Wednesday, March 29, 2017

One brick short of a load

After my wildly successful treatise on Brutalism (Ha!) two high school friends encouraged me to continue my architectural forays by offering some enlightenment about that most utilitarian of building materials - the brick.  Now if I didn't know them so well, I might have assumed that this suggestion was a polite way of saying 'Who cares?' and consequently passed on the opportunity.  But as one is an engineer and the other is an architect, I knew they were genuinely interested and couldn't wait for this next installment. Little did they know that I love photographing brick constructions so my photo library is replete with images just ready to go. So, emboldened by their encouragement and having ready access to images, I offer this essay on the importance of the humble brick in architecture.

Writing a short synopsis of the history of a building material whose use spans the greater part of human history poses a real challenge, even if one were a skilled short-story expert.  For a retired Irish academic with time on his hands brevity is a damn near impossibility. So in order to make both the writing and the reading of such a synopsis more manageable I'll just acknowledge from the outset the significance bricks have played over the first 24 centuries of architectural history and focus in this post on their persistent but evolving role in the 20th and 21st centuries. Out of scope will be a narrative about the role of bricks in residential architecture, despite the significant, longstanding and defining role they have played in that venue. To that end a simple visit to Boston and New England will suffice.  Finally, narrowing the scope further, I'll key on some of the qualities of brick that make them visually appealing both architecturally and photographically.  After all, this is a photoblog.

The process of manufacturing brick imbues humble clay and earth with rich shapes, textures and colors all amenable to the brick-makers creativity. Skilled architects have used these rich features to advantage in the creation of simple and ornate designs, the possibilities limited only by the architects' imaginations and the load-bearing capacity of their brick creations. The evolution and use of steel and other structural materials and approaches in the twentieth century liberated bricks from primarily serving a weight-bearing, structural role opening up even greater opportunities for their use in decorative applications. Even the modernists found ways to incorporate bricks into the plain, smooth aesthetics for which their buildings are known.

Recently, new strategies for using bricks in the construction of modern buildings, techniques like the twisted veil, rippled skin, perforated grid and lattice layering techniques, have joined classic patchwork, archway and flat brick treatments. The nearly limitless variety of shapes, patterns, textures, geometries and color now made possible by the individual and collective properties of bricks present the photographer in me with an irresistible potpourri of photographic opportunities to capture the geometric abstracts I covet. I've shared just a few of my favorites in this post.

I realize I have marginal credibility when it comes to architectural critiques. So in closing I'll rely on the words of three architects with impeccable bona fides to authoritatively support my case - Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright.

While addressing a conference in Milwaukee Frank Lloyd Wright told the audience,
'Ladies and gentlemen do you know what a brick is? It's trivial and worth 11 cents; its common and valueless but possesses a peculiar characteristic. Give me this brick and it will be worth its weight in gold."
Citing Wright's declaration, Aalto stated that,
'That was perhaps the only time I heard in public, stated clearly and bluntly, what architecture really is.  Architecture is the transformation of a worthless brick into something worth its weight in gold."
But I think Mies van der Rohe said it most succinctly,
'Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins."
And here I'll end.

So, I may be one brick short of a load, but I know what I like.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Brutalism - An Architectural Metaphor for Today's Politics?

It was unarguably the most controversial and divisive architectural movement of the twentieth century and remains so among critics even into the twenty-first. Brutalism, characterized by monolithic structures of bold geometric forms constructed of poured concrete, brick and glass, was in part a reaction to the slick rational modernism that preceded it.  As championed by the architects Alice and Peter Smithson, Brutalist design prioritized function over form.  The relatively low cost of concrete construction was a seeming God-send to post World War II Europe seeking resurrection after the War's devastation.  Brutalist-designed public housing projects and government structures of concrete sprang up across a re-building Great Britain, Europe and Soviet Union, eventually even taking root across the Pond.

Buildings of the brutalist style can be found virtually everywhere.  Although virtually everyone has viewed them [the Humanities Building on the UW-Madison is a classic example], most don't recognize them as Brutalist on the basis of a knowledge of the defining characteristics of the style. Rather, they are made aware of them by a visceral reaction to what many consider their "brutally" ugly appearance. In fact, many incorrectly assume that the "brutalism" moniker assigned these structures derives from their aseptic, blocky, institutional look - 'one-eye-popping hunk of brush-hammered weirdness after another' (Nikal Saval, NYT, Oct 6, 2016).  The 'Brutalism' designation is actually derived from the French 'beton brut' - raw concrete - introduced by the architect Le Corbusier, one of the first to exploit the architectural potential of the material that has become the most recognizable hallmark of the Brutalist style.

Critical evaluation of the style based solely on a superficial appraisal of its outward appearance does the movement and its practitioners injustice, for there existed an important ethic in their design intent. The Brutalist architects embraced an architecture aligned with social democracy, an architecture designed to shape human interaction and social life, an architecture serving "the common good." In his seminal publication on Brutalism in 1955 architecture critic Reyner Banham asserted that Brutalism was first an ethic that only later was highjacked by external interest in aesthetics.  This was an architecture that attempted to address challenges facing society at the time and not directed at aggrandizement of the architects themselves.  Regrettably this 1950s architectural idealism was replaced by consumerist realities that emerged in the 70s and 80s and the subsequent emergence of the 'StArchitects'. Architectural politics shifted from social- to market- and ego-directed development.

Of the Brutalist architects Simon Henley (Arch Daily, 3/10/17) stated:
'Sometimes these architects' notions were naive, but there is no question that they worked with a strong sense of purpose and real conviction. Theirs was a hugely inventive architecture driven by a collective purpose, with the capacity for real humanity, however flawed, and for the picturesque and the sublime.  Today, where there is aspiration it is more often than not to serve the market, skin-deep and shortsighted, be it funded privately or by the state.  In practice, there has been a tragic loss of innocence - an innocence that for a generation served the future of society very well.'
Some flawed 'experiments' associated with Brutalist social concepts conspired with this shift away from socially-conscious motivations to lead to the literal and figurative decay of Brutalism.  Like the movement itself, many Brutalist structures have been demolished with many more clinging precariously to existence.

As an architectural photographer I enjoy photographing Brutalist buildings for the variety of abstract geometric compositions they represent. This essay was prompted by an interest in learning more about this architectural movement and its relationship with other styles as a way to guide my photography of these buildings.

But as I learned more about the movement I had a growing impression that the history of Brutalism could be viewed as a metaphor for our current political environment.  It seems to me that a genuinely socially-minded politic targeting 'the common good' in many regards is now threatened by a body politic that values benefits to the few, corporate interests and - ego.  Like the fate of Brutalism itself, I fear we face the tragic loss of 'common good' politics which, despite its flaws (and there are flaws), has 'for more than a generation served the future of society very well."

The good news is that Brutalism is enjoying a revival of interest among architectural aficionados and the public.  Activists are expending considerable effort to preserve and protect the most significant Brutalist architecture still in existence, extolling its important place in history and art.  Perhaps this speaks well for a revival of interest in the 'common good' emphasis of our federal government.  One can only hope so. For in the case of Brutalist architecture and 'common good' governance alike, waiting to act until "we don't know what we've got 'til its gone" will be too late for both.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Granary Archeology

While creating images for inclusion in my Project 66 Series about the Brabender family's Century Farm I had the privilege of exploring the farm buildings and shooting items I found there.  This week's blog post can be thought of as a companion piece for the Century Farm post and features old objects I discovered on my archeological photo excursion in the granary.  

Unlike the Century Farm piece which really emphasized the history of the family evident in the farm, this post highlights found objects - objects with so much character I was compelled to photograph them as I found them.  Even though the objects are my 'subjects' in this post, its not hard to imagine the stories that each reveals about the family. With that intro in mind I'll let the photos be the storytellers this week.

Thanks again to Wayne and his family for making this wonderful resource available.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Project 66 #10: The Brabender Century Farm

In order to acknowledge the legacy of the family farm many agricultural states, including Wisconsin, have established a distinctive designation for farms that have been owned by the same family for at least a 100 years.  These “Century Farms” are a tribute to farming families and their contribution to their home states and the nation. 

I was fortunate to have befriended a fellow photographer, Wayne Brabender, whose family farm has been designated a Century Farm by the state of Wisconsin.  The Brabender Century Farm located in Ashton WI has been in their family since 1859.  I thought that a photo essay about the farm would make for a compelling entry in my Project 66 collection, a series of 11 consecutive monthly essays or stories - each including exactly 6 images (66 in all) - compiled over the course of my 66th year.  So with Wayne’s blessing I set out to prepare this Project 66 chapter about the Brabender Century Farm.

My original concept was to document 150+ years of Brabender family ownership by photographing the farm’s buildings and old agricultural equipment.  But as I hunted for images appropriate to this theme and learned more from Wayne about the farm, his family and their shared history I came to realize that the spirit of generations of the Brabender family permeated everything related to the farm. The family and the farm share a collective identity; a tapestry woven from threads representing family, times together and place. 

In the early years Wayne’s great grandparents, Christian and Cecelia Brabender, lived in a log house on the property before completing the original limestone farmhouse in 1865. His grandfather Hubert added a permanent kitchen and two bedrooms in 1908 to help accommodate his 13 kids, including Wayne’s Dad.  20 babies were born in the house and three Brabenders , including grandfather Hubert, passed away there.  In the truest sense, the Brabender farm is an enduring embodiment of the lives and history of four generations of the Brabender family. 

In thinking further about the Project, it occurred to me that the real story of the Brabender Century Farm was less that ‘the farm had been in the family’ for 150 plus years and more that ‘the family has been in the farm’ for all that time. And so with this premise in mind I selected six images offering visual evidence to complement the history and Wayne’s personal recollections – all lending support to the conclusion that ‘the family has been in the farm’ is indeed a better qualifying distinction for this Century Farm.

The old limestone farmhouse has been the gathering place for daily activities and special occasions for four generations of Brabenders.  Relations past and present are referenced in aged photographs throughout the house, especially in a careful assemblage of pictures kept in a small alcove in the kitchen.  The faces looking out from the frames are perhaps the most direct references to the presence of the family ‘in the farm’ but unarguably are powerful ones. Wayne is literally a reflection (look closely) of these parents, grandparents and great grandparents; brothers and sisters; aunts, uncles and cousins.  He still shares the house with these relatives every day.  They are - all of them – everywhere ‘in the farmhouse’.

One would expect to find masculine references at the workbench in the old granary, rough lumber and tools worked by even rougher hands. The essence of great grandfather, grandfather, father and uncles still linger in that bench and in those tools.  But I also found signs of a woman’s touch in this masculine domain. There on a second bench alongside bins of nails, old rusty license plates and a sundry of miscellaneous parts and pieces was a mirror of the type that would have been more at home atop a dresser in the farmhouse.  With its smooth finish and simple, ornate flower pattern at its base the mirror was a marked contrast to the other more utilitarian items found nearby. And yet there it was; a reminder that female as well as male influences ‘have been in’ all parts of the Century Farm.

Kids have never relied on subtlety to make their presence known and proof that kids were 'in the farm' is similarly direct. The best example of this I found was also in the granary. There among hatchet scars, letters and numbers scratched into the roughhewn walls, and rusty toy relics I discovered that someone had drilled a smiley face into one of the walls. When confronted Wayne sheepishly acknowledged responsibility for this forerunner of the 'smiley face' emoji.  But his were not the only hallmarks of youthful mischief to be found. Right from the beginning kids have been 'in the farm'.

Continuing my exploration of the granary I discovered carefully stacked bundles of wooden lathing, the type formerly used in the construction of lath and plaster walls.  Each bundle contained 24-25 boards of similar length.  The bundles were neatly stacked in layers at right angles to each other.  When I asked Wayne about the bundles he explained, “When we remodeled the old farmhouse I couldn’t bring myself to discard the lathing knowing that my grandfather had placed each board by hand when building the original farmhouse.  I carefully removed each lath, cleaned off the residual plaster and sorted them into the bundles in the granary.”  When I mentioned that the regularity, careful arrangement and the pale appearance of the bundles immediately brought to mind the carefully stacked bones in the catacombs under the streets of Paris Wayne commented “I guess these are the ‘bones’ of the old farmhouse so the catacombs metaphor seems appropriate.”  Part of his grandfather was in those ‘bones’.  No wonder they were treated with such care and respect.

Returning to the farmhouse Wayne described another instance in which he was reminded of decades of family history and experienced the spirit of his ancestors within the farmhouse.  In preparation for re-finishing the original hardwood floors installed by his grandfather Hubert on the second floor of the farmhouse it was necessary to remove dirt and other material that had been ground into the spaces between the floorboards by decades of foot traffic – a type of archeological record of the family’s century in the house.

Wayne explained , “When I cleaned the cracks in the upstairs flooring I breathed in some of the dust and dirt as I worked away.  I felt that it was closest I could ever get to my great grandparents, my great uncles and aunts, and my grandfather who all grew up here.  There is so little written history or photos of these ancestors.  All I have are the few artifacts I’ve uncovered and the dirt inhaled during the remodeling.” The family ‘has been in the farm’.

At this point in my preparation for this piece I was so convinced of the ‘family has been in the farm’ premise that I could almost imagine the spirits of Brabenders past walking the upstairs hallway as I photographed the hardwood planking of the floor.  When I returned home and processed the images any shadow of a doubt I might have had about this idea was spirited away by what the camera had revealed. 

The State of Wisconsin may have awarded the Brabenders the Century Farm status on the basis that their farm has been in the family for 100 years or more. As for me, the Brabender Century Farm designation is better acknowledgement of the fact that the “family has been in the farm” all that time.

They can still be found ‘in the farm’ today.

Postscript:  All of the buildings of the Brabender Century Farm have been painstakingly renovated while preserving the original small farmstead character and charm.  The Farm venue may be reserved by photographers, artists and folks planning special events.  Details and additional photos of the venue are available at

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Goose Down Nebula

I've always been blown away by the dramatic deep-space photographs of nebulae taken by the Hubble telescope and earth observatories around the world. Understandably I had resigned myself to the fact that such colorful, dynamic images are the exclusive domain of space agencies with expensive equipment and individuals having far more technical knowledge than this earth-bound amateur photographer.

But one cold March day I came across something during one of my photo hikes that made me think that perhaps something akin to these intergalactic masterpieces could be created right here on terra firma.  The found object was a single goose down feather, no larger than a quarter, frozen in the surface of a mud puddle.  The immediate recognition that this could be processed to create a surrogate nebula complete with radiating tendrils of dust, helium, hydrogen and other ionized gases prompted me to take the shot using my macro lens allowing me to get in close. 

Over the past couple of years I have periodically returned to the image to fine tune my earthly nebula - the Goose Down Nebula.  No elements were added to the original image which was merely processed to add some color and contrast to accent bubbles and other debris in the ice to create the impression of deep space, stars and other heavenly bodies. To my satisfaction at least, I had created within the span of an inch or so a surrogate for an object of galactic dimensions.  

While not perfectly matching my original imagining and falling many light years short of matching the majesty of the real things, I've decided to release the first photos of the Goose Down Nebula before smart phone manufacturers release phones with cameras capable of photographing the real thing making my effort a waste of time.

Welcome to a piece of my universe!

To see some terrific photographs of the real deal you can go the the Hubble Telescope site at

(This piece was originally posted in late 2013, but viewed by so few that I thought it could be posted again and viewed as new.  Hopefully its fate will be better this time.)