structure in the latest colours as well as a poly-textured structure with tile, brick, and steel. Four fibreglass lions sit atop the arch, symbolizing Terry’s heroism. All these elements combine to make this modern pastiche of a classical triumphal arch.

Pastiche is one characteristic of the postmodern architectural style — another is the irony of attempting to set in stone and make permanent something that is not permanent. How do you monumentalize a fleeting, short life such as Terry’s?

Trevor Boddy writes, “This sense of monumentalising the pungently ephemeral, of reconciling emotions with visuals, of rendering permanent a patter in the social electron flow of a few months duration, was crucial to the winning scheme’s selection by a jury not otherwise committed to postmodernism as theory or style” (Allen’s monument was the winner of a design competition).

How do we attempt to remember a significant person or event in history? Monuments surely are one way. Yet why did the old statue get so much criticism? Boddy explains because it didn’t include any visual representation of Terry, the person it attempted to remember. Boddy goes on to say that in order to appease the public outcry over this monument, etched steel plates bearing larger-than-lifesize photographs of Terry were placed inside the arch, much to the architect’s chagrin. I guess the symbolic fibreglass lions weren’t enough — we like to see images that resemble the person we are remembering.

Coupland's memorial from the back

So it’s interesting that over two decades later, a new memorial (I hesitate to say “monument” for the above reasons) of Terry Fox has replaced the old one, and the differences couldn’t be more obvious. In Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox sculptures, the public doesn’t just get one, but four images or motions of Terry, broken down into a four-frame cycle. They are open, life-like. You can walk around them. You might not even notice them from a distance because on a busy day around BC Place, Terry blends right into the crowd.

Can you see the statues?

Allen’s arch was ostentatious, noticeable, built to match a national hero; Coupland’s statues are subtle, built to commemorate a national hero but also to remember an individual whose single act of determination inspired hope, rallied the country, and changed lives — a determination meant to inspire and challenge us us on a personal level. It is this humanness and point of connection between Terry and ourselves that I come away with from the new memorial.

Coupland leaves us with these words: