ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, October 31, 2011

a plausible design

This is a building that one of my students designed for corner lot on a major avenune in Boston. I happen to think he did a good job. It's a bit larger than the other buildings around it, but it makes a statement about the urban quality of its location and the potential for more density. The plan features ground floor commercial space and 8 apartments on the second and third floors. It's a classic model of mixed use, and because it's so sensible, it would require a zoning variance and several other political and economic miracles to get built.

That's the way it goes in Boston and many other places. The character of urban development that makes some cities so successful is contradicted by current regulations. Some of them, probably most of them, are a good idea, like fire codes that restricted large, wood-framed apartment buildings. Zoning ordinances baffle me sometimes, but then, if this were proposed down the street from my house, I'm not sure how I'd feel about it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

erik gunnar asplund tribute day

Since I'm so down on modern architecture most of the time I thought it would be good to start discussing some examples of good and timeless design. Since it's a Sunday, its appropriate to feature the Woodland Chapel, which exemplifies the best of both classical and modern design. It is a transcendent work of art and space, and it is so modest and unpretentious that the more profound aspects of its design don't immediately reveal themselves. From the outside, it is a geometrically clever pastiche of two ancient building forms--a pyramid sits on top of a four column front Greek temple. Inside the building there is a small Pantheon.
The two major plan spaces are golden section rectangles, more or less. The structure of the building appears to be mostly wood, in keeping with the location and craft traditions of the region.

It is architecturally pure and unambiguous in its character and purpose. Whether used as a space for ceremony or individual contemplation it stands out as one of the most successful buildings of the 20th century.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

something resembling a sketch

And, I have no idea how this could be turned into a building without disrupting the immediacy and continuity of the drawing. I've been trying to sketch more and I'm realizing that I'm so geared towards architecture that I have trouble drawing non-architectural subjects. I guess I'm a specialist now. If you want portraits or logos, you'll need to hire someone who does that full time.

But, are architects still the last generalists, as I've heard some people claim? Our profession, despite advances in technology, still provides a specific service for specific situations. An experienced architect who can provide good service has a degree of adaptability, but he or she is much more effective if the majority of work is concentrated in a narrow range of building types. Those designers with a surfeit of hubris would claim otherwise.

Friday, October 28, 2011

murchison house

In general, I remain highly skeptical of the Modernist experiment in residential housing. This house, designed by Walter Gropius, is being restored by its new owner. But, what is restoration? The construction techniques and materials employed by the modern practitioners from the 30's, 40's and 50's were not particularly novel or robust. Or, when they were novel, they were unsuited to New England. This place is no exception and I see any effort at restoration to be an activity framed by the opportunity to make decisions that could improve the functionality of the house but threatening to its authenticity. And what is that "authenticity" that makes it such a relevant example of the period?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

aging in america (and all other places)

This is the lovely spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum, which I didn't know existed until it was brought to my attention by the glorious Google image search.  I hope I get a chance to visit this before I get too old or to incapicated to climb stairs. Barrier free design has been one of the most significant movements in architecture in the past few decades, probably the most significant in terms of changing the built landscape. Curiously, residential architecture is still neglecting it. Some of this is driven by money--a two story house provides greater economy in terms of land use, foundation use and public/private separation. Also, the more generous circulation spaces that are now required in public and commercial architecture would be interpreted as wasted space by a homeowner--a five foot wide hallway or accessible bathroom would impose real costs on most people. The greater impediment to progress is the condition of unhampered mobility that our normally healthy bodies provide us. We design and build houses for the 80-90% of our lives when we don't have significant mobility issues. I'm not sure how to make progress in this area. I have worked with a fair number  of elderly clients, and the prudent ones have opted towards ground floor master bedrooms with large bedrooms and closets, but this choice is open to only the very wealthy. The increased space is a function of wealth with a coincidental effect of providing for a more accessible future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

riding in my car

This is from Calculated Risk. It shows how much we drive as a nation. Most economists interpret vehicle miles driven as a good indicator of general economic growth. Most environmentalists interpret it as the footsteps of doom. I'm ambivalent, but since I'm not an expert, my opinion isn't even worth the paper this blog isn't printed on.

As someone once pointed out to me in a matter of fact way: "People drive cars." But does transportation at our current level really define our prosperity? The internet is not a substitute for transportation, but if we have to move around less are we going to be less happy and feel less free?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

teddy cruz

A friend recommended that I look at the work this fellow has done, so I'm blogging about it as a reminder to do this. From what I can tell so far, he looks closely at organic models of residential/urban development for inspiration in an effort to change some of the rigid models of developed world planning. He might be, and I'm jumping to conclusions here, a slightly more sophisticated Randall O'Toole, and more adept graphically.

The planning model of color-coded, restricted use zoning has come to define the American landscape. It drives me crazy, but I live in one of those neighborhoods and would react strongly to certain types of commercial or social uses next door to me (but just two streets down next to someone else would be fine, of course!). And what about the cars? Always the critical question.

Monday, October 17, 2011

a claim worth looking into

A colleague of mine recently opened my eyes to an unusual feature of the housing market in Saudi Arabia. He pointed out that there is a housing shortage in the country, and that Saudi families are a bit larger than American or European families (the latter feeds the former). He also claimed that the primary development model for new homes in the country is a "villa" that was introduced by a California planning organization in the 1970's. This "villa" which he described as a detached, five bedroom dwelling, sounds remarkably like a typical American suburban model, albeit with more bedrooms. The higher density development shown in this picture may not be representative of what the Saudi people want, or what my be built in the future. I'm amazed that the prototypes of American suburbia have been so effectively transported around the world and that they capture the attention and desire of people who have a different cultural heritage.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

not richardson

I visited the Cambridge Public Library yesterday. Despite the oft-remarked upon demise of print media there wasn't an empty seat in the entire building. I suppose people still need spaces to process information, even if they have portable devices that make nearly all information immediately accessible (side note: Siri and Google have reached the singularity).

I'd like to comment on the original Library building, designed by van Brunt & Howe, which is a knock-off/tribute to H.H. Richardson. How can we tell that it isn't a pure H.H. Richardson building? For one thing, the massing is just slightly off--the section of the building on the left side of the tower is only slightly larger than the right. Richardson would have made the difference more pronounced. The tower is a bit timid looking, both in scale and detailing. The dormers on the roof above the arches on the left are oversized and the ornamentation is fussy. Finally, the intersection between the tower and the gabled portion of the facade is weakly executed. There is a little scrap of roof that connects the two pieces. Richardson tended to jam building elements together more tightly and adjust the details to make everything appear dynamic and muscular.

Friday, October 14, 2011

landscape architecture and the future

I have no idea what this is a picture of, it just seemed appropriate for today's post.

But first, some housekeeping. My earlier post on the bankruptcy filing of Friendly's restaurant wasn't accurate. An article in today's Boston Globe discussed how the private equity firm that owns the brand is trying to restructure. One of their reasons for filing for Chapter 11, according to the article, is that it would allow for an elimination of pension obligations. We'll see how this plays out. Based on some things I've observed, I think the franchise has run its course.

Now, for landscape architecture, which, from everything I've seen, is much more comprehensive, sensitive and intelligent than building architecture. Landscape architecture considers the full temporal and spatial impact of human interventions on the surface of the planet, and below ground, and the sky above. By adopting this holistic attitude, the educational and professional infrastructure of landscape design achieves a well-justified superiority in relation to other parts of the design field. Building architects have had their moment in the sun, and have demonstrated a frequent inability to think very far beyond the walls of the building and the concerns of the client. I'm being harsh, but from a perspective of time management, a building architect has an obligation to enclosure and space use issues, and the broader impact of the building on its site tends to be relegated to a lower status. The landscape architect, who in the past got instructions from the architect as to the placement, height, and circulation pattern of the building, will in the future more thoroughly integrated into the beginning of the design process.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

places to visit, but not yet

This is a Roman ruin somewhere in Libya. I can't tell what this building/space was used for, but it's impressive looking. I've always been curious about Libya, and I hope that things turn out the best for people there. Their history is incredible, and their potential for the future is enormous. The Colonel was eccentric, to say the least, but from what I gather, the country wasn't completely looted by him, his cronies and foreign companies.

If I remember my history correctly, it used to be a major grain exporter to the Romans. Now they can sell oil for the next few decades, which if managed correctly, isn't a bad gig. I suspect there are some beautiful areas along the coast, and I'm sure that there are plenty of sublime moments out in their big piece of the Sahara desert.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

a good idea?

This is a graphic from an ad from SolarCity, a California based company that has recently started advertising in Massachusetts, and presumably, other places. Their business model is based on a lease plan for photovoltaic panel systems and they are claiming that monthly lease fees can end up being less than monthly utility costs.

Solar panels on roofs of detached single family homes has always seemed like a good idea to me. I'm not sure I would take the plunge on this for my own house, but I can see how it could appeal to new homeowners.

And the aesthetic impact? So what? It's not that different than having a car parked in a driveway.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

death knell of yet another american icon

Friendly Restaurant chain has filed for bankruptcy, citing declining sales and the general impact of the recession. I am of the opinion that they have succumbed to the Howard Johnson phenomenon; a disease that is unique to heavily branded and highly visible retail businesses. Howard Johnson, which started in the store  pictured above in Quincy, Massachusetts, helped pioneer the travel based franchise dining experience. The founders built stores along interstates, served reliable food and established a reputation that made lots of money for a long time. And then, it all ended. There are now only three Howard Johnson stores left in the country, and although the motel/hotel chain seems to be steady the big orange roofs that so many Baby Boomers recognize is just another piece of American legend. The cause of their demise, and the cause of Friendly's demise, is the fact that a certain generation of people who were used to eating there lost interest, and more significantly, their children lost interest. "Who wants to go to McDonald's" became a rallying cry that eroded market share for the restaurant and the general deterioration of physical plant probably had the additional impact of making the place less and less attractive. I

I don't think it was a failure of management, a failure of food, or a failure of design. Generational tastes change, consumers are fickle and urban geography evolves in a way that leaves some places in the wrong place and in the wrong era.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

passing fad or durable expression of high design?

Who wants one of these? Journalist Megan McArdle is willing to bet that less people will want stainless appliances and granite countertops in the near future. (link here)

I don't think that such design trends can be written off that quickly. The dominant trend in home fixtures and finishes isn't one particular hot style line or material. The trend is diversification, so that every design trend gets a chance to be the ONE that some people desire. Market share can ebb and flow, but the pie keeps on growing and more slices get carved out by new things.

I think stone countertops will enjoy a long tenure at the top of the "must have" list. I predict that stainless steel appliances will start to undergo countless stylistic tweaks that will have the aggregate effect of making them more diversified in appearance, and probably, further disassociated visually from their functional roots.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

no picture tuesday

Boston says no to Wal-Mart. At least, according to an article in the Globe this morning, which represents the latest installment in coverage on the efforts of the company to establish stores in the city. I don't feel that strongly about this, partly because I don't live in Boston, and partly because I've grown to accept Wal-Mart as a fact of life. But, and I want to emphasize this, I don't regard Wal-Mart as a permanent phenomenon, and I think that some people who object to Wal-Mart invest it with more symbolic power than it actually has. Ultimately, its business model will be supplanted by something else, or if they are intelligently managed, they will change into something that people prefer more.

The notion that a city should be infused with a robust variety of independent shopkeepers is a nice idea, but it can be nostalgic, and potentially dangerous. If a city government rejects any type of improvement in a specific area because that improvement doesn't meet some gold standard of quality or conform to an aesthetic notion of planning, then nothing will ever happen.

Monday, October 3, 2011

the limits of experience

I had originally titled this post "the fallacy of experience" but realized that I was wrong. Experience is valuable and important, but it can be misunderstood. A person who claims to know the answer to a problem, and proclaims that the basis for being right is because of experience, may be operating under a delusion. A person who suggests an answer to a problem, and is careful to qualify that answer, demonstrates true experience. Hubris is a currency that earns interest as the result of time and experience. The experienced person may jump to the conclusion that success is a consequence of the learning process and may not be willing to accept serendipity in its most pure state.

This is a building in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that all the king's horses could put this back together again.

(Actually, its restoration would  be a fairly straightforward affair, but it would require a dramatic change in the political and economic condition of the nation.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

whither residential architecture?

I don't think that many people use the word "whither" much anymore. Residential architecture may be going somewhere, but I'm not sure where. Hopefully, I'll be able to find out soon, because I've been practicing in the field for more than ten years, and I can state with confidence, that I feel like I know less now than I did when I was younger.

I also don't expect many more big revolutions in house and home design. On this blog I've discussed the importance of systems integration in modern houses (i.e. bathrooms, modular kitchen cabinets, plywood....)
The immediate future will probably hinge on continued improvements in enclosure design and other "invisible" elements. As far as space planning go--I doubt that much is going to visibly change. The proportions and arrangement patterns of the basic living spaces is very well defined. There's infinite variation, but within well established norms. Kitchens are still slightly smaller than living/family rooms, dining rooms have a centrally located table, bedrooms have closets, bathrooms have rational fixture layouts. and the adjacencies and circulation patterns of well designed houses exhibit a high degree of similarity.

The most recent experiment in residential design was the Farnsworth House. It's influence is overrated.