The First School In The Sky

At first glance, you may think that this really tall “spiderman (late gothic) style” building is probably just another office tower dressed in Indiana limestone. In fact, this building has always been a school filled with classrooms ever since it was built around 1920s. Located at the University of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning was the first school in a skyscraper and it is still the tallest school in the western hemisphere.

The most interesting thing about this Cathedral of Learning is the thinking behind the creation of this new  “spatial specie”. This building was basically a triple hybrid of a skyscraper, a cathedral and a university. The function of education had taken on the form of a tall tower and styled itself in the fashion of a church.This particular mix-and-match to produce the tallest school in the 20s must have been a very extreme idea at that time. But it did save a lot of greens around the building. It has been the most visible symbol for the university and the “cathedral” continues to call for people to congregate and learn.

4200 5th ave, pittsburgh – 3:34pm, jun 12, 2010


Have You Ever Seen a Tennis Court in a Downtown?

Saugatuck, a beautiful lake town located on the west coast of Michigan, was once called “the coolest city in Michigan” by the former Michigan Governor Jeniffer Granholm. I actually cannot agree more with her. Saugatuck not only has the one of the most beautiful historic downtowns in the nation, it also has the best freshwater beach, the Oval Beach, and a series of really cool sand dunes. Downtown Saugatuck itself is filled with parks, art galleries and little gathering places like Chocolate stores and coffee places.

If that is not cool enough, downtown Saugatuck has something that you probably have never seen in any other cities. It has a public tennis court right in the middle of their downtown for everyone to use! What’s more, they also built a nicely done restroom right next to it.

The first time I saw these facilities I was thinking like how they could be so generous? They could have built a couple more inns or something else that can make a lot of money. Instead they made it an open space space for the public to use. This is totally a different kind of thinking when city planners plan a city.

Well, I guess it makes sense that a tennis court is planned in downtown Saugatuck since it is a touristy area. But I could see it happening in other cities of a bigger size. Tennis court to me is just a different representation of an open space in a city, it is no different then a park. Yes the making of a tennis court costs land and money while building something can bring in quick cash. The properly done open space provides a better living quality and increase its neighboring land value in the long term. Dolores Park in San Francisco is a great example of that. Lets hope that the people who visit Saugatuck will bring back home a piece of good city planning.

butler st, saugatuck, michigan – 6:57pm, aug 7, 2010 / 11:59am, may 22, 2010

The Origin of All Churches That Look Like “This”

For those of you who live in former territories of the British Empire, you probably have seen a church that looks like this one every once in a while. Did you ever wonder why? Well, it was because this design was the best-selling model in the catalogue back in the last three centuries. The original one called St. Martin-in-the-Fields still sits by the Trafalgar Square in London and it was built around 1724. The design was proven to be very successful because its tall tower (steeple) located by the front “porch” (portico) makes the church very visible in a crowded area. Having a dome may have a similar effect but it costs a lot more to build and to raise the dome high enough to be visible on the streets. Eventually this model was exported to the rest of the British Empire  such as USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

As shown in the  two photo above is the Ninth Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland Michigan. Sorry that the tower was covered by the trees in the front. This church is indeed a very fine “reproduction” recreated in wood. Painted in totally white, the church gives a great contrast with the perfectly mowed lawn in the surroundings.

I have also added the photo below to show of the popularity of the St. Martin in the classical world. I came across this painting with St. Martin in the background when I was visiting the Toledo Museum of Art.

st. martin-in-the-fields, trafalgar sq, london – 3:43pm, aug 27, 2003
9th st christian reformed church, 57 e 10th st, holland, michigan – 5:06pm, may 22, 2010 / 4:14pm, aug 7, 2010
painting @toledo museum of art, 2445 monroe st, toledo, ohio – 4:14pm, sep 12, 2011

Leasing Out Belle Isle to Help Detroit

Belle Isle, one of the many astonishing achievements of the old grand Detroit, is an island park only linked to Detroit by a pedestrian and automobile bridge. Little do people know that Belle Isle is the largest island park in the US and it is larger than the Central Park in Manhattan. Donated to the City of Detroit by a wealthy business man, it has become a public park since around the ninetieth century. The park, with a beautiful garden graced with sculpture by Marshal Frederick, a carillon tower, a conservatory designed by Albert Kahn, one of the oldest if not the oldest aquarium in the country, a magnificent fountain designed by Cass Gibert, a deer park and several lagoons, was close to being shut down during the many tough time Detroit was facing in the past 40 years. Like the rest of the amenities provided by the city, Belle Isle Park has been seen by the city as a major financial burden.

There has been many proposals about saving the park, but none of them was close to being practical since they all ask for money. Detroit is broke and it is not bailing out the park anytime soon. It has long been wrong for people to think about how to save the park. Manhattan will not need a Central Park if more than half of the city is empty and simply abandoned. The critical question here is how to use Belle Isle to help save Detroit.

Well, let’s start being creative about exploiting Belle Isle to help Detroit. Think of it this way, if your pocket is empty and your hands are tied, but you have an empty cottage with lots of rooms and you want to squeeze a bit of money from your property, you would probably rent out the rooms right? One of the biggest advantage of Belle Isle is that it is really an island and a park that practically no one lives on it. You can easily rent out the whole island as one piece.

But who is going to rent it? Keep in mind that we are talking about Detroit here. The city isn’t quite functioning and not everyone is willing to rent a place in Detroit. People are more interested in setting up a business in the neighboring suburbs such as Grosse Pointe or Ferndale which offer more stable and transparent economic environment. Well, if that is the case, why not renting out the island to a suburb that may want it? Since Detroit is incapable of redeveloping the island itself, it is right that the strategy proposed here should be about letting someone else who is capable to do it for you.

One may argue that instead of renting the island out, Detroit indeed has the option to get quick cash from the Island by selling it to the suburbs or even Canada across the river. But doing so would really anger the Detroiters and they may set up another riot like the infamous one happened in 1974. Let’s rephrase what is just proposed. What if Detroit rents the island to the suburbs or anyone to use for a long time? This length of time would be long enough that the island would be sufficiently developed. When the island is returned, Detroit can have what’s on it and in the meanwhile there will be revenue from the rent. It seems like a win-win situation and it certainly doesn’t sound as bad as “selling the island”. But “time is of the essence”, this lease would more likely be a fairly long one, maybe at least 10 to 20 years.

One of the potential renters would be China. I am pretty sure China wouldn’t mind having a piece of America for 20 years. If just 1% of Chinese comes to visit the Belle Isle, there will be 13 million visitors already. If each of them spends $1000 US outside the island, that will already generate $13 billion US not including other expenditure e.g. flight to Detroit.

To some people, leasing out the island for a long time may seem a little extreme or unconventional. But the situation in Detroit is equally extreme. Compared to all the other lame proposals on the street, this may have the greatest potential to work. Anyone has a better idea to share?

belle isle, detroit – 3:38pm, oct 5, 2009

From Lime Stone Quarry to Beautiful Sunken Garden

At first glance, this park may just seem to be another nicely done park. But actually, this amazing garden is sunken because it was an old lime stone quarry before. Huntington, nicknamed the Lime City, has been supplying high grade lime stone to all over the Midwest including Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. This ex-lime stone quarry was adaptive-reused to be a garden sunken in the ground between 1923 and 1928. I am surprised to find out that people a hundred years ago were already converting ex-quarry into something productive and trying to restore the environment.

From the perspective of historic preservation, the making of this park has done a great job since a lot of the existing features were retained. For example, the park adapts to the existing geometry and remains sunken in the ground; the old tunnel leading to the quarry is retained as one of the entrances; the mine “holes” have become fishponds; the old stones are reused to build stairs, bridges, and retaining wall all around the park. Extra points are given to the delicate wood pavilion constructed as it provides shelter for the many weddings and social gatherings taking place at the park. Visit is highly recommended!








sunken gardens, 1200 west park drive, huntington, indiana – 3:04pm, may 9, 2011

A Sloped Mall and Its Sloped Buildings

The mall, a rolling linear green space like the National Mall in D.C., has been one of the favorite devices in laying out buildings in a college campus. It usually stretches from the front of one building to the front of another building at the end and this makes a very straight axis. Along the two sides of this axis would be buildings usually of similar height and style. This helps create a symmetry along the green (the axis), kind of like a mirror image of the opposite side, thus creating a unified atmosphere. The forté at the mall would be the more prominent buildings anchoring at the two ends. These end buildings are usually a graduate library, an alumni hall, a concert hall or an art museum.

While mall is commonly found in large scale universities such as the University of Michigan, I came along a “sloped” mall for the first time at Carnegie Mellon University. What makes it more interesting is that not only the mall is sloped as shown in the photo, the interior corridor of the long buildings on the two sides are also sloped. So basically if you are riding your scooter inside the building, you can just roll all the way down without you pushing it. These long ramps are simply amazing because you don’t usually find them in a building. While a corridor can have a slope, a classroom cannot otherwise your pencil roll off your desk. It is just difficult to have rooms along the ramp without building steps. Private school does have something cool and different to offer.





even the inside of the building on the mall is sloped


the end of the sloped mall

the mall @carnegie mellon university, pittsburgh, pennsylvania – 2:55pm, jun 11, 2011

Active Open Space and People

Every city that we love visiting has some great active open space. For example, Millennium Park in Chicago, Trafalgar Square in London and Dam Square in Amsterdam. These active open spaces are places where people come out and connect with each other for events and festivals. On a regular day, they also provide a spot for people to chill out, play and exercise.

As shown in the photo, the Ingalls Mall in Ann Arbor is mostly a green space that students walk through to get to different school buildings. But when summer arrives, it is transformed into a venue for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Arts Festival and a playground for people to play frisbee and football. Its proximity to downtown makes it easily accessible to everyone with or without cars. The medium-tall masonry-clad buildings with the high art deco bell tower in the background provides a unified backdrop for a movie night. One thing that is essential in making the mall so flexible is its lack of permanent furniture and trees in the middle. And of course, the mall would not be so active if the people of Ann Arbor do not have this culture of participating in events in the city.

ann arbor summer festival @ ingalls mall, downtown ann arbor – 8:04pm, jul 2, 2011