21 November 2011

Film Review: Brick by Chance and Fortune

Film Review: Brick by Chance and Fortune – A Celebration of St. Louis Masonry

Brick by Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story is an entertaining, informative documentary about one of the most common and seemingly simple building materials: the brick. Bricks are an old technology. They aren't sexy like stainless steel or titanium. Clay bricks are about as "down to earth" as you can get, as this film demonstrates in more ways than one.

Image from official trailer.
The story of bricks in St. Louis is fundamental to understanding the city, its people, its history and its architecture. This film establishes the narrative groundwork for people unfamiliar with thinking about bricks as anything special to be able to begin to appreciate just how significant a role they play in our community's culture, economy and physical composition.

You can purchase your own copy of the DVD by attending the upcoming event at The Royale on Wednesday 23 November 2011 from 8pm to 11pm. The director will be there to sign personal copies!

Image taken from official trailer.
The centerpiece of the film is a series of compelling interviews with wonderfully demonstrative people who care deeply about the history and future of brick masonry culture in St. Louis. The subjects of the interviews include community treasures like the founder of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation, Larry Giles, a lover and collector of St. Louis building history, Missouri Historical Society Director Robert Archibald and blogger / activist, Toby Weiss, a prolific writer and photographer of the architectural scene past and present.

The director, Bill Streeter, treats the interviews as the key scenes of the film. They are well lit and composed, the audio quality is very good and the personality they offer is remarkable. In many documentaries, interviews are treated as so many “talking heads”. This film gives the speakers the gracious, personal presentation they deserve, making them the film’s real characters and allowing them to graciously direct the film’s narrative. We are made to feel as though we’re having a conversation with some our community’s most fascinating and intelligent people.

Image taken from official trailer.
Of particular significance emotionally and intellectually are the interviews with architectural historians and preservationists Nini Harris and Michael Allen. Not since Gwendolyn Wright's star began to shine on History Detectives, have architectural historians looked and sounded so good.

Nini Harris’ knowledge and excitement are a constant touchstone giving the film genuine historical clarity and honesty combined with a touching, loving portrayal of the people who created and used the brick structures that make up the fabric of our city. She makes this story a personal one and helps to communicate many of the film's key points in a way that's understandable by laymen not initiated in the rites of architectural history, but accurate and compelling for those already captivated by the spell of St. Louis architecture. Her commentary puts the film into a social and cultural context that doesn't overly romanticize the past.

Nini Harris. Image from official trailer.
Michael Allen’s commentary is forthright and striking in a way that only he can achieve. He reveals St. Louis' geographic good fortune in containing rich and extensive clay deposits that not only made the magnificence of St. Louis architecture possible, but also formed the basis for our significant contribution to the industrialization of brick manufacturing. He describes the humble beginnings of hand-molded bricks made in wooden forms and enlightens us as to the prominent role our community played in developing brick industry nationally. Michael also speaks eloquently about the serious problems we face relating to brick theft and illegal demolition taking place on a daily basis.

Michael Allen. Image from official trailer.
The soundtrack and music for the film served to emphasize the dramatic moments. In some cases, the music provided the joyful and lyrical atmosphere necessary to hold the visual montages together. At other moments, the tragic drone of a harmonica (?) provided a haunting backdrop without becoming funereal or pessimistic. Some compositions seem to have been written and produced specifically for the film. They offer some thematic support, but the lyrics were overshadowed by the folksy rhythms and melodies.

This film could easily for the basis for an in-depth series on St. Louis architecture and building history. Such documentary programs generally seem to be the purview public television, however with funding constraints everywhere, we should all thank Bill Streeter, a native Chicagoan, for seeing the story in the humble St. Louis brick and pursuing the film through his own force of will.

Image from official trailer.
As an architect and photographer, my primary disappointment was with the visual representations of our present day buildings and streets. Too often, a reliance on extreme wide-angle pans or extreme telephoto compression of space made for a less than satisfactory appreciation of the architecture itself. Clearly, the film was created with the general educated public in mind, not so much specifically for architects and historians. The filmmaker had to make tough choices about how to best represent our rich building heritage. My preference would have been for a greater reliance on the details and textures of the buildings themselves, to the point of abstraction, rather than a more superficial gloss on the buildings themselves.

This criticism should be considered as coming from a specialist (and obsessionist) in architectural photography and representation. I imagine most of the audience found the visuals to be sufficiently compelling and illustrative. They contributed to a balanced presentation combining visuals, spoken word and music to tell an important and fascinating story. Bill Streeter deserves our thanks and appreciation for helping us to see our own city more clearly.

Anyone with an interest in St. Louis history, architecture, urbanism or building should see this film. Best viewed in a theatrical setting, you should also consider purchasing the production on DVD. Doing so will help to support more worthwhile projects of this kind. Owning the DVD may prove to be a unique reference that might not otherwise be accessible.

Film trailer:

Illustrations: The images embedded in this post are all screen shots taken from the film’s official trailer.

Andrew Raimist is a St. Louis architect, educator, writer and photographer.

20 November 2011

Bartholomew's City Plan of 1947

City Planner Harland Bartholomew developed a detailed, comprehensive plan for St. Louis which documents the existing conditions at the time and projected future development based upon increasing population density and totals. In actuality, the city's population peaked shortly thereafter and then following a steady decline as St. Louis County became increasingly suburbanized.

This chart presents four primary demographics. The top line represents the population of the United States (dashed lines at right indicate projected figures). The second pair of lines represent the populations of the states of Illinois and Missouri. The third line represents the City of St. Louis. The shorter line at the bottom represents St. Louis County.
Population growth (historical and projected)

This analysis of the population of the region formed the basis for the comprehensive plan. The caption for this illustration (Plate Number Two) reads, "St. Louis cannot expect sizeable population increases in the future."

This pair of maps compares the population density within the boundaries of the City of St. Louis as of 1940 (top) and the projected/desired density as of 1970 (bottom):

Population density (historical and projected)

As illustrated, Bartholomew suggests that the density of the city's core would increase and that the westward expansion would not only stop, but actually be reversed. The same desire for increasing the density in the center of the city has been suggested as desirable and ideal by many urban planners since, but the reality has been exactly the opposite.

The multicolored plan below represents Bartholomew's ideal Land Use Plan. The reality is much more complex and heterogeneous. Achieving such clarity in function and use was a dream for planners of the modern American city was an ideal never to be attained in practice.

Desirable Ultimate Land Use Plan

The mismatch between the actual and zoned uses are indicated in this diagram of the Lafayette Neighborhood District. These drawings compare the existing land uses with the existing zoning. Clearly the actual facts on the ground were much more heterogeneous, mixed and complex than the simplistic organization suggested by the area's zoning.

Lafayette Neighborhood District (present land use and present zoning)

The serious nature of reconfiguring the city to correspond to the desired land uses is suggested by the sample rezoning of a neighborhood in this series of plans for the Macklind Neighborhood District. From left to right the drawings depict: Present Land Use, Present Zoning and Proposed Zoning. Clearly to achieve the purity of the desired zoning would require major alterations to the city fabric.

Macklind Neighborhood District (present and proposed uses)

Achieving the clarity of vision suggested by the "Desirable Ultimate Land Use Plan" (above) would require massive rebuilding of the city as suggested by the following plan which highlights in red areas of Substandard Housing ("a measure of obsolescence and blight").

Substandard Housing

The plan indicates two areas of city which would require massive reconstruction. The red hatched areas indicate "blighted areas" and the black hatched areas indicate "obsolete districts".
Obsolete and Blighted Districts

A key method for determining whether districts were obsolete and/or blighted involved determining how many residences in the area relied on outside toilets. This map documents the absolute numbers (red figures) and the density of such conditions in the city. In general, the closer to the riverfront and the older the age of the structure, the more likely that they did not include indoor plumbing.

Percentage of Dwelling Units with Outside Toilets

The necessity for rebuilding the city along different lines altogether is made bluntly clear by this suburbanized images of a redesigned Soulard. To Bartholomew's way of thinking, this district was entirely obsolete and needed wholesale replacement.

Soulard Neighborhood District

The following map delineates neighborhoods (outlined in red) and industrial districts (highlighted in yellow). In general, the greatest density of industrial districts were located along the Mississippi River or along the Mill Creek Valley area. Both of these areas were served by extensive rail networks. These areas remain largely industrial in nature with greatly reduced railroad activity, however many of these tracks remain in place.

Neighborhood and Industrial Districts

The plan features two maps indicating the massive investments in upgrading infrastructure the city was undertaking. The first indicates the many improvements that were a part of the 1923 Bond Issue. The largest projects included major upgrades to the system supplying potable drinking water for the city ($11,000,000) and construction of the River Des Peres drainage system beginning in Forest Park, extending through the south city before draining into the Mississippi River.

Other significant improvements included the following new structures in the downtown area: Civil Courts Building, Municipal Opera House, Municipal Power Plant and the Soldiers Memorial. Other amenities included a series of public hospitals, fire houses, parks, playgrounds, sewer upgrades and a major street lighting program. Public spaces to be improved included Union Station Plaza and Memorial Plaza. The total cost of the 1923 Bond Issue exceeded $67,000,000).

1923 Bond Issue

Further investments in the city were made as part of the "Post War Bond Issue" of 1944 which totaled more than $63,000,000 and included improvements to streets, water systems, sewer systems, parks, fire stations, telephone networks, hospitals, airport, art museum and zoo.

Post War Bond Issue of 1944

Of course, the actual development of the City of St. Louis in the second half of the 20th century followed an altogether different design which was occurred through the combined action of major highway construction, massive new suburb development in the surrounding communities and the demographic shifts associated with "white flight".

If Bartholomew had considered the evidence of population shift away from the city center toward the perifery, he might have been able to more accurately visualize and create a realistic city plan that could possibly have been implemented in a more coordinated way. Clearly, such a plan would have to deal with (at a minimum, St. Louis City and St. Louis County). My suspicion is that he was only authorized to prepare a plan for the city itself.

Population Change (1930–1940)