ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, January 31, 2013

one of the most important things

I plan on writing a post about what I consider to be fundamental building components, but recent events have forced me to point out that the distinguishing feature of modern civilization is electricity. Towers of Ilium is active due to the fact that Google takes redundancy seriously. If they provide unreliable electrical service, they lose all credibility as a company. That's something that people forget--the information age is the electrical age. It doesn't matter what the voltage is; without electrons harnessed to do our bidding, we are more helpless than we care to admit.

I have it easy. Any electrical problem I have is generally repaired within a couple of days. Even that time period forces me to make small changes to my lifestyle, but were I to lose power for weeks or months at a time, then that loss would re-define the thing I call "lifestyle."

All hail Tesla.

Monday, January 28, 2013


I'd like to talk about cranes today. The picture is pretty crummy, but I think we get the idea, yes? I associate
cranes with modernity--without cranes, we would not have large structures. They are pure function, and they form an essential part of any urban skyline. You can identify a city that is in recession by a lack of cranes. You can identify a city about to experience the bursting of a real estate bubble by too many cranes.

I also appreciate how difficult it is to erect and then take down cranes. You need a crane to erect a crane, which implies a wonderful circularity--how did they build the first crane? And why the name crane, anyway? Because of the bird? On some occasions I've observed how you need three cranes to set up a big tower crane. First, a small truck crane puts together a large mobile crane, which in turn sets up the big tower crane.
What else can you do?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

elmar lohk appreciation post

A hotel in Tallinn designed by Russian born architect Elmar Lohk. It's a pretty grim looking building, but that's function of the lack of ground floor retail space and a failure to keep the exterior clean. I like the clean, art-do lines of the facade and I think the small balconies are a nice touch. Lohk was born in Vladivostok, but he died in Sweden. I wonder if he ever traveled back to his place of birth.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

blog post 439798359835

I average about 15 posts a month and I'm on track to exceed that for this month. A good start to the new year, yes?

Of course, this post doesn't have any content, so it shouldn't count. It's like a body count statistic from the Vietnam War--meaningless except for the fact that it prolonged the horror. Maybe I should mention that I have numerical superstitions. I don't like the following numbers: 145, 265, 365, 430, 530, 650. Those numbers have a specific relevance to something I do and there is no reasonable basis for my dislike. But, that is the nature of most superstitions.

Friday, January 25, 2013

featured elsewhere

And then they built Madison Square Garden.

The architectural observation I wanted to make was how the original Penn Station celebrated the phenomenon of lateral transportation with a relentless and heroic verticality. This contrast between the functionality of a technological system and the spiritual experience of a stone and wrought iron cathedral is definitely inspiring. A frequent experience for a passenger was descending stairs, but sight would always be directed upwards.

Friday, January 18, 2013

the michael graves post

Towers of Ilium will claim that it has never had strong feelings about the Portland Building designed by Michael Graves. Some people regard it as ugly. I have heard that the small windows make for a rather dark interior and I've never been able to figure out how it relates to its urban context. (Note to self: A company called "Google" has this thing called "street view"--must try it sometime)

I was introduced to the building in some far distant history of architecture class and so I tend to regard it with academic detachment. "Oh yes, that icon of Po-Mo architecture by the guy who designs blenders for Target." It's all a way of avoiding a really critical assessment of the place as Architecture. I can prolong the cop-out by claiming that I'll never go there so I can't honestly have an opinion. Ultimately, I should have an opinion, even if my knowledge is incomplete.

So, Towers of Ilium will now claim that it looks pretty dumb. Thank goodness there's nothing like it in Boston.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

the post industrial apocalypse

The romance of old American industrial sites is usually confined to structures that were built after the Civil War and prior to the Great Depression. In the northeast, they define many settlements and transportation networks and much print has been devoted to discussions of their adaptation and re-use. Most will crumble, and I predict that this process will accelerate in the coming decades as the financial picture darkens for many of the small towns and cities that were so deeply linked to them. Soon, they will move from architecture to archaeology.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

towers of ilium is shrouded in darkness

Maxfield Parrish, on the other hand, will always be in a world of eternal brightness. It's like he established a special relationship with some strange blue sun from another universe.

Light and architecture are always spoken of like a great mystery has been solved for all of humanity. Some of the great architectural achievements, from Joseph Paxton to Louis Kahn have been all about the manipulation of light and the wonder it can create for building occupants. I'm ambivalent about the subject. If you want true light, go outside and hope it isn't a cloudy day. I regard buildings as disruptors of light, and any manipulations by the architect are a poor substitute for the open sky. Maybe I'm more grumpy about this because it's winter. The house I grew up in had a bank of south facing windows that gave a view towards my mother's flower gardens (and for many years a rusty swing-set that served as an armature for bird feeders).

Monday, January 14, 2013

appreciation and architecture

Architecture can only add value to property if people believe in the utility of place. A skyscraper in North Dakota is essentially worthless. What is most disturbing is when a piece of architecture declines in value relative to its construction cost. This frustration can drive people to extreme behavior. At the end of the day, it's just a thing--but with no portability.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

scale, proportion, and context

This is a building I'm designing. No, it's actually a piece of sculpture. No, it's intended to be a fully functional piece of furniture. It's a symbolic gesture. By now, anyone who bothers to read this blog knows that towers of ilium cannot be trusted. Perhaps I have a future in politics?

Why did Google sell SketchUp to Trimble? Why did Trimble want SketchUp?

I'm so far off topic now, that I don't think I should even attempt to talk about scale, proportion, or context. I try to make the claim that architecture isn't about dimensions, it's about proportions, but contractors really prefer it when I give them a number to work with. In some circumstances, I can tolerate errors of greater than 2" and in others, I get frustrated when a finish carpenter gets sloppy with some hairline gap in a joint. It's all a matter of context and scale.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Okay, so they've been working on a film adaptation of Neuromancer for quite some time and they're might be a release within the next 2 years. Didn't the Wachowski brothers already do that? 

I happen to think that the story is unfilmable. Gibson's vision serves to remind us that our primary experience with the internet is still severely 2-dimensional, and will probably remain so for quite some time. The data and computing power required to create some sort of coherent 3-d virtual environment that is convincing enough to attract a significant population is probably fifty years away. Let's file that under long-term predictions by towers of ilium.

Friday, January 11, 2013

no major content friday

I think Charles Correa designed this building. It is located somewhere in India, a country that I'm not that interested in visiting. Not sure if I would ever have the opportunity, either. Of course if the opportunity presented itself, I would jump at it.

As I warned, no major content today. The weather so far this winter has been quite mild. Supposed to get colder next week. It makes me wonder how New England will be impacted by climate change. My sense is that with the exception of some significant coastal areas, things will actually get better. I had better be careful about what I say--I live and work close to water.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

is the cape house dead?

I should have a graphic for this, but since I"ll be returning to this subject again, I'll save the thunder.

The Cape Cod house style is a very American expression, both stylistically, and functionally. However, it makes less and less sense in a modern era of expanding house sizes and decreasing building lot areas. A large Cape works best if it can spread out in a linear fashion, which requires a lot of land. Land costs are getting higher, so the geometry of a Cape becomes a burden to a potential homebuilder/buyer.

The larger issue here is the life cycle of certain architectural geometries. Nobody builds Greek temples anymore. If you want a building for worship you have to think about things like bathrooms, kitchens, offices, classrooms, etc....It applies to many building types. Sometimes, the shifts in proportion and space adjacency are subtle, but the overall impacts are profound. Towers of Ilium is generally an advocate of modern building codes, but their impact on space planning makes many charming architectural models uneconomical, and downright hazardous.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

space in boston

Some people who read this blog will recognize where this photo was taken from. To other people it will remain a mystery forever--a grim reminder that we can never truly see or experience all the places in the world. I wonder if our hunter/gatherer/primate brains are conditioned for the relative sameness of a natural geography. Vast numbers of our ancestors were born, lived, and died in locations that they probably never traveled far from. Small changes in the landscape would be instantly apparent, and a decision would have to be made as to whether or not the change was important. More gradual changes would go unrecognized. Although if a glacier was approaching, it was probably a topic of conversation. (This was the subject of a Far Side cartoon, if I recall.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

meanwhile, in the real city

This lovely drawing is by a guy named Kurt Ofer. It is for a competition related to Grand Central Terminal.

Towers of Ilium needs to get back to New York City soon. Maybe in March. New York has become a self-fulfilling place--an identity that needs no comparison to any other place in the world. It's good to be lucky.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Just a bit of the Back Bay for viewing pleasure. I'm just pondering the fact that architects spend a lot of effort making things complicated, while at the same time trying to achieve simplicity in critical areas. It's all supposed to balance out. Sometimes it does.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

predictions for 2013

Okay, Here we go....

1. The American economy will muddle along, despite any idiocy in Washington, Europe, or Asia. The Massachusetts economy will do slightly better than expected (this is a high risk prediction...I may eat crow by the end of the year, or sooner).

2. Things will get worse in Egypt, Syria, and Israel. Worse how? does it matter? worse always for ordinary people.

3. Things will get worse in some parts of Europe--Spain, Greece, Italy, Britain.

4. Energy prices will increase slightly, but not enough to really impact economic growth trends. The shale gas and oil boom will fade a bit. I should insulate my attic.

5. No meaningful action will occur on gun control.

6. Architecture will get more conservative. We've entered an age of maturity and relative sobriety in design. No major revolutions in building technology will occur. The "wired" (or wireless) building will not gain traction. If we're smart, energy efficiency performance of enclosures will improve, at least in the U.S. We might start to catch up to Europe.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

towers of ilium is smug and triumphant

The following are my predictions about 2012 and my commentary:

1. The world economy this year will only be slightly better than last year. I doubt that there will be any places that stand out as very good or very bad. I doubt that some of the more depressed areas of the U.S. will experience a turn-around.

-Mostly right. The U.S. is creaking out of the recession, but employment to population ratios are not good.
Europe is in deep trouble, and not for the reasons that some people claim it is. 

2. In architecture I predict a mild rebound in single family residential work. The current multi-family construction boom will fizzle by mid-year or possibly sooner. Government and Institutional work will be stalled. Retail and hospitality may improve slightly. Commercial office space will rebound slightly. Healthcare may be entering a long-term structural stall, but nursing home facilities will continue to grow due to demographic pressures. 

-Mostly right. Of course, Bill McBride of Calculated Risk called this before anyone else. Towers of Ilium is just a parrot.

3. Global warming will continue. So will plate tectonics. The tragedy is that we could have done something about climate change twenty years ago but I think the horse has left the barn at this point. The warming that we will experience in the next twenty years is the result of CO2 released in the past twenty years. Global planning to combat climate change and GHG emissions has proven to be a bust. Despite my disappointment, I am still an advocate of true green architecture and practices that encourage density, sustainability and durability. 

Gee, not much risk predicting that. In architecture, greenwashing has become a refined part of design services. No real data seems to be collected on performance issues. 
4. Authoritarianism in world politics will continue on an upward trend despite the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East. I'm not sure if Assad will last the year in Syria, but I think that the Egyptian military will find a way to hold and consolidate power. The triumph of capitalist democracy that was predicted in the early 90's has not been borne out of by recent history and the disturbing rise of cleverly managed kleptocracies is frustrating and discouraging. 

-In Egypt, Morsi is turning out to be a real piece of shit. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. I'll give Assad until June.

5. The U.S. will not win a gold medal in the men's shot put at the London Olympics.

-An easy prediction.

6. Technological change will be subdued. I think that the great revolutions in the internet, social media, wireless communication and online retail will enter a stage of maturity and consolidation. Apple will begin a long, slow decline.

-Too soon to tell. I think that we're paying too much for communication services in relation to the rate of improvements. I wish that more stuff was wireless without costing an arm and a leg.