ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, June 28, 2013

design challenge #47

Blog content detached from picture....I came across a style of residential architecture that has me completely puzzled: the single story duplex. Duplexes present a whole array of design challenges, but if they're multi-story you can at least put a unit on each floor. If it's single story, then you have a mirror image problem of room placement--does the kitchen go in the front of the house--or the back? Can the living room be next to it?

I've concluded it doesn't have a good solution in terms of layout.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

new orleans with feeling

Bob Dylan said: "In New Orleans, everything seems like a good idea." I can't think of anything to say that more effectively sums up the city. As an architect, it was simultaneously wonderful and sad. The precarious condition of everything built by humans does much to justify the whimsy and flamboyance of the forms and details. With the certainty of destruction close at hand, the motivation to make a major investment in longevity and critical infrastructure seems to be limited, although that condition hasn't stopped the Dutch from  making a nation for themselves.

Heat and humidity are things that I am not that familiar with, and I occasionally felt trapped and dependent on air conditioning. Trees are critical to survival. I cannot describe the sense of relief that comes when you walk from direct sunlight to the blessed shade of an oak tree.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

we built this

And guys like Herbert Hoover helped. Let me apply some context to this.

Towers of ilium does not travel often, but I just returned from a trip to Louisiana, where I visited my brother-in-law and his fiance. We spent an afternoon in New Orleans, and even more time in places to the southwest of the city. Before I went down there, a friend of mine, who was born in the state, told me: "It's like nothing you've ever seen." Rarely has someone described an experience more thoroughly. As a native of New England I was thrown for a loop by the endless, inexorable expanses of water--the graveyards with the tombs built on top of the ground, the flatness, the decay of the buildings, the indifference of most of the architecture, and the imminent sense of total collapse when the water finally comes and washes it all away.

I have more to say about New Orleans proper in another post, but the major experience was of the suburbs and stretched out development that consumes whatever space isn't completely water or completely swamp. The refineries and oil rigs were never seen up close, but they could be glimpsed on the horizon. In immediate view, alongside the main roads that led down to the coast there were endless metal warehouse with crazy collections of machinery. They had names like "Chevron Maintenance Facility" and "Lateral Hydraulics" and "Rig Fitting." Nothing I could call familiar, but all a critical part of the infrastructure that culminates in the experience of every America at the gas pump.

I did not see a single Toyota Prius. I saw many churches. There were few sidewalks, and what with the heat and humidity, there was not much reason to be outside anyway.

From what I saw, I must admit that James Kunstler was right--it is a geography of nowhere. Outside of a few parts of the city, everything I saw was authentic--with a terrifying sameness. All new construction was of the classic strip mall horror, and the vast parking lots were  full of big cars--some of them pulling up to drive-throughs that served 20 oz. strawberry daquiris (yes, we bought one). This is America.

Friday, June 21, 2013

half year review

Well, we've made it this far, but towers of ilium isn't feeling too cheerful about events on the world stage for the year.

I'm doing pretty well on some of the predictions I made in January--except for the notable fact that energy prices have shown a marked degree of stability. The fracking boom continues--hooray. I still need to insulate my attic.

The Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are a shameful group of fools. Obama has been stumbling lately, but he's a far cry from Nixon (or Reagan, or Clinton). Our involvement in Syria will not end well--but maybe not as poorly as our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The European Central Bank, along with George Osborne, is a testament to the stupidity and stubbornness of self-righteous, myopic idiocy when it comes to the management of money. Ben Bernanke is an over-optimistic clown, surrounded by jesters, who is on his way out. His replacement will still be better than anyone in Europe.

And what the hell is going on Brazil?

Architecture seems to be improving, but the "good" times will not ever be back.

something pretty for friday

My last two posts featured thoroughly urban scenes--lots of concrete with not much greenery. So, today, I present  more natural. But wait, towers of ilium can never be trusted--this is a view of an abandoned stone quarry out on the English moor. Such a thoroughly man-made, ravaged horror of a landscape that is certainly without equal. I wonder if I'll go back there?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

the long defeat

A little known fact of the Big Dig in Boston is that it created more miles of elevated highway than were torn down. So, if the city continues to expand, how will the physical and psychological barriers of the two interstates that still slice through the city continue to shape settlement patterns?

The Mass Pike feels like less of an obstacle than I-93. I don't think it will ever be fully covered by air rights projects, but critical intersections will eventually diminish its impact. A brave future of self-driving cars could result in some careful downsizing and rearrangement of critical traffic routes--to the extreme benefit of certain properties. Storrow Drive is one of the biggest puzzles out there. A few days ago, as I was travelling back from a client meeting, I saw the aftermath of a twelve foot high truck and an eleven foot high railroad overpass. The moral there: Don't trust GPS 100%.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

bulger's boston

These twisted, shattered remnants of a building are all that remains of the Boston Herald property in Boston's South End. We can write it all down to the forces of progress.

I find it entirely fitting that Whitey Bulger is being brought to trial after such a long wait. The most severe punishment that the people of Boston can inflict on him is to bring him back to a city that is so utterly different than the one he knew. The ancient men brought to the witness stand are just as powerless and irrelevant as he is. They have some stories--some good, more bad--and they are stories of a city and a culture that moved on and faded. I never knew the old Boston, and the stories of read about it (All Souls, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) are accurate because they are fictional. I don't have an ounce of nostalgia for the misery that was Southie, and busing, and the barren streets of downtown before the reign of Menino.

The Boston Herald and Whitey Bulger are going down together and it is a fitting end. Bring on the dancers and the clowns, the sharp suits, the cheese shops, the wine tastings, the hipsters pushing baby carriages over the crack sidewalks where the Irish Mob once ruled.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

after the floods

I've said some harsh things on this blog about the human propensity to put of buildings in harm's way. The fools who build, and the bigger fools who rebuild are merely being human--there is no place free of harm on this planet.

When Massachusetts gets hit by a big storm I wonder how I will be affected. Based on the simple geography of where I live, I'll be a lot better off than people who have higher property values, but I don't want to get too smug. On a year to year basis, I doubt that more than 1% of coastal property is impacted by catastrophe. If we spread out resources over a hundred year time span, it probably makes more sense to keep rebuilding junk than going to extreme (and possibly futile) measures to protect everything that is vulnerable against the worst-case scenario.

I bet this analysis has already been done by a lot of insurance companies.

Monday, June 17, 2013

the colorado experiment

Why do people live in the so-called "Mountain States?" I have a friend who is moving to Colorado and I'm curious as to what extent the attraction of the wild west plays into people's perception of the place. I have a set of images and stereotypes in my head, and I think that some of them are true. If there is a frontier mentality, it plays out in places like Colorado, Arizona, and Wyoming. Of course, now we also have the great fracking boom in the Dakotas (which won't last long).

My friend and his wife will no doubt buy a house and settle in. I can imagine him sitting on his front porch staring down the length of his mile long dirt driveway. He will have Remington .270 rifle with a high powered scope next to his chair and a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey that he takes a periodic swallow from. The heat of a summer day will beat down on the tin roof of his house and the harsh wind will blow a bit of cold air down from the mountains behind him.
It's the type of place that brings out madness and conviction.

I can't wait to visit.

Friday, June 14, 2013

friday is chimney day

Not the most flattering photo, but I designed this chimney (and collaborated on the design of the timberframe addition for the house that this chimney belongs to).

A long time ago I worked for a summer as a mason tender. That job was my introduction to architecture. I should have learned my lesson, but I like pain. Only from pain, can we build things. There are other schools of thought.

weekly news roundup

So, the Boston Globe reported that a pair of parking spaces were sold at an IRS auction for more than $500,000. The paper failed to mention that this is a sign of the astonishing inequality in the U.S. as well as proof that we are overly dependent on out personal automobiles. Towers of Ilium is feeling Scandanavian today.

Speaking of which--It's been more than twenty years since I've used a sauna. Now there's a Scandanavian tradition. From an architectural perspective, saunas are interesting because they generate so much moisture, which means that finishes in and near them have to be carefully selected.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

positively thursday post

Photo by Albert Vecerka--the sky looks unreal. Appropriate for an unreal city.

I'm wondering if I should see the Superman movie in the theatre. I'd like to think that the whole destroy New York with GGI thing has run its course. Why not some other city? Like Atlanta, for instance. Or London.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

architectural styles-terminology proposal post

But first, a lovely building by Audrey Matlock. Standard New York hipster stuff.

What is the dominant architectural style of our age? I propose that we do not have one, but we do need some fancy words to describe some of what is being designed and built in the early 21st century (hard to believe we made it this far, yes?)

-Benign Eclecticism--A mish mash of modernism with the occasional curve or very discrete classical reference. Most high rises and institutional buildings fall into this category.

-Semi-autonomous Tectonic Expressionsim--Thom Mayne

-Post-structural Desconstructivist Monumentalism- Zaha Hadid, Libeskind, Gehry

-Sino-Sheik Internationalism-Dubai, China, SOM or any other firm

-Partial Complex Greenified Experimentalism--Anything that claims to be sustainable or LEED certified

-Venturism--American suburbia--houses, box stores, office parks.

I am entertaining the possibility that this blog will diminish my career prospects.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

preservation and its discontents

On the whole, I'm glad that the Gropius house has endured and has been preserved. Additionally, I would have no objection if a few pennies of my tax dollars were spent on its maintenance. Preservation architecture is an important niche in the profession, and the designation of a  Historic Landmark should not be taken lightly.

In this respect, the town of Lincoln has all the protected buildings it needs. Boston, has its share, and Quincy also. The legacy of modern architecture is being preserved in the methods and styles of current professional practice, and in that respect, its memory is solid for at least a few hundred years. The most fitting tribute to the spirit of modernism would be a rollback of some of the protections afforded to entire neighborhoods in certain parts of the country. But, then, that is only the opinion of towers of ilium.

Monday, June 10, 2013

mixed thoughts at a house in lincoln, massachusetts

I was here yesterday. The proof is on Facebook, so it must be true. I felt cynical until I was actually standing in the driveway that leads up to the house, and thanks in no small measure to the people I was with, the experience was illuminating.

But: and there's usually a "but" on this blog, because there can be no description without contradiction, I was unsettled by several things I experienced there. My wife articulated the big problem of the central stair/entry hall--it's a confined space that isn't effectively mediated by the sculptural quality of the stair. Because Gropius crafted an efficient circulation area and emphasized barriers over views and consequently, you simply don't know that you've arrived at the house after you go in the front door.

In terms of exterior form and materials, the house lives up to its modernist reputation. The floor plan--and most aspects of the interior proportions--are typical of houses from that era. There is no "free plan" to speak of. The dwelling is a series of compartments, with doors between served and servant spaces (quite literally, given the constant necessity of a live-in maid). I thought the daughter had a better bedroom than the parents.

From the outside, the rear of the house is much more interesting than the front. My guess is that the most important legacy of the house in terms of residential design is the modular kitchen cabinets and appliances.
The impact of the house on commercial architecture has been profound beyond measure. How many students of the GSD, who went on to practice in the great heyday of modernism, smoked cigarettes and sipped cocktails in the living room, watching the dying light of early November washing over the fields and trees of New England?

Sunday, June 9, 2013


The Sendai Mediatheque by Toyo Ito. I'm not even sure what a "mediatheque" means but it bears a remarkable resemblance to a library. I can't claim to know very much about Ito, but on the basis of this building alone, he deserved the Pritzker Prize.

The "free plan" of modernism still hasn't been pushed to its limits. Mies went further than anyone--too far, perhaps--and we're still waiting for some big innovation in structural engineering to stretch the column grid a few more feet.

I'm still a big fan of walls and doors. Having compartments for living and working is just as important to me as having different meals with different dishes. I admire confinement when it is done well.

Friday, June 7, 2013

at a petshop in notlob

Some really random thoughts today:

In some sports, it's only possible to have a high quality performance two or three times a year. For some people, this means that it's only worthwhile to participate in two or three competitions a year. I'm impressed by baseball players and basketball players because they have incredibly hard schedules, and poor performance in just one can have adverse career impacts.

From volume you can derive quality. At least if you are collecting data. That seems to be one of the lessons from Nate Silver.

Consistency should be strived for if excellence is a goal, but there will inevitably be poor performances. Move on from those.

This post feels like a fortune cookie.

I have mixed feelings about the film Oldboy. I'm deeply skeptical of Spike Lee doing an American version.
I don't have much interest in any other summer movies. Just biding my time until the next installment of  The Hobbit.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

the international new england style

Well, I admit it, the Modernists won. In large part due to the guy who designed this house, not because of what he or TAC built, but because of all the people who were educated, and continue to be educated, at the Harvard GSD. I think the American/GSD hegemony is waning, but the victory of an American oriented, modernist design style can be seen on the skylines of every major city. Granted, the ideas came from German architects, but they realized their artistic ambitions in the U.S. Nobody is building Chrysler Buildings, but everyone is building Seagram buildings.

The most important design feature modernism is the smooth plane. It can manifest itself as a curved glass curtain wall, as a flat roof, or as the metal panels on a car-dealership. This desire for "flatness" stands in contrast to articulated and decorated surfaces that we associate with Greek temples and their millions of offspring.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

nate silver and the pursuit of truth

I'm reading The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver right now and I can recommend it without reservation.
Along with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, I think we are in a good place in history when it comes to having the tools to make better decisions. The major obstacle is our primitive, messed-up primate brains and our frustrating inability to adapt to a world where information can be subjected to rigorous, probalisitic tests. I find myself making judgment errors on an hourly basis, even when I should know better. When I try to objectively confront these errors, I find myself retreating into stupidity.

Unfortunately, I'm in a profession where aesthetics and tradition are constantly in conflict with better ways of doing things. My roof overhangs should be broader, my foundations should be deeper, and I should really find a better window and door company. I should trust plumbers less and I should learn more about HVAC systems.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

constant redevelopment

A decent article by Tom Keane on the editorial page of the Globe today. He was defending the Boston Redevelopment Authority as an instrument of the office of the mayor. Although the BRA can appear to be capricious, subjective, and insensitive it does seem to have a track record of getting things done. My experience with many "planning" boards in small towns is that they exist to preserve the stupidity of existing conditions and are deeply risk averse when it comes to changes in scale and use in a community. The BRA, as its name implies, is tasked with dealing with a constantly changing and expanding urban landscape. In order to get things done it has to have its power concentrated.

Of course, I've never dealt with them. If I was dealing with them on a regular basis I might go mad. But, cities require a certain type of madness.

Monday, June 3, 2013

fire and walls

Okay, something boring today--fire walls, area separation wall, and other types of rated construction. I'm writing about this to remind myself that this stuff is important. The history and performance of fire rated construction is a long one. Adam Smith makes a reference to fire walls in his economics writing. The Romans learned the hard way that stone does not perform as well as brick in fires. London burned down. Chicago burned down. Parts of Boston burned down (and I'm surprised more of it hasn't burned down). The big issue with fire rated construction isn't complete prevention of the spread of fire (and smoke) but the creation of time for evacuation, rescue, and some level of containment.

If you happen to live in a detached, wood framed house in the U.S. you don't have to think about this at all. If a fire starts, you have maybe fifteen minutes--sometimes less, rarely more. Get out and don't go back in.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

hunter thompson, architecture critic

I just came across a brief reference to John Portman in a story Thompson was writing about the Super Bowl. I mentioned Portman in a blog post a while ago. The wide gulf between the magazine architects who are the darlings of design schools and laypeople's experience with architecture is troubling. Who is responsible for McDonald's? Who makes America? What will end up lasting?

These buildings are under construction in China.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

architecture by design

Is the description of this blog redundant? "Ruminations about architecture and design" implies that design and architecture are somehow separate--or that I should be writing more about "design" in a broader sense. Maybe I should comment on how dumb I think modern fashion is. Or, I could start offering my opinions of car styling (only the Italians know how to make cars look good).

I designed this. The carpenter who built it made a mistake, but I doubt anyone noticed it, and I'm not sure if I pointed it out to the contractor. If I had, would it have made a difference?