ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

byzantine boston

This image concludes our tour of Essex Street and also marks the end of the month of November. An apartment building will soon rise over this building--which looks particularly dramatic now that the windows have been removed. I wonder if we'll ever build something like this again? Probably not.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the urban canyon

A small piece of Boston. When I moved to the area, one of these skyscrapers was just a hole in the ground. I happen to regard it as one of the better examples of the Art Deco in the city--even if it missed the Art Deco by a few decades.

Monday, November 28, 2011

towards a preserved architecture

I actually had my camera with me yesterday and I snapped this photo of the "Dainty Dot" building on Essex Street in Boston. This structure will probably be demolished within the next five years (make it ten, things move more slowly now) and while some people are still unhappy about that I think there is an overall sense of resignation. In general, I have conflicted attitudes towards preservation because although older buildings have a lot of character, architecture hasn't stood still. Egress and accessibility are much improved, and quality of interior space tends to be, on average, better. This type of building, what can be termed a "full block build-out" looks good on the outside but its interior spaces are probably jumbled up, particularly in those areas that aren't near windows. The larger issue is that the place isn't maximizing its property value. That's a death sentence for a work of commercial architecture in a city.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

eladio dieste

I had never heard of Eladio Dieste until about a week ago. I think some of his architecture is incredible and is well-suited to the economic and environmental climate of his native Uruguay. He died recently, but he left behind a legacy of built work that is wonderful and memorable.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

controversial park design

Maya Lin has received negative feedback from some people in Newport, Rhode Island over her redesign of a public* park. From what little research I've done on the design and the existing conditions I'm having trouble understanding why some people are so upset. The controversial elements of the design are some landscape features that mimic the foundations of buildings that used to be on the site. These palimpsests (I've never used that word before in writing) are described by Lin as outdoor meeting areas. They will feature fountains and seating. I happen to think that her plan is an improvement on the current condition and I have no trouble at all with her narrative and design concept. She creates an event in an otherwise pleasant, but unexceptional, public place. Her plan doesn't have the simplicity of some landscape designs, but it doesn't rely on gimmicks or ambiguous interventions. A person could use this park in complete ignorance of her attempt at a historical reference and not be confused or upset.

*I'm uncertain who owns the park, but since it is open to the public, it is, in my opinion, Public. OWS is not there. Yet.

the bbc would like to apologize

Towers of Ilium tends to be repetitive. The major themes on the blog are as follows:
-What is suburbia?
-What are the limits of the resources of the planet?
-What is the role of the architect in those things?
-Skepticism of the role architects play in worldly affairs
-Occasional commentary and criticism of modern architecture

If you want me to address a new topic, feel free to mention it. I always have an opinion on things--usually wrong or not fully thought out and almost certainly accompanied by a graphic that may not relate to the subject at hand. Resolution bores me. I'm not even resolved on scrambled eggs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

american heartlands

We can pause for a moment and admire the astonishing breadth of the infrastructure that supports this home in Iowa, and the role that this place has in the relative prosperity of modern America. There is little that is hidden here, even if we do not immediately see it. The soil that supports the crops was built up over thousands of years and is now augmented by fertilizers manufactured in factories that got their start manufacturing bombs in the second World War. The driveway is probably too long for the owner to pave it, but the equipment that maintains it is just a phone call away. The power company ran wire and set poles from the main road, which in turn is linked back across the electric grid to a series of coal fired generation plants located in multiple states. The home and barns are stick framed from lumber that originated in a forest near the Pacific. The corn grown on this farm is in all of our bodies, and despite the network that connects everything here, it would take only a few acute disasters to plunge it all into oblivion. Such a feat is beyond the ability of Al Quaida, so I'm not losing sleep worrying about this just yet.

From an architectural perspective I'm impressed by the balanced arrangement of the buildings. The owner or owners kept things close together, but not so close that maneuverability or future expansion is compromised.

Monday, November 14, 2011

vertical farming

Vertical agriculture is one of those things I'd like to believe in, but like many interesting and wonderful ideas in architecture it gets sunk by the "hedgehog" rule. This is the rule that come into play when there is one big thing that makes something possible or impossible regardless of all other inputs. A vertical farm in a city requires the same three things as a farm in Nebraska: a growing medium, water and light. An argument can be made that certain efficiencies can be achieved in the first two categories--even to the point where the revenue from the produce can cover amortized construction costs and deferred maintenance. Light, however, is the dealbreaker, because the instant you start paying a utility bill you start competing with the sunlight that the farmer in Nebraska gets for free. While the geometry of the vertical building could be arranged to take advantage of natural light, it does so at an escalating penalty for the efficiency of is floor plate configuration. A shallow floor plate allows more natural light but not enough to overcome the shade of floors above. And what about when someone builds a high rise in the path of the sun?

How about the day when energy becomes too cheap to meter? I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

suburban dreamscapes (part VII)

I probably won't get around to reading Anthony Flint's book on Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. My lazy excuse is that I've read at least one review of the book, and concluded that I agreed with its major themes, and so I could spend time doing more productive things, like fishing. Flint makes the argument that too many people have tried to don the mantle of Jacobs, and have forgotten the lessons that Moses taught about organizing large public works projects. The mythology surrounding both people conceals the fact that neither held much stock in fantasy. They looked at the situation at hand, made observations about needs, and acted on them. Moses, for all his failings, responded to the automobile culture that was defining the United States. I maintain that if Moses had not existed, the New York metro area, and much of the U.S. would have ended up looking the same--it just would have taken longer, cost more money and had even more problems than it does now. Jacobs, whose vision of a dense, interactive and sustainable urban communities influenced several generations of planners and architects, had less of a reactive posture than Moses and far less political power. Her ideas and ideals have been embraced by the design community, but the trends of organic development in the U.S.--i.e. sprawl--continue to dominate.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

not much of a theme today

These are quite lovely. I would be optimistic if things in Europe weren't so messed up right now. The newspapers and other media sources are simply not doing a good job of explaining what is going on, and as a consequence, I don't think that most people are paying much attention. Worse, I think that there is still the assumption on the part of some businesses and politicians that we are "decoupled" from events across the pond. That point of view did not hold water in 1914 or 1939.

I have little sympathy for creditors right now, be they banks, bondholder, or stock speculators. If a fool lends money to a fool, not only do you have two fools, you have two fools with less wealth than they had before. Real estate has no value except that people use it, rent it, maintain it and someday, tear it down completely and rebuild it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

high vacancy rates

Vacancy rates for houses and apartments are still high and the inventory of unsold homes, while declining, is also high. The takeaway from this: expect the residential real estate slump to persist for at least another year or more. Unless our population surges or a group of arsonists start torching suburban neighborhoods in the Sunbelt then the recession in housing will persist. The possibility that we will be facing a housing shortage in a few years is an interesting idea, but I'm skeptical of it. Our ability to build houses quickly is well established. It would be better if our next housing boom wasn't as crazy as the last one, though.

Update: I should preface any blog post about American housing with the observation that geography is the most important factor in the housing market. Some markets are in deep trouble and will stay there for a while. Other markets never experienced a boom in quantity, merely a boom in prices, which in some places, is still sustained (i.e. NYC, Boston, Silicon Valley).

seaside florida

Just to clarify an important difference between Celebration, Florida and Seaside, Florida--The Truman Show was filmed in the latter. I don't doubt that someone will film a movie in Celebration someday. Both towns have a stage set quality that seems a little unreal. Neither town has a "bad part" and I'm sure that there are ordinances that will keep it that way. Where are the auto repair shops, the homes for the cleaning crews and cooks? Where do you get gravel and ready-mix concrete? Where is the nearest Wal-Mart?

The website for Seaside proudly proclaims that the town is "More than a way of life, a way of living." I'm not exactly sure what that means. It looks like a nice place to visit. It reminds me in many ways of the Outer Banks, with more interesting looking architecture.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

hong kong

Post on Seaside tomorrow. But today, I'll discuss another lovely, well-planned oceanfront community, albeit one that is a bit larger than any New Urbanist vision. I'm intrigued and perplexed by Hong Kong. Like Singapore, it is a social, economic and architectural success--at least by the ways we tend to measure such things. I have been told that one of the reasons that Hong Kong is so successful financially is that it has low taxes, which attracts business, which means the tax base is broad so that taxes can stay low. Another factor, which can serve as a counterbalance to the argument that free market systems are glorious and not to be tampered with, is that development and management are well regulated by a strong, centralized government.
Hong Kong, in my mind, is essentially a well structured corporation with competent leadership and independent division heads who can pursue a variety of projects that maximize profit for the company as a whole.

Maybe I read too much Drucker.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

celebration florida

A street scene from Celebration, Florida. It looks like a farmer's market is in progress. This master planned community received a fair amount of attention in the design media when it was conceived and being developed. It's no longer front page news, which I suppose may come as a relief for some of the people who live there. From what I can tell, there's nothing extraordinary about the place, although the population is wealthier and whiter than the average American town. As a model for New Urbanism, it appears to be successful, but that shouldn't come as a surprise given that New Urbanism is merely regular urbanism with less strip malls and a more rational approach to vehicular management. It's easy to do things right when you spend money and do a little bit of research. The architecture, which could be subjected to criticism for his its unabashed Disneyfication, is pretty subtle to my eye. Simplicity is favored over flamboyance.

After spending a few minutes looking at on Google I'm getting more curious about what went into the planning and development process. I wonder if its aesthetic and financial success is a consequence of exclusionary policies. Does this development model have transferable and scalable qualities or is it only appropriate for a narrow segment of the populace?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

architecture of occupation

Photo of the Fed Building in Boston by Fox O'Rian (Hugh Stubbins Architect)

Towers of Ilium, in addition to having light readership and repetitive subject posts, doesn't get overtly political. As of this writing a few score people are camped out in the public space across from this building in downtown Boston as part of the worldwide Occupy movement. Like them, I am one of the 99% but I don't have the courage to sleep in a tent or participate in democracy in such an explicit manner. One of the most objective assessments of the Occupy movement was published in Fortune magazine, which is curious given that its readership consists of the 1% and 10% of income and tax brackets. Growing income inequality combined with the financial shenanigans that precipitated the current Depression (I have no qualms about using that word) have not made for a happy populace. I don't know what will come of the Occupy movement, but I'm grateful that such a thing can happen in the U.S. and that we have spaces that can accommodate public gatherings. Some members of the media have used anecdotes of bad behavior to condemn the gatherings. I can only offer my observation that on those frequent days when I walk past the collection of tents in Boston during my morning commute I have never seen anything that suggests abuse of the public trust. I'll venture to make a prediction that this will go on for longer than the critics or supporters expect. The movement has taken on its own life--it will persist through persistence.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 billion people

According to the WHO and other sources, the human population of the planet is now more than 7 billion. Huzzah. Bacteria everywhere can rejoice, for more humans means more hosts for single-celled creatures who call us home.

Claims about overpopulation and resource scarcity have not played out in a simplistic Malthusian fashion. Here in the U.S. we haven't run out of either land, food or energy. Cheap land  seems to be constrained in specific areas but this is more a consequence of preference and bias. Relative to the efforts expended historically and many other parts of the world, food and energy are incredibly cheap. Energy, and by default, food costs will probably rise in the near-term, but that will hopefully spur new solutions (through a combination of free market and government planning--I don't distinguish between the two as much as other people do).

Architecturally, I would like to think that all 7 billion people would benefit from more intelligent design. That will be a harder task to achieve than I want to admit. And as far as population density goes, this is a picture of Siberia. About two people per square mile. Lots of sublime empty there.