ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, March 31, 2011


I've been thinking about this topic for some time now. Most modern activities, particularly in architecture and engineering, have some form of redundancy to avoid  total system failure. A skyscraper will have lateral bracing in pairs, even if one set of bracing will be sufficient under most circumstances. There is also a redundancy made in the choice and size of materials. I observe two types of redundancy in design and construction--Redundnancy between systems and redundancy within a system. A building has to have two means of egress and each means of egress is sized to accommodate more than the full occupancy load that would have to be evacuated under adverse conditions. This is all a very good thing.

Ultimately, redundancy equals waste. A user who is paying for a service may object to having to pay for two things when only one is needed for most circumstances. The value of redundancy has been proven by history, but the future is not a perfect mirror of the past and we have grown accustomed to the high performance of technological systems even when the costs of those systems is declining in real terms.

I am a strong advocate of redundancy, particularly when it involves simple things. I own more than one screwdriver. I only own one car, however. But by participating in a global, capitalist economy I can proceed through life with the relatively secure knowledge that I can replace my car fairly quickly.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

new era of blogging discipline

Many readers have complained about the random images that are used in this blog. On some occasions, the images have nothing at all to do with the text. I will do my best to maintain better discipline in my selection of images and to ensure that there is a clear link between the image and the blog topic. But, not yet.

I recommend without reservation, Atul Gawande's book: The Checklist Manifesto. He refers favorably to the AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) profession because of its reliance on an orderly, widely recognized and logically consistent organizational system. Gawande does not describe the intricacies of this system--which is the 16 division CSI Masterformat--but he immediately grasped its significance and indispensability when he visited a building construction site in downtown Boston.

Gawande makes some observations about checklists that are encouraging and humbling. What hit home for me was that they derive their power from a type of stupidity, which despite the pejorative associations of that phrasing is the most effective way of describing how a checklist works. The modern human gets so full of himself that it takes a piece of paper with a few basic, but critical, instructions to reset a course of action so that things go right.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

avoiding this

I don't think I'll be able to finish reading the book Zeitoun, although I recommend it without reservation to anyone. This is simply part of a larger pattern of avoiding thinking about or studying the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. The city will recover eventually, and will emerge stronger than it was before, but that has no meaning on those who died, and for those that have moved away forever, it is small consolation.

What stands out about Katrina for me is the dismal performance of so many people, particularly those in authority, preceding and following the disaster. The people of New Orleans deserved better. I am concerned how we will react as a nation to the next catastrophe--whether we will remember Katrina and avoid repeating some of the more egregious errors.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

thoughts on trains

There has been a fair amount of media coverage on the trend of Republican governors turning down Federal money for developing passenger railways. Randall O'toole is demonstrating his influence (read the Antiplanner for more on this subject) and this is being called an act of courage or stupidity depending on political orientation. I have a slightly different take on the subject, which reflects my bias as a daily MBTA commuter.

Money for rail travel, federal or otherwise, should focus on high density, short-trip heavy rail in cities that already have existing infrastructure. This gets the most bang for the buck and will help ease auto traffic congestion and improve air quality, etc.. Building medium-trip and long-range trip capacity in places that don't have a lot of density doesn't make sense at the moment. These options should be studied for the future, but places like Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia need a more robust rail system inside their metro areas.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

architecture critic in nyc

This is a medical building in downtown Manhattan. I feel deeply sorry that a client paid money for this design, and I feel even more sorry for the people who have to use this building. Unless it is protected by some absurd law I predict that this structure only has a lifespan of twenty more years. That's what is delightful about Manhattan-- at some point, money talks and the other stuff walks.

Why do I think it is bad? It has limited windows, it has little, if any, streetfront interaction. There is ambiguity about how to get into it. It signals nothing about its purpose. It has no relationship to its context-it could be at home in Duluth or Mongolia, and it makes no use of the vertical potential of its site.

Friday, March 25, 2011

who had the greatest impact on 20th century architecture?

I vote for this guy, Willis Carrier, who made the most significant contributions to the practical air conditioning of buildings. His critical observation that "air treatment" involved controlling the humidity levels in air made it possible for his company and others to design modern HVAC systems. Without him, the modern architects would have had clients who ended up dying like flies in their glass and concrete creations.

Air Conditioning, as we like to call it now, also helped create the sunbelt devleopment in the United States. Florida, Georgia, Southern California and a lot of other places wouldn't be as popular as they are without effective air cooling systems.

But, we should be aware of the hubris that a powerful technological system like building integrated cooling can lead to. If the comfort of a building can be guaranteed by throwing money at it to maintain a comfortable interior, then common sense can suffer. And it has.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

an american classroom in 2011

The architectural spaces for education should be talked about more frequently in the nation. New schools, presumably are better than older schools when it comes to the design of the classroom, but based on what I I've seen I doubt that anyone has made dramatic improvements. The chairs here are uncomfortable, but durable. The lighting is harsh but adequate. The floor is uninspiring. This teacher has gone to great lengths to personalize and humanize the space. Visual clutter is probably good for learning spaces and that needs to have engaged users, not just architects.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

more on japan

I watched some video footage that showed a town being engulfed by the tsunami in less than six minutes. I'm amazed at how well cars float. I was more amazed when buildings starting to come loose and float also. The human tragedy is incredible and my heart goes out to the people who stood on rooftops watching their world being destroyed.

My house is less than a mile from salt water and although I put the odds of something this bad happening at very low I am mindful of the vulnerability that is inherent in living on a restless planet. Whenever advocates of nuclear power talk about how radioactive waste can be stored in "geologically stable" places I have to snort. Geology and stability are mutually exclusive. Even in the course of a human lifetime we can witness, and be party to, incredible changes to our landscape.

Monday, March 14, 2011

from tragedy art

These are shipping containers tossed into a pile at a port in northern Japan. The photo is from the NY Times. I wonder why most of them are painted red?

Every once and a while some architect makes a splash with a building made out of old shipping containers. There are the usual pronouncements about how this marks a revolution pre-fab construction and the worlds' housing crisis can be solved, etc... I'm not sure how far you can push an 8' x 8' module before everyone gets bored.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

thoughts on the earthquake in Japan

Here in the Northeast of the United States people have developed a sense of complacency about natural disasters. A bad snowstorm in the winter is expected--in fact, if it doesn't arrive as predicted, I feel a little let down. I doubt that the Japanese, or anyone else who lives in an area of the world where extreme events are guaranteed to happen regularly, develop such a sense of complacency. They certainly don't experience a sense of disappointment if something that has been predicted as about to happen doesn't happen. Of course, with earthquakes, there is no possibility of prediction.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

house on long island about to meet its destiny

According to some recent stories, the house that served as the model for the Buchanan residence in The Great Gatsby is going to be torn down. So it goes, and judging from the photographs, its no big loss, altghouh I am sure that there are still a few people left alive who have good memories of the place. More significantly, it has achieved immortality in literature, although in a way that is sad rather than heroic.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

architect as history

I found this picture at a blog named "callitaweasel" which features the musings of someone who might have too much spare time on his hands--wait, I shouldn't throw stones in my glass house. This is the Third Reich Dome designed by Albert Speer, who helped manage the Nazi war machine for several years, threw himself on the mercy of the Nuremberg Court and died in 1981. He was ever an architect, and his story serves as a cautionary tale to anyone in this profession.

The designer is a servant, and although the designer may convince himself or herself that the power to shape the world and the tools to do it are grasped in solitude and the legacy of the work shall echo down through the ages, there is always someone else to answer to. The client or the user provide the emotional and financial capital to carry out the work, and the judgment of posterity can be most harsh when it regards the eternal work with a yawn and summons forth the demolition crew.

The architect exists in a state of corruption, no matter the pristine values of the employer or the good intentions professed by all parties and  there is a constancy of compromises and lost opportunities.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

the soon to be lost art of architectural rendering?

This is a rendering by Frank Constantino, who is a legend in Boston (and places elsewhere). Will something this impressive looking be possible to achieve with computers someday? My opinion is probably, and although critical decisions about layout will still favor those with a gift, elements of texture, color and light will be part of basic architectural drafting software.

I'd like to be able to post some renderings by my old instructor, Steve Rich, but I don't think he has anything online. Such is the requirement for immortality these days.

Friday, March 4, 2011

nice looking building

I happened to have my camera with me while taking a walk through the city, so I thought I'd share this image of a building near Downtown Crossing in Boston. Its shape is a function of its site, and the original architect was almost certainly under a directive to maximize real estate value--and make it pretty. I wonder what the floor plan is like. Probably a real mess in terms of circulation and code compliance, but the shallow floor plates and tall windows probably mean there's good light in the office spaces.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

this is not really a new idea

This lovely complex of buildings in Great Britain used to be a headquarters building for the Royal Navy. It has now been converted into flats. The Financial Times was reporting on this as if it were news, but this type of thing has been going on for quite a while. It's official title is adaptive re-use and while I think it is a grand idea I have never seen statistics on what ratio of new housing stock is created as a result of this. My guess is that it is a rather small percentage.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

the suburban future

I'm still plowing my way through Thad Williamson's book, Sprawl, Justice & Citizenship and while I haven't gotten to the heart of his argument I'm appreciating how he synthesizes previous research into the social and economic effects of sprawl. I also like his definition of sprawl, which is low density, automobile oriented settlement. I need to keep on repeating that, because I think it's worth remembering.
In general, sprawl costs about 5 to 10 percent more than higher density settlement, which isn't that large of a premium. Those costs aren't broken down in terms of energy consumption only, so the constant dollar figure used may not be as useful in a future where energy costs and their externalities are much higher than they are now.

Where will people live in the future? The more I read and think about it, the more unlikely seeming are the sci-fi/modern architecture visions of hyper-dense, vertical cities. Robert Silverberg chronicled one of the most extreme versions of this in the book above. Skyscraper living has been and probably always will be an extreme outlier in settlement patterns. More interesting and significant things will happen in the way we plan and build small towns, suburbs and fringe district communities.

I'm waiting for the product that supplants vinyl siding.