ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

american housing chapter 34

Huff Post has an article on a mayor in a town in Alabama who is denying FEMA trailers to people who lost their homes to recent tornadoes. I'd like to hope that the city council, or zoning board of appeals, or whatever appropriate authority in that democratically elected (presumably) government makes an exception to their ordinances so that people who lost their homes can get a roof over their head. Maybe this negative press will sway their decision. But, I shouldn't underestimate the callousness or stupidity of people in power.

The greater danger of FEMA trailers lies in their inappropriate construction, especially in hot/humid climates in the deep south--which may or may not have been corrected. Many of the FEMA trailers shipped to New Orleans following Katrina had vinyl wall coverings that resulted in condensation, mold growth and indoor air quality problems.

Trailers are not a permanent solution to housing, but for some people and for some occasions, they are a lot better than nothing. And more importantly, there are no permanent solutions to housing, anywhere.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

the incomparable pearl fryar

I watched the documentary on Pearl Fryar, the famous topiary gardener and artist, last night and I was struck by a statement he made on the film. It went something like: "It's not about the trees, it's about creating a feeling when a person walks through it..." Olmsted made multiple arguments to that same idea when he was seeking to elevate landscape architecture to its appropriate position in the fine arts. Pearl, whose work and personality is remarkably refreshing and matter-of-fact, enjoys a position of prestige by virtue of his craft--any theoretical discourse associated with his work is secondary.

On a slightly tangential topic, I was thinking about how some historians have made the casual observation that turbulent times have resulted in great art. The premier example of this is the Weimar Republic and the influential and long lasting efforts of Klee and the Bauhaus. I'm beginning to think that there is very little correlation. While I will grant that a repressive social order will inevitably dampen creativity, the converse has little evidence to back it up--Afghanistan and Iraq are not great spots for bohemian expressions and the avante garde. Revolutionary and original art is a rare phenemenon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

picking on christopher alexander

I own this book, and I'll admit that I haven't read it cover to cover, but I'll feel compelled to critique it on the grounds that it falls into the category of "blank slate" design and planning philosophy. The blank slate areas of development in this country are near the exit ramps of major interstates, and we're filling them up with a type of sprawl that doesnt' resemble anything any planner ever dreamt up (I'd love to be proved wrong on that).

Another aspect of Alexander that I found disturbing is his complete disregard for building codes. Architects, at some point in their career, will curse the fools who enshrined the arbitrary dimensions that shape the spaces in buildings, but without those dimensions we'd be killing people at a slightly faster rate. Alexander's advocacy of ad hoc, amateur construction played itself in Haiti, with horrific results. There are a whole bunch of buildings in the Middle East that feature unreinforced concrete construction that are marking off the time before they entomb their inhabitants.

A counterpoint to Alexander is Kristina Ford's book The Trouble With City Planning that opened my eyes to what it is that planners actually do--or try to do. However, it didn't do much to improve my sense of optimism. Municipalities, whether democratically controlled or run by kleptocrats, will make bad decisions with or without the input of expert planners.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

portland maine

A painting, but very effective at capturing a part of Portland. Was there this past weekend and enjoyed the architecture quite a bit. I also went to my first BJ's, and I did not enjoy that architecture so much.

Portland, from what I observed, is primarily a city of wooden houses that are generally well detailed and in dense neighborhoods. This combination has led to some devastating fires, but the city has recovered. To be honest, I'm not sure what is holding the place together and sustaining its apparent prosperity. Government contracts at the Bath shipyard probably have a significant impact on the salary level of some people in Portland, which in turn has a trickle down that can support the quaint shops and stores by the Old Port. I saw some substantial and restrained residential and hospitality projects under construction. Quite a few homeless people as well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

whither california?

The great American housing bubble that is still in the process of deflating hit California particularly hard. Prices for houses like the one I show here soared into the seven figures as people were not deterred by a dysfunctional state government or the threat of natural disasters. The outcome is still unpredictable. Prices will drop, they have to drop, according to the laws of economics (which are not so much laws as very strong principles). But, there still remains the fact that, goshdarnit, California is a nice place to live. There are great views out across the ocean to glorious sunsets, made all the more glorious by air pollution. There is room to spread out, on hillsides and on deserts, and the air is clear and warm. If these salubrious conditions breed madness, so be it. California represents a logical stopping point for the American Dream, and should an earthquake bring things crashing down, it only creates another opportunity for a new set of dreamers who can remake the landscape and their lives.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

the end of a way of information?

This is a post where I make predictions that will turn out to be wrong.

I'm thinking about the end of books, specifically books that are sheafs of pages bound together. The primary way we absorb text on the internet is more similar to scrolls, but there are always ways to link out to other information or search for specific words or phrases. I wonder if books influenced the way we think. We have the phrase "turn the page" to indicate how past events are replaced by future possibilities in a very definite way. I don't regard the internet as an inferior way to transfer information and learn about things, and I don't think that what we have now is a stopping point. I have limited regard for Twitter and other limit based text transmission systems. No one wears bustles or bowler hats anymore.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

is architecture a good investment?

This is a picture of somewhere in the UAE. I filched the picture from Al Jazeera. I doubt that those are green skyscrapers, and I'm not certain if the buildings in the foreground are old buildings, or new buildings that have been detailed to look old.

The question I pose may seem rather dumb, and as a design professional it is my sworn duty to claim, despite any contrary evidence, that architecture is always a worthy and valuable thing. But I can't help but wonder if our ability to generate conditioned space has exceeded its marginal utility when compared to other endeavors--like improved sewers, better food, cleaner air and good entertainment.

The recent recession slowed things down a bit, but the mentality associated with buildings, which depends in large part on a near universal belief in their lasting value, does not seem to have changed. People forget that function is the purpose of form.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

the value of diagrams

This is not architecture. Nor is it a cheap knock-off of Mondrian. It is an effort to begin a discussion about diagrams, which are essential to architectural representation and potentially valuable to pure art.

Architectural documentation--plans, sections, elevations, renderings, models, specifications--are abstract diagrams that at some fundamental level distort the finished architecture. This distortion is necessary in the design and building process because the complexity of a building overwhelms the human senses. Even the new computer software (which is not new at--it is merely an extension of older software) is geared towards abstraction and diagrammatic information organization. An effort towards hyper-realism in architectural presentation is counterproductive and at odds with the descision making infrastructure of the human brain.

Friday, May 13, 2011

war memorials

This is from the blog
I found this one to be the most interesting. Very much science fiction. Or something puzzling in the wilderness.

Somewhat off-topic now. I read a scathing review of some recent books by Sam Harris in the Nation magazine. I can reasonably conclude that some atheists are so devout in their faith that they are now a de facto religion. What architecture will they require to immortalize themselves?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

john portman-architect

This is a picture of the interior of AmericasMart, the trade showroom and buying center that John Portman design back in the late 1950's. I had never heard of this architect until last night, when a student, a native of Atlanta told me how he had designed practically every major building in that city.

Portman is probably the most influential American designer of retail and hospitality complexes. I make that claim without any significant research or evidence--which means that it is just as valid as the claims made about other architects by professional historians.

His work is compelling, professional and sublime in a way that only America is sublime. I can imagine how other architects turn up their nose at what he does, but he gets to laugh all the way to the bank.

Monday, May 9, 2011

leo marx appreciation post

Curiously enough, this was the first image hit when I Googled "old junk cars." It's actually an old dump truck--probably 1930's vintage--and I don't think that it will ever be roadworthy again.

I wonder how long it can sit there before a piece falls off. I can imagine a quiet afternoon, with some animals scurrying around, hiding nuts in the seat upholstery and in the wheel wells, when all of a sudden--THUNK--the door succumbs to gravity and drops to the ground. The creatures will be briefly startled, and then get back to business.

We tend to separate man made items from nature, but there is a miraculous point when the human creation shifts from the realm of people and becomes a pure object. American forests now consist of a taxonomy of plants, animals, and geology. The rusting cars and collapsed cellar holes are a subcategory of the geology. Occasionally a nutrient source, sometimes an obstacle or hazard, and frequently a shelter.

My father owned a dump truck that looked a little like this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

in the shadow of fools

There is legislation currently making its way through the Massachusett's legislature that would place regulations on the construction of high rises that cast shadows in certain parts of the city of Boston. This proposal goes beyond criteria that are set forth in the local zoning rules. The Boston Globe had a good editorial criticizing this bill. Any rule, especially one drafted by some ill-informed politicians to satsify some rich and influential friends, that curtails development in a CITY has negative consequences for the future prosperity of the state.

Why not a bill to outlaw shadows in general. Let us all be too much in the sun.

Why not a l

Thursday, May 5, 2011

masdar city

This photo is from Architectural Record online. It is one of the more inspiring projects in Abu Dhabi. It is in the desert.  Notice the desert around the building complex. Someday, there will be more city, but it will still be surrounded by desert. And beyond that desert, there is more desert. What pathology motivates humans to build things where  conditions so harsh? I live in a wet climate near an ocean that is rising at a gradually accelerating rate. We get lots of rain and although our winters are long, we seem to have adapted. Well, not entirely, we still use too much energy, especially when compared to many folks in the developing world.
What will evenutally happen to this place? When complete, over 90,000 people are supposed to live there, which compared to development surges in many established cities around the globe, is an unremarkable number.

Maybe I'm being too hard, but until everyone starts doing this, one project only highlights the foolishness of other projects that are done under "normal" conditions. And when the oil runs out? What then?

Monday, May 2, 2011

for I dwell here in Arcadia also

This is a picture of a street in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the final place Usama bin Ladin lived. I found this on the following blog: which has some lovely pictures of the town and the surrounding hillsides.

I am tempted to say some rather contrary things about the incident, but I am mindful of how my reputation could be impacted by the wide readership of this blog. Death came in the night, and I helped pay for it. Some people seem surprised that the "Sheik" was in an urban area, but I think that was a reasonable decision on his part. It is harder for a person to try to live in the boondocks and remain anonymous than amongst other people. If you are trying to hide in a rural area or a wilderness, everyone will find out about it quickly because that is the nature of things. When you are in a dense neighborhood, privacy is accomplished more easily. A closed door and a drawn blind is a more effective camouflage than a thousand trees and hills.