ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, June 27, 2011

the rise and fall of great american buildings

This is a doomed building. I blogged about it once last year, and just yesterday, I drove by the place while doing a motor-car tour of Northeastern CT. I make this claim on the basis of the fact that the community around the factory has moved on, its original function is obsolete and its scale prevents a piece-by-piece approach to renovation. Also, and this is most disturbing, it is nearing the tipping point of structural failure and is susceptible to fire and severe water damage that would have a progressively destructive effect on its architecture.

So, in the interests of posterity, it is preserved as an image on this website. Hooray. For the moment it is located in North Grosvenordale, CT.

Friday, June 24, 2011

a ruin on corregidor

I am reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur at the moment. This building is not mentioned in the book but it seemed appropriate for the blog.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

lovely rendering of a high rise in Boston

This is a very good watercolor of a high rise that could be built over the Mass Pike in Boston. Of course, this probably won't get built for at least another decade because of the state of the economy, but one can dream. This rendering view doesn't give any idea of the scale impact at street level near the tower, but take my word for it, it would be an improvement on the current situation.

I made an error in my last post. I said that an architect can make the claim: "I design buildings." This is true up to a point. An architect designs a building within a set of limitations imposed by outside forces, that include client, money, codes and program.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

urban planning

So, the issue of Urban Planning is the topic of this post. I cannot promise coherency or consistency, but I can state with confidence that I do not understand planning and I am not sure what planners do. The closest I came to an understanding was after reading a book by Kristina Ford called the The Trouble With City Planning. It seems that the trouble with planning is that people do not understand what planners do or what planning is.

We're stuck in a loop with this one.

With all due respect to Ford and other professional planners, it seems that the necessity for planning only becomes apparent after something has gone disastrously wrong. In some cases, we can predict what will go wrong, like in New Orleans, but the collapse of Detroit and other dense urban areas, is more complex. I'm not sure what Randall O'Toole means when he calls himself the "Antiplanner" but the lack of clarity demonstrates how weak the concept is. An architect can say with confidence "I design buildings..." whereas an urban planner cannot ever make the claim that "I design cities..."

is there a housing shortage?

Google is being uncooperative with loading graphics today so I can't post the nifty graph that shows how U.S. homebuilding is in the toilet right now. In fact, it's deeper in the hole than at any point since they started tracking data in a consistent fashion--which is only back to 1960ish. This is a problem, because traditionally, housing has been the leading indicator for economic recovery and the ongoing collapse of the housing price bubble has made traditional expectations futile and useless.

I don't know if there is a housing shortage right now, but I can state with confidence, if the current trend persists, then we will have a housing shortage eventually. The U.S. population is growing, and although household formation has stalled, the demand profile has to respond to the demographic inevitability of people moving forward in life and changing their living conditions. Unless,of course,  we really are regressing and have entered a stage of deterioration that will end in a Jared Diamond style collapse of the civilization.

But, what is housing? Ultimately this is a qualitative question, and although building codes have specific criteria, the dynamics of shelter architecture make it hard to assess how much, and how good American housing is.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

paradigm shift #29

Will the Fukushima Nuclear Plant be a game changer in a way that Chernobyl wasn't? There is a groundswell of support for divesting in atomic energy in both Germany and Japan which may actually play out given the technical acumen and political infrastructure in both countries. I've read in some places that energy production for a modern society is impossible without some type of fossil/nuclear mix. I've read in other places that such models are flawed because they don't take into account the potential for reducing energy consumption in our current lifestyle. There is also the claim that people wouldn't be willing to pay the initial upcharge for renewable energy becasue we're so used to cheap power right now. I'm skeptical of that--I pay more for telecom services than I do for energy.

Part of the energy for this blog post is being provided by the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant, pictured above.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

probably the most important building on the planet

This is a picture of the Svalbard Seed Vault, located on a remote island in the Arctic. It is a purely functional building with iconic characteristics. If Hollywood were to make a movie about it the design department would be tasked with making this look overly dramatic. The interior would also be designed to resemble a video game setting--probably with some sort of bottomless pit and lots of robotic equipment that becomes central to some action sequence. In real life, this is what it is. Another qualified expression of human hubris and hope.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

green roof book review

I just finished reading a book called The Green Roof Manual by Edmund Snodgrass and Linda McIntyre. I think that it does an excellent job of describing the current state of green roof design in North America and it is an excellent resource for both designers, contractors and users. The authors do a good job of explaining the costs, risks and benefits of vegetated roof systems. They include photographs and diagrams that are useful and not just pretty to look at. They don't advocate or advertise for any particular vendor for any of the components of a vegetated roof system.

The graphic featured above shows the best way to waterproof, insulate and install an extensive green roof. Note that the insulation is above the waterproofing. Also, the drainage/water storage area could be done with a coarse aggregate (depending on the circumstances).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Not every office worker is lucky enough to have a window, or in many cases, an office. But a window is more than a source of light and air and information about the conditions outside. It is a "fifth" wall that serves to transform any space, no matter how mundane, into something that is naturalized and dimensionless. The psychological effect of a window cannot be quantified, but in nearly all circumstances, it is a positive feature.
It's also worth noting, and this picture serves as a good example of this concept, that a little bit of window can go a long way. The big sheets of glass that look good in magazine photographs or real estate brochures carry the dimensionless quality of a window too far.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

planning and architecture

I recently read a book on planning by Kristina Ford and have been meaning to discuss it on this blog. This a reminder to myself to do this.

meanwhile in china

In a few posts over the past year I have been rather critical of the architectural expansion in some specific desert locations (Dubai, etc...). I have also signed on to the notion that there is a real estate bubble in China, which makes the subject of this post hypocritical. On the long run, I am bullish on Chinese investments in infrastructure and architecture for the simple reason that they have a lot of people and there seems to be an appreciation amongst the leadership for comprehensive, structural development. This development can also be distinguished from the madness of Stalinism or Maoism, which resulted in inefficient heavy industry managed by corrupt idiots. Chinese consumer culture is nascent, but inevitable in its growth. I am more concerned about the gender imbalance, but that may be corrected by natural forces and incentives.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

something that puzzles me

Why do hospitals spend money on elaborate architecture and advertising? Many hospitals are non-profits, and  for a non-profit that serves such a critical function like medicine, why are resources devoted to the design of spaces like this? I am being too cynical, but the second part of my question--why do hospitals take out full page ads in newspapers, is something that I find more disturbing. Competition amongst health care providers leads to positional arms races--which cannot benefit patient care or caregivers. But, I am naive, so will we just admire this lovely space at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

vertical forces in buildings

This is to serve as a reminder to myself about the importance of securing structures to their foundations. It used to be common practice to let gravity take care of this, and gravity, despite its weakness relative to the other universal forces, has a good track record for reliability.
But, rare events like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods can overwhelm gravity. I doubt that foundation bolts would have saved this house, but they would have prevented it from overturning.

For the record, I live in a house that is not bolted to its foundation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

rudolph schindler

He apparently had some designs for log homes, but Google images didn't have any, so here is a random shot of the interior of the Wilson House, somewhere in Calfornia.

Like with many modern architects, I'm underwhelmed with him. He cultivated a Frank Lloyd Wrightish design style that had enough unique gestures to distinguish it from "ordinary" modernism. His houses look and feel client and site specific, so at least in that regard, he acted professionally. For me, everything looks dated and repressed. I can imagine Kubrick shooting a scene from Clockwork Orange in these type of homes, and while things may not have been that extreme, the odor of decay can't be scrubbed out of the stained woodwork and harsh plaster. Maybe there was an original Pollock over the fireplace, but it was sold by the estate. Now, the house is just waiting for Brad Pitt to add it to his collection, and possibly, open it up to tours.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

where this blog lives (possibly)

According to the website I filched this image from this is a Google server farm building. It is probably located on low cost land somewhere on a road in a suburban industrial park in Anywhere, USA. I would like to hope that Google stores this blog in several places and has not succumbed to the cost-cutting expediency of eliminating redundancy.

This building forms one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure of our modern world. It is also completely banal. But, some architect drew plans for this, and received a paycheck that he (and it's still often a "he" in the design profession) used to buy groceries, and ate and slept and dreamt of tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Friday, June 3, 2011

lagos, nigeria

A place I know next to nothing about. I can say the same about many American and European cities, but for those places I can make certain assumptions that would probably turn out to be true. For example, I am fairly certain that Camden, New Jersey has a functional water and sewer system, a municipal waste department, and a building code enforcement department. I cannot make those assumptions about this place.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

jean nouvel in qatar

Rendering of the National Museum of Qatar, by Jean Nouvel.

I seem to feature a lot of architecture that is in deserts. I don't have a desert obsession that I am consciously aware of, rather it is because some of the most important architectural developments in the last decade have taken place in the Middle East.

This building looks like a studio project. I doubt that I could design like this, or if I did, I doubt that I would have the courage to take it to completion. This building seems to have some climate and program responsive features, although it does remind me of a collection of dinner plates that got dropped on a couch.