ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

another green building

This is a rendering of the Bullitt Center in Seattle, designed by the firm Miller/Hull. It can be described as a net-zero/energy positive office building with comprehensive water gathering and recycling systems. Most significantly, it is supposed to have a 250 year lifespan, which puts it at odds with current methods of real estate and financing planning.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. I support it as a matter of principle and I admire the design features which make it climate appropriate (big roof, the right number of windows, compact footprint). It stands a good chance of being around in 250 years, if Seattle is, at any rate--don't they have a semi-active volcano nearby?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I have no reason to complain, really

Irene left our house without electricity, and as of this post, it still hasn't been fixed. The circumstance demonstrates how amazing public services are, and how dependent we are on them for comfort, freedom, productivity and happiness. And, it only costs a few dollars a day, which is considerably more than the folks in this place (Mumbai) can afford. Actually, I'm not sure why they don't have public services, and I don't hold with those who claim that it can't be done, or that there aren't enough resources to support everyone with the same level of service as in this country. Once an investment is made in infrastructure, the carrying costs, which are spread amongst everyone, are remarkably low.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

first earthquake, now hurricane irene

As of this moment, the hurricane is beating up the Outer Banks and parts of Virginia. I'm wondering how points further north will fare, given that the New Jersey/New York Metro areas haven't experienced anything like this for a while. I hope nothing too drastic happens. Although it is informative when buildings and infrastructure are tested to their design limits, there are less destructive ways of determining how well stuff we build works.

Architecture is still so far from a science that terms like "building science" make me smile. Science is not about absolute predictability, but through the efforts to accumulate information from many events, greater clarity can be achieved about the probable outcome of events. Architects delight in making outrageous claims and there is very little follow-up in our profession. Insurance companies, however, take a harder look at building performance during events like the one we are about to experience. I hope I'm not a statistic.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

virginia earthquake felt here at towers of ilium

We just experienced the delayed effects of an earthquake that originated in Virginia. Our building, which is an 8 story, cast in place concrete structure that dates from the 1920's swayed back and forth to a degree that I had never experienced before. It was a good reminder of the elasticity of most building materials.

Post edited--Towers of Ilium would like to apologize for spelling and grammar errors in recent posts. The people responsible have been sacked.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

random picture for the weekend

Another magnificent display of architecture and urban planning, or the lack thereof. I prefer the term "organic design" to describe this, which like evolution, is not really design at all. In fact, the snarky comment about urban planning is off base, because this condition is clearly not planned. Certain pieces were planned, but in general isolation from other planned things.  Thus, it is "organic" which in this instance implies something bad, but in the broader context, doesn't have anything to do with morality.

But, we make it work, because we humans are adaptable and complacent.

Friday, August 19, 2011

new blade runner movie

So, since everyone else is talking about Ridley Scott's plan to make another Blade Runner movie, I thought that I'd waste some computer time
 on it also.

As a story, I think it's cracked--full of plot holes, inconsistencies and a generally implausible narrative. Harrison Ford looks confused, but he plays it. Even so, it's better than the Philip K. Dick original story, which is just completely messed up and nearly unreadable.

But, Blade Runner is about the architecture of a future, and not a very pleasant one at that. The film manages to create a simultaneous effect of overwhelming scale and insanity provoking claustrophobia--all in the same scene. I've only seen it on the big screen once, and it was an eye opener for me. I'm worried that Scott will go CGI crazy in his planned film. The temptation to add visual clutter is overwhelming, and the ultimate effect could be boredom.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

thoughts on the 9/11 memorial

In general, I think that the design by Arad and Walker is pretty good. There is lots of public space, walkways, trees, benches and decent southern exposure. The office workers will have a nice place to walk  and eat lunch, and presumably, contemplate the events that resulted in some second-rate real estate being transformed into a park. The scale of the tower pools may be a bit overwhelming, but that is part of the symbolism. I'm worried about maintenance for the pumps that keep the water circulating. It will be embarassing if they break down.
I've travelled to ground zero a few times since the attack and it's been hard for me to visualize what could, or should go there. When I was in N.Y. back in the 90's I never bothered to make a trip down there so I have no frame of reference to compare what they're building to what used to be there. It is very much Manhattan--big buildings, busy streets, people walking with a sense of purpose.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

a language pattern

Something crossed my mind lately. Human beings tend to be good at pattern recognition, as it is expressed in any of the senses. I'm beginning to wonder if our actual power is in pattern assumption. We apply an imaginary order to sensory input, or more frequently, our brains generate a pattern that is then applied to something in nature. Thus, everything is approached with prejudice and we are incapable of random actions.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

walkable communities

This post features actual research. Well, by my low standards, it's research. Following a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago, where I was critical of the walkable character of Quincy, Massachusetts, I spent a few minutes on "testing" how pedestrian friendly certain communities are.  Quincy, with a rating of 85, is considered very walkable. Some of the other followers of this blog (yes, I know where you live and work, those of you who work, that is) live in considerably less walkable places.

I am critical of WalkScore's methodology and results. Their algorithm seems to catalogue the relative density and diversity of public and private amenities like schools, shops, banks, hair salons, as measured from a fixed zip code datum. This zip code datum, which generalizes and condenses the broad sweep of a geographical human settlement into a convenient, fixed point, is biased towards any major type of population center. Houston, Texas and Dayton, Ohio are considered walkable communities, and if you have a residence near the downtown area, then this is true. However, most people do not live near the "main drag" where most businesses and public resources are located. This is especially true for Quincy, where several commercial clusters dominate certain arteries and the major blocks of residential neighborhoods, consisting of one and two family dwellings, surround these amenity zones. A ten minute walk from my house lets me get to a multitude of amenities, but I still own, and to a certain extent, depend on an automobile.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

abandoned civilizations

This is an image of a Mayan temple in Palenque, Mexico. The surrounding human settlement and the social organization that made this monument possible were impressive and lasted for centuries. Presumably, some bad decisions about resource management, both environmental and cultural, precipitated the downfall of the city and a population collapse. There were definitely other factors that resulted in its downfall, and I doubt that we'll ever know what really happened.

Complete social collapse has been the subject of many good books, ranging from Gibbon's treatise on the Roman Empire to Jared Diamond's aptly titled Collapse. While both are subject to endless criticism, they force us to confront the issue of social and institutional mortality. Absent a rare event like an asteroid strike, most geological changes move at a far slower pace than human decision making. Even earthquakes and volcanoes, which have a devastating effect on architecture, have a limited scope, both in area and time. I believe that a strong culture can persist and prosper in a changing environment if they have a strong rule set. So, in effect, I'm blaming the Mayans for not doing more to preserve themselves when they had a long run of bad luck.

Now, since I live in a house that sits about twelve feet above sea level, I'm wondering what set of bad decisions I'm contributing to that could result in my turning into a penniless and starving refugee, struggling to survive while everything falls apart around me.

The next post will be more slightly more cheerful.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

unnatural landscapes

This is an old stone quarry in England, near Devon, and all that you see is the result of human intervention over the ages. It is a devastation that has become the sublime and is an essential part of English history and folklore. A Celt or a Roman might have seen forests from this vantage point, and their absence now speaks to the decisions, some bad, most inadvertent, that transformed it in such an astonishing fashion.

I find it beautiful, and I'm not sure what the future holds for this place. As I write this, there is unrest in London, which I would like to believe is a consequence of the government's disengagement with its younger citizens. Would it make a difference if some of them lived here? What would they do?

Update: The quarry is in Devon, and near Princetown. Classic moor country. Also, my claims about the predominance of forested land over history are completely unsubstantiated. The only valid claim is that there is a high probability that various human activities regularly deforested the British Isles multiple times over a period of three thousand years.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

international association of architectural sketching

Here is something I did. Not Mendelsohn but he can't be imitated or matched by anyone. I'm not sure how well you can do sketches on tablets or other devices. ONly recently have I begun actively designing with software, like SketchUP or regular CAD. The feeling isn't there and for my generation, I don't think it ever will be. The newer generations might feel more comfortable, but I'm not seeing that in portfolio work to the degree that I would expect. Commercial renderings are almost all computer now, but I don't think the by-hand method will be supplanted completely.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

some saarinen for today-dulles international airport terminal

This is one of the more elegant modern buildings ever built, possible the most elegant, although Louis Kahn did a show stopper with the Kimbell Art Museum.
What I like most about it is that it proves how versatile sheds can be. A row of columns and a roof can give you both a functional and beautiful building. I've read in places that we haven't quite settled on the perfect form for the airport terminal. I think that is an unfair criticism because all transportation buildings suffer from a philosophical transience. At some point they get worn out and it makes sense to build fresh. More work for the profession.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

skinny house

Those crazy Europeans. Always trying to be avante-garde. This is a model of a proposed 30" wide house that would fit in an alleyway. Building codes can't treat it as a building because it doesn't conform to minimum dimensional requirements so the architect is trying to get it built as an art installation. I wish him luck.

Meanwhile, folks on submarines put up with a lot less space.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

criticism of a clever idea

This is hypothetical temporary dwelling that could be built using QuaDror prefabricated panels. There's more to the concept than this, and I will admit that the geometry is a lot more clever than anything I could come up with.
I am deeply skeptical of any architectural pre-fab solution. The issues of scale and joinery details tend to overwhelm any benefits associated with the cleverness of the design. And, as always, what about the site-work? Every project I've ever been associated with or seen or read about has had sitework issues that dominate the schedule, the budget and the initial and final architectural solution.