ruminations about architecture and design

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.