ruminations about architecture and design

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.