ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Billboard House

A friend directed my attention to this un-built concept house designed by a Thai architecture firm. It is a house as advertising space. It is portable and has an overwrought structural system and very little privacy. My friend was critical of this as a good model for residential design. I agree with her, but as a homeowner, we both can reflect on ways that our houses are advertisements for a whole array of things. They symbolize our relative wealth, they showcase products that inspire desire and envy in visitors and they serve as a marker of the general economic condition of our nation.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

rail transit

This is a rendering of the proposed rail transit line in Honolulu, Hawaii. I have never been to Hawaii, and I have no sense of urgency to visit the place. I know a little bit about the transit project and in my opinion, it's a good idea. Honolulu highways are incredibly congested and although we might look forward to a future state where automated cars move more people more efficiently and safely, the present need is considerable.

The main objection to the rail line is cost. This line of argument does not impress me, because even though the constructed price tag for the project is over $5 billion, the rail line will serve a great many commuters. The Honolulu metro region has a clearly pronounced linear geography that is well suited to the use of a rail system like this one.

All improvements to human life cost money. It is the process making improvements that creates wealth and not spending money is a sign of poverty. If the U.S. government had spent a little bit more money on a thing called RADAR in 1940 the attack on Pearl Harbor might have turned out differently than it did.
$5 billion buys approximately 2 Stealth Bombers.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The BPL experience

If I go to the BPL and do not borrow a book that only reflects poorly on me, not the library. It is a very curious place, and vital to the city, in my opinion. Over the years, I've observed how more and more space is being relegated to computer stations with internet access. This phenomenon could be seen as proof of the following things:

1. A physical space for cyber experiences is still important.
2. The quality of that space can be poor and still attract people if the service is free.
3. Demand is not levelling off.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

winterland in Boston 2012

I took this picture over five years ago. This is what snow looks like.  We've had precious little of it in the Boston area this year, and for the record, I don't miss it. I'm starting to look at my garden bed with a sense of anticipation, and I'm mildly worried about the daffodils that are starting push their way out of the ground around the house.

How would development and settlement patterns change in New England if winters started to get consistently milder? Energy costs would still be higher than in the Sun Belt states, but summers here would always be more bearable for outdoor activities--unless precipitation increases.

This line of inquiry demonstrates that despite advances in interior environmental technology, the climates of areas determines the type of architecture and the density of development. While I don't think that any modern society could be destroyed by a series of bad droughts--supply lines are robust enough to compensate for that--a persistently bad climate will drive people to nicer places.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

whither canada?

Canada has a housing bubble. It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, because even though Canada is small compared to the U.S. it isn't like one of our states or a Spain or Ireland. I predict that when the bubble starts to pop the Canadian government will make a serious effort to devalue their currency to boost exports and make up for the decline in construction spending. One of Canada's chief exports is oil and if expanded production lowers world oil prices, so be it.

I'll end up being wrong about this.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

the dwell phenomenon

I don't think I've ever mentioned Dwell magazine on this blog. Since I work for a firm that is thoroughly traditional in its design aesthetic (whatever that means), I've tended to approach Dwell and its brand of modern residences with a "ho hum" attitude. When I've flipped through it, or seen its projects second hand on Unhappy Hipsters, I've only occasionally seen things that I would feel proud to copy. Maybe I haven't worshipped at the altar of Mies and Corbu hard enough.

Dwell does serve as a good example of how architectural photography is in the business of falsehood, diversion and capturing unlikely and idealized moments in designed spaces. In photo spreads in shelter magazines there is no dirty laundry, no real service areas, and hardly any people, unless they happened to be posed in contrived positions. This sleight of hand is necessary. Perhaps we do not want to be reminded of all the mundane things that we do with architecture and how fleeting some of our most memorable experiences are.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

why 10 million s.f.?

I'm reading Eric Darton's book Divided We Stand and although I'm enjoying it, I'm still perplexed by the history and purpose of the towers. Were the three major players who initiated the project, Nelson and David Rockerfeller and Austin Tobin, motivated by a conviction of futurism? Why Yamasaki? Also, without Corbu, would the aesthetic of the tower and the superblock even existed?

The history of the development would make any red-blooded libertarian choke on his or her lunch. The blatant land grab by the Port Authority, the displacement of the last true port facilities to New Jersey, the hard cash subsidies, and the economic sketchiness of the plan are simply astonishing. And why so large?
I turn to Cool Hand Luke:
"Why fifty eggs?"
"Don't know, seemed like a nice round number."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

the housing bubble etc...

It's not even worth a picture. The Boston Globe had a pretty decent article on the collapses in home prices in central Massachusetts. Towns like Athol and Orange have seen over 40% declines in home prices over the past several years. Meanwhile, towns in the Boston area are experiencing increases in home prices, which demonstrates that in times of stress, there is a "flight to quality" as someone once explained it to me.

What happens when the price of house falls well below its structural replacement cost? Is that a sign that the neighborhood or region it is located in is in deep  trouble?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

the iconic building problem

I once made a claim in a blog post from last year that I would someday make a forceful argument against Boston City Hall. Today is not that day. I want to talk about iconic buildings in a more general sense, by making the claim that they don't matter as much as architects like to think they do. For evidence, I cite the everyday experiences of most Americans, who follow very predictable movement patterns and experience architecture in a comprehensive way in three to five places each day. Home, work, school, and shopping center are the primary building types of the modern human. I should add church, but church attendance is a tricky thing because it happens weekly if at all. Not many people find themselves at Boston City Hall every day, and if they happen to work in an iconic high rise then the experience may be so routine so as to be stripped of wonder, or may even have distinctly negative associations.

Architectural place, civic pride, and the manufactured sense of delight that is the critical responsibility of architects and designers, belongs in all of those ordinary places. The grand building at the end of the avenue, where the human sacrifices are made to appease an angry god, is less of a ritual necessity. The functional experiences of the suburb, the strip mall and the urban center are tempered by their uneasy relationship to a distant past where media was crude and distances were insurmountable.

Friday, February 10, 2012

25 harrison avenue

This building, located in the Chinatown district in Boston, has been the subject of two articles by the Boston Globe. I have a feeling it going to be the subject of several more, including an investigation into housing conditions in similar buildings. The story so far has centered around the evacuation and closure of the building following a response to a false alarm by the Fire Dept. Firefighters observed a potentially dangerous structural conditions in the basement among other problems. The building has been ordered closed pending a review by a structural engineer. Single rooms in the building were being rented out to Chinese immigrants who have been displaced by the incident. The owner has put them up in a local hotel at the moment, which was a charitable act, but I think that he is going to be in a certain amount of hot water.

Chinatown is the most densely populated part of Boston and has some its oldest and eclectic architecture. It is vibrant socially, but pretty rough around the edges, and its territory has been the target of developers who have been building high rise apartments for higher income tenants. 25 Harrison is not an exception, in my opinion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

and yet more st. louis

This picture is from a blog on St. Louis that I am very impressed by. This is the link:

This blog and Google maps have been allowing me to conduct a tour of the city. I feel like Tamburlaine standing over his maps, charting the formation of his empire. And all of this electronic information is worth less than the actual experience of standing on a street corner in the real place. That one fleeting moment creating the most profound and unique feeling and memory for all the senses. I may never go to St. Louis, and even if did, how many trips would it take, how many years, before I could claim to know the place?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

finding the bottom

I'm trying to get excited about this Pruitt Igoe competition, and it's hard, because the part of St. Louis near the site looks like it got hit pretty hard by 20th century deurbanization. "Deurbanization"--now there's a concept. All statistics point to the increasing importance of cities in the modern age, but the high density, centralized, walkable city that forms the basis of architectural mythology seems to be the exception rather than the rule. People drive cars. Proximity becomes less of an absolute geographical condition and more of a function of road access, parking capacity, contemporary amenities and good reputation. That last feature seems to be the important quality. Once a place is perceived as being in decline it becomes hard to put the pieces back together. All this is old hat.

The libertarian in me says "Unleash the force of the free market." What seems to have happened, and what continues to happen, is that the market has spoken and it says: "We've moved out to the suburbs and that's where we want to stay."

Monday, February 6, 2012

hollow architecture

I wonder if we have hit the point of diminishing marginal returns for efficiency in material use in buildings? An old masonry structure like a cathedral might have as much as 30% of its floor area given over to structure. A modern box store might have as little as 10%. Given new standards for energy performance, we might start devoting a little more area to exterior walls to improve the quality of the thermal barrier. I'm in favor of that.

Also, I think that efficiency in architecture is a curious issue. The average office worker takes up about 8 sq. feet in a chair and gets another 12 s.f. for a desk. Conventional programming guidelines typically allocate 250+ gross s.f. for each worker to account for circulation, common spaces, structure and plain old elbow room. An ignorant bean counter might look to squeeze more productivity out of a building by limiting area per worker, but I doubt that such measure would realize improved workplace performance. I'm probably wrong about this and as punishment I'll be working in coffin sized cubicle next year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

at home-among other things

I'm reading Bill Bryson's book, At Home. It is an illuminating and disturbing experience, which is his intent. As an architect, I take many things for granted, but I'm occasionally responsible for explaining why things should be done in a certain way to clients, contractors, and other designers. Usually, these explanations don't go to the heart of the matter--like why do we need formal rooms in houses when we never use them? (Thorstein Veblen can explain that one better than any architect)

The history of domesticity makes me grateful for the way we live now, and I am allowing myself to be optimistic about some future state when we have shed some disturbing habits, or at least, replaced them with less wasteful and disturbing ones.

This is one of the most ridiculous private homes ever designed and built. By an Englishman, of course.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

pruitt igoe - so help us

A photo to the entrance of the Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis, Missouri. There's a design competition to try to come up with ideas of what to do with the site which I'm thinking of entering. The fact that I know almost nothing about site design and master planning doesn't bother me. I could go off on a tear now about how this is another tired tale about the hollowing out of American cities, but I'm too tired to go into that.

What do we do with the empty spaces inside old American cities? Will they ever fill up again? I'm leaning away from traditional architecture on this issue. Where is the demand? What do people want? Holding onto property that may have some hypothetical value in the far distant future betrays the needs and desires of the present.

Final thought on the Manhattan grid. I should be more aggressive in pointing out that its geometric regularity has nothing to do with democratic values. Such comparisons reach too far. The substance of New York is inequality, which in the case of everyone striving for something better is not necessarily a bad thing. The layout of the streets has tended to reinforce inequality in a systemic way. The first one now may later be last, but I'm nor sure I'll live long enough to see it, especially there.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

february is for frank lloyd wright

A house designed by Wright is for sale in Illinois. The job that would frighten me the most as an architect would involve having the responsibility for restoring or modifying a historic property like this one. The over-used note on drawings "Match Existing" simply wouldn't be enough for a situation like this.

This place doesn't look like it's in too bad a condition. Famous last words.