INVASION

January 16th, 2012 — 12:47pm
corbusier superstudio
Solarium of Charles de Beistegui’s Penthouse, Le Courbusier, Paris, 1931 (source)
The Continuous Monument, Superstudio, 1969 (source)

 

Le Corbusier was not happy about this. When he finished the penthouse on the Champs-Élysées for Charles de Beistegui in 1931, it was a modern apartment with clean and simple spaces. When the multi-millionaire moved in, he redecorated the space with his favorite Baroque furniture. Against the white walls of the solarium on the roof garden, Le Corbusier allowed a non-working fireplace almost as a joke. But then de Beistegui added a lavishly decorated clock and a pair of ornate candle holders. A mirror with an elaborate oval frame was hung halfway above the wall.

 

Le Corbusier should have seen this coming – de Beistegui was famous for his extravagant parties and love of the Empire style. Any modern design would be an imposition on his flamboyant client. He still took on the project because he felt it was an opportunity to test his ideas for the roofs of Paris and to realize a piece of his Plan Voisin. The solarium illustrated his agenda for the city. Enclosed by high walls on all sides, one can only see the grass, the four walls, and the clouds in the sky. This open room was completely cut off from the Parisian panorama. Le Corbusier announced the modern invasion of Paris by blocking out the nearby Arc de Triomphe – interestingly, a monument built by Napoleon to celebrate the victory of his invasions…more

 

As a gridded, material-less superstructure of modernist grandeur, Superstudio’s Continuous Monument represents an angst of over-saturation. This series of photomontages represents a dystopic potential outcome of international banality – an earth engulfed in a surrealist monolith. While beautiful and grand, the visionary imagery was in fact a criticism of Modernism’s global invasion of the built environment. The renderings were never intended as realistic proposals, they simply delivered a warning that without opposition, criticism and/or an alternative, our urban and natural fabric may disappear. Superstudio’s expression is only one premonition of the imprisonment caused by a lack of diversity within our urban environment, reminding us that uniformity is never a tenable outcome.

 

In the context of today’s design spectrum we face a similar invasion of uninflected design proposals, as urban design projects continue to be rendered in singularity, with design offices imposing their unique aesthetics onto proposals for urban renewal. Projects continue to emphasize re-build over re-use, even in an era where sustainability is emphasized. Perhaps many designers may be inclined to believe that their proposal can improve the environment, but there is no one perfect option.

 

Human Wu

 

 

Jonathan Hanahan

 

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MICE

March 11th, 2011 — 7:58pm
convention sketch
MICE Space, Las Vegas Convention, (source)
Ivan Sutherland Demonstrating the Sketchpad System on the Console of the TX-2, MIT, 1963 (source)

 

‘I want to do a mini Las Vegas… I want to build 20,000+ rooms and millions of square feet of shopping and MICE space’.

—Sheldon Adelson, Chairman and CEO, LV Sands

 

 

MICE space (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) hosts planned activities for professionals. Offering a cocktail of spatial products, MICE balances polar travel motivations: business and pleasure. Successfully combining these two markets has transformed resort development, particularly in Las Vegas.

 

Mr. Adelson’s Sands Corporation pioneered a mixture of gaming, hospitality, shopping and convention space with Las Vegas’ Venetian and Palazzzo resorts. Arranged around a fancifully themed spectacle, Venice’s Grand Canal, shoppers stroll simulated banks or employ a singing gondolier to transverse the mall. Monday through Thursday, MICE is filled with conventioneering professionals. While they’re not meeting, they are eating, drinking shopping and seeking entertainment—including gambling—financed with above average incomes and corporate expensing.

 

Convention activity dovetails nicely with Las Vegas’ traditional user group. Passing in the airport on Friday afternoon, MICE users vacate rooms, tables and bars as the weekend shift arrives.

 

By creating through-week demand, MICE… more

 

It is astonishing that so many architects continue to draw with mice. While the habit can certainly be learned, mousing divorces the desktop-bound motions of the hand from the on-screen production of a line such that the experience can feel less like drawing and more like the effort required to snatch that overvalued stuffed rabbit using the remotely-controlled robotic claw at the arcade. In other words, it’s a thoroughly unnatural act.

 

Computer-aided drafting was not always this way. Indeed, some of the earliest computer graphics systems featured interfaces more akin to traditional drawing methods. For example, Ivan Sutherland’s groundbreaking 1963 Sketchpad program utilized a ‘light pen’ which enabled users to draft directly on the surface of a CRT screen. However, 1963 also saw the invention of the first mouse prototype at the Stanford Research Institute. In 1984 when Apple’s influential Macintosh computer was released with a mouse, manufacturers and software developers quickly followed suit. Like everyone else, architects (who were just beginning to integrate computers into their workflow) were left with few other options.

 

Today however, more natural interfaces for computer-aided drawing do exist, and other creative professions such as graphic design and photography have already adopted them. With the spread of more affordable graphics tablets and touchscreen interfaces (not to mention the rise of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome) one must ask: why do architects continue to hold onto their mice?

 

Brook Denison

 

 

Jacob Reidel

 

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VANISH

February 23rd, 2011 — 2:06pm
liberty economics
David Copperfield Vanishing the Statue of Liberty, New York City, 1983 (source)
UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, San Diego, 2010 (Photo by Author)

 

Architects have long sought to make their buildings disappear through ‘transparency’, ‘dematerialization’, ‘contextualism’, and any number of other tricks. Largely, these efforts have failed. David Copperfield came close, however, when in 1983 he made the Statue of Liberty vanish. This amazing feat—developed with Jim Steinmeyer and Don Wayne and broadcast live on national television—remains one of Copperfield’s most famous.

 

How did Copperfield do it? No one has revealed the secret. However, the widely-accepted conclusion is that (in addition to lights, curtains, music, and fake radar) Copperfield employed a specially-constructed rotating seating area to imperceptibly shift the direction in which the audience was looking. A perfectly placed tower then hid the Statue from view.

 

In the words of one audience member, ‘I have never seen a Statue of Liberty disappear the way this one did’.

 

‘What seems like a hall of mirrors is actually a highly organized shell game, but one in which the shells themselves are all there is to the game’.

—Reinhold Martin, on Mirror Glass

 

 

How do you make a building disappear?

 

Architecture—massive, costly, and permanent—would seem to be the least ephemeral of the arts. But like the military—another industry with a fondness for ‘disappearing’ large objects—architecture has its own repertoire of stealth techniques.

 

Though architecture’s stealth could be considered camouflage, it is really the opposite of razzle dazzle, flecktarn, or radar-absorbent paint. Architects use reflection to hide buildings in plain sight. It is surprisingly effective—witness the facade of the… more

 

Jacob Reidel

 

 

Gaby Brainard

 

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CONTROL

February 8th, 2011 — 5:40pm
spaghetti pingu
Sculptural Conduit Work at the Hinman Research Building, GaTech, Atlanta (Photo by Author)
London Zoo Penguin Pool, Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton (with Ove Arup), 1934 (Photo by Author)

 

Can conduit be controlled? Sort of.

 

As part of a recent renovation at Georgia Tech, our team was asked to replace all mechanical, plumbing, electrical (MEP) and telephone/data services, but without a budget for ceilings to conceal them. In response, we set an invisible plane at a comfortable nine feet above the floor throughout the building, and registered its intersection through walls using a paint line. We thought: below this line will be architecture, the stuff we control. Above it, anything goes—paint it and make it disappear. This simple act of zoning produced the intended results, but also coaxed some surprising work from the MEP trades in the process.

 

In an efficient building with no ceiling constraints, MEP systems would expand vertically, stacking to reduce costs associated with additional fittings, transitions and labor. However, our minimum height limit forced more things to coexist in plan, and exacerbated bottlenecks caused by low beams, congestion… more

 

After nearly eighty years, Berthold Lubetkin’s London Zoo Penguin Pool still dazzles with its structural daring and elegance. It even harbors a social agenda of sorts with the project’s defining element—a pair of interweaving concrete ramps—thoughtfully designed to orchestrate endless penguin frolicking. And yet, when I visited the Zoo shortly before the penguins were moved to a new home in 2004, the pool’s inhabitants were completely indifferent to Lubetkin’s efforts. Much to my disappointment no penguins gathered on, waddled up or belly-slid down this seemingly-perfect bit of architecture. Most of them huddled together on level terrain alongside the water’s edge, while a lone penguin ventured up the more utilitarian (and direct) flight of stairs leading to freedom. Heartbreakingly, a well-placed piece of Plexiglas thwarted his escape.

 

Architecture’s ability to single-handedly engender new and exciting activities may well be questioned. Its ability to render certain activities impossible, however, is a fact beyond dispute.

 

Tom Beresford

 

 

Jacob Reidel

 

2 comments » | Guest Contributors, Regular Contributors

MYSTERY

January 18th, 2011 — 7:50pm
cirque core
An act from O, Las Vegas, 1998 (source)
One Church Street, Designed by Douglas Orr, New Haven, Connecticut, 1961 (Photo by Author)

 

Cirque du Soleil’s production, O, at Bellagio’s Strip-front resort features the impossible: water instantly alternates between solid and liquid states. This amazing scientific advance allows the show’s acrobats the ability to defy conventional assumptions about states of matter* and perform breathtaking feats. A sequence may feature actors skipping across a frozen pond, transitioning theatergoers’ focus to a team of acrobatic divers plunging into the aqueous abyss. Sometimes these contradictory sequences occur simultaneously! As the show progresses, sets rise from the murky depths, transitioning from placid stage to messy swampland hovel. Water is simultaneously solid and liquid; waves of vapor roll across the audience.

 

Out front, in Bellagio’s eight acre Strip-front lake, water gasses to Frank Sinatra on a schedule, delighting millions of passerby with watery magic.** Geysers explode, rocketing columns of water thirty stories. Pressure spent, the lake turns moody as watery lariats dance in perfect time to show tunes of yesteryear. Water is wholly conquered—flipped between states or scrambled together, on a whim, for spectacle and entertainment.

 

This all takes place in the middle of the desert.

 

One of the notable buildings from New Haven’s mid-century program of urban renewal is Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s 1969 Knights of Columbus Headquarters. The clearly-organized tower—its form dominated by four massive brick-clad concrete cylinders containing the stairs and toilets, between which span perfectly-square glass and steel office plates—is a strong, brooding, and almost medieval presence on the skyline. Like a number of Roche and Dinkeloo’s remarkable projects from this period, the Knights of Columbus Headquarters is an exemplar of structural and organizational clarity, and arguably ranks among the best towers of its time.

 

The same could hardly be said for One Church Street, the comparatively dumpy neighbor across the street. Designed by Douglas Orr—now little-remembered but once a prominent local architect and president of the American Institute of Architects—One Church Street was completed in 1961 as the headquarters of the First New Haven National Bank. It initially seems simple enough: a squat eight-story, vaguely Miesian (or perhaps more accurately SOMian) glass and steel box with an exposed service core to one side. However, something is strange. The service core, clad entirely in limestone… more

 

Brook Denison

 

 

Jacob Reidel

 

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FUNNY

January 3rd, 2011 — 11:10pm
strut groucho
1001 Fifth Avenue designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, New York City, 1979 (Photo by Author) Philip Johnson (Photo Poorly Photoshopped by Author)

 

Funny buildings are rare. Given the cost and effort required to produce a building, this isn’t really surprising. Architecture is serious business, and those who develop, design, and build are understandably reluctant to risk humor. After all, no one wants to live in a bad joke (or even a good one for that matter). Occasionally, however, a funny building like 1001 Fifth Avenue comes along. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and completed in 1979, it is seriously, intentionally funny architecture (not a funny-looking oddity or mistake). And like the best comedy, its humor draws on just enough seriousness to give it a degree of relevance and meaning.

 

Located on a high-profile site directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York City’s Upper East Side, 1001 Fifth Avenue had to placate its incredibly wealthy and influential preservation-minded neighbors. Johnson and Burgee also had to satisfy a profit-minded developer determined to pack the site with the maximum possible number of apartments while following local building codes which limited any massing projection to ten inches beyond the building line. The solution? A thin limestone-clad façade, vaguely recalling pre-war towers, crossed by wisps of moldings which pick up the stronger horizontals of the adjacent 1910 McKim Mead & White 998 Fifth Avenue. Behind this façade is a typical high-end 1970s developer apartment building—a fact which is intentionally revealed by the exposed and widely visible bare façades to the north, south, and east. This is naughtily funny stuff, especially given the prevailing modernist tastes at that time. What makes 1001 Fifth Avenue hilarious, though, is the top: a thin false-front pseudo-mansard roof, propped up from behind by struts which—again, intentionally—can be seen from just about everywhere. The Hollywood back lot comes to Fifth Avenue, and the millionaires have moved in.

 

And the joke worked! Johnson and Burgee’s absurdly ‘contextual’ design managed to…more

 

You’d think people who spend all day building giant wangs would have a better sense of humor about their work. Yet architects rarely go for laughs, which is unfortunate, since their eyewear is usually just a fake nose and mustache away from Groucho glasses.

 

I kid, o hewers of steel and of stone! Please do not avenge yourselves by building a prison complex next to my apartment with construction taking place every night between the hours of 3:00 am and 6:00 am.

 

Now, I may not be a licensed architect, or an unlicensed architect, or a student of architecture, but I do pride myself on staying inside buildings much of the time (I’m in one right now!), so I consider myself qualified to suggest architectural improvements to the following structures:

 

— The Sony Building. Philip Johnson and John Burgee modeled the upper levels after a Chippendale chair, but it would be a better joke if someone reshaped it into a Chippendale dancer. If this is considered too risqué, a second option would be to add a large seat to the front of the building, so weary giants visiting from the Midwest could sit a spell before heading to Broadway to catch Wicked.

 

— The Chrysler Building. William Van Alen designed the crown like hubcaps and the gargoyles like hood ornaments, but this building has fallen behind the times. Some intrepid young architect should give it automatic windows, power locks, and heated seats throughout. (Show-offs need not apply; the building would look awful with hydraulics.)

 

— The Great Sphinx at Giza. Two words: Keyboard Cat. Either that, or change the face to Omar Sharif, arguably the world’s most famous living Egyptian.

 

In conclusion, if anyone out there builds any of these, you better rename it after me. (Sorry, Mr. Sharif!)

 

Jacob Reidel

 

 

Frank Lesser

 

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CHEAP

December 14th, 2010 — 4:03pm
details school
Red Hook Houses Cost-Reducing Details from “A Lesson in Cost Reduction,” The Architectural Forum, November 1938
School of Architecture designed by Lacaton & Vassal, Nantes, 2009 (source)

 

“Cost reducing details include: 1. Raised tub in bathroom kept waste piping above floor slab. Thin plaster partition replaced customary masonry wall as plumbing stack housing. Combined saving: $48,000; 2. Unmortised doors and simple hardware reduced costs by $20,000; 3. Wall brackets, streamlined to discourage coat-hanging and containing switch and convenience outlet, cost $36,000 less than ceiling outlets and wall switches; 4. U-shaped brackets replaced wood ground and base of plaster partitions. Cost reduction: $15,000; 5. A bull-nose finished off all kitchen entrances, saving $51,000; 6. Curtains on this hanger replaced closet doors, saved $118,400.”

 

The Architectural Forum (November 1938)

 

 

In 1955, my father and his family moved from their apartment in Brownsville to the Bay View Houses in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Their brand new 3-bedroom unit was clean, more spacious than their previous home, and surrounded by the generous open lawns of superblock public housing. Nevertheless, fifty years later among the first things he (unhappily) remembers about Bay View remain the interior fixtures and closets fitted with curtains instead of doors.

 

Unlike the earliest examples of public housing in NYC such as First Houses and Harlem River Houses—which featured high-quality interior finishes and details—Bay View followed a model established by Red Hook Houses in the late 1930s. To save costs and to avoid competing in the rental marketplace with private sector developers, the interiors of Red Hook Houses and the projects that followed were designed to be adequate but not too nice. In other words, while well-built, their design ensured that residents remained aware they were living in low-cost state-provided housing. As New York City Housing Authority Chairman Alfred Rheinstein said in 1938 the public housing authority is relieved from the restrictions of… more

 

“Metal buildings are the dream that modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don’t realize it. That’s because it doesn’t take an architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalog—comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week.”

 

– David Byrne, True Stories

 

 

To resist global capitalism’s instrumentalization of architecture, architects have developed many strategies, nearly all of which are, counter-intuitively, really expensive. When we build at all, we design buildings that are painfully difficult to construct because of their formal complexity or material excess. Efficiency and affordability are typically only celebrated when design is in service of the disempowered, displaced, or otherwise marginalized. Certainly, the techniques of efficiency pioneered by modernism are alive and well (pre-fab, modularity, standardization) but are largely in service of less-than-celebrated buildings (trailer parks, roadside motels, big boxes). What would happen if architects tried cheapness again, toward new ends, beyond efficiency?

 

The work of Lacaton & Vassal provides at least one provocative re-imagining of cheapness. Their project for the architecture school at Nantes was realized with an unfinished, unadorned concrete frame and a plastic enclosure system. Electrical cords dangle from the ceiling to desks below; the building is breathtakingly cheap. Unlike many architecture school buildings, however, the decision to leave the systems exposed was not for didactic effect. Nor is cheapness here a strategy to save the client money. Rather, it allows the client to redirect resources elsewhere. By using the lowest-cost building methods available, Lacaton & Vassal were able to deliver an inexpensive, spacious building in place of a smaller, costlier one, producing the greatest luxury any architecture school could ask for: extra space.

 

Jacob Reidel

 

 

Thom Moran

 

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COOL

November 19th, 2010 — 9:53pm
lego rebel
Lego Advertisement, c.1980 (source)

 

When I was a child, like so many others I built little Lego cities. And like so many others, I filled these cities with buildings of all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors. Blue towers that zigged. Yellow houses that zagged. Round buildings. Square buildings. Blobby buildings, stepped buildings and pyramids. The possibilities were endless and, when successful, awarded by the jury of 8-year-olds that ever-coveted title: cool.

 

As evinced by the shortlists of international design competitions, the covers of major design publications, and the overall output of many of today’s best-known practices, ours is an age of ‘cool’ architecture. Not Robert Mitchum cool, mind you. Unlike that actor’s famously understated performances, today’s coolest work—typified by new forms, structures, materials, and a host of other novelties—is anything but relaxed and easy. Rather, “cool” today usually means what it did to the kids in our mid-1980s youth: fresh, wild, exciting, unpredictable…

 

Perhaps it’s time for architecture to grow up a bit.

 

Promotional image from Rebel Without a Cause, 1955 (source)

 

To be cool one must remain aloof. This is a near impossibility in architecture, as the discipline demands that designers take a position within the discourse. While some architectural agendas hint at ambiguity—Rem Koolhaas’ generic approach or current West Coast trends towards producing amorphous affects—these are highly constructed and as a result they form distinct niches within the larger discourse. These niches must be defended from competing agendas, which can produce tensions that make it difficult to remain cool.

 

As a result, maintaining a relaxed demeanor is something that architects and their buildings regularly struggle with. Aside from inclinations towards bouts of drama, a lack of ease extends into the production of architecture, which is arguably labor intensive at all stages from conception, to materialization, to construction.

 

However, the labor that develops detail can also have the opposite effect. The specialized character of certain forms of architectural practice can make it difficult to access… more

 

Jacob Reidel

Erandi de Silva

 

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MEDIOCRE

October 6th, 2010 — 4:34pm
ludlow tesco
47 and 49 Ludlow Street, Photo by Author, New York City, c. 1900 and 2000 Crossroads in Peckham, Photo by Author

 

For a moment, let’s set aside so-called ‘Architecture with a capital A’. One could at least argue (though by no means conclusively) that the best of today’s work is as good as it’s ever been. Unfortunately, one would be hard-pressed to make a similar case for the state of today’s average, middling, and just OK buildings—in other words, the places 99% of us spend 99% of our time.

 

Compare two New York City facades: a tenement building built c.1900 and the apartment building built one hundred years later next door. Both are unambitious, market-driven, mediocre works. So how to explain the obvious disparity between them in quality, refinement, and (yes) beauty? Any answer, of course, involves much more than architecture, and must take into account a contemporary society that seldom nurtures craft and long-term investment. Architects, however, cannot ignore the decline of mediocre architecture if the majority of our work is to retain any shred of long-term value. A few distinguished works of Architecture are fine, but a world of good mediocre buildings would be far, far better.

 

Thankfully, most of our lives are played out through a chain of objectively unimportant, low level events that are on the whole unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, quotidian. In the same way, we tend to grow up, live, work, fall in love, have families, and fade away in entirely ordinary, run-of-the-mill architecture, built stuff that gets the job done, that holds in the heat and humidity in the local pool, and manages to pass planning because it has a gable roof and red brick façade, stuff that answers similar questions in similar ways in a million different variations from Perth to Plymouth.

 

If you took a picture of any of this low level architecture that fills Britain, the image would present a depressingly mute mediocrity, nothing but the complete factual averageness of the building or space which, if of recent vintage would no doubt end up, to howls of anguish, on Bad British Architecture. But architectural photography severs the container from what it contains, it shows the aesthetic failure, but not how that failure is really a triumph… more

 

Jacob Reidel

 

 

Adam Nathaniel Furman

 

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IMPORTANCE

September 23rd, 2010 — 1:16am
international artemis
The International Space Station, NASA, 2006 (source)

 

Temple of Artemis, Photo by Author, Ephesus (near modern Selçuk, Turkey), 2010

 

“When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old, I know it is”

 

-Oscar Wilde

 

 

There is nothing on our fair Earth more important than money. Even love takes second place to hard cash, its most sacred institute, marriage, appraised yearly in dollar amounts: paper for one year, tin for ten and gold, not until fifty years of married bliss—a lifetime if one considers that most modern brides do not marry until they are in their thirties.

 

If we apply this rule of importance to architecture, that it is bound to cost, it is possible to compile a definitive list of the world’s most important architectural achievements. An abbreviated list in ascending order of cost to construct:

 

-Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, 2007, $950 million
-The Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong, 1990, $1.0 billion
-World Financial Center, Shanghai, 2008, $1.2 billion
-Burj Khalifa, Dubai, 2010, $1.5 billion
-(New) Yankee Stadium, New York, 2009, $1.5 billion
-Wembley Stadium, London, 2006, $1.5 billion
-Bellagio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, 1998, $1.6 billion
-Taipei 101, Taiwan, 2004, $1.8 billion
-Antilia Residence, Mumbai, 2010, $2.0 billion
-Wynn Las Vegas, Las Vegas, 2005, $2.6 billion

 

These earthly examples pale in comparison to the International Space Station which is estimated to have cost, to date, $157 billion. Now, if only someone could pony up the cash to build a casino in space, we might finally enter the next great age of architecture.

 

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.’”

 

-Antipater of Sidon, Greek Anthology (IX.58)

 

 

“We [architects] should take everything very seriously, but then somehow regard it as being not important.”

 

-David Chipperfield (El Croquis N.150)

 

 

The archaic Temple of Artemis (or Artemision) at Ephesus, was completed c. 550 BC. Designed by the architects Chersiphron of Knossos, his son Metagenes, and Theodoros of Samos, it was the first monumental structure built of marble, and for nearly two hundred years was renowned as the largest building in the Greek world. On July 21st, 356 BC a man named Herostratus burned it to the ground in a deranged but admittedly successful bid for eternal fame. It took nearly one hundred years to rebuild, but by 250 BC the Artemision had surpassed its former glory. Five hundred years later, the Artemision was burned again (this time by invading Goths), rebuilt, and then definitively destroyed in 401 AD by a Christian mob led by St. John Chrysostom.

 

If you ever find yourself near Selçuk look for the sign just outside town for the Artemision… more

 

E. Sean Bailey

 

 

Jacob Reidel

 

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