CONSTRUCTION OF THE EIFFEL TOWER, 1889
We did not climb the tower that day, alas, as it was high summer and the line was woefully long. Some day we will return, and do just that, maybe even on a birthday.
We did not climb the tower that day, alas, as it was high summer and the line was woefully long. Some day we will return, and do just that, maybe even on a birthday.
More than any other American designers, Charles and Ray Eames helped define the postwar Modernist aesthetic. Their furniture filled houses, offices and airport terminals. Their films, like “Powers of Ten,” (video) made us think about big questions and small in new ways. Their “information overload” approach produced multiscreen installations, like “Glimpses of the USA,” for the National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 and their I.B.M. Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, which foreshadowed the way information is presented on the Internet. And their work was presented with an artistry that made it look effortless. Of course, it wasn’t.
The Eameses, and the talented people who worked tirelessly in their Santa Monica, Calif., studio were only human, as Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s film, “Eames: The Architect and the Painter,” makes clear. The film, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles — and which is narrated by James Franco — is the first film to be made about the couple since their deaths. (Charles died in 1978, and Ray 10 years to the day later.) Incorporating still photographs, film footage and interviews — with people like Richard Saul Wurman (the founder of the TED conference); the director Paul Schrader; Eames office employees; curators at the Library of Congress, which houses the Eames archive; and Charles’s daughter, Lucia, and his grandson, Eames Demetrios — the filmmakers offer revealing glimpses of the Eameses’ working process as well as of their complex marriage.
The film’s title refers to the fact that Charles Eames studied architecture but never practiced it, and Ray was a painter who seldom painted. They were both conceptualizers, albeit in different ways: Charles was an idea man, and Ray thought in pictures. (Her idea to end “Glimpses of the USA” with a photograph of forget-me-nots, a floral symbol of friendship, seems almost naïve on its face, but as a gesture of cold-war-era diplomacy it was brilliant; it brought tears to Nikita Khrushchev’s eyes.) They seemed endlessly inventive, but they weren’t perfect: Charles seldom gave credit to employees who were crucial to the successful execution of his ideas, and Ray could be indecisive to the point of near-paralysis. And after a long string of home runs, their dense, multilayered traveling exhibition “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” commissioned for the Bicentennial, received scathing reviews in the United States. Although the couple presented themselves as a perfect partnership in work and life, Charles’s increasing preoccupation with photography began to marginalize Ray in the office, and his chronic womanizing must have been difficult for her to bear. Even the viewer cringes when Judith Wechsler, an art historian who had a passionate affair with Charles when she was a young woman in the 1970s, recalls on-screen that the aging Charles wanted to marry her, have a child and close the office. Ouch.
It’s not always a pretty picture that the filmmakers paint here, but Cohn and Jersey knew that to appeal to a broader audience, they had to portray the designers as real people. “There’s a tendency to talk about them like they’re on Mount Rushmore,” Cohn said. The film also skillfully illustrates the couple’s synergistic relationship. “There are Charles people and there are Ray people,” Cohn explains, but he and Jersey make no bones about the fact that although Charles was the dominant partner, Ray’s instinctive grasp of the visual was essential to the success of their enterprise as a whole. The filmmakers took pains to refute the charge, made by Marilyn Neuhart in her 2010 book, “The Story of Eames Furniture,” that Ray had little to do with the actual design process. They include, for example, a letter from Ray to Charles (discovered by Cohn and Jersey in a previously unopened box at the Library of Congress) in which Ray explained that she and Don Albinson (an Eames employee who became a noted industrial designer in his own right) were making changes to the design of the Eames Lounge Chair. In light of the buzz that Neuhart generated for her myth-busting (Charles doesn’t get off easy, either), it’s difficult not to look at “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” without thinking of that book. But the message of this considered, warts-and-all film is that whatever Charles and Ray’s foibles, they did some very important work and provided quite a few people with an invaluable professional and aesthetic education. It’s interesting to note that both Marilyn Neuhart and her husband, John — who contributed to his wife’s book, and who, like her, worked with the Eameses — are included in the film, and one of its most riveting moments comes when John (who died in September) says of Charles, “He was the most important person in my life.”
Frank Lloyd Wright's influence is seen everywhere in his native Wisconsin. Above, the Monona Center, which was not finished until 1997.
WHEN I told my friends that I was planning a family vacation in Wisconsin, I received either blank stares or teasing comments about the admittedly unsexy specialties for which the state is known. There was mention of cows and cornfields and cheese curds. Yet Wisconsin is also Frank Lloyd Wright country, the place where he was born and reared and to which he kept returning. To travel there is to marvel at the contrast between the calm landscape and the delirious inventiveness of his work.
Wright, who died in 1959 at age 91, just six months before the Guggenheim opened, was an elegant and imperious figure. He wore a black cape and could seem indifferent when clients complained about the water dripping onto their heads from roofs he had designed.
His own origins were modest. Descended from Welsh immigrants, he was born in Richland Center, a farm town. After dropping out of college, he moved to Chicago and eventually settled in suburban Oak Park, Ill., where he presided over a family of six children and was courted by affluent neighbors who longed to live in one of his fashionably low-slung Prairie houses.
Everything changed in 1911, after he fell in love with a married neighbor, Martha Borthwick Cheney, or Mamah. They left Chicago and moved to a hideout he built for them in the remote hills of his Wisconsin childhood. This is the house known as Taliesin, in Spring Green, about 40 miles west of Madison.
Getting there is a bit of a trek, especially if you start in New York and stop along the way to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, as my husband and I and two college-age sons did last summer. We flew to Chicago, took an excellent tour of Oak Park’s Wright houses and then drove off for a week in Wisconsin.
Avant-garde art movements generally take root in major cities. It helps to have a dense population of young artists competing for greatness. Perhaps that’s why it feels so surprising to stumble on Wright’s jolting modernism in the quiet countryside. Here, amid the emerald green fields, is Cubism (evoked in the jutting planes of his houses). Here is Surrealism (note his habit of turning a homely edge into a thing of curve and whimsy). Here are buildings whose forms must have once seemed as alien in this terrain as flying saucers.
Taliesin began life as a wood-and-stone bungalow tucked into a grassy slope. Over the years, it grew into a rambling compound that is often compared to an Italian hill town. It is, all at once, a house, a laboratory and a manifesto of Prairie-style architecture. The key idea is horizontality. At a time when Americans were enthralled by ever taller skyscrapers whose silhouettes pulled away from the ground as if to escape coarseness itself, Wright wanted his buildings to look as if they had grown out of the earth.
Taliesin is also a haunted house whose history is inseparable from tragedy. Wright’s affair with Mamah Cheney escalated from a local scandal into a national one, inciting a barrage of moral condemnation from gossipy store clerks in Spring Green as well as from headline writers at major newspapers. One August day in 1914, when Wright was away, Mamah and her two children were murdered by a household worker who came after them with an ax.
The incident, in which four men helping out at the house were also murdered, recently resurfaced with aching clarity in two novels. Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank” (2008) offers a memorable portrait of Mamah, a serious-minded woman who translated feminist tracts from Swedish into English. T. C. Boyle’s eloquent “The Women” (2009) follows Wright through three complicated marriages and makes Wisconsin feel akin to the storm-lashed moors of Wuthering Heights.
Which is not to suggest that impulse and instinct reign at Taliesin today. The place imposes nearly militaristic demands on visitors. Granted, I did not mind donning plastic shoe covers to shuffle through the living room or surrendering my purse to minimize the possibility of grazing a wall. Such are the imperatives of vulnerable houses and historic preservation.
The only way to see the house is by guided tour. The Taliesin tours, besides being costly (two-hour house tours are $47), require constant group adherence, beginning at an off-site visitors’ center, where you board a bus. It all began to seem a bit mirthless when, after leaving Wright’s monkish bedroom, we were herded back onto the bus, unable to linger on the green hillside that stretched out in every direction. The brisk pace is antithetical to Wright’s wise dictum: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
A few days later, I was savoring the warmth of the sun outside a convention center in Madison. Wright attended high school and college there and eventually designed a masterpiece for the city. The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, despite its clunky name, is an unutterably lovely building, an all-white semicircle perched on the edge of Lake Monona. The rooftop terrace juts over the water and functions as a gargantuan public plaza, complete with a cafe. Suspended between views of the Wisconsin State Capitol and the level blue stretch of the lake, the building offers a stark choice between the power of the state and the escapism of nature.
Perhaps the insistent horizontality of Wright’s work was rooted in a desire to overcome the indignity of his early academic struggles — one “reads” his buildings from left to right, as opposed to up and down. If his school assignments saddled him with persistent frustration, he turned his limitations into a strength of his art, imprinting the American landscape with bravura forms that at times seem to echo the flow of sentences across paper.
A tour of Monona Terrace costs only $3 and is offered daily at 1 p.m. The history of the building is a fascinating narrative of on-again-off-again city planning. Wright initially proposed his design in 1938. But the denizens of Madison were bitterly divided over whether to lavish taxpayer money on the work of an adulterer and a scoundrel, and the building was not completed until 1997. For this reason, some scholars characterize it as “Wright-inspired” rather than 100 percent undiluted Frank.
The last stop on our Wright tour was Racine, a factory town that has seen better times. Guidebooks tend to talk you out of visiting, perhaps because the city suffers from high unemployment; empty storefronts abound. Yet there remains one incredible draw. The Johnson Wax Administration Building went up in 1939 and continues to serve as the headquarters for the company that started out making parquet flooring in the 19th century. Free tours are offered on Fridays, and nothing about the red-brick building can prepare you for the breathtaking eccentricity of the space known as the “great workroom,” a half-acre windowless, high-ceilinged space furnished with dozens of Art Deco desks. Wright designed furniture, too, and the desks are nifty affairs with wooden tops and curvy metal frames painted Cherokee red.
The grounds include a research library that is open to the public, a handsome room where biographies of Wright, scholarly tomes and historical black-and-white photographs share shelf space with displays of home-cleaning products, including antique cans of J-wax, Beautiflor (“cleans as it waxes”) and Glade air freshener.
Perhaps cleaning products, as much as Wright’s radical architecture, are part of the story of Utopian longing in America. The desire to live in a serene space, to make the floorboards glow and purge one’s world of darkness: who wouldn’t want that?
When you leave the Johnson Wax building, you exit through an indoor parking lot that amounts to an adventure of its own. The white-painted ceiling and red floor continue the color scheme of the building’s interior. Blue reflecting pools amplify the sense of light. Stunning white columns flare at the top into inverted ziggurats, each a mini-Guggenheim Museum.
I paused to take photographs and e-mailed them to friends back home, thinking they would be amused to see the ethereal forms of the Guggenheim echoed in a humble garage in Racine. It was then that I realized what the famous ramps of the museum most resemble. The Guggenheim is oddly similar to a multistory parking garage.
LONDON — It began with the runaway cows. When the photographer Mariana Cook and her family returned to their home on Martha’s Vineyard one afternoon, they found more than 50 cows grazing on their lawn. Part of the dry stone wall that divided their property from a neighboring field had collapsed, and the cows had forced their way through.
In Ollantaytambo, Peru. The walls, which have been built for thousands of years, subscribe to the old school Modernist design concept that "form follows function."
The wall was built in the traditional way, from interlocking stones, which were carefully selected in terms of shape, texture and weight to stay securely in place within a self-supporting structure. It had been there for as long as Ms. Cook could remember, but it was only when she examined it with her neighbor, the cows’ owner, that she realized how intriguing it was, structurally and aesthetically. She started to take pictures of the wall in different seasons and embarked on an eight-year project to photograph other dry stone walls all over the world.
Ms. Cook’s photographs have been published in a book , “Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries,” together with essays by farmers, historians and an archaeologist on the history of dry stone walls in different countries. As well as revealing the beauty and longevity of the walls, the book tells a remarkable design story.
Robust, enduring and environmentally sensitive, a dry stone wall is a dazzling example of design ingenuity and of the possibility of making something useful from found objects that are usually ignored or discarded. A well-built wall can last for over a century, and requires less maintenance than a hedge or fence. It is made solely from found materials and removes no nutrients from the surrounding soil, while providing shelter for rabbits, mice and other wildlife. Insects thrive among the stones, as do lichen and mosses. A dry stone wall is also a model of the old school Modernist design concept that “form follows function.” Its beauty is usually coincidental, because every design decision taken during construction is determined by efficiency.
Dry stone walls have been built for thousands of years, ever since the start of the Neolithic Age in 7,000 B.C., when the first farming communities emerged in Greece. It was then that people began to supplement the food they found from hunting and foraging in the wild by cultivating their own plants and animals. They needed to find a means of sealing off their land to identify it as their own, and to prevent their livestock and poultry from straying, and predators from stealing their crops. Building a physical barrier was an obvious solution, and in many places, the only readily available construction materials were stones.
Other Neolithic innovations were driven by the same principle of “necessity is the mother of invention,” but most have been superseded over the centuries as new materials and production techniques have emerged. The dry stone wall is an exception. Even today it is designed and made in almost exactly the same way as it was some 9,000 years ago. Like the walls themselves, the underlying design principles have survived because they still work.
The most ancient walls photographed by Ms. Cook belong to the Hagar Qim Temple, which was built in Malta between 3,600 and 3,200 B.C., long before Stonehenge, and is now one of the world’s oldest religious sites. Among the others are the 15th-century Inca walls in Peru, whose immense stones were melded together so meticulously, that early Spanish colonialists described them as technical marvels in their reports back to Spain.
Most of the walls in the book are “working walls,” originally built by — or for — farmers on rocky terrain in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the United States and Mediterranean islands like Malta and Sicily. All of them were constructed for similar reasons, generally because the farmers needed to enclose their land and lacked other materials to do so, or wanted to remove unwanted stones to cultivate the soil. It is no coincidence that dry stone walls tend to be built in rocky places where trees are scarce and the climate extreme: scorching sunshine in the Mediterranean Basin; icy winds and rain on the hills of northern England and the islands off the Scottish and Irish coasts.
Would-be dry stone wall builders can now learn the craft on courses, but most of the older walls were built by instinct, sometimes with the help of advice passed on by word of mouth. Yet many of those walls demonstrate considerable skill and flair. The limestone walls on the Irish island of Inis Meain are unusually expressive with different shapes and sizes of stones positioned to create exquisite patterns. Useful features have been added to the walls there and elsewhere, such as sheep creep passageways, big enough for a sheep to squeeze through, but not cows, and step stiles that people can use to climb over.
“Working walls” also evoke their location. They tend to be built from stones found nearby, and often reflect the history of the place. Sometimes that history can be ugly. The dry stone walls in Kentucky are often called “slave walls,” because many of them were built by African-American slaves working on the farms. My own childhood memories of the picturesque dry stone walls around a remote village in the Yorkshire Dales were ruined when I discovered that they too were partly constructed by slaves. A Jamaican sugar baron had brought them to England in the 18th century and sent them out on the hills to build walls for weeks at a time with minimal provisions. Many of the slaves died there.
Thankfully, many “working walls” have a benign history. One of their charms is what they tell us about the hopes and expectations of the people who built them. Constructing a dry stone wall demands considerably more time and skill than other forms of enclosure, but the result can be depended upon to last longer. Each one represents a human investment in the future as a heroic effort to build something, which will define the landscape and protect the land for generations.
Is there anything made in America that’s less innovative than the single-family home? While we obsess over the new in terms of what we keep in our houses — the ever-increasing speed and functionality of our Smartphones, entertainment options built into refrigerators, sophisticated devices that monitor, analyze and report on our sleep cycles, even the superior technology of the running shoes we put on before heading out the flimsy fiberboard door — we’re incredibly undemanding of the houses themselves. These continue to be built the same way they have for over a century, and usually not as well. Walls and windows are thin, materials cheap, design (and I use the term loosely) not well-considered. The building process is a protracted affair, taking far too long and creating embarrassing amounts of building waste (over 50 percent of all waste produced in the United States, in fact).
But the lack of innovation extends beyond the high-tech. Not so long ago homes were designed to make the most of their surrounding climate and terrain. Vernacular forms like the shotgun, in places like New Orleans, served a purpose that went far beyond aesthetics — they encouraged natural cooling by improving cross-ventilation. In Texas and New Mexico, thick adobe walls similarly kept heat in during the winter, and out during the summer. Houses were sited and windows placed to maximize or minimize sun exposure as needed.
No longer. Today, it’s essentially the same floor plan, sheetrock and construction that’s used coast to coast. Glossy brochures with stock images of smiling families advertise “Spanish Gothic” or “Tuscan Villa,” but what’s really on offer is the same dumb box with a stage set of a façade tacked onto the front. The reasons behind the advertised vernacular styles have long since disappeared, their function surrendered to ornament.
It’s not that the means don’t exist for better building. There have been significant advances in homebuilding: smarter, safer, more sustainable materials that contribute to healthier and more energy-efficient structures (less expensive to heat and cool); precision building technologies that reduce construction time and waste; and more enlightened planning principles that recognize the social, economic and health benefits of building homes within denser, more walkable neighborhoods (important as sprawl is associated with high levels of driving, which contributes to air pollution, and air pollution leads to morbidity and mortality).
Why? The reasons are complicated. Incentives received by commercial builders for doing the right thing are not extended to residential builders. But it’s also true that the homebuilding industry isn’t interested in risk or change, despite (in spite of?) dramatic slowdowns in residential construction, an anticipated surplus of thousands of homes, a market besieged by foreclosures and still-dropping home values. Even though there’s increasing demand for more diverse housing — especially smaller, more energy-efficient homes and multifamily units in more walkable communities — too many homebuilders are inexplicably committed to the status quo.
For many in the homebuilding industry, the current scenario is seen not as a call to action but as a temporary problem of the market (I found the same thing to be true in the world of shopping-center builders, who pine for — and fully expect the return of — a go-go consumer culture that is likely gone for good). To address current market realities, they don’t look to innovation but rather to an easier fallback strategy: a new marketing plan.
Five years ago, at the crest of the housing boom, I worked on a team consulting with a master planned-community developer who had asked us to help “revolutionize the way our homes are sold.” The developer had little interest in the work we proposed — namely, to revolutionize the way their homes were designed and built. That company, like most of its competitors, laid off nearly half its work force the following year, and ended or delayed most of its future development projects. Devoting energy to how best to market its inventory hadn’t been the most forward-thinking strategy for them then — nor would it be now.
But that’s what most developers continue to do. I read just last month about Fulton Homes, a homebuilding company that seems to be weathering the housing market better than its peers by selling homes the same way they’d sell clothing or computers, like any other retail product. In Builder online, Fulton’s vice president of operations, Dennis Webb, said, “If the buyer wants it, give it to him.”
Fulton hasn’t really changed anything about the homes they produce, regardless of what has happened over the last several years. They’ve simply hired more sales guys. No doubt you can “like” them on Facebook. In the short term, this has been a prudent move … but what about next year? The year after that?
Then there’s a company like Blu Homes, which has demonstrated a clear commitment to merging housing and high tech — to the tune of a $25 million investment, in fact. They recognized the tremendous inefficiencies in home-building and have developed 3D technology that allows for personal customization (clients can click a mouse to alter floor plans, choose green features and select finishes), as well as a proprietary building process and innovative steel-framing technology that allows their homes, as their Web site explains, “to be built to the highest aesthetic and environmental standards and be delivered quickly and economically nationwide.”
But following a long line of V.C. types dabbling in housing, Blu has set its sights on a small slice of an already niche market — high-end modern prefab, which accounts for maybe half of a percent of the less than 5 percent of architect-designed homes in the country. Devoting this much R&D and software development to so few homes feels akin to installing a $250,000 solar array on a garden shed. Why not devote that energy to transforming cookie-cutter developer homes?
I like what Texas’s Lake Flato is doing in this arena, combining vernacular style with precision building technology for their Porch House. Though the firm is building custom one-offs, they are also working on a number of larger projects — one, in Louisiana, involves building nine homes on two blocks of infill property in a historic Baton Rouge neighborhood. The concept is centered around making better use of backyards (less lawn, more sustainable garden) and using the traditional architecture vernacular for that area — the “shotgun” house.
And even more promising in terms of scale is KB Home’s announcement of the ZeroHouse 2.0, a greener version of the company’s standard home, which is expected to eliminate monthly electricity charges for homeowners. Model homes featuring the ZeroHouse 2.0 package (it should be but isn’t yet standard) open this month in Tampa, San Antonio and Austin. (Now, if KB would just start talking with the architects at Lake Flato.)
Even more prudently, a company like Blu could be directing all that R&D to multi-family housing, currently identified as the only bright spot in residential architecture and, to my mind, the only real path to truly sustainable housing.
As architectural designer Aron Chang discusses in one of the more intellectually rigorous and thoughtful pieces on suburbia that I’ve read of late, which appeared in Places journal last month, it’s time we focus on “suburbia’s essential component” — the freestanding single-family house.
Chang writes, “The disconnection between the rising diversity of housing needs and the monotony of housing production speaks to the tenacity of the postwar American dream — the enduring allure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard patio — as well as to the profitability of catering to these aspirations.”
Chang sees this moment — with millions of houses now in foreclosure, many deteriorating or abandoned — as one to seize, and I couldn’t agree more. It is possible, he considers, that once the economy revives we will simply return to home-building-as-usual:
But right now we have an opportunity to rethink suburban housing: to make it responsive not to dated demographics and wishful economics but rather to the actual needs of a diversifying and dynamic population — not only to the so-called traditional households but also to the growing ranks of those who prefer to rent rather than buy, who either can’t afford or don’t want a 2,000-square-foot-plus detached house, who are retired and living on fixed incomes and maybe driving less, who want granny or nanny flats, who want to pay less for utilities and reduce their carbon footprint, and so on.
Housing can’t be equated with high-tech: a home is, or was, a long-term investment not beholden to the dizzying speeds of change and innovation that drive say, Apple, which must continually reinvent and redefine its product to meet consumer demand. But housing is woefully behind the times, and now it needs to see opportunity in crisis, not wait it out by launching pop-up shops and interactive Web sites that empower consumers to such revolutionary things as customizing bathroom tile and kitchen backsplashes.
I don’t care if we’re talking Le Corbusier, Cape Cods or Corinthian columns, we can’t make any progress in housing until we stop thinking about the home as decorative object and begin considering it as part of a larger whole. How does it work on the street? In the neighborhood? How is it served by transit? Is it adaptable, allowing for the housing of extended families or the hosting of an entrepreneurial endeavor? Can the owner build an accessory dwelling (a.k.a. granny flat) to do so? (Most zoning, homeowners’ associations and CCRs don’t allow for it currently.) What needs to happen to zoning, to financing, to our very notions of resale value to change the suburban condition — and by extension, the American Dream as we know it?
We’re beyond the point of a fresh coat of paint and a new sales pitch. If we’re going to continue to hold on to the single-family home, we need to transform it. There is a demand for smaller, more energy-efficient homes in less car-dependent neighborhoods; all aspects of the industry, from designers to lenders to planners to consumers, should meet it. In this era of anti-government fervor, subsidizing the American Dream isn’t an option; transforming it is the only one we’ve got.
September 24, 2011
Despite a lack of affinity for planes, matrices and coefficients that prevented me from ever being an architect, Julia Morgan has been one of my heroes ever since I first beheld Hearst Castle as a tyke. Not only was she the first woman to get a civil engineering degree at U.C. Berkeley and to become a licensed architect in California, she was a social activist in her own quiet way. She put as much of her creative energy into state park structures and YMCAs and other buildings dedicated for use by women as she did creating luxurious private homes (or castles) and public buildings.
Morgan's work — nearly 700 commissions during her 49-year career — was eclectic, taking its greatest inspiration from her affection for the California landscape. The site determined her choice of style, and at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, that style was the woodsy, light-infused comfort of the Arts & Crafts movement.
Hearst Castle is Morgan's most famous creation, but it is probably the least representative of her personal vision. At Asilomar, where she had carte blanche, you find Morgan in her element. This is the largest single collection of Morgan's work, and 13 of her original 16 buildings are still standing. Best of all, you don't have to stay at Asilomar to see them. Just call the local state park office at (831) 646-6443 to schedule a tour. (The Social Hall will be closed for renovation until early November; be sure to ask about closures when you call.) If rangers aren't available at the time you'd like, download a self-guided trail brochure and strike out on your own.
Here are some of Asilomar's most impressive Morgan buildings:
The building that houses the front desk, vast lobby and gift shop today, completed in 1913, was the first building at Asilomar, which began life as a YWCA camp. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the Y’s greatest champion, urged it to hire Morgan for its first permanent West Coast facility. The Social Hall’s open ceiling and exposed redwood trusses with artistic iron reinforcements, and a massive stone fireplace interrupting a wall of windows that makes nature part of the design, introduce Morgan’s philosophy. Emphasizing local wood and stone, she used open space and natural light to extract grandeur from simplicity. Those themes are repeated throughout Morgan’s buildings.
Function was as important as form to Morgan; whether designing for wealthy private clients or budget-conscious organizations, her meticulous craftsmanship turned interiors into works of art. The chapel's versatility matches its beauty, with folding wooden partitions allowing the chapel to double as a classroom, while the floor slanting toward a vast picture window framing forested sand dunes gives occupants the sense of sitting on one of those dunes looking toward the ocean.
Designed to mimic a fine hotel, this lodge was built to house YMCA executives. Perched above the social hall, auditorium and dining hall, it afforded the Y leaders a sweeping view of their realm. Rich redwood and an imposing staircase lend richness and grace to the living room's essential simplicity. The upstairs landing opens a confined space surrounded by compact guest rooms.
Whimsically named for the new crop of feisty young college women who arrived to staff Asilomar each summer, this building demonstrates Morgan's commitment to style even while economizing, as required for staff quarters. The fireplace was brick rather than stone, and trusses were debarked logs rather than redwood. Bookcases and storage units were built in, avoiding the need for additional furniture while melding seamlessly with Arts & Crafts style. The feeling as you step into the room is practicality tinged with grandeur.
China, in its continual move up the global economic value chain — from cheap toys to jetliners — now aims to be the world’s civil engineer.
SHANGHAI — Talk about outsourcing.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The replacement eastern span is on the right, with the city of San Francisco beyond.
At a sprawling manufacturing complex here, hundreds of Chinese laborers are now completing work on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Next month, the last four of more than two dozen giant steel modules — each with a roadbed segment about half the size of a football field — will be loaded onto a huge ship and transported 6,500 miles to Oakland. There, they will be assembled to fit into the eastern span of the new Bay Bridge.
The project is part of China’s continual move up the global economic value chain — from cheap toys to Apple iPads to commercial jetliners — as it aims to become the world’s civil engineer.
The assembly work in California, and the pouring of the concrete road surface, will be done by Americans. But construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them are a Made in China affair. California officials say the state saved hundreds of millions of dollars by turning to China.
“They’ve produced a pretty impressive bridge for us,” Tony Anziano, a program manager at the California Department of Transportation, said a few weeks ago. He was touring the 1.2-square-mile manufacturing site that the Chinese company created to do the bridge work. “Four years ago, there were just steel plates here and lots of orange groves.”
On the reputation of showcase projects like Beijing’s Olympic-size airport terminal and the mammoth hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam, Chinese companies have been hired to build copper mines in the Congo, high-speed rail lines in Brazil and huge apartment complexes in Saudi Arabia.
In New York City alone, Chinese companies have won contracts to help renovate the subway system, refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge over the Harlem River and build a new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium. As with the Bay Bridge, American union labor would carry out most of the work done on United States soil.
American steelworker unions have disparaged the Bay Bridge contract by accusing the state of California of sending good jobs overseas and settling for what they deride as poor-quality Chinese steel. Industry groups in the United States and other countries have raised questions about the safety and quality of Chinese workmanship on such projects. Indeed, China has had quality control problems ranging from tainted milk to poorly built schools.
But executives and officials who have awarded the various Chinese contracts say their audits have convinced them of the projects’ engineering integrity. And they note that with the full financial force of the Chinese government behind its infrastructure companies, the monumental scale of the work, and the prices bid, are hard for private industry elsewhere to beat.
The new Bay Bridge, expected to open to traffic in 2013, will replace a structure that has never been quite the same since the 1989 Bay Area earthquake. At $7.2 billion, it will be one of the most expensive structures ever built. But California officials estimate that they will save at least $400 million by having so much of the work done in China. (California issued bonds to finance the project, and will look to recoup the cost through tolls.)
California authorities say they had little choice but to rebuild major sections of the bridge, despite repairs made after the earthquake caused a section of the eastern span to collapse onto the lower deck. Seismic safety testing persuaded the state that much of the bridge needed to be overhauled and made more quake-resistant.
Eventually, the California Department of Transportation decided to revamp the western span of the bridge (which connects San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island) and replace the 2.2-mile eastern span (which links Yerba Buena to Oakland).
On the eastern span, officials decided to build a suspension bridge with a complex design. The span will have a single, 525-foot tower, anchored to bedrock and supported by a single, enormous steel-wire cable that threads through the suspension bridge.
“We wanted something strong and secure, but we also wanted something iconic,” said Bart Ney, a transportation department spokesman.
A joint venture between two American companies, American Bridge and Fluor Enterprises, won the prime contract for the project in early 2006. Their bid specified getting much of the fabricated steel from overseas, to save money.
China, the world’s biggest steel maker, was the front-runner, particularly because it has dominated bridge building for the last decade. Several years ago, Shanghai opened a 20-mile sea bridge; the country is now planning a much longer one near Hong Kong.
The selection of the state-owned Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company was a surprise, though, because the company made port cranes and had no bridge building experience.
But California officials and executives at American Bridge said Zhenhua’s advantages included its huge steel fabrication facilities, its large low-cost work force and its solid finances. (The company even had its own port and ships.)
“I don’t think the U.S. fabrication industry could put a project like this together,” Brian A. Petersen, project director for the American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises joint venture, said in a telephone interview. “Most U.S. companies don’t have these types of warehouses, equipment or the cash flow. The Chinese load the ships, and it’s their ships that deliver to our piers.”
Despite the American union complaints, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, strongly backed the project and even visited Zhenhua’s plant last September, praising “the workers that are building our Bay Bridge.”
Zhenhua put 3,000 employees to work on the project: steel-cutters, welders, polishers and engineers. The company built the main bridge tower, which was shipped in mid-2009, and a total of 28 bridge decks — the massive triangular steel structures that will serve as the roadway platform.
Pan Zhongwang, a 55-year-old steel polisher, is a typical Zhenhua worker. He arrives at 7 a.m. and leaves at 11 p.m., often working seven days a week. He lives in a company dorm and earns about $12 a day.
“It used to be $9 a day, now it’s $12,” he said Wednesday morning, while polishing one of the decks for the new Bay Bridge. “Everything is getting more expensive. They should raise our pay.”
To ensure the bridge meets safety standards, 250 employees and consultants working for the state of California and American Bridge/Fluor also took up residence in Shanghai.
Asked about reports that some American labor groups had blocked bridge shipments from arriving in Oakland, Mr. Anziano dismissed those as confused.
“That was not about China,” he said. “It was a disagreement between unions about which had jurisdiction and who had the right to unload a shipment. That was resolved.”