the architecture of heros - Goodness, Nature and Vengeance



I have written a post about evil lairs and wanted to follow that up with some thoughts on the special domains of superheros.  Of course we are not talking about real heroes here, but the pop culture protagonists of comic books and movies.  My initial impression was that these places were not as interesting as their counterparts evil lairs, as Dante's Inferno is significantly more interesting than Paradiso.  However, some repeating themes in these places are quite intriguing.

Whereas the villain's evil lair is often a secretive place brimming with technology, the hero complex (?) is most often dominated by the natural environment.  It is Nature herself that seems to be the well-spring of the superhero's powers or at least the space created by the natural world becomes both solace and solitude for the world-weary, misunderstood protagonist.



Even the Bat Cave, thoroughly techy as it is, is still very much a cave, all dripping stalagtites and gloomy expanses.  Like Superman's Fortress of Solitude, it is within the belly of Mother Earth herself, secretive, mysterious and another world away from the evil urbanity of the city.

Even the most technological of good guys, Ironman's Tony Stark, lives resplendent in nature, perched atop a stony precipice, tapping into the elemental earth, water and sky.

Ironman house

Ironman house

In the latest episode of the Bond franchise we even get a glimpse into 007's maudeline past in a visit, and of course subsequent destruction of, his ancestral home.  No London Regency townhouse of course, but an isolated Scottish manse, surrounded by endless moors and made of the stones of the earth.

Duntrune Castle Skyfall

Duntrune Castle Skyfall

These are all maybe uniquely American responses to the heroic genesis problem, positing the natural world in a Romantic American viewpoint.  Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory speaks eloquently about these perceptions of nature and the role of the imagination in Western thought.  The villainous bad guys resort to weapons and the lying deceits of mankind, but the superhero's ultimate power resides in Nature, stems from its dark, mysterious elements.  I will step over the Oedipal Mother Nature aspect of this for a future post.

Xavier's mansion

Xavier's mansion

The final photo I have is from X-Men - Xavier's stately mansion set in a typically English park-like setting, maybe the ultimate example of both the fundamental goodness of Nature and a rejection of Modernism, its rationality and anthropocentric dominance.  The X-Men afterall are not from outerspace or even some kind of unique genius, rather they are simply genetic modifications of us, a product of the same biology, same DNA, maybe some other stuff thrown in as well, but certainly not "foriegn" or "unnatural".

The hero is a man(usually) of action, he is not at home in the world of men, in fact, he should avoid the domestic sphere as much as possible as traditionally female roles of nurturing, cooking and cleaning are kryptonite to the male superhero.  He may be seduced by the sexy villainess, but he fights for everything good, apple pie (as long as someone else makes it) and Mom (but no Mamma's boy).

The man-cave trend in recent years has it right - it is not merely a private study, but a den or a cave, ensconced in the earth and the primal forces barely contained within. Where the villain may have a lair of high-tech toys and Modernist hipness, the hero's retreat is associated with nature, part of the Good Earth, unsullied by progress and the creations of mankind.

The Stones, Pablo Neruda



In celebration of National Poetry Month, Pablo Neruda's The Stones:

Stones, boulders, crags ... Perhaps they were

fragments of a deafening explosion.  Or stalagmites that were

once submerged, or hostile fragments of the full moon, or

quartz that changed destiny, or statues that time and the wind

broke into pieces or kneaded into shapes, or figureheads of

motionless ships, or dead giants that were transmuted, or

golden tortises, or imprisoned stars, or ground swells as thick

as lava which suddenly became still, or dreams of the previous

earth, or the warts of another planet, or granite sparks that

stood still, or bread for furious ancestors, or the bleached bones

of another land, or enemies of the sea in their bastions, or

simply stone that is rugged, sparkling, grey, pure and heavy so

that you may construct, with iron and wood, a house in the


Pablo Neruda, The Stone

from The House in the Sand

translated by Dennis Maloney & Clark Zlotchew

Project photos by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

The Writer's Desk

"I look at these photographs with a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans." John Updike, in the Introduction to Jill Kementz's The Writer's Desk



 Joan Didion

We have worked on a number of rooms that are creative work spaces.  Some of these have been as "home offices" located within a house or condo, and some have been stand-alone studios or buildings.  In each case, we hope to find something intriguing about the nature of the work that can help inform the design beyond the simple functional requirements of light and space.



 Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Writer's Desk, by Jill Krementz,  is a series of brief glimpses into the natural working habitat of a number of noted writers.  Each entry contains a single photo of the writer at their respective work spaces along with a short comment from the authors on their writing spaces or process.



 Robert Penn Warren

As someone who designs these spaces for creatives, these are fascinating insights.  I think you have to avoid the too-easy temptation to analyze the rooms and contents, the arrangement of furniture and objects, as some kind of treasure map to the author's meaning and muse.  Working with clients over the years has shown that these spaces are far more complex in their relationship to the work than a brief visual survey reveals.  However, in the quotation above from Updike reveals, our fascination is not easily assuaged.



 E. B. White

I have to also admit that I have spent time changing, altering and modifying my studio space far more than any other room I have occupied in a lifetime of houses and condos and cabins and apartments.  It is true that you can create almost anywhere - so many designs have  come to life on my dining room table between the saucers and plates.  But you can only push aside your drawings at dinner time so many times before your  need for that other space, that small creative retreat, becomes a necessity.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Maurice Sendak

I posted this a couple of years ago and thought I would put it back up today in honor of the great Maurice Sendak who just passed away. This little sequence, where Max's room turns into a forest, is one of the reasons I became an architect.

Thank you Mr. Sendak.


"That very night in Max's room a forest grew


and grew-


and grew until his ceiling hung with vines


and the walls became the world all around"

This is still basically what I do everyday - imagine another world within the world.

Where The Wild Things Are

Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1963.

Happy New Year everyone

Johnson's Corner - On The Road

"It was beautiful in Longmont.  Under a tremendous old tree was a bed of green lawn-grass belonging to a gas station.  I asked the the attendant if I could sleep there, and he said sure; so I stretched out a wool shirt, laid my face flat on it, with an elbow out, and with one eye cocked at the snowy Rockies in the hot sun for just a moment.   I fell asleep for two delicious hours, the only discomfort being an occasional Colorado ant.  And here I am in Colorado!  I kept thinking gleefully. Damn! damn! damn! I'm making it! And after a refreshing sleep filled with cobwebby dreams of my past life in the East I got up, washed in the station men's room, and strode off, fit and slick as a fiddle, and got me a rich thick milkshake at the roadhouse to put some freeze in my hot, tormented stomach."

Jack Kerouac, On The Road

The gas station with the lawn was Johnson's Corner.  This is not the same cinnamon-roll-laden Johnson's Corner truck stop on I-25 outside of Loveland, but the cast concrete art deco inspired filling station that faced demolition in 2002.  As it was threatened because of road expansion, the building was moved to its current location on the edge of the new urbanist community of Prospect just south of Longmont.

As you can see, though not demolished, the building was preserved but not renovated and it is slowly falling apart inside its protective fence.  The plans are to create a small cafe and hopefully, a small patch of lawn-grass.

Moving a building to save it is a dubious proposition at best and especially so if the move requires as much demolition as this one did.  Generally, removing a structure from its context also means that it is no longer eligible for National Register status as well as some much-needed federal grants for renovation.  I hope that funds are found soon and this building can find a new use and it does not suffer the same fate as the Boulder Depot which has moved twice and is still waiting for some new use to bring it back to useful life.