ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

al fresco dining

My wife makes the following observation:

"If a restaurant puts chairs outside, people will eat there. Even if it's 90 degrees outside and the indoors is presumably cooler. Even if there is road construction on Newbury St and they are jackhammering the road right out in front of the restaurant. People will sit in the chairs on the sidewalk and drink coffee and eat expensive pastries and tell themselves they're having a good time because they're eating in a "sidewalk cafe."

This can easily be written off as "people are strange" but there may be something deeper. We spent hundreds of thousands of years as humans eating outside so something deep in brains makes a positive association with food and the outdoors. Perhaps we convince ourselves that the food is fresher because we are not stuck in a cave.

I cannot claim that this is a geographical phenomenon. New Englanders suffer through long months of darkness and enclosure (and we like suffering, by gum!) so any opportunity to sit outside and do things outside is seized upon, no matter the circumstances. But, sidewalk cafes proliferate all around the world and include many cultures. There seem to be some architectural rules for al fresco dining, no matter the locale, however. Some sense of enclosure, no matter how flimsy, is usually provided between diners and pedestrians. The distance from doors or openings into the restaurant proper cannot be too far for logistical reasons and service staff often goes to some lengths to make sure that they have portable stations for flatware and the like.

An obvious complement to outdoor dining is outdoor cooking. This too taps into some primitive instinct or desire. I will contend that certain foods taste considerably better when grilled outside, but sometimes this outweighs the inconvenience associated with cooking in these circumstances.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

all things new york special edition

First, the mosque. The current building, despite what appear to be well-executed details, seems to be an example of obsolete architecture. Any owner who seeks to refashion it will do a public service by making something that is more accessible, more comfortable, and if we're lucky, more energy efficient. I salute the Mayor of New York for his support of people who are trying to exercise their First amendment rights and their property rights.

Second, The Empire State Building. Iconic buildings beg to be toppled (in a figurative sense--literal efforts are no good at all). See above for comments about the importance of the Constitution and common law traditions governing private property.

Bed bugs. Darn, just darn. Bring on the toxic warriors.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

american architecture-part six of the series

Okay, I admit it, there is no series to this blog. I've been on vacation for a while and I know that my readership may have gotten discouraged at the lack of posts. I'll try to do better from now on.

The building pictured above is the most significant work of architecture I saw on the recent trip I took with my wife to North Carolina. This photo was taken near a seafood restaurant where we had lunch. I regard the building as beautiful--considerably more beautiful than when it was new and functional.

The picturesque appeal of decayed, dilapidated and deteriorating architecture is a bit of a puzzle. Age often confers grandeur, but I can offer no good explanation as to why this is so. Details that accumulate over time with no comprehensive design organization can result in powerful compositions. At one level, this is an example of spontaneous self-ordering--akin to what economists like to call the "market." Perhaps there is something in us that has an inherent distrust or disinterest in homogenous objects or collections of objects. A pile of stones at a gravel yard doesn't quite capture the imagination. A pile of rubble that used to be a medieval castle, festooned with vines and moss, is the object of deep veneration. But the accumulation of detail over time is no guarantee of beauty or interest.

Our journey down and back through a small, but significant section of the U.S. revealed a landscape of roads, more roads and yet more roads, punctuated by numerous examples of ubiquitous roadside architecture. There seemed to be no plan to anything. There was little to distinguish one place from another. The box stores, the gas stations and the suburban homes merged into one sublimely boring image. I could almost feel my brain's memory center resetting the same playback sequence from its archive of visual data.

And yet, this is prosperity, writ large American style. The possibility that anything can be refashioned, redone, and thrown out. The resources of space and time seemed endless and inhuman. The sun beat down on it all, promising the energy to make it all happen again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

this blog is completely subjective also

Huff Post frequently runs photo series features that take the form of "The top ten..." It is an entertaining and wonderfully trivial thing that may or may not justify its advertising revenue (more on the subject of the Internet failure to monetize after these important messages).

They ran a recent series entitled "The Top Ten Most Beautiful College Campuses in America" It had photographs that were generally unremarkable and there were a few colleges that I had never heard of. Shortly thereafter they published "The Most Unattractive College Campuses in America" It had a string of photographs that were as unremarkable as the previous posting.

Where did this information come from? What survey criteria were used? What are the implications for potential future enrollment at both sets of colleges? What will be the financial and psychological impact of this vital and groundbreaking research?
Oh, think of the children! And yet, I am guilty of subsribing to this type of judgment. The winds of fashion blow east and west. Some of what we consider to be exceptional will eventually be considered ordinary, unless someone finds a way to effectively advocate for its elevation in status.

Monday, August 2, 2010

zoning discussion (shrill)

There has been some discussion in academic/economic circles about the impact of zoning regulation on the housing bubble. The Anti-Planner has some comments and links to a variety of articles. Ed Glaeser has also done extensive research on this topic. The basic premise is that land use restrictions, i.e. zoning, have contributed to reduce housing supply and consequently increase house prices. This has played itself out in older communities like the Boston suburbs with considerable force over the past few decades (and inspired Karl Case's research into the subject).

I cannot disagree with the empirical evidence, where I diverge from the idealogical stances of O'toole and others is in the way that government is portrayed as the instigator of the zoning rules and de facto engineer of the price bubble and inevitable collapse. The "gummint done it" gives little acknowledgement to the fact that many local communities, possibly out of a misguided effort to preserve some sense of rural spaciousness, have enacted similar zoning regulations. The "gummint" consists of towns with engaged voters, in some cases regardless of class, seek to
protect their property values by creating lower density rules, Planning Boards, size limits, etc... that have the effect of restricting high density and diverse land uses. The "gummint" is not some idealogically motivated central planning organization, but a collection of citizens exercising their American right to govern themselves. The law of unintended consequences, Tragedy of the Commons, outcome does not signal an appocalypse. The frustrating thing about zoning trends and the built environment is that the structures have a long lifespan.