Design Decoded: Building Better Bricks by Brewing Beer

Researchers have discovered a way to use a byproduct of beer brewing to improve bricks.

While for most of us, the side-effects of beer consumption include might include late night pizza, questionable decisions, and painful hangovers, researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar in Portugal have found a way to turn binge drinking into binge building by making better bricks – or, rather, by brewing better bricks. The same grains that are left over after the brewing process, which are often thrown out or used for animal feed, can be used to enhance the heat retention of clay bricks. As New Scientist reports, “the grains make the bricks more porous, and so they trap more air, which increases heat retention.” This isn’t a new discovery. Bricks are often embedded with materials–usually plastic–to enhance their heat retention. However, while the resulting energy-efficient bricks are desirable, the process is not exactly sustainable and energy restrictions, particularly in the European Union, have limited its use. Beer-battered bricks offer a more environmentally friendly method.

This isn’t the first time the remnants of beer brewing have been used in the built environment. For instance, many old breweries have been transformed into apartment buildings and museums. But even more relevant are efforts from one beer maker to actually produce bricks.

A WOBO wall. (Image: Flickr user

Back in 1960, Alfred “Freddy” Heineken, grandson of the beer company’s founder, came up with the idea for a “brick that holds beer.” The rectangular glass bottles were produced in the same unmistakable green hue that distinguishes Heineken bottles in bars around the world. The idea came to Freddy when he was vacationing in Curacao, and he was appalled to see empty Heineken bottles littering a beach. To combat the problem, while also providing construction material for housing in impoverished communities, Freddy worked with an architect to create the the Heineken World Bottle (WOBO). Many versions of the WOBO were designed and tested, and ultimately, a limited run of two different modules, carefully designed to interlock with one another, were made and a prototype house was built. But the WOBO was never put into production because the bottles were deemed inefficient and just plain uncomfortable to carry.

Hopefully such practical considerations won’t put an early end to the the beer-made bricks currently in development because I’m certainly looking forward to the day when I can say my hangover is a sign of support for a better stock of building.

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Design Decoded: When Architects Build With Gingerbread

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image:

Around this time every year, architects around the world are inspired to tie on their black Prada aprons, roll up their sleeves and apply their seven-plus years of education to the deliciously painstaking construction of gingerbread houses. Gingerbread was first brought to Europe in the late-10th century from the eastern Mediterranean and gingerbread shaping was a common practice by the 15th. However it wasn’t until 1812, when the Brothers Grimm first published Hansel and Gretl, the story of two young children who stumble across a cottage made of candy, that bakers began to build their gingerbread into cottages and houses. Fast forward a few centuries and gingerbread house-building has been elevated to new, almost unbelievable heights.  Seeing what these talented designers can create from cookies and confections is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.

The most impressive displays I’ve seen do far this year come from food artists Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves, who recently recreated some of the worlds most famous museums in gingerbread for Dylan’s Candy Bar, the luxury candy and chocolate shop. It is absolutely astounding to see what can be produced with gingerbread, frosting, spun sugar, and various other sweets.

I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image:

Of course, like brick-and mortar buildings, any appreciation of these gingerbread buildings benefits from excellent lighting and carefully composed photographs. But these works of art deserve nothing less, and the close-up photographs only accentuate the skill that went into creating these confectionary constructions.

The Tate Modern, as imagined in gingerbread by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves (image: (image: colossal)

Last year the architecture website Architizer held its inaugural architectural gingerbread house design competition and the submissions were more fun, more colorful, and just as accurate as architectural legos. Take the following two, for example:

A gingerbread model of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House by April Reed Cake Design (image: architizer)

A gingerbread Fallingwater, always a classic choice. A collaboration between Tsontakis Architecture with Classic Cakes & Confections (image: architizer)

Seven more Modernist gingerbread houses can be seen at Architizer. Their 2013 competition is underway now and accepting entries until December 23.

For a different kind of architectural gingerbread, check out the two-story candy cottage built in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. This impressive feat, built by the hotel’s kitchen staff, uses nearly 4,000 pounds of sweets. Check out some of the incredible details on Curbed SF.

The two-story gingerbread house at the Fairmont. Just watch out for witches. (image: Patricia change via Curbed SF)

Finally, to see just how much time and effort goes into making a gingerbread house at this level, check out the following video from The White House, whose chefs made–what else–a replica of America’s First Home.

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Design Decoded: Traveling in Style and Comfort: The Pullman Sleeping Car

An early Pullman sleeping car (image: American Science and Invention)

The holiday season just started and, like many of you, I’ve already spent way too much time in crowded airports, cramped airplane seats, and desolate, freezing train platforms. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we didn’t shove our faces with overpriced fast food before elbowing our neighbor out of the way to get the last spot in the overhead bin or the only train seat that doesn’t have a weird stain on it. Long distance travel (for those who could afford it) used to be different, civilized even. Back when railroads began stitching the United States together, one name was synonymous with comfortable train travel: Pullman.

An image of an early, more basic Pullman interior from an 1872 travel guidebook. The accompanying caption reads: “In these PULLMAN CARS, the Passenger obtains the Luxury of the Drawing Room by day, and the comforts of a Clean and Neat Bed by night, while speeding onward at 30 to 35 miles an hour.” (image: ‘How to Go West’ via Frontier to Heartland)

George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) made his name famous as the designer of the eponymous sleeping car, which made its debut in 1865. But sleeping cars had been around since the 1830s – so what made Pullman’s stand out? Comfort. The older 24-person sleeping cars left a lot to be desired and savvy designers leaped at the chance to improve long-distance train travel. George Pullman was a cabinet-maker, engineer, and building-mover who first made a name for himself in Chicago by raising buildings above flood levels after the city raised its streets and sewers; his system involved hundreds of men using jackscrews to lift the building then shore up its foundation. Supposedly he did it so smoothly that businesses stayed open while their buildings were being raised. After a particularly uncomfortable train ride, Pullman, flush with cash and growing notoriety from his experience in Chicago, got the idea for his next venture.

Left: a Pullman car circa 1876. Right: a particularly ostentatious Pullman circa 1890 (images: American Science and Invention)

In 1858, he worked with the Chicago and Alton Railroad Company to redesign and remodel two of their 44-foot-long passenger coaches. These prototype Pullmans were very basic and, though a slight improvement over existing stock, a far cry from the luxurious train cars that would come to define the Pullman brand: hinged seats transformed into lower berths, while iron upper berths were attached to the ceiling by ropes and pulleys; curtains provided a modicum of privacy; small toilet rooms bookended the passenger area. The cars were not a success. Pullman moved on to other ventures but was drawn back to the train industry four years later. This time, however, he tried a different tactic: creating luxury models.

The Pioneer, as he dubbed his second design, was wider and taller than anything that came before and used trucks with rubberized springs to reduce bouncing and shaking. Thick curtains or silk shades covered the windows and chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was painted with elaborate designs. The walls were covered in a rich dark walnut, the seating was covered in plush upholstery, and the fixtures were brass. During the day, the sleeper looked like a regular, if especially lavish, passenger car, but during the night it transformed into a 2-story hotel on wheels. Seats were unfolded into lower sleeping berths, while upper berths, instead of lowering from the ceiling on pulleys, folded out from it. Sheets and privacy partitions were installed by Pullman Porters to complete the effect. The only problem? The train didn’t exactly fit existing platforms. According to American Science and Invention, Pullman said, “My contribution was to build a car from the point of view of passenger comfort; existing practice and standards were secondary.” But this was 1865 and a national tragedy worked to Pullman’s advantage. After President Lincoln’s assassination the government elected to use the luxurious Pullman car for the last leg of his funeral train, requiring the renovation of every station and bridge between Chicago and Springfield. The publicity turned the Pullman sleeping car into an overnight success.

An ornate Pullman parlor car. (images: American Science and Invention)

The train that transported Lincoln was soon put into commercial service. And, of course, civilized travel came with a slightly steeper price tag. But in the 19th century, and even into the 20th, long-distance train travel was almost exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy and the growing middle class. And though the Pullman Sleeper required a small addition fare, a berth wasn’t unreasonable for people who could afford to travel far enough to need one. As the rail network great, so did Pullman’s empire. He rapidly expanded his enterprise and by 1867, he was running nearly 50 cars on three different railroads. He also developed some new designs: a hotel car, which was basically a Manhattan apartment on wheels, a parlor car, a dining car, and, perhaps most importantly, a train vestibule, which made it easy to safely move from one train car to another. After losing a patent suit related to his folding berth design, Pullman bought all his rivals’ patents to further solidify his empire and the dark green pullman sleepers became ubiquitous on trains across the country. As decades passed, the designs became more ornate Pullman’s personal taste continued to shape Americans’ idea of luxury – perhaps to a fault, as some women’s magazines of the late 19th century objected to the ostentatious interiors as violations of good taste.

Unfortunately, bad taste isn’t the only offense for which Pullman is remembered. The company has a long and complex relationship with African Americans. Famously, it was a calculated incident on a Pullman car that launched the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which ultimately established the “separate but equal”  doctrine that would not be legally repudiated until the 1950s. But long before Plessy sat in a “whites only” car and long after the Supreme Court made their decision, Pullman Porters dealt with inequality on a daily basis. Though travelers favored the cars for their luxurious accommodations and services, the Pullman staff, did not enjoy comparable luxuries. And though the company was both praised and derided for the hiring of African Americans at a time when few jobs were available to them, advancement for the “Pullman Porters” was almost unheard of. What’s more, they worked long hours, received low wages, and were often treated poorly by passengers.

Although Pullman eventually became a sort of power-mad baron of his railroad empire responsible for whose name is forever attached to unfair labor practices and a disastrous railroad strike, his contributions to the passenger train industry defined the way the nation travels for nearly a century and continue to make holiday vacationers nostalgic for a time when long-distance travel could actually be an enjoyable experience.

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Design Decoded: The Puppeteer Who Brought Balloons to the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Anthony Sarg (center) and puppeteers touch up a parade balloon in 1929. (image: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade)

The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade) was held in 1924 and culminated in front of Macy’s department store in New York City, where the elaborate holiday window displays were unveiled. Thousands gathered to see the displays, which were designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a noted puppeteer and theatrical designer. Sarg was also the artistic director / mastermind of the parade and, during the fourth annual Macy’s Christmas Parade in 1927, he introduced the enormous inflatable cartoons and caricatures that would become almost synonymous with the annual holiday tradition.

The 1927 Felix the Cat balloon. One of the first balloons to be carried down Broadway on Thanksgiving Day. (image: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade)

Creativity was in Sarg’s genes. Born in Germany, his father was an artist, his grandfather a wood-carver, and his grandmother was a painter who gave the young Sarg a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired the imagination of the burgeoning designer. But it wasn’t until he saw a performance by famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, who essentially invented the marionette, that Sarg found his calling. He began experimenting with puppet designs and stagings around 1917, eventually earning renown for his particularly sophisticated puppet shows that included performances of Faust and Don Quixote. After World War I, Sarg moved to New York City and quickly gained a reputation as a practical joker, the life of the party and a tireless worker. In his various ventures, the designer, inventor and illustrator worked on cartoons, children’s books, mechanical toys, advertising and of course, window displays and balloons.

These first parade balloons were filled with oxygen not helium, and were propped up by teams of puppeteers – usually just Macy’s employees drafted into parade service. These balloons, such as 1920s biggest cartoon star Felix the Cat (above), were cruder and smaller than today’s Godzilla-like monsters but still charmed and captivated the throngs of onlookers who came to ring in the holiday season.

Distant view of man standing with Macy’s Day Parade balloons (image: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company Records)

Other early balloons included a 20-foot-long elephant, a 60-foot-long tiger and an enormous hummingbird. In 1928, the parade culminated with a release of the now-helium-filled balloons into the skies above the city. The stunt was a crowd-pleaser and the following year, the balloons were designed with release valves to make their ascent easier and Macy’s offered rewards for their capture and return. The tradition that continued until 1932, when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized canvas wrapped itself around the plane’s wing.

The balloon ascent at the end of the 1930 Parade (image: Ballard Institute of Puppetry, University of Connecticut via Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade)

The rubberized silk balloons were produced by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and their archives at the University of Akron include some amazing pictures of these early behemoths.

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The Architecture of Assassination

Texas Schoolbook Depository Dallas

The former Texas School Book Depository, now the Dallas County Administration Building (original image: Jim Bowen via Wikimedia commons)

On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.

Dealey Plaza

Study for a proposed civic Center in Dallas, Texas. Dealey Plaza at top right. (image: Dallas Public Library)

Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.

Grassy Knoll

The ‘X’ painted in the center of Elm Street where Kennedy was sitting when he was killed. (original image: Bradipus via wikimedia commons)

A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.

texas book depository

The book depository circa 1963. The giant Hertz sign that sat on the top of the building in 1963 was removed in 1978 because it was found to cause structural damage. The sign was dismantled, put into storage, and is being maintained by The Sixth Floor Museum, who recently restored the original Book Depository sign. (image: Mary Ferrell Foundation)

Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.

texas book depository dallas

Interior of the Book Depository circa 1963 (image: Mary Ferrell Foundaiton

The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.

In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.

kenn=edy assassination book depository

The preserved sniper’s perch in The Sixth Floor Museum (image: courtesy The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)

That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”

It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.

The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.

“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may [face] a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”


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