ruminations about architecture and design

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in review-the comprehensive version

This year in January I made several predictions about the new year. Here is my thoroughly objective analysis.

1. 2011 will be a fairly dull year. Things will continue to go poorly in places where things are already doing poorly, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the drug war cities of Juarez and Tijuana in Mexico. It could hit the fan in North Korea, but I doubt it.
-Boy was I wrong. The revolutions and regime changes in the Middle East were the defining events. Korea had a lateral regime change and I predict that things will continue as they are there for several more decades.And then there was Occupy Wall Street.

2. American politics will have more than usual sound and fury and idiots. It's the deep breath before the plunge into the 2012 election year. Obama may do something surprising, but I doubt it.
-A safe prediction and it is still being played out. Obama may take a progressive turn after his speech in Kansas (in conjunction with the Occupy movements), but we'll see.

3. Revolutions in architecture will be subdued because there isn't enough money to do crazy stuff. The construction boom in China will slow down, maybe they'll have a real estate collapse, but strong government action will mitigate its effects. U.S. architecture firms will continue to experience consolidation and contraction. Tough luck for me, but so it goes.
-Meh on this one.
4. The upcoming changes in building codes, specifically as they relate to energy use, will start to take effect, but the impact will be marginal. The long term positive impact will have profound consequences, but excitement over "green" design will be more constrained.
-Too soon to tell.

5. The end of the middle will accelerate. I will give some banal examples of what I mean by this: Retail opportunities will be dominated by either discount goods or extreme luxury items--a few Hummers counterbalanced by lots of subcompact sedans. People will be either very rich or lower class. Aspirational impulses will be constrained by the long odds of achieving superstar success. But, life at the bottom will be distinguished more by grumbling than full-out misery. Perhaps on this note I am being too optimistic.
-Business people and economists call this the "hourglass" effect and it is the dominant trend in business planning.

6. Conservative design trends will dominate. Curvy stuff, which used to look so revolutionary, will be continue to dominate mass-produced products, but we might start to see more right angles and subtle details in architecture. The stuff in the magazines will still be curvy, expensive blobs, but ordinary stuff will be boxier and more restrained.
-Meh on this one. Mostly wrong. Not much has changed.

7. None of these predictions will be borne out perfectly--they aren't very aggressive or original in the first place, but so what.

8.Something entirely unexpected will happen.
7 & 8 were the usual disclaimers. Despite the political revolutions, the natural disasters and the continuing recession, 2011 was forgettable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

driving in america

This is from Calculated Risk. No other graph captures the impact of the current recession more than this one. Americans drive a lot, but lately, because of the collapse in economic demand, we are driving less, despite the continuing increase in our population (312 million, more or less). A new urbanist would point to this as a good thing, and a particularly naive segment of the design profession would even try to take credit for reducing the number and duration of car trips taken by Americans. I doubt that recent trends in architecture or urban planning have had  much of an impact on the immediate downturn in auto use. What is more curious is the fact that over the course of time represented by this graph, the population growth rate has been outpacing the mileage growth rate. I don't know how to express this divergence, but it does point to an increasing densification of American settlement. However, its a densification expressed more significantly in "suburban" development areas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

a modern nation

Where is this? It looks like any city in the norther hemisphere on a cold day in winter. The man crossing the street could be James Dean, or James Bond. The bus will make its way through and the people riding in it will look at the window, lost in thought, until they get off at their destination. Spring will come, and this grim scene will be softened by warm air, blooming flowers and green leaves.

This is North Korea.

p.s. If this were any other city, there would be more cars and more people, regardless of the weather.

Monday, December 26, 2011

festivity and contemplation

This is architecture. Places like this, with these details and sense of longing and possibility, with this beauty. This is why I am an architect and why I am convinced it matters. Great architecture happens at the intersection of intent and chance. Now, back to business.

My next post, probably my last post of 2011, will feature an assessment of the predictions I made for the year. It's a mea culpa moment, so get the popcorn and something to drink. On January 1st or thereabouts, I'll make a new set of predictions, which will be as tiresome, unoriginal and wrong as the predictions I made the previous year.

I'm not exactly sure where this place is. Google images does not guarantee accuracy when searching for key words. Finding the right question to ask in this age of instantaneous information seems to be even more important than in the past. A growing danger of our age is that more and more people will be convinced that they will be able to make better decisions because more information is available. Such hubris will almost certainly lead to more bad decisions. See also: Global Real Estate Bubble, circa 2000-2006.

Friday, December 23, 2011

my big idea

Try not to fall off your chair. This picture represents a new approach to subdividing properties on an urban residential block. It is intended to help circumvent the homogeneity of the common zoning model that I referred to in some recent posts. The idea is simple--rather than have one, average lot size that is repeated ad nauseum over scores or hundreds of street blocks, a developer or municipality can start of with (or end up with) a layout that relies on different sized lots that are not restricted by a setback based zoning code. A diversity of architectural solutions based on the size and locations of the lots would be a possible, favorable outcome. Some lots are large enough to allow for detached, single family homes that would have large yards. Or, a large lot could support a multifamily building with off-street parking. Smaller lots would lend themselves to row-houses or small, fully detached homes that would appeal to first time homebuyers or retired people.

Maybe it's a good idea, but it's probably too late to make a difference in this country.

Monday, December 19, 2011


This design is my adaptation of plan that was recently published in the Boston Globe. A developer in Boston, with the input and support of the city, is proposing 375 s.f. studio apartments for buildings in the Fort Point Seaport district. This is being presented as an original idea, and maybe it is for Boston. I remember visiting a mock-up of an 8 bed Chinese apartment unit that was roughly the same size.
How much space does someone really need? The residents of the International Space Station are getting by with a lot less, and despite having some great views, I don't doubt that claustrophobia occasionally sets in.
The original design of this unit was done by the Boston architecture firm of ADD Inc.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


This it what a suburban housing block looks like when it is under development. This is also what a housing block looks like when it is in decline. As housing stock burns down, or if shifts in the economy prevent the full development of the block, then the visual circumstance is of "missing teeth" which tends to discourage potential homebuyers and investors and depress housing values. Or so the story goes. In a few days I am going to propose a visual image of block layout that creates a situation where variable density doesn't result in the "missing teeth" effect. Well, I'll give it a try, at least.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

good story

There's a good article on the Building Science Corporation website about Joe Lstiburek's experience renovating his barn/office--twice. Because, after all, there's not point in trying to do the right thing once, when you can do it a second time. Here is the link to the story and I recommend that anyone interested in architecture read it.
It's rare in the design and engineering profession when someone admits that they made mistakes. I need to fess up to a few things someday. I'm young yet, so my stories aren't as interesting.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

fire sprinklers

Towers of Ilium will now endeavor to address a rather difficult and controversial topic: fire sprinklers in single family homes. An article in today's Boston Globe described a debate at the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Safety over whether or not fire sprinklers should be required in all new, single family homes. Code currently requires sprinklers for multi-family dwellings and single family homes over 14,400 s.f. (which is a bit larger than the average American house size).

In principle, I am in favor of improving the safety of architecture, but I am skeptical about the positive benefits that would be derived from implementing this law. Most house fires that I read about in the newspaper that cause loss of life or injury seem to happen in older homes, and particularly homes in poorer neighborhoods. Because Massachusetts has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation it is a statistical certainty that the majority of fires would occur in an older dwelling. Since older dwellings would be exempt from the new law requiring sprinklers, it would take decades before we could assess the benefits thereof.

I am interpreting this as a wedge issue, however, and I think that adoption of this code for new houses will lead to a push for an extension of the code to existing dwellings. The requirement for sprinklers would be triggered when a homeowner undertakes a significant renovation (and much debate will ensue over what constitutes "significant"). This would have a dramatic effect, but it could exacerbate the safety situation by discouraging property owners from undertaking renovations, or exerting more effort than they already do to avoid regulations. The most vulnerable and poorest houses could potentially deteriorate at an even faster rate and would still lead the statistics in fire injuries and deaths.

A question I would like to pose to James Shannon, president of the NFPA, and any other member of the ICC who owns a single family home: Have you installed this in your house?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

something new and different (#6)

As I suspected, the picture in the last post was a repost from January of this year. Towers of Ilium is deeply sorry for the duplication of effort. We hope it never happens again.

And now, for the exploration of a common residential development model, which I am presenting here in order to set the stage for a discussion of alternate approaches. The sketch above shows the layout of a typical, medium density, suburban block comprised of 5000 s.f. building lots. It was common in the streetcar suburbs of late 19th century Boston and has proportional equivalents in many other American cities. As far as I can tell, it has fallen out of favor in more recent developments for reasons that exceed the space of this blog post. I think its restoration would be a positive thing in the growth of new American cities because it offers a more balanced and sustainable approach to community design that could promote diversity and ensure environmental and economic sustainability. Color me idealistic. We'll see how this plays out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

the geography of somewhere

I feel like I've posted this picture before. So it goes--we humans tend to repeat things, and unlike other creatures, we actually waste time worrying about the implications of repetition. I remember reading once about a philosophical question that is framed in this fashion: Can a person cross a river in the same way twice? The answer is no, because in the time between crossings both the person and the river will have changed. Last night I walked past the entrance to a building that had a sign which read: "Center for Marxist Education." Will Karl Marx get to cross the river again, in some fashion? Perhaps he had his moment of influence, and any residual interpretations will be claimed by another generation as a set of original ideas.

I have an open-ended question. Is architecture really about the organization of ideas? Could it be purely reactionary and expressionistic, bereft of credibility when it comes to justifying the set of choices that go into the planning process? Are there really any objective standards that can be applied to the layout of buildings and spaces? Even a proportional system derived from the human body is unreliable--we're all a little bit different.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

kitchen of the future

We probably won't be returning to this. I was listening to a video talk by a kitchen designer who described the layouts of the 80's and 90's as "flat" in terms of materials, cabinets and appliances. There would be one counter height, one type of tile, and one style and color of cabinet. It's a clean, safe and sometimes boring approach to kitchen design. He described kitchens of the future as being more eclectic, more open and with more aggressively integrated appliances (like a section of counter that folds over a cooktop). He also described "smart" LCD counters that could double as media display devices. Yup. Sure. Whatever.
He also talked about revolutions in lighting, which I'm more inclined to agree with. The recessed light fixture may not around in 15 or 25 years. LED technology and the ingenuity of lighting designers may give us something really different and really great.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

agglomeration theory backwards

Agglomeration theory is a fancy word for the geographic clustering of similar economic activities. For example, the financial district of Manhattan. Even though the businesses compete with each other, everyone tends to benefit from the close proximity and the concurrency of transportation networks, and ready access to a labor force and market. It helps explain why cities exist and why they tend to be wealthier on a per capita basis as they get larger.

But what about when things fall apart? Would it be reasonable to assume that as a geographic region exhibits consolidation in similar businesses its overall health would start to decline? Also, as an area loses population, it would lose diversity in resources across the board. This is mathematically obvious and it has dangerous implications for any city that sheds a portion of its population because the signs will point to continued decline. The maxim "grow or die" seems harsh, but long, drawn out misery of many small cities is a testament to this.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

carpenters center in boston

This is a picture of the Carpenters Center in Boston. The photo is taken from the  non-highway side of the building so it may look unfamiliar to people who ride past daily on the train or in their car. I had an opportunity to observe this while it was under construction and its been one of the more interesting things to look at during my commute into the city. Is it good architecture? From what I can tell from the outside, I think it is, mainly because it speaks to the diverse character of the trade of carpentry by referencing wood products through its use of multi-colored alumninum panels. Some people would say that it is dishonest, but I think a large scale building has to be made of durable materials, and wood, despite its attributes, is not when used in an outdoor setting. There is some unintended irony in the fact the building was completed just as the economy was faltering and a large percentage of carpenters were being laid off. This structure represents a long term investment in the future and I don't regard it as a symbol of hubris. Labor organizations, despite their shaky status in the current political environment, are a fundamentally positive force in the development of the nation. That a building should commemorate that in a dramatic way is only fitting.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

a conundrum--semi-urban style

A doomed building in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Every once in a while I come across an optimistic article about how small cities in the U.S. are poised for a resurgence by serving as an anchor for small entrepreneurs and start-ups. I think it's a pipe dream. These articles don't look comprehensively at the nearly intractable problems in place like Fitchburg, Detroit, Flint, Leominster, Baltimore, Camden, etc.... Development dollars, when not flowing to greenfields on the periphery of established population centers, don't have any incentive to try to revive places that got off the progress train in the 1950's. It's sad, but without some major demographic and economic changes, places like this are headed for an inevitable destruction that the people of Angkor Wat could relate to in a very real and historical way.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

byzantine boston

This image concludes our tour of Essex Street and also marks the end of the month of November. An apartment building will soon rise over this building--which looks particularly dramatic now that the windows have been removed. I wonder if we'll ever build something like this again? Probably not.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the urban canyon

A small piece of Boston. When I moved to the area, one of these skyscrapers was just a hole in the ground. I happen to regard it as one of the better examples of the Art Deco in the city--even if it missed the Art Deco by a few decades.

Monday, November 28, 2011

towards a preserved architecture

I actually had my camera with me yesterday and I snapped this photo of the "Dainty Dot" building on Essex Street in Boston. This structure will probably be demolished within the next five years (make it ten, things move more slowly now) and while some people are still unhappy about that I think there is an overall sense of resignation. In general, I have conflicted attitudes towards preservation because although older buildings have a lot of character, architecture hasn't stood still. Egress and accessibility are much improved, and quality of interior space tends to be, on average, better. This type of building, what can be termed a "full block build-out" looks good on the outside but its interior spaces are probably jumbled up, particularly in those areas that aren't near windows. The larger issue is that the place isn't maximizing its property value. That's a death sentence for a work of commercial architecture in a city.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

eladio dieste

I had never heard of Eladio Dieste until about a week ago. I think some of his architecture is incredible and is well-suited to the economic and environmental climate of his native Uruguay. He died recently, but he left behind a legacy of built work that is wonderful and memorable.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

controversial park design

Maya Lin has received negative feedback from some people in Newport, Rhode Island over her redesign of a public* park. From what little research I've done on the design and the existing conditions I'm having trouble understanding why some people are so upset. The controversial elements of the design are some landscape features that mimic the foundations of buildings that used to be on the site. These palimpsests (I've never used that word before in writing) are described by Lin as outdoor meeting areas. They will feature fountains and seating. I happen to think that her plan is an improvement on the current condition and I have no trouble at all with her narrative and design concept. She creates an event in an otherwise pleasant, but unexceptional, public place. Her plan doesn't have the simplicity of some landscape designs, but it doesn't rely on gimmicks or ambiguous interventions. A person could use this park in complete ignorance of her attempt at a historical reference and not be confused or upset.

*I'm uncertain who owns the park, but since it is open to the public, it is, in my opinion, Public. OWS is not there. Yet.

the bbc would like to apologize

Towers of Ilium tends to be repetitive. The major themes on the blog are as follows:
-What is suburbia?
-What are the limits of the resources of the planet?
-What is the role of the architect in those things?
-Skepticism of the role architects play in worldly affairs
-Occasional commentary and criticism of modern architecture

If you want me to address a new topic, feel free to mention it. I always have an opinion on things--usually wrong or not fully thought out and almost certainly accompanied by a graphic that may not relate to the subject at hand. Resolution bores me. I'm not even resolved on scrambled eggs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

american heartlands

We can pause for a moment and admire the astonishing breadth of the infrastructure that supports this home in Iowa, and the role that this place has in the relative prosperity of modern America. There is little that is hidden here, even if we do not immediately see it. The soil that supports the crops was built up over thousands of years and is now augmented by fertilizers manufactured in factories that got their start manufacturing bombs in the second World War. The driveway is probably too long for the owner to pave it, but the equipment that maintains it is just a phone call away. The power company ran wire and set poles from the main road, which in turn is linked back across the electric grid to a series of coal fired generation plants located in multiple states. The home and barns are stick framed from lumber that originated in a forest near the Pacific. The corn grown on this farm is in all of our bodies, and despite the network that connects everything here, it would take only a few acute disasters to plunge it all into oblivion. Such a feat is beyond the ability of Al Quaida, so I'm not losing sleep worrying about this just yet.

From an architectural perspective I'm impressed by the balanced arrangement of the buildings. The owner or owners kept things close together, but not so close that maneuverability or future expansion is compromised.

Monday, November 14, 2011

vertical farming

Vertical agriculture is one of those things I'd like to believe in, but like many interesting and wonderful ideas in architecture it gets sunk by the "hedgehog" rule. This is the rule that come into play when there is one big thing that makes something possible or impossible regardless of all other inputs. A vertical farm in a city requires the same three things as a farm in Nebraska: a growing medium, water and light. An argument can be made that certain efficiencies can be achieved in the first two categories--even to the point where the revenue from the produce can cover amortized construction costs and deferred maintenance. Light, however, is the dealbreaker, because the instant you start paying a utility bill you start competing with the sunlight that the farmer in Nebraska gets for free. While the geometry of the vertical building could be arranged to take advantage of natural light, it does so at an escalating penalty for the efficiency of is floor plate configuration. A shallow floor plate allows more natural light but not enough to overcome the shade of floors above. And what about when someone builds a high rise in the path of the sun?

How about the day when energy becomes too cheap to meter? I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

suburban dreamscapes (part VII)

I probably won't get around to reading Anthony Flint's book on Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. My lazy excuse is that I've read at least one review of the book, and concluded that I agreed with its major themes, and so I could spend time doing more productive things, like fishing. Flint makes the argument that too many people have tried to don the mantle of Jacobs, and have forgotten the lessons that Moses taught about organizing large public works projects. The mythology surrounding both people conceals the fact that neither held much stock in fantasy. They looked at the situation at hand, made observations about needs, and acted on them. Moses, for all his failings, responded to the automobile culture that was defining the United States. I maintain that if Moses had not existed, the New York metro area, and much of the U.S. would have ended up looking the same--it just would have taken longer, cost more money and had even more problems than it does now. Jacobs, whose vision of a dense, interactive and sustainable urban communities influenced several generations of planners and architects, had less of a reactive posture than Moses and far less political power. Her ideas and ideals have been embraced by the design community, but the trends of organic development in the U.S.--i.e. sprawl--continue to dominate.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

not much of a theme today

These are quite lovely. I would be optimistic if things in Europe weren't so messed up right now. The newspapers and other media sources are simply not doing a good job of explaining what is going on, and as a consequence, I don't think that most people are paying much attention. Worse, I think that there is still the assumption on the part of some businesses and politicians that we are "decoupled" from events across the pond. That point of view did not hold water in 1914 or 1939.

I have little sympathy for creditors right now, be they banks, bondholder, or stock speculators. If a fool lends money to a fool, not only do you have two fools, you have two fools with less wealth than they had before. Real estate has no value except that people use it, rent it, maintain it and someday, tear it down completely and rebuild it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

high vacancy rates

Vacancy rates for houses and apartments are still high and the inventory of unsold homes, while declining, is also high. The takeaway from this: expect the residential real estate slump to persist for at least another year or more. Unless our population surges or a group of arsonists start torching suburban neighborhoods in the Sunbelt then the recession in housing will persist. The possibility that we will be facing a housing shortage in a few years is an interesting idea, but I'm skeptical of it. Our ability to build houses quickly is well established. It would be better if our next housing boom wasn't as crazy as the last one, though.

Update: I should preface any blog post about American housing with the observation that geography is the most important factor in the housing market. Some markets are in deep trouble and will stay there for a while. Other markets never experienced a boom in quantity, merely a boom in prices, which in some places, is still sustained (i.e. NYC, Boston, Silicon Valley).

seaside florida

Just to clarify an important difference between Celebration, Florida and Seaside, Florida--The Truman Show was filmed in the latter. I don't doubt that someone will film a movie in Celebration someday. Both towns have a stage set quality that seems a little unreal. Neither town has a "bad part" and I'm sure that there are ordinances that will keep it that way. Where are the auto repair shops, the homes for the cleaning crews and cooks? Where do you get gravel and ready-mix concrete? Where is the nearest Wal-Mart?

The website for Seaside proudly proclaims that the town is "More than a way of life, a way of living." I'm not exactly sure what that means. It looks like a nice place to visit. It reminds me in many ways of the Outer Banks, with more interesting looking architecture.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

hong kong

Post on Seaside tomorrow. But today, I'll discuss another lovely, well-planned oceanfront community, albeit one that is a bit larger than any New Urbanist vision. I'm intrigued and perplexed by Hong Kong. Like Singapore, it is a social, economic and architectural success--at least by the ways we tend to measure such things. I have been told that one of the reasons that Hong Kong is so successful financially is that it has low taxes, which attracts business, which means the tax base is broad so that taxes can stay low. Another factor, which can serve as a counterbalance to the argument that free market systems are glorious and not to be tampered with, is that development and management are well regulated by a strong, centralized government.
Hong Kong, in my mind, is essentially a well structured corporation with competent leadership and independent division heads who can pursue a variety of projects that maximize profit for the company as a whole.

Maybe I read too much Drucker.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

celebration florida

A street scene from Celebration, Florida. It looks like a farmer's market is in progress. This master planned community received a fair amount of attention in the design media when it was conceived and being developed. It's no longer front page news, which I suppose may come as a relief for some of the people who live there. From what I can tell, there's nothing extraordinary about the place, although the population is wealthier and whiter than the average American town. As a model for New Urbanism, it appears to be successful, but that shouldn't come as a surprise given that New Urbanism is merely regular urbanism with less strip malls and a more rational approach to vehicular management. It's easy to do things right when you spend money and do a little bit of research. The architecture, which could be subjected to criticism for his its unabashed Disneyfication, is pretty subtle to my eye. Simplicity is favored over flamboyance.

After spending a few minutes looking at on Google I'm getting more curious about what went into the planning and development process. I wonder if its aesthetic and financial success is a consequence of exclusionary policies. Does this development model have transferable and scalable qualities or is it only appropriate for a narrow segment of the populace?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

architecture of occupation

Photo of the Fed Building in Boston by Fox O'Rian (Hugh Stubbins Architect)

Towers of Ilium, in addition to having light readership and repetitive subject posts, doesn't get overtly political. As of this writing a few score people are camped out in the public space across from this building in downtown Boston as part of the worldwide Occupy movement. Like them, I am one of the 99% but I don't have the courage to sleep in a tent or participate in democracy in such an explicit manner. One of the most objective assessments of the Occupy movement was published in Fortune magazine, which is curious given that its readership consists of the 1% and 10% of income and tax brackets. Growing income inequality combined with the financial shenanigans that precipitated the current Depression (I have no qualms about using that word) have not made for a happy populace. I don't know what will come of the Occupy movement, but I'm grateful that such a thing can happen in the U.S. and that we have spaces that can accommodate public gatherings. Some members of the media have used anecdotes of bad behavior to condemn the gatherings. I can only offer my observation that on those frequent days when I walk past the collection of tents in Boston during my morning commute I have never seen anything that suggests abuse of the public trust. I'll venture to make a prediction that this will go on for longer than the critics or supporters expect. The movement has taken on its own life--it will persist through persistence.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 billion people

According to the WHO and other sources, the human population of the planet is now more than 7 billion. Huzzah. Bacteria everywhere can rejoice, for more humans means more hosts for single-celled creatures who call us home.

Claims about overpopulation and resource scarcity have not played out in a simplistic Malthusian fashion. Here in the U.S. we haven't run out of either land, food or energy. Cheap land  seems to be constrained in specific areas but this is more a consequence of preference and bias. Relative to the efforts expended historically and many other parts of the world, food and energy are incredibly cheap. Energy, and by default, food costs will probably rise in the near-term, but that will hopefully spur new solutions (through a combination of free market and government planning--I don't distinguish between the two as much as other people do).

Architecturally, I would like to think that all 7 billion people would benefit from more intelligent design. That will be a harder task to achieve than I want to admit. And as far as population density goes, this is a picture of Siberia. About two people per square mile. Lots of sublime empty there.

Monday, October 31, 2011

a plausible design

This is a building that one of my students designed for corner lot on a major avenune in Boston. I happen to think he did a good job. It's a bit larger than the other buildings around it, but it makes a statement about the urban quality of its location and the potential for more density. The plan features ground floor commercial space and 8 apartments on the second and third floors. It's a classic model of mixed use, and because it's so sensible, it would require a zoning variance and several other political and economic miracles to get built.

That's the way it goes in Boston and many other places. The character of urban development that makes some cities so successful is contradicted by current regulations. Some of them, probably most of them, are a good idea, like fire codes that restricted large, wood-framed apartment buildings. Zoning ordinances baffle me sometimes, but then, if this were proposed down the street from my house, I'm not sure how I'd feel about it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

erik gunnar asplund tribute day

Since I'm so down on modern architecture most of the time I thought it would be good to start discussing some examples of good and timeless design. Since it's a Sunday, its appropriate to feature the Woodland Chapel, which exemplifies the best of both classical and modern design. It is a transcendent work of art and space, and it is so modest and unpretentious that the more profound aspects of its design don't immediately reveal themselves. From the outside, it is a geometrically clever pastiche of two ancient building forms--a pyramid sits on top of a four column front Greek temple. Inside the building there is a small Pantheon.
The two major plan spaces are golden section rectangles, more or less. The structure of the building appears to be mostly wood, in keeping with the location and craft traditions of the region.

It is architecturally pure and unambiguous in its character and purpose. Whether used as a space for ceremony or individual contemplation it stands out as one of the most successful buildings of the 20th century.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

something resembling a sketch

And, I have no idea how this could be turned into a building without disrupting the immediacy and continuity of the drawing. I've been trying to sketch more and I'm realizing that I'm so geared towards architecture that I have trouble drawing non-architectural subjects. I guess I'm a specialist now. If you want portraits or logos, you'll need to hire someone who does that full time.

But, are architects still the last generalists, as I've heard some people claim? Our profession, despite advances in technology, still provides a specific service for specific situations. An experienced architect who can provide good service has a degree of adaptability, but he or she is much more effective if the majority of work is concentrated in a narrow range of building types. Those designers with a surfeit of hubris would claim otherwise.

Friday, October 28, 2011

murchison house

In general, I remain highly skeptical of the Modernist experiment in residential housing. This house, designed by Walter Gropius, is being restored by its new owner. But, what is restoration? The construction techniques and materials employed by the modern practitioners from the 30's, 40's and 50's were not particularly novel or robust. Or, when they were novel, they were unsuited to New England. This place is no exception and I see any effort at restoration to be an activity framed by the opportunity to make decisions that could improve the functionality of the house but threatening to its authenticity. And what is that "authenticity" that makes it such a relevant example of the period?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

aging in america (and all other places)

This is the lovely spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum, which I didn't know existed until it was brought to my attention by the glorious Google image search.  I hope I get a chance to visit this before I get too old or to incapicated to climb stairs. Barrier free design has been one of the most significant movements in architecture in the past few decades, probably the most significant in terms of changing the built landscape. Curiously, residential architecture is still neglecting it. Some of this is driven by money--a two story house provides greater economy in terms of land use, foundation use and public/private separation. Also, the more generous circulation spaces that are now required in public and commercial architecture would be interpreted as wasted space by a homeowner--a five foot wide hallway or accessible bathroom would impose real costs on most people. The greater impediment to progress is the condition of unhampered mobility that our normally healthy bodies provide us. We design and build houses for the 80-90% of our lives when we don't have significant mobility issues. I'm not sure how to make progress in this area. I have worked with a fair number  of elderly clients, and the prudent ones have opted towards ground floor master bedrooms with large bedrooms and closets, but this choice is open to only the very wealthy. The increased space is a function of wealth with a coincidental effect of providing for a more accessible future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

riding in my car

This is from Calculated Risk. It shows how much we drive as a nation. Most economists interpret vehicle miles driven as a good indicator of general economic growth. Most environmentalists interpret it as the footsteps of doom. I'm ambivalent, but since I'm not an expert, my opinion isn't even worth the paper this blog isn't printed on.

As someone once pointed out to me in a matter of fact way: "People drive cars." But does transportation at our current level really define our prosperity? The internet is not a substitute for transportation, but if we have to move around less are we going to be less happy and feel less free?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

teddy cruz

A friend recommended that I look at the work this fellow has done, so I'm blogging about it as a reminder to do this. From what I can tell so far, he looks closely at organic models of residential/urban development for inspiration in an effort to change some of the rigid models of developed world planning. He might be, and I'm jumping to conclusions here, a slightly more sophisticated Randall O'Toole, and more adept graphically.

The planning model of color-coded, restricted use zoning has come to define the American landscape. It drives me crazy, but I live in one of those neighborhoods and would react strongly to certain types of commercial or social uses next door to me (but just two streets down next to someone else would be fine, of course!). And what about the cars? Always the critical question.

Monday, October 17, 2011

a claim worth looking into

A colleague of mine recently opened my eyes to an unusual feature of the housing market in Saudi Arabia. He pointed out that there is a housing shortage in the country, and that Saudi families are a bit larger than American or European families (the latter feeds the former). He also claimed that the primary development model for new homes in the country is a "villa" that was introduced by a California planning organization in the 1970's. This "villa" which he described as a detached, five bedroom dwelling, sounds remarkably like a typical American suburban model, albeit with more bedrooms. The higher density development shown in this picture may not be representative of what the Saudi people want, or what my be built in the future. I'm amazed that the prototypes of American suburbia have been so effectively transported around the world and that they capture the attention and desire of people who have a different cultural heritage.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

not richardson

I visited the Cambridge Public Library yesterday. Despite the oft-remarked upon demise of print media there wasn't an empty seat in the entire building. I suppose people still need spaces to process information, even if they have portable devices that make nearly all information immediately accessible (side note: Siri and Google have reached the singularity).

I'd like to comment on the original Library building, designed by van Brunt & Howe, which is a knock-off/tribute to H.H. Richardson. How can we tell that it isn't a pure H.H. Richardson building? For one thing, the massing is just slightly off--the section of the building on the left side of the tower is only slightly larger than the right. Richardson would have made the difference more pronounced. The tower is a bit timid looking, both in scale and detailing. The dormers on the roof above the arches on the left are oversized and the ornamentation is fussy. Finally, the intersection between the tower and the gabled portion of the facade is weakly executed. There is a little scrap of roof that connects the two pieces. Richardson tended to jam building elements together more tightly and adjust the details to make everything appear dynamic and muscular.

Friday, October 14, 2011

landscape architecture and the future

I have no idea what this is a picture of, it just seemed appropriate for today's post.

But first, some housekeeping. My earlier post on the bankruptcy filing of Friendly's restaurant wasn't accurate. An article in today's Boston Globe discussed how the private equity firm that owns the brand is trying to restructure. One of their reasons for filing for Chapter 11, according to the article, is that it would allow for an elimination of pension obligations. We'll see how this plays out. Based on some things I've observed, I think the franchise has run its course.

Now, for landscape architecture, which, from everything I've seen, is much more comprehensive, sensitive and intelligent than building architecture. Landscape architecture considers the full temporal and spatial impact of human interventions on the surface of the planet, and below ground, and the sky above. By adopting this holistic attitude, the educational and professional infrastructure of landscape design achieves a well-justified superiority in relation to other parts of the design field. Building architects have had their moment in the sun, and have demonstrated a frequent inability to think very far beyond the walls of the building and the concerns of the client. I'm being harsh, but from a perspective of time management, a building architect has an obligation to enclosure and space use issues, and the broader impact of the building on its site tends to be relegated to a lower status. The landscape architect, who in the past got instructions from the architect as to the placement, height, and circulation pattern of the building, will in the future more thoroughly integrated into the beginning of the design process.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

places to visit, but not yet

This is a Roman ruin somewhere in Libya. I can't tell what this building/space was used for, but it's impressive looking. I've always been curious about Libya, and I hope that things turn out the best for people there. Their history is incredible, and their potential for the future is enormous. The Colonel was eccentric, to say the least, but from what I gather, the country wasn't completely looted by him, his cronies and foreign companies.

If I remember my history correctly, it used to be a major grain exporter to the Romans. Now they can sell oil for the next few decades, which if managed correctly, isn't a bad gig. I suspect there are some beautiful areas along the coast, and I'm sure that there are plenty of sublime moments out in their big piece of the Sahara desert.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

a good idea?

This is a graphic from an ad from SolarCity, a California based company that has recently started advertising in Massachusetts, and presumably, other places. Their business model is based on a lease plan for photovoltaic panel systems and they are claiming that monthly lease fees can end up being less than monthly utility costs.

Solar panels on roofs of detached single family homes has always seemed like a good idea to me. I'm not sure I would take the plunge on this for my own house, but I can see how it could appeal to new homeowners.

And the aesthetic impact? So what? It's not that different than having a car parked in a driveway.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

death knell of yet another american icon

Friendly Restaurant chain has filed for bankruptcy, citing declining sales and the general impact of the recession. I am of the opinion that they have succumbed to the Howard Johnson phenomenon; a disease that is unique to heavily branded and highly visible retail businesses. Howard Johnson, which started in the store  pictured above in Quincy, Massachusetts, helped pioneer the travel based franchise dining experience. The founders built stores along interstates, served reliable food and established a reputation that made lots of money for a long time. And then, it all ended. There are now only three Howard Johnson stores left in the country, and although the motel/hotel chain seems to be steady the big orange roofs that so many Baby Boomers recognize is just another piece of American legend. The cause of their demise, and the cause of Friendly's demise, is the fact that a certain generation of people who were used to eating there lost interest, and more significantly, their children lost interest. "Who wants to go to McDonald's" became a rallying cry that eroded market share for the restaurant and the general deterioration of physical plant probably had the additional impact of making the place less and less attractive. I

I don't think it was a failure of management, a failure of food, or a failure of design. Generational tastes change, consumers are fickle and urban geography evolves in a way that leaves some places in the wrong place and in the wrong era.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

passing fad or durable expression of high design?

Who wants one of these? Journalist Megan McArdle is willing to bet that less people will want stainless appliances and granite countertops in the near future. (link here)

I don't think that such design trends can be written off that quickly. The dominant trend in home fixtures and finishes isn't one particular hot style line or material. The trend is diversification, so that every design trend gets a chance to be the ONE that some people desire. Market share can ebb and flow, but the pie keeps on growing and more slices get carved out by new things.

I think stone countertops will enjoy a long tenure at the top of the "must have" list. I predict that stainless steel appliances will start to undergo countless stylistic tweaks that will have the aggregate effect of making them more diversified in appearance, and probably, further disassociated visually from their functional roots.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

no picture tuesday

Boston says no to Wal-Mart. At least, according to an article in the Globe this morning, which represents the latest installment in coverage on the efforts of the company to establish stores in the city. I don't feel that strongly about this, partly because I don't live in Boston, and partly because I've grown to accept Wal-Mart as a fact of life. But, and I want to emphasize this, I don't regard Wal-Mart as a permanent phenomenon, and I think that some people who object to Wal-Mart invest it with more symbolic power than it actually has. Ultimately, its business model will be supplanted by something else, or if they are intelligently managed, they will change into something that people prefer more.

The notion that a city should be infused with a robust variety of independent shopkeepers is a nice idea, but it can be nostalgic, and potentially dangerous. If a city government rejects any type of improvement in a specific area because that improvement doesn't meet some gold standard of quality or conform to an aesthetic notion of planning, then nothing will ever happen.

Monday, October 3, 2011

the limits of experience

I had originally titled this post "the fallacy of experience" but realized that I was wrong. Experience is valuable and important, but it can be misunderstood. A person who claims to know the answer to a problem, and proclaims that the basis for being right is because of experience, may be operating under a delusion. A person who suggests an answer to a problem, and is careful to qualify that answer, demonstrates true experience. Hubris is a currency that earns interest as the result of time and experience. The experienced person may jump to the conclusion that success is a consequence of the learning process and may not be willing to accept serendipity in its most pure state.

This is a building in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that all the king's horses could put this back together again.

(Actually, its restoration would  be a fairly straightforward affair, but it would require a dramatic change in the political and economic condition of the nation.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

whither residential architecture?

I don't think that many people use the word "whither" much anymore. Residential architecture may be going somewhere, but I'm not sure where. Hopefully, I'll be able to find out soon, because I've been practicing in the field for more than ten years, and I can state with confidence, that I feel like I know less now than I did when I was younger.

I also don't expect many more big revolutions in house and home design. On this blog I've discussed the importance of systems integration in modern houses (i.e. bathrooms, modular kitchen cabinets, plywood....)
The immediate future will probably hinge on continued improvements in enclosure design and other "invisible" elements. As far as space planning go--I doubt that much is going to visibly change. The proportions and arrangement patterns of the basic living spaces is very well defined. There's infinite variation, but within well established norms. Kitchens are still slightly smaller than living/family rooms, dining rooms have a centrally located table, bedrooms have closets, bathrooms have rational fixture layouts. and the adjacencies and circulation patterns of well designed houses exhibit a high degree of similarity.

The most recent experiment in residential design was the Farnsworth House. It's influence is overrated.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

adolf loos day

There's no particular reason, but today is Adolf Loos day at Towers of Ilium. This is a picture of the Michaelerplatz building in Vienna which he designed in 1911. When I was a young architecture student I remember how one of my colleagues at the office remarked that this was "great looking building." At the time, I wasn't quite sure what defined "great" or "bad" in a work of architecture and it's taken me a few years to appreciate why this building deserves the "great" title. One reason is that it reinforces an urban condition with its open street level facade and helps define the public space in front of it. It has a clear front entrance and the two tone treatment of the facade emphasizes the public levels of the first two floors and the private character of the upper floors. The detailing is resolutely classical, but the details are handled with considerable discretion. The proportions of the openings are human scaled and arranged in a consistent rhythm on the facade--Loos even employs the classical trick of graduating the height of the windows based on their height above the ground.

I wonder what it's like inside?

Monday, September 26, 2011

rhode island promotion post

This is a picture of the old Hope Webbing Factory building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Since this photo was taken, many parts of the building have been repurposed as artist's studios, restaurants, offices, Pilate's studios and retail space. I went to dinner at a place called Rosinha's which I can't say enough good things about. The complex has been rebranded as the Hope Artiste Village. I hope that it is successful, and despite the dismal state of the Rhode Island economy, this place might have enough momentum to grow and prosper.

This photograph conceals the true size of the complex. There are one story appendages that extend back from the front of the building and go on forever.