ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

adolf loos day

There's no particular reason, but today is Adolf Loos day at Towers of Ilium. This is a picture of the Michaelerplatz building in Vienna which he designed in 1911. When I was a young architecture student I remember how one of my colleagues at the office remarked that this was "great looking building." At the time, I wasn't quite sure what defined "great" or "bad" in a work of architecture and it's taken me a few years to appreciate why this building deserves the "great" title. One reason is that it reinforces an urban condition with its open street level facade and helps define the public space in front of it. It has a clear front entrance and the two tone treatment of the facade emphasizes the public levels of the first two floors and the private character of the upper floors. The detailing is resolutely classical, but the details are handled with considerable discretion. The proportions of the openings are human scaled and arranged in a consistent rhythm on the facade--Loos even employs the classical trick of graduating the height of the windows based on their height above the ground.

I wonder what it's like inside?

Monday, September 26, 2011

rhode island promotion post

This is a picture of the old Hope Webbing Factory building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Since this photo was taken, many parts of the building have been repurposed as artist's studios, restaurants, offices, Pilate's studios and retail space. I went to dinner at a place called Rosinha's which I can't say enough good things about. The complex has been rebranded as the Hope Artiste Village. I hope that it is successful, and despite the dismal state of the Rhode Island economy, this place might have enough momentum to grow and prosper.

This photograph conceals the true size of the complex. There are one story appendages that extend back from the front of the building and go on forever.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

moving forward

This is the Aqua Building in Chicago by Jeanne Gang. I was briefly involved in an online discussion about the project yesterday in which some critical observations were made about the LEED rating given to the building. The whole can-highrises-be-green? issue isn't something that I want to get into at the moment. The focus on Gang dovetailed with an article  read this morning at HuffPost that pointed out how female architects are still grossly underrepresented in the profession. I think the correction to this imbalance is already underway, and the process takes so long because of the longevity associated with practicing designers--we tend to work until our body gets hauled away from our desk.

I'm skeptical of the notion that the gender bias in the profession reflects innate abilities. Architecture involves listening to people, assessing needs, and applying a creative geometric solution with the appropriate materials. Anybody can do that, although a lot of folks who get into design mess up because they don't do well with the "listening to people" part of the equation. I'm also skeptical of the notion that forms and materials in a building can be assigned a gender. Gang achieved a sensuous beauty in the Aqua tower, but Saarinen did the same thing at Dulles Airport. Hadid and Libeskind  use acute angles and tilted walls. Although oak panelling is associated with a man's study and pink walls are associated with a teenaged girl's bedroom, those are stylistic choices imposed by a cultural period.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

the recession is over

Trusted sources (see photo above) confirm that we can all stop worrying now and go on with our lives safe in the knowledge that everything is fine with the economy and the bright sunshine of a just and verdant world awaits us all. I am referring in part to the news that the Architectural Billings Index has posted a mild gain for the month of August, which signals the possibility that commercial real estate investment will pick up sometime next year. So, everything will be fine and there's no need to worry about the fact that the architecture and construction business (residential and commercial) has been operating at its lowest level since the Great Depression and unemployment in the industry accounts for an outsized proportion of the suffering in the nation. It's important that we try not consider the possibility that the recent uptick in the ABI, which follows more than three years of fairly consistent declines, is a temporary phenomenon that reflects misplaced optimism at the beginning of the summer in the private sector. This optimism is now under assault by the continued depressed state of the economy, mild inflationary pressures, the Euro crisis and the realization that we still have unusually high amounts of architectural inventory in the form of retail, residential and office space.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

north korea architecture day

So, this is a worker's paradise. The blue tinted buildings aren't just a phenomenon of N. Korea--I've seen pictures of blue buildings and blue roofs in S. Korea as well. There's something unsettling about this picture. Even if I hadn't been told it was in N. Korea I don't think I would have confused this with any city in the U.S. or Europe. There are no signs, and the street traffic is sparse, verging on non-existent. The windows in the buildings are just a bit too small and the massing of the structures has no overtly artistic gestures. Does this represent some sort of triumph for the tenets of modernism? Or, is it a bizarre distortion of idealistic principles?

Monday, September 19, 2011

mendelsohn appreciation day

A frequent comment about Erich Mendelsohn is that his spirit is better preserved by virtue of the fact that so many of his sketches for buildings remain unbuilt and unbuildable. (Of course, China may be working on a full scale Mendelsohn theme park as we speak, merely as a way to exercise their construction industry)

How did he draw like that? How do we know that they are buildings and not abstract sculpture?

One issue with his designs that gives credence to my claim that his work is unbuildable lies in the way that surfaces are portrayed as perfectly seamless. Building scale prohibits this effect except for a brief period immediately after the cladding is applied. From that point on, everything deteriorates. Modern buildings that look seamless are simply a collection of well-organized control joints. Mendelsohn's work captures the spirit of movement, but denies its impact at the level of the detail.

Friday, September 16, 2011

looking backwards

I'm a big fan of blogs by popular economists (Tyler Cowen, Krugman, Dean Baker) and I rely on them for better information than I find in the morning newspaper on topics as diverse as inflation, globalization and sports. Despite frequent ideological and methodological differences, their core beliefs are often similar. Contrary to the idea of the "dismal science" nearly all of these academic economists are resolutely optimistic, growth oriented and convinced that the way forward is always, well, forward. Very rarely do they discuss the possibility of horrifically regressive trends in culture and economy. While the term "creative destruction" isn't brought up much, economists focus on long term trends that verify the grow and expand posture. Long term unemployment, from the perspective of most researchers, is a condition that is measured in months, with an upper bound of two years for extreme circumstances. Very few discuss the chilling possibility of real long-term unemployment and underemployment that can last decades or generations. Nor do they spend too much time on the subject of complete social and physical breakdown--leaving descriptions of those conditions to the movie industry (See: Road Warrior, The).

The devastation above was financed by deficit spending.

Monday, September 12, 2011

memorials to nyc

I'm one of five people in the world who considers the 1970's to be the golden age of American film. Among the best  films produced during that era is Shaft, released in 1971, which I saw for the first time just recently.
My favorite character in the movie is the city, and I think that few media can portray the architectural character of that era more effectively. New York was able to shrug off the ill effects of 9/11 with considerably less effort than the long degradation that was the hallmark of American urban centers in the 60's and 70's. But Shaft captures the inherent strength and fundamental beauty of Manhattan. Long streets flanked by solid, conservatively decorated buildings; storefronts catering to any human need; people and cars moving with a sense of purpose (my goodness! the cars, the cars are all the size of aircraft carriers....).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

melnikov house-first impressions

This is the interior of the Melnikov house, which Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov designed and built for himself in the 1920's. I had never heard of it before today and I'm excited by it's innovative geometry. It reminds me a little bit of a a castle, but the light is better. I like how they furnished it for the photograph (I think it has been preserved as a museum) because I can picture human beings actually living in the place. The stairs are a bit treacherous looking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

9/11 retrospective part 3

This is a photograph of the interior of one of the buildings in the Pruit-Igoe housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki. The buildings were demolished in 1972, at the same time as Yamasaki's most famous buildings, the World Trade Centers, were nearing the end of construction.

I take a harsh point of view towards the architectural decisions that went into many works of "modern" architecture. As I get older, I am holding the architects of record less responsible for some of those mistakes.
I'm also unimpressed with the character of the new, formerly named "Freedom Tower" at the WTC site. Not so much because of its architecture, but because it was planned and designed with the same mindset that informed the original development. It's a more robust building, and will most certainly be a nicer place to work than what Yamasaki designed.

This photo shows the potential fate of all architecture. Whereas some ruins look glamorous and sublime, this is merely sublime. Or pointless, depending on your point of view.

Monday, September 5, 2011

multi-generational housing

Very exciting graphic today. I'm trying to organize my thoughts for a competition on residential housing--a subject that I like to claim that I know a lot about, but I've really never put to the test. One subject for consideration is the idea of multi-generational housing models--i.e. a situation where a related family occupies one architectural complex. This is hardly a new idea, nor is it a prevalent circumstance in the American housing market (roughly 5 million households--or less than 8% of all dwelling units). Anything that challenges the model of the nuclear family is worth exploring. The standard minimum program for the "American" house is 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, kitchen, living room and dining area, with an attached 2 car garage. Anything less results in a real estate discount, anything more reflects a premium which is not always proportional to the costs associated with expanding the physical plant of the house.
Although the nuclear family house reflects an aspirational paradigm of the happy couple with two children and a dog and cat, the reality of this family dynamic is improved by having a minimum of 4 bedrooms so that in-laws can stay over more frequently to help with child-rearing.