ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, March 31, 2013

a positive beginning to spring

On rare occasions I draw things that become real. It's my particular belief that architecture is not real until it gets built. If it gets torn down, or burns down, or is destroyed by aliens then it doesn't revert to an unreal status. I try to respect the value of history, and I while I don't regret the unreality that makes up most of my profession, I appreciate those periods when a graphic decision becomes a historical object.

The drawing above will stay unreal forever.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Exciting looking building somewhere in Connecticut. I have a lot of tiresome posts about the romantic qualities of  decaying industrial architecture. At what point does the decay drive the neighborhood absolutely crazy? And what lies beneath? A stew of toxins, heavy metals, strange mutated plants and weeds in the sick garden of a decayed landscape.

I'm feeling pessimistic because there are a lot economists and politicians out there who believe that our energy problems will be solved by magic. This attitude is deeply disturbing. I wonder where the first crack will be and how wide it will have to be before we all notice it? What country will it hit first?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

housing units in massachusetts

By the way, I passed 500 blog posts this week. We'll have to schedule a party to celebrate this astonishing achievement.

I had a discussion last night with a fellow architect about an initiative proposed by Governor Deval Patrick  to encourage the construction of 10,000 new dwelling units per year through 2020 in the state. My friend had attended a formal presentation on the topic and he, along with some of his colleagues, were frustrated that the governor's office was reluctant to define what constituted a housing "unit."

I've thought about this a little bit, and my best definition is something along the lines of this: A self-contained, habitable area with a kitchen facility and a sleeping room. This means that hotel rooms don't count. It also means that any number of bedrooms fulfills the definition--as long as you have a place to prepare food.

So, how are we doing? According to the graph above, not so good. For the past few years we've been averaging about 4800 units a year (the graph is a month to month). In the context of recent history, the governor's proposal is actually quite modest.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Some random Brutalism for a graphic.

I was thinking about how height is always a relative measurement. Defining building height is a very tricky business and there are some pretty irritating formulas in zoning codes that architects have to use. The simplest way to describe height is by measuring from a point on the ground directly in front of the building to the highest projecting part of the structure overhead. Sounds simple, until you have to define the "Front" of the building. And what if the ground is sloping? And what if the city changes the grade in the future? And what part of the structure of the building should actually count towards its height? If you have an antenna or a chimney or a flagpole or a an elevator penthouse at the top of the building, then should that really count as the building structure?

I prefer height measurements that focus on a different quality of the building--number of stories above grade. So what is a story? How high can it be? Argghhhh!

Monday, March 25, 2013

more on unprogramming

This post is too important for a silly picture.

I was at an event yesterday that made me want to bring up the topic of unprogrammed space in architecture for the seventh time. From one point of view--a nasty, brutish, parsimonious, and miserable point of view--the lack of complete planning in a design is regarded as a sign of failure. If you end up with too much space in a building that is intended for social uses then some people with the point of view referenced above--nasty, brutish, etc...--will raise hell about the money that was wasted and the lack of efficiency and how a better job could have been done if people had exercised more discipline and just look at all those empty rooms and wide open spaces with nothing going on...

No one knows the future well enough to design for it. We make our best guess and then proceed with confidence. But, if we're smart, we make it a little bit bigger. Houses can be an important exception to this principle, but we've been enlarging dwellings for reasons that have nothing to do with function or beauty (you need a dining room for resale value).

Saturday, March 23, 2013

the one in boston is better

The famous New York Public Library is  impressive, but from a functional and stylistic perspective I think that Boston ended up with a much better building. The architects went mad with staircases, and my efforts to find a bathroom were thwarted. As I understand it, the book storage and delivery system is absurd, and although much criticism has been raised against the planned renovations, any change would be an improvement.

Friday, March 22, 2013

towers of ilium was on holiday

I took this photo yesterday. I felt cheap going to see this place, and I didn't even have the patience to stand in line with the rest of the rubberneckers and tourists to see the memorial exhibition. The skyscraper is turning out better than I expected. It's a fine example of the Heroic Architecture of High Finance. I imagine that cell phone users will at least benefit a little from the spire that is currently being erected at great expense and for mostly symbolic reasons. I got the sense that some group of people has figured out how to make money out of the memory of the event, but that they don't expect it to be as long lasting and  successful as other parts of the city--like the Met and Times Square. At least in that regard, the spectacle is sincere and moving.

Sauron would have felt momentarily outclassed on Wall Street. He would have to take a step back and assess how to make an impact, how best to seize control of the madness. He would have to ask: what motivates these creatures? Power and gold have become so abstract, so pointless, and so carelessly strewn about that evil itself has to be imported and assigned a value for purposes of exchange. And when that servant of Morgoth erected his Dark Tower you can be sure it would have an observation deck, restaurants, and ground floor retail. No sense in not being diversified in revenue streams.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

outside inside

It's always springtime at the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In addition to being one of the finest interior spaces in Boston there's also some nifty artwork here. She did a nice job of looting Europe to build and furnish her house.

The exterior architecture of the original house/museum is deliberately unobtrusive and boring. Renzo Piano's new addition, which relocates the entrance and provides space for critical services, is more impressive from the outside. I actually don't think it connects with the original building aggressively enough.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

march is still stair month

This photograph was taken by Bradley Orner. Sometimes, not often, towers of ilium actually gives credit to image sources. The stair in the Boston Public Library defies photography, although this is a very good effort. Although the building has some flaws (well, many), the experience of entry and the use of this stair is a thorough masterpiece. It is also a tactile experience--the discrete smoothness of the handrails and the furrows worn into the stone by millions of feet over the ages speak volumes about the relevance of robust civic architecture.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

james turrell appreciation post

I came across this purely by accident. It is the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston and it was designed in a collaborative fashion by the artist James Turrelll. The exterior of this Quaker church seems to be deliberately banal so as to make the interior experience all the more surprising and wonderful. Turrell said that he "wanted to feel light physically" and he accomplished this by putting a retractable section of roof in the middle of the ceiling. The detailing at the edge of the roof opening is remarkably crisp, and in this brilliant photograph, composed so as to appear impossibly two-dimensional.

I don't know who made the decisions about the flooring and furniture, but they are well considered. The wood flooring and trim, combined with the traditional pews, creates an earthly warmth. A contemporary architect probably would have had a lot more cold white finishes and some ghastly uncomfortable looking chairs.

Towers of Ilium enjoys introducing our broad readership to new things.

Monday, March 11, 2013

march is stair month

I didn't design this, and while I'm a bit cool on some of the details, I admire the overall effect. Stairs, especially curved ones, provide some of the most wonderful moments in architecture. If I remember, I'll post a picture of the Boston Public Library staircase.

I just noticed what appears to be a piano stuffed in the corner. It has a vase of flowers on it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

affordable architecture in sacramento

A 63 unit, mid-rise building in Sacramento with ground floor commercial space by David Baker. Built for $162 a square foot, which is a very good price. In Boston, I think that translates into about $225 a foot, which isn't too bad. The new building going up next to my office costs about $1000 a square foot.

But construction costs are only a small part of the story when it comes to urban real estate development. The thing I'm most interested in is this: How long did it take to plan and permit this building? According to the article in Architectural Record that featured this project, the start date was 2007--just in time for the recession. Even though things slowed down everywhere, how many single family homes were built in Texas and Florida during that same period?

I admire urban infill, but I'm frustrated by the regulatory timeline that is imposed on good ideas. Where is Robert Moses? What would he do today?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

art of settlements

Towers of Ilium tries to avoid controversial political topics. So, when I say that I do not have the authority or the knowledge to comprehensively discuss the issues in Israel and Palestine, I really mean it. However, after reading about "settlements" for many years I realized that I had never bothered to consider them from an architectural perspective. Are they a good place to live? What happens to them in the future, when the political situation has evolved and some people will have forgotten their origins?

In this picture I see only a white city on a hill surrounded by an austere and ancient landscape.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

spring is almost here

And yet, there are concerns that we are in some twilight of modern civilization. I lean towards a temporary pessimism on this point, for two reasons:

1. Fossil fuels are finite.

2. Human activity relies on fossil fuels.

Not a very good equation there, yes? The effects of climate change are one side effect of this reliance, but I'm confident that we can adapt to that. The challenge is whether or not we will adapt to it in time and in a way that alleviates the most suffering. Can we build a more sustainable civilization using the energy resources we have now?

Not very original observations today. Any contribution that architects make to these problems will be determined by their client's pocketbooks.

Friday, March 1, 2013

building as air circulation system

Although towers of ilium has little competency in mechanical engineering or environmental design, we are intrigued by this diagram of the Manitoba Hydro Building in Winnipeg. It has all of the usual LEED credentials and that sort of thing. It represents the "all-in" approach to enclosure design and energy/ventilation management. Most of the exterior is a double skin curtain wall that acts as an air tempering device. Air flow is enhanced by a "solar tower" that maintains a constant stack effect to draw air across the floors of the building. I like to think of the structure as a greenhouse turned on its side, which is appropriate for the latitude of its location. I suppose that a building like this is an example of "active" energy/air management design in contrast to a "passive" design that would have a lower glazing ratio and more discrete heating and ventilation systems.