ruminations about architecture and design

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in review-the comprehensive version

This year in January I made several predictions about the new year. Here is my thoroughly objective analysis.

1. 2011 will be a fairly dull year. Things will continue to go poorly in places where things are already doing poorly, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the drug war cities of Juarez and Tijuana in Mexico. It could hit the fan in North Korea, but I doubt it.
-Boy was I wrong. The revolutions and regime changes in the Middle East were the defining events. Korea had a lateral regime change and I predict that things will continue as they are there for several more decades.And then there was Occupy Wall Street.

2. American politics will have more than usual sound and fury and idiots. It's the deep breath before the plunge into the 2012 election year. Obama may do something surprising, but I doubt it.
-A safe prediction and it is still being played out. Obama may take a progressive turn after his speech in Kansas (in conjunction with the Occupy movements), but we'll see.

3. Revolutions in architecture will be subdued because there isn't enough money to do crazy stuff. The construction boom in China will slow down, maybe they'll have a real estate collapse, but strong government action will mitigate its effects. U.S. architecture firms will continue to experience consolidation and contraction. Tough luck for me, but so it goes.
-Meh on this one.
4. The upcoming changes in building codes, specifically as they relate to energy use, will start to take effect, but the impact will be marginal. The long term positive impact will have profound consequences, but excitement over "green" design will be more constrained.
-Too soon to tell.

5. The end of the middle will accelerate. I will give some banal examples of what I mean by this: Retail opportunities will be dominated by either discount goods or extreme luxury items--a few Hummers counterbalanced by lots of subcompact sedans. People will be either very rich or lower class. Aspirational impulses will be constrained by the long odds of achieving superstar success. But, life at the bottom will be distinguished more by grumbling than full-out misery. Perhaps on this note I am being too optimistic.
-Business people and economists call this the "hourglass" effect and it is the dominant trend in business planning.

6. Conservative design trends will dominate. Curvy stuff, which used to look so revolutionary, will be continue to dominate mass-produced products, but we might start to see more right angles and subtle details in architecture. The stuff in the magazines will still be curvy, expensive blobs, but ordinary stuff will be boxier and more restrained.
-Meh on this one. Mostly wrong. Not much has changed.

7. None of these predictions will be borne out perfectly--they aren't very aggressive or original in the first place, but so what.

8.Something entirely unexpected will happen.
7 & 8 were the usual disclaimers. Despite the political revolutions, the natural disasters and the continuing recession, 2011 was forgettable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

driving in america

This is from Calculated Risk. No other graph captures the impact of the current recession more than this one. Americans drive a lot, but lately, because of the collapse in economic demand, we are driving less, despite the continuing increase in our population (312 million, more or less). A new urbanist would point to this as a good thing, and a particularly naive segment of the design profession would even try to take credit for reducing the number and duration of car trips taken by Americans. I doubt that recent trends in architecture or urban planning have had  much of an impact on the immediate downturn in auto use. What is more curious is the fact that over the course of time represented by this graph, the population growth rate has been outpacing the mileage growth rate. I don't know how to express this divergence, but it does point to an increasing densification of American settlement. However, its a densification expressed more significantly in "suburban" development areas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

a modern nation

Where is this? It looks like any city in the norther hemisphere on a cold day in winter. The man crossing the street could be James Dean, or James Bond. The bus will make its way through and the people riding in it will look at the window, lost in thought, until they get off at their destination. Spring will come, and this grim scene will be softened by warm air, blooming flowers and green leaves.

This is North Korea.

p.s. If this were any other city, there would be more cars and more people, regardless of the weather.

Monday, December 26, 2011

festivity and contemplation

This is architecture. Places like this, with these details and sense of longing and possibility, with this beauty. This is why I am an architect and why I am convinced it matters. Great architecture happens at the intersection of intent and chance. Now, back to business.

My next post, probably my last post of 2011, will feature an assessment of the predictions I made for the year. It's a mea culpa moment, so get the popcorn and something to drink. On January 1st or thereabouts, I'll make a new set of predictions, which will be as tiresome, unoriginal and wrong as the predictions I made the previous year.

I'm not exactly sure where this place is. Google images does not guarantee accuracy when searching for key words. Finding the right question to ask in this age of instantaneous information seems to be even more important than in the past. A growing danger of our age is that more and more people will be convinced that they will be able to make better decisions because more information is available. Such hubris will almost certainly lead to more bad decisions. See also: Global Real Estate Bubble, circa 2000-2006.

Friday, December 23, 2011

my big idea

Try not to fall off your chair. This picture represents a new approach to subdividing properties on an urban residential block. It is intended to help circumvent the homogeneity of the common zoning model that I referred to in some recent posts. The idea is simple--rather than have one, average lot size that is repeated ad nauseum over scores or hundreds of street blocks, a developer or municipality can start of with (or end up with) a layout that relies on different sized lots that are not restricted by a setback based zoning code. A diversity of architectural solutions based on the size and locations of the lots would be a possible, favorable outcome. Some lots are large enough to allow for detached, single family homes that would have large yards. Or, a large lot could support a multifamily building with off-street parking. Smaller lots would lend themselves to row-houses or small, fully detached homes that would appeal to first time homebuyers or retired people.

Maybe it's a good idea, but it's probably too late to make a difference in this country.

Monday, December 19, 2011


This design is my adaptation of plan that was recently published in the Boston Globe. A developer in Boston, with the input and support of the city, is proposing 375 s.f. studio apartments for buildings in the Fort Point Seaport district. This is being presented as an original idea, and maybe it is for Boston. I remember visiting a mock-up of an 8 bed Chinese apartment unit that was roughly the same size.
How much space does someone really need? The residents of the International Space Station are getting by with a lot less, and despite having some great views, I don't doubt that claustrophobia occasionally sets in.
The original design of this unit was done by the Boston architecture firm of ADD Inc.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


This it what a suburban housing block looks like when it is under development. This is also what a housing block looks like when it is in decline. As housing stock burns down, or if shifts in the economy prevent the full development of the block, then the visual circumstance is of "missing teeth" which tends to discourage potential homebuyers and investors and depress housing values. Or so the story goes. In a few days I am going to propose a visual image of block layout that creates a situation where variable density doesn't result in the "missing teeth" effect. Well, I'll give it a try, at least.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

good story

There's a good article on the Building Science Corporation website about Joe Lstiburek's experience renovating his barn/office--twice. Because, after all, there's not point in trying to do the right thing once, when you can do it a second time. Here is the link to the story and I recommend that anyone interested in architecture read it.
It's rare in the design and engineering profession when someone admits that they made mistakes. I need to fess up to a few things someday. I'm young yet, so my stories aren't as interesting.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

fire sprinklers

Towers of Ilium will now endeavor to address a rather difficult and controversial topic: fire sprinklers in single family homes. An article in today's Boston Globe described a debate at the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Safety over whether or not fire sprinklers should be required in all new, single family homes. Code currently requires sprinklers for multi-family dwellings and single family homes over 14,400 s.f. (which is a bit larger than the average American house size).

In principle, I am in favor of improving the safety of architecture, but I am skeptical about the positive benefits that would be derived from implementing this law. Most house fires that I read about in the newspaper that cause loss of life or injury seem to happen in older homes, and particularly homes in poorer neighborhoods. Because Massachusetts has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation it is a statistical certainty that the majority of fires would occur in an older dwelling. Since older dwellings would be exempt from the new law requiring sprinklers, it would take decades before we could assess the benefits thereof.

I am interpreting this as a wedge issue, however, and I think that adoption of this code for new houses will lead to a push for an extension of the code to existing dwellings. The requirement for sprinklers would be triggered when a homeowner undertakes a significant renovation (and much debate will ensue over what constitutes "significant"). This would have a dramatic effect, but it could exacerbate the safety situation by discouraging property owners from undertaking renovations, or exerting more effort than they already do to avoid regulations. The most vulnerable and poorest houses could potentially deteriorate at an even faster rate and would still lead the statistics in fire injuries and deaths.

A question I would like to pose to James Shannon, president of the NFPA, and any other member of the ICC who owns a single family home: Have you installed this in your house?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

something new and different (#6)

As I suspected, the picture in the last post was a repost from January of this year. Towers of Ilium is deeply sorry for the duplication of effort. We hope it never happens again.

And now, for the exploration of a common residential development model, which I am presenting here in order to set the stage for a discussion of alternate approaches. The sketch above shows the layout of a typical, medium density, suburban block comprised of 5000 s.f. building lots. It was common in the streetcar suburbs of late 19th century Boston and has proportional equivalents in many other American cities. As far as I can tell, it has fallen out of favor in more recent developments for reasons that exceed the space of this blog post. I think its restoration would be a positive thing in the growth of new American cities because it offers a more balanced and sustainable approach to community design that could promote diversity and ensure environmental and economic sustainability. Color me idealistic. We'll see how this plays out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

the geography of somewhere

I feel like I've posted this picture before. So it goes--we humans tend to repeat things, and unlike other creatures, we actually waste time worrying about the implications of repetition. I remember reading once about a philosophical question that is framed in this fashion: Can a person cross a river in the same way twice? The answer is no, because in the time between crossings both the person and the river will have changed. Last night I walked past the entrance to a building that had a sign which read: "Center for Marxist Education." Will Karl Marx get to cross the river again, in some fashion? Perhaps he had his moment of influence, and any residual interpretations will be claimed by another generation as a set of original ideas.

I have an open-ended question. Is architecture really about the organization of ideas? Could it be purely reactionary and expressionistic, bereft of credibility when it comes to justifying the set of choices that go into the planning process? Are there really any objective standards that can be applied to the layout of buildings and spaces? Even a proportional system derived from the human body is unreliable--we're all a little bit different.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

kitchen of the future

We probably won't be returning to this. I was listening to a video talk by a kitchen designer who described the layouts of the 80's and 90's as "flat" in terms of materials, cabinets and appliances. There would be one counter height, one type of tile, and one style and color of cabinet. It's a clean, safe and sometimes boring approach to kitchen design. He described kitchens of the future as being more eclectic, more open and with more aggressively integrated appliances (like a section of counter that folds over a cooktop). He also described "smart" LCD counters that could double as media display devices. Yup. Sure. Whatever.
He also talked about revolutions in lighting, which I'm more inclined to agree with. The recessed light fixture may not around in 15 or 25 years. LED technology and the ingenuity of lighting designers may give us something really different and really great.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

agglomeration theory backwards

Agglomeration theory is a fancy word for the geographic clustering of similar economic activities. For example, the financial district of Manhattan. Even though the businesses compete with each other, everyone tends to benefit from the close proximity and the concurrency of transportation networks, and ready access to a labor force and market. It helps explain why cities exist and why they tend to be wealthier on a per capita basis as they get larger.

But what about when things fall apart? Would it be reasonable to assume that as a geographic region exhibits consolidation in similar businesses its overall health would start to decline? Also, as an area loses population, it would lose diversity in resources across the board. This is mathematically obvious and it has dangerous implications for any city that sheds a portion of its population because the signs will point to continued decline. The maxim "grow or die" seems harsh, but long, drawn out misery of many small cities is a testament to this.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

carpenters center in boston

This is a picture of the Carpenters Center in Boston. The photo is taken from the  non-highway side of the building so it may look unfamiliar to people who ride past daily on the train or in their car. I had an opportunity to observe this while it was under construction and its been one of the more interesting things to look at during my commute into the city. Is it good architecture? From what I can tell from the outside, I think it is, mainly because it speaks to the diverse character of the trade of carpentry by referencing wood products through its use of multi-colored alumninum panels. Some people would say that it is dishonest, but I think a large scale building has to be made of durable materials, and wood, despite its attributes, is not when used in an outdoor setting. There is some unintended irony in the fact the building was completed just as the economy was faltering and a large percentage of carpenters were being laid off. This structure represents a long term investment in the future and I don't regard it as a symbol of hubris. Labor organizations, despite their shaky status in the current political environment, are a fundamentally positive force in the development of the nation. That a building should commemorate that in a dramatic way is only fitting.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

a conundrum--semi-urban style

A doomed building in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Every once in a while I come across an optimistic article about how small cities in the U.S. are poised for a resurgence by serving as an anchor for small entrepreneurs and start-ups. I think it's a pipe dream. These articles don't look comprehensively at the nearly intractable problems in place like Fitchburg, Detroit, Flint, Leominster, Baltimore, Camden, etc.... Development dollars, when not flowing to greenfields on the periphery of established population centers, don't have any incentive to try to revive places that got off the progress train in the 1950's. It's sad, but without some major demographic and economic changes, places like this are headed for an inevitable destruction that the people of Angkor Wat could relate to in a very real and historical way.