A place to share my many interests in Architecture, Art, Design, Travel, and Culture.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Heights Living: On the Porch

The Porch.  English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.

In a time when "sustainability" and "green design" are such big concerns, and architects device many creative and sometimes acrobatic solutions to, among other problems, avoid too much Heat Loss/Heat Gain in a building, (which would ensue in high air conditioning/heating costs or "inefficiency"); those who own one of the Victorian or Craftsman cottages that populate The Heights can thank their lower energy bill to some very simple aspects in their design, that have nothing to do with new technology and everything to do with centuries of tradition.

Houston was a new city back in 1890 and The Heights (the collection of neighborhood we call The Heights, that is) a brand new suburb; it follows then that most of the domestic architecture of The Heights was adopted from architectural types that had been well established in other parts of the country, and later adapted to the hot and humid Houston climate.

Take the California Craftsman bungalow for example, which rose in such popularity that by the 1920's its plan could be purchased from a catalog or a "ladies home & garden" magazine.  The bungalow's efficient plan makes a perfect dwelling for a working family, and it is no surprise to see it also appear in industrial towns like Chicago and Detroit; but while in the northern climate the bungalow's spaces are closed and compact, the Houston version of bungalow is characterized by a front porch and an enfilade of living rooms whose doors align to allow the breeze to circulate throughout the house (the enfilade is known in the South as "the shotgun house"):

Craftsman Bungalow.  Woodland Heights.  Notice that the eaves have been painted in the traditional sky blue which is said to "fool the wasps" into thinking it is sky, and prevents them from making hives.
The first floor of the house is raised which allows water to wash under it and prevent flooding during the rainy season.  The extra height then provides an opportunity for beautiful landscaping.  The trees and shrubs then filter and cool the air around the building.

Queen Anne Victorian.  Houston Heights.
The floor plan of most of these houses (regardless of style: Victorian cottage or Craftsman bungalow) is very simple:  The Front Porch acts as a vestibule (In grander houses like the one above, the front door has a vestibule which opens to the Living Room) the Living Room faces the street, it is followed by the Dining Room, which in turn is followed by the kitchen, then there may be "a sewing room" (now converted into an extension of the kitchen or into a breakfast room) or another porch.  The house is divided by a hallway that directs to the bedrooms and sometimes a stair to the second floor.  When dealing with Heat Gain it is more important to shade from the outside than to do so from the inside with a curtain, because once the heat is in, well it is in...The Front Porch acts a heat retardant to the windows in the Living Room, cooling the air in front of those windows thereby lowering the amount of heat gained by the house.

Queen Anne Victorian.  Houston Heights.  Notice that the bead board ceiling has been painted in the traditional blue to "fool the wasps".  Instead of wasps nests, this porch has a lovely collection of wind chimes and potted plants.

Another feature to note is the wide eaves on the sides of the house.  The eaves project shade on the side windows in a similar way The Front Porch does with the front of the house, but the shadow is not as deep, so the shadows cast by the neighboring houses and trees take care of the rest of the Heat Gain. With all this talk about shade and shadows, I'm afraid you will think these houses are rather dark and gloomy, when in fact the effect is one of openness with lots of pleasant ambient light.  The cool air circulates freely thanks to the enfilade (or should I say "shotgun") arrangement.


English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.

 When the house is (fortunately) located on a bigger corner lot, there arises the problem of sun exposure on two sides.  The problem is easily and beautifully solved by making the porch turn the corner of the building.  The living spaces now benefit from shade on two sides: 


Same house, closer look.
I love the red rocking chairs and the red flowers in the porch above.  Something about its proportion reminds me of the corredores in the Colonial houses in Nicaragua, where I grew up; perhaps it is the rocking chairs.  I'm picturing myself sipping cold cacao under its shade.  Speaking of sipping cacao (or lemonade), you are probably asking where are the people?  It's summer in this part of the American Continent, and while most people in the rest of the United States and Canada are enjoying the warm weather, we Houstonians are hiding inside the cool shade of our homes avoiding the 100 weather. We schedule our festivals and outdoor activities late in the Summer, or in the Fall, and Spring, again avoiding the heat.  I guess I am the only person crazy enough to go for a stroll in this heat.  

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  This "wrap around" porch not only provides shade to the young couple that owns it, but several sitting and social areas.  Notice the ever preset porch swing.


Another sitting area in the same house.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  Overall View.


Ginger Bread Victorian.  Houston Heights.

The house above sits on a large corner lot, virtually isolated from its neighbors and exposed to the sun on all four sides; even the centenary trees cannot protect it from the inclement 8:00 am sun (yes, it is this bright at 8:00 am!).  Fortunately, its architect thought to give it a continuous porch, thus lessening some of the heat it might gain throughout the day.  Also notice the summer flag the owners have raised on one of the columns.  Porches are a popular place to show not only seasonal decorations, but also:

School Pride
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.


Regional Pride:
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.


 Country Pride:
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  Notice, if you can, once again the traditional sky blue ceiling.

 Most of the houses in this neighborhood, were originally built and inhabited by families of modest means, therefore the wood detail in most cases tends to be very simple and humble.  If there were to be any, The Front Porch, being the main entrance to the house, is the place where one would find most of the decorative carpentry details.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.
English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.


Craftsman Bungalow.  Houston Heights.  The porch of this bungalow was restored and some artistic license has been taken.  While the silhouette appears the same, the execution of the columns was done in heavy timber, rather than in the more refined carpentry grade; which now gives this house a rustic and decidedly more "Texan" country spirit.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Detail.  Houston Heights.


Craftsman House.  Houston Heights


Craftsman House.  Door Detail.  Houston.  Notice the two doors.  With fluctuating economies and wars, some residents converted rooms in their houses that could be rented, and gave them a separate entrance.


The View from the porch.  Houston Heights.

 As you can see from above (and from the other pictures), the porch allows the opportunity for beautiful landscape.  The Heights certainly is a very green neighborhood, luxuriant in plant life, each house is a mini ecosystem!  Houston was originally planned with the principles of the "City Beautiful" movement, which promotes beauty to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.  I'm not sure that the residents of The Heights are aware of the name of this movement (which flourished in the 1890's) but I do believe they unknowingly abide by its principles:


Craftsman Bungalow. Norhill.
 The owners of the house above have managed to create such a lovely, manicured garden.  Where most of us would only think to plant grass, they have layered hedges and topiaries, clearly defining their porch and the path that leads to it.


Garden "Court".  Norhill.  The uppermost hedges are azaleas, they bloom white in March.

William A. Wilson House.  Woodland Heights.
 Woodland Heights was developed in 1907 by William A. Wilson.  His house anchors Bayland Avenue, one of the most beautiful streets in all the neighborhood.  It is interesting to think, with our contemporary perspective, that Wilson would choose to live in his own development, in a house built by his own company.  I wonder how many of today's developers and builders would do the same...In William A. Wilson's own words in 1910: "but not until we acquired Woodland Heights and began its development, have we had an opportunity to demonstrate our idea of what a home and its surrounding should be."

Carter, Cooley, Wilson et al, would be proud to see their enterprise turned out to be not only beautiful, but sustainable.

All images by NPL


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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Antiquity questions The Golden Age

The Oath of the Horatii.  Jacques-Louis David.  Included in "Antiquity Revived", Museum of Fine Arts Houston. 
Image by the Toledo Museum of Art.


The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is having a wonderful summer.  First came "Antiquity Revived", and now "Titian and The Golden Age of Venetian Painting".  Titian, who from now on I will call by his proper name Tiziano, and his friends had been eagerly awaited (if not by anyone else at least by me). 

The paintings were superb, having never been to Scotland (where this collection is permanently kept) it was a joy to be able to see these particular pieces.  The selection of works was small but very representative of each individual artist and of the quality of work produced during the period, and in that sense I can agree that I was looking at "The Golden Age".  But the exhibit left me wanting more...The descriptions of each painting provided little else than date, location and a short story; sometimes there was an explanation about the patron who commissioned it, and sometimes the description dwelled on a mundane fact such as a certain figure that was added later; but why was that important!?  In a curated, special exhibit I expect a narrative that links all the works and tells me why they have been chosen and placed together in a room, besides the obvious reason that they belong to artists of the same period and location.


Pompeo Batoni.  Academy Nude.  "Antiquity Revived".  Image by The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Take for example "Antiquity Revived" (above), which takes you on a myriad of journeys, from the Grand Tour, to the allure of the ruins, to the work of the different academies and its entrance requirements, to the propaganda, the "Romanticism" and the "Baroque Revival".  One can say "Antiquity Revived" can do so because it is a much larger exhibit; but the beauty of this exhibit (and the reason why I visited it three times already) is because all these narratives can work independently of each other, so its size doesn't matter. "The Golden Age" on the other hand presents the public with two (among others) of Tiziano's most famous mythological paintings: "Diana and Acteon" and "Diana and Callisto", and misses the opportunity to elaborate on Venice's own urban mythology.  

Every painting in the "Golden Age" exhibit represented one of the many "myths of Venice", but the curators completely failed to make any sort of connections; instead we are given works that stand in a vacuum and we are asked to admire them simply on their painterly merits (which is easy to do because they are beautiful).  It is amusing however, to hear the comments of the passerby when they see the painting of the half-naked courtesans hanging next to the one of the Virgin Mary.  There is a place for these women in the same city, and it is right for the two paintings to hang next to each other because in Venice's collective imagination the city is both virgin goddess and goddess rising from the sea.

To put it in contemporary terms, I'm talking about how a city sees itself, or in Kevin Lynch's words "The Image of the City".  Over time every city develops a narrative that includes certain images, symbols, characters, places, etc.  All of this then becomes the iconography of a city and her artists use it, manipulate it, to convey ideas and messages.  Renaissance artists were very good at that, and Venice and her artists were not just good, they were relentless.  

According to legend Venice was founded on March 25th 491 AD, on the feast of the Annunciation.  Venetians, unlike all other city-states on the Italian peninsula, did not claim ancestry from Rome; they considered themselves to be La Serenissima, a "most serene", sovereign and independent republic, never conquered, never violated by any foreign ruler (until Napoleon).  All these images of impregnability coupled with their legendary foundation date, led the Venetians to associate themselves with the Virgin Mary.  Images of Mary, the Annunciation, the Angel of the Annunciation (like at the Rialto bridge), and its immediate consequence, the Nativity, abound in Venice like this painting currently on view at "The Golden Age":

Jacopo Bassano.  Adoration of the Kings.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Another piece of famous Venetian imagery is the lion, who watched over Piazza San Marco and welcomed vessels into the logetta.  In christian imagery the lion is associated with Mark the Evangelist, and the Venetians had a legend that told of Mark spending the night in the Venetian lagoon, held by a storm on his way to the Adriatic Sea.  As Mark slept an angel appeared and told him "Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus", which can both mean "do not be afraid, Mark my evangelist", or the meaning that Venice took "rest here, Mark my Evangelist".  With this motto Venice entitled herself to go steal the body of saint Mark from its burial place in Alexandria in 828 AD, and the lion has protected the city ever since. 

But there is another Venetian lion.  Saint Jerome (ca. 350 - ca. 420 ) was born in Venice's mother city of Aquilea and he was the patron saint of learning, monastic life, and asceticism and his lion sometimes becomes one with saint Mark's.  As Garry Willis says in 'Venice Lion City' "if you came to Venice with a lion, they had to take you in."  "The Golden Age" inlcudes this painting by Lorenzo Lotto with the double iconography of the Virgin Mary and Saint Jerome:

Lorenzo Lotto.  The Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome, Saint Peter, Saint Francis, and female Saint.  "Titian and The Golden Age of Venetian Painting."  Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.


But there is another patron that stood higher in the city's devotions: the crucified Jesus.  The feast of Corpus Christi, known in Venice as Corpus Domini was one of the principal events of the republic, turning religious fervor into a political drama in which the Doge became the "protector of the body of Christ".  Central to these devotions was a relic brought to Venice from the fourth Crusade, a vessel said to contain blood shed by Christ in his agony in the Garden.  There is much imagery associated with the relic, the liturgy of Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, Corpus Domini, and that would fill pages...but some things are important:  1.  Tintoretto was a favorite painter of the Scuola del Sacramento (the Guild of the Sacrament) and was therefore commissioned to paint several works depicting themes of Christ and the crucifixion.  2. Venice had laws governing dress, there were garments only the Doge could wear.  3. On Holy Thursday and on Holy Friday the Doge would wear special garments, and on Holy Thursday he would wear a long deep red cassock in honor of Christ's blood.  

Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto.  Paradise.  Ducal Palace Council Chamber.


In Paradise (above) Tintoretto paints Jesus in a garment like the one the Doge would wear on Holy Thursday, the painting sits in the Council room of the Doge's Palace (above), and with that Tintoretto appropriates the blessings of Christ's blood for the Doge and for Venice, effectively turning Jesus into a divine Doge.  The ducal garments also make appearances in several other of his Christ paintings (Christ before Pilate, The Agony in the Garden) continuing the link between Venice and Christ.  The painting by Tintoretto included in "The Golden Age" shows Christ not wearing the red garment, but being carried in it; after all, the events depicted in the painting occur not on Holy Thursday but on Holy Friday:

Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto.  Christ carried to the Tomb.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
 Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.


And now for something completely different...

Paris Bordon.  Venetian Women at their Toilet.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.



Venice was famous for her courtesans.  They were beautiful, intelligent, they wrote poetry (Veronica Franco comes to mind), they enjoyed the freedom that was denied the reputable housewife and daughter.  The painting above by Paris Bordon is the one that in the "The Golden Age" hangs next to the Nativity scene by Bassano, and that generated such amusing comments from the audience.  It depicts two women preparing themselves; the adjacent plaque identifies them as courtesans and their procuress.  The mirror, says the plaque, represents the transience of human beauty.  The painting was probably commissioned by a private patron.  The plaque says no more.  In a city devoted to the Virgin Mary, a painting about prostitutes may seem incongruous.  Let's compare the painting above with one by the same artist hanging at the Hermitage State Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Paris Bordon.  Allegory of Venus, Flora, Mars, and Cupid. 
Image by The Hermitage State Museum. Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Similar hairstyles, similar clothes, similar women; one could even say that they are the same women! Except that the painting depicts two goddesses (Flora is identified with her leaves and blossoms, and Venus by her son Cupid), not two courtesans.  Let us now consider another feminine painting, this time by Tiziano:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Venus with a mirror/Venus at her Toilet.  Image by the National Gallery of Art.  Washington DC.
Tiziano revived a theme that was popular in Hellenistic times, Venus admiring her reflection in a mirror or Venus at her toilet.  The paintings have been copied and re-worked by many artists like Rubens and Velazquez.  The popularity of the theme was such that Venetian women, reputable and disreputable, would request to be painted in such a way, because to do so was to liken oneself to Venus, goddess of love and beauty; what a testament!  And by that light our dark, underground portrait of two prostitutes and their madam at "The Golden Age", becomes a painting of Venus and Flora with their handmaiden.  The mirror representing Venus's eternal beauty.

When painted allegorically, Venus is usually shown with specific companions who allude to the myths of her birth.  Frequent companions are the Hours, the Graces, and Flora as we have already seen in Bordon's Hermitage and "The Golden Age" paintings (Botticelli's Spring is an example that combines several of these figures, though a Florentine one of course).  And speaking of the birth of Venus:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Venus Anadyomene.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Unlike other Italian city-states or even European nations, Venice did not rely on mercenaries (condottieri) to fight her wars.  Her ships were built in the lagoon and they were rowed and sailed by Venetians.  This contributed to the pride her citizens felt and the arrogance sensed by the rest of Europe, who in 1509 decided to teach her a lesson in the form of the League of Cambrai.  But after initial defeat, Venice managed to recover most of her Terra Ferma dominion, and with that launched an iconographic programme that would leave no doubt of her noble and superior status among all nations.  And so it happened that Venus rising from the sea had become Venetia triunfante et sempre libera, Venetia Anadyomene: Venice, triumphant and always free, rising from the Sea.  "The Golden Age"  focuses instead on Tiziano's use of a brown line to delineate the soft roundness of Venus's buttocks.

The painting by Bordon in the Hermitage also shows another figure:  Mars god of War.  Mars is a frequent companion of Venus in Venetian paintings, and not only because Ovid tells us of their love affair in his "Metamorphoses"; but because to say Venus and Mars is to Say Venice and Military Power.

Paolo Veronese.  Venus, Mars, and Cupid.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.
In this painting included in "The Golden Age" Venus sits in Mars's knee, who very lovingly embraces her, in a protective manner.  Whether Mars was painted by Veronese's assistant or not (as is the concern of the plaque) is immaterial to the Venetian audience because the message of the painting is clear:  The god of war takes care of Venice.

The assertion of Venice triumphant and always free that had throughout the Middle Ages been associated with the Virgin Mary, takes in the renaissance a pagan turn.  New virgin goddesses emerge to inspire the Venetian imagination; we see Astrea as the personification of justice, Minerva as the embodiment of wisdom, and Diana as the incarnation of vengeance:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Diana and Callisto.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.
In Ovid's "Metamorphoses", the virgin goddess Diana finds out that her nymph Callisto has been impregnated by Jupiter.  Furious with Callisto, who had sworn chastity to the goddess (we won't dwell on the fact that Jupiter seduced Callisto), Diana expels poor Callisto from her company for ever.

Tiziano Vecellio.  Diana and Acteon.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Another story from Ovid:  The young hunter Acteon stumbles upon Diana as she bathes in the company of her nymphs.  No mortal man can touch, nay SEE the virgin goddess of the hunt.  Even more furious than with Callisto, Diana turns Acteon into a stag.  He is torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs.

It is interesting to think that of the several Poesie (mythological paintings executed by Tiziano for Philip II of Spain) four contained specific Venetian themes:  Venus and Adonis, Diana and Callisto, Diana and Acteon, and The Death of Acteon.  Two of those four paintings are included in "The Golden Age" exhibit (above).  I am inclined not to focus too much on the Adonis story because other than Venus being a protagonist, it does not have much importance for the Serene republic; I can't help but think however, that in the Diana paintings Tiziano was sending Spain (who not 50 years before had participated in the League of Cambrai) three beautiful cautionary tales.  Do not cross Venice.

The exhibit also includes a magnificent collection of drawings and has been accompanied by lectures.

*For excellent reading on Venetian iconography or iconography in general I recommend:

"Myths of Venice: The figuration of a State" by David Rosand.
"Venice Lion City: The Religion of the Empire" by Garry Wills
"Timeless Cities: An Architect's Reflection on Renaissance Italy" by David Mayernik.
"The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" by Roberto Calasso
"Iconologia" by Cesare Ripa and of course "The Metamorphoses" by Ovid.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Secret Garden

Garden Loggia.  Design by Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.  Construction by Eric Condon & Co.

Last year I was asked to do what was, for me, a most unusual project: A Garden.  Unusual because today's building professions have become increasingly specialized, to the point that an architect, a landscape architect, urban planner, and an interior designer would never dream of crossing into "foreign territory". 

This was not always the case.  Many of the buildings and places we admire were created by people who, in the best Vitruvian manner, had a thorough understanding of not just their profession but all the other arts.  This is how we find Robert Adam building not only the great English country houses, but even designing the furniture that would fill their halls.  The great Gian Lorenzo Bernini planning new piazze and streets in Rome, and then filling them with his own buildings.  And also in Italy we find Pirro Ligorio at the Villa D'Este, laying out the buildings and the gardens, with its host of singing fountains and statues.

It was with these (lofty) thoughts in mind, and the unbridled excitement of finally fulfilling my wish to follow in the footsteps of (ehemm) Ligorio, and Giulio Romano (lofty thoughts indeed!) that I took my humble degree in Architecture and set out to design a garden, with a pool, a pergola, paths, gates, fences, and some (shall we call them?) terraces. 
 
Garden Gate


When I was in school my professors would always ask two questions:  "How does the building meet the ground?  How does the building meet the sky?".  That kind of thinking prepared me, for this little project.  The family wanted privacy first, but they didn't want to feel trapped in a fortress; so I devised a series of fences with trellis on the top - for transparency -, which were built on site by Eric Condon & Co. (along with everything else).  The garden is now truly secret and private, and can only be accessed from inside the house or from two paths (above) that are sealed with gates:
 
Garden Wall and Gate

 Once inside, the focus becomes the centenary Oak tree in the center of the property.  I connected one extreme of the garden with the other with curved paths, paved with slate, to emphasize the symmetry of the pool, and also mimicking  the curve of the canopy of the oak. 
 
Loggia Ceiling Detail  
 
Pathway
As you can see, next to the curved path there is a structure.  The family initially wanted a simple wood pergola, for the dual purpose of dining and adorning what originally was just a blank wall covered in vines; but the amount of sun and heat the garden receives during a Houston spring and summer soon made them change their mind.  We instead decided to build a Loggia with a copper roof, and introduce some formality to the space.  The portion that "meets the ground" is very classical; the columns, pilasters, and architrave were even painted white to relate to the house; but for the portion that "meets the sky" I took a more vernacular approach, and instead of a frieze and cornice, I designed a rustic system of rafters and purlins, and stained them dark to communicate with the branches of the Oak.

We painted the ceiling of the Loggia in a very pale blue, which not only matches the existing porches in the house, but is also a very traditional color used in porches all throughout Houston.  And old-wives tale says that mosquitoes don't like the color.  The ceiling was also outfitted with antique french lanterns, and the ever present fan to ward off the 90+ heat.
 
Garden View


 Anchoring the garden, and opposite the oak, is the pool.  The pool has a simple, formal, rectangular shape, which compliments the style of the house.  We paved it also in slate, framed it with fossil-encrusted limestone, and used glass mosaics for the water line.  The back of the pool is perhaps the most formal element in the whole garden, with the mouldings and panels carved in limestone and the decorative jets that sprout water into the pool.  I wanted this wall to be a juxtaposition to the bucolic nature of the Oak tree right across it, and the romance of the nature behind it, while at the same time a direct "conversation" with the formality of the interior of the house.

There is a path behind the pool wall (framed by hedges) that connects directly to one of the gates; this was a special request from the parents, so that children of the family and their guests could come in directly from the outside, climb the wall, and jump in the pool.
 
Pool and Loggia
When I think about this garden, I think of it as one large outdoor room.  The family entertains not only under the Loggia but also on the Pool Terrace and under the Oak.  The fences, the pool and its wall, the hedges...everything contributes to the feeling of enclosure, intimacy, and space; the garden and its elements embracing us and embracing the ground; the roofs and the branches meeting the sky.
 
Garden Loggia Detail



All work is the intellectual property of Nadia Palacios Lauterbach. 


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