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Building Brain Buster

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January 2019

Q: The names Ammi B. Young, Mifflin E. Bell, and Willoughby J. Edbrooke are not well known today, but all three men had a broad impact on America’s built environment. What title did they share?

A: All three served (at different times) as Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury. While the title suggests a limited purview, in fact the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury oversaw the design and construction of almost all federal government buildings—including post offices and customhouses across the country—from 1852 to 1939.

December 2018

Q: In his design for the interior of Vienna’s elegant Church am Steinhof, completed in 1907, architect Otto Wagner avoided sharp corners, provided pews of varied lengths, and isolated the pulpit from the congregation. Why?

A: The Church am Steinhof, also known as the Church of St. Leopold, is part of a hospital complex originally built for mental patients. Wagner’s design was intended to protect patients, healthcare workers, and church staff alike. Rounded corners helped minimize injury to patients; the pews of differing lengths allowed patients to be grouped based on the level of care and supervision they required; and the separation of the pulpit ensured that the priest would be safe from unexpected violent behavior.

November 2018

Q: What was the only membership requirement for the Halfway to Hell Club, formed in the 1930s?

A: The Halfway to Hell Club consisted of workers who had fallen from the Golden Gate Bridge during construction, but were saved by safety nets.

October 2018

Q: What is a grillage foundation?

A: A grillage foundation is one that consists of two or more layers of steel beams, with each layer placed with the beams perpendicular to those in the layer(s) above and/or below. It is typically used under heavy point loads—such as at the base of a structural column—and helps to distribute the weight more broadly, which can be critical in poor soil conditions.

September 2018

Q: The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest private residence ever built in the United States, with some 135,000 square feet of floor space. What is the second largest?

A: Oheka Castle, in the Long Island town of Huntington, New York, covers about 109,000 square feet. Built for banker Otto Kahn and his family and completed in 1919, it was designed by the prominent architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich, with landscape architecture by the Olmsted Brothers. The property is now a hotel.

August 2018

Q: For what purpose was the now-abandoned Japanese island of Hashima developed?

A: Hashima, also known as Battleship Island, was developed as a seabed coal-mining site beginning in 1887. Before and during World War II, much of the mining work there was done by forced laborers, including Japanese residents of Korean origin and Chinese prisoners of war. Mining operations ceased in 1974, and the island was abandoned. Organized tourist visits began in 2009, and the island served as a location for the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall.

July 2018

Q: Among the many interesting projects designed by the prominent German-American architect and professor Erich Mendelsohn is a series of brick-clad houses in Dugway, Utah, but no one ever lived in them. Why not?

A: The houses that Mendelsohn designed for Dugway were part of a mock “German Village” used by the U.S. military during World War II to develop techniques for bombing German cities.

June 2018

Q: In 2015, The Architect’s Newspaper published an article by architect, professor, and critic Michael Sorkin in which he listed “Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know.” What was the first thing on the list?

A: The feel of cool marble under bare feet.

may 2018

Q: The K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which enriched uranium for atomic bombs as part of the Manhattan Project, was the largest building in the world under one roof when completed during World War II, with more than 5,000,000 square feet of floor space. What is the world’s largest building today, as measured by total floor space?

A: The largest building in the world today, with more than 18,000,000 square feet of floor space, is the New Century Global Center, a mixed-use commercial and entertainment facility in Chengdu, China. The complex, which includes a water park with an artificial beach, was completed in 2013.

April 2018

Q: In what country would you be most likely to see Architecture in Helsinki?

A: For architecture in Helsinki, you’d go to Finland, of course, but for Architecture in Helsinki (with a capital “A”), head to Australia. Architecture in Helsinki is an indie pop band that originated near Melbourne. Supposedly, one of the band’s members came up with the name by cutting up words from a newspaper and reassembling them.

March 2018

Q: What was the first state to enact an architectural licensing law?

A: Illinois, in 1897.

February 2018

Q: What is unusual about the Palais idéal, built by Ferdinand Cheval, in Hauterives, France?

A: Cheval (1836-1924) was a postman who built the house over the course of 33 years using small stones he collected on his rounds.

January 2018

Q: What elegant 19th-century opera house is now named in honor of a diva who died just before she was scheduled to perform there?

A: The Teatro Ángela Peralta, in Mazatlán, Mexico, opened as the Teatro Rubio in 1874. Beloved opera singer Ángela Peralta was scheduled to perform there in 1883, but she died of yellow fever—along with nearly half her troupe—within days of arriving in the city. By the time the theater was renamed for her in 1943, the building had been deteriorating for decades. The opera house closed in 1964, and after being threatened with demolition, it was eventually declared a National Heritage Building. Following a comprehensive restoration, it reopened in 1992.

December 2017

Q: What led William L. Murphy to invent the hinged “Murphy Bed,” which can pivot upward against a wall when not in use?

A: According to the Murphy Bed Company, William L. Murphy was living in a small, one-room apartment in San Francisco around the turn of the 20th century, and came up with the idea of the pivoting bed in order to allow him more room to entertain guests. According to Murphy family lore, however, the impetus was a bit more specific: apparently Murphy had taken a fancy to a woman whom he wanted to invite to his apartment, but the social standards of the era would have made it impossible for him to entertain her in his bedroom. The fold-away bed enabled him to “court” her without violating prevailing moral codes. He eventually married the woman, whose father provided a loan that enabled Murphy to secure a patent and launch the company that still bears his name.

November 2017

Q: Where were the earliest apartment buildings in North America?

A: The ancient city of Teotihuacán, in what is now central Mexico, was notable for its large and complex multifamily dwellings. The city is believed to have been established around 100 B.C.E., and thrived for perhaps six or seven centuries.

October 2017

Q: Where would you expect to find Mudéjar architecture?

A: Mudéjar architecture is found in Spain, along with a few examples in Portugal. The style reflects a hybridization of European medieval construction techniques and Islamic decorative motifs. The name Mudéjar refers to Muslims who remained in Spain and who resisted religious conversion after the Reconquista—the recapture of the Iberian peninsula by Christians that ended with the fall of the last Islamic stronghold at Granada in 1492.

September 2017

Q: How were ceiling fans powered in the pre-electrification era?

A: The earliest ceiling fans were connected by belts to water-driven turbines. The invention of the ceiling fan is often attributed to Duchess Melissa Rinaldi, who supposedly came up with the idea during a trip to the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s.

AUgust 2017

Q: What notable contribution did Gilbert Laing Meason (1769-1832) make to the field of landscape architecture?

A: Meason, a Scottish amateur art historian, is credited with having invented the term “landscape architecture” in his 1828 book On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy.

July 2017

Q: What is the difference between mullions and muntins?

A: Mullions are vertical strips—usually of wood or metal—that separate adjacent window units from one another, while muntins are the narrow strips that separate individual panes of glass within a single window unit.

June 2017

Q: What do a beehive and the ancient Roman Pantheon have in common?

A: Both rely on hexagon-based honeycomb structures to minimize weight while ensuring structural integrity. In the Pantheon, honeycomb-shaped ribbing was used in hidden chambers within the concrete dome.

May 2017

Q: What prominent role did the medieval castle of La Sarraz, Switzerland, play in the history of modern architecture?

A: La Sarraz was the site of the first meeting of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), or International Congresses of Modern Architecture. Founded in 1928 by a group of prominent European architects including Le Corbusier, Henrik Berlage, and Ernst May, the group helped codify the principals of modernist architecture and planning. The organization was dissolved in 1959.

April 2017

Q: The American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five Year Award, recognizing a building that has “stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years,” has been presented 47 times since 1969. Six projects by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have received the award—the most by any firm operating under the same name. What individual architect, working under several different firm names, matches that record?

A: Eero Saarinen. The six projects by Saarinen that have received the Twenty-Five Year Award are: the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois (by Perkins, Wheeler & Will with Eliel & Eero Saarinen); Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis (by Saarinen, Saarinen & Associates with Hills, Gilbertson & Hays); the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan (by Eero Saarinen & Associates with Smith, Hinchman & Grylls); and the Washington Dulles International Airport Terminal Building in Chantilly, Virginia; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; and the Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline, Illinois (all by Eero Saarinen & Associates).

March 2017

Q: After entering the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont, where would a visitor go to find the library’s books?

A: To Canada. The building, which opened in 1904, was deliberately sited so as to straddle the international border between the United States and its northern neighbor. The entrance to the library is on the American side, while virtually all of its collections are on the Canadian side. Similarly, in the opera house above, most of the seats are in the US, while the stage is entirely within Canadian territory.

February 2017

Q: What is the origin of the word “bedlam?”

A: “Bedlam” was the colloquial pronunciation of “Bethlehem” in the name of what was once the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London. Founded in the 13th century, Bethlehem was soon largely occupied by patients with mental illness, becoming England’s first mental health hospital. During the Middle Ages, as at most such institutions, patients were often mistreated. Gradually, the term “bedlam” came to be a common synonym for “madhouse,” also signifying a place of confusion and disarray. The hospital grew and changed, and still provides care after four centuries, now under the name Bethlem Royal Hospital.

January 2017

Q: What is unusual about the printer that San Francisco architect Chris Downey uses to print drawings in his office?

A: It is an embossing device that prints braille and tactile graphics. Downey lost his sight following a surgical procedure in 2008. The embossing printer is among several tools that have allowed Downey to continue his architectural career.

December 2016

Q: Who headed the Department of Architecture at the famed Bauhaus when the school opened in 1919?

A: Trick question. Even though the word “Bauhaus” literally means “construction house” or “school of building,” and the school is closely associated with the development of the International Style in architecture, it did not include a separate department of architecture until 1927, just six years before its dissolution under pressure from the Nazi government.

November 2016

Q: What is the meaning of E-1027, the name that architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray gave to her own seaside house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France?

A: It is a reference to her initials and those of her romantic partner at the time, Jean Badovici, a fellow architect and architecture critic. The “E” stands for Eileen, while the numbers relate to the positions of the pair’s remaining initials in the alphabet: “10” for J, “2” for B, and “7” for G.

October 2016

Q: Who was the only person ever to be designated a National Historic Landmark by a U.S. government agency?

A: O’Neil Ford (1905-1982), the influential Texas architect, was named a living National Historic Landmark in 1974 by the National Council on the Arts. This was a unique honor bestowed by the council, and is distinct from the more familiar National Historic Landmarks Program, which recognizes important physical places and is administered by the National Park Service.

September 2016

Q: What famous architect said, “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”

A: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose own designs for chairs were decidedly non-Chippendale-like.

August 2016

Q: What is a Nissen Hut?

A: The Nissen Hut was the forerunner to the more famous Quonset Hut. Invented by the American-born British engineer Peter Norman Nissen in 1916, the Nissen Hut was a long, barrel-vaulted structure with a corrugated metal skin supported by curving steel ribs. The cheap, lightweight structure was produced by the thousands and heavily used by the allied armies during both world wars. The Quonset Hut, first produced in 1941 at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, is similar in design to the Nissen Hut, but with a slightly different cross-section and varied sizes and details.

July 2016

Q: How does the main building at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station avoid being buried as snow continues to accumulate in constant below-freezing weather?

A: The foundation columns of the structure, designed by the firm of Ferraro Choi and completed in 2008, can be jacked up as necessary to keep the building above the snow line (and to keep it level despite differential settlement of the snow over time).

June 2016

Q: What is unusual about the Keret House in Warsaw, Poland?

A: The Keret House is less than five feet wide at its widest point. Designed by architect Jakub Szczęsny and inserted between two existing buildings, the house was conceived as an art installation rather than a true residence, but nonetheless accommodates visiting artists for short periods of time.

May 2016

Q: When Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument was erected in 1910, there were nine steps leading from street level to the monument’s base. Now there are 23. Why were the extra steps added?

A: Extra steps were necessary because the land around the memorial, like much of the land in central Mexico City, has subsided at an alarming rate. Parts of the city, built over an ancient lake, have been sinking by several inches per year for more than a century.

April 2016

Q:In a speech at the British Architects’ Conference Banquet on June 24, 1938, what did H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, urge his colleagues to do more often?

A: Laugh.

March 2016

Q: Where was the first “motor hotel,” more commonly called a motel?

A: The Milestone Mo-Tel, in San Luis Obispo, California, is generally credited as the first motel. Built in 1925, it was later renamed the Motel Inn. The business closed in the 1990s, and much of the complex was later torn down, though several sections, including the Spanish Mission-style bell tower, remain standing today.

February 2016

Q: According to a study by Cornell researchers in 2011, what is the most photographed building in the world, based on number of images posted on Flickr?

A: The Empire State Building.

January 2016

Q: The Washington National Cathedral boasts a set of 10 peal bells, meant to be rung in various sequences. Each possible sequence of bells is known as a “change,” and a complete set of all possible changes for a given number of bells is called a “peal.” How long would it take for a full “peal” of 10 bells, comprising 5,040 “changes”?

A: About 3 hours and 25 minutes.

December 2015

Q: In what event did famed architect John Russell Pope win an Olympic Silver Medal in 1932?

A: Architecture. From 1912 through 1948 (excepting 1916), the Olympics included art competitions in the categories of Architecture and Town Planning (later separated into two categories), Literature, Music, Painting, and Sculpture. All works had to be related to sports in some way. Pope’s Silver Medal-winning entry, for instance, was his design for the Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale University, completed that same year.

November 2015

Q: What building, with a total enclosed volume of nearly 130,000,000 cubic feet, is technically the tallest one-story building in the world?

A: The Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, completed in 1965, is 526 feet tall—roughly the equivalent of a 52-story building—but contains only a single major space running the full height of the building.

October 2015

Q: What is the oldest hotel in the world?

A: According to The Guinness Book of World Records, it is the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan resort, in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, established in the year 705. Yes, 705. Supposedly, it has been run continuously by more than 50 generations of the same family.

September 2015

Q: Steinway Hall, an 11-story theater-and-office building in downtown Chicago built in 1896, played an important role in architectural history unrelated to its own design. What was it?

A: Early in its history, Steinway Hall housed the offices of a number of architects who went on to become famous, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Myron Hunt, Dwight H. Perkins, Walter Burley Griffin, and Marion Mahony Griffin. The building was demolished in 1970.

August 2015

Q: In 2008, what was once the world’s largest single work of stained glass was dismantled when the building it adorned was razed. Where was it?

A: The former Terminal 8, the American Airlines Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, completed in 1960. The work of Robert Sowers, the stained-glass window was 317 feet long and 23 feet high, for a total area of nearly 7,300 square feet. Sections of the stained glass were preserved and either given or sold to various institutions and individuals.

July 2015

Q: In 1835, a royal commission overseeing the architectural competition for the rebuilding of British Houses of Parliament, which had been destroyed by fire the previous year, decreed that the design should be in either the Gothic or the Elizabethan style, even though Neoclassicism was quite fashionable at the time. Why?

A: Neoclassicism had come to be associated with republicanism (as with the relatively new Capitol Building and Presidential Mansion in Washington, seat of the young democracy that had broken away from the British monarchy). The commission decided it would be better to encourage competitors to stick with medieval styles that predated the revolutionary period.

June 2015

Q: What was the first 20th-century neighborhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places?

A: The Miami Beach Art Deco Historic District, which consists mostly of buildings constructed in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

May 2015

Q: What is unusual about the 1,300-year-old village of Kampong Ayer, which houses roughly one-tenth of the population of the country of Brunei?

A: It is composed entirely of houses and other structures built on stilts over the Brunei River. Accommodating nearly 40,000 people, it is considered the world’s largest “water village.”

April 2015

Q: The Washington National Cathedral is adorned with numerous sculptural figures, many of which are secular in nature (and sometimes surprisingly funny). Which famous sci-fi villain is represented by a grotesque, or carved head, on the cathedral’s northwest tower?

A: Darth Vader. The inclusion of this icon of intergalactic evil was the idea of young Christopher Rader, of Kearney, Nebraska, who won third place in a children’s competition to design decorative sculpture for the cathedral. The final figure was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.

March 2015

Q: What did Edith Wharton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Age of Innocence, blame for having “taken from our drawing-rooms all air of privacy and distinction”?

A: Electric light, with its “harsh white glare.” Wharton cited as evidence that electric light was not “needful” in formal domestic environments the fact that light bulbs are “usually covered by shades.”

February 2015

Q: What was noteworthy about the Renkioi Hospital, which opened in 1855 in Turkey as a field hospital for British soldiers during the Crimean War?

A: It was a pioneering example of prefabricated construction. The hospital consisted of a series of self-contained units designed by British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, manufactured in England, then transported to the site in Turkey for assembly. More than 1,000 soldiers were treated in the hospital’s prefabricated wards, which Florence Nightingale dubbed “those magnificent huts.”

January 2015

Q: Students from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands are in the process of building a large-scale replica of Antoni Gaudí’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. The tallest tower in the replica will rise to a height of more than 120 feet. This impressively scaled structure will not stand for long, however. Why not?

A: The replica is being built out of “pykrete,” a mixture of sawdust and ice, on a site in northern Finland. While it should last for quite a while, thanks to the prevailing cold temperatures there, ultimately summer will come and the structure will melt.

December 2014

Q: Not counting sports arenas and other venues that are only sometimes used for theatrical performances, what is the largest indoor theater in the world?

A: Radio City Music Hall in New York’s Rockefeller Center is the largest indoor space used solely for theatrical performances. Radio City is renowned for its annual Christmas Spectacular, which premiered in 1933 and still packs in the crowds each year.

November 2014

Q: What is the tallest church in the United States?

A: The Riverside Church in New York City, completed in 1930, is the tallest church in the country, with its main tower reaching a height of 392 feet. (The Chicago Temple Building, which is home to the First United Methodist Church of Chicago, rises to 568 feet, but primarily contains office space.) The Riverside Church is one of the buildings depicted in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition The Architectural Image, 1920-1950: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings from a Private Collection.

October 2014

Q: What two pioneering engineers of iron-and-steel construction—one French and one American—were classmates at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris in the 1850s?

A: The Frenchman was Gustave Eiffel, who gave his name to the Eiffel Tower. The American was William Le Baron Jenney, who designed the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which, when completed in 1885, was the first large-scale building to be supported by a fully metal frame.

September 2014

Q: What role did Henry Martyn Robert, the author of Robert’s Rules of Order, play in the aftermath of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history?

A: Although most famous for his work on parliamentary procedure, Robert’s primary career was as a military engineer. Following the September 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people in that city alone, Robert chaired a panel of engineers that conceived an extensive seawall to protect the city from future storm surges. The seawall is widely credited with preventing catastrophic damage during subsequent hurricanes.

July/August 2014

Q: What, strictly speaking, is the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?

A: According to classical definitions, a labyrinth consists of a single path that leads to a center, and which is usually retraced on the way back to the exit. A maze is a deliberately confusing, puzzle-like structure requiring the visitor to make choices in order to reach the center or exit successfully.

June 2014

Q: What is Manueline architecture, and why isn’t there very much of it left?

A: Manueline architecture derived its name from Manuel I, king of Portugal from 1495 to 1521. The term refers to a highly ornate style that often included maritime decorative elements, reflecting the country’s emergence as a wealthy, seafaring, Colonial power. Although numerous grand buildings were constructed in the style during Manuel’s reign, particularly in Lisbon, few remain thanks to a devastating earthquake that nearly obliterated the Portuguese capital in 1755.

May 2014

Q: In its first 25 years of operation, from 1984 to 2009, how many times did the Thames Flood Barrier have to be closed to prevent flooding in London?

A: The Thames Flood Barrier was activated 114 times in its first 25 years, with the frequency of closures increasing in later years.

April 2014

Q: In 1982, what New York theater, named for a Washingtonian, was torn down to make way for a hotel that bears the name of a prominent Washington-area family?

A: The Helen Hayes Theatre (previously called the Fulton Theatre, but renamed in honor of the Washington-born actress) was one of several prominent theaters razed to clear a site for the massive Marriott Marquis Hotel, designed by architect John Portman, at Broadway and 46th Street. The Marriott family—and their eponymous hotel chain—have been based in Washington for generations. After the demolition of the first Helen Hayes Theatre, another existing theater—the Little Theatre, on West 44th Street—was renamed in her honor. Remnants of the demolished Helen Hayes Theatre can be seen in the National Building Museum’s current exhibition, Cool & Collected.

March 2014

Q: Dan Kiley, the famed modernist landscape architect, oversaw the design of what important space in the immediate aftermath of World War II?

A: Kiley was in charge of the renovation of the courtroom in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg, where Nazi war criminals were tried by the International Military Tribunal. Kiley was given this responsibility by virtue of his position as chief of design for the US Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA (a position previously held by Eero Saarinen).

February 2014

Q: What do the following buildings have in common: the “Gherkin” in London, by Foster + Partners; the Grande Arche in Paris, by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen; the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, by OMA; the Seagram Building in New York, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; the Copan Building in São Paulo, by Oscar Niemeyer; and a tower from Le Corbusier’s unexecuted Plan Voisin?

A: They are all playing tokens (the equivalents of the top hat, thimble, etc., in Monopoly) in the Modern Architecture Game, a board game developed by NEXT Architects of the Netherlands.

January 2014

Q: How many recipients of the AIA Gold Medal have been Knights of the United Kingdom?

A: Four: Sir Aston Webb (the first Gold Medal recipient, in 1907); Sir Edwin Lutyens (1924); Sir Patrick Abercrombie (1950); and Sir Norman Foster (1994). In 1999, Foster was further honored by Queen Elizabeth II with a life peerage, taking the name Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

December 2013

Q: Why is the round, stone plaza in Sechin Bajo, Peru, noteworthy?

A: Archaeologists believe that the Sechin Bajo plaza was built roughly 5,500 years ago, which would make it older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the oldest known extant structure in the Western Hemisphere.

November 2013

Q: Why is the 1960 Los Angeles house that architect John Lautner designed for aerospace engineer Leonard Malin known as the Chemosphere?

A: In order to afford to build the innovative house—an octagonal structure perched atop a tall, five-foot-diameter concrete pole—Malin successfully solicited sponsorships from the Southern California Gas Company and the Chem Seal Corporation, which inspired the house’s nickname, the Chemosphere. An original drawing of the extraordinary structure is included in the exhibition Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, now on view at the National Building Museum.

October 2013

Q: While you are visiting Los Angeles, some local architecture enthusiasts invite you to meet them for a private tour of Case Study House #20. What should you ask them before accepting the invitation?

A: Ask, “Which one?” The famed Case Study House program, launched in 1945 by L.A.-based Arts & Architecture magazine, yielded a series of seminal house designs by some of the most influential architects of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, over the 21-year history of the program, the numbering system used to identify the houses was haphazardly applied. In the end, two different houses—one by Richard Neutra and one by the firm of Buff, Straub & Hensman—both bore the number 20.

July/August 2013

Q: What building boasts the world’s largest cantilevered roof?

A: The Busan Cinema Center, in Busan, South Korea, has a roof that is cantilevered 85 meters (279 feet), with a total area of 9,780 square meters (105,270 square feet). The center, which was finished in 2012, was designed by the Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au.

June 2013

Q: What architecture firm got its big break when one of its principals met a clothing retailer who had just opened his first store in 1969?

A: Gensler. The principal was M. Arthur Gensler, Jr., and the retailer was Donald Fisher, who founded the Gap. Fisher hired Gensler to design the Gap’s second outlet, and the architecture firm went on to design more than 3,000 stores for the Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy, as well as most of the company’s corporate offices, over the past 44 years.

May 2013

Q: How many U.S. state capitol buildings contain vaulted tile ceilings created by the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company?

A: Four: The capitols of Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and West Virginia. To learn more about the beautiful and innovative Guastavino tile vaulting system, visit the Museum’s exhibition Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces, on view through January 20, 2014.

April 2013

Q: What prominent contemporary architect’s firm was originally called Urban Robot?

A: Toyo Ito, winner of the 2013 Pritzker Prize, opened his firm under the name of Urban Robot in 1971. He changed the name to Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects in 1979.

March 2013

Q: On April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button in the White House that sent a telegraph signal instantly illuminating some 80,000 lights in a different building. What building was it?

A: The just-finished Woolworth Building, in New York, which upon completion became the tallest building in the world. It held the title until 1930, when it was eclipsed by the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street.

February 2013

Q: What is unusual about the ancient cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli in the Cappadocia region of Turkey?

A: They are underground. These vast networks of caverns were most likely created in the 8th to 7th centuries B.C.E., possibly by the Phrygians. They are among the best known of hundreds of pre-historic, underground communities in the region.

January 2013

Q: Which European country has the largest ratio of architects to population?

A: Italy, with an estimated 123,000 architects (according to the Architects’ Council of Europe), for a ratio of 206 architects per 100,000 people. By comparison, the U.S. has 105,596 registered architects (according to the most recent survey by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards), for a ratio of only about 34 architects per 100,000 people.

December 2012

Q: What important role did Baroness Hilla von Rebay play in mid-20th-century American architecture?

A: Baroness Hilla von Rebay (1890-1967) was a European-born painter who immigrated to the United States in 1927 and later became artistic advisor to mining heir Solomon R. Guggenheim. Von Rebay guided Guggenheim’s artistic purchases, ultimately assembling one of the country’s greatest collections of abstract art. It was she who, in 1943, chose Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new museum to house Guggenheim’s collection in New York City. The museum opened on October 1959, six months after Wright’s death, and is widely regarded as the architect’s last great work.

November 2012

Q: What famous early American architect was incarcerated in 1811 in a jail of his own design?

A: Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State House and the first completed dome of the U.S. Capitol, was imprisoned for the month of July 1811 due to unpaid debts.

October 2012

Q: The movie RoboCop (1987) was set in Detroit. In what city was it filmed?

A: Dallas. The production team assumed that the movie would be shot in Detroit, but curiously, after scouting locations, producer Jon Davison declared that “the architecture just wasn’t right.” Such are the ways of Hollywood.

September 2012

Q: What is the longest building in the United States?

A: The Klystron Gallery in Menlo Park, California, which is more than three kilometers (approximately 10,085 feet) long. The structure sits directly above Stanford University’s linear accelerator. Klystrons are vacuum tubes that generate or amplify microwaves.

July 2012

Q: What common material, typically associated with much smaller buildings, did Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates use as the primary cladding on the 1.3 million-square-foot headquarters of General Foods, in Rye Brook, NY, completed in 1983?

A: Aluminum siding.

June 2012

Q: In 1953, a famous architect was selected for the position of dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, but he was unable to accept. Who was the architect and why did he have to decline the appointment?

A: The architect was Oscar Niemeyer. He had to decline the appointment when the U.S. government denied him a visa due to his membership in the Brazilian Communist Party. Now 104, Niemeyer is still practicing architecture despite a recent hospital stay.

May 2012

Q: What is the tallest inclined (i.e., leaning) tower in the world? Hint: It’s not in Pisa.

A: The tower at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Canada, completed in 1987 (11 years after the Olympics were held there) and designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, rises 165 meters (or about 541 feet, according to official measurements) and is inclined approximately 45 degrees.

April 2012

Q: What document declared “that oblique and elliptic lines are dynamic, and by their very nature possess an emotive power a thousand times stronger than perpendiculars and horizontals, and that no integral, dynamic architecture can exist that does not include these?”

A: The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, by Antonio Sant’Elia, 1914. This was only one of many futurist manifestos, the most infamous of which was written by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who also wrote the original manifesto of Italian fascism.

March 2012

Q: What does the Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) in Rome have to do with a malformed pearl?

A: The Piazza San Pietro is one of the most famous examples of Baroque architecture. The word “Baroque” ultimately derives from the Portuguese word barocco, meaning “irregularly shaped pearl.”

February 2012

Q: Who, in 1895, became the first architect to receive the Rome Prize for study at the American School of Architecture in Rome, which was later reorganized as the American Academy in Rome?

A: John Russell Pope, who produced prominent neoclassical buildings in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere throughout the early 20th century, running counter to the rise of International Style modernism.

January 2012

Q: What famous American author wrote an 1840 essay titled, “The Philosophy of Furniture,” outlining sound principles of interior decorating?

A: Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, the master of the macabre took a break from poems and horror stories to describe the characteristics of the ideal room, proper draperies, and tasteful carpets. He began by stating, “In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme.” He went on to criticize various cultures’ approaches to domestic interior design, but saved his greatest scorn for his own country, declaring that “[t]he Yankees alone are preposterous,” a situation he blamed on our “aristocracy of dollars.” The essay first appeared in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.

December 2011

Q: What was unusual about the unexecuted development between Washington and Baltimore proposed by Edgar Chambless in 1931?

A: It was to be a single, continuous building linking the two cities. The project was one of various “Roadtown” proposals by Chambless. After it became clear that his plan for the Washington-Baltimore corridor was unlikely to be realized, Chambless committed suicide by jumping out of the window of a New York hotel.

November 2011

Q: Where was the first university-based school of architecture in the world?

A: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The architecture program at MIT was established in 1865.

October 2011

Q: In 1807, the New York City Council appointed a commission led by Gouverneur Morris, one of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution, to address an important civic issue. What was the result of the commission’s recommendations, which were published 200 years ago, in 1811?

A: “The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811” established the Manhattan street grid, stretching from Houston Street to the northern part of the island.

September 2011

Q: What is the largest building in the world deliberately designed to be earthquake-resilient?

A: The new terminal at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, completed in 2009. The global engineering firm Arup designed the 2 million-square-foot building to withstand an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale. The building rests on some 300 rubber-and-steel springs that isolate the structure from any movement in the ground below.

July-August 2011

Q: Windows are typically made from a form of “float glass.” During the manufacturing process, on what does float glass float?

A: Float glass is made by feeding a sheet of molten glass onto another molten substance of higher density, typically a metal such as tin. The denser liquid provides a perfectly flat surface on which the glass can harden, so that it, too, will be flat. Under carefully controlled conditions, the two molten substances will not mix.

June 2011

Q: In the dining room at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house near Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a narrow dumbwaiter just a few inches deep, hidden in the mantelpiece surrounding the fireplace. What was its purpose?

A: The dumbwaiter was used to deliver bottles of wine from the cellar below.

May 2011

Q: What is the largest irrigated crop (in terms of total acres of land covered) in the United States?

A: Lawn. Americans irrigate some 32 million acres of grass for primarily ornamental purposes. Corn, covering 12 million acres, is a distant second. These statistics and others related to how we use our land, construct our buildings, and plan our communities are among those that have emerged from the Museum’s Intelligent Cities initiative, exploring the intersections of information technology and urban design. For more information, visit

April 2011

Q: What do the architects of the following buildings in Washington, D.C. have in common? The buildings are the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the U.S. Supreme Court Building; the SunTrust Bank Building at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, NW (formerly Childs’ Restaurant); the Acacia Building at 51 Louisiana Avenue; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and the main terminal at Washington National Airport.

A: Each of those architects or firms also designed a building that was once the tallest in the world.

  • Corcoran Gallery of Art—Ernest Flagg, who designed the Singer Building in New York (tallest 1908-09)
  • U.S. Supreme Court Building—Cass Gilbert, who designed the Woolworth Building in New York (tallest 1913-30)
  • SunTrust Bank Building at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, NW—William Van Alen, who designed the Chrysler Building in New York (tallest 1930-31)
  • Acacia Building at 51 Louisiana Avenue, NW—Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, which designed the Empire State Building in New York (tallest 1931-72)
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago (tallest 1973-98) and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (tallest 2010-present)
  • Main terminal at Washington National Airport—Cesar Pelli, who also designed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (tallest 1998-2004)

One might also include mention of Minoru Yamasaki, who was part of a team of architects who designed several buildings at Bolling Air Force Base, and also designed the World Trade Center in New York, which was the world’s tallest structure from 1972 to 1973. Kohn Pedersen Fox designed several buildings in Washington, as well as the Shanghai World Financial Center in China, which by some definitions was the world’s tallest from 2008 to 2010.

March 2011

Q: Louise Bethune was the first woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (in 1888). She famously declined to enter a competition for the design of the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Why?

A: Bethune refused to participate because male and female architects designing buildings for the fair were not compensated equally. Each male architect or male-owned firm received a fee of $10,000 just for the design, with the cost of construction documents to be borne by the fair. By contrast, female architects invited to design the Woman’s Building had to compete for a “prize” of only $1,000, and the winner would then be expected to provide a full set of construction documents. The pavilion was ultimately designed by Sophia Hayden, who was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

February 2011

Q: At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 26, 2011, many buildings in your area may suddenly be plunged into darkness. Why?

A: No, it’s not the dreaded Mayan apocalypse coming 21 months early, it’s simply Earth Hour, a global initiative calling for citizens, businesses, and public agencies to turn out the lights on their buildings for one hour in order to express a commitment to fighting climate change. For more information, visit

January 2011

Q: The structure now known as the Cotton Bowl, which was built in 1930 and later served as the home stadium of the Dallas Cowboys, was significantly remodeled in 1936, just six years after its initial construction. Why?

A: The stadium stands in the middle of Dallas’s Fair Park, which was the site of the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936.  The structure, then known as Fair Park Stadium, was renovated to fit in with the architecture of the rest of the fair, which was mostly a blend of Art Deco, Art Moderne, and Modernist design. The Texas Centennial Exposition is one of six fairs featured in the National Building Museum’s exhibition, Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.

November 2010

Q: How did Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-dime tycoon, finance the New York City skyscraper that bears his name?

A: Woolworth paid for the building in cash—$13.5 million. Designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1913, the building was the tallest in the world until 1930.

September 2010

Q: How did Walter Paepcke, chairman of a Chicago-based company making corrugated boxes, become one of the most influential figures in 20th-century American architecture and design?

A: Paepcke, who made a fortune as an executive with the Container Corporation of America, provided critical financing for the New Bauhaus, which was founded in Chicago in 1937 by László Moholy-Nagy. Born in Hungary, Moholy-Nagy was an innovative photographer, painter, and designer who had taught at the Bauhaus in Germany before it was closed by the Nazis. Under his leadership, the New Bauhaus—which was later renamed the Institute of Design and incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology—helped promote modernist design in the United States.

Moreover, in 1950, Paepcke established what is now known as the Aspen Institute, famous for its seminars and conferences attracting leading thinkers and policy-makers. The Aspen Institute also gave rise to the Aspen Music Festival and the annual International Design Conference. Paepcke hired Herbert Bayer, another former Bauhaus teacher, to design posters and other graphics for the Aspen Institute, which helped to fuel the new organization’s rapid rise to prominence.

July 2010

Q: What is the origin of the name LEGO?

A: Ole Kirk Christiansen, the Danish carpenter who founded the LEGO® company in 1932, came up with the name as an acronym for leg godt, which means “play well” in Danish. Coincidentally, lego is also a Latin word meaning “I read,” “I gather,” or “I assemble,” the last translation seemingly a very appropriate one given the nature of the company’s primary product, but Christiansen claimed that he was unaware of the term’s Latin translation.

May 2010

Q: In 1934, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved plans for a drastic remodeling of one of Washington, DC’s historic buildings. Endorsing the proposed changes, the chairman of the commission at the time, Charles Moore, called the building “one of the three or four eyesores of the city,” and noted that it had been “ridiculed both by the public and by the architectural profession” since it was built. The proposed renovation was never carried out. Which famous DC building narrowly escaped such a comprehensive transformation?

A: The Pension Building, which is now, of course, the National Building Museum, and widely considered to be one of Washington’s most beautiful landmarks. Tastes change.

March 2010

Q: What does the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago have in common with the Dome nightclub on board the cruise ship Pacific Dawn?

A: They were both designed by architect Renzo Piano. Admittedly, the interior of the ship’s nightclub has been completely redone and bears little resemblance to Piano’s vision, but the basic, dome-like shape of the enclosure is clearly his design. The Pacific Dawn was built by Italy’s famed Fincantieri shipyard, and launched in 1991 as the Regal Princess. In 2007, the ship was sold to P&O Cruises Australia and given its current name.

January 2010

Q: A. James Speyer (1913-86) was a man of exceptionally diverse talents. A practicing architect and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and other universities, he also served for 25 years as curator of twentieth-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, a role in which he became highly influential in the museum world. Despite these lofty credentials, however, his most widely recognized work is a detached garage belonging to a single-family house in Highland Park, Illinois. What made this garage so famous?

A: It was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), as the garage in which the father of Ferris’s best friend, Cameron Frye, kept his vintage Ferrari. In the climactic scene of the movie, the valuable car—actually a fiberglass replica—crashes through one of the huge panes of glass enclosing the sleek, minimalist structure and goes flying into the ravine below. The structure is, in fact, a garage intended for the display and storage of vintage cars and art. It and the main house were designed by Speyer and architect David Haid for client Ben Rose, and were completed in 1953.

November 2009

Q: What is unusual about the mortar used in the construction of the Puente de Piedra (Bridge of Stone) that connects Lima and Rimac, Peru?

A: The mortar was supposedly mixed not with water but with the whites of some 10,000 sea birds’ eggs. As a result, the structure, designed by Spanish architect Juan del Corral and built in the early 17th century, is nicknamed the Bridge of Eggs.

September 2009

Q:  In 1890, the year in which How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob Riis, was published, what was the average number of residents per dwelling in New York City?

A:  According to the 1890 U.S. Census, there were 18.52 people per dwelling in New York City. By some estimates, nearly 80 percent of the city’s population lived in tenements or other substandard housing.

July/August 2009

Q: Andrea di Pietro della Gondola is better known by what surname?

A: Palladio. One of the most influential architects in history, Palladio (1508-80) was given the new name by his mentor, Gian Giorgio Trissino, who chose it to evoke Pallas Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and crafts (as well as war). Images of some of Palladio’s works are included in the National Building Museum’s exhibition Form and Movement: Photographs by Philip Trager, on view from July 11, 2009 through January 3, 2010.

June 2009

Q: What do the Golden Gate Bridge, San Antonio River Walk, LaGuardia Airport, and presidential retreat Camp David have in common?

A: They were all projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the most famous of the New Deal agencies established in the 1930s. Collectively, the workers employed by the various New Deal agencies built more than 50,000 bridges, built or renovated thousands of schools, hospitals, airports, and other institutional structures, and planted some three billion—yes, billion—trees!

May 2009

Q: The Haughwout Department Store building in New York, built in 1857, has a beautiful cast iron façade, but that’s not why it made history. Why is this building so important?

A: The Haughwout was home to the world’s first “passenger safety elevator,” installed by Elisha Otis in April 1857. Contrary to popular belief, Otis did not invent the elevator—basic mechanical hoists had existed for centuries—but he did invent a braking device that made such machines safe for passengers. The Haughwout still stands, though the original elevator has been removed.

April 2009

Q: When Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to restore the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in 1847, what then-innovative technology did he employ to document the existing conditions of the building?

A: He used daguerreotypes, which he commissioned in large numbers to record as much detail as possible. The project thus became one of the first architectural restorations to employ documentary photography in a systematic way.

March 2009

Q: While packing your bags for a business trip to another city, you call the mechanical engineer who is hosting the meeting and ask her how you should plan to dress based on the weather there. She responds casually, “Oh, one Clo should be fine,” and hangs up. What do you pack?

A: A regular business suit should suffice, with no overcoat needed. A “Clo” is an informal measure of the thermal insulation of clothing, sometimes used by mechanical engineers and other building professionals when assessing comfort levels in various spaces. One Clo is equal to the amount of insulation provided by a typical men’s or women’s business suit.  If someone invites you to a place where the standard of dress is zero Clo, assume it’s a nudist camp.

February 2009

Q: The Pharos (Lighthouse) off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is believed to have been destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the 14th century, but if the tower still existed today and estimates of its height are accurate, how would it rank among the tallest lighthouses in the modern world?

A: It would be first. The tallest lighthouse in the world today is the Yokohama Marine Tower, in Japan, which stands 106 meters (348 feet) tall.  Even the more conservative estimates of the Pharos’s height put it at 115 meters (377 feet).

January 2009

Q: In 1960, Washington architect Robert Paul Brockett was commissioned to design a structure for one of the city’s most prestigious addresses1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. But you won’t see his innovative, strikingly modern design today. Why?

A: Because his design was for a temporary structurethe inaugural reviewing stand for President John F. Kennedy. Brockett’s structure was the first reviewing stand to break away from more traditional architectural styles.

December 2008

Q: Julian Abele received an architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1904, and went on to study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1906, Abele joined the prominent firm of Horace Trumbauer & Associates, becoming the firm’s chief designer within a couple of years. Over the next four decades or so, he personally designed or oversaw the design of more than 600 projects across the United States. His significant works include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a mansion for the Vanderbilt family on Long Island, and the main campus of Duke University. Despite this stellar career, however, Abele was not elected to membership in the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects until 1941. Why?

A: Abele was denied membership until 1941 because he was black. Practicing in an era in which there were very few African American architects, Abele achieved remarkable success thanks to his great talent and his mutually supportive relationship with Trumbauer, who served as the primary contact with clients while Abele led the design studio. Abele died in 1950.

November 2008

Q: In 1931, a man named C.W. Glover proposed building an airport in the King’s Cross area of central London.  How did he plan to insert such a large facility into a densely built urban area?

A: Glover proposed building the runways atop enormous bridges spanning the tallest structures of the neighborhood. There were to be four runways aligned in different directions but all crossing in the center, with a circumferential taxi-way connecting them, thus creating an enormous wheel-like pattern in plan. Needless to say, the idea was never realized.

October 2008

Q: What do Manila and the small city of Baguio, both in the Philippines, have in common with San Francisco and Chicago?

A: All of the cities listed were the subjects of grand—though largely unexecuted—urban plans by architect Daniel Burnham. Burnham went to the Philippines, then a U.S. Territory, in 1904, and soon produced a majestic plan for Manila befitting its role as the territorial capital. His plan for Baguio City, which is located at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet and served for a time as the semi-official “summer capital,” was notable for its imposition of urban geometries onto a hilly landscape.

September 2008

Q: You are about to use a time machine to go back to ancient Rome. Before you leave, your friend the Classical scholar says, “Be sure to see the velarium.” Where would you go and in what direction would you look once you got to Rome?

A: You would head to the Colosseum and look up toward the sky. The velarium was a huge awning that would be pulled across the top of the Colosseum to shield spectators from rain or excessive sun.

July / August 2008

Q: What famous early American architect’s son, who occasionally practiced architecture himself, played a major role in the establishment of the African nation of Liberia?

A: Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s son, John H.B. Latrobe, was a leading supporter of the controversial American Colonization Society, whose goal was to establish a colony in Africa for freed American slaves.  The group succeeded in creating the colony of Liberia in 1822, and a large region of the new settlement was named Maryland, after the state where the younger Latrobe spent most of his life.  Liberia became an independent nation in 1847.  John Latrobe’s own son, Ferdinand, served several terms as mayor of Baltimore between 1875 and 1893.

June 2008

Q: Eero Saarinen’s father, Eliel, famously won second place in the 1922 design competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower.  Ten years earlier, in 1912, he won second place in another famous international design competition.  What was it?

A: In 1912, Eliel Saarinen won second place in the competition to design the new Australian capital of Canberra.  The winner was Walter Burley Griffin, whose wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, collaborated on the design although she was largely uncredited at the time.

May 2008

Q: As of 2008, the Pritzker Architecture Prize has been awarded 30 times to architects from a total of 16 countries. Only five countries have produced more than one Pritzker Prize winner. What are those five countries?

A: The five countries that have produced multiple Pritzker Architecture Prize winners are the United States (8), the United Kingdom (4), Japan (3), Italy (2), France (2), and Brazil (2).