ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, December 30, 2010

ed glaeser on land use laws

That is a link to a very good piece by Ed Glaeser on how zoning regulations impact housing costs in the U.S. and why the "sun belt" states have cheaper places to live. Glaeser's research on zoning laws have revealed patterns to development that transcend some of the shrill political debates. I'm curious about the impact of septic design on the formulation of large lot zoning here in the Northeast. Prior to better regulations on sewage disposal, small houselots were more common--even after the automobile revolution took hold. Large lots, which I'll arbitrarily classify as greater than 20,000 s.f. are often the legal minimum in Boston area suburbs. This affords enough room for an individual septic system. Down south and out west, smaller lot sizes in very large subdivisions (on flat land, usually) depend on municipal water and sewage systems. Developers, who have to help finance the build-out of these systems reap the benefits of economies of scale and also take advantage of the more liberal zoning regulations.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

carpentry and economics

Recent article in the Boston Globe about possible structural unemployment in the carpentry trades. The profile had some anecdotes of carpenters in the Las Vegas area, but what was left out commentary was discussion of the the broad ranging effects of the housing bubble on, all professions in the building industry.
Trends do not look too good in the short term. I tend to take a supply side point of view to many parts of the problem, which is a bit uncharacteristic of my social leaning. Carpenters will suffer due to competition from unskilled laborers who bypass formal training routes. Architecture will suffer and benefit from the continued adoption of new software that renders laborious drafting obsolete. The only possible salvation will be an increase in the density of service and the concurrent expansion of building sophistication to respond to new concerns about architectural performance.
This is a sculpture by Maya Lin--fairly random, but I like to have pictures.

Monday, December 27, 2010

demographics, economics and destiny

When economists gather around the campfire to tell scary stories they always talk about Japan. With lowered voices and glances over their shoulders they describe how the people of that extraordinary archipelago rose to the heights of fiscal and social glory. They exported cars, computers, and machinery to the far corners of the globe. They achieved the highest life expectancy of any nation. They designed fabulous toilets.
And then, they got older. And they stopped having enough children. Now Japan is described by economists as on the brink of collapse. Its aging population will fade into the greyness of the hillsides and the cities of Japan will be hollowed out, demon-infested lairs ruled by aged motorcycle gang warlords who eat human flesh.....Growth will end. For the economists and the demographers this is the true end of all things. Growth of an economy, commensurate with an increase in population or otherwise, is the purpose of human existence. So Japan, with a declining population, and at the vanguard of several other developed nations like Germany and Britain, is held up as an object of fear, scorn and pity. A drop in population, according to the conventional wisdom, heralds the footsteps of doom. Has it occurred to economists that growth and improvement have been conflated? Is it possible that Japan, and other nations like it are entering a different stage of civilization that cannot be conveniently described by the current textbooks?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

the end of architecture

Well, the end of architecture in a complete sense is quite improbable in the immediate future. The end of the architecture in the picture here is a definite probability within the next few years. I doubt that this space will be missed by anyone. When it is demolished the concrete will be ground up and used for fill in some more useful application. What's curious is that this work of architecture--an unimpressive parking garage--will be replaced by another parking garage. We can assume that the new will be marginally better, and because it is marginally better, last a bit longer. But is that how success should be measured in a built work? If obsolescence is an inevitable quality then how much effort should be spent on making things just a little bit better? Will the "little bit better" actually discourage making the decision to make an improvement? Normally, such a philosophical dilemma is solved by the arbitrary budget established at the beginning of a project.

Friday, December 24, 2010

world population and its consequences

National Geographic had a pretty good article on world population. We now have about 7 billion people hanging out on this planet. We've spread out to quite a few different places, but we still have a tendency to cluster in lateral hives called cities that are usually next to bodies of water. Our habitats are distinguished by robust communication and transportation networks. We have more similarities than differences but still find reasons to kill each other with tragic frequency.
The issue of resource management is a deeply controversial and, because our measurement systems aren't as good as they should be, a thoroughly political issue. We have large amounts of essential resources like sunshine, air and water, but spend most of our time squabbling over things that have high margin extraction costs, like oil. People in the future will probably find our value system a bit unusual, but they'll be living in a paradise with a cheap solar power infrastructure that was built with the final dregs of hideously expensive fossil fuels.
Above is a picture of North Dakota. If Paul Ehrlich had spent some time there he might have had taken a more nuanced position in his book The Population Bomb.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

mark bradford at the boston ica

This is one of Mark Bradford's paintings, titled "Kryptonite."
He has an exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston and I feel obligated to advertise it. I haven't been to the show, but posters on the MBTA trains have been promoting it for more than a month.
His work feels deeply urban to me. He has been compared to Mondrian, but Bradford creates a deeper composition. It is as if he had been hired to create a map of a city and managed to document experiences instead of real estate and circulation. There is a sense of history and possibility inherent in his arrangements. But, on the other hand, it could just be pure abstraction with no external reference except to the dynamics of overlapping grid systems. A five year old could not do this.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

more beating up on las vegas

"Is there any?" was Frank Gehry's response when queried by a reporter about the state of architecture in that fabled desert city. Here is a picture of the Gehry designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Studies--which is an apt metaphor for how are brains gradually dissolve when assaulted by incredible diseases like Alzheimer's.

I came across an recent article in the Las Vegas Sun about the dilapidated state of architecture and development there. Things are pretty bad, but given the resilience of cities, a lot of what was built will probably end up being occupied someday--maybe. A lot people are going to have take some big haircuts, and some of the buildings aren't going to be pleasant to live in or to use, but it's there. The recent real estate bubble seemed like a speculative arms race, and in places like Las Vegas, where the gambling industry makes a living off of making people forget about mathematical principles, it's only natural that things were taken to the extreme.
I wonder if the real estate bubble of 2000 through 2008 (when did it end exactly?) is the biggest in history? I'm not sure if you can measure it effectively so that a meaningful comparison can be drawn. I think that construction delivery reached its highest level of productivity in the past decade and architecture became a true commodity for a brief period of time. China's RE bubble hasn't burst yet, and I'm wondering what form that will take. I also wonder to what extent the most dramatic information I read about--anecdotes of empty neighborhoods in Spain and haunted skyscrapers in Dubai--truly reflects how bad, or not bad, things are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

the D-Shack and Detroit

I encourage you to go to the website of and look at some of the photos of Detroit.
Now for the blog post--opposite is a picture of a house that Time magazine purchased in Detroit last year to serve as a platform for a variety of journalism assignments in its broad array of publications. They are leaving the house now, after immersing themselves in that most interesting American city.
I contend that they picked a house that is probably quite a bit nicer, and in a better neighborhood than what is representative of that besieged city. Wait, not besieged, for any army that would be inclined to attack would move through in despair, for there are no spoils to be found there. Architecturally, the phenomenon of Detroit marks a test of the viability of the low-density city typologogy. In contrast to L.A. it has not proved to be a success. I'm ambivalent about the need for centrality, and my attitude towards density skews favorable, so Detroit is a place that I want to know more about, but I'm not prepared to get my hands dirty. Probably tough to find work as a an architect there.

Friday, December 17, 2010

william mcdonough

This is Mcdonough and Partners NASA research laboratory, which is under construction at the moment.

McDonough is an architect I'm still trying to come to terms with. His book
Cradle to Cradle lays out a philosophy
that doesn't allow for compromise. "Being less bad is no good" is a statement that forces a thorough evaluation of every design strategy.

I'm worried that architecture is the wrong profession to lead the movement towards sustainability. Building stock turnover is incredibly slow, even in places like China, and renovations that are "less bad" tend to be the rule because of the resources available to a client. If renovation and/or new construction costs are raised too high it limits the incentive to do anything at all, or do things under the table.

In the meantime, I'll keep my compost heap going because I'm into that "waste as a nutrient" concept.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

more thoughts on reproduced art

Item #1: Rodin. I was using Sketchup today and thinking about how the Internet is a tool that subverts both individual and scalable labor. It is possible to download free, or relatively free, models of furniture, cars, trees, appliances, practically anything with 3-dimensional form. The quality varies, but due to the effort of people who build and upload models, the quantity is increasing daily. No one, as far as I can tell, gets compensated for it. Google sells some ad space, but in the grand scheme of things, certain classes of synthetic objects are being accumulated with no expectation of return.
So, back to Rodin. My understanding of his sculpture is that he, and/or his estate, made money selling castings, which although more difficult to mass produce than automobiles or sewing needles, were more similar to those common items than a Greek or Roman kouros. Rodin's efforts were being transmuted into a common item. Why can't we buy castings of his sculpture's in Wal-Mart? Why is quality still so elusive?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the perfect wall

This is a section drawing of the "perfect wall" which Joe Lstiburek of the Building Science Company has written about extensively. It combines the most important principles of building envelope management into one simple package. It leaves out the window, but we'll talk about that some other day.
The perfect wall refutes some intuitive thinking about building design--namely that the outermost surface should be the primary water barrier. By admitting that the outermost layer is an imperfect seal and moving the waterproofing to a more protected area inside the wall the whole assembly can function better. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this, but it's tough to argue with the empiricism or the theories. Stuff gets wet and it has to dry out and if you don't design and build with that in mind, then unhappiness results.
The perfect wall can be expensive to build, but building is always expensive, and if it saves on operating costs, then it's a good idea.

Monday, December 13, 2010

thoughts on the minnesota metrodome collapse

There is an entertaining video of the collapse from inside the stadium on a Fox News website. Structural failures that occur without the loss of life are generally entertaining; when someone is injured or killed it is entertaing and tragic. (I can't believe I
just wrote that.)
This is the fifth time in 29 years that the roof has failed due to weather conditions, which is not a very good track record. The building managers have to keep track of a sophisticated monitoring system and control the air pressure and temperature inside the building on a rather constant basis. I pity them, for their cause is a lost one. I happen to come from the school of thought that structural systems should be efficient, simple, robust, and not reliant on mechanical systems. I can imagine how the engineers and architects and clients sat around in meetings convincing themselves that this design approach for the stadium was a very good idea and that it would save a bundle of (taxpayer) money and everybody would live happily ever after.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

book review-Sunday edition

I just finished reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis. It chronicles the madness of the housing bubble and subprime crisis that precipitated the shakeup on Wall Street. It is told from the points of view of some investors who were shorting the various banks and companies who were leveraging themselves into oblivion.
It is a good book. I can't pretend to understand the arcana of CDS's, synthetic CDO's and tranching strategems. I don't think I was supposed to. A group of greedy fools lent borrowed money to other fools who had no chance of paying it back.
Behind it all is architecture. There were real buildings in there that people put together with the anticipation of using them someday. They were being valued in ways that defied common sense but they are real in a way that all the machinations of the bankers cannot overcome. That matters little now, it seems. The reality of architecture is merely a perception on the part of the beholder. The labor that put it together is lost to all time, and the sun and rain beat down as always. The men on Wall Street perhaps saw themselves as sorcerors, men of power, wielding a magic of financial instruments by which they could extract wealth from thin air. Faustus played with magic because he dreamt that it had power, but he never had power, it was ever a "dumb show" put on by Mephistopheles, biding his time until the payment on the contract came due.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

an inevitable union

In the course of my education over the past ten years I have been becoming gradually more aware of a certain unease in the structure of the "Green" movement. I have trouble defining this unease, although the strongest example I can think of is Henry Gifford's quixotic lawsuit against the U.S Green Building Council over the credibility of the LEED rating system. His challenge is not meant to undermine the philosophy behind LEED or the USGBC, but it may exacerbate vital relationships within the movement.
I will attempt to define the situation in terms of a dichotomy that relies on blatantly unfair generalizations: On one side there are engineering oriented, hippie-conservative types who tend to look at some of the basic math underlying human resource consumption and get justifiably scared at the possibility of a Big Crash happening sometime in the near future. They are deeply committed to changing things by applying the most cost-effective technology and methods, for above all, they abhor waste and gluttony.
On the other side are designer/architecture oriented types who have drawn similar conclusions about the condition of things, but are seeking to solve it with an application of new, in fact, undiscovered, technology and leveraging the marketing power of exceptional cases--like the latest LEED Platinum building or electric car to make others enthusiastic about the cause. Their optimism makes less room for the misery of budgets and cost benefit analysis and post occupancy evaluations. But, they have a more effective sales pitch.
These two groups must join in marriage--the pragmatism of the engineering types must be leveraged by the marketing and publicity abilities of the designer types. Both must keep up a barrage of information so that political forces and traditional customs are realigned. The age of cheap energy is nearing its end and with it, the gradual improvement of human lifestyles that has diffused itself across all cultures.

Friday, December 10, 2010

u.s. house size trends

Recent data from the U.S. census shows a slight decline in the average new house size, from around 2500 s.f. to 2400 s.f. In the late sixties and seventies, when home building peaked for the baby boom generation, houses were averaging around 1700 s.f. so the recent decline has to be viewed from the perspective of our entire housing stock, not just the exuberance of the past few decades. Anecdotally, we're observing clients who demonstrate an awareness of how much space they actually want, as opposed to looking at their new dwelling as a weapon in a positional arms race. Formal dining rooms are still being built, as are formal living rooms that are adjacent to informal family rooms. More importantly, not much is being built right now because of the large inventory of overpriced homes that are unoccupied. Predictions of an uptick in housing starts in the spring of next year leave this blogger feeling skeptical. Who can buy them? Who can get the financing to build them?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

thoughts on wikileaks and the idea of the internet

I realize that by commenting on this issue I will never get a job in the U.S. State Department. So it goes. The official reaction has been predictable and deplorable, and demonstrates a rather dim knowledge of how the information age actually works. Julian Assange is merely a convenient symptom of a phenomenon that is inevitable barring nuclear war and large power failures. I wonder if the guys who put together DARPAnet had any idea that random idiots like me would be able to post online journals with pirated images. Of course, I still need food and running water and a roof over my head, but those things are so far down the list on Maslow's hierarchy that most people don't even think about them anymore. The opportunity for self-actualization is what it is all about.
I digress. The Web is still in its infancy. I have trouble seeing how anyone who is in the hard information business will be able produce conventional media in the near future. The temptation for instantaneous and continuous editing will make the very concept of publishing dates, editions and timelines obsolete. Forensic information gathering will fall into the domain of sophisticated computer algorithms. Human judgment will be more appropriately reserved for arbitrary decision making and architectural flourishes. Just like the late 1500s.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

interesting house

This is a rendering of the "Toaster House" designed by Tempietto Homes. It features panelized, energy efficient construction and a rather unique, perhaps Venturiesque, floor plan with modern detailing.
Pre-fabricated architecture offers theoretical advantages and has been touted as far back as the late 1800's. Even before that, many timberframe buildings, including tythe barns in England, featured shop built structural systems. The nadir of pre-fab was put on display following Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of FEMA trailers proved to be practically uninhabitable.
I was educated in the stick-built lumber tradition and I have a bias towards it as an assembly method. The geometric possibilities are less constrained and the efficiencies that can be realized with on-site construction are highly competitive--particularly since the factory space has no overhead associated with it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

sidewalks are a very good idea

Sidewalks are an architectural element that I regard as having only positive attributes. The lack of sidewalks is one of the clear signs of poor planning, idiotic value engineering, or misguided thinking. In rural areas, they may not be necessary or feasible, but as soon as population density increases to more than one rabbit hole per acre they become absolutely indispensable. A good test of the general level of infrastructure quality in a town or city can be accomplished by a brief survey of sidewalks. Most places around Boston get a grade of C, in my opinion.
A sidewalk can never be too wide. At some point, when its width exceeds sixteen feet or so it may be necessary to re-label it as a park, but that's just a semantic issue.
I also favor concrete for a surfacing material. It has a very good track record, although I am intrigued by recycled rubber pavers.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ride in triumph through here

Architecture shall always be an art masquerading as a craft. Of it shall always be a craft striving towards art. At least it shall never be a rigorous, scientific process, although some people will succeed in making parts of it appear to be like that.
We live in an age obsessed with measurements, but the value of good architecture, and the negative impact of bad design, will always resist quantification.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

architects are disciples of ayn rand

How I love polarity and contradiction. See the last post for another point of view.
Ayn Rand glorified the builder, the engineer, the designer--the creator of things that improved human life. She was often misinformed, but always, or nearly always, sincere in her application of ideas about how the world could be made a better place for people. She had personal experience with conditions where individual property and freedom were trampled on in the name of a collective good. She valued inequality and idolized the (male) desire to outreach and excel. For her, not everyone deserved a prize for showing up.
I did not enter this profession because of Howard Roark, and my overall assessment of Rand is rather harsh. I reserve harsher critique for those who blindly idolize her and her work, hanging on every word as though it were the final pronouncement of Truth, beyond reproach or debate.
Her philosophy is most applicable to the practice of architecture in those rare, but essential moments where the designer sits down and draws the sketch that creates the center of gravity for the rest of the project. There is also the moment, even more rare, when the designer has to walk away from a project because his or her values are being compromised in a way that is completely unacceptable.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

architects are communists

I'm going out on a limb with this post, but this has been on my mind for a few years. Architecture, despite occasionally being an individual, artistic pursuit, is ultimately an activity with broad social impact. This impact can be measured in economic terms that go beyond mere currency. On most occasions, a building will outlive its original investors and users. Even before this amortization is complete, it is in the public domain as a capital good that has the potential to accrue value that is proportionally greater than its upkeep costs. Consequently, it is in everyone's best interest to have a sense of the capital value that is conferred by a building.
A skyscraper in a city is more than an egocentric statement by a developer or corporation. It represents the possibility of continued improvements in the lives of workers who occupy the same neighborhood or participated in its construction. Its shadow is an externality for property owners around it and its footprint is an opportunity cost for different things that might have been built with the same resources nearby.
No building project can occur in a social vacuum. Since it always an act of the community, the community, in some measure, owns the outcome and should have a say in its form, content and ultimate fate.
Side note: Jim Chanos is predicting the eventual collapse of the Chinese residential real estate market. I agree with him, and I'm encouraged that someone in the investment community is willing to take the risk of shorting the speculative bubble that is developing there.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

a good sustainable building (we hope)

This is the newly completed Research Support Facility building on the Colorado campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It may have a claim to being a net-zero energy building thanks to a holistic design approach undertaken by architecture firm RNL, Haselden construction and Stantec engineering. I often take a skeptical point of view towards some of the trends in the green building movement. This project, which is going for LEED Platinum certification, dispels some of my cynicism. They did a lot of things right here, including limiting the depth of floorplates, orienting the building along an east-west axis, limiting glazing area and paying careful attention to envelope design and ventilation systems. I think it looks good as well--the angled roofs and buff colors blend in nicely with the sublime austerity of the Rocky Mountains. Strict energy management and PV arrays on the roof may help this structure achieve the goal of producing as much energy as it consumes over a typical year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

in rio

This is an image of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Because I have the perspective of only looking at photographs or movies I can entertain the notion that this is a beautiful place. I could even wax poetic about the value of vernacular, organic architecture.
For some people this is hell, and for some people, it may be a perfectly fine place to live. I am sure that the perception can change in a moment for either type of person.
The way that the dwellings cascade down the hillsides reminds me of some parts of Boston. The construction quality and the underlying infrastructure is probably vastly different. I probably won't go down to Rio, but then again, I just might.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

hammurabi appreciation post

This is a stone tablet that purportedly depicts Hammurabi. The inscriptions on the stone are his code of laws, which among other things, outlines some very basic building codes. There aren't many of them, because times were simpler, and they demonstrate a rigorous mathematical simplicity in their application. If you are a builder and a house you have constructed collapses and kills the owner, then you are put to death. If the collapse also kills the owner's son, then your son is killed also. (I don't think the law mentions daughters)
It's a bit harsh, but I like to imagine it was effective. Hammurabi's building code is a performance based code--it doesn't specify methods or materials, it only specifies results. More accurately, it spells out punishments if acceptable results are not achieved. Modern codes tend to be a mixture of performance and prescriptive measures. Certain materials are identified and prohibited, assembly methods are detailed, spatial relationships and proportions are given fixed values. The evolution of codes is reflected in the great safety associated with modern buildings. It is a price of blood, and I would like to think that in the future, the more critical life and safety issues have been resolved. Codes of the future will not be, cannot be, stone tablets or paper documents--they should be instead interactive online media that are being constantly updated and improved. A baseline code will cease to exist for many construction systems. Taking its place will be forums for ideas that will be organized by geography and culture.
That would blow Hammurabi's mind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

lifestyle centers

This is a lifestyle center--which can be distinguished from a shopping center by the fact that its primary parking lot is surrounded by stores instead of merely fronting them. The advantage to this layout is that the main artery is not as visible and the shopping experience is marginally more pleasant. I'm not being entirely fair here, because a holistic approach to lifestyle centers includes nearby housing. This gives the design some New Urbanist credentials, which are further enhanced by more eclectic storefront designs than would be found in your garden variety strip mall. I'm not entirely convinced by the whole ensemble, but I appreciate the extra effort that was put into this place. A friend who visited the place remarked that they would work better in a warmer climate. I'd venture to say that the high rents will tend to discourage diverse, and non-chain enterprises.
Michael Blanchard took this photograph.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

interesting looking tree

This is an interesting looking tree. It is also the best introduction I can think of on the topic of architectural criticism. My thoughts on this are scattered, so pay attention to the picture of the tree, frozen in time, with a backdrop of perfectly blue sky, and pause to appreciate that absent a really bad series of events this image will be preserved by Google for eternity.
Criticism is the most important part of the architectural design process. The harshest critiques must come from the designer most responsible for producing the images and other documents that translate the effort into a built project. The designer must also seek out criticism from others during all points of the design process, because an individual cannot know everything about a particular problem and the insights of peers and passersby always have the potential to enrich the work. The designer needs occasional solitary moments, but must resist extending these periods and run the risk of alienating the work from the broader society.
Architectural criticism, in the popular press, always amounts to closing the barn door after the horse has run off. "Only time will tell" is the most valuable statement the post-facto critic can make after reviewing or experiencing a work of architecture. "People will grow to love it" is the stupidest thing than can be said by a critic or apologist after some ghastly, overwrought and ego driven design is foisted off as a great work. At any point in time, the architecture is subject to a "taste test"--the initial impression of a new user--which is the most honest and effective assessment of the value of the work at hand. The user may experience a feeling, or combination of feelings, some contradictory, ranging from delight, awe, annoyance, indifference, and contempt. The reaction of indifference and contempt are legitimate and represent a failing on the part of the architect to design the building well. No excuses should be made for the education, cultural background, age or gender of the user. Their feelings, sensual and unexplainable, are a legitimate judgment.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

death of a salesman stage set

This is the first time I've posted something that I've designed. Hooray.
This an image from a Sketchup model of a potential stage set for a high school performance of the iconic Arthur Miller play. The author's directions are quite specific and I'm trying to stay faithful to them. My only design contributions are the house "frames" that flank the primary
action areas.
I'm very much interested in comments from anyone as to the effectiveness of this design. I have no experience with this type of architecture--although some projects I've worked on in real life have had a rather short lifespan (fire, demolition, client changes mind....).

Friday, November 26, 2010

the third place?

An interesting article at Freakonomics blog about American attitudes towards commute times. Some research done by scholars at U.C. Davis discovers that people prefer a commute time, as defined as the trip between home and work, of greater than zero.
Contemporary lifestyles, i.e. for the past hundred years or so, have reinforced the distinction between home-place and work-place. Distance can reinforce this separation in a positive way. Architects have sometimes focused on the "third place" which constitutes spaces that are distinct and separate from work and home. These third places can take the form of churches, social clubs, bars, gyms, schools and brothels. The specific activity at the third place can be banal or profound, as its power lies in its status as a refuge or retreat from home and work. This research on commute time demonstrates that the time and place spent in a vehicle is a potent and common third place that is probably more prevalent than the common architectural areas that I listed above.
The American road story, and travel stories that reach back into antiquity, point to the powerful effect of movement on our little minds. The space of change is a place that we desire--in some amount.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

predicting the future

Nassim Taleb, economist and author of The Black Swan has ventured to make some predictions about the future in a short article in the Economist. The link is here: Can't make the URL stick, so you'll have to take my word for it.

I only agree with one of his predictions--which is that many things we are using now will still be in use. He is probably wrong about all the other things. The world in 2036 or 2020 or 2061 will be different from this world in ways that we cannot imagine or predict. That is the way the future works (or happens, because the future does not work or take vacations or respond to plans). Architecture will contine to suffer from its typical obsession with "new" stuff that looks shiny, but the majority of architectural design will (still) be in renovations and retrofits. I hope that I'm still working in the profession, but I don't want to make any predictions about the future today because I don't feel like making a fool of myself. Maybe tomorrow I'll make some predictions.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

in praise of partially built architecture

Item: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which is entering its 128th year of construction, which makes it a well managed project by Gothic Cathedral standards. A recent article in National Geographic does a good job of bringing the work into focus.
I prefer it unfinished--it's maybe the Italian in me, but a work in progress has so much more vitality than a complete building. Built works are an illusion that is necessary to placate donors and specific client groups. The contractor and lenders can't close their books until they have that legal fiction of being finished. The occupants and users of architecture know that everything is still in motion. A light fixture needs to be installed, a desk near the door needs to be refinished, a piece of sculpture is planned for a hallway near the courtyard, a new paint color will bring the third floor office to life. The list goes on. People go on. The building exists as a platform for activity. It is the dinner set for the meal.
Besides, I think that Gaudi's final design is too cluttered with towers. And, because I can be peevish about it, I think that our modern detailing doesn't have the panache of the old stuff. They're being to cautious and too neat. An organic building has to display a certain roughness and craziness in my opinion.

Monday, November 22, 2010

architecture movies

This is a mercifully short post, because I only have a few films that I classify as "architecture movies". At the top of the list is Metropolis, and following in unranked order is Blade Runner, Gattaca, The Truman Show, Full Metal Jacket, Akira, and Robocop.
My criteria for inclusion is rather particular: Architectural space is used like an active character in the story of the film. Blade Runner has an opening scene that steals the entire movie. The unreal Los Angeles of the future explodes on the screen in model-terrific glory. Blade Runner was extensively copied by Ghost in the Shell several decades later. Metropolis, of course, is the Ur-text of the constructed fantasy landscape of a dystopian future and no science fiction film that I can think avoids making a reference to it.
Kubrick is slightly more complicated. I had an instructor at the BAC, Ariel Brain, who used Full Metal Jacket to explain how the movie uses strong axial shots in the first half of the film that are juxtaposed with the more fluid (and Asian) framed vista shots of the second half.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

carbon neutral, net zero and sustainable

Well, here it is: the long awaited, much heralded, carefully planned, best green architecture prototype ever. This is the standard we have to match if we want true sustainable buildings. The only thing with less embodied energy is a cave, and since caves are accidental, "found" architecture, they can't serve as a good, inspirational model.

I worry that the standard implied by "net-zero" is unachievable. Modern buildings and modern lifestyles are consumption driven and thermodynamic principles conspire against the viability of an absolutely resource neutral structure. By setting the standard so high we tend to ignore the marginal, and often subtle, improvements that have moved architecture forward. The most recent example that comes to mind is furnaces--some modern gas-fired systems have a rated efficiency of 97%. We've hit the upper boundary for that part of the heating system. Insulation standards for building envelopes are improving. In fact, we may be making the big jump to exterior dominated systems, which will mark a significant improvement over the current cavity method.
The net-zero standard for buildings is an incredible long-term goal. It may be achieved before world peace, the end of poverty, and a consistently dominant Red Sox team. In the mean time we should be focused on more incremental improvements. The auto industry cannot build a car that goes a thousand miles on a gallon of gasoline and no architect can design a modern building that beats an igloo.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

not an easily solved problem

I read in the local paper that an interactive video game is being designed for people who live along this street. It is intended to improve community relations and to serve as a forum for ideas about what can be done in the future to make the neighborhood a better place to live.
I'll retain some optimism for this approach, but I'm not sure that a computer game will be able to influence a profound physical transformation. The brick wall that runs along this street has a noisy rail line on the other side of it and that will have a negative impact on the community until something is done to mitigate it. I noticed that trains run quietly in Britain. What do they know that we don't?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the world moved on

This is a photograph of the Old Armory on Commonwealth Ave. that had been repurposed to house the indoor track of Boston University. I have hardly any memory of this facade of the building. The times that I visited it were always in the winter and I knew it then as a vast, dingy cavern filled with track athletes, coaches, and the occasional spectator.
I had little reason to go out to street to admire its architecture, and even if I had, it probably would have been too dark to see anything.
I remember taking the train past one day shortly after it had been torn down. I recall being amused. I think the building was used well. Its renovation costs were trumped by its real estate value to Boston University. That's what happens to buildings in a city.

Monday, November 15, 2010

kotkin and florida

Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida are two urban theorists who have some diverging viewpoints about the landscape of modern culture. Florida is a big fan of cities like Boston, because he sees a strong entreprenurial infrastructure that can promote economic improvement beyond its borders. Kotkin is a big fan of cities like Houston, because he sees a business friendly melting pot with strong growth potential.
Although they sometimes draw different conclusions about the impact of demographics and land use patterns, they share a methodology that marks a refreshing change from some of the great urban visionaries of the early 20th century. Planners and architects once thought that they had the power to dictate development patterns and lifestyle choices. The New Urbanists are perhaps the unwilling heirs to this mode of thinking. Kotkin and Florida make pronouncements about the future based on patterns that they see in the present. Their projections occasionally have the air of inevitability, but they have to keep up appearances.
This is an image of the Broadacre City plan conceived by Wright.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

H.H. Richardson appreciation post

I believe there's a value to heroic figures. In architecture, H.H. Richardson, deserves that title with no qualifiers. For his time, and the places he practiced, he set a standard that could not be matched. It took deeper shifts and changes in the development of building types to elevate the works of others to the level he achieved with such apparent ease.
This is the Crane Library in Quincy, Massachusetts. It is the best piece of architecture in the city, and probably always will be, regardless of category. It is aided by a landscaping plan that a fellow 19th century genius, F.L. Olmsted, was responsible for. (So I've been told, or I recall reading somewhere).
One of Richardson's talents was an understanding of the power that can come from asymmetrical organization. I like to think that he drew his inspiration from the vernacular New England architecture that surrounded him. His cause was also aided by some local craftsmen who understood what he was looking for. Nowadays, a building like this would require exhaustive detailing and still turn out looking messed up.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

a modest prediction

The new wing at the MFA in Boston is now open--well, not officially to the general public until next weekend, but this is an important event. The expansion, designed by Norman Foster creates exhibit space for the museum's extensive collection of American artifacts. This is a good thing.
This is also the moment that I predict marks the end of the great museum building boom that began in the 90's and had considerable momentum going into the financial crisis/depression/recession. I contend that museum spaces are now officially overbuilt and that there won't be another major surge for a few decades. Perhaps this is a good thing. Architects can now focus attention on other, possibly less glamorous, building types.

Friday, November 12, 2010

thoughts on the ark hotel

There's a video circulating the Internet that shows a Chinese hotel being erected in six days. On more than one occasion, architects have ventured into the realm of mass production for buildings and much thought and print has been devoted to the idea that all buildings could benefit from mass production strategies. The Ark Hotel project reinforces the myth that a large scale object can actually be built at great speed and that these techniques can be transferred to the AEC industry. Indeed, there are exceptions that prove the rule, but the great efficiencies that can be applied to Ipods and automobiles will probably elude architecture for the forseeable future. (What a term--"the forseeable future"--it's an invitation for a Black Swan)

The Ark Hotel video conceals the planning process, the meetings, the time spent in the factory, the transport of the building panels, and most significantly, the changes to the design that were driven by the need to have the building spaces conform to the construction process. Customization has ever been the hallmark of architecture. My profession specializes in one-offs. Labor inputs per unit of area have always had, and always will have an impact on perceived quality. Sitework is always site specific, and buildings are as well.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

today's post sponsored by fitchburg tourism board

I wish that I took more of my own photographs, because this is not the picture that I think really captures Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
The story is familiar--an old mill town in New England that has an uncertain future, hidden sources of vitality, and some astonishing architecture. The variety of old factory buildings, all of which are crammed against the river, speaks of massive human investment. It's in rough shape now. The United States is resource rich in so many areas that we take things for granted. Every brick in every building was touched by a human hand at least a dozen times. Now, some of those buildings could collapse in a fire and their ruins could go untouched for centuries, or forever. I like to think that the resources of Fitchburg will be appreciated--no, more than appreciated--that someone will take advantage of the value stored there.
We'll see.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

beating the press

The Boston Metro--a mostly daily, free paper, reported that the Big Dig was the most expensive public works project ever in the U.S. They were partly right, but mostly wrong. The U.S. Interstate Highway System, of which the Big Dig is a small part, is regarded as the most expensive public works infrastructure project in this country.
Our primitive little minds tend to be overwhelmed by large numbers, so the costs associated with the Big Dig make some people get all riled up. Granted, several hundred million dollars per lane mile does not seem very efficient, especially when compared with construction costs for a highway that connects Omaha with Topeka. The point we tend to miss is that the costs of projects like these can yield benefits that exceed their initial investment by a hundred-fold or more. Some of these benefits resist calculation--like being able to walk from Quincy Market to the North End without passing under an elevated highway.
I contend that they should replace the Cross Bronx Expressway with a tunnel. Why not? We don't build pyramids or cathedrals anymore.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

church in U.K.

When I took this photo there were a group of youths sneaking some beers in a doorway of this church. Prodigal sons.
I've read about some different origin stories about the formation of permanent, human settlements. Conventional wisdom holds that agriculture, with its land intensive requirements was the main driver of people settling down and building cities. More sophisticated researchers are pointing out how spiritual customs and religious rituals were a major organizing force. People started to build cities and architecture as a tribute to gods.
The architectural record supports this story. Groups of humans have spent incredible resources to build a home for their gods, or for a dead king, at the apparent expense of higher quality shelter for themselves. I'll advance the idea that people's devotion to lavishing a disproportionate share of labor and materials on spiritual architecture was the simplest thing to do at the time. The needs and desires of a deity are unknowable and infinite. The needs of humans can be more easily be satisfied, and in the context of societies that hadn't yet designed the distractions that we now regard as so important (like blogs), these needs had a natural limit. Consequently, a huge temple was a good idea because it justified exhaustive resources and absorbed surplus labor and materials in a society.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

advocating driverless cars

A recent event has reinforced my belief that driverless cars are a very good idea. The 100+ year tenure of people operating automobiles has demonstrated quite convincingly that we are no good at it. In fact, we are distinctly unqualified to maneuver a ton of metal down a road at high speed, or any speed at all for that matter. Computer controlled cars will do a much better job and we will be a happier species as a result.
Architects have had, and continue to have, a difficult relationship with automobiles. They used to be considered an unequivocal good and many designers embraced the aesthetic consequences of car-dependent culture. Nowadays, walkable communities, telecommuting, and public transportation are held in much higher regard. But, the car is here to stay. Human drivers are a definite liability, however. The change towards robotic cars will be encouraged by insurance companies that will grow tired of underwriting the incompetence of human operators.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

where is this?

This is an old mill building located somewhere near Thompson, Connecticutt. I was there purely by chance several years ago and had the foresight to take this photograph.
I have no idea exactly where it is, and wish that I did.
It is probably one of the most magnificent structures that nobody knows about. Huge, too. The Colt's Plastic Company used to be located here.
Much has been written about the legacy of old American factory buildings. The habit of preserving them by turning them into housing or retail or offices is a good one. Although they are a limited resource there are quite a few, like this, that languish, and are one bad accident away from complete obliteration. Sometimes there lack of use, or under-use, is a function of the fact that the world has moved on. I hope someone finds a way to make this place move back into the world. Maybe it already has.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

that was modernism

You rarely find photos of the interiors of buildings like these. It's a bias in the representation of architecture that has serious consequences. In small part it is due to the difficulties involved with photographing interior spaces. Even accounting for that, the exterior of buildings, and frequently a few favored sides, account for the dominant exposure of the architecture.
Moreover, in modern buildings, once you leave the lobby, the experience of the interior is hardly recorded. The users probably don't mind, and may not want photographs that serve as a reminder of their place of toil. I'd be interested in seeing what a typical office in this building looked like--probably something as banal as Dilbert's cubicle farm.
This was the World Trade Center, by the way.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

frank lloyd wright special edition

Huff Post had one of their typical "top ten lists" on Frank Lloyd Wright (they actually featured over twenty projects). They left out the Marin County Civic Center, pictured here. I haven't mentioned Wright by name since I started this blog. His connection to architecture is like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west--a fairly reliable phenomenon. As an innovative designer, I think that he is unmatched. As an architect who established precedents I think that he set standards that are impossible for others to follow.
Speaking of precedents, here is the precedent for the Civic Center design, courtesy of some unknown Roman engineer.
Wright was a good student of history, but his technical innovations tended to backfire--the structural failures of Fallingwater have been well documented and debated. In terms of influence on American architecture that impacts our everyday life, I don't hold him in high regard. Corbusier built less here, but had more influence, probably because his ideas were more easily imitated. Wright was a great advocate of suburban expansion, but his aesthetic contributions are distinguished by their rarity. And, after all, to be an advocate of inevitability is not much of an accomplishment.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the real ilium

In honor of Kit Marlowe and National Geographic, here is the real Troy.
Things never were the way they were.
I wonder how much of that ancient story is true and how much was made up after the fact. I doubt that Helen was the cause of the strife and I'm not impressed with the way in which those ancient storytellers used a woman as a source of aggression. (The same theme was played out in several movies from Weimar Germany)
The ancient Greeks have been accorded a special place--too special--in the order of Western architecture. Their influence has been invented to a large extent by the Romans who admired them and then later by the Renaissance artists.
Marlowe and Shakespeare were prone to exaggeration, and while there is Homeric reference and archaeological evidence for a great tower along a portion of the walls of the ancient city, it certainly wasn't topless. But the Ilium of Dr. Faustus is no less real to us and I like to think that was on the minds of the people who planned and built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Monday, November 1, 2010

north korea again (or so I've been told)

From a link at the Marginal Revolution Blog--a series of images of North Korean artwork.
This happened to be the most architectural looking painting so I'll use it as the basis for all of my sweeping generalizations.
I do not understand North Korea and doubt that anyone else does either. I predict that things there will end poorly, and that they will persist for a longer period of time than seems reasonable.
This image, which seems to depict an attractive and relatively calm urban streetscape, is probably even more of an illusion than if it were depicting some place in Boston (to which it bears a remarakable resemblance). Does the lack of cars signify anything? Can the rain be interpreted as a criticism of the state? Are the puddles in the road a commentary on poor engineering?
A legitimate art historian could probably ask and answer better questions.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

the 1970's

For a graphic example I was considering a shot of John Travolta marching down the sidewalk with a can of paint, but was too lazy to search for it. (On a side note, I've never bothered to figure out if the images I post on this blog are subject to restricted use. I'm not sure I care--anyone who sues me can take over my mortgage.)

According to some books I've read recently, and a multi-novel book review in the most recent issue of the Nation, America hit rock bottom in the 1970's. My own personal connection to that decade is well, pretty personal, it was the decade of my birth. I have no memory of that period, so I have to rely on second and third hand accounts in a effort to put together a picture of things.
Architecturally, things were at low ebb. Inflation, modifications to FHA lending, and stylistic frustration with "High Modernism" all conspired to make it a challenging period.

Joe Flood's The Fires, and Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls do an effective job of describing the social and physical breakdowns of Bronx, N.Y. and South Boston, respectively. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an older novel (and movie) that takes some compelling snapshots of the period.
I found The Fires to be the most shocking. We, the American civilization, did essentially nothing while a major section of our largest city burnt to the ground. Flood builds a large part of his narrative on Caro's biography of Robert Moses and the social environment that made Moses so effective.

Friday, October 29, 2010

single family residence in mumbai

This is the residence of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. A recent NY Times story on the house can be found at this link:
I have mixed feelings about this and will approach the matter in my typical circular fashion. I have read that chimpanzees and other primates will get upset if a group member is given more food or covets certain resources at the apparent expense of other members of the group. I have also read that the motto of the Dark Lords of Sith is something along the lines of " There can only be two Sith--one who has power, and the other who craves it."
Excessive gestures tend to have unintended and ironic consequences. We can consider the case of Ozymandias and Marie Antoinette. On the other hand, Henry Clay Frick's house is now a museum, which is a rather positive outcome. This place will probably be torn down in a few decades, and not because of a violent revolution, but because of the churning evolution of real estate development in India.
Like my primate cousins, I cannot react positively to this. My capitalist instincts shrug my shoulders. The gravity of the accumulated infrastructure and architecture of Boston keep me in my place and I am grateful that different decisions have been made in this country that have not yet been undone. I am fairly certain that I will not be one of the folk who walk down the rough streets of Mumbai and glance indifferently at this monument to human folly. What business is it of mine? What reckoning will be avoided or visited upon it?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

usgbc being sued

So, Henry Gifford has filed a class action lawsuit against USGBC. Architect online gave a brief preview of the issue, along with some links to some back story articles. Gifford says that he is employing a tough love strategy with USGBC, and this statement is actually believable given that Gifford does not appear to be a puppet of some shadowy corporate conspiracy. He is sincerely committed to improving the energy and environmental performance of buildings and is concerned that the USGBC is setting itself up for a loss of credibility by making false claims about the performance of LEED certified buildings.
After having read some of the background material, I am willing to make a few tentative observations:
1. A new LEED certified building building will probably be more energy efficient than an older building, but (and there can lots of buts...) the predicted improvement will probably not be the same as the actual improvement. The only effective way to assess the energy performance of a LEED certified building is to compare it against an appropriate sample of similar building types, and most importantly, to consider whether it is delivering qualitative improvements on occupant comfort. Given that the last criteria is inherently subjective, I can see how it would cause even more argument than the already controversial mean to average comparisons used in the NBI report that Gifford was so critical of.
2. LEED could establish new incentive strategies for building owners by incorporating ongoing performance criteria into their rating systems.
3. Occupant behavior and usage patterns are one of the most crucial elements in the performance of architecture. A building that is energy intensive to operate on a BTU/sq. ft. basis may actually be efficient if we assess it in terms of BTU/sq. ft. per person. The future of HVAC will be better designed control systems--we're hitting the upper bounds of system efficiency in gas and oil furnaces.
That's the Genzyme Building in Cambridge. LEED Platinum, but I'd still like to see its electric bill.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the long tomorrow

A snapshot from the impossible city that forms the backdrop for the detective story "The Long Tomorrow" by Dan O'Bannon and Jean Giraud a.k.a. "Moebius."

This story, and the artwork that accompanied it, is one of the Ur texts of cyberpunk. Moebius has an incredible imagination and the hand to go with it. I'm not sure what he's done lately, but this is probably his most influential work and it still has an uncanny power to it.

The dominant historicist approach to art and architecture emphasizes the work and legacy of dominant individuals. These "Great Men" stride forth and refashion the world around them. They are black swans, extreme outliers, tortured geniuses, etc... The heroes of Ayn Rand's make-believe novels. I'm holding less and less stock in this approach because it is the lazy way to analyze history. The messier truth is that the work of people like Shakespeare, Mozart and F.L. Wright is a consequence of their times. Their work, no matter how iconographic or powerful, is water poured into an ocean from a teacup. On most occasions, their work is a successful placeholder for the events of their age, and serves as a good way to understand history.

Moebius is still awesome. I wonder what he has done lately?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the american architecture series

A shot of an abandoned factory in Connecticut.
I wonder why the painted the tower red? It was a bold choice and I like to think that someone was making a deliberate decision about drawing attention to the fact that it is an addition to the original building.
In better economic times, this building will be a good investment opportunity for a creative and determined developer. It is close to roads and shops and other important things. There may be some nearly intractable deal-breakers tied up with the property. I know a little more about this than I'm letting on, mainly because I just want to help preserve the condition of the place at this particular moment in time.
It's so romantic, that way, now isn't it? Or at least, isn't it pretty to think so?