The Unknown Dome of Frank Lloyd Wright, right in my hometown

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a prominent American architect, writer and teacher. His design philosophy was based on the idea that structures should harmonize with their environment. This approach was best exemplified by Fallingwater (1935) and his many Prairie Homes.  However, he also designed numerous lesser known structures.  One of which stands in Wauwatosa, a city in Milwaukee County, WI, USA, only a few miles from my hometown.  The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was designed and proposed in 1956, near the end of Wright’s life.  In fact, it was not constructed until 1959, after his death.

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2016 Photo of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church Wauwatosa, WI.                                       Photo Credit: J. Schmidt

For the design of this thin shell dome, Wright was inspired by the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey).  The reinforced concrete dome is unique. First, it is extremely thin for its size.  The dome has a 16.2m radius (the Hagia Sophia’s radius is 15.5m) and a height of about 4m (Hagia Sophia’s height is 15m).  However, the average thickness of the concrete shell is only 9cm whereas in the masonry Hagia Sophia dome the average thickness is 76cm.  Second, the dome rests along its perimeter on greased steel ball bearings.  Milwaukee has a wide range of seasonal temperatures and the ball bearings allow the dome to expand and contract about 2 cm of movement due to temperature variations.   Finally, the dome is detailed along its perimeter with a series of glass orbs which let light in and give the illusion that the dome is levitating above the building.  This resembles the design of the Hagia Sophia, interior pictured below, which has windows allowing streams of light to pass around the perimeter of its dome as well.

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1960 Construction photos showing dome support system. Copyright: John Underhill Ottenheimer

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Shells for the senses: the multidisciplinary success of “Stage by the Sea”

When we speak of “aesthetics”, the first sense that comes to mind is sight – when appreciating the “aesthetics” of a structure, we often refer a structure’s beauty. But a secondary definition in Merriam-Webster reminds us that aesthetics can also be defined as “appreciative of what is pleasurable of the senses.”

In Professor Adriaenssens’s words, “a formal analysis, deprived of tactile, auditory and olfactory experiences, seems only to capture to a certain extent the esthetic intent of curved surfaces.” How might structures embody acoustics and the auditory senses? Today we examine Stage by the Sea, a small concert stage in Littlehampton, England that does just that.

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Image courtesy of Flanagan Lawrence Architects.

Context-driven design

The design brief first set out by Littlehampton was for a stage and a shelter to occupy its beach and “reinvigorate the town’s gentility of the early 20th century.” The project, being publicly funded, had an extremely tight budget of £100,000.

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Beach view from the shelter shell of Stage by the Sea. Image courtesy of Flanagan Lawrence Architects.

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What I am Thinking: Architectural Fantasies with Mister Mourão

While at the 2016 International Conference on Structures and Architecture, we had the opportunity to meet Mister Mourão, a highly creative mind who describes himself as “an architect turned illustrator with a tendency for obsessive drawing.” In this interview, he shares his beginnings in drawing, his productive workflow, and his inspiration (or lack thereof).

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When, what, how and why did you start drawing?

Drawing was always one of my favourite things to do. There’s something in the effort, dedication and loneliness of the work that resonates with me.

One of my first memories is being on my parents’ living room floor drawing, so I guess I started pretty early… And for some unknown reason I was obsessed with horses. That’s basically what I drew from 4 until 18 years old. Horses!

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What was your formal training and how does it relate to your work now?

I studied and worked as an architect so my lexicon is deeply rooted in the city, structures and urban environments.

Basically, I learned how to design and build through architecture, and now I can distort, exaggerate and repeat all those architectural elements that make up a building or a city and rearrange them in my drawings.

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What is your process?  

First I have to confess something about myself. I (obviously) love to draw but I’m quite lazy and restless, and it’s very hard for me to focus.

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Our Summer Rammed Earth Experiment 3/3:

While we’ve completed construction on the rammed earth spiral, the project has really only just begun. Moving forward, our team is looking to properly introduce rammed earth into the Princeton community and to further research efforts by installing a sensor system to study rammed earth erosion and by building a solar-paneled roof over the spiral wall.

Community Engagement: Redefining Structures, Sustainability, and Service

Rammed earth is a uniquely sustainable, beautiful building material – and completely foreign to most people. With this project, we saw the opportunity to do more than research and focus on the idea that structures are built to interact with people. We wanted to create something that could broaden our community’s views on structures, sustainability, and service.

Working with the PACE Center for Civic Engagement, we’ve been able to expose Princeton students to rammed earth through volunteer events and service discussions. A student volunteer described how “the project had made us work together and become a single unit,” unknowingly hitting the mark on an ancient quality of earthen construction. Especially in developing areas where heavy machinery cannot be employed, earthen construction is known as a community building event. At a lunch event hosted by the PACE Center, our project incited a discussion between students from various departments about research as a form of service. We hope to hold similar events during the school year, as well as transform the Forbes Garden into a more usable space for all, where students can have class, a movie night, or just a place to relax and study.

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