A Structurally Unsound Bridge

This year’s Architectural Dessert Masterpiece was inspired by a trip to Vermont where I explored 14 covered bridges within an hour’s drive of Rutland. I was surprised by the amount of variety in these bridges. Most were only wide enough for one car lane, but one was definitely made for two-way traffic and a couple had sidewalks incorporated. The colors and shapes varied from bridge to bridge. Some appeared to be based on a truss-type structure while at least one looked like it had an arch infrastructure. Ages also ranged from the 1830s (Taftsville Bridge) to 1970s (Quechee Bridge). You can view all 14 bridges in the slideshow below.

Sadly, shortly after construction, my covered bridge experienced a collapse. While the incident is still under investigation, an anonymous authority stated that the collapse is believed to have been trigged by a motorist exceeding the posted 5 mph speed limit.

I’m surprised that this is my first total collapse over the eight Architectural Dessert Masterpieces that I’ve created. My first, the Parthenon, experienced a partial collapse that actually made it look even more like the original. The next closest to disaster was the Marina Tower that merged into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The collapse highlighted several tips for future constructions. First, I confirmed that pretzels really do make excellent piers as I originally demonstrated in my Pittsburgh suspension bridge. Second, I learned that wheatless gingerbread still has the same (or similar) strength as traditional gingerbread as the roadbed remained secure throughout the disaster. Third, I found that wheatless gingerbread is more pliable than traditional gingerbread, which resulted in more warping when transferring the pieces to the baking sheet and during baking. However, the other side of the pliability is that it is easier to trim after baking than traditional gingerbread. If I use this recipe again, I will plan to make adjustments to the dimensions of the pieces post baking. I believe that will resolve the structural issues by creating straight edges that can support each other.

Vermont Covered Bridge Slideshow

The Igloo

For this year’s Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, I chose Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena for the subject mostly because of the pandemic. The travel restrictions of 2020 prevented me from finding an inspiring building while exploring a new place. The social distancing requirements meant that whatever I made I would have to eat myself. Earlier in the year, I found a granola bar recipe that actually sticks together, which inspired me to take another foray into domes. As December drew near and I put together the conditions of a single-serve dessert with a dome that had some relationship to the themes of the year, the Civic Arena was the obvious choice.

The result was a single-serve cake topped with a granola bar dome and frosted with cream cheese to keep the sugar content down. Once frosted it looked to me more like an igloo than the Civic Arena, but fortunately, the building’s nickname was the Igloo. So, it all worked out in the end.

Whether it will all work out in the end and for who are still open questions for the site of the Civic Arena. The Arena opened in 1961 as the central feature of the redevelopment of the Lower Hill neighborhood that had been deemed “blighted” and in need of “revitalization.” Intended as a cultural mecca housing the Pittsburgh opera company, hockey, and other uses under a retractable roof, it rarely lived up to its promises. In the end, it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots instead of a cultural park, the roof rarely opened, and the opera quickly found a different home more conducive to using sets that need support from the ceiling. For a time, the building did find success as a hockey arena and concert venue until it was deemed obsolete and a new arena was built. The Civic Arena was demolished 50 years after opening, paving the way for a new redevelopment of the Lower Hill to “revitalize” the area.

Architectural historian Franklin Toker describes the first redevelopment of the Lower Hill in his 1986 book Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait:

The reconstruction of the Lower Hill began in 1955 with $17 million in federal grants. In an area of 100 acres, 1,300 buildings housing 413 businesses and 8,000 residents (a majority of them black) were displaced in an attempt to extend the revitalization of the adjacent Golden Triangle. Even were one to overlook the devastating social impact of the Lower Hill redevelopment, its success could only be judged as minor. The new complex failed to graft on to the Golden Triangle because of the intrusion of the Crosstown Expressway and the misalignment of the street grids of the Golden Triangle and The Hill. Some bad luck also dogged the Lower Hill redevelopment, particularly the bankruptcy of William Zeckendorf, one of its major supporters, and the decision by the Heinz foundations to locate their new concert hall in the Triangle rather than on The Hill. But the major cause of its failure was the animosity between the developers and the black community. When that animosity boiled over as part of the nationwide racial riots of 1968, Pittsburgh’s dream of a cultural Acropolis on the Lower Hill ended. (234)

The second redevelopment started with restoring the street grid and building a CAP over the Crosstown Expressway. While it is easy to rebuild the roads, it will take a lot more to rebuild what was once “The Crossroads of the World” as the intersection of Wylie Ave and Fullerton Street was known prior to the first redevelopment, according to Mark Whittaker in Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.

My series of posts Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill is following the progress of this second redevelopment.


Want to see how my Architectural Dessert Masterpiece compares with the submissions in Pittsburgh’s 18th Annual Gingerbread Competition? Click here.


Previous Architectural Dessert Masterpieces:
Flying Cashews (Built December 2019)
Building the Bridge (Built December 2014)
Reaching for the Heights (Built December 2013)
Conquering the Dome (Built December 2012)
Gingerbread Blue Mosque (Built December 2011)
Parthenon Cake (Built December 2010)

Flying Cashews

The near fail of the Leaning Marina Tower of Chicago left me determined to prove that brownies could successfully be used to create an Architectural Dessert Masterpiece. All I needed was a subject.

Looking back on 2019, the most significant architectural moment for me was the fire of Notre Dame Cathedral. I felt gratitude that I had the opportunity in 2005 to see inside the cathedral from the vantage point of the organ loft; disappointment that all I really remember from the experience was how dark it was; curiosity about what they would do with the remaining structure (perhaps put a glass roof on it to increase the light?); and amazement that neither the cathedral nor Paris had experienced any major fires before in their centuries of existence.

The Great Fire of London in the 17th Century cleared the way for the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral. One third of Pittsburgh burned in 1845. According to legend, the Great Chicago Fire of the 1870s was started when a cow kicked over a lantern. This fire destroyed approximately 17,500 buildings. Paris, Texas, experienced three major fires between 1877 and 1916. Yet, Paris, France, remained unscathed by significant fires until 2019.

To commemorate the incident, I reached for my brownie pan, only to stop short at the challenge of creating the flying buttresses. While I believed that brownies were structurally sound enough to use as building blocks, I did not trust them to fly. In the spirit of the season, I briefly considered candy canes. However, their shape didn’t really match the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. I also hesitated to use candy as I have become more sugar conscious since my first Architectural Dessert Masterpiece. Sugary candy on top of sugar-heavy brownies seemed like a bad idea. I began to think I would have to give up on making Notre Dame as I didn’t have time for the meticulous, but safe process of designing and cutting out numerous pieces of gingerbread for the cathedral. Before I gave up completely, I walked the bulk foods aisle of the grocery store searching for inspiration. I found it between the candies and the grains. Nuts of all shapes, sizes, and flavors sparked my imagination. They go well with brownies and would counterbalance the sugar. I compared the shapes of the peanuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews and determined that cashews were made to fly.

After selecting my materials, there were several more moments of anxiety that my walls and towers would collapse. I am pleased to say that like the cathedral it was based on, my structure stood through the test of time (eight hours from construction to consumption).

IMG_20191224_160442

Building the Bridge

P1050352 - Copy (1024x768)

I’ve walked numerous bridges and yet I didn’t try building a bridge until my fifth Architectural Dessert Masterpiece.  After the near disaster of the skyscraper, this one succeeded beyond my best hopes.  With a deck made of shortbread, piers of pretzels, and a non-structural suspension system of wafers and Twizzlers, this one was so structurally sound that it was a challenge to split it into serving pieces.

Reaching for the Heights

 

After having tackled dome-making, I decided it was time to try a skyscraper.  The Marina Towers in Chicago fascinated me with their double uniqueness, which I decided to imitate in a dessert.  My brilliant idea for pulling this off was to make one large, thin brownie sheet, cut out circles, stack, and ice.  In theory, by far the easiest Architectural Dessert Masterpiece yet.  That theory overlooked the fact that brownies, like cakes, cupcakes, and other desserts, raise more in the middle than they do at the edges of the pan.  Cutting out the circles that had flat bottoms, but tilted tops, I thought I could stack them in a way to counterbalance the unevenness…I was still trying for a quick, easy masterpiece.

At first, it appeared I had succeeded, until I turned the cake around and found I had brought Pisa to Chicago…

Leaning Marina

P.S. Somehow it managed, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to stay upright until my friends arrived and helped me devour it.

Big Dam Bridge

Big Dam Bridge signThe name says it all. This bridge was built as the longest pedestrian- and bicycle-built bridge in the country spanning 4,226 feet across the Arkansas River, connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock. It is part of the Arkansas River Trail.

Big Dam Bridge

On a trip to Arkansas this winter, I discovered this bridge and naturally had to add it to my list of bridges I’ve walked across. The intention of my trip to Arkansas was to visit friends but also to get a break from the cold northern winter by heading south. When I bought my tickets in January, the Little Rock region was having 60 degree weather. A month later when I arrived, the high was 26.

View of Pinnacle Mountain from the Big Dam Bridge

View of Pinnacle Mountain from the Big Dam Bridge

View toward downtown Little Rock showing Rebsaman Park

View toward downtown Little Rock showing Rebsaman Park

By the time we reached the half-way point of the bridge, we were frozen stiff. The farther we got on the bridge the stronger the wind got, probably creating a wind chill factor closer to 20 degrees or less. After admiring the views from the midpoint for a minute, the cold and wind forced us to turn back toward the car.On the Big Dam Bridge

Top 10 Bridge Travel SitesWhile I didn’t make it all the way across, I can still say I’ve been on one of the Top 10 Bridge Travel Sites in the US. Now I just have to find the other 9 sites.

Conquering the Dome

St. Paul's Cathedral Cake

Shortly after facing the dilemma of how to create a dome for my Blue Mosque Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, I saw an gingerbread creation of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral which used rice crispy treats to form the shape of the domes of this cathedral.  I held onto this idea for almost a year in preparation for my Third Annual Architectural Dessert Masterpiece.

St Paul's Dome  St Paul's Cathedral

For this one, presented and eaten December 2012, I chose St. Paul’s Cathedral.  First, because it has the perfect dome for trying the rice crispy method.  Second, because St. Paul’s was a significant part of my trip to London earlier in the year.  I experienced a wonderful view of the City despite minor issues with heights and major issues with claustrophobia.  I successfully climbed to the top of St. Paul’s (at least as high as they allow tourists to go) and made it back down again.  The first flights of stairs to come back down were particularly challenging as they were very narrow and steep with very short ceilings–it reminded me of the first and last time I went caving as part of a school trip in 8th grade, where I somehow managed to crawl through impossibly small places.  The praise of my teacher, Mr. Wolfe, from that occasion was essential in helping me make it down the stairs at St. Paul’s.  Thanks, Mr. Wolfe, you were my hero this time!!

Top of the Dome Looking Down

In making my St. Paul’s Cathedral Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, the design was influenced by the memory of how long it took to create the Gingerbread Blue Mosque.  I determined to take a quicker route this time around by baking sheet cakes and cutting them out in the shape of St. Paul’s.  Again, I referred to my textbook from my Western Architecture course (see Parthenon Cake post) to determine what the appropriate proportions were in cutting out the shape of the Cathedral.  To approximate the proportions in height, I made a double layer cake, plus additional layers at the towers and dome.

Aerial St. Paul's Cathedral Cake

The dome was made using the rice crispy treat method, which ended up being much more challenging than I anticipated due to the stickiness of rice crispy treats.  It did not work to try and shape the dome in my hands.  I ended up using wax paper to form the shape, but found the rice crispies still stuck to the wax paper, but not as badly as to my hands.  Then, I frosted the whole creation, using chocolate frosting as an accent color to suggest the different color of the domes (including those on the front towers) from the rest of the building.  I also used the chocolate frosting to indicate the break in design from the lower and upper portions of the exterior walls.  Chocolate Crunch Bells were used for the small domes on the front towers.

This one was easy to cut like a normal cake for eating and tasted quite good.

Gingerbread Blue Mosque

Gingerbread Blue Mosque Blue Mosque

Figuring out how to design an accurate representation of the Parthenon out of cake and cookies (see post) was an intriguing task that set me on a new hobby of designing models of existing buildings out of deserts.  Beginning with my second Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, all my creations are based on buildings/structures that I have personally encountered in my urban explorations.

I created my second desert building in December 2011.  While eating the Parthenon the previous year, suggestions were put out about how to create other shapes and buildings such as using jello and creating round shapes.  I was particularly engaged by the idea of how to create a dome.  I had not figured out how to create a dome such as those on capital buildings in the US, but I thought I could create one that would be close to those on the mosques I visited in Istanbul.  I chose the Blue Mosque as a visually interesting structure that would require a diversity of desserts to create.

Gingerbread cookies seemed to be the best way to design the frame of the building given the variety of heights and shapes of the building.  I used sugar cookies for the larger domes and half domes.  I knew someone growing up who was able to create perfectly rounded sugar cookies, no matter how I try I have never been able to create the same effect.  My sugar cookies worked well for the medium-sized domes, but I had to put two cookies together for the larger domes.  M&Ms made great small domes–they were also the base unit that determined the scale of my model.  I think another reason why I chose to create a mosque was so I’d have an excuse to use the Pirouette cookies again, this time as minarets.  I love these cookies, but hardly ever get them.  Using my piping set, I was able to create pointed tops on the minarets and add balconies.

This was by far the most time-consuming Architectural Dessert Masterpiece to create (at least of the four I’ve made so far) because of having to design the required sizes and shapes for the gingerbread cookies and cutting them out and then also baking sugar cookies, which somehow always takes forever.  I also played with “whitewashing” the gingerbread walls, but the method I tried didn’t create the desired effect so I gave up on it.

Eating Architectural Dessert Masterpieces is also an interesting experience, as they often require creative thinking to destruct them.  With the Parthenon, I employed a karate-chop method for cutting through the wafers.  On the other hand, with the Blue Mosque a free-for-all of pulling it apart with your fingers seemed most appropriate.

Gingerbread Blue Mosque Blue Mosque

Parthenon Cake

Parthenon Cake

My hobby of creating Architectural Desert Masterpieces began about three years ago, when I was an AmeriCorps volunteer.  Searching for activities to do with my kindergartners in the after-school program, I somehow came across a recipe for making an Ancient Temple Cake.  While this was not at all feasible to do with my students, I thought it was an awesome idea and saved the recipe to try one day.

The following December, I decided it was time to try the Ancient Temple Cake.  By that point I was back in school and had taken a history of Western Architecture course, which included detailed discussions of ancient temples including the Parthenon.  When I pulled out the recipe, I decided it needed some improvements to make it a reasonable imitation of the Parthenon.  The directions were to bake a sheet cake, frost it, stick Pirouette cookies around the edge and top the Pirouettes with wafer cookies.  However, from my architecture course I knew that proportions were important as were the steps up to the temple.

I created a step to the temple but cutting off the edges, cutting them in half (height-wise) and reattaching the bottom halves to the cake body with frosting.  Then I added a number of Pirouette cookies based on the proportion of columns on the long and short sides of the Parthenon.  When I was done, I had a much better representation of the Parthenon in cake form than the recipe I started with.

Unfortunately, my cake temple aged rather quickly resulting in the collapse of the columns on one side.

Ruined Parthenon Cake