ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, January 31, 2011

at the point of diminishing marginal returns

This picture of a restored steel kitchen is featured on the Retro Renovations website. It is in one of Frank Sinatra's houses.
There has been some discussion on the economics blogs I read about the relative decline in productivity from the 1970's onwards. An illustrative case is the progress of kitchen development in American houses. Some very good arguments have been made that the major improvements to kitchens were realized by the late 1940's. Progress since then has been mostly cosmetic.
This argument could apply to residential architecture as a whole. Modular kitchens, central heating and electricity were established as consumer "must-haves" by the 1930's and the building boom of the 50's through the 70's was a period of implementation rather than innovation. Another development was the modularization of construction methods and materials--4x8 panel products, power tools, dimensional lumber, and standardized millwork all came to fruition in this period.
Gains from the last several decades are more ambiguous. Enclosure quality improved, with regard to insulation, windows and weatherproofing, and there has been a steady advancement in mechanical systems. But, efficiency gains have been largely offset by an increase in overall dwelling size. I expect to see incremental improvements in enclosure assemblies, which will have the effect of reducing the size of mechanical systems. In general, we seem to be at some sort of asymptote.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

thoughts on the possible revolutions

Events in Tunisia seem to have unleashed pent-up energy in more than a few Middle Eastern nations. I'm wondering if this is a moment similar to the events that came to a head in Eastern Europe in 1989. Or, it may be more similar to the events in Europe in 1848. It bears little resemblance to the events in this country in 1775 and '76. We were much too inconsequential; a minor chess piece in the great game of European Empires.
There is a book in the Boston Public Library that I have been walking past for at least a year now. It is titled "The Last Pharaoh" and it is about Hosni Mubarak. I have not read it, but I am struck by the incongruity of the comparison. The original pharaohs seemed to have been very successful dictators. They understood the value of harnessing the surplus energy of an intermittently employed agricultural labor force by undertaking stupendous architectural projects that had no functional value. Or perhaps, their functional value was in holding a nation together, but what if they had built different things? In any event, public resources can be devoted to building great heaps of stone and cat-shaped statues, or they can be used finance repressive police forces. I hope this does not end badly.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

meanwhile, in bulgaria

This is an office & residential project designed by the Bulgarian firm Aedes Studio. It features one of the dominant motifs in contemporary architecture that I like to call the "overlapping block effect." This refers to a geometric condition where one building volume is pierced in a three-dimensional manner by another building volume. I don't know the origin of it, but I want to draw attention to the more interesting theme that motivated this project.
The architects made every dwelling unit different, and sought to express this difference on the outside of the building. It is an effort to create visual wayfinding --a concept that eludes many large scale urban projects (see the recent post on the Kelvin Flats). They made a good try, but I see lots of continuity in the detailing. To really create an individualized dwelling experience you need a different arrangement of building layout which would then be reinforced by individual ownership of units.
That reminds me, I should post another picture of Bath, England.

the social experiment of the suburb (part 7)

Snowfall in the Boston area has been something of an issue this season. Specifically, there has been a decent amount of snow falling on a regular basis which requires that people spend a certain time moving it out of the way. In our city there is no ordinance that mandates that people shovel the sidewalks in front of their homes. As a consequence, some sidewalks get shovelled better than others, and the experience of the pedestrian is inconsistent.
I have some good solutions for this problem. No snow is one way to deal with it, which explains why people in warmer climates don't have any problems at all of any kind in their communities because they never have to think about snow or how to get rid of it or travel through it--truly that is paradise. Getting rid of sidewalks is another option--which would encourage people to drive more and might boost the stock of General Motors and make people more appreciative are larger scale infrastructure investments. Or, people who shovel their sidewalks could be fined by the city, which would take away their incentive to shovel, which would bring about a glorious equality that would persist until the warmth of spring removed the snow in a more natural and cost effective manner.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

kelvin flats in sheffield

I had planned on posting a picture of and commenting on Frank Gehry's new concert hall in Miami, but decided that that would be too upbeat. So, onto Sheffield, England and a picture of the lovely Kelvin Flats. This photo was taken by a fellow named Peter Jones, who published an online book about his experience there.
Rather than pollute my blog with facts or research I will merely speak my mind. This is modernism gone mad--a twisted model of urban living run amok on some drafting board and then rendered in concrete and glass and asbestos. And yet, there is a Sheffield still there, a discrete, British town with typical streetfront shops and houses with tiny rooms.
This is still considered a good idea. Some of the detailing has changed, but the philosophy of the homogenized, large scale approach informs both aesthetic and economic arguments in contemporary development.

Monday, January 24, 2011

life in warmer lands

This charming deck and pergola can help remind those of us living in New England that winter will end someday and we can enjoy a few moments outdoors. In other parts of the country, you can do that nearly every day. This is in California.
Incidentally, my aunt designed this. Check out her website at Windsors Decks and Gardens. She lives in the land where real estate prices went crazy, but everything is crazy in California. Thank goodness everything is normal out here in the east. Perfectly normal. Yep, and quiet too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

bridge in quincy

This is a rendering of a possible vertical lift bridge over the Fore River in Quincy. Photo courtesy of the Mass DOT, which has a very good website about the project.
I used to live in this neighborhood and after reading a Boston Globe article on this subject this morning, I am puzzled by some people's concerns about the new bridge. There is nostalgia for the old drawbridge, which cannot be built again for technical reasons. There is also a concern for a bridge that is too large. The neighborhood is home to several docking ports for oil tankers, a powerplant, a factory and the remnants of the Fore River Shipyard. The shipyard used to have one of the largest ship cranes in the world, until it was dismantled a few years ago and sold to company in Europe.
I think a large vertical lift bridge will make a dramatic statement for both Weymouth and Quincy. I hope that it is not merely an engineering structure. The mayor of Quincy is concerned on this note, but like me, I doubt he has much sway in the ultimate decision.
Prediction: They are planning, or will be planning someday, another bridge over the Neponset River on the north side of Quincy. I want to reserve a seat for that show.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This is one way to park cars in places like New York City. On one hand, this is purely functional architecture and can stand on its own merits as an aesthetic statement. On the other hand, there is an opportunity here to create a decorative street facade, possibly with a mixed use component.
Personal automobiles will always be a part of cities (hmmm...I'll probably end up eating those words). Their frequency of use lends itself to more creative storage solutions than driveways. Use and ownership patterns will also be subjected to forces that will defy traditional standards. Zipcar may end up owning most of the cars and spaces in dense metropolitan areas. I am worried about their business model. I haven't had to use them for a while.

Friday, January 21, 2011

great moments in architecture volume #5

We can overwhelm ourselves if we consider the volume of human labor invested in the built environment. Every brick ever made is handled at least four times by four different people-once when it is made, once when it is transported, once when it is delivered to the mason, and once by the mason. And that's the most efficient scenario.
Architecture has resisted a great portion of the manufacturing efficiency that came out of the Industrial Revolution. Building materials benefit from improved production techniques, but ultimately, a human picks up a piece of the structure, and then another human moves it, and finally it gets to be part of a building--but only for a little while. Architecture here in the United States seems to last around fifty years. But longevity is no mark of success. There is less incentive to preserve things in prosperous regions because there is the money available to start fresh. Preservation can be at odds with progress, and if there is the will and the financing the bricks are torn down, often by machinery, sometimes by hand, and frequently never used again. As far as I know the stuff in this picture is still standing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

homebuilding trends in the usa

This graph is stolen from Calculated Risk, one of the best known economics and business websites.
I wish the graph went back to 1900, but data was pretty dodgy prior to World War II. There are a few notable things about this, not least of which is the big hole we're in right now.
The big spikes in housing starts in the 1970's reveals the volatility of the homebuilding market, and more significantly, the demographic surge of the Baby Boom generation. Housing responds directly to population growth (or should, at least) and by my rough calculations this country needs to build somewhere around 1.1 million homes a year just to keep pace with household formation. NAHB is predicting a mild upswing in starts for 2011, but I don't think the credit markets are ready yet. I think there will be surge at some point, probably 2012ish, and I base this prediction on nothing more than my gut. If the surge occurs prior to the election, Obama gets four more years. That much building activity will help draw down unemployment and people will be happy again. We'll see.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

rex roberts and his book "your well engineered house"

This book seems to be out of print, which is a good thing, because the poor man is absolutely deranged. Well, that's not quite fair of me, he was a man of conviction and certainty. Rex Roberts represented the modern ethos perfectly. He believed that he could solve problems, and that the solution would be absolute.

In this book on house design and construction he advocates certain ideas that are more than just iconoclastic. They are plain dumb. He advocates wall construction without insulation, claiming that radiation is the primary form of heat loss in buildings. He advocates a window design guaranteed to let in as much cold air as possible. He has no regard for the aesthetic traditions of residential architecture, which can be of some importance when considering future real estate value. By not bowing to convention he succeeds in alienating his audience.

Subtlety, subtlety! This concept needs to be used more in architecture. Royal Barry Wills knew how to channel it, how to tap into the latent desires of the modern homebuyer and introduce radical concepts in an attractive package.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

resource limits

As I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast of passenger pigeons and bananas I got to thinking about how some economists and business-people take a blase attitude towards resource consumption. A chief resource is petroleum, and there are some thought provoking arguments for and against the idea of "peak oil." The debate is often framed in terms of "are we there yet" vs. "even if we get there, don't worry, we'll come up with substitutions, and besides, it won't happen in our lifetime--now leave me alone so I can fly off in my private jet."
In economics, a prominent feature of the mid-twentieth century, was the gradual decline in the cost of commodities. This trend appears to give credibility to those who claim that we'll never run out of stuff. It becomes a more problematic issue when we have a world where some apparently essential resources are being used up at a faster rate and the most readily available substitutions are more expensive to extract. Jared Diamond tackles this issue in his book Collapse, which draws attention to island communities that have had troubling experiences with resource depletion. One lesson that can be drawn from Easter Island is that if you cut down all your forests at least take the opportunity to build some interesting looking statues before your society descends into chaos and starvation.

Friday, January 14, 2011

more on haiti

This is an award-winning design for a house in Haiti that is meant to help control the spread of airborne disease.
It is a good idea, a good design and I salute efforts such as these.
I am puzzled by the format of the rendering. It depicts a lush, rural location. Most notable are the trees in the backgound, which is inconsistent with the geography of the country due to its massive level of deforestation. While artistic liberties are important in architectural drawings, I can't escape the feeling that the overall portrayal is a bit too optimistic.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

a home in haiti

This is not a typical dwelling in Haiti. In fact, I'm not sure this is even in Haiti, I'm trusting someone else's blog.
In any case, there are luxury homes in Haiti, and they are not featured in stories about the great number of people who live under shockingly bad conditions in that country.

Presumably, this house was designed by an architect. Did that person have any moral qualms? Was there a consideration on the part of anyone involved in the project as to the extreme constrasts of the situation? Did the laborers make a journey up the hill each morning from the slums to build this? What went through their mind on the trip home in the evening?

Who am I to judge? I cannot draw a cart, or eat dried oats, so if the opportunity to design something like this were presented to me, I would probably take it. Architecture is a service, not a heap of stones, and it exists as a consequence of continuous efforts and observations.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

russian constructivism appreciation day

Featuring Vladimir Tatlin and the Monument to the Third International (it's only a model).
These folks seem to have dropped off the radar lately, but I predict a resurgence of some of their motifs in media and architecture in the near future. The only reason I can give is that the apparent simplicity and bold geometry can provide a contrast to the frequently overwhelming complexity of our modern visual landscape. Also, the constructivists can be portrayed more explicitly as "art with a purpose" without seeming like a sell-out.

Monday, January 10, 2011

carolyn swiszcz at the steven zevitas gallery

This is not a painting by the artist Carolyn Swiszcz, but she did paint an image of this hotel located on the bank of the Neponset River in Quincy.
I encourage a visit to the gallery or to her website.
She has captured some of the qualities of contemporary architecture in a way that is more effective than most professional renderings or photographs. She helps to answer an important question about the built environment: "What about the other stuff?" The other stuff is what we drive by or walk by every day and register only tangentially (even when we use the spaces and services of the strip malls, supermarts and drive throughs that make up the "other stuff"). We might live in the "stuff" and when we move out we consider the weight of memory associated with it, and pause for a moment before moving on. Carolyn Swiszcz manages to preserve those moments--and the experience isn't that pleasant sometimes, but it is mitigated by the awkward familiarity.
While searching for images I discovered this website call Quincy Daily Photo. Very good stuff there.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

the perils of mixed-use zoning

Jane Jacobs, among others, discussed the importance of mixed uses in urban settings. It is a concept that is honored often in post-post modern architectural thinking, but its execution always reflects a narrow range of uses and activities. Craft manufacturing and artisanal industries are the desired occupants in this mode of design. The classic arrangement of the ground-level shop surmounted by residences has a definite value.

But, we have committed ourselves to manufacturing systems that depend on large scale equipment like the chemical factory pictured here. Nothing I can imagine would make this a good addition to anyone's neighborhood. There may be a point in the future where we don't have things like this.
On a side note, I find this chemical plant interesting looking, but unlike some of the industrial architecture of the past, this will probably never have a second use.

Friday, January 7, 2011

dali musem in florida

This is an interior view of a part of the new Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL--designed by HOK (they have a reputation for designing sports venues, but they got this job for some reason)
I went to the original Dali museum about twelve years ago. It seemed liked a perfectly suitable venue and was very well proportioned. I was less observant about architecture back then, however. This new design features some pretty interesting stuff, including this cantilevered spiral staircase. Nice job all around.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

the myth of full capacity

As a regular user of the MBTA during rush hour commuting I feel obliged to remark that full capacity on a subway train is neither a comfortable or sustainable condition. Any transportation system that runs at full capacity represents an unusual and probably undesirable situation. Private automobiles have seats for four people but are mostly used for single person trips. To assign a car an average capacity utilization of 25% is actually generous because it only accounts for the physical space occupied by a user. If we factor in usage rates on an hourly basis, automobiles are hardly used at all--most of their time is spent in a parking space, patiently waiting for the next fifteen minute trip to and from the Shop-o-Mart.

I don't know if there is a capacity utilization "sweet spot" for any transportation network. Attempts to quantify such a phenomenon would lead to qualitative criticisms of every assumption made about terms such as "capacity utilization rate" or "line haul capacity." It makes for an interesting calculus problem that I would never be able to solve. However,the MBTA has made considerable investments in a far-flung commuter rail system which operates well below capacity for several lines. Even with the anticipation of future growth, higher density areas subsidize lower density transit networks with the net result that all systems are starved for resources that maintain and improve quality of service.

As a though experiment, I wonder how a city like Boston would be able to function in the absence of the MBTA?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

hole for sale in chicago

Well, to be honest, I'm not sure if it's actually for sale, but the owners of foundation for the Chicago Spire skyscraper would probably be willing to entertain offers from motivated buyers.
I have every confidence that this Calatrava designed building will soar towards the sky at some point in the near future. However, I was never that excited by the design. Skyscrapers fill me with a sense of wonder, but not as much as they used to. What I find frustrating about high rises is that the experience of space inside them is almost thoroughly horizontal. Cathedrals and train stations, which have a predominantly horizontal circulation program tend to express a vertical spatial experience much more effectively than tall buildings. Some towers have impressive internal atria, but they tend to be subordinate to the relatively narrow floor plate.

Monday, January 3, 2011

the holy trinity of project planning

Prior to Genesis, God wrote this note to establish the essential, universal and unequivocal law of all projects. It applies only to things carried out by sentient creatures--natural processes like erosion, glaciers and supernovae don't have budgets or schedules. Some designers like to refer to it as the triad of time, scope and money, but this simpler version clarifies the issue more effectively.
Unfortunately, people like to sustain delusions about the control that they have over time and and resources. This leads to planning scenarios where everyone convinces themselves that endeavors will be completed quickly, cheaply and of a high level of quality. Someday, with advanced psychological techniques, good education, and powerful drugs we might be able to purge this thinking from the human mind, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

predictions for 2011

In a post from last year I remarked briefly about the futility of making predictions. Well, that was last year, and with the new year upon us I feel encouraged to pontificate about the fate of architecture, economics and social movements. My credibility is limited, but readership of this blog is sparse so I'm not worried about blowback. So, in no particular order of importance:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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 bl0bs, but ordinary stuff will be boxier and more restrained.
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.