ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, May 25, 2012

towers of ilium to go public

Okay, not really, but I'm observing the Facebook stock IPO debacle with a certain amount of amusement. I'm glad I didn't buy any, I don't plan on buying any, but I wish I had the intelligence and resources to sell it short.
The whole affair actually makes me feel optimistic about the business world. Imagine if we were back in 1999 and Facebook existed and was issuing stock---It would be trading at $300 a share. Perhaps we have entered an era of sobriety and caution.

Wait, who am I kidding?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

meanwhile at a pet shop in Notlob

A homeowner in Newton, Mass is facing a challenge from zoning enforcement because he is growing tomatoes in his front yard which are suspended from a temporary wooden scaffolding system. The zoning ordinance prohibits this type of structure (not the tomatoes).

Because I do work in Newton, I have to be careful about criticizing this, but I think it serves as an example of how it is best that zoning regulations err on the side of non-specificity when it comes to the uses of private, residential properties. It is very difficult to demonstrate that what this homeowner is doing will have a significant, negative impact on his neighbors.

Monday, May 21, 2012

the machine in the garden makes sounds

The State of Massachusetts is considering regulating noise generated by wind turbines. People who live near recent installations have complained about the relentless woosh of the huge blades cutting through the air.
I am sure that people who have highways built near their houses have similar complaints. As far as I know, turbines do not create combustion byproducts, so they still have an edge over many other loud industrial systems.

This is the machine in the garden. It is the compilation of the sublime and the mundane  that encompasses desire, artistry and fear.A hunter-gatherer society cannot comprehend it, but all that we do in our modern world sustains it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I wonder if religious architecture will ever reach the level of grandeur of past works. I'm skeptical that any civilization will make a return to the funerary traditions practiced by the ancient Egyptians. A big pile of stone wouldn't excite a building committee these days. Big piles of glass are in style, and may end up enjoying a tenure that lasts as long as the great masonry traditions.

In my last post I made the claim that technology changes the way we do things. That was remarkably insightful--I'm expecting a prize in the mail any day now. I need to brush up on my Leo Marx.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

the fallacy of productivity

This is a topic which deserves more attention. It has been noted that a modern orchestra takes the same time to perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony as when he wrote it. What I want to also point out, is that if Beethoven were alive today, it would probably take him the same amount of time to compose such a symphony. All of our technological achievements do not necessarily make creative tasks faster or easier. I'll be so bold to suggest that changes (notice that I use that word instead of "improvements") in technology  have the effect of displacing old ways of doing things. The old methods may have reached a productivity plateau--which doesn't imply that new things were no longer being done, but rather that artistic developments within a genre were displaying an increase in diversity.

In architecture, computers make us more productive, but the speed at which projects are delivered--from design initiation to occupancy--seems to have reached a plateau. Most significantly, good work takes time, and not even more money can make a good designer create something faster without compromising quality.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

the fabulous recovery continues

The most recent survey of the National Association of Home Builders showed an uptick in confidence. This correlates positively with the Architectural Billings and Inquiries indices and points to a more positive environment for the economy as a whole in the months ahead. I'm still maintaining caution. Household debt and borrowing is still high, Washington is in a state of gridlock, and Europe continues to implode. I'm not sure to what extent the U.S. is decoupled to European finance markets. I'll float the theory if that investment money can't find a home overseas it will come back here to finance the next bubble in............what exactly? The green energy and technology revolution seems to be a bit less exciting than some people hoped. We could use a sustained infrastructure boom, but there's that issue in Washington and at the state level. Could we start to see private investment in infrastructure? I doubt it, although I could sell you lots of bridges.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

future box office failures

I cannot recommend the Doctor Who movie to anyone. As far as I know, they are not working on a Doctor Who movie but given the habit of production studios to use common myths for the sake of convenience (and to pander to broad fan bases) I expect to see a Who themed film within the next ten years. I consider myself a mild fan, but I don't see how a story about a middle aged, very weird, very British, neo-colonialist space adventurer could have much appeal to audiences that continue to be enthralled by CGI. Elaborate special effects could be incorporated into a Doctor Who story, but he generally uses a combination of wits, technology, and lots of luck to get out of hairy situations. He doesn't have big muscles and his transport system is lacking very much in the cool department (at least on the outside).

Friday, May 11, 2012

the great recovery

Only a fool makes predictions about the economy, so here is my prediction about the economy:

We might be on the way up, but the signs are troubling. Housing inventory is high, lending is depressed, and ordinary people are bringing home less money, while watching medical costs increase. The great experiment in austerity is having predictable results--namely, a prolonged and miserable recession. Architecture is creeping back, but capacity is underutilized and talent is being diverted or sidelined. If any profession is undergoing a structural change, it is probably design. More demand could help bring back 30% of the jobs that were lost, but not all of them (corrected for natural population growth rates).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

the great casino story

The casino proposal for Foxboro is now dead as a doornail after Steve Wynn pulled his proposal following the election of selectmen who are opposed to the project. Hurray--democracy works, etc... The Globe reports that attention will now shift to a location in East Boston, probably near the Suffolk downs racetrack complex. From an architectural point of view, I think it makes sense. I don't happen to live in East Boston and know very little about it, so it's easy for me to recommend it as a location. This picture presents a rather biased view of the area, but so what? What's the point of blogging if you don't try to manipulate people?

I think the great casino debate is considerably overblown. The real economic story in Massachusetts has more to do with our aged infrastructure, the health of higher education, and the relationship of our high-tech industry to the Pentagon budget. Casinos are small change, although for the people who will be dropping coins into slot machines like robots in a few years, it will add up.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

dale carnegie and the age of innocence

I wonder to what extent the Western mindset is still influenced by World War II. Political discourse, which in the U.S. is marked by a general distaste for appeasement and accommodation, still follows a post-war playbook. I'll venture to say that we shed our concerns about communism, but we still fear the next proto-Hitler.

But, in a more general sense, are people less trusting and a bit more violent because of the World War experience? The harm caused by backing down, even for a moment, motivates decision making in business and life. Do people look on World War II as evidence for the need to be hard, and to be hard quickly, before employing discourse?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

topless towers in faraway lands

The Al-Hamra tower in Kuwait City by SOM. Very much like a Brancusi. According to the design team, the sculptural shape is the result of a parametric study of structural loads and the client's desire for narrow floor plates of different sizes. So, another example of form follows function which I'll take that with a grain of salt. I just enjoy the way it folds and curves up to meet the sky. Unlike some of the all-glass monuments that have sprung up in Arabia, this structure incorporates solar shading through a mass wall effect on its southern facade.

Do skyscrapers even have a place in the desert?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

a recurring theme

This building is in Collinsville, Connecticut and I don't think much has happened to it since I took this picture 6 years ago. It is deteriorating and within a few decades it will pass the point of recovery.I recall an anecdote from Stewart Brand's book How Buildings Learn. It went something like this:

Q: How do you destroy a barn?
A: Cut a one foot square hole in the roof. Wait ten years.

Even if we hadn't had a housing bubble and a recession, would renovating this building make financial sense? Is it doomed by its location? Are there political forces that would discourage all but the most reckless developers?
For the moment, we can appreciate its grandeur as a ruin in progress, captured in time here on this blog, by Google, for a span of time that will approximate eternity.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

rain in may

Should architects have values? A silly question, but given the circumstances of the economy, I am not sure that any architect or designer with very strict values is in business anymore. And what are values as they apply to design? If a client approaches a designer for help with a project then to a large extent a moral position has been established. The building will reflect that morality, but only to the extent that law and customs allow. Now, I sound naive.

If a client wanted a torture facility, how would I justify doing or not doing such a job? This question has been posed to students in architecture schools, but in the "real" world such a black and white choice would be implausible.