ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, April 28, 2011

shameless corporate promotion post

This is a house in New England that was designed by the famous architectural firm of Royal Barry Wills Associates.

The picket fence ties everything together.

This concludes the residential theme of the month of April. Next month we will feature something more dramatic and astonishing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

at home in kuwait

This is an image of a staircase inside a multifamily, low-rise building in Kuwait designed by AGI Architects. Architecture magazines prefer to showcase houses from places where building codes are less strict than in the U.S. because the geometry has a purity unmarred by annoyances like handrails or fire alarms. I happen to enjoy the abstract quality of this space. It might get boring quickly, but I'll never have to live here.

The building has some interesting design features, including a passive cooling system that consists of interior courtyards with water features. It is nice to see a very old and very good idea being used again.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

U.S. housing market trying to find the bottom

No graphic for this one, but if you're interested, you can always go to Calculated Risk  which always has interesting information about real estate and other economics issues. In any event, average U.S. home prices are back to year 2000 levels, which is both a good and a bad thing. It is a bad thing for people who that residential real estate was always a sure bet. It is a good thing for people who are looking for some sign that the recession is over.

I am ambivalent about the whole issue. I have a mortgage on a house now and I try not to think about what its resale value might be--I just try to find money for the monthly payment. The costs associated with moving somewhere else are not something I like to think about--it would take unusual circumstances for that to be a good thing.

Right now, I'm more interested in compost heaps.

Friday, April 22, 2011

if you are in hole keep digging

This is a lovely picture of the (mostly) brand-new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which has been the subject of some pretty decent stories in the Boston Globe recently. Officials in charge of the BCEC are trying to float plans to increase the size of the center and build more hotels around it. They argue, aided and abetted by some convention center industry consultants, that if they don't make the place bigger then Boston will not be able to compete with other cities who are doing exactly the same thing.

This is a very simple economics problem. If supply outstrips demand for a relatively homogenous good or service then there is no reasonable way to sustainably maintain a constant price level. In fact, it is absolute madness on the part of one supplier to increase the quanitity of this good or service with the expectation that market share can be expanded or prices sustained.

What I think needs to happen with the BCEC is that more money needs to be injected into the Fort Point neighborhoods so that the whole area becomes a more desireable place to live and visit. Building extra square footage in what is probably the largest building in all of New England would result in some temporary construction jobs, but would do nothing to bring in more revenue.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

no picture today--blog post is about type fonts


I watched a documentary on the Helvetica font last night and I can state unequivocally that font designers are crazier than architects. I take little comfort in that but it was quite interesting to learn about the history of something that nearly everyone takes for granted. Although we associate Helvetica with modernism, its creation post dates some of the most significant revolutions in visual modernism like Constructivism, the Bauhaus School, and the International Style. It is also completely different from the pure artwork of the great modern artists like Klee, Pollock, Picasso, and Rothko.

This morning I found myself paying a lot more attention to the fonts on signs and titles. While I am now more aware of the ubiquity of the font, and the aspects that make it unique in comparison to other sans serif fonts (like ARIAL) I am not sure that it is such a big deal.

What I'm interested in observing is whether or not it will retain its dominance in essential signage fifty years from now. I'm willing to put a dollar on it still being important.

Friday, April 15, 2011

forgetfulness of things past

This building no longer exists and I doubt anyone cares.

Yesterday I made the claim that Brasilia was a singular creation. I was wrong about that. After reflecting on the matter, and doing some cursory research, I now consider the place to be less exceptional than I originally thought. Because Brasilia is often portrayed, in words and images, as a unified expression of the ideals of modernism, it is easy to overlook that its ultimate development path now resembles practically every other city on the planet. What I mean by this is that its growth and architecture is becoming more organic over time. Also, the planning motifs that characterize the original model of the city are consistently classical in their origin. The one exception is the traffic planning, but that can be regarded as a reactive gesture.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

come to brasilia (or don't)

I was about to launch into another long-winded and pointless critique of modern architecture, but I think that is getting stale, or in fact, is completely stale and futile, except when I've found an audience that is young and impressionable.

Brasilia is a singular creation, and if the people of Brazil deem it worth preserving, then more power to them. Given that it is an entire city, and represents a considerable capital investment, I think that its preservation, in some form, is guaranteed for at least a few more decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

sarcasm and irony

This image is lifted from a website called and is from the English translation of The Airtight Garage by Jean Giraud (Moebius). The rest of the post has nothing to do with the picture.

I wonder if sarcasm and irony still hold onto the same share of language usage as they have in the past. Even a simple literal statement such as "The cat is in the house" can be made into a sarcastic and abrasive comment with the appropriate context and inflection. But, how can this inflection be conveyed effectively in a world where language media allows for fast editing and instantaneous redistribution? If a president or prime minister makes a comment about the cat being in the house with obvious ironic overtones then all hell breaks loose when news organizations report on it and editorials and blogs respond to the decontextualized statement. Consequently, those in power try to avoid communicating with irony, sarcasm and metaphor for fear of being misrepresented, and the overall effect is to diminish the effectiveness of our communication.

One could argue that it is more important to be literal and honest at all times, but this ignores the capacity of the human mind to make more of information than what is merely stated. This capacity is more essential to understanding than what can be conveyed by purely true statements.

continuing this month's residential theme

This is a photo of an apartment block in Berlin, Germany that I came across on Al Jazeera. These buildings were constructed during the reign of Honnecker, and according to the article, were meant to help consolidate control over every aspect of people's lives. The success of that effort did not survive the test of history.

People are moving out of this part of Berlin, and I like to think that the architectural decisions have something to do with that. I'm not sure if the color schemes on the buildings date from the East German period. Such frivolous expression seems inconsistent with the ideals of a purely equal worker's paradise.

Monday, April 11, 2011

behnisch architecture

Here is an image of the interior of the Unilever headquarters designed by Behnisch Architecture. It is a good example of the visual dimension of their work, which constitutes a small fraction of what they consider in their practice. The exteriors of Behnisch's buildings display the same intensity of design.

Behnisch comes across as a sincere "green" architect. His firm approaches  sustainability from both quantitative and qualitative points of view. His buildings are responsive to site, client and the best estimation of future events that is possible.

But, how transferable is their work? Their clients, from what I can tell, have had deep pockets and have turned to Behnisch for trophy buildings that help signify their brand as responsible and sophisticated. What is being done about the rank and file?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

why is this a house?

We make the assumption, which is quite reasonable, that this is a dwelling. No objective criteria for scale is given, the details are rudimentary and abstract, and the landscape is barren and devoid of context. From Laugier to Frank Lloyd Wright to Royal Barry Wills to Dwell magazine, there has been a constant dialogue about the fundamental geometry of domestic architecture. The detached single family home, which is the staple of the American landscape and the aspiration of nearly all (or so we are told), is at once modern and ancient. We can imagine some human family from a hundred thousand years ago staking out a claim to a bit of space and defining it with materials.

I wonder if a statistical analysis has been done of the prevalence of this form in the history of domestic architecture. I'm willing to bet that it dominates by a significant margin. After all, a rectangle with a pitched roof lends itself to many climates, multiple materials and a range of scales that are consistent with the proportions of the human body.

But, this is not a house; it is a picture of some shapes on the internet. Thank you Google, for providing SketchUp for free.

Monday, April 4, 2011

the last postmodern house

When I showed this picture to a group of high school students, quite a few of them identified it as "modern" according to some criteria for modern architecture that I had explained to them. Although this is the seminal postmodern house, it is definitely more modern than traditional. The unrelenting geometry, the lack of ornament and the non-classical windows are all linked directly to the International Style and its neighbors.

Post-modernism never ended. We have it in every strip mall in America now--at least every strip mall that has gotten a makeover. I had one professor who tied the frequent use of peaked roofs on box stores to the Trenton Bath houses by Louis Kahn. I think that postmodernism would have happened without the efforts of Venturi and Moore and Stirling. Modernism had demonstrated its marketing power for high rises and corporate office parks, but it's hard to sell hamburgers out of the Farnsworth House.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

whither the u.s. housing market

Fortune magazine had a thoughtful and rather optimistic article on possible trends in U.S. home buying. The author was bullish, pointing to a deep trough in homebuilding which will constrict the supply pipeline, and a rebalancing of renting vs. buying. The main weakness is still demand, which in a new climate of restricted lending, may not recover in a way that can cause a rebound in housing starts, real estate transactions and house prices.

I offer this prediction, which will almost certainly be wrong: House prices will continue to slump in a choppy fashion for the next few years. Distressed markets will balance out recovering markets (Yay Boston!, T.S. Las Vegas) and it will take at least five years before all regions of the country revert back to the Case-Shiller slope. But, even this scenario may be optimistic. Household balance sheets are in tough shape, there is a generation of people who have stagnant wages, poor credit and a sour taste in their mouths from the debacle of the housing bubble. We could reinvigorate demand by adopting a more open immigration policy, but I doubt that such a good idea would gain any traction in our current political landscape.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

le petit trianon

This is my vote for the most handsome building in France. In terms of proportion, restraint  and use of materials it is an excellent piece of architecture. The same cannot be said about the political conditions under which it was created, but architecture has always had a devil's bargain with clients. I hope that it is open to the public now.