June 4th, 2018

David Stairs


Nativity façade of Sagrada Familia

If you are planning to visit Barcelona for reasons other than seeing the FCB, Futbol Club Barcelona, chances are you will visit a site designed by Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi is the city’s favorite son, and his works are among the town’s best-known tourist attractions.

Among the many sites Gaudi designed as part of Barcelona’s Modernisma period, the best known is Sagrada Familia, arguably the most famous church in Christendom. Like medieval cathedrals, Sagrada Familia outlasted not only its architect, but also generations of craftsmen who have worked on it. The basilica was begun in 1882 and, it is hoped, will be completed in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.


Passion façade

Gaudi took over responsibility for the project in 1883 when, at age 31, he was a rising star. The church became his passion and the main work of his life, a gesamkunstwerk or total work of art in the broadest sense. It is comprised of three façades commemorating Christ’s nativity (east), his passion (west), and glory (south, under construction). When finished, Sagrada Familia will have eighteen towers, the tallest of which will reach 170 meters (560′) high.


Tree-like columns ending in a canopied nave

Gaudi was not only a student of world architectural history, but a tireless experimenter. For the apse of Sagrada Familia, which is 75 meters high, he employed a series of catenary paraboloid arches to eliminate the need for the buttresses so common to Gothic cathedrals. The nave is supported by tree-like columns that branch and end in a ceiling canopy.


Spiral staircase in one of the towers

Construction materials include several varieties of stone, ranging from dark grey basalt through rose to light sandstone, the better to utilize a varying color palette. The east stained glass wall is in tints of green and blue, to emphasize cooler morning light, with the west glass wall comprised of warmer tints for the firey late day sun.


East-facing windows

Descriptions of Sagrada Familia have ranged from “sensual, spiritual, whimsical” to “vulgar and pretentious.” George Orwell called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” while Walter Gropius described it as “a marvel of technical perfection.” There’s plenty to both marvel at and criticize in its many stylistic flourishes. Over the Passion Façade is the image of Christ’s face transferred to Veronica’s veil, but carved in reverse into stone. Then there’s the holy water fount in the form of a big oyster shell.


Veronica’s Veil

Gaudi conceived his visions spatially, and only developed drawings when required to by the authorities. In this sense he belonged to the older, Gothic tradition. The basement of the church houses a model shop. Gaudi developed many models as guides for architects who would carry on the work after his death. Some of these were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, while others have been recreated where possible, these days utilizing 3D printing technology.


Model shop in the basement of the basilica

Descriptions of the project as bound in nature overlook the extent to which Gaudi’s naturalism was influenced by the physics of geometry. Gaudi’s use of hexagonal and parabolic design elements echo the occurrence of these forms in nature. This is borne out by a display in the basement of the church that compares architectural elements such as spiral staircases and buttress columns to chambered nautili and tree trunk forms. Gaudi’s understanding of natural means to distribute weight and stress demonstrate his keen eye as an observer of nature.


Gaudi’s use of complex nature-based geometry runs throughout the cathedral

Another theme running throughout the design is the use of words as sculptural elements. Words like Hosanna, Sanctus, and Amen appear on the exterior façades, as well as the names of apostles and saints, and descriptions of Jesus. Also not to be missed are the polychromed carvings of fruit that surmount many of the towers, symbolizing nature’s bounty.


Fruit tops many of the spires

Gaudi was also involved in the design of furniture and other implements for the church and its services, such as candelabra, pulpits, and storage facilities for ecclesiastical garments.


Gaudi-designed portable pulpit

Antonio Gaudi was hit by a tram while walking along a nearby street on June 7th 1926 and died three days later. He was buried on June 12th 1926 in the crypt at Sagrada Familia with a large crowd in attendance, a fitting last resting place for “God’s Architect.”


Holy water fount

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

April 29th, 2018

David Stairs


The Original Omusajja along Entebbe Road

Along the highway leading from Uganda’s former colonial capital Entebbe to its modern capital Kampala there is a landmark that characterizes colonialism in a nutshell. Known as “Omusajja ku luguudo lweNtebbe” or just “Omusajja” for short in Lugandan, “the Man along Entebbe Road” is a fifteen-foot high statue of a white body builder flexing his muscles as the former symbol of durability for the Lweza Clays company.

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March 27th, 2018

David Stairs

Say what you want about Art Nouveau, but when it came to invention its practitioners were not short-handed. For an example, I turn to Gaudi’s most famous residence design.


Casa Battlo, or “House of Bones,” so named for its bone-like exterior columns

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February 24th, 2018

David Stairs

When we speak of malls today Americans generally mean the air-conditioned, all-inclusive mega-mall with its food court and full-service-everything. But when I was a kid growing up in upstate New York such things didn’t exist, or, if they were being developed in cold places like Southdale Center (1956) we didn’t know about it. Of course, the idea of an indoor galleria was not new. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, arguably the modern world’s first mall, was constructed in the 1860s in Milan, Italy.

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January 23rd, 2018

David Stairs

Ruin porn is everywhere. Photos of Detroit’s semi-preserved Michigan Central Station abound, and photographers continue to document while critics and journalists debate the pros and cons of what Dora Apel in her recent book Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (2015) terms the “deindustrial sublime.”

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December 28th, 2017

David Stairs


Slingshot made from bicycle innertube

I’ve talked many times about how successful African DIY design is when it comes to recycling materials. Most African nations are not heavily industrialized, except those involved in mining, so technology and manufactured goods are often imported. What’s more, the climate in many parts of the continent fluctuates between hot and dusty, or torrentially wet— not an ideal scenario for many materials.

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December 2nd, 2017

David Stairs

There’s a little place in the Indian city of Agra famous as a testament of a man’s love for a woman.

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November 17th, 2017

David Stairs


Completion of Kampala’s Northern Expressway has been plagued by delays in right-of-way acquisition

Returning to Uganda for the first time in ten years has held a few surprises. The charm of its people, and the beauty of Uganda’s countryside are unchanged, but the congestion in the capital Kampala is alarming. Partly this has to do with migration and growth. As the nation’s population increases, the sprawl of Kampala explodes.

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October 29th, 2017

David Stairs

I was recently in Prague, which in June 2017 celebrated the 75th anniversary of one of the most heroic and daring commando actions of the Second World War. On June 4, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia was attacked on his way to work when his Mercedes slowed at a bend in the road. His assailants, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were Slovakian and Czech volunteers who had been trained in Britain and parachuted into Czechoslovakia to conduct Operation Anthropiod.


SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (courtesy Wikipedia)

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October 2nd, 2017

David Stairs


courtesy TheNation.com

The iconic images of Houston under 10 feet of water should have by now burned themselves into your brain. “How did we get to this point?” you ask. With one word: Design.

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August 13th, 2017

The third and final article in our series on the American prison system. —Ed.

Hannah Boyd

For you, DJ, the person who shared part of his life with me.

And for you, former mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard, the person who vehemently rejected the concept of prison slave labor, the implications of the 13th amendment, and the profiteering by corporations that makes everyone complicit in the practice of neo-slavery(1).

On day one of our architecture studio, we are tasked with designing a 4,000 bed jail with 27 courtrooms and administrative offices. The project had been an effort by former mayor Greg Ballard to consolidate the sprawling jail network that currently exists in Indianapolis (2). The project never came to fruition, and the new mayor, Joe Hogsett, is currently reviving the project with new ambitions (3).


The 13th Amendment

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June 23rd, 2017

This essay continues our investigation of America’s prison system, and extends D-A-P’s collaboration with Ball State architecture students into the fifth year. —Ed.

Julia Voigt

Despite jails being one of the most recognizable typologies of the built environment, the criminal justice system itself is far removed from the realm of the architectural profession. This lack of attention given to the penal system within the profession highlights a larger, societal issue at hand: that, as noted by author Michelle Alexander, “… criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone–across political, racial and class boundaries–feels free to hate” (Alexander 228).
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April 16th, 2017

David Stairs

Every once in awhile you meet a group of students that stands out. This was the case with my Junior studio a year ago. When we collaborated with the School of Businesses’ entrepreneurial contest, they were all in, and we just clicked. I knew 2017 would be my year to mentor our Graphic Design capstone project, and I wanted it to be good, so I signed up to teach the Fall senior studio leading into the winter capstone.
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February 25th, 2017

David Stairs


Image: David Stairs

I recently started reading Volker Ullrich’s biography HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939 out of a curiosity to better understand the motivations of the man often ranked as history’s most malevolent monster. Along the way I became fascinated by the parallels between Uncle Adolf and a more recent demagogue of the American ilk. These are the similarities I noted:
•Mendacious use of facts
•Scapegoating a religious group
•Extreme nationalism
•Intolerance for criticism
•Bullying as a defense tactic
•Narcissistic
•Authoritarian
•Inciting violence
•Histrionic
•Temperamental
•Censorious
•Contempt for adversaries
•Dislike for administrative work
•Prima donna tendencies
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January 13th, 2017

David Stairs

Control is the object of consolidation, what Nietsche once called the “will to power.”


Soul Searching

Consider the rise of multinational corporations. Monopoly is the capitalist ideal. Although shrouded in so-called antitrust laws preventing market domination— the idea being that competition is healthy for markets— captains of industry have always sought market dominance. For brief periods of time some capitalists, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to name two, dominated their industries and became enormously wealthy.
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November 20th, 2016

Carter Scholz

In the prehistory of personal computers, Lee Felsenstein and some others created Community Memory in Berkeley in 1974: a publicly available teletype terminal, connected to a mainframe computer via 110-baud modem. Users could post and read messages at a few different sites. Felsenstein had read Ivan Illich, and he saw this as a tool for conviviality. It was a novel vision in a time of monolithic mainframes: computers as liberating and empowering, both personally and socially.


Lee Felsenstein / Courtesy Lee Felsenstein.com
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October 22nd, 2016

David Stairs

When I think of blue and red the notion of Democrat and Republican naturally come to mind. One can find any number of red-blue maps online that attempt to represent our political differences. I even wrote about it here after the last Presidential election. Happily, there is another, earlier visual application of red and blue: the road maps of the 1930s to 1950s.

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September 19th, 2016

David Stairs

Downtown Mount Pleasant, Michigan on the morning of July 16th, 2016

Some things about the Michigan summer are a certainty: mosquitoes, humidity, and recreation vehicles. Summer’s the season when snowmobile trailers are swapped out for boat hitches, and the weekend traffic going north on Michigan’s highways likely includes people from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois headed for resort towns near Michigan’s lakes.

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