ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Majorca. Who could not fall in love with this place? Many tourists from the U.K. have. I wonder how it has been doing during the great European recession.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

architecture and memory

I've been reading Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow and I can't say enough good things about it. To sum up what I think I understand from it, the human brain is persistently unreliable and easily manipulated. The myth of the rational human deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of failed ideology.

The manipulation of memory and experience is one of the vital functions of architecture. A design can convey a sense of place that enhances our experience beyond the function of the structure. If I go to a fast food restaurant I am expecting a certain type of decor and style. The experience is not supposed to be memorable in the way that a Michelin rated establishment is (or should be). A fast food enterprise aims for consistency, not delight--despite what their advertising may claim. The nurturing sense of relief that comes after pulling into a rest stop that has a McDonald's depends in large part on the disappointment associated with the food and the hard plastic seats. The experience helps move the trip forward and we never devote much space in our brain to the particular event of the McDonald's.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the information age reconsidered

Cardboard may be the most important component of the internet age. I cannot think of a cost effective substitute--and while I am sure that there are people employed by Amazon who are planning for a future where there are substitutes--cardboard is the king of online retail. I tried to find a graph that charts cardboard production worldwide, but didn't turn up anything that was free.

I cite this as another example of terminal design.

I wish that I could explaing to Google that "internet" is not a proper name and does not need to be capitalized like the spell check function suggests.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

terminal design

What happens when the mousetrap can't get any better? It occurs to me that certain things in our modern world seem to have reached the point where their design isn't improved by dramatic changes in geometry or arrangement. Construction equipment is one example. All excavators look alike. Architecture seems to be resisting this trend, but at a fundamental level, some of the things we use have reached that terminal point where further improvements are so subtle that few people appreciate that hard work is still being expended on them. Doors have hinges, stairs have railings and windows are made of glass. Spatial experience is given over to the realm of infinity and can be dramatically different.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

the mundane essentials

I considered buying a new window air conditioner this weekend. We had a minor heat wave in the Boston area, and although it wasn't hot enough to justify A/C, I like to think that I know how to plan ahead.  I wonder how many window air conditioners have been sold in the world? Architects, as a rule, hate them, but in tropical climates I can imagine that they could be the difference between life and death. Of course, you need an electrical infrastructure to support it, and stores to buy it at, and landfills to dump the junk, etc...

Monday, April 16, 2012

the face of the united states

I feel like I blogged on this subject once before, but it's an issue worth returning to. The architecture of U.S. embassies can be regarded as an important aspect of foreign policy. This building, which is fairly conservative looking, stands in the middle of Baghdad. I wonder if the person in charge runs up the stars and stripes each morning?

Based on what I've read, the more modern embassy buildings are designed with security in mind. This presents a challenge for the architect, because, there is (or should be) a dual mandate for openness. Ultimately, security issues trump interesting design features, and the buildings end up symbolizing a detached imperialism.

Friday, April 13, 2012

unbuilt boston

This is what remains of a parking garage on Newbury Street that is being torn down to make way for a building of approximately the same size. This is progress, by some measures. The steel frames in the background were for the car elevators. Now they are an artistic emblem of the calculated ambition and desire of the original builder. I wonder if the parking garage, which I think was only built in the mid-eighties, made a full return on its investment. I wonder how long it will take the new building  to do the same, and if it will be subjected to the same fate.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

this is a house

Without the fireplace on the stairs it could be the lobby of an office building. Some people love this, and I could see how there is a pleasure in designing, drawing, and moving through the space. I doubt I would want to live here, even if the space was furnished and had art on the walls and other symbols of habitation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

artistry, architecture, and artifice

The painter Thomas Kinkade died recently, and his passing gives me the opportunity to advertise his work here. For though our bodies wither, we all strive for eternity through our actions and pray for their lasting relevance (at least, the egoists among us strive for this). His work was scorned by intellectuals, but reproductions of his art hang in millions, yea, tens of millions of American Homes.

While reading his obituary, I noticed that he had partnered with a development company to create stock plans, and even entire neighborhoods, based on his picturesque renderings of houses. I was struck by this, because I am all to frequently made aware of the unsettled mix of emotion and logic with which people approach architects. My profession has, with various degrees of futility, tried to invest our service with a framework of science and objectivity. Design, ultimately, resists this effort towards the quantifiable. Despite this tension within the profession, I doubt that an architecture firm fails or succeeds by virtue of its design excellence--both with regard to art and functionality. More significantly, the dependency of the profession on favorable economic climates makes tenure a matter of luck. (This blog continues to make unverified claims--beware, beware, beware)

As far as Kinkade goes, I think his work leans more towards art than true architecture and I suspect that real-world executions of his houses would have been disappointing. He created a world of dreams, blissfully devoid of the dust and compromises of the real and the power of his work lies in their unachievable quality.

Monday, April 9, 2012

marine architecture

The design of boats is something that I know nearly nothing about, and I'm happy to keep things that way. The one thing I do know is that the ocean is a tough place to build. A structure like the one pictured here is regularly subjected to forces that would turn a land-based building into a pile of scrap within minutes. No wonder that the practical lifespan of ocean-going vessels is around 25 years.

I wonder what the ratio of land based structures to water based structures is by volume? My guess is probably 500 to 1 in favor of land architecture. I'm probably way off, and the more relevant point is that so much global prosperity, and often misery, is delivered by boats. It's hard to have a trade deficit without ships.

Friday, April 6, 2012

the end of suburbs-part IV

An interesting article in the Boston Globe today made the claim, based on recent census data, that growth rates in suburbs are declining due to the rising cost of gasoline. Implicitly, the collapse of the housing bubble, is also a factor in this demographic trend. As a card-carrying member of the organization conveniently known as Architects For Cities Always, I cheer this trend. Land use patterns based on the unchecked use of personal automobiles are on balance, and in my opinion, unsustainable and reckless. Readers of this blog will note that I have often pointed out how we do not have a good definition of things like suburbs, cities and sprawl. I'm not even sure that we have a good, objective definition of traffic congestion, but most of us are familiar with the hopeless rage and frustration associated with being in a car that is stuck on a road with thousands of other people. Such events are not good for nurturing and improving the human community.

I'm not quite ready to write off suburbs, or sprawl, immediately. I live in a suburb, but I like to think that I don't live in a fringe development that is contributing to a collapse in transportation networks. And, even though I'm a fan of innovation, I'm not sure that the technological leap of driverless, fuel efficient cars will alleviate the social and architectural challenges of low density suburbs.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

the new england tradition

What is new and what is old on this house can be challenging to sort out, and that is exactly what the architect intended. The character of the New England farmhouse style is a fluid and changeable thing. We can identify hierarchies of space and form, but the rules are inconsistent and qualitative. Nice tree, too.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

thoughts on the hunger games

The movie was well put together and disturbingly familiar. Capitol City looked like it was built from scratch with GGI and featured some rather conservative architecture. I wonder if it is a an example of the look Leon Krier advocates as an alternative to modernism?

Everything was neat, clean, new and vaguely Albert Speer-like. It suited the film well, but I got the sense that there was an implied critique of New Urbanism. I think they were trying to reference ancient Rome, but with a touch of the New York themed Las Vegas resort casino.

Monday, April 2, 2012

go west

A deck designed by my aunt in glorious, sunshine filled California. It is an undeniable fact that the American West, and to some extent, the South, are still the land of opportunity and open space. The East is built on top of itself, a tribute to all the ages of America--however short and miserable most of them were. The historical architecture of the East has become an obstacle to change, and in the same breath, a source of security and assurance. While I am a creature of the East, I can empathize with the forces that draw people to California and Arizona and Colorado. There are broader freedoms, afforded by landscapes in the deserts and mountains. Of course, where do you find water?