ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, February 27, 2011

thoughts on dr. faustus

One of the issues with Dr. Faustus is that Marlowe portrays him as well-read, moral, and socially upstanding. Until his contract with the devil, the man has led an exemplary life, full of achievements and accolades, which make his fall all the more terrible, particularly when his exercises with Mephistopheles devolve into japes and gags.

But, the transgression of Faustus is that he considers all of this worthwhile. He turns to the devil not out of boredom but out of the desire to experiment. When the end is upon him he professes his fear, but he still eschews salvation--a salvation that he knows is guaranteed (he is too well read to truly think otherwise) because the opportunity of a new experience is what he craves most. Even his buffoonery during the latter parts of the play can be seen as an extension of this desire--he has spent his life in more serious pursuits so why not cut loose for once?

So, for the moment, I am concluding that Marlowe was a humanist, but his brand of humanism dealt with the darker objects and desires of mortal men and women.  The Pit was the final equalizer and within the safety of his dramatic verse he could let the audience get a preview for a farthing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

a den of iniquity and vice

This an addition to the Ashby Free Public Library by Ted Galante. This post has nothing to do about this particular work of architecture, but rather a recent article in the Boston Globe about how some small towns in central Mass. have experienced an increase in crime. I'm skeptical that things are going completely to hell in places like Ashby, and I'm also not surprised that crooks from Gardner and Fitchburg would seek out these quiet locales to do drug deals. After all, people in small towns tend to mind their own business and respect other people's privacy as a matter of course.

Small towns have been romanticized and criticized for hundreds of years, particularly in American Literature. Cities tend to have much higher rates of crime across the boards than rural areas, but the scale difference makes rural areas more prone to statistical aberrations. Also, poor communication about some  bad things that are probably going on may depress the actual extent of problems.

I've read in various places that crime and violent deaths has dropped significantly since humans moved from clan and tribal living to larger, more bureaucratic societies. I can empathize with John Adams when he stated how he wanted a nation governed by laws, not men. We sometimes just go crazy, and without the threat of an institutional response, we have less incentive to keep ourselves and others under control.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

600 bucks a year

That's what the utility bills are for this house. I'm a bit jealous, I confess, and I'm frustrated that we don't do this more often, but it takes a motivated client, an informed designer and a careful builder.

This is the Green House in Jamaica Plain, which I had the opportunity to visit yesterday. It is a full gut rehab of a wood framed commercial building and was renovated to PassivHaus standards of energy efficiency. I can quibble about some of the details and architectural decisions, but that is all trumped by the absurdly low carrying costs for the plug loads, lighting and domestic hot water. It has no direct heating systems, although they have made provisions to install an efficient heat pump.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

all things cities

Here is Vancouver, Canada, which according to some recent survey is the most "livable" city on the planet. How about in winter?

While we're on the topic of cities, I should mention Ed Glaeser, who is the new superstar economist from Harvard and who has been referred to on this blog previously. I haven't read his new book, and I probably won't, since he's preaching to the choir, but I applaud him for drawing attention to the importance of cities.

I am reading a book by a fellow named Thad Williamson right now called Sprawl, Justice & Citizenship which ambitiously charts a way towards analyzing the comprehensive effects of sprawl from an ethical point of view. It is a well researched book. I tend to agree with his definition of sprawl as low density, automobile oriented communities.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

reset #4

No picture today. I'm downloading a big file from the web and don't want to mess it up.

I need to recant something in the last post. All periods are transitional periods, particularly in architecture. However, the rate of change can vary dramatically over time. The late 1800's were astonishly productive due to the more abundant availability of steel, glass and concrete.  The post war period saw the detached, single family housing boom, concurrent with a building boom in the institutional and commercial sectors. We seem to be catching our breath right now. I would like to believe that we could enter an era of the Retrofit, but I'm not sure that there will be incentive for that.

We'll see.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

considering architectural phenomenon

When I was in architecture school I was introduced to and influenced by certain dogmas. Chief among these dogmas were simplistic equations like "density=good" and "traditional=bad" and "innovative=good" and "cars=bad." I became critical of the detached, single family home, I flirted with modernism and sculpturalism (the best term I can think of other than "blobitecture" to describe the Frank Gehry trend) and I produced a thesis project that featured high density residences in a mid-rise, mixed used builiding that overwhelmed its neighborhood.

Now, I feel like I duped myself, and am only beginning to think critically. The issue of density, and the car-dominated landscape cannot be explained through dogma or even through casual observation. Nevertheless, when I look around much of our built environment I cannot deny the gut feeling that things are not quite right. I seek refuge nostalgic settings, and other forms of refuge in academic readings and futuristic speculations.
To a greater degree than any other period in history, I remain convinced that we are in a transitional architectural period. The American landscape has a false durability, in fact, it may be at the vanguard of the end of durability as an architectural concept.

not quite there yet

Computer use in architecture has made impressive strides over the past several decades. However, we are a long way from where we could be. Here are my observations:

1. BIM needs to be incorporate more multidimensional programming features, including constructability and energy modelling analysis.

2. Software interfaces need to get more user friendly with multiple pathway options for inputs.

3. Output documentation should skip the formal paper set. A release date can be chosen for a model for a building project, and subsequent changes can be tracked on an in progress or as-built basis.

4. Prefabrication and analysis layers can be built in, but I doubt that a traditional shop specialty reconfiguration can be bypassed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ben thompson, the legacy of TAC, etc.....

Here is a rather unexceptional picture of a rather unexceptional building by Ben Thompson. Perhaps it is an unfair introduction to his work, but his mundane achievements are just as important as his headline efforts at Quincy Market and other places. I was told by a former employee of BTA that the food court was invented by Ben. I suppose someone had to come up with that idea, and I think it took genius to combine the very old concept of the bazaar with the mass production techniques of modern service.

Ben Thompson designed for people, even though I find some of his work oppressive, as it draws so heavily on the formal vocabulary established by Gropius and his followers at TAC (The Architect's Collaborative).
I am concerned that the preservationist movement will seek to classify Thompson's buildings as pure architecture, rather than respecting the philosophy that motivated their design. He designed tents for temporary activities--the material of the tents happened to be fairly durable, but that was less important than their subordinate role to the activity of the people who occupied them. If they are deteriorated or dysfunctional then they should be replaced or strategically and aggressively renovated. That is what Thompson would have done.

Monday, February 14, 2011

you can never hold back spring

There has been too much building architecture on this blog for the past few days, so I have decided that some landscape architecture would be more appropriate for this post. I don't have anything remarkable to say about it. It is the back yard of an expensive home in an expensive community. That is a golf course in the distance. Like the interior of a room in a building, everything you see here is man-made. It is thoroughly unnatural, but nevertheless, pleasing to the eye. Nature unchecked is frequently a bit too sublime for us little humans. Here we have nature, but captured briefly in a way that we tend to find pleasing.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

in egypt

In January I made a series of predictions about 2011. I am proud to report that I was incredibly wrong about the year being politically dull. The Egyptian people overthrew Hosni Mubarak after four weeks of mass protest. The details of this event are described more comprehensively elsewhere--Al Jazeera's coverage has been excellent. The reaction of American officials, especially Obama, has been ingeniously subtle.
Here is a picture of the Mogamma building,l ocated in Tahrir square, which although designed by an Egyptian architect, was financed and programmatically inspired by the Soviets. It is a fitting monument to centralized bureaucracy and the philosophies of modern governing principles. Presumably, it belongs to the Egyptian people now and I hope that they can purge their nation of the cronyism, corruption and gross inequality that has persisted there--supported in part, shamefully, by my government.
In a nation known for its monuments, it is my hope that the Egyptian people have laid the foundations for something more powerful and of longer lasting benefit than any work of funereal architecture. I hope that they can build a nation that values freedom and never falls prey to the idea that stability requires the veneration of and enslavement to a corrupt monarch or a gang of fools and thieves.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

divine ruins

This is a photo featured on a blog run by Richard Nickel, Jr.
Go there. It makes towers of ilium look puny.
The stock of built infrastructure and architecture in this nation is staggering. I conservatively estimate that there are 75 million buildings in the U.S. That includes houses, high-rises, toolsheds, barns, train stations and outhouses. If abandoned buildings only account for 1% of 1% of that number then that's 7500 places that are disintegrating into oblivion. Every single one of them has a story to tell--every single one has some collection of features that reflect an aesthetic decision on the part of someone, even if it's the graffiti on a concrete wall.
Oh well, ripeness is all.

Monday, February 7, 2011

yemeni architecture

I may have posted on this before,but it's worth returning to. These are some of the world's oldest high rise buildings, located in Yemen, which has a rich tradition of mud brick architecture.
Building like this in hot, dry climates can make a lot of sense. Stack effects can result in cooling airflow through the building and the thick walls help moderate desert temperature swings.
And, it looks good. I prefer these simpler buildings to other Yemeni structures that have more decoration.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

more on iceberg architecture

Despite the frequent use of "natural" forms in architecture, buildings from every era express the designer's efforts to suppress nature, elevate human ideals and signal social functions that deliberately subvert ecology. Terms like "organic architecture" are particularly misleading, and can be dangerously distracting.
I fell into this trap when I commented favorably on how an iceberg could look like some contemporary buildings. An architect who used an iceberg as inspiration, or sought to create a structure that visually resembled an iceberg would end up creating something that looked noticeably different and probably stupid. Natural objects rarely conform to human needs and the recent trends in architecture towards more complex building geometry reflects a media bias rather than a statistically significant phenomenon.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

thoughts on the renovated mfa

This is a plan of the Altes museum by K.F. Schinkel. It is a masterpiece of circulation, and presumably provides flexibility for exhibit planning. I have never been there, however, so my assessment of its attributes may be a bit optimistic. I just got back from the Boston MFA and I can report that its layout, despite the recent renovations by Foster and Partners, retains the same annoyances and inconvenient spaces. The building is a collection of narrow corridors that frequently terminate in dead-end rooms. The layout seems derived from domestic, Colonial architecture and is writ on a scale unsuited for public spaces. Foster, no doubt under a directive not to do anything too bold, keeps this spirit intact in its new addition. Their circulation spaces have more natural light and their exhibit spaces are professionally rendered, but any attempt to create a sense of drama or provide a moment of relief and repose is absent to my eye. The grand cafe space feels like a warehouse with some expensive finishes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

iceberg architecture

A photo of an iceberg by Camille Seaman.
It could be a contemporary building. the massing is robust and the gradations in color are subtle and attractive. I'm not sure where one would put the windows.
Update: The moderator would like to apologize for the large number of spelling and grammar errors in these blog posts.

as promised--from the city of bath, england

A typical street in Bath, England. Lovely Georgian architecture, with some modern elements like cars on the street and bollards to prevent those cars from disrupting the walkability of the city.
The flower boxes make the scene--adding a splash of color and reminding us that people live in the city.
I doubt they would handle extreme snowfalls very well.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

building science for building enclosures

This is a book I am reading right now by John Straube and Eric Burnett. I understand about 10% of it, but that 10% is quite valuable and enlightening. I have some issues with its format and presentation techniques, but I think it sets a rigorous standard for the building services industry.

A few things I've learned:

1. Air movement is the dominant force in enclosure design. It explains the moisture transport mechanisms and the heat transfer mechanisms.
2. You can measure everything, but you won't have time to synthesize it and predict perfectly how a building will perform. We should also be collecting more data about building performance so that the analysis tools and methods can become more rigorous.
3. Hygric buffering, a fancy term for the water storage capacity in the building enclosure, needs to be respected more. Older, heavier masonry structures will outperform many modern buildings because they can get wet and dry out slowly.
4.The authors don't state this directly, but the next decades should see a dramatic improvement in enclosure technology. The motivation, of course, will have to be a continuing increase in the cost of energy.

all hail dens glass gold

I am curious about the origins of the ubiquity of this product and I wonder if its status is unique in the North American building markets.
I've used this stuff once in a project. Why does it not seem to have any competition? What will the next generation of wall sheathing be? Could they figure out a way to improve this product's insulation value without compromising its fire and moisture resistance? Is there such a thing as autoclaved gympsum board?