'Architecture' Category

The City Museum – Gaudí in a scrapyard of the imagination

Another short digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.

It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.


Travels in Bordeaux and the Dordogne a.k.a. Perigord

A digression from environmental topics – photos of my travels in southwest France in summer 2018. Believe it or not we saw all this in five days not counting the travel day on each end. My favorite part and one of my favorite things ever, anywhere, is the house (actually, castle) of the greatest tapestry weaver of the 20th century, so to skip to that click here .


Dessau, where 1770s modern meets 1920s modern and Europe’s only artificial volcano

The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm is a breathtaking and absolutely unique series of parks and gardens from around 1770 with villas, pavilions and other structures scattered around these two towns in eastern Germany and constituting one of the largest neoclassical assemblages in the world. Sadly, it is little known, even by Germans, although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be the first introduction of Enlightenment neoclassical aesthetics into Germany, an early rumble in the seismic shift from baroque and rococo flamboyance to sober interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles and, by extension, the embrace of humanistic reason, scholarly curiosity, and open-minded exploration. Its patron was Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, more commonly known as Fürst Franz (Prince Franz) or Friedrich Franz. He wanted to bring Enlightenment values and education to the general public, and so the parks were open to the public and included demonstration gardens and farms for agricultural education and research.
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With 67 shopping malls and more on the way, Berlin embraces its inner suburbanist

One of the biggest surprises awaiting the visitor to Berlin is the startling number of shopping malls. It can seem as though you’re never more than ten minutes from one. There are so many that I felt compelled to count and map them and see how New York, for example, compares. Short answer: Berlin has 67 malls and New York City has 16. Proportionally, Berlin has ten times as many per capita and four times as many per square mile. If New York had the same mall density it would have 156.

But in the real world the difference is greater, since most of New York’s are in remote outer-borough locations so millions of New Yorkers have rarely seen or even heard of them: Manhattan has three; Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens each have only one that is accessible by subway.. Click on the images below for the full interactive maps.

Three more are currently being planned in Berlin and there is “no end in sight” according to the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Berlin (left) and New York. Click for interactive map. The blue lines represent 10 miles. Grey denotes area beyond NYC limits. Malls in blue are not accessible by subway.

Greater berlin w 10 mile line NYC whole city w 10 mile line 2


Living buildings

Just a few words about a fascinating little corner of the arboriculture world known as tree shaping or arborisculpture, the training of living trees into sculptures, furniture, buildings and other structures. Tree shaping has seldom implemented although the principle is the same as the far more common practice of espalier, which is a tree or shrub trained to grow flat against a frame or wall in a garden, often for increasing fruit production. Tree shaping has little practical application but it is nonetheless interesting as a creative expression of the wonder, strength and beauty of trees and how humans can engage with them and the broader natural world.

The field’s greatest visionary was Arthur Wiechula (German, 1867 – 1941) who envisioned growing entire buildings and researched the physiology of the necessary grafting.

Smaller works such as chairs and individual sculpted trees are documented since at least the 19th century, with Germany perhaps the chief center of activity, followed by the UK and US. Germany has most of the world’s living buildings – a couple of churches and a four story pavilion built with the aid of metal scaffold. India, however, has largest, oldest and most functional living structures. In the state of Meghalaya are footbridges, formed of living roots of Ficus trees, that reportedly are centuries old and able to support 50 people.


The near-anonymous architect who defined the postwar German cityscape – and why boring design is important

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

Pass-through to the kitchen was innovative when Stallknecht designed it around 1959. Photo is from 1974.








I recently learned that virtually nothing in English has been written on the man who was arguably the most important German architect since World War II. And so I wrote what is only the second English-language article (and only Wikipedia entry) on Wilfried Stallknecht*. By “important” I mean “had the greatest influence on buildings in Germany”. He didn’t redefine architecture as we know it or create a revolutionary visual language, and his buildings are neither beautiful nor dramatic, but he may have had the most influence on the largest number of buildings. The wide influence stems from two innovations dating from 1958: prefabricated apartment buildings that went on to house millions, and a single-family house design of which 500,000 were built.

Stallknecht and his team were the first to build apartment buildings using prefabricated panels. (more…)

World longest building: Beach resort built by Hitler, never used, still standing


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The world’s longest building is a never-used Nazi-era resort called Prora which would stretch the entire width of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Built by Hitler on the Baltic Sea to provide recreation for the masses, the buildings were completed and are still standing, but the resort never opened. Just under 3 miles long, it has capacity for 20,000 guests and is nearly impossible to photograph in its entirety because it shrinks to a hairline in any comprehensive view.

aerial bing 1 crop enhance 50Prora resort is highlighted


The buildings lay vacant from 1939 to 2011 apart from sporadic, partial use by the former-East German (more…)

A ghost neighborhood in St. Louis, depopulated due to flooding

These are former residential streets in St. Louis that have been permanently evacuated in the 2000s and most of the houses demolished due to severe, persistent flooding, mainly in the basements. There are definitively no plans for resettlement. The problems had been noted in the 1950s by the Metropolitan Sewer District and persisted until the demolition, and still persist in varying degrees in nearby inhabited streets. The cause of the flooding seems to have been poor sewer and city planning dating back at least to the 1940s. My understanding is that, in short, there should have been either more sewers or fewer buildings. and the fate was sealed decades ago, leaving no other option apart from vacating entire blocks.

The collapsed house is the only one like it in the immediate area. Nearly all the others were razed without a trace; the few remaining (more…)

The Stalinist DUMBO known as Industry City

Saturday I was at Industry City, a gargantuan 100-year-old factory and warehouse complex of a dozen buildings each fully as long as two football fields on the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 9 miles /14 km from central Manhattan. The original name, Bush Terminal, was changed to Industry City in the 1980s.

The place was teeming with designy design people buzzing around designy design studios and Brooklyny artisanal food stalls with enough repurposed wood and rusted metal to reach from here to the sun. The whole thing is pretty icky, basically like DUMBO* on a Stalinist scale and manages to combine the worst elements of both so a friend and I are calling it Stalinist DUMBO. Heartreaking that so much dramatic space and the memory of all those 20th century factory workers seems focused now on $4,000 chairs.

*extremely gentrified former-warehouse area in Brooklyn – Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass for our overseas readers



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Rest Room Signs of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, Saxony and Berlin

I forgot to take a picture of the one where I didn’t realize I was in the women’s room because the erratic swoop I thought was peeling paint was, in fact, a “D” for Damen. A woman walked in on me – just washing my hands – and let out a firm but smiling “mm-HM!” which I figured must be quirky Cologne dialect for “Hi!” so naturally I said “Hallo” back, still thinking the bathroom was unisex.

The chicks were at a Japanese restaurant in Berlin.

St. Louis opulence 1880 – 1925

St. Louis was one of the three or so richest US cities around 1880 to 1920 and has perhaps the country’s most extravagant collection of residential architecture in a single neighborhood. Sadly, the houses lie just a few blocks from equally remarkable levels of poverty and desolation of a type unknown in the crowded northeast today.

Especially poignant is the house where Scott Joplin, ragtime composer (“The Entertainer”) and a key grandfather of jazz lived during the height of his career. The house lies preserved in an empty wasteland where the decay was so extreme the neighborhood of once-stately row houses has been wiped clean, leaving only the occasional auto body shop.

St. Louis – The Largest Collection of Original Victorian Pavilions Outside of Kew Gardens

St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park is said to have the largest intact collection of Victorian-era park pavilions – a dozen or so – outside of London’s Kew Gardens. Also, there is  abundant evidence of St. Louis’ once-large German population, long since dispersed and assimilated nearly without a trace. The zinc stag came from Berlin; there are statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (sometimes called “father of the American military” for his essential service in the American Revolution and who was trailed by rumors and public accusations of homosexuality), and others by a German sculptor.


Bonn, the former West German capital, is full of extraordinary 19th century buildings in the approximate German equivalents of Victorian and Art Nouveau styles (Gründerzeit and Jugendstil) plus a bit of 60s-70s modern government architecture at its best. The old houses manage to look stuffy and whimsical at the same time which is quite a feat. There is lots of asymmetry. The main national history museum is there (bottom photos).

The West German parliament met in a room that looked like a bare-bones college or church hall with a bunch of ordinary-lookng people in chairs pulled into in a semicircle. In photos it looks like a PTA meeting and then afterwards they’ll set up the room for bingo.

We missed a tour of the stunning 1963 supermodern chancellor’s house because we didn’t know you need your passport. I’ve always been told passports must be kept in a safe place and not on your person, which I now know can limit spontaneous access to, well, former chancellors’ houses.



Cologne is the size of Tampa yet has both subways and streetcars, endless immaculate car-free shopping streets, world-class museums, and you can get anywhere by bike. It is generally considered Germany’s most relaxed city as well as its gay capital, to the surprise of those who know only Berlin’s international reputation.

1-4: Lots of Cologne looks like this. Plazas with cafes and car-free streets.

5-6: Free book stalls: take free books and/or leave your unwanted books. I found a fantastic one on urban green spaces such as the vine-covered wall behind the very stall where I found the book!

7: Landscape Protection Zone in central-city park

8-11: OMG functioning well-maintained first-world transportation infrastructure! Tablecloths in a train cafe, which haven’t been seen in the US in 50 years!

Dresden 1960-2014

The glass box is VW’s Transparent Factory, 10 minutes from the baroque palaces and churches that most people associate with Dresden and earned it the name ‘Florence on the Elbe’. A literary-philosphical talk show called ‘The Philsophical Quartet’ was sometimes filmed there during its 10-year run, because Germany is the kind of place that has literary-philophical talk shows. To prevent birds from hitting the glass, outdoor loudspeakers play ‘territory taken’ bird sounds.