Friday, October 25, 2013

Farewell to the Broadway Tower

Corbin & Merz Architects recently moved to a new office on the mezzanine of the Hiland  Tower in downtown Enid.  We love it, although we are not completely unpacked, no pictures  of our work are hung yet; heck, we haven't even hung our certificates and licenses yet.  Rest assured they are right there in a box by the door if anyone needs to see them.  We are waiting until the two big pieces of green stained glass are hung in the reception area and the 12-foot ladder needed to reach the custom-made oak brackets the glass will hang from is returned to the building maintenance guys at Hiland.  Then we will hang stuff that might get knocked down or broken while folding and carrying out the ladder.

Pictured here is our old office that was on the fourth floor of the Broadway Tower.  The green, pink, purple and aqua glass is just visible behind the pottery vase holding the yucca pods on our reception counter.  They are on long-term loan from a friend who kept them under her bed until she realized the aqua color matches our conference chairs, and we might actually have a place to use them for decoration. In the old office they were hung from old iron hay loft fixtures scavenged from an old barn near Carrier, Oklahoma.  This space was gutted when we first rented it in 1993 and we kept the concrete deck as our ceiling.  Even the ceiling tile sales representative  liked the loft style atmosphere it gave to our office. 

        The Former Office of  Corbin & Merz Architects,
           back when we were known as Corbin Associates.

We built the glass block wall that defined a small conference area by ourselves, had a few gyp board partitions put in by Bass Construction Company, installed carpet and decided that was all we needed.  We used the left-over glass blocks as bookends.  Many of the plants you see in the picture are congratulation gifts from our friends and clients.

The very best thing about this office was the wonderful windows and views we had of downtown and of David Allen Ballpark that was designed by Corbin Associates, as we were known then.  We could even read the scoreboard!  We also had an excellent view of the elevators,  great landmarks that speak to the heritage of the City of Enid, and when the sunset lit them up in pink and orange, they were absolutely glorious.  We witnessed many beautiful sunsets and even rainbows from these windows.  In fact, the evening of the day we moved in, doing all the labor ourselves--we didn't have a whole lot of stuff--we were finally sitting down and resting, having an enforced break caused by a light rain shower, and we looked out these windows in the photo and there was a big, beautiful, full-arch rainbow!  We knew it was there for us, and we were so elated and happy and hopeful, and yes, everything did turn out well for us. 

John Merz became a partner in the firm. The Broadway Tower was purchased by a new owner and is now in the process of being transformed into a boutique hotel.  We subsequently moved to the Hiland Tower just a few blocks away, and when the green glass is finally hung up again and the certificates and licenses are back up on the wall, our new office will be complete.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Proposal for Stage Center

We have been reading about Stage Center in Oklahoma City and how its days are numbered as the site is being looked at as a location for a new office tower.  We have always liked the building and appreciated the fact that it is a piece of sculpture as well as a building.  We attended plays there in years past--"Quilters" was one of our favorites, but recently, we just park, get out and walk around, marveling at the multicolored boxes, tubes and ramps all connected like a great big tinker-toy construction and it suddenly occurred to us that the perfect use for this building would be a museum for tinker-toys and other construction toys--Lincoln Logs, Erector sets and those Frank Lloyd Wright blocks among others.

Photo credit: Lynne Rostochil

There are people who are always building grandiose and imaginative constructions with these toys and then discover they have no room to store them and they can't bear to tear it down, or their Mom or wife insists that they get rid of the huge wobbly thing because they need the den for the garden club meeting or the back bedroom for the daughter moving back in after her divorce.  The Construction Toys Museum is a place they could call and donate the thing to them for display. Win-win for everyone! 

Seriously, classic toys are collectible and the construction toys are some of the most loved, most collected and cherished of all toys, and one of the most creative and versatile, too.  There are already museums featuring these classics, but none of them look like they were built out of a great big set of construction blocks.  Oklahoma City could have the premier construction toy museum in the whole wide world!

Besides the Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets, there are Legos, ABC blocks of all kinds, construction blocks with rectangles, arches and columns, castle blocks and the Construx sets.  Vintage sets are available as well as brand-new versions of the classic toys.  Displays could include some of the fantastic and outlandishly large constructions, there could be playrooms where kids could build stuff, contests could be sponsored to encourage creative competition. The history and stories of the creators and inventors could be featured in films or display backdrops.

How cool would it be to re-purpose this building for something that would enhance Oklahoma City's already growing reputation as a family-friendly, fun-loving destination?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Glass Tree

Glass Tree is one of our favorite Big Houses.  It was built in the early 1980's and the picture here was taken during construction.  Looking at the photo, it is obvious why we called it "Glass Tree."  The mullion pattern in the big living room window reminds us of the trunk and branches of a tree, stylized to be sure, abstract, but a tree of glass with wood branches and trunk.  The wood is cedar and the glass is quarter-inch plate that is very heavy and strong.  The masonry is split-face block.  

The wooded landscape surrounding Glass Tree
 is reflected in the living room window.

The house is situated on a large lot in a country development and surrounded by mature trees.  It was designed for friends of ours, a very good engineer and his wife, a gifted pianist. One room, on the opposite side of the house from this window, was dedicated to house the grand piano.  We remember it as a grand room also, with a grand view as well.

The house has had several owners since it was built and we are pleased that the current owner has done the house justice with landscaping that takes advantage of the beautiful terrain.

Although we have designed many houses--large and small--since this one, we still find this particular window to be one to be one of the most evocative and romantic house elevations to have made the transition from our design on paper to actual glass, wood and masonry. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The House From Outer Space

Anyone who has ever toured a lot of houses with a real estate agent has probably had at least one of them point out the windows in the home and make a comment something like "Windows are the eyes of a house," intending to communicate something like "Look at the view," or so we would hope.  Sadly, often the comment could be a little too literal because some houses have faces!  Okay, you have to use your imagination, but if you look around, especially in new developments, you will see the symmetry of the human face on the facade of quite a few homes--two eyes, one on either side of a nose or mouth.  An alien has landed in the neighborhood and it is waiting...waiting for some landscaping to soften the disconcerting effect observant passers-by might have of being watched by an inanimate object.

Dormers can be especially scary when they are too large and rise up a little too high--it can be the mutant frog effect if the dormers are rounded on the top.  Pointy, skinny dormers can make the house look haunted, possessed by a tortured soul.  If the dormers are too small or the roof too large the effect might be that of little pimples popping up on a large forehead.  Yeah, you have to use your imagination, but if you see a house that strikes you as ugly, when it is obviously trying very hard to be impressive, just look at it and try to figure out why.  Often it is a matter of proportion that is out of scale with everything else.  Don't get us started on fake dormers--all we can do is ask "Why, why?"  All dormers should be real, functional and add light and space to the room they are in and charm to the home's exterior.

An example of a house trying to be something it is not is what we call "The Tract House Palace."  This is a little house on a little lot trying to be a big house.  Some features of this house are the double-height entryway with a giant light fixture hanging like the pendulum of doom from the entry roof, huge multi-paned windows that extend all the way to the roof line and all the way to the corner of the house with no grace space around them--every feature is large and overpowering in scale.  Think of those cute little dolls that are so popular with little girls right now that have the big heads, big eyes and lips, and big hair on top of an impossibly skinny little body.

Speaking of dolls, we have heard some tract houses referred to as "Doll Houses" and many of them are virtually identical to all the houses around them.  Some are in developments with covenants that obviously require the use of the same roof-lines, shingles and brick color.  With the curvy, confusing street layouts, how would you ever find your own house?  Even the mail boxes are the same.  The obvious solution is to park a Hummer in the driveway or a sexy little red sports car, perhaps--a car that says "This Is Me!"

Seriously, we know that tract houses have their place in providing affordable housing that can be quickly built to serve areas that are experiencing a surge in population and that some are better than others.  But there should be some rules--No fake dormers, no fake shutters, no ripple roofs just for the fun of it, watch your symmetry and proportion so that your house doesn't look like an alien from outer space.  That's all.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Better Safe Than Sorry

The tornado in Moore, Oklahoma that destroyed two elementary schools, causing many injuries and the deaths of 7 children, brought the issue of safe rooms in schools to the forefront of the discussions on school security.  Corbin & Merz Architects strongly believe in planning ahead for this type of natural disaster that is all too common in our state, especially in the springtime afternoons when school is still in session or after-school sports and activities are scheduled.  We have recommended the inclusion of safe areas for every school we have built and most, though not all, school officials have agreed that this is a money well spent and less expensive to include in initial planning than trying to do later. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Our new school under construction  in Mustang, Oklahoma, Canyon Ridge Elementary on Sara Road, has 5 hardened rooms, one in each of the 4 pods, and a fully hardened music room in the center of the school.  We watched the weather reports anxiously as the recent storms whirled down I-40 past El Reno toward the western suburbs of Oklahoma City, worrying about our relatives and friends--and our school.  Fortunately, none were hit, and we were glad we had done due diligence in the planning for safe rooms in Canyon Ridge.  It's better to be safe than sorry.

Another elementary school we have planned for North Enid, Oklahoma has two long hardened corridors that span the length of the school on two sides for quick access if necessary.  While still facing a bond issue, patrons will surely welcome the inclusion of safe areas for the most precious assets any family has--their children.  It's better to be safe than sorry.

The  classroom addition at Enid High School has a hardened corridor.  So does Pleasantvale Elementary School  in the the Pioneer School District located just east of Enid.  We designed the safe areas in these schools because we know this one thing  for a fact--It's better to be safe than sorry.

Oklahoma Bible Academy has two safe areas.  The original building, the Academic Center, has a hardened corridor, and when we added the the Advanced Learning Center we designed the connecting corridor between the two areas with hardened construction as well.  The school people at OBA specifically requested these areas be included in the planning because they know that it's better to be safe than sorry.

This architecture firm, Corbin & Merz Architects, has always recommended areas such as safe rooms or hardened corridors in schools as an important part of  planning simply because believe that when it comes to tornadoes, it's better to be safe than sorry!

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Little House

The Little House is a unique challenge to an architect--if only because a Little House often (but not always) has a little budget and possibly a small lot to build upon, while the prospective owner has big ideas and expectations.  After all, they would not have called us if this were not so!  Fortunately, we appreciate the challenge of designing livable Little Houses--houses that live big but are economical to build and/or efficient in use of space.

One of our favorite Little Houses is actually built in the center of a very large wooded lot.  With two bedrooms and a galley kitchen, it has great views from its large windows and is surrounded by a spacious deck.  It is an artist's house, and the deck leads to a small rustic studio where the artist can create her beautiful pottery just steps away from her main house. Everything in the house is skillfully edited, including the displays of paintings and pottery, so the rooms seem quite spacious.

We believe that bringing the outdoors inside with big windows is one way to make a Little House seem bigger--natural light has a way of illuminating walls with an ever-changing quality of shimmer and shadow that adds interest and beauty to interiors.  Beautiful landscaping, even on a small lot, gives the Little House a setting that provides charm and privacy and something to look at besides the driveway and street. Outdoor living space--patios for  for cooking outdoors, flower beds for gardening, and porches or patios for relaxing on nice days can make a Little House live larger.

A few years ago we had the opportunity to design a prototype "low-income" Little House that could be built economically, but would have everything a family  of four or more might need or want in a home.  Square footage would have to be limited to keep costs down.  The plan was basically a "great room" with kitchen  on one end and bedrooms and bath along one side.  The carport had built-in storage on the end.  The plan was nicer and had more amenities than most apartments we ever lived in!

The most luxurious Little House we have ever designed is elegant country house set on a small bluff in the middle of a rugged Oklahoma pasture.  It is solid stone and when the wind blows, it does not move, not even a tiny creak is heard--it is stone solid!  The front entry to this country cabin is very practical--leading to a mud room/laundry, then a pantry, then a great room for living/dining that includes a state-of-the-art galley-type kitchen/bar with top of the line appliances, including an under-cabinet wine refrigerator.  The house has one bedroom and bathroom and four gas fireplaces.  Two are outdoors, one at the front entry, and a big fire pit on the back patio. Inside are fireplaces in the sitting area of the main room and one in the small library just off the back patio.  All the lighting, furniture, artwork, bedding, and even the kitchen accouterments are carefully chosen, simple, but luxuriously beautiful--a testament to good taste.  There is a bunk-house close by for guests, and a large multi-vehicle garage/storage barn, all in matching stone, and with the Little House they form a courtyard enclosure that gives a sense of security to the remote setting.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Big House

The Big House is very much in vogue in these booming economic times and we have been fortunate enough to design a few of them.  It is quite a responsibility to design a Big House to meet the needs and requirements of a specific family, whether large or small, not to mention having to stay within the building easements on the lot!

We have designed Italian villas with tile roofs and stone floors, as well as English country houses with lots of level changes and  large country kitchens where the lady of the house reigns instead of a professional cook, but the uniquely indigenous style here in Oklahoma is "The Ranch House" with a casual eat-in kitchen as well as a dining room large enough for a whole crew of harvest hands.

Whatever the style, The Big House will have at least two living areas--a "formal" living room, often furnished with brocade sofas, glass tables and fancy lamps and a "family room" finished and furnished with tougher stuff.  Sometimes the children of the house have an entire wing of bedrooms and baths, often with a rec room of their own for ping-pong, loud music and teen-age parties.  Parents will then have a suite of rooms at the opposite end of the house with sound insulation, stereo and television suite, compartmentalized his & her closets, and spa bath and shower rooms, also his and hers.

A close acquaintance of ours has a Big House designed by a "famous architect" with the children's wing and the grownup's wing separated by a common living and reception area. He has turned the now vacant children's wing into a home office with guest accommodations, so a good design can have flexibility for the future when a Big House is no longer needed for a big family.  Other owners of Big Houses have big parties and lots of house guests.  Some have big extended families with grandchildren, in-laws, and visiting friends.  So the Big House can have quite a bit of flexible use after the big family for which it was originally built moves out.   

When Architects Travel...

When architects travel, what do they do for fun?  The answer is easy--they visit buildings--the famous landmarks where all tourists go, but also the indigenous types such as little villas crawling up a steep Italian hillside, one almost on top of the one below, with a single narrow footpath curving up to each  front door.

We were struggling up one of these well-trodden paths in Florence, yellow dirt packed as hard and appearing almost as impervious as stone, following a small group of students from Minnesota (or so we assumed--one was wearing a maroon UMinn sweatshirt), stopping every now and then to catch our breath and take a picture, when the whole group of us was overtaken by a very fit old lady carrying a bag of groceries. She unlocked her door, gave us smug little smile, and closed the door behind her.  The kid in the sweatshirt shook his head in disbelief--"People actually livin' here!"  It was just that perfectly picturesque, like a movie set, with a panoramic view of the Pitti Palace and city below.  The Italian lady viewed this scene, famous in travelogues of Florence, every day from her window--along with sweaty tourists, struggling upwards just inches away from her home!

Architects also sketch buildings--we have seen sketch book displays of the drawings student architects on European tours have made and they are beautifully evocative records of  the landscapes and buildings they have visited.  Along with a camera, Ken, like the student he once was, and really, still is--carries a sketch book that he takes,  not just on vacations, but to job sites, visiting relatives--everywhere he travels.  He has sketched miner's shacks in Colorado and New Mexico and has photographed seemingly blank walls to capture a texture or a color.  This usually elicits a funny look from passers-by, but once in a while, you meet a person who understands.

In New Orleans, he photographed a featureless, but well-worn pink stucco wall--only it wasn't just a plain baby pink blank wall, but also patinated with shades of green, brown, orange--all superimposed on a texture that had seen years of humidity and traffic, both foot and vehicular.  Two men crossing the street noticed and approached us.  "Are you an artist?" the older man asked.  Ken answered that he was an architect.  "That's what I told my son--that guy has to be an artist or an architect!"  Two tourists themselves, they obviously appreciated the pink wall as well.  It's always fun to meet kindred spirits who appreciate a mere color.

Architects often make pilgrimages to visit famous buildings by famous architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, the Greene Brothers, I.M. Pei, Fay Jones, Gaudi, Corbusier, among others--all have followers, and we take every chance we get to visit their buildings on our travels.  But the architect we have gone out of our way to see is Louis Sullivan, and his banks are the specific buildings we have visited--in very small towns, where they know why you are there if you are not related to someone who lives there.

While famous for many things--he was a pioneer of the skyscraper, he coined the phrase "Form follows function", he was one of ten architects chosen to design a building for the 1893 World's Fair--he died poor.  The banks are the products of his declining years and were considered small, unimportant commissions, but today, they are called "Jewel Boxes." One of the prettiest is the Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, a small central Iowa college town, and our tour of the bank was a special adventure.

It was late afternoon and the bank was closed when we arrived in Grinnell.  Standing across the street admiring the intricate terracotta ornament surrounding the entry, we noticed that a man driving by was looking at us.  He drove around the corner and parked, got out of his car and approached us.  "Are you an architecture student?"  Ken told him he was an architect, whereupon the man offered to give us a tour of the bank.  As a retired president of the bank, this 90-year man was given the perk of having his own key for the building and he said when he saw us standing exactly where every architecture student stands to get the best view, he knew we were on a pilgrimage especially to see this building.

Inside the building, the wall of slim, tall stained glass windows was even more spectacular.  It was brilliantly illuminated by natural light--the colors were warm and glorious.  The details of the interior were lovely, but it was the shape and proportion of the building itself that made it unique and special--solidly sited on a street corner, simple, rectangular, in a gorgeous purple-brown brick mix that looked artistically done, contrasted with the lighter color of the terracotta ornament around the round window above the entry.  The blue stained glass within this oculus (I guess that's what you would call it) rivals any we have seen in cathedrals anywhere.  And the terracotta design itself is a wonder of interwoven squares on point, squares set square, and circles, all entwined with delicate, little leafy fronds and ovals and little borders and trims almost as detailed as a medieval embroidery design.  Something about the contrast of solid and delicate, fancy and plain, really has the touch of genius about it, keeping in mind that the solid is perfectly proportioned and that the plain brick has those inspired, but very subtle variations in color.

This building, and the other jewel box banks are works of art that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate today.  How wonderful that they are being preserved, all eight of them, and are still around today and available for architecture students to visit and see how a master of proportion, scale, materials, color and ornament created buildings that are still functioning as banks today.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tools of the Trade

Welcome to a new blog--we are calling it "T-Squares and Slide Rules" after a couple of the most important tools draftspersons and architects used before the advent of calculators and then computers.  We not only used T-squares and slide rules, but math classes required the purchase of an inexpensive slide rule, both in high school and college, and we were taught how to use them.  Quaint, yes?

All of the tools required in drafting and design classes required quite an investment, and students guarded them carefully from pilfering by others who carelessly lost their stuff or left it back at the dorm.

One of my prized possessions is a red leatherette -bound book that is a catalog of the drafting supply company Keuffel & Esser Co., founded in 1867.  The main office was in New York with a factory in Hoboken, N.J., and branches in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Montreal.  The last copyright date in this 37th edition is 1927.  The illustrations are beautifully hand-drawn ink renditions of every kind of drafting, surveying, engineering and art tool you can imagine.  There is even a pasted-in sample of a dozen tracing and craft papers inside the front cover.  I acquired the book as a gift from a good friend who is a true gentleman and renaissance man and I treasure it because it is so beautifully drawn--I consider it an art book and a history book as well as drafting supply catalog.

Wooden T-Squares and Straightedges from Catalogue of  Keuffel & Esser Co. Manufacturers
and Importers
Drawing Materials - Surveying Instruments - Measuring Tapes
37th Edition
  Our firm used many of these tools up until the invention of the computer and drafting software.  Slide rules were replaced by engineering calculators without much nostalgic longing for the "old days."  But the computer has really changed design and made many of the supplies and tools we used are hard to find, if not obsolete. 

Vellum paper is referred to in K&E as "tracing cloth."  Dozens of kinds of drawing papers are offered.  Is there any reader under 30 years of age who knows what "pounce" is?  Or Inkoff--that one is easy to guess.  Blue print, brown print, black print and Translux, tubes for storing paper.  Erasing fluids and white crayons for marking on blue prints.  Cross-section papers in several scales and sizes. township paper, logarithmic paper, isometric cross section paper, polar co-ordinate paper, triangular co-ordinate paper, and about 20 more pages of papers in pads, rolls, books...

My favorite section of the book is the drawing instruments.  The catalog offers "school quality" tools suitable for students, but cautions that the more expensive instruments are superior in quality,  Two full pages describe the difference in materials, dimensions, finish and construction of the finest tools and cautions "The most expensive instruments in first cost are the cheapest in ultimate cost."  There follows pages and pages of specialized pens, joints, pencils, set screw and shank attachments, compasses some with different type of beam attachments, wheel attachments, proportional dividers, hairspring dividers, spring bows, pivot joints, and knife springs--each type is drawn in beautifully rendered detail. 

If an architect treasured his (or her--less likely in 1927 than today) fine drawing instruments, he would want a velvet-lined case to store them in, or possibly a polished mahogany case, or a morocco case with silk-velvet lining.  Each type was available in small sets with the basic items necessary for a young apprentice beginning a career up to the complete deluxe set for the professional with earning power.  The brands cataloged are Paragon, Key, Pharos, Anvil, Special Arrow and Arrow.  Repair parts are offered for the various brands. If you have one of these sets, please treasure it.  

Pantographs (spell-check does not like this word--does any blog reader know what it is, or possibly have one?) are precision, suspended, with wheel supports,  or made of hardwood.  Both's Patent section liner and scale divider is made of nickel silver.  The Simplex section liner is made of hardwood or can be purchased with a "heavy transparent xylonite arm in place of wood arm."  The ellipsograph is "brass, nickelplated, fine quality."  I do actually know what a pantograph is, but the other tools are items I, for one, have never heard of.

Protractors are three-arm, circular, semi-circular and made of nickel silver, as are the tritractor, and limb protractor.  Less expensive versions are "plain metal" or xylonite--perhaps a type of early plastic?  Scales can be special-ordered!  I find this an amazing special service--obviously for the very special person who needed a special scale.  Three kinds of blanks are offered--2 bevels, 4 bevels or opposite bevels, any length, "State length of graduated part, not of the blank, unless special length blank is wanted...It is always safest to send a sketch."  One could also chose a "Boxwood" profile or "Paragon" profile, distinctive to brands of triangular scales.  It would be interesting to know if this was a service in great demand.  Regular scales, triangular scales, sheaths for scales, paper scales printed on Bristol Board, Patent scale guards (they look like little handles clipped onto a triangular scale), metric and inch comparing scales, map measures, shrinkage rules (what are they for?), jointed scale rules, folding wood rules, parallel rules, some "ebonized."  Kueffel and Esser responsibly did not offer genuine ebony due to "extreme scarcity" and describe exactly what "ebonized" and "ebony finish" refer to.  They scorn the "usual custom of designating a substitute as ebony."

Irregular (French) Curves from Keuffel & Esser Catalogue
37th Edition
Finally we get to the triangles, curves and T-squares.  Most of the triangles for lettering, the ellipses, hyperbolas, parabolas and mechanical engineering curves are transparent xylonite. Also available are nickel-plated steel triangles.  There are 29 kinds of French (or irregular) curves, a logarithmic spiral curve and a set of 121 Copenhagen Ship Curves that come in a wood case--all are pictured, and what the heck are they for--does anyone know?  For designing ships?  Also flexible curves, adjustable curves, spline and spline weights for custom curves and 2 pages of railroad curves that come with a wooden storage box to prevent warping.  For designing railroad tracks?  These can also be purchased individually.

  Straight edges come in maple or xylonite.  Bars are available for beam compasses.  Wooden T-squares come with pearwood, maple, mahogany or hardwood-lined blades, as well as with xylonite blades.  Nickel-plated steel is also available.  Centrolineads for perspective drawing are sort of like a T-square, but with 2 movable arms instead of a fixed head like the T-square.

The invention of the computer really changed things, but we still have some of these tools of the trade.  I won't say we are nostalgic for hand-drafting--it was slower, dirty, and wore out the elbows of your shirts.  But it could be beautiful, artistic, with individualistic details.  And architects and drafters had all these cool tools of the trade.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Welcome to our blog. Here we will try to give you a glimpse at the inner workings of our office. Stay posted.