Office Book Club: Devil in the White City

By Michael Kowalchuk

Last week marked the beginning of ESKW/A’s newest tradition: office book club. Four intrepid readers gathered to discuss Erik Larson’s compelling work of true crime history, The Devil in the White City. Larson’s book, though meticulously researched and faithful to fact, reads like a novel. A 2003 New York Times bestseller, the book is especially relevant for architects due to its treatment of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as a backdrop for Dr. H.H. Holmes’s grisly murders. Even though some of us have already read the book, we chose it for our first book club because of its juicy merging of crime drama and architecture.

Palace of Mechanic Arts

The book details the planning, design and construction of the fair as Holmes commits his crime spree. It was interesting to compare the design culture of the late 1890’s with that of today. We find our working relationship with engineers and landscape architects as collaborative, while the fair seemed rife with rivalries. The nineteenth century inflated egos of the extremely male-dominated profession are happily diminishing in modern practice. One theme that persists in many practices is the perceived dichotomy between the architect as artiste and the architect as businessperson.

The World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) was fascinating for many reasons: the clash between tradition and modernity was almost palpable, the fair saw the largest gathering of people (during peacetime) in world history and it was one of the first times the United States flexed its muscles on a global stage. The fact that the fair was held in Chicago, “America’s second city,” proved that even places once considered provincial backwaters could pull off an event as stunning as those held in Paris, London or New York.

Larson made clear that darker forces animate the human Ferris Wheel psyche as well. In addition to Holmes’s 12+ confirmed murders (the highest estimates were around 200), the story shed light on the underbelly of Chicago which the fair tried so hard to obscure. Both Holmes and the lead architect, Daniel Burnham, exploited their laborers, though obviously to different ends. Workplace injuries or deaths were common, the eight-hour workday was a dream, and unions were only just beginning to learn their true strength. While the fair’s buildings may have been spray-painted a glimmering white, garbage was thrown down the same staircases used by guests and visitors died in accidents caused by shoddy oversight and a general lack of safety standards. On top of all that, the fair was financed by the city’s ill begotten slaughterhouse wealth and unsavory business practices that put the 2008 crisis to shame.

At the end of the day, however, the human spirit triumphed. Holmes was discovered, first as a fraud and then as a serial killer, thanks to the dedication of a persistent detective and concerned citizens. While the fair wasn’t perfect, it introduced dozens of new concepts, values and products (including PBR!) to the general public. The Ferris wheel was unveiled for the first time, allowing regular people to see the world in a previously-unthinkable way. The so-called White City lives on in the City Beautiful Movement’s neoclassical civic buildings that dot virtually every small town across the country.

World Trade Center Transportation HubOne thing we lamented was the lack of a contemporary event as impactful as the World’s Columbian Exposition. Yes, we have our biennales and dazzling new structures that defy gravity like Calatrava’s transportation hub but it seems like the next analogous experience will exist with the help of the virtual, not the built environment. Pokémon Go was just a small taste of what is possible with augmented reality and future endeavors have the potential to greatly affect millions of lives without corresponding changes to the physical world. We also lamented the lack of comprehensive documentation of the Chicago World’s Fair, as Burnham forbade amateur photography to control the way his masterpiece was viewed by the world.

Most importantly, we had a great time and found yet another reason to socialize out outside of office hours. Up next is Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, a fictional account that chronicles the lives of Americans living in a United Fruit Company enclave on the eve of the Cuban Revolution.

ESKW/A Inaugural Office Book Club

ESKW/A Inaugural Office Book Club

Progress at the Thomas S. Murphy Clubhouse

Some of our longer-term fans may recall our excited post from 2 years back at the very beginning of our pool renovation project at the Thomas S. Murphy Clubhouse, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club.

ESKW/A and the Owner’s Representative LOM Properties brought a photographer on board to snap underwater photos of the kids from the club swimming to be featured in a large-scale tile mosaic mural in the pool room.  Annie Kountz, Project Architect, described her personal connection to the Boys & Girls Club, and we shared a fun video capture of the kids in action.  The project is now in construction, and the tile mosaic has arrived in annotated panels and is being laid out in preparation for installation later this week. We can’t wait for the kids to see the project, and for those who were part of the photoshoot to see themselves immortalized on the walls of their club.

The Necropoli of Sicily

Amanda Royale Sengstacken

There’s plenty for an architecture dork to feast on while traveling in Sicily – the island is home to a plethora of ancient Greek and Roman ruins, many in remarkable condition. In fact, the Sicilians seem to simultaneously harbor deep respect and nonchalance towards the antiquities in their midst: you can find yourself standing on a plain-ish portion of 2,500 year-old mosaic while peering over a protective gate at its more elaborate counterpart and feel a bit concerned about damaging the stones under your feet.

Anyway, ruins are all well and good but I was most taken with the necropolises.

I traveled to Sicily with two friends. One with no Italian heritage to speak of yet enough passion for the land and culture that he’s bought a second home there; the other an American whose last name betrays his family’s Sicilian heritage – in which he has no particular interest.

We two non-Sicilians recognized an opportunity for story making, however, and gleefully force-marched our friend on what was for us an emotional tour of his birthright, packing him into a car for several hours to visit his grandparents’ hometown of Floridia and propping him up against various churches and landmarks for photo ops. We even managed to communicate to a kindly local in a few halting words of Italian that our friend, too, had been born of that very earth, eliciting what seemed to be a very positive if long-winded and unintelligible response.

Finally, with lumps in our throats and our poor friend heaving a sigh of relief, we were headed back home to Ragusa Ibla when we drove past a walled-in cemetery and turned to him once more.

“We have to stop and see if your family is in there!”

Maybe he was finally starting to feel the stirrings of his roots, or maybe he’d learned that there was no deterring us, but our captive half-Sicilian agreed.

Cemeteries in Sicily are elaborate cities in their own right. In fact they seem to be laid out to mirror their associated living town, with identical street names. This we garnered from the caretaker who pulled from his wallet something like a social security card, showing us the address on it and gesturing around to indicate that the address of his birth would also one day be the address of his resting place.

But the feeling of walking through a literal city of the dead comes predominantly from the fact that while some in-ground graves of the type we’re most familiar exist, the bulk of the cemetery is composed of, essentially, mini-houses. We strolled through endless rows of elaborately designed shrunken mansions, each bearing a family name and permanently housing as many as a dozen members.

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On overview of a typical cemetery; the backs of the family chapels are visible to the left.

The architectural styles vary widely, with sections of intricate Baroque designs grouped next to more Brutalist collections. Whether each structure simply reflects the zeitgeist of the moment it was built or whether it was purely a matter of the clients’ taste is unclear, but the necropolis as a whole provides a rich dose of every imaginable phase of architectural history dating back a few hundred years.

We three found ourselves claiming aspects we liked for our own future perma-homes; “I like the ivy in front for sure, but probably not the sphinxes.”

“This one with the skylight, I like the natural lighting.”

Researching online yields little information about these family chapels, and I’m left wondering what the professional process is like. Are there architects whose practice is devoted entirely to these monuments? Are there firms using modern technology to render their proposals, and BIM to streamline the construction? (In this case a Revit family could, indeed, be an actual family … sorry.) For three awed interlopers it was an unusual and thoughtful exercise to imagine in what style we would wish to represent our families for all eternity.

Happy Earth Day!

Slash A Earth Day

This Earth Day, we’re taking a moment to look back at one of our favorite eco-friendly projects, the Eco Restroom at the Bronx Zoo for the Wildlife Conservation Society. This was a very fun project, and the restrooms far exceeded their initial goal of providing an eco-friendly comfort station to actually become an exhibit and learning opportunity.

The weather is looking great this weekend – it’s a great time to go check out the Bronx Zoo, and learn a bit about sustainable water use while you’re there.

Photos by David Sundberg for Esto Photography

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, and the UN’s theme for 2016 is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.”

At ESKW/A, we are 12 women and 8 men.The strength of women in this practice traces back to the firm’s inception in 1960, when Judith Edelman was one of 3 founding partners. Her ‘firebrand’ legacy (see NYTimes article here) as a pioneer for her gender in this field has influenced ESKW/A in all of its iterations since. Click here to read an interview with Judy for this blog in 2012.

The upcoming Women’s Day along with the recent publication of the (rather disheartening) 2016 Women in Architecture Survey generated a fair amount of discussion among us. Below, we share some of our team’s reflections on the topic of gender in our field.


Do you think that men and women have different experiences in the workplace/field?

“It has happened that I’ve had to correct people that I’m not on the job to only pick colors; that I’ve detailed the project, coordinated the MEP and Structure, and am eagle-eye watching the waterproofing.”  Kimberly

hardhat“My field experience has been great. Only once was there a cat-call from a construction worker as I approached the site. I just smiled and put on my hard hat so that he understood my role and there were no cat-calls thereafter.”  Fialka

“I think there are still differences but they are thankfully becoming fewer. It is, however, still pretty standard to be the only female in meetings.”  Andrea

driven“Yes many differences. I think the field is still driven in the bigger picture by men. BUT women when practicing the practicalities of the profession are much more detail-oriented and organized than men.”  Francisco

“I think that clients, consultants, and contractors recognize that women should be respected in the workplace but they’re a little bit unsure of how to walk the line between camaraderie and professionalism when they’re faced with women of authority. I feel like I can see them being more careful of this line than if they are speaking to a male architect.”  Marcella

worthy“Absolutely. In the field, or in interactions with people in related trades, I feel that females start the relationship with a deficit. I think that we have to work harder to prove ourselves worthy.”  Amanda

“In my experience (limited to this firm) males and females are treated with exceptional quality with no division between the two. Everyone here is treated with mutual respect.”   Justin

Was there a female role model who particularly influenced your education or career?

“I have seen [my mother] do everything as the head of a house. No limits, no regrets from her; that is why I consider myself well-educated by a woman. I’ve learned not to see any difference between what males and females can do in their profession, both are capable. Especially with my female professors, my coworkers and supervisors today–all have something to share and learn from.”

conseq“I’ve been inspired by a handful of female architects but I think the most influential female figure is Marta Gutman, my architectural history professor in grad school. She would always stress the social context of the time and how design played a role in it. For me, she made it clear that as architects and designers we do have a choice in the type of work we take part in and should acknowledge its consequences, both good and bad. Looking back I’m pretty sure she planted the seed that led me to want to work at a firm like ours.”  Mike

“I’ve been continuously inspired by some of our outstanding female clients who are doing amazing work and have been for decades. Specifically Sister Tesa Fitzgerald of Hour Children, Inc. and Carol Lamberg of Settlement Housing Fund. They are geniuses in their fields and build consensus in their teams with grace and respect that I’m very inspired by.”  Kimberly

“All but one or two of my studio professors have been women in addition to other courses so I have many stories to choose from.  From Laura Kurgan’s housing studio at GSAPP I learned methods to extract design intelligence from geographical and statistical sources.  Yoshiko Sato, in her space studio, had us designing space in low earth orbit, a completely different physical reality. Dana Buntrock’s construction materials and methods course at Berkeley CED is an institution unto itself and one of the most valuable courses I took.  Janet Delaney’s photography course at Berkeley was formative both for understanding light and composition and the process of creating art.”  Michael

mom“In the cheesiest answer possible, my mom influenced my education and career. She was the only child out of a family of six children to go to college. She worked extremely hard to make it to the US and took a huge risk in leaving Hong Kong to try a start a better life for herself here. Growing up, she’s always taught me that there are no limitations to what I want to achieve. It’s hard to explain how significant that is, but it made a huge difference in how I responded to and embraced my education and career.”  Marcella

“Yes, Andrea Swartz was the second studio professor I had in architecture school. I visited NYC with her and a peer as she gave the two of us a personal and swift highlight of the city’s architecture. I remember distinctly her critiques and strong encouragement that helped push me through her studio and onward. She inspired the architect within me and her words have stuck with me as I continue the internship here in NY.”  Justin

What would be your advice for young women seeking to enter this field?

voices“COME!! Join the forces! We need more females and minorities. Our voices and contributions are critical and make our work more relevant. Overall, I would strongly encourage them to go for it. I would also give them an honest disclaimer that you have to really love it for it to be worth it.”  Annie 

“My general attitude is that if your intuition tells you to do it, then do it. The biggest obstacle is going to be yourself. I feel like this is probably applicable to most young women as women can be more self-critical than men. This is a very big obstacle to overcome.”  Marcella

society“The profession benefits from diversity. Young women should not be deterred from entering this field. Society is changing and we should be taking advantage of the new opportunities.”  Andrea

“You can do it all! We all have strengths and weaknesses that will only reveal themselves after years of practice, but you CAN be a renaissance architect and learn it all.”  Kimberly

“If you’re passionate about Architecture then go for it … however, if top financial compensation is your priority, beware. Of all the professions, ours is among the least compensated given hours put in and education.”  Fialka

“I’d like to believe that male or female, as long as you are respectful, capable, and confident you’ll be able to succeed–idealistic, I know.”    Mike

Percent-chart

Art & Architecture

Since we completed their interior fit-out in 2012, we’ve jumped at every opportunity to visit the Bronx Community Charter School and see the kids and teachers in action in their new space. Kimberly and Marcella stopped by BxC today and as always, they were blown away.

The 6th grade class recently finished a project studying the human body and site-specific art. They scoped out sites in their school and created sculptures out of clear packing tape. They studied the position of the body, the way limbs fall, and then one person in each 3-person team became the model. The resulting sculptures are hanging out on a bench, the ductwork, and flying under the central skylight.

We love their artwork (which reminds us of this series of floating and glowing human figures by Cédric Le Borgne installed internationally between 2006 and 2011).

Check out the kids’ talent!