ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, March 30, 2012


I'm reading a book by Bob Lutz right now. He was an executive at General Motors who deserves some of the credit for helping turn the company around. (so naturally, I have a picture of a Toyota) I have mixed feelings about GM and particularly about many of the claims that Lutz makes, but one of his comments resonated with me. He pointed out that a lack of complaints about a product (or service) does not necessarily mean that people are happy or satisfied. He gives the example of certain cars, or features on cars, that had a low incident of compaints but had lackluster sales performance. He contrasts this with examples of cars that, paradoxically, had high levels of reported problems and high rankings in satisfaction, and good sales numbers.

As a married couple would say: "We fight all the time, but we love each other above all else."

and yet more mies

By popular demand, I have a few more things to say about Mies. His design philosophy has been most powerfully summed up by the phrase: "Almost nothing." If I were of an unsympathetic and narrow frame of mind I would accuse Mies, and his legions of fans, of being nihilists. I would also accuse Mies and his cohort of corrupting generations of architecture students by putting too much emphasis on the "purity" of a design gesture. If the end point of the process of design is something that has been stripped of all attributes except structure and skin, then where do we find room for the humans? The search for purity, along with the search for the Grail and the Fountain of Youth, are examples of folly. In the context of the Fall, the issue of purity has been graciously removed as the sole objective of existence. Interaction with other people through design media becomes a constantly changing and expanding expression of humanity. We strive for infinite riches in a little room. Mies was certainly not a nihilist, given his record of work and his fleshly pursuits. His legacy is ever evolving--someday there will be little record or memory of him, and there is no morality associated with that inevitability except for what we choose to make of it.

So, that's why I think that this a thoroughly legitimate interpretation of Mies. It is functional as expressive and sculptural art, as well as being  ironic, poignant and silly. (etc..)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

qualified retraction on statements made about mies van der rohe

I used the term "inhuman" to describe his architecture, and after some consideration, I've decided that such a description is too harsh. Most of what we perceive as "Miesian" consists of poor copies of his lavish and austere detailing.

Also, I gave him too much credit for his influence on the character of our modern buildings and cities. Most of the built area of the world is defined by older and anonymous architecture that conformed to the economic needs of its period. I wish I knew exactly what percentage of the total built area of American architecture was made out of wood, but I'll venture to say that it is over 50%--most in the form of detached, single family homes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

a world made by mies

According to Google (always a reliable source), today would have been the 126th birthday of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Hooray. I'll bake a cake. No other 20th century architect has had as much influence as him with regard to the look of buildings in modern cities. For all intents and purposes he invented the glass skyscraper and the glass and concrete suburban office building. All architects respect and adore him. Unlike Corbusier, Mies did not seem to have the bent for social engineering that corrupted so many of the modernists. His art was pure, occasionally practical, buildable, and often inhuman.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

the end of art after a fashion

Part post, part bleg. What happened to art after the 60's? I'm familiar with the various movements in architecture and popular film, but visual art and sculpture seemed to have faded in importance and vitality after Warhol. Arguably, things were in a state of decline while Warhol was the "pop art man." I half-remember lectures about Joseph Beuys, but they came after the lectures on Brancusi so my appreciation was dampened.

Andy Goldsworthy is doing good things, Sol Lewitt is still practicing in spite of the fact that he's dead, and Mark Bradford had an impressive exhibit in Boston a few years ago. Maybe it's not as grim as I'm making it out to be, but I have trouble imagining a person like Monet, enshrined in a rural paradise, producing masterworks.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

alternatives to the detached single family home

The real estate value of this house is astonishing, primarily because it is located in one of the most charming neighborhoods in the United States. I haven't been inside it, but I've had an opportunity to study its floor plan and I'm not quite certain that I would be happy living in it. The footprint of the structure is relatively small and the living spaces are organized vertically. A central staircase also has the effect of dividing the living spaces on each floor. Consequently, moving from the kitchen to the living room--which is a common pilgrimage in most American houses every evening--becomes a journey that isolates one part of the dwelling from another. More significantly,the occupants of bedrooms on the very top floor have a long descent to the kitchen every morning.

I'm biased towards horizontal arrangements of living. The efficiency afforded by a house like this in terms of land usage doesn't impress me and I'm not sure how to create a spatial model that would overcome the vertical barriers.

Friday, March 23, 2012

one of the best places in manhattan

I just got back from New York and this is the only graphic evidence I have of my trip. It is a quick sketch of Paley Park, and since it is nearly illegible I will post an image that I stole from the Internet

This wonderful space stands in stark contrast to the bombastic idiocy of Rockefeller Center--which never fails to underwhelm me. I'm puzzled why spaces like Paley Park aren't designed and built more often. Possibly because they would be too small to create the volume of attendance that would justify public upkeep. I'm wondering how successful it would be if the waterfall were smaller and quieter.

On an unrelated topic I am announcing the formation of an organization dedicated to creating a Concrete Atlantis sculpture and folly park somewhere in Massachusetts or upstate New York. This park would showcase concrete landscaping elements amidst a lush series of gardens. It would be a great tourist attraction and make a big splash in the art world. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

the recent power failure in boston

Last week, a transformer in the Back Bay caught on fire and transported over 20,000 NStar customers back to the 18th century for a few days. No new lessons will be learned from this incident. NStar will make some efforts to make their grid more robust, but the patchwork assembly of our civilization will remain patchwork. This is not an indictment of the current state of U.S. infrastructure, which is not as good as it should be, but rather an opportunity to reflect on how complex systems fail at unpredictable moments for a combination of reasons--some predictable, others unpredictable.

Unpredictable phenomenon are sometimes referred to as "Black Swans" and they are important as a concept because their continuing existence demonstrates that we can't control the future absolutely. An amusing  paradox lies in the fact that in order to survive we must make constant efforts to plan and predict the future. All hope for positive outcomes rests on our ability to resist overreaching and to make investments in contingencies. Some contigencies will never be used, or it is hoped that they will never be used, but that doesn't make them any less valuable. I hope that I never use the airbags in my car, but I really enjoy having them--particularly since I drive in Massachusetts.

Friday, March 16, 2012

jean giraud-1938-forever

Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, died last week. His visions should last as long as human civilization. I confidently predict that several of his stories and characters will be made into movies within the next ten years. How well someone can make Arzach (pictured here) appear on film depends entirely on the effort and time that is invested. Money will be helpful, as well.

His artwork serves as a reminder that talent is born, not made. A unique style manifests itself as a consequence of influences from mediums and time periods, but the talented creator adds that measure of power that accelerates the art into the realm of the sublime. I have read about the idea that it takes ten years of concentrated effort to get good at something. This formulaic principle has led some people to claim that effort and application create genius, but this claim does not stand the test of history. Greatness is. And good is not great, nor can it be great in many cases despite the effort an individual or institution applies to it. I believe that we should all strive to improve, but to hold out achievement of greatness as the only goal is downright nuts.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

rural idiocy

On other posts I've commented on the futility of subjective definitions like "urban" and "suburban" and "sprawl." The meaning of "rural" and "countryside" falls into this same hopeless category. The only thing we know for certain is that "wilderness" refers to places on earth that neither have nor can support permanent human settlement. The ocean, by default, is wilderness, despite our ongoing abuse of its resources.

Zoning bylaws that set forth restrictions on land use with the intent of preserving a "rural" character are distinctly at odds with logic. Once settlement patterns have disturbed a wilderness, and once agricultural uses have been replaced by tract houses, then anything that can be honestly called "rural" has ceased to exist. A settled area that consists primarily of houses and roads marks a disruption of natural ecosystems. Large-lot zoning only exacerbates this condition. People like it though.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

this is incan masonry

To the best of my knowledge, the Incan masonry technique is unique in the history of architecture. No other culture achieved such a level of stylistic accuracy and perfection. The trivia about the size of the stones, the tightness of the joints and the care given to the finishing has been the subject of much discussion. I wonder how much we can read into the craft about the type of people who put it together and the standards that they were held to. Would I have wanted to live in a world where the sole object of existence was rendering such details to such a level of refinement? Who suffered so that walls like the one pictured here would last for millenia?

Monday, March 12, 2012

whither canada: part 2

I've never been to Nova Scotia, but everyone I've talked to has had something good to say about the place. It feels like too far a drive, but that's just because I'm not into big road trips. This picture isn't very representative of the city or the province, but I like having a graphic on my blog posts regardless of the content.

Probably a better place to visit in summer than winter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

the box store and the future of retail architecture

The history of retail architecture over the past century has been about two things: improvement of logistics and an increase in scale. The small shopkeeper will always exist because certain locations and certain services don't or can't benefit from a larger store. On a practical level, scale triumphs, and although certain business founder, like Bradlee's, others take their place, like Wal-Mart. So, I found an article in today's Boston Globe interesting because it described the phenomenon of box stores that are strategically reducing the size of their stores to save on rent, and presumably to improve service.

The spectre of the possibility that one day we will buy everything at Amazon and never browse in person again is something that weighs heavily on the business planners at stores like Best Buy, Staples and Target. In some respects, the shift towards this new retail landscape is being reflected in the construction of massive distribution centers, which are the functional equivalent of the server centers where this blog lives. There is no end point for retail architectural. The souk will always flourish and the experience of shopping online will remain fundamentally different from the unplanned purchases that are still a critical part of the retail experience.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

preservation and memory

I don't know what got me thinking about Madison Square Garden, but its status as a New York destination is fairly secure, even if its architecture leaves something to be desired. This picture is simply beautiful, and in some ways, refers unintentionally to the incredible detail of the Penn Station that was demolished so that future generations could enjoy rock concerts and hockey games. (Disclosure: the only big rock concert I have ever been to was there--cheap seats)

I have mixed feeling about preservation, partly because I don't consider architecture as ever reaching a stopping point. A building is always changing--deteriorating, getting repaired, getting new occupants, becoming obsolete. Demolition and erasure from collective memory is the fate of things made by human hands. The longevity of religious and mortuary architecture is the exception, not the rule, and if we aspire to that type of timescale then we deny ourselves room for improvement. I'm particularly enamored of Italian churches that would undergo several facade renovations over the centuries. The Florence Cathedral is the most noteworthy example.

Monday, March 5, 2012

central square and gentrification

Central Square is a challenging place to photograph or describe, but it is a very nice place to go to. There are interesting restaurants and stores. The public spaces are chiefly the sidewalk. It's improved a lot over the past decade.

Is it being gentrified? Is that a bad thing? My feeling is that the answers to those questions are "yes" and "no" respectively. I don't think that Central Square will ever end up like Newbury Street or Harvard Square. Change is inevitable--some businesses will not be able to make it and new businesses may not have the same quirkiness and appeal. Such is the process of urban development and as long as stuff isn't getting burnt down, boarded up and abandoned then the condition is, on balance, a positive one.

I heard that Maya Lin is designing an office tower for Novartis. I don't know what it looks like.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

architectural sales technique 101

This is a rendering of the  resort casino that Steve Wynn is seeking to gain approval to build in Foxborough, Mass. I am skeptical of his chances of success, but I don't begrudge the money he is paying his architects right now to develop designs and images for the project. If Wynn is helping someone put food on the table then I can't be too critical, because I am unequivocally in favor of food on tables.

I am of the opinion that this design is a straw man that Wynn is using as a discussion point and as a foil for people who oppose his casino plan. The architecture is so garish and out of keeping with the character of the traditional architecture of New England that I cannot seriously believe that he intends to build anything that looks like this. I am nearly certain that his architects have an alternate plan that is much more conservative and tasteful that they will unveil at some appropriate moment. By demonstrating that he is sensitive to local feedback Wynn will be able to improve his standing in the community and possibly gain some measure of support for his plan. In gambling, I believe this technique is called bluffing.

I'm probably wrong about this.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

that was then, what now?

I had expressed skepticism in a post last month about the influence of iconic buildings. Now that it's March, I am going to qualify that skepticism a bit. Exceptional examples of architecture may not have much of an impact on the day to day activities of a modern human but they serve as important historical markers that will inevitably shape people's perception of history. Significant buildings can be used to summarize the achievements of a culture and a geographic region--perhaps unfairly, but analysis of the quality of life that people led depends more on anecdotes than statistics. A large building is a fitting anecdote, and in ancient times a monumental architecture would speak volumes about the priorities of a society. Now, we build larger structures more frequently and with lower up front costs. Their impact is blunted.