ruminations about architecture and design

Saturday, April 21, 2018


Heroic Brutalism has been compared to some of the architecture from the Victorian era, which was regarded as a style of excess. Contemporary preservationists are urging for a more sensitive treatment of Brutalist buildings and at least one line of argument is plausible: fashions change, tastes change, styles change--and sometimes everything comes round again. Since architecture is subject to criticism on the basis of function and durability, however, the ability to protect Brutalist monuments is more difficult.

Some very excessive buildings from the 19th century continue to be preserved and reused. Memorial Hall at Harvard is a notable example. It is an impressive pile of interpretative Gothic detailing. The plan is an overt frame of a cathedral. And like a cathedral, it serves a diverse (even for Harvard) congregation--particularly at mealtimes.

Herein lies a lesson for preservationists--the building has to work. And at some fundamental levels, Brutalist buildings did not work. The most notable Brutalist architects, working in the best spirit of experimental Modernism, sought to create unique geometric experiences that broke with millenia of building practices. A bit more reinforced concrete, a bit more height, a bit more cantilever were the ingredients of magazine worthy Brutalism.

The Victorian era, which was revolutionary, made it possible for Richardson to engage in his own experiments. His most successful projects were deeply restrained, but as Hitchcock noted, he was the last traditionalist. There are some successful knock-offs, like this:

But, the decorated splendor of the 19th century would give way to an age of glass and steel. Brutalism, ultimately, was a dead end. Good for photographers.

Friday, April 13, 2018

where the hell did the news go

Now that the blood has been cleaned up there's not much interest in the general media about the Florida pedestrian bridge collapse. There are some possible lessons from this absence of follow-up, and more importantly about the challenges associated with designing and building anything, anywhere, for any purpose.

-Complexity kills. Changes to complex things are necessary, but should be approached with caution
-Redundancy should not be forsaken for an assumption that better computers can solve all problems
-It takes more time than anyone appreciates
-Nothing will ever be perfect

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

the age of abandonment

The often overlooked ingredient of successful preservation of historic architecture is neglect. The fewer cycles of repair and replacement undertaken by the owners of a building the more authentic it is.

This house is a bit past its prime, but it is a good window into the past. Although its probable that only the chimney is original, the significant age of the windows, trim, and siding speaks to owners who respected history.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

the age of loopholes

This double curved entry roof is an exceptional detail on an otherwise unexceptional house. Towers of ilium doubts that it is original. But, so what?

The recent fire at the Trump Tower in New York reveals something important about the evolution of building codes. At the time of its construction--1979--Fire Code regulations were fairly well advanced. However, residential occupancies in high rises were considered low risk, especially when compared to more public spaces like theaters and hospitals. Additionally, fire safety was still focused on the general robustness of the building structure, which was applied to skyscrapers regardless of use. We can imagine a young Donald Trump saying "Why the hell do we need to waste money on sprinklers?!" More significantly, if his design team was doing its job they would never have suggested that the client spend money on something that was not mandated by code.

So, we have one person dead, but the building is still standing. It is doubtful that the building owner will disrupt tenants and bring the sprinkler system in line with current code or best practices. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

grim tidings for giants

Aside from this picture of a slab of marble, this post will be devoid of architectural content. 
Some folks in large media outlets are starting to compare Facebook to MySpace. That Zuckerberg should eventually pass into history as an unknown is almost guaranteed. Let's hope he endows a professorship here and there--maybe a building at Harvard. If this blog survives ten more years, it may outlast at least one of the following:

-Cambridge Analytica (a cheap shot, yes)

That Google and Amazon are not on this list is a serious mistake. One or both them could be just as doomed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

a room full of dead men

At the center is Royal Barry Wills. To his right, his son Richard. Two other men are probably Robert Minot and Merton Barrows. The location of the office is uncertain, but it is not 8 Newbury Street.

Over 5000 houses were designed by these men. Their contribution to the landscape of New England is profound. The impact that Royal Barry Wills had on a generation of architects and builder is not something that can be easily measured, but his success was impressive. His legacy, at this point, is uncertain. As representatives of the Colonial Revival style their place in history is secure, but it is hard to reconcile their approach to architecture with current movements in residential design. Time is hard on architecture.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

false nostalgia and architecture

The most effective designs explicitly reference historical events or imagery that current users have no experience with. This doesn't make such references any less effective. In fact, by creating a link to long ago events the architecture gains a degree of significance that transcends the fussiness of authenticity. A particularly effective technique is to create an atmosphere where the user can pretend that they belonged to some bygone era--whether  decades gone by or millenia. The Greek temple is a very useful nostalgic device. Even playing old songs in a restaurant can make patrons feel that they're part of a cultural experience that warrants another glass of wine and that rich dessert.

Subtle gestures can be layered with forms and details that have no clear relationship. The more time periods are referenced, the broader the reach to the audience.