“Six-Opening” Double Decker Houses in Birmingham, Michigan

In the “Chesterfield-and-Pine-Streets district” of Birmingham, I notice that there is a great number of detached houses with six openings on their facade – three windows on top and two windows plus one door at the bottom. I call them “double decker” because one story stacks on top of the other like a double decker bus in London. These similar houses all have subtle difference built in to them, for example the placement of the door, the exterior materials and colors, the location of the chimneys, the shape of the windows and the treatment of the entryways.

My professor once explained that the way older suburbs were developed had contributed to the wide variety of “looks” in these houses. Back in 100 years ago, a builder or a developer would buy a subdivision and build houses on it. The same builder would build basically do one design on the same block but each house would have some difference. And then an owner of the next block may really like this design and would ask the same builder to take care of his block. This process may continue on several nearby blocks until the next owner wanted to build something else. It is very likely that these similar houses share a lot of similarities in their interior layouts, for example their kitchen arrangements and where the bathrooms are.

What more interesting is, these houses have each evolved with time and have become a little different from each other. Some have a conservatory in the back and some have a garage attached to it on the side. It is hard to believe these “double decker” houses are so adaptable that a majority of them have survived so many years.

chesterfield st and pine st, birmingham, michigan, 2012


Stripes of “Green” Beautifying Ann Arbor

These stripes of “green”- the little planting area for trees and wild grass adorned by thin rows of red bricks, have successfully started a new “city beautiful” movement in Ann Arbor. They not only beautify the sidewalk by replacing the harsh concrete, the “greens” are also beneficial to the urban environment. It would be an amazing idea if the “greens” can be inserted on more streets, for example on the portion of Liberty Street in the photo below so it wouldn’t look as “dry”!

around division st and liberty st, ann arbor, michigan

When American Cities Look like European Cities

I was particularly fascinated by this photo I took in San Francisco. Somehow it looks very European. Maybe it was because of the European-like golden cupolas on top of the church’s towers. Or it was because of the congregation of people on the closed-off street for the Folsom festival. The more I think about it, the deeper I believe that it is the disappearance of the roads (streets for cars) in front of the church that makes the photo look European.

Architecture in America and Europe share a lot of similarities. But European cities don’t have as many wide and well-defined concrete roads, or grids of straight roads dividing their old cities. I proved my observation by zooming in my other photos until the roads disappeared. Guess what, they did look kind of European. You can try that too.

around 10th street and folsom street, san francisco

A Finely Crafted Pedestrain Walkway Through a Parking Lot at Huntington University

The artistic experience at Merillat Centre For The Arts begins way before you enter the building. This finely crafted pedestrian walkway has successfully integrated with the surface parking lot. With its brick-paved surface, lines of trees and streetlights on each side, one can hardly tell he is indeed walking inside a parking lot. This depressed walkway has justified the positioning of the centre. It creates a vista to the building, making its composition more attractive and powerful. Saarinen would have appreciated it.

merillat centre for the arts, huntington university, huntington, indiana – 4:07pm, may 7, 2011

“Basketball Lot” In Birmingham, An Affluent Old Suburb Of Detroit

When was the last time you saw something intriguing in a suburb? Just when I thought “that was it” for anything new to write about suburbia, I saw the first “basketball lot” in suburb in my life in Birmingham!

I was simply speechless when I first encountered this half basketball lot occupying an individual lot. I did take a few classes in grad school about suburbia – Streetcar Suburb, Suburbia Utopia etc. But there was just no historic reference of any kind about “basketball lot”, “recreational lot” or anything like that. Suburb is supposed to be all about houses. You buy a lot or two, build a house or even a basketball court or pool in the back. People don’t usually buy the adjacent lot, tear down a house and basement, fill in the hole and put up a basketball court.

Some people may wonder why the city would let people do that. I guess when the people who wrote the covenant didn’t expect people to be building their own “park” on a separate lot. Just imagine what Birmingham would look like if everyone starts buying up their adjacent lot and putting up dog park, sauna, ice-skating rink and vegetable garden as a separate piece on each lot. This would totally transform, if not “ghettoize”, the landscape of Birmingham. This one “basketball lot” has just started a new page in the history of suburbia. That’s why I told the owner “this is awesome!”

suffield st, birmingham, oakland county, michigan

The Long Forgotten First Piazza In London

Covent Garden piazza and market in 1737, picture copyright of http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/hogarth/rooms/room5.shtm

Facade of the St. Paul’s Church in 2003

Fans of the London Opera have been going to Royal Opera House in Covent Garden Square for years. But I wonder how many of them know that there was actually a “square” or so-called “Piazza” at the original Covent Garden. I have seen many paintings depicting the long vista from the piazza looking at the extraordinarily plain façade of the St. Paul’s Church. But twice I went there, there was no piazza or any long vista. Instead, there was a huge gable-roofed market-and-pub structure right at the center surrounded by the colonnaded buildings on three sides, and the church on the remaining side.

It is such a shame that the first piazza created in London more than 400 years ago was covered up by a market-plus-pub. The architect Inigo Jones, one of my favorite architects, actually liked the piazzas he saw in Italy so much that he brought the idea back to England. So bad the English just wanted to make money and built a market right in the piazza and people eventually forgot about it. And they built the market so big that I could not even take a good picture of the façade of the church. This facade was actually significant as it was supposed to be the first classical church built in England that was stripped of unnecessary ornaments. It would be an amazing experience if the piazza comes back to life one day.

covent garden, london, united kingdom – 3:26pm, aug 26, 2003

Covent Garden Market in 2003

One of the colonnades surrounding the original piazza

One of the colonnades surrounding the original piazza

Dining On An Alley In Ann Arbor

On a recent dinner night out at this hip restaurant Sava’s in Ann Arbor, my friend John actually made this interesting observation that dining outdoor on a no-way-out (deadend) alley could be nicer than eating right on the main street. In the case of Sava’s, it is totally true. It is free of foot-and-bicycle traffic and car’s exhaust on the alley.

Yes, dining right on the main street can seem more romantic and movie-like, but homeless people may ask you for money and students may throw trash on the street. This alley, with the vine growing on one side and with planters growing herb on the other side, seems to me a much better place to eat out with friends on a summer night.

sava’s, 216 south state st, ann arbor