Arthur Carrara and the magnetic toys

Arthur Carrara was born in Chicago in 1914. Son of an Italian immigrant that worked in a clay manufacture that provided ornamental parts for the buildings designed by the famous north american architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Since he was a young boy Arthur manifested a very strong interest for architecture and, in 1931, he visited with his school class an exposition about Frank Lloyd Wright and attended to his famous lecture "To the Young Man in Architecture", delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later he would state that this lecture was one of the most important and determinant moment for his own professional life. Carrara began his studies in architecture and engineering at the University of Illinois and graduated in 1937. After the conclusion of his academic formation he worked a short period as drawer in the John van Bergen’s office, a Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborator.

During the World War II Carrara served in the army of United States of America in the Pacific Ocean area as topographer. He also was charged for the design of some logistical support buildings in Australia and in the Philippines.
In 1943, when he was in Australia, the local government demands to him the design for the Café Borranical, a very complex moving structure inserted in a botanical garden on the Yarra River cost, near Melbourne. This project represented the opportunity for the architect to experience some ideas about the application of hydraulics and magnetic systems in the buildings construction. The solution was a central plan that looks like a flower whose petals were platforms that, moving down and up, changed the building form increasing its surface.

In 1944, with the rank of Major in the army, was invited by the Philippines’s City Planning Commission to design the urban plan of Manila and Cebu. This two cities were bombed during the bigger urban battle of the Pacific war. 95% of Manila, at the time under japonese domain, was raised between 3rd February and 3rd March 1945 during a battle that was compared, for its violence, to the Warsaw destruction or to the Stalingrad battle.

In 1946 Carrara returned to Chicago where he opened an architectural office. He made several projects for houses, service buildings, expositions and designed some industrial products like furniture and lights. Later, the increasing workloads justified, in 1965, to open a second office in Buffalo in the state of New York. In his work it is possible to recognize both influences of Prairie Houses style by Frank Lloyd Wright, Modern Movement canons and some high-tech experiences.

Carrara arrived to the idea to adopt magnetism in building construction before the war period when he had thought about the possibility to create structural joins for metallic building that could be done by this system. However, given the weakness of the magnets at the time, this project never left the paper.

At the end of 1940 was found the Alnico, an iron alloy with Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt beyond other metals in smaller amount (the own name of the alloy is the combination of the main elements: Al, Ni, Co). This metal was discovered twenty years earlier during a military investigation looking for substitute electromagnets with permanent magnets. The magnetic field created by this alloy is so strong that it can support 1000 times its own weight; in this capability Carrara saw a really big potential to apply in his own projects.
So it is not really surprising that, in 1947, Carrara started a design of a toy that could show the power of magnetism and his possibilities for the architecture field. Having failed in the real building scale, Carrara decided to apply the magnetic technologies in a smaller scale, more specifically in a toy, a construction set for children.

The Magnet Master was desenvolved in a partnership between Arthur Carrara, his brother Reno and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was suggested, by the magazine Everyday Art Quarterly, as a toy for people of every age or intellectual conditions.

About the toy Carrara wrote, in the catalog of the exposition of 1960 at the Milwaukee Art Center: “Magnet Master grew out of my experiments with the new found magnetic and electromagnetic metals. Every idea of man is first employed as a toy or in a toy. Every scientific principle was at first presented in a toy form. Magnet Master grew out of a comprehensive study of man’s methods of fastening materials (...) joinery techniques. The uses inherent in Magnet Master for architecture and other fields are apparent. As a study method Magnet Master was first exhibited and manufactured with the tremendous encouragement and financial help of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which deserves the credit or whatever popular acceptance this adventure has received. The unit shown here has been distributed around the world, it is hoped with some good effect. It has been expanded as an architectural concept for the first time in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial”.

Sold in a lemon yellow box, the Magnet Master was made by a set of metal parts joinable by socket or by magnetism. It was possible to build tridimensional structures where the metallic junctions give an extremely lightness and elegance to the parts due to the almost dematerialization of the group. Moreover, the magnetic parts allowed that children could join, as a complement, any other piece like clips, springs, pins or even nails.

In the box there were no instructions because, as was written in its advertising brochure, “children are naturally imaginative and will derive greater pleasure and benefit when left to their own images and devices”. This idea was at the base of a promotional article published in the Look magazine of February 1949 where the famous painter Max Weber was photographed playing with Johnny, his own 11 years old son.
The toy was advertised in a lot of museums and educational institutions. There was a specimen in the children room in the Marcel Breuer prototype house built at the Moma in New York, in the exposition of 1949.

In 1960 Carrara participated in the competition for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial with a proposal based on the investigations that he was developing for the Magnet Master design. It was a pyramid whit a suspended sphere by a magnetic field.

Although it received a strong commercial support and be associated with some of the most important artist of the time, for the Magnet Masted never arrived a real commercial success. Anyway it remained for us a real example of architectural toy paradigm.

Anne Tyng, Louis Kahn and the toys

It is very funny browsing antique issues to see the real ingenuity of certain inventions and, among them, the toys invented for the children. For a contemporary look some are really incredibly dangerous and today it would be impossible even to produce something like that. One example is a series of toys produced by Guilbert that contained radioactive and poisonous substances. In another case I already found advertising of a toy that was a little submarine where children could enter and navigate in small rivers or lakes... or little cannons perfectly functioning, to show to your sons how the artillery works... just incredible.
During a “visit” to some old issues of the Popular Mechanics Magazine I found an article about a project for a large scale building set that allow to construct toys or even furniture. It was a set of cut plywood parts, very ingenious, with a very functional and simple slot system without screws, nails, bolts or nuts. It was the August 1950 issue and among the pictures there was one of the author of the “make-it-and-brake-it” (that was the name): Anne Tyng.

This was not a complete stranger name for me but I could not remember where or when I have heard it. Anyway also my eight years old daughters know that with a Google page infront of us there are no more secrets or doubts...
So after a quick search almost everything was clear: Anne Griswold Tyng was born in 1920 in the city of Lushan, in the Kingsi chinese province. She was an architect and professor known, among other things, for her struggle for the woman emancipation in the artistic profession field. Anne always advocated the importance of women moving from the role of muse to release her own creative power and potential.
As the fourth daughter of an american episcopal missionary, in 1938 Anne took the chance of a family travel to United States (due to her father’s sabbatical year) to stay definitely in that country. After a graduation at the Radcliffe College Anne Tyng was, in 1942. one of the first women to receive a master degree in Architecture at the Harvard University, Massachusetts. In this faculty she came to be Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer assistant.

After her academic formation Tyng keep working in the Konrad Wachsmann office in New York, in the Van Doren, Nowland and Schladermundt design office and at Knoll Associates. The facts of Anne Tyng was a woman who learned architecture and worked with some so famous architects and offices should give to her a great place in the modern architecture history, but the reason that made her really famous was what happen after 1945.

In 1945 Tyng moved to Philadelphia and started working in the Louis Kahn office. At the time Kahn has still a partnership with Oscar Stonoron and Anne participates in several projects including the Philadelphia master plan (1946-52). In 1947 Kahn dissolved the partnership with Storonov and Tyng continued working with him until 1964. At that time Anne was a beautiful and smart 27 years old woman and Louis Kahn, as it will be demonstrated some years later, never could be able to resist these arguments. During this period she worked in several Kahn’s projects and, furthermore, get involved in a loving relationship with the architects which arose their daughter Alexandra. But the “family” that Louis create with Anne was just one of three families that this architect created and maintained during his own life.

The collaboration between Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn is clearly visible in buildings as the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-53), the Philadelphia City Tower (1952-57) or the Trenton Bath House (1955-56); all them strongly characterized for the geometric accuracy, for the typological investigation as for the architectural composition and the structural solutions.

About the relationship between Anne and Louise I would be able to write much more, both was really especial and rare peoples and about the love that join the couple you can find much more information in the letters exchanged between 1953 and 1954. In this period Anne went to Rome, the city where their daughter Alexandra was born. There is a compilation of the letters that were published in 1997 by Anne Tyng where it is possible to read the 53 letters that Kahn wrote to her weakly talking about love, architecture politics or colleges and common friends. Instead of writing more I prefer the portrait of this man made by the great movie My Architect realized by one of his own sons, Nathaniel. This documentary try to explain what happened to this magnific architect that mysteriously died in 1974, totally broken and completely alone.

After leaving the Kahn office, Anne Tyng continued to investigate the relation between geometry and architecture. Moreover she wrote several articles about urbanism and about her experience as a worker woman in a context dominated by men. In 1968 she began to teach courses about the geometrical order and the human scale in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where she remained until 1995.

In a so intensive life the toys were forgotten but the author that passes to history for others reasons, at the time gained certain notoriety with them. If we pay some attention to the article published on the Popular Mechanics Magazine connecting it with the historical context, we can understand that, indeed, the toys were something really innovative. It would be possible to say that they are at the level of some other contemporary toys as the Eames’s toys or the António Vitali’s toys (a swiss toy designer). Totally made by cutted plywood boards, the toys have complex shapes that could be jointed to make several of different objects. At the time plywood was a really innovative material, like carbon fiber or kevlar are today. It was a material used in the construction of building, furniture or used, during the World War II, to construct ships or lending vehicles. Really resistant but, at the same time, flexible; lightweight but durable to the elements, plywood was one of the most promissory material of the time. Even Charles Eames, in the decade of 194o, began to design and to produce his own famous plywood chairs that are still for sale today.

Beyond the use of playhood, the idea that the child could easily and quickly change his own environment and his own objects is something that, at the time, was particularly innovative. It was innovative because was perfectly tuned with his contemporary philosophical movements that were preaching the need for a radical change in the teaching paradigms. In this context John Dewey (1859-1952), an american philosopher, was on of the main responsables for the introduction of the Pragmatism in the educational practices. He advocated that the child learn more through the action and less through the observation or the study of theory. Accordingly was not real trivial to give to a child a changeble or manipulable object (Charles Eames’s “The Toy” began to be produced ten years later). Furthermore, the geometrical complexity of the parts and of the possible combinations proved the will of the author for sensitize the child to a geometric and compositive knowledge through the play or, in general, thought the occupation or action. She felt this need due to the dual and rare (for the time) role she had: architect and mother.


Takefumi Aida – from the blocks to the houses

This is my first article written in English so, please, be tolerant. Sooner or later it would be happen because I received several requests form people that can not read portuguese language. I choose this specific article because its main subject is about a Japanese architect called Takefumi Aida. This architect was himself extremely helpful in my architectural toys investigations and I thought that it was my obligation to make an effort to turn the article comprehensible for him.
In the past I had already wrote about this architect in a post about the “Architectural design” review that published the results of a dolls house competition held in 1983. In fact Takefumi Aida was the second prize winner with a very interesting proposal of a dolls house made by elementary volumes like cubes, cylinders and pyramids. At that time I discovered that Aida designed a group of houses called “Toy Blocks Houses” where he adopted an architectural language based on the toy blocks in a larger size. So I thought that it would be interesting to know more about these houses and periodically I was searching more information in the internet without great results. In October I decided to try to write a mail directly to architect Aida; to my surprise he replied me soon and sent me several publications about the houses. So, here I am.

Until now, in the other posts, I used to talk about the influences that the architectural culture had in the childhood word. For me was important to observe and analyze the way that architects looked to the children and to the childhood along history.
In this specific case we face the opposite way process: the Aida’s houses show how the childhood culture (that is influenced by architectural culture) can, in its turn, influence an architectural design process. It is not the unique example (I remember the UNI-SET Corporation and its TV set design or the relation between the kites and the houses in the Charles Eames’s architecture, among others) but maybe this is the more obvious and clear of all them.

In a very interesting book that architect Aida wrote and send to me, he explains the narrative behind a quite extensive series of toy blocks project that include toys, dolls-houses and real houses. It was a mix between the revolutionary environment that he found in Paris in 1968 and a will to rescue the pleasure in architecture as an “important and integral part of human nature”. For Aida the japanese architecture of that period was empty of meaning and “too often simply an economic production”.
So, like most of the architects, he look for an intellectual and formal substructure that could feed his own design experience. He finds this substructure in the toy blocks because, as he said “architecture is produced within the framework of restrictions and conditions characteristics of an era, just as toy blocks are played within the framework of certain given condition”.
In the same text, further, Aida talk about the importance of the possibility that toy blocks have in the creative process and in the education. The reference to Roland Barthes is direct especially when we remember that the French philosopher wrote: “The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies very different learning of the world: then the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name, the actions he performs are not those of a user, but those of demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property: objects now act by themselves, they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand” (Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. 52.). Blocks as a complete free thinking tool and not as parts of a pre-built object or artifact.

Since 1974 Takefumi Aida designed a series of nine toy block houses, a dolls house and a wood toy, all based on the same geometrical roles derived from the toy blocks system. All the houses are based on elementary solids like cubes, cylinders prisms and parallelepipeds joined together avoiding penetrations or overlapping between them. The results are building that look like huge toys constructions.

Toy Blocks House I
During 15 years the design process became more and more sophisticated and complex. In the first house, the Toy Blocks House I, the scale of the blocks corresponds with the main parts of the building. The roof is clearly a simple triangle prism and the two volumes of the house are two parallelepipeds joined by cubes and more elementary solids. Also the forms are elementary and they remember the typical house archetype, something very simple like a child drawing or a generic house image idea.

Toy Blocks House III
In the successive houses Aida start to reduce the dimension and the scale of the parts. For example, in the Toy Blocks House III of 1981, except for the roof, the blocks no more correspond to the principal volumes of the house and the building looks more like an addition of small pieces. Moreover the blocks are painted with different colors to increase the perception of an amount and losing the perception of a unique solid. Windows and other technical elements like ventilation grids or chimney are inserted respecting the main geometrical role and improving the “blocks language”. The challenger go very far, the architect comes to put a rotated volume on the edge of the corner, that has no apparent utility, to empathize the perception of the blocks division and to reduce the scale of the building.

Toy Blocks House IV
In 1982, in the Toy Blocks House IV, Aida insert one more new element symbolized by a ruined concrete wall that look like a preexistence in the plot. It is like if the blocks had been placed in a box that, at a certain moment, was broken leaving his edges damaged and letting out several blocks. This trick also allows the creation of an exterior space that is, formally, an interior space and work as a patio for the house.

Toy Blocks HouseV
For designing the Toy Blocks House V and VI Takefumi Aida invented another challenge based on the Aida Blocks, a blocks toy set “intended to be an aid of understanding and composing architectural spaces”. So, in this case, the intention “was to explore the variations in houses that could be archived with these pieces”. As in all the other houses, also in these two exist a strong correspondence between the geometrical accuracy present in the exterior and in the interior of the building. All the spaces and the interior architectural elements like columns, pillars, windows, doors or walls meet the exterior rules. So, when you are inside the building, you fill as you would be in the interior of a blocks construction.

Toy Blocks HouseVII
In the design of the Toy Blocks House VII “the main theme (...) was to employ all the pieces of a toy block set to create architecture”. So the architect started from a very simple solid and, with a succession of cutting, slicing, sliding, moving and subtracting operations, he arrived to the final design. The resulted building contains the signs of the process visible in the different colors of the darker parts that symbolize the original box and the clearer parts that symbolize the blocks.

Toy Blocks HouseVIII
For the Toy Blocks House VIII the method is similar: starting from a cube and acting on it with a succession of geometrical operations, in this case including rotations, result a complex building with two apartments for two families. A cylindrical solid helps to organize the exterior space and makes the counterpoint with the right angles present in the main building. In this project the architect is also concerned with the large plot around the house and turns it in a meaningful part of the composition thought the separation of the main volume in a series of smaller volumes that surround the house and organize all the environment.
The Toy Blocks House IX is not a real house, it is the doll’s house about which I have already spoken in my other article. It would be easily a scale model to help the creation of a Toy Blocks House. The unique aspect that leaves me curious is the way the architect painted the blocks because it is very different from the white and gray tone used in the houses. Maybe the transferring process from the toys to architecture changed direction and he tried to represent the plaster’s surface in a small scale….

Toy Blocks House X
Finally, in 1984, Takefumi Aida designs the last Toy Blocks House, the tenth. Maybe the most complex among all the houses, the Toy Blocks House X contains parts with several different scales and geometries. The building is totally fragmented in several small and big cubes, prisms, cylinders and, in this case, also spheres. The result is a group of volumes that looks really as built by toy blocks because, apparently, there are no composition rules or fixed planes. Where one block is missed there is a window and the same volumetric game exists in the interior that is richly painted with strong colors and colored carpets.

I think that the Aida’s Toy Blocks Houses are a clear example about the possibility to see each building, or each architecture, as a sum of parts, as an union of several shapes. In his houses Aida turn this relation very evident and explicit building some pedagogical values. What is more interesting maybe is not the finally result but the methodological process that leads to the result. This is the main pedagogical value: to show how the building is created and designed, to show that exists a method, despite the quality of the method.

Aida, Takefumi. 1984. Tsumiki no ie. Tōkyō: Maruzen.
Aida, Takefumi. 1986. Space and concept. Contemporary 1. Architecture in Drawing. Nakagyoku Kyoto: Dohosha Publishing Co Ltd. 


Imagination Playground

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