ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, December 31, 2012

end of year observations

I designed this pergola. If I ever go to Texas I might try and go see it. As far as I know, I'm still on good terms with the client.

Towers of ilium will strive to be more positive and upbeat in 2013. However, towers of ilium is not noted for consistency or keeping resolutions. 2013 will be as unpredictable as 2012, but this is not the official prediction and prognostication post for the new year, so we can't be held to that prediction. In general, the lack of accountability on this blog will persist.

So far, we are unimpressed with Windows 8.

Friday, December 28, 2012

where the BTU's go

This is a complicated and informative graph of energy usage in the U.S. for 2011. What's most notable is how much energy is "wasted"--around  58%. I'm disturbed by this, but I want to emphasize that you can never have zero wasted energy.

Also, houses in the U.S. appear to be cheap, but industrial processes are geared towards things that end up in houses. Transportation will always be the big one. I'm not ready to trade in my car for a horse, though. Very odd creatures, horses are.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

the terror of memory

I predict that the school will be demolished, and that no one will object to this. A memorial will be designed and erected after considerable debate.

Architecture is a tool of human emotion as much as a functional construction. A space that served as a stage for horror becomes invested with that horror, and like Lady Macbeth, you can't ever get the blood out. It's irritating that improvements to educational spaces require tragedy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

hallucinations and delusions

If I was feeling motivated I would find a painting by Salvador Dali to post on this entry.

I just finished reading a book called Last Harvest by Witold Rbyzinski. It was written at the height of the housing bubble about a residential development in Pennsylvania. He does a nice job of describing the process that the developers and planners went through to create another piece of American exurbia. He doesn't feign neutrality--he supports the detached single family home as a universal good, and he expresses some sympathy for the hoops that developers have to jump through.

Now I'm reading a book by Oliver Sacks about how hallucinations are a fairly common expression of humanity. There is a stigma against them in modern society--get thee to your medications!--but what is the mind good for but dreaming and madness?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

more thoughts on retail architecture

I was walking through a mall yesterday (by accident, incidentally) and noticed a Microsoft store. It was a sincere, and somewhat sad imitation of an Apple store. Limited fixtures, white palette, clean, yet not quite antiseptic. It did not have a staircase.

I once mused on the future of retail design. At first glance, the evolution of form seems heading in two similar, but subtly different directions--the box store and the distribution center. The former is generic, vast and impersonal--the latter is completely invisible because the shopping experience consists of mouse clicks and a visit from UPS a day or two later.

Meanwhile, in the real world, traditional retail continues to thrive, and it always will. I appreciate the paradox of retail design: it must be simultaneously fresh and reliable. If I walk into a clothing store I expect to see new fashions, yet I also expect to find the stuff that I've always worn. Absurd, contradictory? Yes, yes, yes, yes. That is how it has always been, and must be.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

just as much violence in a football game

I started off this month reminiscing about Columbine, and by sheer coincidence, hell came to Newtown, Connecticut. The gravity of the situation has resulted in some reflection by the few intelligent voices in the media. We can expect the usual posturing by political leaders, and thanks to the power they think the gun lobby wields, we can expect no meaningful action to occur. Lockdown procedures at schools will be "improved" and something like this will happen again in 8 or 12 months. We Americans are nothing if not creatures of habit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ozzie and harriet appreciation post

Towers of Ilium has been posting some pretty strange stuff for the month of December. I'm not sure if this a good or bad thing, but I'll try to steer topics back to things of a more architectural nature. I thought that yesterday's picture of the cupola was a good trend.

And now, for more social commentary. I don't have any idea what the TV show "Ozzie and Harriet" was supposed to be about. As part of our rhetorical lexicon, the phrase: "Ozzie and Harriet" is supposed to conjure up images of an idyllic, white, and spiritually vacuous suburban existence. Since the show is so dated, it might mean absolutely nothing, and its usage parameters are so distorted as to be useless.

This was their TV house, apparently. A perfectly nice looking mish-mash of Colonial and traditional motifs with a bit of the French Provincial thrown in for good measure. I find the proportions and detailing of the front entrance particularly inept, but the landscaping is quite lovely.

James Kunstler, who coined the phrase "geography of nowhere" to describe modern American suburbia (and exurbia) came up with another bit of descriptive poetry--"strip mining posterity." He uses it in the context of how America looks to the past to create a distortion and subversion of the future. He distinguishes it from nostalgia, but I'm still curious to know what he's thinking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

architecture tuesday

Something I designed. It's purely decorative, by the way--nothing but roof below those windows. The carpenters who built are quite pleased with the way it turned out. I think it's a wee bit top-heavy, and the sill should be thicker, but that's no reason to condemn it. A weathervane has been ordered, which will help complete its wondrous lack of functionality.

I did some carpentry at my house today. It will never be featured on this blog ever.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

believing what we don't see

For many years, towers of ilium believed that the Cape Cod Tunnel existed. Even though I never saw road signs for it on those occasions when I drove to Cape Cod, I assumed that it was located south of the Sagamore Bridge and was restricted to Cape residents. I thought that the tunnel was a good idea, and I had no problem with the fact that I couldn't use it.

Building a tunnel under the Cape Cod Canal would still be a good idea, but if they do it, they should open it to all traffic (except hazardous cargo) and charge a toll to defray its construction and operating costs. Here's an open question to any libertarian minded readers of this blog: Should a private, for-profit company undertake such an endeavor, and should that be allowed?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

potemkin village effect

Okay, this is something that I've been thinking about for a while. It's certainly not original, but I don't think that it's something that gets enough attention. It's quite simple, and sounds so dumb, that I doubt I would bring it up except on this blog.

We believe what we see.

More specifically, we put considerable weight on what we see, as opposed to more comprehensive data that  often feels too abstract, but could be more relevant to good decision making.

 I've been thinking about this because of my daily commute, which gives me a very narrow and biased image of the city. I form an opinion of Boston based on what I see in these narrowly confined views that are brief and poorly detailed. I look out the window of the train and see the highway jammed with cars and think to myself "that doesn't work." I look at rotting triple-deckers that are close to the railroad tracks and conclude that the entire neighborhood is hopeless.

These opinions that I form have a high probability of being wrong, but they influence my decision making to the point where I write off entire pieces of geography and potential experience based on a few glances. I presume that in a state of nature this instantaneous decision making served a good purpose, because for a hunter/gatherer/primitive farmer the visible world was all that there was. Now, distance has been collapsed and we acquire stimulus from a much broader array of geography, which leads to biases that subvert truth.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

winter breeds grim blog posts

Just another American high school, tucked away in the suburban vastness of some part of Colorado, churning out 18 year olds who can drive cars, use smart phones, and get on with life. It's nicer looking from the outside than my high school, but I'm not sure that aesthetics make a difference when it comes to the quality of the learning experience.

Monday, December 3, 2012

architecture but not design

This is almost all that we are. It's hard to determine how much of our individual fates are bound up by this, but this is as close as we can ever get to destiny. Without context I might regard this image as some effort at pop art, or maybe, if I was feeling generous, Russian Constructivism.

I think that the two best books on evolution are The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I don't mean to push Stephen Jay Gould to the side table, because he has some essential observations. In terms of offering the broadest overview and introduction to a subject matter that can boggle the mind, Quammen and Dawkins share a prize.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

a safe and peaceful world

Since the tragic events at Columbine, and more recently, Virginia Tech, there has been much hysteria about campus safety. Efforts are being made, and constantly modified, to prepare people for these incredibly rare events. I do not feel this training is particularly useful, but I suppose it makes people feel better. In light of all the risks we face as human beings, perhaps we should broaden the scope of dangers we should be preparing for--like "How to Catch and Asteroid" or "How to Stop Resurgent Communists." And, of course, there are zombies and vampires.

Really useful preparation in schools, where students stand very little chance of dying, but are constantly being tortured by other people and their own anxieties, would include programs on nutrition, critical thinking, history, mathematics, art, science, and literature. Tests would be periodically be given on all these subjects, but would not be given too much weight, because in life, there are always more questions than answers.

Friday, November 30, 2012

more predictions by towers of ilium

Here are some trends in architecture and real estate that I want to talk about:

1. The housing bubble in Toronto will pop. Will it happen quickly or slowly?

2. The new energy code will feature incremental improvements.

3. Triple glazed windows are inevitable

4. Spray foam insulation will continue to improve and costs will continue to decline.

5. Non-ferrous reinforcing in concrete will expand in use. This will be a big, slow trend over the next 50 years.

6. We will have another real estate bubble, probably global, in 2020ish.

7. The loss of labor in architecture firms as a result of the recession will not impact productivity. The software is just too darn good. Direct service to clients will be more common.

8. Construction delivery methods will not experience significant productivity gains over the next several decades--if ever. Building complexity will only increase. Data and power distribution systems will get marginally more efficient, but will be offset by improvements to environmental control systems.

Only a few people who read this blog will understand what I am talking about. More pictures next month.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

things go boom

Gas explosions, like airplane crashes, always make the news. They are rare and exciting, and the stories they generate are unique and full of human interest. Slower disasters have trouble getting any press, partly because the human brain seems more tuned into fast events. We have trouble planning ahead, because the state of nature we occupied for millenia didn't reward planners as much as it did those with fast reflexes.

Architects like to think that they're planning for the long term, but most of our activity consists of reacting and responding to things that move on weekly and monthly time scales. We consider longevity in the context of decades, not centuries. Adaptable planning features---like extra storage space, more robust construction, flexible mechanical systems--are usually the first good things to go during the cost-cutting process. It's often cheaper to destroy buildings than save them. And, we can all make the claim that "this time we'll get it right."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

the mcdonald's effect

My wife and I were discussing how McDonald's has been making a concerted effort to make their store interiors more warm and inviting over the past few years. This is probably because they are trying to compete with Starbuck's and Panera for "linger" customers. The color and texture palette in recently renovated stores includes wood panelling, stone accents, softer lighting, and beige wall surfaces.

My wife pointed out that these efforts could have a negative impact on how people view the quality of certain "warm" materials. It would be quite a blow to designers if clients started criticizing the use of wood and stone as being too "McDonald's."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

on the reliability of the internet

With the exception of this blog, I happen to think that information resources on the web are improving, and will continue to improve over time. The qualification is that it often depends on the question you ask. A good question depends on "pre-knowledge" and it also sets you up for being able to evaluate the flood of data you get from the initial Google search.

As an example of this phenomenon, I happen to think the detail shown above is quite useful for describing a common building condition. Because of my training I can identify everything that is shown here and I could use this image to describe it to someone else. A person without "pre-knowledge" might not know what to make of this.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

an observation

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt had a brief article at the website Economix about the abject stupidity of American infrastructure. He pointed out how overhead electric lines are a thing of the past in most of Europe, and as a consequence, people there do not experience the frequent power outages that prevail in most American neighborhoods during bad weather.

I surmise that utility companies have concluded that there is no profit to be had in burying electric transmission lines. Consumers will complain when  power goes out, but because we have no alternatives but to wait for repairs, we make no demands for regulations that would compel the utilities to improve the situation.

This is called the glory of the free market.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

spin department #58

Towers of ilium should not be considered the final word on anything, especially on subjects like energy production. However, this blog does have ambitions as a tool for improvements in people's knowledge. So, I draw your attention to the graph above, published by an organization called the International Energy Agency, which makes a claim about how U.S. domestic liquid petroleum production is poised to increase substantially over the next two decades. It was part of a report issued recently that makes projections about future energy production patterns. Most people are familiar with the report because of recent news stories that have trumpeted how the U.S. will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as a petroleum producer.

According to sources that I trust more the IEA, this graph, and much of the information in that report, is bullshit. The U.S. is not on a path towards increased fossil fuel production at the rate or total volume implied by this graph. The U.S. will not become energy independent in fossil fuels--nor would doing so have any impact on prices we pay at the gas pump. Saudi Arabia has more oil buried under its soil than the U.S. This is a simple geological fact. More to the point, the production projections shown in this graph are an example of "bubblenomics"--and bear a striking resemblance to claims made by many idiots about the certainty of ever increasing home values.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

meanwhile at Google

Part of the cooling system at a data center that might help keep this blog alive.

It's  quite lovely. The bicycle looks a bit hokey, but who am I to judge?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I'm finally reading the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It's something that I've been meaning to do for about 20 years, and I suppose that it was worth the wait. I'm not far into it, but I find its premise to be deeply disturbing, for it harnesses the optimism of  post World War II technocratic determinism and projects it onto a future of the entire galaxy. The anachronisms are amusing and annoying--the gender imbalance, the cigar smoking, print newspapers....

Yet, I can appreciate the vision. The Freudian inevitability of human destruction and social collapse, the conversion of science and technology into magic, and the wisdom/madness of crowds. Ultimately, I think Asimov is a bit optimistic.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Lighting design is one of those areas of architecture that I can confidently say I will never master. I'll be lucky to achieve amateur status--and if I don't keep up with technological shifts I could be severely shortchanging my clients. So, I have to learn more about how to delegate the task to those who really are lighting designers.

It's a common story in this line of work--the person who thinks he knows everything is the biggest fool. But, he'll have such self-confidence that he'll win commissions and design mediocre junk that he'll think is the best thing ever put on the planet by human hands.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Where is this? (A person who claims to be a follower of this illustrious blog knows the answer)
I'm fairly certain that it's the U.S.-- maybe Vegas or L.A. based on the palm tree and those desolate mountains in the background. Maybe the other question I should ask is: When is it?

My architectural education often stressed the importance of "Place" and how the designer had a responsibility for creating a sense of "Place" that was unique. Yet, we crave familiarity to such a more powerful degree than novelty, and the success of so many American buildings and cities and products is their "placelessness." Golly, that Starbucks coffee is good wherever you go and I'd rather risk a McDonald's cheeseburger than the brisket at Honest Shep's Meat Shack.

Now I'm being mean and rambling. People call this place home. Or they did. Maybe it was wiped out in a flood or a war yesterday and the news was lost in the final hysteria of the election cycle. Thank goodness that towers of ilium is here to preserve the image of their memory. We're all about public service here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

retail aesthetics

This photo doesn't quite do justice to the craftsmanship of the shelving and fixtures of this store. Retail architecture is probably one of the toughest design challenges in architecture. At what point to expenditures on the quality and character of the design yield diminishing returns? To what extent will people associate the architecture with the brand? How trustworthy is market research into the topic?

This place works hard to make the purchase of wine and beer feel like a sophisticated experience. The wood and black metal creates a nostalgic atmosphere and the rolling carts are both whimsical and functional. I wonder where they found the wheels?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

domestic architecture and the folly of size

Most program challenges in architecture can be solved by adding more space. Design ingenuity is admirable, but if something isn't big enough, it won't work, and it won't last. Unfortunately, the concept of "big enough" is not something that can be easily pinned down. A living room that is 11 feet by 16 feet is perfectly adequate in my opinion, and there are probably 40 million American houses that adhere to that proportion. Not many of them are new, however. Conventional wisdom might declare that such a size is a relic of the past and now only living rooms (now renamed "family rooms") must be a minimum of 20 feet by 20 feet. The cost to build that much more space is not overwhelming, and the maintenance costs of that extra space are not too burdensome, so why not? Yet some part of me finds more contentment with the smaller space. I suppose I am a relic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

vertical farming part IV

I beat up on vertical farming in a post a while back, but since I don't hold much stock in originality, I'm happy to do it again. A vertical farm has opened in Singapore. See article here.

I don't expect this to be a trend, and I'm not sure that the farm in Singapore will be a widely copied model. It will enjoy status as a niche market and people will pay more for its produce because it will have a unique quality. The country has some very rich citizens who enjoy making statements. Like all things architecture.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

in the path of a storm always

Sandy is on its way up the coast of the U.S. and it looks like Massachusetts will get a fair amount of rain, wind and coastal flooding. And this too shall pass. I feel safe in my house, but this sense of safety is an illusion that I maintain with the help of my homeowner's insurance policy (which doesn't cover flood damage, of course). Of greater importance is the elevation at which I sit--which is only a few feet above the flood line.  When it comes to flooding, I like to think that a change of elevation of one foot, even less than one foot, can make all the difference in the world. If I stay here long enough, Nature may test that theory. I'll try to post on it if I can.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

whom does the architect serve?


Architects are constantly and  thoroughly subordinate to those in power. It's simple and obvious, but so many in the  profession talk about "leadership" in a way that seems to convey much more importance to the role of the designer than actually exists.

Like Aristotle, I wear the chain of my clients, and unlike Scrooge, I have the pleasure of forging it and wearing it in this life. When I pass on, I have no illusions that everything I worked on will crumble, or be destroyed by others. The immortality of Homer is something that I could aspire to, but at what risk? To be in the comfortable position of the servant--clothed and fed--is to be exalted.

Towers of ilium is a bit cynical and resigned today. More bombastic posts this weekend.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

smart houses

The idea of the smart house has been around for a while--Orwell's 2-way TV's in 1984 are a type of smart house technology. The modern smart house would have a multitude of sensors and all electrical and mechanical equipment would be linked together. Your habits and behavior can be monitored and things like lighting and air temperature would be adjusted accordingly. More mundane smart houses let you control your lighting system with a computer.

Towers of ilium is impressed. Really.

Monday, October 22, 2012

locke ober

After 137 years in business, the Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston closed abruptly last week. The owner has sold the building and I have read that the place was struggling as the character of the dining scene in downtown changed over the years. I suppose that the place succumbed to the Howard Johnson's syndrome in that the people who liked to go there died off and the younger generation wasn't interested. Or, it could have been a gross failure of marketing.

I walked by the place for the first time ever today. It is down an alley that feels like so many remnants of 18th and 19th century Boston. This picture, which I did not take, makes the space in front of the establishment look less claustrophobic than it actually is. I am told that the interior was impressive, but probably less impressive than newer restaurants with better views. Boston has some successful "alley" commercial areas, but they tend to have more than just one business.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

ameneties, aesthetics, and performance

Every once in a while towers of ilium addresses the issue of aesthetics in architecture. It will always be a controversial topic. The issue of performance is equally controversial, and to make matters more difficult, it can suffer from a preoccupation with objective standards. To give an example: what is the ideal size of a bedroom for a teenager? Will a larger bedroom size, and amenities like larger windows, a private bathroom, and more closet space improve the future of a teenager versus another who lacks those things?

The performance of a building, or a space within a building, can reach a point of terminal design, beyond which the architect can contribute very little. In fact, an architect who is preoccupied with aesthetic considerations AND is devious enough to frame the issue of aesthetics with performance standards (false or true), can expend scarce resources that threaten a successful outcome for the client and the user.

I am grateful that an architect was not consulted about the design of the gym shown in the picture above. To most people it probably looks like a banal, even discouraging space. The lighting looks harsh, the equipment is Spartan and used looking, and there is a conspicuous absence of mirrors.
Yet, by virtue of the people who use the place, and the fact that the equipment is not only serviceable but of higher quality than what is found in more genteel and commercial clubs, the results achieved are more significant than in any other place on the planet.

I don't go there, by the way. It's in Ohio.

Friday, October 19, 2012

glorious attleboro

I have very little to say about the place. I don't think I've been there except to drive through it. It was grander once, perhaps.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

urban omnibus advertisement

From Urban Omnibus by Theo Games Petrohilos

I'm too lazy to provide a direct link, so if you happen to be reading this blog you'll have to use Google. Urban Omnibus is an online publication that writes about New York City urban planning and architecture topics. If I didn't have so many loyal and dedicated followers on this blog I would buckle down and try to write for them.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too dependent on Google, just like I'm too dependent on chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, cars, and the rule of law in a modern democracy. I tell myself that I would prefer to live in ancient times than have to deal with punch card computers. I hope I never have to make that choice. I'm sure that I would have made a decent slave, but only for a little while--I have too much body mass and I don't have much endurance for hard labor.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

the modernist tradition-episode IV

This is not a house. It is a drawing of a house. Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system I can discuss this in what I hope is a more nuanced fashion. This design draws heavily on modernist principles of design--minimal/non-existent ornament, functional geometry, simple windows, and a flat roof. There's a hint of classicism in the triple windows on the front facade, but that can be overlooked. The important thing here is that the character of the house is resolutely anti-urban--its geometry is defined by a narrow lot and a dependence on the automobile. In some respects, it is anti-suburban and anti-rural as well. It proclaims privacy and retreat instead of civic engagement. I'm not sure why I designed it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

history for sale

And, why shouldn't it be? Hugh Stubbins designed this house back in the 1940's. After participating in the housing bubble, it is now being sold at auction by a bank. Look at this and imagine the Citicorp tower.
Tough, yes? Everything has a beginning.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Towers of ilium cannot be held accountable for things that are posted after midnight. Reliable sources confirm that anything a  person does after midnight come to no good (except, sometimes).  However, even during the daytime, this blog is not entirely trustworthy. I rarely back up my claims. You should also note that the phrase "cannot be held accountable" has no basis in fact.

Monday, October 8, 2012


From Peter Gruhn (without his permission)

Towers of ilium has nothing remarkable to say this morning. I've only been sailing a few times, and although I found it relaxing, I tend to prefer dry land. I'm reading The Passage right now, and find it deeply disturbing. I also find it hopeful, because common archetypes in fiction can be revisited on a more or less constant basis.

Friday, October 5, 2012

last thoughts on the bymcu

The Boston Young Men's Christian Union

The gym I attended for over five years (six?) closed this week in a rather abrupt fashion. I was told by a staff member that they had an electrical problem which would be resolved in a timely manner. I became a bit  skeptical of this story  after I learned that the Massachusetts. Commission for the Blind had moved out of their office space on the upper floors. The closure of the gym on the first day of October neatly coincides with the expiration of many monthly memberships. A Google search reveals that the building was put up for sale recently.

I am bothered, but not surprised, by the lack of transparency here. The BYMCU is a non-profit administered by a board of directors who presumably donate their time and resources to the continuation of the institution. That institution is effectively in breach of a multitude of contracts at the moment--small in my case, possibly larger in the case of other people and corporations. I sense a basic imbalance of income and outlays, which is embarrassing, but quite ordinary. I'm holding out some hope that the place will open again, but I can't count on it. An institution  has a certain fundamental power that can transcend time, place, and individuals. But, without a physical presence, an institution dissolve into nothingness. Or, in this case, a prime real estate opportunity.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

this blog has the best coffee

I read in the paper this morning that Dunkin Donuts is filing a petition with the Patent office to have sole trademark rights to the description "best coffee in America." I think this is asinine and an abuse of the intent and spirit of patents. Even if a patent expires, efforts to assign monetary and legal status to opinions, hyperbole, cultural expressions, and historical communication is a waste of human resources. Information and communication only work for human beings if everyone has access, and the trend towards patenting and copyrighting every scrap of word and expression eventually destroys a free society.

I guess the pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handle.

(I own his albums, this blog is not monetized, and I ain't afraid of no lawyer)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

disturbing revelation

So, although I knew this, I didn't want to admit it. At least, I can claim to have known it, but felt powerless about it, so I ignored it. I just finished reading Concrete Planet by Robert Courland. In some respects, I was disappointed by the book for the simple reason that it was too short--a complaint I also level against The Power Broker.

All the concrete structures we are building today have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years. Not very long by the standards of architecture. On one hand, so what? The utility of our built environments is based on a continual renovation and re-creation, which depends on destruction--voluntary or otherwise. As long as we have energy, oxygen, water, and dirt we'll be okay. On the other hand, if we build with reinforced concrete, which is compromised by the rusting rebar that gives it tensile strength, we are signalling our stupidity and shortsightedness.

The future of concrete has to be non-ferrous reinforcing in concrete. If I make it to old age in the Boston area I am not looking forward to the rancorous debate about the repair and replacement of the Big Dig and other vital concrete infrastructure.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

meanwhile in westeros

So, to bookend this month, we return to the world of fantasy. The picture above is of The Wall, as rendered by HBO on Game of Thrones. For those who haven't read the books or watched the show, The Wall keeps the forces of cold and evil from invading the human lands to the south.

I'm still trying to figure out what George R.R. Martin is trying to do with the story. A friend of my mine thinks that the story is about human ignorance leads to the fall of civilization despite the best efforts of a few intelligent and noble people to keep it going. He reads into the story a parable of environmental disaster.  I tend to think that he's right, but I like to be a little more optimistic about the outcome of the story. All the heroes may die, but spring comes again.

Friday, September 28, 2012

ernest ransome

This building, which some people might refer to as bland, drab, utilitarian, and boring, is one of the most revolutionary and important works of architecture ever. It is the Pacific Coast Borax Factory, designed by Ernest Ransome, and it is one of the first reinforced concrete structures ever built. Its orthogonal framing describes nearly all of modern architecture.

No one person invented concrete, and even if Ransome had not pioneered the use of twisted steel rods as a tensile agent, the use of reinforcing would have become inevitable. A good designer and a good businessman can help accelerate a social and technical revolution, so Ransome deserves to be recognized.

For more on this subject, read A Concrete Atlantis by Reyner Banham.

towers of ilium apologizes for the infrequent blogging. I attribute the lapse to the lack of anything to discuss about architecture. The internet seems to have run its course.

Monday, September 24, 2012

carlo scarpa

He's better than Aldo Rossi, but I've never quite figured him out. Maybe the larger question I'm arriving at is why funerary architecture is held in such high regard. Perhaps because it provides a more pure, contemplative space than other types of buildings. Perhaps because it is built to a higher standard of durability (the dead are long-lasting tenants). Perhaps because the performance standards are a mystery (the tenants don't communicate their desires).

Alexander Gorlin just wrote a book on New England modernism. If I can get a copy I'll try to do a critique. Towers of Ilium occasionally has original content.

Oh yes, I think I have a definition of a "suburb." It is any residential neighborhood adjacent to an urban area that experiences a weekday population loss. Sounds stupid, yes? I think that it's more objective and more inclusive than conventional definitions of a suburb, i.e. the Levitown model. With my definition, large areas of the Back Bay in Boston are suburbs. Also, a residential high-rise is a suburb, regardless of its location.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

aldo rossi appreciation post

This drawing is actually the only thing towers of ilium appreciates about Rossi. His built work exemplifies the worst of post modern excesses, and the completed project for San Cataldo is underwhelming. But this image captures a spirit of architecture that can never be experienced in the built form. It would be more appropriate to chisel this on a stone wall so that an archaeologist from the year 3000 could spend a lifetime interpreting it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

where would we live if not here?

The living room of the Storer House, by Wright. It remains one of my favorite pieces of architecture. Could I live in it? Probably not for more than a few nights--maybe a week, tops. Which brings me to an article I read today about some analysis of Census data done by the NAHB. They found that the 55+ population is evenly distributed across the nation, indicating that the conventional wisdom of "old people going south" is not necessarily true. In many respects, this makes sense to me. Even if I was offered a pile of money to leave New England, I might think twice. We're a migratory nation, but on our own terms and on our own timetable.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

great moments in architecture

Great moments in architecture has been postponed and will resume at the start of the new fiscal year.
I'm reading a book on Concrete right now. 40 tons of the stuff for every human on earth. Concrete contractors are easier to deal with than masons. That's all that I really think is important.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

educational models addition

This post could spiral out of control. Fortunately, towers of ilium is well regarded for its disciplined approach to blogging. What is the architecture of learning? What is required? How is changing?
As a practitioner and sometimes educator I have a complicated relationship with how spaces should be designed and maintained for the practice of intergenerational knowledge transfer. A school needs a few things in order to foster learning:
-An acceptable environment--good light (natural and artificial), ventilation, acoustical controls, temperature controls, appropriate furniture.

Everything else that comprises the physical setting is window dressing, whether it be innovative geometry, colors, technical gadgets, or pristine rural settings (or dynamic urban settings). Resources spent on the physical plant that lose sight of the essentials are pretty much a waste. My biggest objection to some of the spaces I teach is lousy acoustics--I hate having to shout to compete with a messed up HVAC system.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

meanwhile in the real world

I'm not sure that this actually counts as the real world, but it's a close approximation. This photo documents something that is a work in progress. The homeowners are in the process of expanding upwards--turning a post-war ranch style home into a Cape-- which was a good decision--probably the only one they had given the constraints of the lot and their desire to stay in the neighborhood. Their renovation project demonstrates how some Americans, despite the vast and diverse area of buildable land on the continent, will frequently stay put and be happier because of it.

Their design decisions, which are documented in  photographs not appearing on this blog, are well considered. They have maintained the relative scale of the house and have chosen sensible windows and other materials for the renovation. From what I can tell, they aren't overreaching, which is a pleasant departure from the decisions made by several million other homeowners. They could build a porch someday to soften the front of the house, but they probably spend most of their time in the backyard so it's certainly not a priority.

more john howe

The fantasy/sci-fi theme for September continues. What's ironic is that I'm incapable of producing or feeling comfortable with illustrations and designs of dream worlds. My profession is my religion, my sin is my lifelessness (I didn't write that). The practical limitations of architecture and project delivery tend to define how I look at the depictions of built environments. The bridge in this painting is lovely, but I'm worried that the center support is going to erode any minute. The guardrails aren't high enough and the travel lane is too narrow. See? I'm ruining it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

babylon 5 architecture

Towers of ilium has become a B5 addict. I'm not interested in treatment options yet--I haven't finished the series, and I'm quite impressed with the theme and topics on the show. In addition to presenting a plausible account of a descent into fascism, chaos, and galactic warfare, the challenges of living in isolated conditions are portrayed with a refreshing sincerity.

If humans ever end up living in space in great numbers (which I put a near-zero chance on) then the grimy, claustrophobic environment portrayed on the show is pretty reasonable. I'm not sure why the solar panels face in two directions. The sun is usually in one place.

ed glaeser on the triple decker

In a recent op-ed piece, Ed Glaeser (aka "city guru") spoke out against the restrictive zoning and development -averse tendencies of Boston communities. He paid particular attention to the efforts to "down-zone" the Central Square neighborhood in Cambridge. It was an excellent bit of commentary, but I take issue with his criticism of Boston's streetcar suburbs. He regarded triple decker neighborhoods as "inefficient" which is simply not accurate. Although his critique was directed against the energy consumption of older, uninsulated buildings, he failed to appreciate the fact that these building types have proved amenable to renovations that make them considerably more viable than many modern high-rise dwellings. A curious feature of triple decker neighborhoods is that their homogenous character and high density probably made the high density of Boston's core possible.

Mid-rise and high-rise dwellings are not the future of American city development--we simply have to much land for that to be practical. High density neighborhoods like those in Dorchester and Roxbury offer a middle ground between the inefficient post-war suburbs and luxury condos in the Back Bay and the Ladder District.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

star destroyer architecture

September may be shaping up to be a fantasy theme month at Towers of Ilium. My last post was about the architecture of America in the 1940s. A few days ago I was in Tolkien territory--both are equally fictional and absurd.

So now, George Lucas gets a turn. Sci-fi architecture can be pretty dumb looking, and Episodes I through III demonstrated how CGI run amok can overwhelm the suspension of disbelief. The Imperial Cruiser, on the other hand, will always enjoy a position as a symbol of the Evil Empire that is unambiguously terrifying. Wedge shaped design motifs tend to be aggressive and tyrannical--and I include church steeples in that category. It's the geometry of weaponry.

I wonder what people in other countries think when American warships sail into their ports.

Monday, September 3, 2012

main street

A picture of a street corner in Montana, circa 1940. Courtesy of Huffington Post by way of the Library of Congress. I love the turret corner, among other things. This is America. I wonder if it's still there. Change the cars and just about everything might be the same.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

meanwhile in mordor

I wonder if Sauron designed Barad-Dur. Maybe he was able to recruit John Howe using some magical method. I can imagine how some of their conversations went:

Sauron: Design me a tower, puny mortal.
John Howe: Sure, sure, no problem. How tall do you want it?
Sauron: Tall, tall, taller than any man could dare imagine.
John Howe: So, about 5000 feet?
Sauron: Yeah, that should do it.

Not much different from how skyscrapers are planned in the modern era. Sauron, of course, probably wasn't concerned about floor area ratios, glazing technologies, or elevator capacity. He almost certainly did not do a shadow study or hold any public hearings or file any plans with a building department.

Friday, August 31, 2012

a broken clock is right

Last month, towers of ilium predicted that the recent fare hike implemented by the MBTA would not adversely impact ridership. Today, the Boston Globe published statistics demonstrating that this prediction has been borne out at least for the month of July (in a comparison of year over year ridership figures). There was an 0.1 percent drop in daily rides, which hardly counts, particularly since T management had been bracing for a 5 percent decline. Maybe they were hedging themselves so they would look smart.

Now that swarms of college students have descended on the city, ridership will probably stay at the same levels as last year going through the fall. The broader economic picture in the state is dependent on the fiscal cliff, the continued health of the biotech/military/computer/finance businesses. Europe's recession and China's coming slowdown could hurt this region more than other places.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

meanwhile in new york city

Towers of Ilium is too incompetent and lazy to rotate this picture. But imagine, for a moment, if New York were sideways. All the avenues would be elevators and most of the subway lines as well. People would go about their business as usual. They've seen it all in that city.

This is the back side of Madison Square Garden as viewed from the Farley Square Post Office.

Monday, August 27, 2012

cor-ten steel appreciation post

The New York Times had an article today about the new Barclay's Arena, which makes use of Cor-ten steel cladding. It was being presented as if it were something new and exciting, but the best example of its use was, and always will be (in the opinion of towers of ilium) the John Deere headquarters. Designed by Eero Saarinen in the late fifties, and constructed in 1964, the structure is a monument to the values and history of the company and an icon of high modernism. It's detailing is quite complex and the exposed steel structure is in wonderful violation of fire codes, but no one's complained yet.

An art history professor at Williams pointed out how the building is "machine in the garden" in the complete sense of a phrase coined by scholar Leo Marx. It embodies natural decay, but subverts that decay to preserve its unique and deeply human character. It has the patina of a ruin, but a timeless function as shelter--or as a temple to commerce and industry--those most sacred pillars of the American religion.

Towers of Ilium hopes that its new, bombastic tone is going over well with its broad audience. If not, please let us know.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

houston olympics 2024

This is Randall O'Toole's most livable American city. More on that later, maybe. For now, towers of ilium wants to promote Houston as a logical venue for the Olympics. Why? Because they are a well established, wealthy city that has warm weather and existing infrastructure. They could use the Olympics as an impetus to improve public transportation and existing sports venues. The warm weather would help U.S. shot-putters.

They need to improve air quality, though.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

frank does facebook

Facebook has commissioned Frank Gehry to design a company headquarters in Silicon Valley. This makes me chuckle. There is a loose correlation between enthusiastic investments in brand-name architecture and eventual economic collapse. It's like a construction worker going on a hell of a bender the day before he gets laid off. Might as well spend it when you have it, I guess.

Facebook is engaged in what is know as signalling. They want people to believe that they are capable of making serious investments in the future and that their creative vision is above and beyond anyone else. We'll see how that works out. I wish I was investing money in a company that makes cardboard.