marking Corbu

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Probably the smallest project I’ve ever done. And one of the most memorable. Intervening on the maddening wall of no relief in the cellule (the marks didn’t remain any longer than I did). Le Couvent Sainte Marie de La Tourette.

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L'abbaye du Thoronet

Added on by Timothy Brown.
thoronet exterior.JPG
thoronet cloitre.JPG

My research and practice preoccupations have been, for some time now, centered on the work of Mies and contemporary building enclosures. And especially how Mies’ work informed and continues to influence our thinking about building skins. But as my interest in contemporary lightweight, multi-layered enclosures tracked alongside architects’ obsession with fully glazed facades, architectural and environmental questions about the transparency mania have been harder to ignore.

A two-week stay in the south of France this summer allowed me to finally visit l’abbaye du Thoronet. It was the last building on my list of must-see/hope-to-sees. And in many ways an appropriate symbolic close to my architectural education. My first architectural epiphany occurred at Corbu’s Nôtre Dame de la Tourette while I was a grad student living in Genova. Since then I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with significant buildings and places - thirty years of trips dedicated to seeing buildings, including a decade of full-time architectural travel while I was at IIT. So my visit to Thoronet was a remarkable sort of double full circle in light of Corbu’s deep interest in the abbey when he was working on la Tourette. 

I’ve written of the pleasures of teaching masonry, especially to beginning students. Some of the wonder found in stone and brick is in their ability to speak so profoundly of place - of the local stone or nearby claybank. Today our masonry products ride in on the back of the warped economies of the building industry’s global logistics, meaning it can be cheaper to use stone from India than to use what’s available the next county over. But local masonry has an inherent capacity for tying a building to place - which seems to me one of the baseline objectives of what we do as architects. And an architecture of multi-wythe masonry is an architecture of mass. Mass as opposed to the multiple thin and differently performative layers of current wall systems. And an architecture of mass has in it the nearly forgotten space of poché.

So while one part of my practice interests are in thin-ness, the other is in Stanley Tigerman’s idea of material butter - the same inside as outside. Material all the way through the wall, the monolithic. The very idea seems helplessly retrograde. Although stacking and carving operations are fascinating as a building technique and the hand-sized units of masonry introduce possibilities for texture and variation, I find the technical simplicity of massive construction most compelling. And an architecture of mass tends to be inflexible; rapid reconfiguration of elements usually isn’t a design feature. I’m not making an argument for stability, fixity, or timelessness. I like that, though buildings can be loaded with sensors and actuators trying to react to my movements or anticipate my desire for a new carton of milk on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, there may be buildings to which, due to their intransigence, I have to react. Variously and continuously. Differently by season and over time.

It’s common to design lighting that has countless scenarios pre-programmed across a bunch of luminaires, controlled by a simple remote. But as I grow into architecture I find myself more enthralled by the ways sunlight through a window in the studio structures where I do what I do, throughout the day, and by season. I’ve found that I prefer engaging with the building rather than being in a building reacting to my caprices by flashing LEDS at me or making sounds.

I’m utterly unable to inhabit the world as an eleventh century Cistercian monk. Their world is unavailable to me so the way of living in and using the complex of the abbaye is also unavailable. Today the abbaye is a French monument national and considered a historical site of cultural significance and could be seen as in caesura. Stilled by the power of the State. Outside the quotidian flux of the world. So we come to the remnants, the pieces that survived or were restored as people from another world entirely but people still capable of responding to the stone, the colors, the articulations of surface, and the light and its shadows. Absent the daily rhythms of occupation by the Cistercians and finding only a portion of the abbaye relatively intact, we’re left with a kind of stripped down, reductive version. Not pure and not essential - just minimized. But the reduction does eliminate a certain degree of static. Understanding the heaviness and thickness seems elemental, a kind of architectural lesson on fundamentals. 

In a reversal that nicely doubles the circular nature of the visit, I came to the abbey via La Tourette whereas La Tourette, circuitously, arrived via Thoronet. During my time in Montepulciano I spent a lot of time at l’abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a Benedictine monastery below Montalcino in the val d’Orcia, so my expectations of Thoronet were informed. Somewhat. But I’ve spent weeks in La Tourette (much more time than I spent in Mies’ chapel at IIT) and it may be one of the buildings I know best. So Corbu’s translations of Thoronet were the frame of my visit. I essentially came to l’abbaye du Thoronet carrying with me a 1950’s Dominican friary.

The project for le couvent Sainte Marie de la Tourette came to Le Corbusier via his relationship with le Révérend Père Marie-Alain Couturier Le Corbusier and after the project for Sainte Baume and the construction of the chapel at Ronchamp. Couturier wrote Corbu encouraging him to visit Thoronet. “Il me semble qu’il y a là l’essence même de ce que doit être un monastère à quelque époque qu’on le bâtisse…” Corbu visited the abbaye and though the specific relationships between his design for la Tourette and le Thoronet are unclear, it nonetheless carried immense weight in the development of the project. 

Having dreamt of visiting Thoronet for so long, my visit wasn’t particularly easy. Arriving preoccupied with other concerns and, as always, being hemmed in by limited time and the exigencies of heavily visited tourist sites made for a hard segue from world to abbaye. After taking a few deep breaths, adjusting to the heat, settling into the landscape and making a slow walk around the abbaye time slowed. As occasionally happens, I never opened my sketchbook. The difficulty of climbing into that place right then was all I could manage. But simply moving through the spaces alternately hot and cool accompanied by the scent of lavender and the omnipresent sound of cicadas was a pure and ineffable experience only architecture affords. It was transcendent. And what has remained with me is the way in which the stone, monolithic and mostly unadorned, massive and heavy, vaporous and featherlight, cool from its weight and luminous as a surface, seemed to do everything at once. Enclosed, defined, enfolded, embodied massiveness, and held the secrets of void and hollow. In the end, confounding.


Added on by Timothy Brown.

The start of the trial of Laquan McDonald’s killer today has had me thinking about Chicago. It took four years to get here and trying to understand why that is can make you crazy. I have had a long, close, and complicated relationship to this city. And the ways in which the city has left so many of its citizens behind and the manifold failures of government and policing often leave one in despair. Remedies and solutions, or simply justice, so often seem just unobtainable. It’s a hard city.

I arrived in 1988 as a graduate student entering the M.ARCH program at UIC and, despite spending the majority of my time now in the South, I have yet to leave. I realized many years ago that as deeply involved as I have been with Chicago I could never, and would never, consider myself a Chicagoan. I’ve lived a lot of places and I’ve been more attached to places I’ve spent little time in than I am to Chicago. As much as I love Chicago, I have never felt like I was home there.

But when Amanda Williams was at Clemson to give a talk last fall I realized something. In spite of my not being a Chicagoan, I am, absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt, a Chicago Architect. Chicago formed me as a practitioner and professional. And most importantly, as a citizen-architect. The issues Chicago faces are the issues that animate my approach to architecture. I see our role as architects to be inescapably bound up with the most serious concerns of our society today. Chicago taught me that. Stanley Tigerman was the first of many educators, architects, and peers who showed me how we might conduct ourselves.

In spite of the horrible pain I often feel being so tightly bound into this maddening magnificent city, I am very proud to say I am a Chicago Architect.

21 January postscript: the Chicago police officer who killed Laquan McDonald was sentenced to 81 months in prison and three fellow officers involved in the cover up went free.

Return to the TBA blog

Added on by Timothy Brown.

The problem with teaching and practicing full-time has meant there’s been little time available for much of anything else. Especially over the past couple of years. But now that things have settled into something a little more balanced, there is time for thinking, drawing, and writing. I recently gave up on the empty echo chambers of social media with the realization that this was a better platform anyway.

The website will be rebuilt in the next few weeks and the sketchbook pages will be rolled into the blog - probably with a new working title…

drawing as thinking

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Kimbell, Fort Worth, Louis I. Kahn

Over the past few years I've explored a lot of ways to more easily grab fleeting thoughts, sketch, draw, capture images, and develop ideas whether drawing or writing. And although the digital toolbox allows for multi-media inputs, post-production manipulations, advanced searching, and relatively safe storage, none of the gadgets or apps I've come across answer to my larger concerns, or desires. And none of them are actually that much fun. So I find myself coming back to my sketchbook whenever I'm working. 

There's a way that drawing by hand on simple supports like paper provides for some connection between thought and expression that's fluid and virtually frictionless. I became an architect drawing and thus thinking by hand, and maybe that facility provides for this sense of souplesse. I'm not sure that the sketchbook would be as useful without a lot of time working in a sketchbook. But it seems to me that there are parallel routes towards an idea: one is thinking through drawing and the other is thinking through making. I don't consider making drawings to be the same a working by drawing. There are a lot of practices aimed at making drawings that look like drawings - the glorious travel 'sketch' is one of those types. I'd propose instead a way of drawing that doesn't aim to produce the sort of sketch that's carefully composed, well-proportioned, and, in short, beautiful. The drawing practice I have in mind is more like the use of a wrecking bar - it's a demolition tool. Drawing can be a way of taking an idea or a thing apart. It's ugly and messy and the residue isn't something anyone wants to see. But it's an extraordinary method of attack. I'd consider many of Michelangelo's sketches as examples.

Just ahead of the fall semester's launch a couple of years ago I went down to spend a weekend at the Kimbell. Two days of drawing, looking, and thinking. Filled a couple of sketchbooks and just sort of disappeared into Kahn's work for hours at a time. I sometimes think spending a decade in Europe in and around some of best buildings in the world taught me about architecture. Maybe, but the byproduct of looking hard at architecture for a decade was learning how to think through drawing. And the habit of interrogating buildings, like the Kimbell, with a pencil and sketchbook has the same smooth flow of idea and inquiry that is design.


Added on by Timothy Brown.

I'm as impressed as most any architect by the fairface finish concrete Ando and other folks can sometimes pull off. That feat speaks of planning, good specs, good mixes, and proper placement. An ultimate test for control freaks since the task is, in essence, to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. But that's about surface and touch and cosmetics and silk purses have only limited appeal for me. The notion that architectural concrete's real character is expressed in the close control of surface finish elides the real power of this material.

So it has always seemed very odd to me that the part of the structure that connects  to the ground, the building element that conveys all the above-grade structural gymnastics to the earth itself - the footing - is utterly ignored materially and conceptually. Architects typically don't even bother with drawing foundations, leaving that work to the engineers' standard details. Foundations, and particularly footings, disappear from sight so how they're made, their form and their finish, is irrelevant. The only important material qualities involve placement, cost, ultimate strength, and permeability. In NC we seldom even bother with formwork for footings; trench and pour.

Yesterday the concrete crew poured concrete footings atop this extraordinarily white prehistoric Lake Michigan sand at this small project in Lakeview. And I wondered what it would mean to exercise the care usually reserved for making concrete walls look a certain way to making the bottom face of the footing - the place where all we do above travels downward in a kind of exquisite chthonic embrace. Our best face towards Terra.



Added on by Timothy Brown.

Monday ground-breaking for a small project in Lakeview revealed beautiful white Lake Michigan sand about 36" down. All the mythical and poetic qualities which surround the act of opening up the earth were that much stronger in light of this remnant of the prehistoric edge of Lake Michigan.


architectural education

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Trying to get a screening of the full film at the CoA this fall. 

Logline Archiculture examines the current and future state of studio-based, design education. Synopsis Archiculture takes a thoughtful, yet critical look at the architectural studio. The film offers a unique glimpse into the world of studio-based, design education through the eyes of a group of students finishing their final design projects. Interviews with leading professionals, historians and educators help create crucial dialog around the key issues faced by this unique teaching methodology. Outline 1. Intro - Welcome to archiCULTURE 2. Design Education - So What Exactly is Design Education? 3. Studio Culture - Meet Your New Family 4. Critique - Desk Crits, Pin Ups, Juries O’ My! 5. Best Architects - Making it as an Architect 6. School vs. Practice - Two Worlds Collide 7. Starchitecture - The Plague of the Starchitect 8. New generation - The Designers of Tomorrow 9. The Future - I See Myself...

Source: http://vimeo.com/63420535

seminary co-op bookstore

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Tigerman McCurry's design for the new Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which has finally escaped basement gloom and head-knocking pipes, makes this the best place in the city to hang out with books. The Coop is one of the best bookstores in the country anyway and now they're in a nicely done new space. Being next door neighbor to the Robie House is gravy.

teaching masonry

Added on by Timothy Brown.
T, E, C

My role as director of the second year studio at IIT means that, along with teaching wood and masonry, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach these materials to architecture students. Which means I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about these materials in very basic terms. Wood, in all its variations, masonry, and especially stone. And for reasons perhaps related to my many years buried in the stone cities and buildings of Europe, but also to something more significant, immediate, and powerful, I am haunted by stones. I dream of the taste and smell of certain stones. Though I'm a southerner, I never ate dirt, but I do know well its many and varied tastes. Even now I can summon the taste of rocks from the creek on our land in the Black Mountains. I'm likewise haunted by the image of Assisi's pink stone shifting colors under a hard rain. And the color of San Biagio late on a May afternoon is one seared into my brain. I climbed for years and can recall in hyper-detail the feel of rock on certain climbs. The quality of friction provided by an outcropping on a particular pitch.

So finding this photograph recently was a kind of minor miracle. One because of the people in it. But also because of what it told me about things I didn't realize I had in me. My grandfather, my father, and my uncle at their rented house near Asheville.

bianchi + honda

Added on by Timothy Brown.


One of the smartest things I have ever done was to take a bike with me when I moved to Italy. I virtually rode the wheels off it touring around southeastern Tuscany during the time I lived there from 1994 to 2000.  The black Bianchi was a fantastic touring bike which let me ride the ubiquitous strade bianche and some moderate single track. Had heavy wheels, lots of braking, and three rings up front to deal with the monstrous climbs scattered all over the area. A lot of my students brought mountain bikes over and I would occasionally borrow one to ride with them up in the hills, but mostly I rode out to distant churches or hilltowns on the Bianchi. As is all too typical, I eventually got new bike lust and traded up to the Bianchi reparto corso I still ride. I still feel like I betrayed my first Bianchi upon which I really learned my corner of Tuscany. So I post this photo in homage to the best bike I ever had. My guess is that it's still being ridden by the guy who bought it from me.

Maybe the second smartest thing I did in those years was to buy a motorcycle at a shop over in Arezzo so I could get out further from where I lived in Castiglion Fiorentino and Montepulciano.  The Honda 400 touring bike was big enough to ride the Autostrade, but not big enough to get me killed. And I can tell you that riding a motorcycle through Tuscany and Umbria is one of life's most wonderful experiences. When I moved to Paris in 2000 I considered taking the Honda with me but the thought of riding around a crazy city where it rains all the time just seemed like a bummer, so I sold it. So double homage.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial

Added on by Timothy Brown.

The lukewarm to negative reviews of the newly dedicated memorial and yesterday's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday made me think about our competition entry for the memorial in 2000. From our submission:

Our proposal calls for extensive fill thereby raising the ground level along this same line to a high point of 5m near the site’s centroid, thereby effectively inverting the site’s “natural” declination. From the new rise the fill then tapers to the northern and western confines while forming an embankment falling to a long retaining bench backing a traprock paved surface which echoes the arc of the basin’s edge and the grove of cherry trees. The two significant structures and the major hard surfaces are, consequently, peripheral leaving the large central grassed area programmatically vacant. The resulting topography and evacuation of programmed use-space at the site’s center serves to slough off the obsessively cast network of axial delineations and suppress the normative centripetal monumentalism of Washington. Two continuous rows of tall, fragrant loblolly pines, one running along Independence Drive and another along the western access road to the define the memorial precinct. A row of low dense crab apple trees parallels the loblollies on the west while an existing stand of dogwoods will remain along a section of Independence.

We are proposing two structures; the first of which is a trellis made of lightweight steel and skinned pine poles, planted with wisteria, that runs along the entire northern edge filtering, with the adjacent loblollies and dogwoods, the movement and traffic noise on Independence while providing for views south across the site to the tidal basin. The second structure, covalent to the trellis, is a low ribbon of very large and solid sections of cast glass running north to south along the western side of the site for its entire length. Embedded within the glass block castings are display screens for video and film programming.

The majority of visitors will encounter the opalescent glass structure entering into the memorial after passing beneath the line of loblollies. The low, wide run of cast glass, a translucent horizontal counter to the massive vertical opaque  materiality of the surrounding monuments, is illuminated by the evanescent video and film images being shown on the embedded screens.  The glass sections will be cast off the ground at particular sites that carry great significance to the historical narrative of the movement, thus commemorating in a quiet way its origins in the “local” and the fugitive immediacy of “place”.

As always, not winning was a disappointment but in this case it was doubly so since the approach selected reverted to a mostly stale idea about a monument and not a memorial. Many thanks to Ellen Grimes, who developed all the really good ideas in our project.

Doug Garofalo

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Word came this morning of Doug Garofalo's death on Sunday. And all the light immediately drained from what had been a pleasant summer day. The sad reality of his absence has just grown more insistent in the hours since. Chicago has lost one of its kindest, most generous and best architects. We've also lost the most gracious person I've ever known.

I first met Doug in New Haven when he was a finishing his Masters at Yale and met him again a few months later here in Chicago at UIC where he had just started teaching and I had just started studying. He was my professor, my adviser, later a collaborator, and then a colleague and friend. I've never known anyone like Doug. I doubt I will again know anyone like Doug.

Now, as the hours pass and the news slowly assumes its brutal outlines, contemplating a world without him means having to accept a world that will have a little less color, less delight; a world missing some great portion of thoughtfulness, one where wonder is less available, and worst of all, one that is a lot colder.