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

Originally built in 1877, Casa Batllo was purchased in 1900 by Josep Batlló, a Spanish industrialist. The house was located on the fashionable Passeig de Gracia, and Batllo wanted something utterly unique. At the outset, he wanted the old house torn down, but Gaudi convinced him that a redesign was, in fact, practicable.


Entryway to Casa Battlo

Gaudi’s original renovation work took place between 1904 and 1906, and redesigned not only the façade, but changed the interior to a large extent, as well as adding floors to the structure. As with FL Wright’s Robie House, which was built between 1908-1910, after the family sold it in 1954 Casa Batllo has undergone subsequent renovations and has seen a variety of uses before finally being preserved as an architectural masterpiece.


Detail of hand-carved entry stairway

Gaudi’s vision, always sensitive to surface treatment, incorporated a number of his signature design tropes. Known locally as Casa dels ossos, or House of Bones, due to the skeletal-like columns on the front elevation, Gaudi also used generous amounts of multicolored tile. His employment of broken pieces of tile, arranged into mosaic patterns, is a technique known as trencadís. The roof is arched and tiled, like a dragon’s back.


Tencredis, or mosaic made from broken ceramic pieces

Inside Gaudi made generous use of hardwood and leaded glass. The main living area is fronted by large windows set in organically-shaped frames that are hung vertically and raise for ventilation. Details, like a fireplace with built-in seating, are one of a kind.


Front windows

The second floor opens to a garden area at the rear where, as with Park Guell— Gaudi’s failed attempt at a gated community— Gaudi has taken care to consider rainwater drainage. Oddly, he chose to place two columns directly before the door that exits to the garden.


Exit to back garden with columns

The real showpiece of Casa Batllo is unusual. Gaudi decided to expand a four-story light well to better bring daylight to the house interior.


Four-story light well

His spectacular solution was to tile the entire interior surface of the well starting with light blue tiles at the bottom that become a dark blue as they approach the roof. Nowadays an elevator shares the well with the staircase that winds around the exterior.


Tiles are lighter at the bottom, where there is less light, and darker near the skylight

The upper floors Gaudi reserved for servants quarters and work space. But he completed the top floor using his signature catenary parabolic arches.


Gaudis’ signature catenary arches

The rooftop is flat, and offers a commanding view of central Barcelona. Gaudi made it more interesting by designing organically-shaped chimneys, again covered in broken-tile mosaic. The dragon’s back actually covers a small room originally intended to house the water reservoir for the house.


The famous “dragon’s scale” roof tiles with trencadis to the left and right

Like Gaudi’s other works, Casa Batllo is a World Heritage site and a very busy museum dedicated to his work. We visited early in the day during the off season of December, but when we exited a long line had assembled. The extravagant entry fees were a worthwhile donation to the preservation of Gaudi’s eclectic vision.

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

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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August 19th, 2016

David Stairs

I’ve written the past couple of summers about Portland, Oregon and its environmentally-friendly culture. I visited my family again last month, as I normally do in July, just in time for the unveiling of a major new corporate/municipal project. On July 19th Portland launched the Biketown bicycle-share initiative. With a fleet of Dutch-designed bikes, and a system of around 100 rental stations, Portland joined the ranks of cities like New York, in pursuit of the notion of universal car-free mobility.


A Biketown bike locked outside the Niketown store on MLK Boulevard in Portland

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July 15th, 2016

David Stairs

When I first saw the house, a big old Victorian three-story I thought, “This place is great, but it’s way too big.” I’d been living abroad for a couple of years, and returning to rental space in a college town, where rentals are either of the townhouse variety, or student-destroyed older homes, had me on the real estate market. I already owned one house, but it was in another state, and this wasn’t helping my current situation.


photo: Al Wildey

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