ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

the sequester and the fate of massachusetts

How much of the state economy is dependent on military contracts? Maybe a better question to ask is: how is government support of companies like Raytheon crowding out private innovation? I just finished reading a book on how the U.S. developed its ICBM program and I was astonished at the complexity of the operation and the speed at which success was achieved. (To create such incredible machines of annihilation--yes, that is one part of the success--they they were never used is the greater success)

A lot of the economists I read don't seem that perturbed by the sequester. Some think that the House Republicans will blink. We'll see.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

correlation claim #25

Be cautious whenever an architect makes the claim that design elements will promote creativity or collaboration. While I am sure that Marx felt a certain appreciation for the British Museum, I don't think he owes it any credit for his philosophical ramblings on Capital. I doubt that MIT will reap gains from the Stata Center that will compare to the ones made in this structure. And, even if they do, Frank Gehry will have had nothing to do with it.

energy use in boston buildings

Mayor Thomas Menino has proposed a rule that would require commercial property owners in Boston to report the energy usage of their buildings. The ordinance is similar to measures already in place in New York City and San Francisco. Naturally, property owners object to this, which is a fairly dumb position to take, because this rule would have a positive effect on improving energy usage by creating peer competition that would eventually improve the bottom line for both tenants and owners. I receive a monthly report from National Grid that shows how our house stacks up against our neighbors. Because of this information I know that I should be making improvements.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

meanwhile on the inside

I start a lot of blog posts with "Meanwhile..." If it's getting monotonous, I suggest that you refer all comments to my P.R. firm, Golden, Whitney, Aaron, and Peter. Actually, there is no P.R. firm by that name--towers of ilium can neither afford a P.R. firm nor generate enough controversy to justify hiring one.

So, the picture above is of the interior of that famous Michael Graves building Portland. It looks like fairly harmless office space. The ceiling is a bit low and I hope that the light fixtures have been replaced in recent years. The cubicles are a bit odd looking. Office space is something that puzzles me as a designer. I prefer run-down spaces with character. A lot of office space built from the 1960's onward seems to have a consistency that defies (or is enhanced by) the ten year renovations cycle. Companies make investments in reception areas and lobbies, but work spaces are desperately routine in character and function. At least no one can smoke indoors anymore.

guilty pleasures

It should be noted that towers of ilium only watches Downton Abbey for architectural reasons--all the characters are expendable. The decline of landed gentry in Britain is something that I regard as a positive thing. The resources consumed by a place like this require deep and persistent inequalities in wealth, political power, and personal aspirations. Of course, deep and persistent inequalities are the reason we have so many wonderful buildings all over the world. Towers of ilium is also of the opinion, that despite the vast economic divides in the U.S. the architectural legacy of the super-rich isn't very impressive. Perhaps it is the consequence of shame, or a latent modesty, or a more abstract perception of wealth.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

deviations in sochi

At least one follower of this blog is interested in events in this godforsaken Russian city, but not for another year or so. I read in the Boston Globe that the Russian government, aka Vladimir Putin, is spending over 50 billion dollars on preparations for the Winter Olympics. I hope it works out for them.

More on Deviations From Routines. In a city, the landscape is constantly changing, so routine changes occur more frequently from the perspective of an inhabitant even if that person doesn't deviate from his routines. It makes city living more interesting from an anthropological point of view, but more annoying if you get used to relying on a certain business staying in business.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

thursday is city day

I'm considering submitting an essay to a competition sponsored by Urban Omnibus. The essay is supposed to be about finding different ways to measure the value and impact of cities. I can't think of anything exciting or novel, but I do have the beginnings of a few ideas:

1. Potential Interactions: The sum of every person you are close enough to touch in the course of your day in the city. While this sounds creepy, and it's devilish to measure, it could serve as a comparison to  the experiences of people in less populated areas who could go an entire week only being around a few dozen people.

2. Unrepeated or Rare Encounters: With either persons or places. This metric can only be described in terms of a probability--again, tricky to put a number to. I'll quote from John Prine on this one: "How the hell can a person go to work in the morning  and get home in the evening and have nothing to say?" In a city, am I more likely to encounter someone I know, or don't know? The answer has to be yes.

3. Deviation from Routines: This touches on something that's been on my mind for quite a while. Every human settles into routines that are deeply reliable and predictable. A study done a few years ago that tracked cell-phone location usage in a European Country demonstrated that people adhere to the same patterns of movement over 90% of the time. While mobility is one of the distinguishing features of a free society, it is a right observed on special occasions. In a lower density settlement, deviations from routine might seem more common and more pronounced by virtue of the fact that stuff is always beyond walking distance. If I drive to the Wal-Mart to buy socks on a Sunday afternoon it represents more of a journey than if I walk over to Marshall's on my lunch break.

Maybe I'm going somewhere with this.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

at the edge of forever

I've never been to Texas. I mentioned this in some previous blog post where I had a picture of a pergola I designed for a house in the suburbs of Houston. If there was ever a machine in the garden, it is this oil-soaked city. This picture captures it perfectly--a collection of towers that are just another landscaping feature at the edge of golf course (presumably).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

was it real?

Where do cities come from and are they a good thing? Ed Glaeser has, in many respects, devoted his professional career to giving a positive answer to the second part of that question. Towers of Ilium is willing to devote at least one post to answering the first part.

Human settlement that constantly grows in size is a thoroughly natural and evolutionary phenomenon. People congregate out of biological necessity, and growth is sustained by the individual's desire and not the coercion of a "strong-man" or some powerful group. Basic reproduction is a coincidental factor--in fact, the most critical economic and architectural areas of urban settlement are not child-friendly.

 A place like New York or Shanghai or Jakarta creates a diverse group of opportunity pools for every person there. A beggar does better on a busy sidewalk, and the builder of a skyscraper knows that status seekers will pay the proportionally higher rents for a slightly longer elevator ride.

Friday, February 8, 2013

is it real?

Architecture confounded and amazed the post-modernists. So much of  perception runs into  a kind of roadblock when you walk into a building. You are  aware of enclosure, you are aware of place, you are aware of events that happened there--fictional or otherwise. I wrote once how I enjoyed walking through parts of Boston that Robert Parker's Spenser walked through. I can say to myself: "I work just around the corner from his office." In the end it is all real, despite the stories we invent to describe places and impose meaning on them. Cities are even more terrifying in their reality. It is so much simpler to speed through the lesser ones, sometimes stopping--at the Rose restaurant, for instance--but not really experiencing. Even the oldest, most social, and most adventurous native never knows the entire city.

A person who I consider to have good powers of observation remarked acidly that Springfield, Mass. is a repository and not actually a city. He was worried that he was ignorant, or racist, or not well connected enough, but he could not deny the things he observed: The towers that rise from desolate city blocks, grim parking garages, and the constant roar of the highway that protects the river from human visitation. He also took note of what was lacking: Parks, restaurants, diverse markets. In short, all the charm that the New Urbanists point to when they talk of "knitting together the urban fabric" in those polite, corn-syrup tones of voice.

And what do I care of Springfield? John Updike pointed out that cities and towns keep on existing long after they have completely outlived their usefulness. They do not have a life like humans do, which can be charted in convenient arcs and assigned specific moments of triumph and tragedy. And yet, every city has a personality that is the sum total of everything in it and more.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

the importance of churches

This is a photo of a church that was (is?) being used as an operations center for Hurricane Sandy relief.
In architecture, religious buildings sit at the top of the pile of building types in terms of quality, significance, and social value. The word "Chartes" doesn't mean a place in France--it means the cathedral. Although people make trips to Disney World and the Mall of America, the spaces created by religious buildings still create the most important social experiences for human beings. Frequency of use isn't the issue here--a church that can be used in the manner shown above just once every thirty years  justifies its overall utility from the perspective of a person who is suffering from a natural disaster.

Modernism, both as a social paradigm and as an architectural movement, has not been kind to religious buildings. We're still deriving benefits from a capital stock, but I don't think that we're replenishing it in a meaningful way. When disaster happens, do we head for the nearest strip mall or the local meeting house?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

prediction #464

It is the opinion of towers of ilium that there will not be a shortage of architects or other design professionals in the coming decades. More significantly, even if there is some kind of shortage, salaries in the profession will not rise by any meaningful amount--except for the well-positioned and lucky. The recent recession resulted in layoffs of up to 30% of personnel in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction. However, even if the economy gets back to the production levels of the housing bubble years, improvements in the delivery process of buildings will mean that a restoration of prior employment ratios is not necessary. Software has made smaller teams faster and cheaper. Design quality has suffered, and will suffer more, and I doubt anyone will care. The magazine architects will continue to instill a biased view of what architecture and architectural service amounts to. Meanwhile, the proliferation of American suburbs will continue unabated, with building design becoming ever more generic, universal, stupid, and placeless.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

no specific topic tuesday

Something I designed from a few years ago. It's not a spectacular photograph, nor is it spectacular architecture, but I promised something architectural in my last post, so I like to demonstrate that I'm reliable.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to think of relevant topics for the Detailing Class I'll be co-teaching for the second time. The class starts in five weeks, so I have too much time to prepare. I would like to work in more Building Science issues, but I'm not sure how well that will go over. Students want specific examples and direction, and theoretical discussions about moisture movement and abstract diagrams of walls and roofs doesn't do much. Certainly not in 8 class sessions.

I'm trying to think of better ways to make people think about water. If you can't design a building that stays dry, then what value are you creating as a designer? Some people spend most of their lives working on interior design problems, and unless you're a go-it-alone residential architect, you won't be in a position where you're solely responsible for every detail of a building enclosure. I feel that the most important lesson I can impart has to do with thinking about walls as an assembly of multi-stage drainage planes. My teaching colleague has a nice presentation on curtain wall systems where she discusses two stage joints. Such a concept is universal to building design and has been learned with great pain over hundreds of years.

And then there's air barriers.

Monday, February 4, 2013

colder places

The picture featured here is deeply unoriginal, and in some respects, represents theft of creative property. Such are the risks of posting images on the internet.

I read a brief article in today's Boston Globe about an effort by the FCC to make free* internet service available across the country. I think this is a marvelous idea, although I think it would be tragic if the executives at Verizon and Comcast were ever deprived of their hard-earned salaries. The internet is merely a transportation system, and the sums of money required to build, maintain, and improve it could easily be raised through some sort of user tax. In this regard, it would be remarkably similar to the Interstate Highway System. (I am somewhat skeptical of movements to privatize transportation infrastructure, by the way. I do favor tolls and Pigovian taxes)

*Yes, towers of ilium is distinguished by its rabid socialism, but I think that we can all appreciate the efforts of the smart people who created DARPA. Thanks to them, we are all better prepared to fend off communist aggression. Now, I'm feeling confused. I'd better go pay my cell phone bill so that my faith in capitalism is restored.

More architecture next time.

Friday, February 1, 2013

thom mayne again and again and again

It reminds me of that crawler vehicle in Star Wars. I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to discuss fundamental geometries of building components. I better make a list of that before I forget:


I don't know how to simplify it past that. But, more on that later, because I want to discuss the Perot Museum by Thom Mayne. It's in Texas, which makes his use of precast concrete panels very climate appropriate. I think that museums are a little too easy for innovative architecture because you don't have to deal with as many windows. Exterior geometry that is fantastic becomes a design requirement. I predicted in a post a few years ago that the museum building boom might be slowing down. I might be wrong.