Industrial Architecture in Berlin: P. Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory

I tricked two friends to ride 15 kilometers from our hotel on rented bikes to check out the architect Peter Behrens’ 1909 turbine factory on a recent unseasonably freezing cold morning. Michael Graham and his partner Phil Leiderbach of Leiderbach and Graham Architects in Chicago were in Berlin with me for a design conference and they actually were planning on visiting the very same building, only they had the sensible idea of taking a car. Adventure won out over comfort however. I really can’t get a feel for a city unless I walk or bike through it. If I am driven or take the subway, I experience it as a series of disconnected points, and can’t stitch any of the geography together. Once we figured out we all had the same plan we pedaled away, with only a brief visit to a hardware store for an emergency purchase of gloves for frostbite mitigation. We saw this striking building along the way; a city jail, with this none-too-subtle sculpture on the façade.

Behrens’ AEG Turbine building was built for the manufacture of steam turbines. It was put up quickly, talking only a brief 8 months and made of mainly glass, steel and concrete. Its aesthetic power comes in large part from the expression of the dynamic forces in its engineering. Behrens treated those forces and the functional needs of the manufacturing process (for instance the need for large column-free spaces, high ceilings, and huge windows for illumination) as principal design elements. But this building is not a plain engineering exercise; Behrens manipulates the expression of the structure’s and the fabrication process’ needs as if they were a design tool set. Neither does Behrens limit himself to a purely functional vocabulary. I was struck by the essentially classical handling of the building. It’s anchored by large, rounded, rough-aggregate concrete corners, scored with horizontal channels. The scoring recalls massive, simple, masonry construction. These corner elements tilt inward significantly (reminding me of ancient near eastern or Cycladic architecture) and set up a tension with the steel column legs of the building frame. The long façade that stretches down Berlichengenstrasse has a strongly rhythmic feel. The masonry and glass modules seem in tension with the columns separating them.

 

I was completely prepared to be underwhelmed by a building I studied at length in college and was familiar with only in vintage black and white slides. My experience of much modern industrial architecture is that it holds up pretty poorly to both its bottom line driven requirements as well as the weather; the business side having no sympathy for aesthetics and history over productive use (and often changes uses) and (usually) poor quality, cheap, materials used in construction not wearing well over time. The Turbinenfabrik defied my expectations. First of all, it’s still standing (which I knew, of course, but…). If I was directing bombing raids over Germany in WW2 any prominent turbine factories would have been reduced to rubble. Secondly, it underwent a decent maintenance/restoration in the 1970s. It’s in pretty great shape from all external appearances. Thirdly, it’s beautiful and has a dramatic street presence. Set back on a wide sidewalk, on a corner lot, you can easily appreciate the classic base, body and gable/cornice arrangement as well as the play between massive concrete, tense steel, and sheer glass. The concrete is a pretty tawny color with big aggregate showing. The glass appears to be original and the steel is not rusting wildly, in fact it was painted a pretty olive green on the Huttenstrasse façade. Lastly, it’s still a turbine factory. You can hear the machinery humming as you walk around the building.

We all had the brilliant idea of trying to improvise a tour inside and walked into the office at the opening of the courtyard. Before we could open our mouths a guard met us with a friendly “NO”. I think perhaps he had seen pleading architectural enthusiasts before. Certainly he was immune to our charms.

 

-David Calligeros

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Hiking by Design: Solstice Canyon

Valerie Thomas of Remains Lighting Los Angeles will be leading a hike to Solstice Canyon in Malibu this Saturday April 27th to explore two of her favorite passions: hiking and design.

Valerie will guide an easy 4 ½ mile loop through Solstice Canyon. The initial incline and overall elevation gain of 800 feet will get hearts pumping, but the hike will be at a relaxed social pace.

This hike, in a lush Malibu canyon, passes a babbling brook, some great vistas and the ruins of the Roberts Ranch House, built in 1952 by architect Paul Williams. The Tropical Terrace, as it was known, was destroyed by fire in the 1980s. The ruins give a clear shape of Williams’ design, which was all about the natural setting. This is a hidden gem of LA architecture with stone walkways and brickwork, fireplaces with chimneys still intact, and vintage appliances in the kitchen!

  Before the fire: Julius Shulman’s shot of the interior of the Tropical Terrace.


The ruins of the Roberts Ranch House today.

Hikers will also see an 1865 stone cottage built by Matthew Keller, the oldest stone building in Malibu.

The group will meet at 10am near the amphitheater. There is parking just off Corral Canyon Road. The hike should take approximately 2 hours, depending on the group. And there are great lunch spots nearby at the Country Mart for those who have worked up an appetite!

Trail Map

For more information on Solstice Canyon

For more about Paul Williams and the Roberts Ranch House

If you are interested in joining the hike, please contact Valerie directly: valerie@remains.com or call her on 646-723-2488 with any questions.

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From Darkness, Light

It’s spring. Buds are breaking on twig tips, fine sprays of grass fringe walkways, and a shifting palette of salt, slate and blue in the foggy mornings lifts to reveal gently sunny afternoons.

With spring comes an itch to move: I’ve been dying to get out of town.

So it was perfect timing for “Cities within a City,” the first of the Southern California Institute of Classical Architecture’s local tours.

I drove about an hour south of Los Angeles Saturday morning with a fresh iced coffee, and met a host of new and familiar friends at the fountain at Malaga Cove Library in Palos Verdes. A herd of lithe young people were stretching on the grass by the plaza, their bicycles propped nearby.

They would ride the ragged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, hidden from view just beyond the stands of pepper and eucalyptus trees.

The inscrutable sound of peacock cries echoed around the hills.

After a morning tour of the plaza and the public buildings at Malaga Cove, we convened in the courtyard of my friend Steve Shriver’s home out near Portuguese Bend for an intimate al fresco lunch. The home was built by Los Angeles luminary Gordon Kaufman. The Shriver family has lived at The Farmstead, as it’s called, since 1984. A humble set of apartments, they were actually the service buildings of a grand imagined but unrealized Italianate home overlooking the ocean.

Steve is an artist, and this is an artist’s home. Surfboards are propped in the horse stables. The coastal land is settling constantly, revealing fissures and charm in the thick plaster.

One bit of charm the home recently revealed is an age darkened folio that Steve found in the attic: the sheaf contains a set of watercolor renderings of light fixtures that were designed for the home when it was being built in the 1920s.

Steve had mentioned these drawings to me some time ago, knowing my interest in antique lighting. I could not have anticipated my delight in finally seeing them in person.

A precisely metered cursive, penciled almost 100 years ago, captions the drawings. Gentle wrinkles and a wide border naturally frame each drawing.

The watercolor renderings would fit in the palm of your hand. The B.B. Bell Company proposed a series of wrought iron lights for the Levinson Estate, aka The Farmstead. There is little information about B.B. Bell floating in the ether, but they are credited with lighting the Adamson House in Malibu, and Greystone, the Doheny Mansion in the hills not too far from where I live and work in Los Angeles.

The Bell artist handles the bleeding color deftly, revealing the twist in the iron framing, spikes rising like a crown around a glass lantern body, the open mouth of a dragon peering down from a wall bracket.

Charcoal and slate and a cadmium-bright yellow whisper over the graphite, the color illuminating the sketches.

I imagined the bare terraces of the peninsula when it was first being developed in the 1920s, and in turn the Bell designer imagining how his dark, scrolling lanterns would sway in the sea breeze. Wall sconces hanging from elaborate brackets would illuminate the gate posts of the quiet, thick walled villa.

Some of the fixtures were less Mediterranean – simple geometric forms fashioned from sheet metal. The artist mottles the dark colors representing the metal as if anticipating the patina that sea air and salt would bring naturally over time.

To catch the likeness not just of metal, but light, and glass. My heart leapt at these:

The crackling edge of a pale color used to render the glass seems to glint off the page.
When I think about the photographs of our lights that I print by the dozens, I am stunned. (And that’s not at all to diminish the artistry of our in house photographer, Jerome. His detail shots regularly make me catch my breath). But these renderings are one of a kind, and stand as art in their own right, with no need of the artisan-made lights that they conjure.

Sadly, the lights were never made. I wondered if that might be because the main house was never built, but the notes make it clear that they were proposed for the outbuildings. The captions note fixtures for Entry, Lavatory, Service Porch, Outside of Tool Room, Bath Lavatory, Servant’s Hall. Humble spaces to support a grand villa.

And those numbers? 1920s pricing!

Steve does have some beautiful lanterns on the gateposts before his home. And I saw a light on the Villa Francesca just down the road that looked a lot like one drawn for the Farmstead. Villa Francesca is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Whether or not the light is by Bell, I think the spirit lingers here.

-Valerie Thomas, Remains Lighting Los Angeles

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Sugaring on the Farm

Recently, one of our colleagues based in Vermont has been lending a hand in her spare time to a different kind of artisanal producer, she’s helping to haul in this year’s crop of maple sap.

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.comEach year during Vermont’s famous mud season, when the days start to warm and the nights still dip well below freezing, the maple sap begins to flow and is harvested by sugarers across New England. On Daph-A-Dill Ranch in Pawlet, Vermont, Chris and Daphne Ross are still collecting sap the same way their parents and grandparents did, in galvanized aluminum buckets that are collected each day into large holding tanks, hauled down to the sap house by tractor, and boiled into maple syrup.

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

-David Calligeros

All photos by Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.com

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Please turn off your lights for Earth Hour

This Saturday at 8:30pm (local time, wherever you are) turn off your lights, even if they are beautiful, and you bought them from Remains, and leave them off for at least an hour.

Join me, the WWF, and participate in Earth Hour, a symbolic, mass action to show an interest in sustainability.

I know shutting your lights for an hour is not a huge deal in itself. In aggregate, is it something huge. In past years a couple hundred million people participated.

Though the event will temporarily cut electricity use, and its attendant pollution, the main point is to raise awareness of our actions’ impact on the earth. No-one thinks this one hour of avoided pollution will sort out our problems with an out of balance sustainability equation. You start with a small step, a thought with a tangible action, and you start thinking of other things that make a positive impact. Check out the website *after your electricity-free hour* and look into the challenges they pose, or create your own challenges and post them to the Earth Hour site.

-David Calligeros

 

 

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Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home, More on the Shedd Aquarium

After exhausting the possibilities of the front rooms of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and pestering the staff for more information on the fixtures (they had none) and on any other old, original parts of the building (“this is it”), I resigned myself to buying a ticket. How could I come to the aquarium and not look at the fishes? That reminds me of the first time my son took his feet off the bottom and began to swim. He had his face stuck in the water with a mask on, arms outstretched and paddling to give him balance, agog with the tropical fish in the shallows of a beach on Kauai. He started swimming unconsciously to follow one or another of the brightly colored little beguilers and later popped up to declare “I’m the best fishy-looker!”

Oops, where was I? please excuse the digression. The fish, snakes, turtles… and ESPECIALLY the Beluga whales were awesome. I would come to the Shedd Aquarium even if there weren’t dusty old lights to gawk.

As I was leaving, I tried to get a few more pictures of the lights. I tried longer shots, tried climbing up on a ledge to get a better vantage point for seeing the octopus heads and was thinking about climbing on top of a trash can (at this point, having seen what I came for, it wouldn’t matter if I was kicked out, so what the heck?) when the friendly desk attendant who put up with my non-fish-related questions earlier came over and gave the squid eye. “What are you doing here, by the way, writing a book?” I told her about my interests. She was completely friendly (I had not yet climbed up on any trash cans) and waved me over to a set of large wooden doors. “There’s some more old lights. Let’s see if we can get you in here” she said. She popped her head through the doors and let me into the director’s office for a little treat. The ceiling still had two original pendants with cast bronze suspension hardware. By the by, all the rope details in bronze on the Shedd’s fixtures are highly original and unexpectedly naturalistic. The opaline shades are cast glass, like Lalique but of uncertain provenance, densely detailed with fish chasing fish among waves, corals and seaweed. The portrait behind the director’s desk, flanked by a pair of simple thistle-detailed sconces, is of Mr. Shedd who died shortly before the building was officially opened.

Now, as to the attribution of this group of lighting, I would make a tentative claim to the Sterling Bronze Co.’s authorship. That’s based solely on the arms of the sconces in the director’s office which correspond closely with other examples of the company’s work that I have handled. Contradictorily,  I read in a book on the Shedd Aquarium (in their gift shop) that the fixtures were made by the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago. I had also seen a note on the site of the company that worked on the exterior sconces that they were made by the Sterling Bronze Co. of Chicago. I can find no information on the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago and the Sterling Bronze Co. was based in NY. I give a bit of weight to the company that handled the exterior fixtures as SBC often signed their work. A restorer may have found the mark in the course of their work and simply guessed incorrectly at the city.

To stir up yet more murkiness into the waters, I have this small set of sconces in my collection, star fish pattern with seahorse paintings, that I bought along with a silver E. F. Caldwell bowl from an estate sale. E. F. Caldwell was the principal competitor of the Sterling Bronze Co.

Tantalizingly, there were banners in one of the exhibits, the backgrounds of which were blueprints of the building’s design. While they were in no way detailed enough to shed light on the Shedd’s fixtures, they suggest that the original drawings are extant and accessible to scholars. Maybe next time…

-David Calligeros

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Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home – Nudibranches

I had a few hours between meetings to explore the Shedd Aquarium, part of Chicago’s lakefront neoclassical cultural campus including also the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. The Shedd was conceived by John G. Shedd, designed by architect Philip B. Maher and opened in 1930 under the directorship of Walter Chute.

I walked over from the massive Conrad Hilton Hotel just a few blocks north. I was not principally interested in the live fish, dolphins, whales, eels and other marine life. My quarry was frozen in marble, bronze, and leaded capiz. I had heard that the Shedd had a program of notable nautical themed lighting that I wanted to see for myself.

The Doric portico has five entrances, with two revolving doors on each side of a central double door. The revolving door-surrounds and the entire double door are original. Unfortunately the original leaves of the revolvers have been replaced with anonymous modern doors. All of the original architectural details in stone and bronze are detailed with exquisite, nearly lifelike, and charming marine life. There is a riot of turtles, starfish, snails, lobsters, squid, skates, dolphins, jellyfish, and corals.

Under the portico, at the entrances, are a pair of tall bronze hexagonal wall lanterns. The backplates are in the form of starfish and the galleries have alternating crabs, squid, turtles, and seahorses. These were unfortunately “restored” recently, removing the weathered verdigris you can see on the rest of the exposed metalwork.

The revolving door surrounds, in addition to the seahorses and scallop shells, have grillework detailed with snail shells and starfish alternating in a fishscale pattern. I love snails. Snails are as beautiful and strange as they are generally unloved.

That reminds me of the giggle fits I’d get from my kids when I told them about Nudibranches. Nude! Nudi NUDE! Ha ha ha. There is a great slideshow on the New York Times website on nudibranches. Nudibranches are a type of snail that sheds its shell, and they are beautiful, which is slightly odd since most people think of the shell as the defining characteristic (and the most decorative one at that) of a snail.

The central double door entry surround in white marble has a pediment sculpture of two large toothy fish swimming among fan corals and a large scallop shell, about to chomp on small lobsters. The doors themselves are made of four bas relief panels depicting sea robins and angel fish. The castings are very finely detailed for architectural work, showing chased eyes and fins. These panels are bordered by imbricated sand dollars, rope twist, and (almost unbearably charming) petit turtles and starfish (I know, more starfish?).

Through these doors is the grand hall. This space is pretty well as it was 83 years ago. The marble wainscoting, the bronze and wood doors, and the original ceiling fixtures are largely intact. Directly overhead are three stunning lanterns with leaded capis shell bodies grasped by lifelike bronze octopuses*.  The two on the sides have tapering hexagonal bodies. The center is a large sphere. These are just the coolest things. I am 100% ready for a commission to light an aquarium.

There are a few large double tiered chandeliers that illuminate the main space with exposed lamps and panels of painted glass. The glass is painted of course with sea life (frogs, snails, fish, turtles, lobsters, crabs, etc.)

The revolving doors are boxed out in the interior with more amazing cast bronze grillework and paneling detailed with starfish, corals, lobsters, and jellyfish.

In the right and left sides of the back of the main hall, hanging from the arches that give onto the first tanks of live exhibits are these dolphin-detailed signs.

Hanging from the center archway is a bronze clock. The clock faces and circumference are glazed in white glass, overlain with small cast creatures, in the place of numbers. In the Shedd aquarium, time is not simply 10:20…  this clock will read Crab’o’frog ‘o’ clock or half-past the squid . Time for a snack of plankton and sea cucumbers! Meet you in the cafeteria?

Under this clock are a facing pair of wall sconces in the shape of large stingrays, their heads facing down and their tails curling up to support nautilus shell shaped light shades made of leaded capis shell panels.

For the record, I really don’t mean to be flippant about the descriptions of this material. It is unbelievably fine and beautiful and fun. I only wish there were less repetitious ways to describe it all while also being exhaustive in its cataloging.

Around the periphery of the Caribbean Reef exhibit room are a set of torchieres with leaded nautilus shell shades matching the stingray sconces described above. The shades are held on lacy, five-legged stanchions of twined seaweed, the bases of which are plump starfish.

Lastly, in a side lobby to a reception desk, are a set of pendants with curved leaded glass shades with cast bronze superstructures. The work on these is on par with the design and execution of the rest of the fixtures, but shockingly I can make out no overt watery references. I suppose I’ll have to settle for just plain old and well-made.

 

-David Calligeros

 

*The English language plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi. If Octopus had a Latin root, perhaps one could make that claim. However, octopus is a Greek-rooted word and if one was inclined to such things the Greeklish plural would be something like octopodes.

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Self-Affirmation through the Choice of Highly Aesthetic Products

Dear readers, This may be old news to those of you whose subscriptions have not lapsed to the Journal of Consumer Research, but buying good-looking products evidently makes you feel better about yourself. My friend and colleague Alice Kriz called my attention to the August 2012 edition which carries a study Self-Affirmation through the Choice of Highly Aesthetic Products by Claudia Townsend and Sanjay Sood in which it was demonstrated that participants who picked out a better looking lamp (over perhaps a better functioning but less attractive one) increased their self esteem.

Another benefit of buying good looking product was that the participants were more open minded after their purchase. Perhaps with the positive glow of just acquiring something beautiful, they were more at peace with themselves, less guarded, and more empathetic to others’ views.

“What our research shows is that purchasing an attractive item causes a person to feel better about themselves {sic} and this ‘affirmation effect’ frees them up, mentally, to admit to the error in their ways. The result is that they no longer need to justify their initial bad investment with additional funding and consequently make better decisions.”

This is music to my ears. Music, I tell you: Buy beautiful lamps, feel great, and keep an open mind… perhaps you should buy some more beautiful lighting. I sense a virtuous cycle. Can I interest you in a pair of beautiful lamps?

 

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