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    This Gamble Pays Off

    In the movie Back to the Future, there’s a memorable scene shortly after Marty McFly time-travels back to 1950s California. Marty looks up Doc Brown in the phone book and heads over to his house. Doc doesn’t recognize Marty when he opens the door but he drags him inside anyway.  The scene is memorable because Doc’s house (the exterior, at least) is recognizable to any student of American architecture. Welcome to Pasadena’s Gamble House.

    Greene and Greene’s Gamble House

    Maybe you guessed this Gamble wasn’t won in a wager (although it would’ve been a handsome payoff!)  Rather, it was built for a member of the (Proctor &) Gamble family who liked the look of his next-door neighbor’s place.  That house, and many others on the same street, was designed by sibling architects (Charles) Greene and (Henry) Greene.  The Gamble House is perhaps their most famous design.

    Front doors and foyer

    The Greene brothers, who studied architecture at MIT, made a significant stop on their journey to the West Coast.  They spent time at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  While there, they picked up design influences from the temple look of the Japanese pavilion (wood construction, tiled roofs, open verandas).

    Dining area

    The Greene and Greene “ultimate bungalow” look, with its liberal use of dark wood slats and panels, became known as the Craftsman style of architecture.  This label was all the more fitting because the Greene brothers also studied furniture design, and incorporated many custom pieces into their houses.  Even more impressive, the finished look relies on elegant leather straps and wooden pegs as fasteners; not a nail or screw in sight.

    Main staircase

    The Gamble House is 6,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor living, in concert with California’s mild temperatures.  You can tour the house courtesy of the USC School of Architecture students who get to live there every school year (luckies!)  A separate tour walks you through the neighborhood to see other Greene and Greene designs.  But the Gamble remains their masterpiece.  And if you ever see this inviting residence, you may wish you owned a time-traveling DeLorean to take you back to its heyday in the early 1900s.

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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    LEGO Fallingwater – Update #3  (Read how this project got started in Perfect Harmony)

    I find it funny how this Fallingwater model is “rising” off of its foundation at the same time the water below is “falling”.  It’s like I’m going in opposite directions at the same time.  20 pages (or 22%, or 83 minutes) into the build, this is what we have.

    As you can see, the stream is now “built” from the front of the house all the way to the back, with the modest waterfall front and center.  We also have our first piece of “landscape”, that dark green strip you see on the left.  Otherwise, we’re still at the foundation level.  I expect the house to rise dramatically in the next few chapters of the build.

    LEGO “wrench”

    Here’s something unnerving about this model.  You don’t really understand what you’re building as you go.  You’re putting together very small pieces which look like, well, LEGO blocks, until you stand back and take the whole model in.  For this reason, you have to build very, very carefully.  I still got the location of a few pieces wrong and had to utilize my handy-dandy wrench to yank them out.  It’s like pulling teeth.

    Tune in next Thursday as construction continues!  Now for another nod to Frank Lloyd Wright…

    Petttit Memorial Chapel

    Over five hundred structures were built from the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, but only one of those five hundred is in a cemetery.  That would be the Pettit Chapel in Belvidere, Illinois.  Dr. Pettit was a beloved physician of his time, and his sudden passing prompted his wife to hire Wright to design a graveside chapel as a memorial to the man.

    Pettit Chapel

    The design of the “petite” Pettit is very much in line with Wright’s signature Prairie Style.  The low roof lines, broad eaves, and high horizontal bands of glass are typical.  Wright used the shape of a cruciform – common in medieval cathedrals – to house the smallest of sanctuaries, as well as two open-air porches and a central fireplace.  He then added storage, restrooms, and a furnace so the chapel could be used for public functions.

    The Pettit Chapel has survived since its construction in 1906, thanks to restorations in 1977 and 2003.  The chapel is open to the public, and, like many structures designed by Wright, included on America’s National Register of Historic Places.

    Some content sourced from The Museum of Lost Things website article, “The Real ‘Back to the Future’ House”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.


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    Get Your Feet Wet!

    I love urban plazas where water jets through an array of holes at ground level, creating fountains and arcs at random. Watching kids run and play in the midst of these unpredictable showers brings a smile. It’s also a creative way to cool off. Down in Texas, where it always seems to be hot, they’ve created an entire garden of water, where you can get your feet wet in all sorts of ways. Welcome to Fort Worth’s Water Gardens.

    Fort Worth Water Gardens

    Maybe you don’t think of an outdoor venue as “architecture” but the fact is you don’t need walls and a ceiling to define space.  The Water Gardens are a perfect example.  This city block oasis pops up (er, down), unexpectedly as you pass through the urban grid of Fort Worth.  Most of the park is hidden below street level but you can’t miss the rising mist and symphony of moving water.  It’s a celebration of sorts, urging you to join in on the fun.  The few photos I share here don’t begin to do it justice.

    The Water Gardens challenge my logical brain because there’s no rhyme or reason to their haphazard design.  Maybe that’s the point.  Wander, gaze, and “soak in” their five acres.  The Gardens are a multi-faceted experience of water.  Phillip Johnson (one of America’s foremost architects), and John Burgee (a graduate of my own university) designed the Water Gardens to include “… pathways, wayside stops, events, and hideaways to draw out the experience, to convey more of the sense of a Central Park… than its limited acreage would’ve suggested possible.”  That may be saying a lot about a little, but consider the Gardens’ offerings:

    Quiet Pool

    The “Quiet Pool” sits at the base of twenty-foot walls.  Water descends almost silently down the stone from a trough above.  Deep in the Gardens by the pool itself, you’re so far below ground level it’s as if the city has somehow been relocated far, far away.

    Aerated Pool

    The “Aerated Pool” is a nod to the water jets I mentioned above.  Forty nozzles create an “orchard” of water in this smaller pool, the tops of the “trees” reaching back to the ground level of the city above.

    The “Mountain” is a series of stepped concrete terraces, descending to a corner of the park removed from the water elements.  Sitting on the Mountain is almost like being blindfolded.  You can hear the rush of the Water Gardens nearby; you just can’t see them.

    Active Pool. Watch your step!

    The “Active Pool” is the largest and most distinctive feature of the Water Gardens, literally a canyon through which the water streams and falls, terminating in a pool thirty-eight feet below the ground.  A series of open steps dares you to descend through the water from top to bottom (check out this video for a sense of the experience).  The Active Pool gained notoriety in the final scene of the movie Logan’s Run, as the inhabitants of the dystopian city climb into the outdoors for the very first time.

    The major elements of the Water Gardens are tied together by a central plaza, where you can experience everything from one location.  But to do so would betray the Gardens’ intent.  They’re meant to be a moving experience, much as the water itself rushes, mists, and pools throughout.

    Architecture is structured, while landscape is unstructured.  Blend the two and the result can be unlike anything you’ve seen before.  The Water Gardens beckon you to escape, to wander, to contemplate, and most importantly, to get your feet wet.  Will you accept their invitation?

    Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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    LEGO Fallingwater – Update #2  (Read how this project started in Perfect Harmony)

    The instruction manual for LEGO Fallingwater includes about ninety pages for the assembly, so I figured I’d divide the build into nine equal parts.  In the spirit of today’s topic, I proceeded to “dive in”.

    Heaven help me.

    You see, the 3,000+ pieces of the LEGO Grand Piano were separated into twenty-one numbered bags.  Build one bag at a time – easy-peasy.  On the other hand, the 800+ pieces of the LEGO Fallingwater model are separated arbitrarily into nine bags, with no indication of what piece is where.  It’s like opening a jigsaw puzzle and realizing every piece looks almost exactly the same.

    This scene is even scarier when you click to zoom in…

    I took a photo of my desk so you could see how much chaos I created on my first day.  Did I open all nine bags in search of pieces?  Yes, I did.  Did I consider just dumping all of the pieces into a big pile so I could search in one place? Yes (but I was afraid there was good reason they’re separated into nine bags).  Did I build part of the model wrong and have to backtrack?  Absolutely (and thank goodness for that little orange wrench you see next to the scissors.  It came with the LEGO Grand Piano and unsnaps pieces that are snapped together incorrectly).

    Ten pages (or 11%, or 49 minutes) into the build, this is what we have.  We’re looking at Fallingwater from the same angle as the photo above, only all we’ve got is the lowest perimeter foundation wall and a spill of waterfall and creek emerging from the front corner.  Not very exciting.  Tune in next Thursday as the construction continues.  Now for another nod to Frank Lloyd Wright…

    Romeo and Juliet Windmill

    For all of his famous residential and commercial projects, Frank Lloyd Wright had plenty of lesser-known designs, such as the Romeo and Juliet Windmill in Wyoming, WI.  The tower was commissioned by Wright’s aunts, to pump water to a nearby school where they taught.  You might describe its shingle-clad look as quaint but in fact, the design is intentional.  The taller piece in the rear (“Romeo”) serves as structural support to counter the prevailing winds of the area.  Romeo also contains the mechanics of the windmill and water pump.  The cupola-topped octagonal piece in front (“Juliet”) is largely ornamental and softens the look of the tower when observed from further down the hillside.  Neither part of the tower can really stand on its own, hence the name “Romeo and Juliet”.

    Some content sourced from the website for Fort Worth Parks and Trails, and from Johnson/Burgee: Architecture, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.


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    Crowned Jewel

    A little south and a little west of our downtown proper, you’ll find a wide street with stately old homes. The homes sit to the back of their properties, playing second fiddle to lines of majestic oak trees closer to the street. Overhead, the tree branches are densely intertwined, barely allowing the sun to peek through, creating a cozy, comforting canopy as you drive through. It’s a look that could’ve inspired the design of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

    Thorncrown Chapel

    When I gushed about Fallingwater in last week’s Perfect Harmony, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit some of my favorite American architecture as I share the adventure of my LEGO model build.  Were it not for my architecture degree in college I probably wouldn’t be aware of these beautiful structures.  Instead, all these years later I can recall my favorites from memory.  They’re a diverse bunch but I think they exemplify almost-perfect spaces, thanks to the work of the architect behind the scenes.

    Thorncrown Chapel is an appropriate choice to lead off my list.  Just like Fallingwater, the chapel’s intent is to bring the outside in so that worship (or weddings, or any other celebration) feels as if you’re one with nature, yet with the conveniences and comfort of an enclosed space.  Thorncrown was built in 1980 (by coincidence, my freshman year of college).  Its architect, E. Fay Jones, turned a childhood interest in treehouses into a decorated career, including an apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright.  Fay Jones’ designs “focused primarily on the intimate rather than the grandiose“.  Hence, chapels.

    As a disciple of Wright (and the only one to win the American Institute of Architect’s [AIA] prestigious Gold Medal), it’s no surprise Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel design is reminiscent of Wright’s Prairie School houses, with its broad overhanging eaves, horizontal lines,  and deliberate integration with the landscape.  Thorncrown contains 425 individual windows.  Those with stained glass bring in so much colored light the chapel’s interior is often described as “jewel-like”.

    As with Fallingwater, Thorncrown is constructed of organic materials, including Southern pine and flagstone from the surrounding area.  The chapel seats 100 and is non-denominational, intended more for meditation for those who make the pilgrimage to Eureka Springs (in other words, go see it!)  For all of the beautiful structures you’ll find in America over the last forty years, the AIA has given Thorncrown the distinction of “best American building constructed since 1980”. 

    Sainte-Chapelle

    Despite my longtime familiarity with Thorncrown, I never thought to wonder how it got its name.  Turns out, Thorncrown’s design was not only inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright but also by Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic church in Paris, France.  And at some point in its history, Sainte-Chapelle supposedly housed the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ.

    If your wanderings ever bring you to the northwest corner of Arkansas, take time to visit this crowned jewel of a chapel.  Whether it strikes you as a treehouse or a miniature cathedral, being in church will never feel so comforting and cozy.

    Now then, let’s turn our attention to (LEGO) Fallingwater, shall we?

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    Fallingwater – Update #1

    As with the LEGO Grand Piano, the first step in the build is to simply open the box and assess the contents.  Here’s what is immediately apparent about the LEGO Fallingwater model:

    1. The finished product will look much more like LEGO than the Grand Piano looks like a miniature piano.  I can’t pinpoint the date LEGO first produced its Fallingwater model but it must’ve been years before the Grand Piano, with pieces more in line with basic LEGO blocks.  I mean, check out the photo below.  Would you believe this inventory of boring little pieces comes together as a house over a waterfall?
    2. The Fallingwater model will be completed much faster than the Grand Piano.  The design is intricate, yes, and we’re still talking about thousands of pieces, but the instruction manual hints at a much easier assembly.  I won’t have those heartstopping moments like I did with the Piano, where I realized I’d built a section backwards.  (Then again, my LEGO-building confidence may be getting the best of me.)
    3. The Piano was interesting to look at even as it was coming together.  Fallingwater… not so much.  Under construction it’ll look like haphazard piles of LEGO bricks.  Not exactly riveting to you the reader.  Instead, as I did with the Piano and classical music, I’ll cover a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s other designs, so you gain a better appreciation for the diversity of his life’s work.

    Next week, “groundbreaking”!

    Some content sourced from the official Thorncrown website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.


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    Perfect Harmony

    In the toe of my wife’s Christmas stocking this year, I nestled a small gift to help her sleep. It’s a travel version of one of those sound machines, where you can dial up anything from rain to ocean waves to lull you off to Never Never Land. You can even mimic a waterfall, which would be my personal choice. After all, it’s the same sound the Kaufmann family enjoyed for years at their stunning retreat in the Pennsylvania forest, southeast of Pittsburgh. Seeing this famous house is an entry on my bucket list. Yes, one of these days I will make the trek to Fallingwater.

    If you’re old enough to remember, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, you know the song’s about more than just apple trees and honey bees.  It’s about “perfect harmony”, which is how anyone would describe Fallingwater.  This beautiful structure is exactly as named: a house on top of a waterfall.  It is considered one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest achievements.  The design is a melding of interior and exterior spaces, a principle borrowed from the Japanese.  Fallingwater is a building, yes, but it’s more often described as “… harmony between man and nature”.

    If you know anything about Wright, you know he was an eccentric architect.  When the Kaufmann’s called to stop by his studio for a progress report, Wright hadn’t even begun the drawings.  Yet by the time they arrived two hours later, Wright had completed the entire design.  This production under pressure reminds me of author Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel written in just nine days and considered one of Bradbury’s greatest works.

    The genius of Fallingwater’s design is in the details, or perhaps the lack of them.  The house is constructed of reinforced concrete, stone, and glass.  Its interior spaces are small and dark, encouraging more time spent outdoors.  The sound of water can be heard everywhere, whether from the stream and waterfall below or from the natural spring allowed to drip along one of the hallways.  Fallingwater’s distinctive cantilevered terraces are meant to resemble nearby rock formations, extending in every direction to the forested surroundings.  Its dramatic perch on top of the waterfall is hidden from the approach to the house, lending to a sense of modesty.

    Fallingwater brings the outdoors in wherever possible, and its best example may be a ledge-shaped rock in the living room, left undisturbed in its original location.  The surrounding stone floor is waxed while the ledge is left plain and dull, creating the look of a rock protruding from a stream.  A stair descends from the same room, several steps down to a platform whose function is to simply admire the stream.  From photos, you’d believe Fallingwater was constructed entirely offsite and dropped gently within the forest by pushing aside a few tree branches.

    Today, Fallingwater is a National Historic Landmark.  You can tour the house and grounds with the purchase of a ticket at the visitor’s information website.  If I were to visit, it’d be a ten-hour drive from where I live.  That’s not going to happen anytime soon.  Instead, I will build Fallingwater; literally.  It is a model in the LEGO Architecture series and I am lucky to own a copy.  As I tell my family, there are only two LEGO models I’ve ever wanted to build: the Grand Piano (completed last year and blogged about here), and Fallingwater.  It’s a new year and it’s time to get started.

    I’ll bring you along for the ride as my miniature Fallingwater takes shape in my home office.  You can look for updates at the end of the next several posts.  Eight hundred pieces from now, when all is said and done, I may borrow that little sleep aid I gave my wife for Christmas.  After all, no house built on top of a waterfall would be complete without the sounds to go with it.  Remember, we’re talking (er, singing) about perfect harmony here.

    Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.


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    Selfish Shopping

    The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is on full display this week.  We’ve reached the critical timeframe – ten days out – where packages must be sent if they’re getting to destinations by Christmas.  We’re making lists, not just for Santa but also for last-minute purchases.  Now here’s the good news, weary shopper: no matter where you’re spending your holiday dollars, self-checkout is often an option.

    If you’re like me, you beeline to self-checkout when you’re done shopping.  You still have “the control”, as people like to say (who also prefer to drive instead of fly).  With self-checkout you believe you can scan and bag faster than those who are paid to do so.  Maybe, but consider the decisions you have to make in the process::

    1. When do you choose self-checkout?  Most of the time, (especially if the checker-bagger lines are long) but what if you have a lot of items?  Self-checkout is awkward with a full shopping basket (ignore the stares).  One time my wife and I snagged side-by-side registers, put the cart between them, and scanned away.  Against the rules, you say?  What rules? 🙂
    2. Where do you stand in line?  This is touchy territory, shopper.  If you face the typical arrangement where one set of registers sits opposite the other, with enough open space in between, you can get separate lines for each set… which gets ugly when a person assumes he/she is entitled to the next available register on either side.  Prepare for battle.
    3. Which register do you choose?  Murphy’s Law of Self-Checkout: One of the registers doesn’t work.  You just assumed it was available because you couldn’t see the “out of order” screen until you were right in front of it.  Now you have to turn around and reclaim your place in line.  Again, ignore the stares.
    4. When do you alert the self-checkout human assistant (oxymoron?)  How many times have you gotten ahead of the system only to hear, “unexpected item in bagging area” or “please wait for assistance”?  Here’s a tip: don’t wait for assistance.  Most of the time the register is trying to catch up and just needs a little more time.  Congrats, you’re faster than a computer.

    Hard to believe, but retail self-checkout just celebrated forty years.  We shoppers been doing what one writer describes as “quasi-paid unforced labor under surveillance” since the 1980s.  I remember how I wasn’t thrilled about the concept when it debuted.  Back then I thought, “Why do I have to do the checking out when someone else is paid to do it for me?”

    I was even more annoyed when the airlines put up their “selfish” kiosks and dared travelers to check themselves in and print their own boarding passes.  How quickly we adapt.  Today I’ll choose self-checkout any time I’m given the option (even though surveys say 67% have a bad experience).  In fact, we’ve been conditioned to self-checking out ever since the debut of the bank ATM in the late 60s.  DIY checkout will only get more prevalent as companies reduce labor costs.  One of these days I can picture a self-checkout Starbucks, with a fully mechanical barista standing by to whip up your skinny latte.  Don’t bet against it.

    Reasons we choose self-checkout (web.mit.edu)

    Self-checkout is about to enter a new arena: clothing stores.  But what about those security devices attached to the sleeves or pant legs?  And how will they know if we slip an extra pair of shoes into the box? The bigger concern, however, may be image.  How will Saks or Bloomingdales look with a bank of self-checkout registers next to their fancy cosmetic counters?  Not the pretty picture of luxury shopping we’ve come to expect.

    Image doesn’t matter to me so much, but my time does.  If self-checkout returns a few minutes to my day, I say sign me up.  But somewhere we’ve got to draw the line, people.  At the rate we’re going, human interaction will soon be the exception, not the rule.  It’s also not the direction a world in need of more face time should be heading.

    With that, I put down the keyboard for the remainder of 2022.  Remember, the holidays are anything but “selfish”, and everything about face time.  Merry Christmas!

    Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Self-checkout annoys some customers…”


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The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.

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