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Distracted by a building, the Kelsey Keith story

Ogle architectural wonders around the world with me

A colorful mural on the exterior of a building is surrounded by tall skyscrapers. A row of trucks are parked in the foreground.
Wandering the streets of Dallas.
Courtesy of Kelsey Keith

Welcome! I’ve recently returned from a honeymoon to Italy, where we ogled the architectural wonders of Rome before kicking back in Sicily—an island that’s no slouch in the classical ruins department. This trip wrapped up a summer of architecture travel and I thought that for this week, I’d detail some highlights. Plus, a very busy week on the web and your feedback on my sofa hunt. —Kelsey

Summer of architecture travel

A building slants, getting wider at the top. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and a brown, concrete exterior.
A tall red sculpture with five points jutting out stands in the middle of a lobby area. Small planters also fill the space.
A gold medallion fills most of the space of a marbled wall. Tall columns and a dark blue, nearly black, floor are also made of marble. Six chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

A 48-hour jaunt to Dallas (in order): Pal and Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster took me around town, and one of our first stops—naturally—was I.M. Pei’s iconic City Hall. This building is monolithic but still (improbably) human-scale, thanks to the interior atriums and slanted windows at the ends of the floor plates. Next stop, NorthPark Mall, a very much not-dead mall that sets a high bar for retail design: interior layout designed in part by Lawrence Halprin, anchored by a Kevin Roche-designed Neiman Marcus, all accented by pieces from the Nasher family’s private art collection. And oh, Texas, and your tribute to your own statehood: Fair Park is chockablock with built wonders, from the 1936 Hall of State (shown here) to grand plazas honoring automotive design, a small structure by William Lescaze, livestock yards, and a now-decrepit Hall of Science.

A bright red car is parked diagonally against a tree-lined, brick sidewalk. Three black cars are parked next to it.
A seating bench designed with different shades of green stands out in the middle of an all-brick building. There is one streetlight and minimal landscaping
Two all-glass buildings encase eight tall columns, three red and five blue.

Scenes from Columbus, Indiana (in order): A view of Washington Street, the main artery through this town of 50,000 residents. I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, which marks its 50th birthday this year, with a Frida Escobedo installation for Exhibit Columbus in the foreground. And just a little building I like to call the Centre Pompidou of Columbus—designed by Paul Kennon in 1978 in the High-Tech style.

On my radar: While in town for Exhibit Columbus 2019’s opening weekend, I got a peek at some Alexander Girard ephemera stored in the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (thanks to archivist Tricia Gilson!), followed by a peek at 301 Washington, a Girard-designed office for the town’s influential Cummins Foundation. I also geeked out over an excellent panel moderated by LA critic Mimi Zeiger, inside the modernist mecca First Christian Church (designed by Saarinen father and son), and LA-Mas’s bright and interactive public installation “Thank U, Next.”

Finally, I stopped at a new skate park in Columbus that was designed by Finnish skater/architect Janne Sario—a project spearheaded by locally based industrial designer Jonathan Nesci. (Some insider baseball: Jonathan learned about Janne through a 99 Percent Invisible episode produced by none other than Avery Trufelman. That story has now been updated, and you can listen here!)

A hand holds three cards.
A yellow door next to three equally-sized windows stands out in a room with a pointed ceiling and plants in the foreground.
Two low trees with some pink flowers are planted in front of a waterfall sculpture.

Some time for work and not-work in the Bay Area (in order): A summer in public transit: metro cards from D.C., New York, and San Francisco. My friend Sam Grawe, formerly of Dwell and Herman Miller, recently moved back to the Bay Area and lives in this sweet Eichler with a front door painted in my favorite color. And I really didn’t do much architouring in SF this time, but I’d never not take a snapshot of a serene public plaza.

A fountain with an arched detailing against a brick wall.
A woman with her back toward the camera looks out into architectural ruins.
A dark, domed ceiling made of concrete.

Two days in Rome (in order): Rome has drinking fountains aplenty, all stamped S.P.Q.R. (also the title of a great history of the empire that my husband’s been reading). Here I am, peeping the Forum—which contains a vast compendium of architectural ruins dating to every era of the Rome’s heyday—from the vantage point of Palatine Hill. And the Pantheon’s absolute marvel of a concrete dome ceiling, with its coffers that hardly look real.

On my radar: I know you can Wiki this, or pull out your architectural history 101 textbook, but allow me to gush about what is likely the best building in the Western architectural canon: the Pantheon. This edifice was completed in Rome in 125 A.D. under the rule of Hadrian, and at 1,894 years old, it still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. (Thanks in part to the coffers, shown above, which lighten the load, as well as modifying the concrete aggregate with less weighty raw materials as the dome reaches its apex.) The building’s entrance is positioned so that the 30-foot-wide oculus at the top—which is open to the sky—illuminates a metal grille above the massive entryway just so on April 21, which is celebrated as Rome’s birthday.

Other highlights included the Caravaggio paintings in San Luigi de’ Francesci, getting my broken purse strap fixed for 10 euros in about five minutes, Piazza di Pietra, fancy sunscreen from Santa Maria Novella, and Roman artichokes.

The sun shines down on an empty streetscape filled with balconies and tables.
A round overhang provides shade to three motorcycles on the street.

Gallivanting around Sicily, part one (in order): We fell hard for Noto, a town characterized by the porous limestone used for most of the buildings that literally glows around sunset. I can’t resist a teeny round canopy; can you? This one was plopped onto a sliver between two streets in Siracusa. And this freshwater reservoir in Ortigia, right against the town’s sea wall, has been used for thousands of years—Ovid wrote about it! The fluffy plants in the middle are papyrus, and this is one of the few places in Europe that the plant, native to Egypt and instrumental in spreading literacy because of its use for manuscripts, grows.

Remains of a temple with two concrete columns.
A brown church with an arched doorway and several columns.
A group of people stand on a platform, sunbathing and diving into the clear blue water below.

More Sicily (in order): One of two spots in Ortigia where you can see Doric columns, built by the Greeks for their temples, dating to the fifth century B.C. (Spot the other Doric beauties here.) The oh-so-Baroque San Giuseppe church in Ragusa Ibla, a town (re)built on a very steep hillside that you can only access by parking at the bottom, then climbing up winding stone stairs to the top. This last one is not just a vacation brag—although it’s that, too: I love how generous the public infrastructure is in Europe! There are free-entry sunbathing and diving platforms all around the perimeter of Ortigia so residents can take a dip in the sea.

On my radar: Two particular things of NOTE from NOTO, my new favorite city aside from Siracusa/Ortigia. I first read about Palazzo Castelluccio in T Magazine and had to visit it for myself. A French television producer bought the decrepit 105-room residence in 2011 and has totally restored it, from repainted frescos to Majolica tiles on the floor. It’s a pretty faithful recreation of how a moneyed Italian family would have lived 200 years ago, with the addition of the owner’s collection of antiques (a bed owned by Napoleon’s brother, whom he had installed as ruler of Sicily for a time) and ephemera (a wunderkammer room with taxidermy and cataloged insect species).

On the same block as the palazzo is a gorgeous homegoods store, Uainoto, which I highly recommend if you enjoy rustic-meets-modern ceramics, rugs, and furniture (a good chance, if you are reading this newsletter). I’m kicking myself that we didn’t bring a padded empty suitcase with us, or budget more time for antiquing in general, so I’ll have to tide myself over by ogling Uainoto’s Instagram feed until I have a chance to return.

A woman stands in front of an oval bathroom mirror with her cell phone covering her face. A wall sconce hangs above the mirror with three round bulbs against a simple white wallpaper with black etchings.
A close-up of an all-glass building with multiple walkways that form a geometric pattern. The building stands high with a group of trees below.
A man lies back on a blue hammock in a courtyard. He is looking at the building’s arches and columns.

Last but not least, it’s always good to return home to D.C. (in order): A peek at our bathroom wallpaper—whose installation I chronicled in an earlier dispatch—in its finished version. The sconce is from Shades of Light; the mirror is by Umbra. Washington’s height restrictions lead to a lot of middling office buildings with the same massing—not so for SHoP’s recently opened Midtown Center on L Street NW and 15th Street. Skybridges! And earlier this summer, designer David Rockwell toured me around Rockwell Group’s summer block party installation, Lawn, at the National Building Museum. The “grass”-covered platform is some 60 feet off the ground floor, allowing a closer look at the building’s signature giant interior columns.

Psst: You can follow along for more travel tidbits in real(ish) time via my Instagram stories.

Here’s what you said on the great sofa debate

Responses were mainly split between the Lulu & Georgia and West Elm sofas. Unfortunately, West Elm’s high delivery fees and questionable return policy ruled that one out, and in fact, we decided to back-burner this big decision. In the meantime, I’ll be considering your wise counsel:

“The West Elm Harmony has the lovely floating effects, but lose the armrest cushions.” —Barry

“Either the West Elm or the Blu Dot, depending on whether you need a little softening in the room or if your room needs a bit of tailoring.” —Maureen

“I think the Mariposa is less interesting when it’s not in yellow. I like the Lulu & Georgia one the best—it looks the least ‘big box store.’” —Jill

Blu Dot because I believe in One Bottom Cushion to Rule Them All (better naps, fewer places for crumbs to go). I’d worry a tiny bit about the hard armrests depending on how much couch-jumping you’re going to allow, but that’s probably an overly nervous nonparent’s mind at work. Yes, the gray combined with the simple lines is stark, but that’s what throws and pillows and art are for.” —Cindy

This week in tabs

  • This photo-driven piece chronicling summer block parties, from the New York Times Metro desk, is giving me pangs of missing NYC.
  • Hello, Shaker color influence! This (all too brief) home tour from Architectural Digest has my paint-color radar pinging like crazy.
  • Speaking of home tours: Cindy Adams’s tabloid-front-page-papered Park Avenue penthouse—as documented by Wendy Goodman for New York magazine—is “just this side of demented” in the best way possible. (To quote an equally enamored colleague.)
  • As New York City decides how to build a jail system to replace the Riker’s Island complex, the mayoral administration looks to Norway for humane examples of prison design.
  • Covering Climate Now is a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets, including Curbed, bringing attention to the climate crisis. Our team has published a ton of analysis on how climate change will affect our cities—and what actions you as an individual can take—while our local editors have been covering this week’s demonstrations. You’ll find much more via Twitter at #coveringclimatenow.

Shameless plug

I was thrilled to learn that one of the stories from last year’s California-Texas reporting project, written by Jennifer Swann on the garlic industry in Gilroy, California, was included in the anthology Best American Food Writing 2019, edited by Samin Nosrat (!).

Sign up to get Editor’s Notes directly in your inbox before everyone else. Every other week, you’ll hear from Curbed editor-in-chief Kelsey Keith as she shares her latest observations, intel, advice, and shopping recommendations.


Disclosure: Travel accommodations to and in Columbus, Indiana, for Exhibit Columbus was covered by that organization. As per Curbed’s ethics guidelines, coverage of sponsored press trips is not guaranteed, and all opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.