Daily Dose: Ishtar Gate

Add to TwitterIt’s one thing to design, produce and build a 47′ high glazed brick tile gate in the 21st century. It’s quite another to do so in the 6th century BC. The images below are of the Ishtar Gate, built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 575bc). The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany is its current home.

ishtar gate

Ishtar Gate

This massive construction was the main entrance to the ancient city of Babylon. Mud brick masonry tiles make up the entire structure; the tiles were glazed to make the bright patterns and figures seen here. Three animal figures are repeated over the surface of the gate – lions, bulls and dragons. The lion was the symbol of the Assyrian goddess, Ishtar, for whom the gate was named. She was the goddess of fertility, love and war (she continued to be worshiped by the Romans as “Venus”) and many kings of Mesopotamia believed that their rise to power was contingent upon her personal involvement.


Lion Symbolizing Goddess Ishtar


Ishtar Gate

If you look at the top of the Ishtar Gate, you can see the decorative crenellations added by the builders. High quality craftmanship, as seen here, was only possible in societies that had significant agricultural success and surplus. This allowed individuals to develop their talents and specialize in a certain field, such as architecture or masonry work.

bull dragon combo

Bull and Dragon Tiles from Ishtar Gate

The bull and dragon tiles also on the Ishtar Gate represented the gods Marduk and Adad, respectively. King Nebuchadnezzar II was also known for restoring the temple of Marduk. His famed Hanging Gardens are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

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Daily Dose: Self-Healing Concrete

Add to TwitterOkay, folks. Are you ready to be amazed? I certainly hope so, because today’s Daily Dose of  Masonry is here to bring you … [drum roll] … concrete that fixes itself! Whoa.

It’s a beautifully simple concept, really. The new kind of concrete still cracks, but the fissures are much smaller. After the next few times it rains, the combination of the moisture and carbon dioxide reacts with the concrete, healing the cracks with the resulting calcium carbonate. Victor Li is the innovator behind this new “engineered cement composite”, or ECC, and has been working on it for the past fifteen years. Li’s concrete is more flexible than other materials on the market, so its average crack width is a mere 60 micrometers (only half as wide as a human hair!). This allows for full healing and a much stronger, more durable concrete in general.


Flexible ECC

Li also spells out his commitment to green building saying that “rebuilding with [ECC] would allow a more harmonious relationship between the built and natural environments by reducing the energy and carbon footprints of these infrastructure. As civil and environmental engineers, we are stewards of these mega-systems. Advanced materials technology is one means to keep them healthy.”

Now for another exciting tidbit: this calcium carbonate is the same stuff that creates the mineral deposits in caves! Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone? All calcium carbonate. The milky white tracings running down concrete and brick buildings? Same thing. As a cave tour guide, artist, and writer for a masonry company, it’s rare that I find something with a direct connection to all three! Thanks for letting me gush a little about this, and check out some of my favorite calcite creations:

crying wall

Calcite drips in Decorah, IA

calcite combo

Calcite drips and drapery stalactite

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Daily Dose: Tiny Houses

Add to TwitterI first started research for this blog post about small houses with a featured company – Tumbleweed Houses – already in mind. I’d read a little about founder Jay Shafer and his work, but I had no idea that these homes were part of a social movement and organized society! The “Small House Society” (co-founded by Shafer) is the outreach group of the “Small House Movement” whose primary concern is the interaction between humans and the environment. The movement doesn’t specify a square footage required to be considered a member – the main idea is to get people to consider the space they really require and to encourage them to live more simply, whatever that means for each individual or family. I’ve included pictures of some of Shafer’s homes; the smallest range in size from 65-140 square feet and are as little $18,000!

hermitage combo

The Hermitage; 65 square foot house kitchen

The Hermitage, a 140 square foot house built by Shafer and Tumbleweed Homes, doesn’t require a building permit. Since it is on wheels, it’s considered a travel trailer. You can either build this model yourself or buy it ready-made. The image next to the Hermitage is the kitchen of an even smaller (65 sq ft) home.


Loring Exterior

The Loring is a 251 sq ft home whose building cost ranges from $100-200/sq ft. This is classified as a “small” home (vs the Hermitage’s “tiny” category) and meets all international building codes. I’d love to see a picture with someone standing next to this house – it looks fairly large from this perspective!


Z-Glass Exterior

This house was the most interesting to me – yes, a little plain, but the rolled hot steel siding is so rich in color and texture! Called the “Z-Glass,” it’s 392 sq ft but only 14 feet wide so it can be taken on the road. The exterior finish is also optional – you can choose veneers other than the one pictured in this example. (masonry, anyone?)

I have to say, after reading through these articles and looking at the pictures, I want to be a member of the Small House Society! (Although come to think of it, I’d say life in a 100-something square foot apartment counts, wouldn’t you?) Much more charming and welcoming than your average trailer home, these portable habitations are also important steps in our green building efforts. Come visit me in my Z-Glass!

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Daily Dose: Insect Architects

Add to TwitterAs humans, we have a tendency to think that we are the world’s primary source for innovation and creation. It stings our pride to think that we could be outshined by non-human animals… but insects? Well, the thought hardly crosses our minds! What could these tiny creatures possibly create that could hold a candle to our achievements? … to our architectural achievements? Take a look at these photographs of the incredible structures built by ants and termites –


Plaster Cast of Ant Colony

This plaster cast of an ant colony was made by Walter Tschinkel, professor at Florida State University, who is studying ants’ architectural methods.


Concrete Cast of Ant Colony

Scientists pumped 10 tons of concrete into the tunnels of this (thought to be) abandoned ant colony, creating the complicated structure you see in these images. Visit the source link to see the video of the process.

termite combo

Termite Colony and Buddhist Temple

Ants aren’t the only insects that are master architects. Termites, though markedly different as they build above the ground instead of tunneling into it, are also creators of amazing structures. This image reminded me of ancient Buddhist temples.

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Daily Dose: Staircases

Add to TwitterTimes have changed since the 16th century, have they not? One of the biggest shifts has been the expansion of our personal worlds. That sounds a little strange, but allow me to explain. Even up until the last 50 years, people have generally lived out their lives in the geographic areas in which they grew up. Their friends, families and contacts were likely nearby and the notion of connecting to people from other countries seemed far-fetched and probably somewhat pointless. Their worlds consisted of what they could see or visit without too much trouble. With the introduction of the internet, globalisation of people and their ideas has come into full-force. Now, grade-school children have international pen-pals and people make connections across the globe without giving it a second thought. Our worlds have expanded to include the ideas and cultures from every corner of the planet – and our goals and expectations are growing as well.

MUMUTH staircase, Image © Iwan Baan

MUMUTH staircase, Image © Iwan Baan

What does this have to do with architecture? Today, I was reading about the Haus für Musik und Musiktheater (MUMUTH) in Graz, Austria and its fabulous staircase. Ban Van Berkel, a principal at UNStudio, the design firm in charge of this impressive project, discussed the staircase’s connection to serialism in contemporary music. He claimed that the staircase and serialism both had the “ability to absorb and regulate intervals, interruptions, changes of direction, and leaps of scale without losing [their] continuity.”

MUMUTH staircase, Image © Iwan Baan

MUMUTH staircase, Image © Iwan Baan

The building’s focal point is indeed impressive, as it needs to be to hold our attention and interest. It reminded me of Michelangelo’s stair design for the Laurentian Library in the San Lorenzo Monastery in Florence, Italy. Not quite as impressive to viewers of today, Michelangelo’s staircase was considered revolutionary for the 1500s, as the MUMUTH staircase is now. The three parallel flights of stairs expand as they descend the single level from the library to the entryway. This slight fanning out gives the illusion of much greater depth and spatially transforms the building.

Staircase for Laurentian Library

Staircase for Laurentian Library

A beautiful, elegant staircase to be sure (I wish I could contribute more personal insights, but it was being restored when I visited San Lorenzo…), but a little lackluster when viewed with 21st century eyes that have come to know a much broader scope of the human possibility for creation. I suppose that’s the price we pay for progress – the dimming of awe at the effects of past achievements. Take a little time with this one, and see if you can’t see what Michelangelo’s admirers did – a truly innovative piece of architecture.

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Daily Dose: Cathedral of Brasilia

Cathedral of Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer

Cathedral of Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer



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Daily Dose: Meet Peter Zumthor

Add to TwitterYou may not have heard of him, but he’s worth hearing about. Laureate of the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize (the Nobel Prize of Architecture), Peter Zumthor has contributed much to the development of architecture. One of the most interesting aspects about his work, I think, is the deliberate thought he gives to the life that is happening in and around the buildings he creates. In the manner of a poet, Zumthor describes one experience that led him to a heightened awareness of his built environment: “That door handle [on the door to my aunt’s garden] still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase. I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen.”

Zumthor has a small portfolio compared to many well-recognized architects throughout the world. What has been honored, in lieu of a prolific career, is his exceptional skill and quality of work. See more at http://www.architectureweek.com/2009/1014/culture_2-1.html

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