ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, May 30, 2013

no solid opinion about Leon Krier

I'm too tired to post a graphic. I read Krier a few years back and I suppose I wasn't impressed (coming soon: a series of posts on my influences--not that we care, but I need to find content).

Michael Sorkin does a hard takedown of Krier in his book review in the Nation Magazine. Given that Krier's book is about Albert Speer, it's easy to see how everything can go to hell with something like that. I think a popular expression is "like shooting fish in a barrel." I've never tried that, by the way, and despite the crazy people I've come across in my life, I've never hear of anyone doing that. But, anyway, Krier, and Speer, and all things that appear are neither here nor there, but they bring fear.

This post made about as much sense as urban planning.

gardner museum addition

Everything designed by Renzo Piano photographs well. This picture isn't as flattering as it could be (oh dear, people use cars--and they park them in front of the architecture? horror!) but it shows how the addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum doesn't overpower the original structure. And, it doesn't rely on derivative geometry or materials to create an overt visual linkage. Piano took a conservative approach to the design, which I'm moderately critical of, but I'm sure he had political and logistical constraints.

I'm working on an addition project right now that is taxing me greatly. I wish I knew more, but I can't know everything, and what's worse is that I don't have the budget to hire the people who know everything. I'm worried that there are people in this world who regard paradise as a place where beauty, truth, and understanding are all replaced by bureaucracy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

the end of the internet?

Or is it here to stay? As long as we have a little bit of electricity, we can keep the whole thing going. I wonder if the internet represents the end-point of human communication. Arguments for telepathy remain to be tested, and I'm not holding my breath, so it's tough to imagine a purely biological alternative. Wearable and embedded internet technologies are pretty much here in the form of smart-phones. I don't think that surgical implants will every gain ground--and not because of the "yuck" factor but because we know that the hardware needs to be replaced so frequently.

Could the internet cure superstition, or is that trait so hard-wired that it will co-opt technology? I find it convenient, on occasion, to search Bible phrases using Google.

I still contend that the big revolution was the telegraph.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

born out of that

I was caught by surprise when I saw the trailer for the film Elysium. While I'm still critical of the idea that anyone will be living on space platforms, I think that it an important trope in sci-fi. It hammers home the idea that the place that's better is always somewhere else. Meanwhile, here on Earth, we have to figure out what we can do with what we have.

A recent Onion headline announced: "Desperate Earth Increases Speed of Rotation in Effort to Hurl Humanity Off." Or something along those lines.

Monday, May 27, 2013

what makes a library?

Print is dead--at least until the next power failure. And, books are obsolete, pointless, fragile, and too expensive for anyone to bother with anymore.
Consequently, the very idea of the library is based on false ideals and exploded principles, which in the context of the needs of modern life, points to the critical need for all libraries to be demolished, all books burned to generate electricity (or composted), and librarians sent to work in the salt mines.

Unfortunately, people are irrational, and flock to libraries so that they can use the computers that are there.
And, the library is a critical social "third place" that has more value than a bar or a coffee shop. The problem with modern libraries is that like many other public institutions, they are starved for funds by stingy and short-sighted taxpayers and the corrupt, venal politicians who are elected by them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

accesibility signage

A new symbol for universal access. I like it, but I think the overlapped circle isn't necessary. It's meant to convey motion, but I think the angle of the figure accomplishes that.

I discovered Cory Doctorow recently. He was mentioned in a link on one of the economics blogs I read and he has, for the moment, reinvigorated my interest in print sci-fi. Meanwhile, television and movie sci-fi seems to be doing very well in its third decade of CGI splendor. My short list of future films:

Dr. Who
Doc Savage
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Enemy Mine
Strange Wine
Logan's Run
Blade Runner prequel/sequel
Give Me Liberty

Saturday, May 25, 2013

update on the most recent bridge collapse

The fact that the bridge was hit by a truck doesn't change the broader point about the need for redundancy and robust design in infrastructure. Any bridge should be able to survive some degree of vehicular impact. I remember how a bridge that crossed the Connecticut River on the New Hampshire/Vermont border had a huge dent in one of its steel girders that had been caused by a log truck. My father claimed to know the guy who had been driving the log truck. The bridge never fell down.

Friday, May 24, 2013

meanwhile on the skagit river

Just as towers of ilium was getting all smug about the superiority of American engineering, a bridge decides to quit working on a blessedly quiet stretch of highway in the state of Washington. Like the I-5 bridge failure a few years ago, incidents like this point to the fact that we've been leaning too heavily on older infrastructure. The problem with old bridges and old buildings, however, is not that they were built poorly, but they were built very well, and with maintenance can exceed expectations of service life. But, this quiet  reliability fosters complacency among taxpayers and politicians, and a general lack of appreciation for the concept of redundancy results in dumb stuff happening. This is not an "Aw shucks, these things happen moment." There's no reason to die of scurvy and there's no reason for a bridge to collapse anywhere on the planet earth.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


When they rebuild in Oklahoma should all new houses be required to have one of these?
I am of the opinion that they should. I am also of the opinion that critical buildings like schools and hospitals should have special areas of refuge. While I am occasionally annoyed by some of the code requirements in Massachusetts with regard to building in high wind load coastal areas, I accept the letter of the law. Also, the wind loads we are required to deal with in most high hazard areas of Massachusetts are set at 110 mph. In a tornado, the wind speeds can exceed 300 mph, and it is not practical to design all areas of a building to withstand such tremendous forces.

Usually, towers of ilium leans libertarian, but as noted in the post yesterday, this blog is not to be trusted and is prone to frequent inconsistencies. I accept the fact that people will continue to live in Tornado Alley, and I accept that there is no place in the universe free of harm or hazard, but the impact of Murphy's law can be mitigated by a little bit of foresight. Sometimes.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

random asplund

A deeply classical gesture--by Swedish standards.

I wanted to state, for the record, that architects are not to be trusted. The profession claims to be defenders of principles of life, safety, and welfare. Our labor is promoted as critical to the building process, and dedicated foremost to the advancement and improvement of culture. These are not lies, but the truth is that we really care about what things look like and we don't have an explanation as to why they look good, or bad, or right, or wrong. We invent arguments on the spot, and contradict them for the benefit of the next client. Mercurial, paranoid, inconsistent, abstract, vague, ignorant, and pernicious. All that we are, we draw.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

coastal architecture

My brother-in-law is fond of saying: "When you can see the ocean, the ocean can also see you."
Applied to architecture, and with the human desire to build next to water unstoppable, we have a situation that results in frequent embarrassment and considerable property damage.

At one conceptual level, I am opposed to building located in a place where they will certainly be destroyed by unstoppable forces. I have a few slivers of libertarianism in my bones that don't care if people are stupid enough to do this, but I don't want a dime out of my pocket going to preserving their welfare, or worse yet, helping to rebuild it after the inevitable happens.

However, and I acknowledge this inconsistency, I am in favor of coastal architecture that is properly constructed--either for survival or abandonment. This architecture can yield large benefits for many people--before it is destroyed, and as it is rebuilt. I appreciate the cyclical quality to the thing--towers of ilium is above all, romantic and temperamental.

Friday, May 17, 2013

better images needed

The Alderman's chamber at Newton City Hall is a little known grand public space. As experience has demonstrated, it is poorly suited to modern government and exists mostly as a stage set where civic functions are crammed in as an afterthought. It defies improvement, however, and I think the same can be said for much of the "public" government spaces of the American experiment. What stands out is the obsession with rooms that are clearly designed for long-winded speeches by men in wigs. Meanwhile, the true instruments of public service are stacks and stacks of paper that are distributed to scores of functionaries who do not have time to read the paper, but make copies of it to pass on to other people who do not understand what has been written on the paper. The architecture of contemporary politics must be geared towards the movement, accumulation, and storage of paper. (Any idiot who starts chirping about a paper-less, online utopia can go fill out and file Complaint Form 325295Z-07---towers of ilium will make sure that it gets to the right person)

I suspect that authoritarian regimes also have an obsession with paper and bold civic gestures, but their dysfunctional character derives from a lack of dedicated bureaucrats. The problem with American representatives is that they are not even aware of how outdated their architecture is.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

what is architecture? part 5392 of the series

It's a hell of a lot more than drawing pictures. It's about establishing understanding--and although graphic methods account for the majority of the communication, the service of architecture is about making people feel confident about ideas. Functional design is an evolutionary phenomenon where failure and success persist side by side and changing environments make prudent designs of the present unsuitable for the future.

Architecture students who like to draw have a leg up on other people in the building industry, but if they can't talk about their designs, and focus their graphic efforts on the things that are most important, and in the right order, then they won't be able to get things built.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

gravity and preventable disasters

A student in my class last night asked about the factory collapse in Bangladesh so I was required to hold forth on something I know very little about. The only thing I do know for certain is that it could have been easily prevented and there is no person on the planet who can reasonably say "aw shucks, these things just happen, you know." Unfortunately, I'm also fairly certain that there are people with wealth and power in Bangladesh who are saying that exact sort of thing in private circles. A culture of negligence and fear creates situations like this and it is not undone easily.

The worst structural failure in the U.S. in recent years is still the Hyatt Hotel walkway collapse. The lesson learned from that is that redundancy in structural systems is important, and perhaps more significantly, redundancy in peer reviews is a critical part of the design process. I've gotten more cautious as a designer, but I still make mistakes. I like to think that it's harder for two people to overlook something than one person. In Bangladesh, a lot of people noticed that something was going wrong in the days and weeks leading up to the collapse, and that only compounds the horror.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

shameless product promotion post

Even though this blog is not monetized, loyal readers are encouraged to go out and buy stuff. If we don't buy stuff, then this whole big experiment with capitalism will fail miserably and there will be nothing for architects to do but slowly starve to death.

So, please buy Roxul Insulation products. They're durable, water-resistant, non-toxic, fire-resistant, and manufactured in Mississippi (and lots of other places outside the U.S. where they have much stronger market  shares). Roxul is a phonetic reference to "rock wool" which is one of the generic ways to describe the rather mind-bending physical properties of the material--which occurs in nature if you happen to have a volcano handy. If air is blown against molten rock it forms into hair-like strands and the industrial process mimics the natural process albeit more efficiently.

(I have a brief side thought about how in advertising you can't come out and say "Buy This, You Fool" because people get all freaked out. You have to worm into their unconscious, play on insecurities, and in many cases, lie blatantly. Honest statements immediately arouse suspicion and skepticism. People who work in advertising must eventually go mad, or be mad or desperate to do it in the first place.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

another retail architecture experience

Once upon a time there was a national bookstore chain called "Borders." I'm not sure how long it existed--maybe ten years, maybe fifteen--but it went out of business in a rather ordinary fashion and left behind hundreds of empty stores in cities and suburbs across America. These stores are now being filled by other retail businesses, and thus the life-cycle of retail design persists. The Borders in Downtown Crossing has been replaced by a Walgreen's, which I regard as particularly unremarkable, despite efforts at hyping and promoting it as something special.

 Paul McMorrow, a columnist for the Boston Globe and  person who I have great deal of respect for, was critical that such an ordinary store is in a place in the city that he regards to be extraordinary. On one conceptual level I agree, but I assume that the decision by Walgreen's to open a store in such a location reflects a certain amount of hard-nosed business logic. McMorrow suggested that a more interesting establishment occupy the space--such as a specialty grocer. Maybe some interesting business expressed interest in the spot, but decided that it wasn't worth the effort or the timing was wrong. I think that McMorrow, and many other people, are investing Downtown Crossing with a mystique that it no longer has, and expect it to be exceptional when it is just another piece of the city.

I predict that this Walgreen's will be there for about as long as the Border's was.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

hudson yards

A very impressive rendering of the Hudson Yards development in NYC by KPF Architects. It's one more piece of the city of slabs, but deceptive and beautiful pictures like this make me glad that something like Manhattan exists.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Saturday, May 4, 2013

rafi segal the architect

Some renderings of the winning design for the National Library in Israel by Rafi Segal. Of course, Segal did not produce these renderings--just as Joss Wheedon did not perform any of the stunts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All architecture is collaborative, derivative, and plastic. I worked with a thesis student who designed a building that similar topographical detailing as this one. I don't know enough about this design to provide a long-winded critique, but the courtyards remind me of the BPL. Maybe Charles McKim should exhume himself and sue Segal.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

thursday in may

Light fixtures will always puzzle me, and I get the feeling that they have been puzzling designers for more than a century. I want to dispel the idea that someday we'll have "smart" integrated wall and ceiling products that provide ambient lighting at any hue, intensity, and direction. "Luminaires" will always be stand-alone items.

The only thing I've learned in the past 12 years in architecture is that it can cost more to save and renovate buildings than start from scratch. And that is why so many people start from scratch.