David Bruce: Architecture Anecdotes

Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. as the result of an assignment by Professor Andrus Burr of Yale University. He gave everyone in his class the guidelines of the contest to design the Memorial — it had to include the names of all the Americans killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War and it had to be in harmony with the landscape and monuments of the Mall. Of all the students in the class, Ms. Lin was the only one to submit her design to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Her design consisted of two walls that sank into the ground and then rose again — the names of the Vietnam dead and MIAs were engraved on the two walls. In addition, the wall was made of highly polished black marble to give a reflection of the Mall and of the people looking at the wall. Although Ms. Lin’s design was the unanimous winner of the contest, when she had submitted her design to Professor Burr, he felt that it was “too strong” and gave it a B. However, Professor Burr encouraged Ms. Lin to submit her design to the VVMF, and he made two important suggestions concerning her design, both of which she accepted. His was the idea that the two walls come together and form an angle, and he suggested that the names on the wall be arranged by date of death rather than by alphabetical order — a stroke of genius that Ms. Lin says kept the wall from looking “like a telephone book engraved in granite.”

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, architect Julia Morgan was hired to rebuild the Fairmont Hotel, in part because of her expertise in reinforced concrete, then a new material. Women architects were rare, so a woman reporter inspected the Fairmont Hotel, then asked the foreman, “Is the building really in the charge of a woman architect?” The foreman replied, “This building is in [the] charge of a real architect, and her name happens to be Julia Morgan.” After the building was completed, another woman reporter came to see it. Standing in the dining room, which was decorated with gold, gray, ivory, and scarlet, she said to Ms. Morgan, “How you must have reveled in this chance to squeeze dry the loveliest tubes in the whole world of color.” Ms. Morgan replied, “I don’t think you understand just what my work here has been. The decorative part was done by a New York firm. My work has all been structural.”

While anchored before Constantinople (an adventure he described in Innocents Abroad), Mark Twain read up on the history of the Hellespont, a narrow channel of water over which the Persian king Xerxes ordered a bridge of ships to be built that his armies could cross on their way to attack Greece. The first bridge was destroyed, Mr. Twain writes, so Xerxes ordered the contractors to be rebuked — in other words, he had them beheaded. The second bridge was built much more sturdy. According to Mr. Twain, “If our Government would rebuke some of our shoddy contractors occasionally, it might work much good.”

A rich man felt sorry for a poor carpenter, so he commissioned the carpenter to build a house for him. The carpenter thought that this was his chance to make a large profit, so he cheated on materials wherever possible, using substandard stuff that would look good for a while, but quickly fall apart. When the house had been built, the rich man told the carpenter to move in — the house was a present from him. For the rest of his life, the carpenter wished that he had known that he was building a house for himself.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright concerned himself with fire protection throughout his career, in part because his own studio, called Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, burned down three times. When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923, fire broke out at the Wright-designed Imperial Hotel. However, the fire was put out quickly with water from the pool near the front entrance — Mr. Wright had placed the pool there specifically in case of fire.

Operatic tenor Leo Slezak bought and fell in love with a 200-year-old peasants’ cottage, which he had remodeled. At first, the architect tried to convince Mr. Slezak to tear down the peasants’ cottage and build a new house, but after the cottage was remodelled, the architect admitted that he had been wrong because it really did make a beautiful house. Still, the architect wrote in Mr. Slezak’s visitors’ book, “When a fellow’s got money, but the brains of a louse, He’ll buy an old ruin to make it a house.”

Thomas Jefferson designed his home, Monticello. Looked at from the outside, Monticello appeared to have one story (with a domed room above), but that is an illusion consciously created by Mr. Jefferson. On the second story, the windows are close to the ground, while on the first story the windows are close to the ceiling. Looked at from the outside, the windows appear to be providing light to one story. Mr. Jefferson based this design on windows he had admired while in France.

A nephew of the powerful theater owners, Lee and Jake Shubert, built the Forrest Theater in Philadelphia, but he neglected to put dressing rooms in the plans. After the theater had been built and the flaw discovered, the nephew had to buy another building at the rear of the theater to house the dressing rooms and he had to construct an underground passageway to connect the building with the theater.

Comic singer Anna Russell once had a house built. The living room looked small, so she asked the architect to add one-tenth of an inch to two sides of the living room as it was depicted in the plans. When the house was completed and Ms. Russell inspected it, she found that the living room was huge. That was when she learned that one-tenth of an inch in the plans represented 10 feet.

Addison Mizner, an architect, once designed a rich man’s mansion. He included a 40-car garage, but forgot to include a kitchen.

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