ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

domestic architecture and the folly of size

Most program challenges in architecture can be solved by adding more space. Design ingenuity is admirable, but if something isn't big enough, it won't work, and it won't last. Unfortunately, the concept of "big enough" is not something that can be easily pinned down. A living room that is 11 feet by 16 feet is perfectly adequate in my opinion, and there are probably 40 million American houses that adhere to that proportion. Not many of them are new, however. Conventional wisdom might declare that such a size is a relic of the past and now only living rooms (now renamed "family rooms") must be a minimum of 20 feet by 20 feet. The cost to build that much more space is not overwhelming, and the maintenance costs of that extra space are not too burdensome, so why not? Yet some part of me finds more contentment with the smaller space. I suppose I am a relic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

vertical farming part IV

I beat up on vertical farming in a post a while back, but since I don't hold much stock in originality, I'm happy to do it again. A vertical farm has opened in Singapore. See article here.

I don't expect this to be a trend, and I'm not sure that the farm in Singapore will be a widely copied model. It will enjoy status as a niche market and people will pay more for its produce because it will have a unique quality. The country has some very rich citizens who enjoy making statements. Like all things architecture.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

in the path of a storm always

Sandy is on its way up the coast of the U.S. and it looks like Massachusetts will get a fair amount of rain, wind and coastal flooding. And this too shall pass. I feel safe in my house, but this sense of safety is an illusion that I maintain with the help of my homeowner's insurance policy (which doesn't cover flood damage, of course). Of greater importance is the elevation at which I sit--which is only a few feet above the flood line.  When it comes to flooding, I like to think that a change of elevation of one foot, even less than one foot, can make all the difference in the world. If I stay here long enough, Nature may test that theory. I'll try to post on it if I can.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

whom does the architect serve?


Architects are constantly and  thoroughly subordinate to those in power. It's simple and obvious, but so many in the  profession talk about "leadership" in a way that seems to convey much more importance to the role of the designer than actually exists.

Like Aristotle, I wear the chain of my clients, and unlike Scrooge, I have the pleasure of forging it and wearing it in this life. When I pass on, I have no illusions that everything I worked on will crumble, or be destroyed by others. The immortality of Homer is something that I could aspire to, but at what risk? To be in the comfortable position of the servant--clothed and fed--is to be exalted.

Towers of ilium is a bit cynical and resigned today. More bombastic posts this weekend.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

smart houses

The idea of the smart house has been around for a while--Orwell's 2-way TV's in 1984 are a type of smart house technology. The modern smart house would have a multitude of sensors and all electrical and mechanical equipment would be linked together. Your habits and behavior can be monitored and things like lighting and air temperature would be adjusted accordingly. More mundane smart houses let you control your lighting system with a computer.

Towers of ilium is impressed. Really.

Monday, October 22, 2012

locke ober

After 137 years in business, the Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston closed abruptly last week. The owner has sold the building and I have read that the place was struggling as the character of the dining scene in downtown changed over the years. I suppose that the place succumbed to the Howard Johnson's syndrome in that the people who liked to go there died off and the younger generation wasn't interested. Or, it could have been a gross failure of marketing.

I walked by the place for the first time ever today. It is down an alley that feels like so many remnants of 18th and 19th century Boston. This picture, which I did not take, makes the space in front of the establishment look less claustrophobic than it actually is. I am told that the interior was impressive, but probably less impressive than newer restaurants with better views. Boston has some successful "alley" commercial areas, but they tend to have more than just one business.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

ameneties, aesthetics, and performance

Every once in a while towers of ilium addresses the issue of aesthetics in architecture. It will always be a controversial topic. The issue of performance is equally controversial, and to make matters more difficult, it can suffer from a preoccupation with objective standards. To give an example: what is the ideal size of a bedroom for a teenager? Will a larger bedroom size, and amenities like larger windows, a private bathroom, and more closet space improve the future of a teenager versus another who lacks those things?

The performance of a building, or a space within a building, can reach a point of terminal design, beyond which the architect can contribute very little. In fact, an architect who is preoccupied with aesthetic considerations AND is devious enough to frame the issue of aesthetics with performance standards (false or true), can expend scarce resources that threaten a successful outcome for the client and the user.

I am grateful that an architect was not consulted about the design of the gym shown in the picture above. To most people it probably looks like a banal, even discouraging space. The lighting looks harsh, the equipment is Spartan and used looking, and there is a conspicuous absence of mirrors.
Yet, by virtue of the people who use the place, and the fact that the equipment is not only serviceable but of higher quality than what is found in more genteel and commercial clubs, the results achieved are more significant than in any other place on the planet.

I don't go there, by the way. It's in Ohio.

Friday, October 19, 2012

glorious attleboro

I have very little to say about the place. I don't think I've been there except to drive through it. It was grander once, perhaps.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

urban omnibus advertisement

From Urban Omnibus by Theo Games Petrohilos

I'm too lazy to provide a direct link, so if you happen to be reading this blog you'll have to use Google. Urban Omnibus is an online publication that writes about New York City urban planning and architecture topics. If I didn't have so many loyal and dedicated followers on this blog I would buckle down and try to write for them.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too dependent on Google, just like I'm too dependent on chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, cars, and the rule of law in a modern democracy. I tell myself that I would prefer to live in ancient times than have to deal with punch card computers. I hope I never have to make that choice. I'm sure that I would have made a decent slave, but only for a little while--I have too much body mass and I don't have much endurance for hard labor.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

the modernist tradition-episode IV

This is not a house. It is a drawing of a house. Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system I can discuss this in what I hope is a more nuanced fashion. This design draws heavily on modernist principles of design--minimal/non-existent ornament, functional geometry, simple windows, and a flat roof. There's a hint of classicism in the triple windows on the front facade, but that can be overlooked. The important thing here is that the character of the house is resolutely anti-urban--its geometry is defined by a narrow lot and a dependence on the automobile. In some respects, it is anti-suburban and anti-rural as well. It proclaims privacy and retreat instead of civic engagement. I'm not sure why I designed it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

history for sale

And, why shouldn't it be? Hugh Stubbins designed this house back in the 1940's. After participating in the housing bubble, it is now being sold at auction by a bank. Look at this and imagine the Citicorp tower.
Tough, yes? Everything has a beginning.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Towers of ilium cannot be held accountable for things that are posted after midnight. Reliable sources confirm that anything a  person does after midnight come to no good (except, sometimes).  However, even during the daytime, this blog is not entirely trustworthy. I rarely back up my claims. You should also note that the phrase "cannot be held accountable" has no basis in fact.

Monday, October 8, 2012


From Peter Gruhn (without his permission)

Towers of ilium has nothing remarkable to say this morning. I've only been sailing a few times, and although I found it relaxing, I tend to prefer dry land. I'm reading The Passage right now, and find it deeply disturbing. I also find it hopeful, because common archetypes in fiction can be revisited on a more or less constant basis.

Friday, October 5, 2012

last thoughts on the bymcu

The Boston Young Men's Christian Union

The gym I attended for over five years (six?) closed this week in a rather abrupt fashion. I was told by a staff member that they had an electrical problem which would be resolved in a timely manner. I became a bit  skeptical of this story  after I learned that the Massachusetts. Commission for the Blind had moved out of their office space on the upper floors. The closure of the gym on the first day of October neatly coincides with the expiration of many monthly memberships. A Google search reveals that the building was put up for sale recently.

I am bothered, but not surprised, by the lack of transparency here. The BYMCU is a non-profit administered by a board of directors who presumably donate their time and resources to the continuation of the institution. That institution is effectively in breach of a multitude of contracts at the moment--small in my case, possibly larger in the case of other people and corporations. I sense a basic imbalance of income and outlays, which is embarrassing, but quite ordinary. I'm holding out some hope that the place will open again, but I can't count on it. An institution  has a certain fundamental power that can transcend time, place, and individuals. But, without a physical presence, an institution dissolve into nothingness. Or, in this case, a prime real estate opportunity.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

this blog has the best coffee

I read in the paper this morning that Dunkin Donuts is filing a petition with the Patent office to have sole trademark rights to the description "best coffee in America." I think this is asinine and an abuse of the intent and spirit of patents. Even if a patent expires, efforts to assign monetary and legal status to opinions, hyperbole, cultural expressions, and historical communication is a waste of human resources. Information and communication only work for human beings if everyone has access, and the trend towards patenting and copyrighting every scrap of word and expression eventually destroys a free society.

I guess the pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handle.

(I own his albums, this blog is not monetized, and I ain't afraid of no lawyer)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

disturbing revelation

So, although I knew this, I didn't want to admit it. At least, I can claim to have known it, but felt powerless about it, so I ignored it. I just finished reading Concrete Planet by Robert Courland. In some respects, I was disappointed by the book for the simple reason that it was too short--a complaint I also level against The Power Broker.

All the concrete structures we are building today have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years. Not very long by the standards of architecture. On one hand, so what? The utility of our built environments is based on a continual renovation and re-creation, which depends on destruction--voluntary or otherwise. As long as we have energy, oxygen, water, and dirt we'll be okay. On the other hand, if we build with reinforced concrete, which is compromised by the rusting rebar that gives it tensile strength, we are signalling our stupidity and shortsightedness.

The future of concrete has to be non-ferrous reinforcing in concrete. If I make it to old age in the Boston area I am not looking forward to the rancorous debate about the repair and replacement of the Big Dig and other vital concrete infrastructure.