ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

yoda was right

Size matters not--unless you happen to be an architect or a historian. The bias towards size seems to be fundamentally human, and it's a consequence of visibility. A lion is visible and large--a microbe, not at all. The latter is far more dangerous and significant, but because we can't see it we don't know about it.

All architecture is visible, but even within that truism there are some shades of grey. We identify a Greek temple as a robust and important building type, and overlook its near complete irrelevance as a shelter. Single family homes have been shunted aside by most architects, but they constitute the place where Americans spend most of their time. The architectural experience for the past hundred years has been defined by the relative success of environmental control systems. We expect buildings to be the right temperature, have artificial lighting, communication systems, and running water. Without these critical elements, a building ceases to be important (unless it is the subject of some avant-garde art magazine--"Look, Ye Masses--The House With No Water!")

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

the myth of durability (part III)

After I finished the post from yesterday I realized that I had already written about the myth of durable architecture in a previous post. Fortunately, there is still a lot to talk about.
Let me re-state the general hypothesis:

Durable, stone architecture is commissioned by elites for their benefit. The majority of people live in rural poverty and are conscripted for monumental projects to satisfy the ego of the elites.

The impoverished masses may take great pride in the monumental icons of the ruling classes. In fact, subsequent generations may revere these symbols as a source of national identity and not dwell on the misuse of resources and horror associated with their construction. This deception is reinforced by historians and architects who look on these monuments as the signature of a culture. Rinse, repeat....

Wattle and daub construction has definite limitations--as does its modern equivalent--wood, stick framing. Stewart Brand claimed that "he who builds with wood, builds a shack." But Stewart fails to specify a timeline and he fails to mention that basic maintenance can keep a shack going for a long time to the great satisfaction of multiple generations of occupants.

Monday, July 29, 2013

north adams board of tourism

The experience of seeing some of the installations at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cannot be described in any useful way. Just go there and feel good about some of the things that people are able to create. If you can't make it there, then I'm truly sorry. No resources on the Internet, books, magazines, or long-winded speeches can convey the spirit of the place. Except for the Sol Lewitt--in that case just buy a book or visit Mohawk Regional High School.

In other news I discovered the writings of historian Peter S. Wells. His book Barbarians to Angels gives a more sophisticated and honest account of the period of European history from 400 AD to 800 AD--which is idiotically referred to as the "Dark Ages." The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most over-wrought and misunderstood events in human history. Wells does a good job of dispelling myths and provoking thought about what it means to be civilized, human, and successful.

Over the next few posts, I'd like to work off some of the themes that Wells' articulates--but with a slant towards how we perceive architecture. If I'm organized, I'll explode some ideas that I held dear at one point in my youth. A rough outline of these upcoming topics:

-The Myth of Durability
-The Bias Towards Monumentality
-The Suburban Paradise Forever

Thursday, July 25, 2013

arcadia and the yearning for desolation

Google images delivers some eclectic things when you type "Arcadia." I found a rock band, some sci-fi stuff and this charming painting by Thomas Cole. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I'll spend some time in a place that resembles Arcadia. It will be a refreshing and rejuvenating experience--if we survive the car trip.

Since I tend to deal with the graphic depiction of fantasy, I place a high value on impossible places from literature and history. An architect has the enviable task of projecting desire into reality--usually in the form of stainless steel appliances, stone countertops, and formal living spaces that are used infrequently. Somedays I feel crass and cheap, but I take pleasure in those moments when things come together nicely. There, I admit it, I am Martha Stewart.

I had a random thought about the possibility that self driving cars could proliferate in Saudi Arabia first because it would give more autonomy to women. It's nice to hope.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

places to find books

Despite the impending death of print, I predict that libraries will still be important in the future. The dispersed knowledge and trash on the internet is impressive, but it has no Place. Let me repeat that: The internet is not a Place--it is not even a Space. A dimensionless entity like the internet confounds our brains. We seek the serenity of a landscape where we can get our bearings and have our choices limited to what we can understand, or can be on the verge of understanding.

So, if you're in Cambridge, go to the Public Library. It is a real place, the architecture is good--in both the old and new parts, and it is a public resource. If it had a coffee shop inside, it would be perfect.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

futurism: part XXII

(Insert picture of Jetsons or Equal)

We can agree on the following:

-The end of significant print media within thirty years
-The end of recording companies within twenty years
-The emergence and dominance of self-driving cars within twenty years
-A partial democratic transition in China within fifty years
-Another nuclear power plant accident within fifteen years

The ability to predict the future perfectly is beyond the capacity of anyone alive. However, we can be reasonably certain about strong trends that, absent complete disasters, will become more significant as time passes.

I will make no hard predictions about future styles in architecture. I am confident that future buildings will have doors, floors, walls, and roofs. The materials used to build these things will not change dramatically. Traditional architectural styles will be sought after, particularly by owners of single family homes.

Monday, July 22, 2013

sprawl, cities, and wealth

A recent New York Times article, with interactive map, points to the relationship between city development patterns and income. Basically, higher density cities have better wealth mobility. Paul Krugman, in a recent blog post, compares Detroit and Pittsburgh to demonstrate how an investment in core density makes for better results from an economic perspective. Curiously, both places have equal population density, but Pittsburgh managed to create a more diversified economic base since the 1980's, while Detroit has essentially gone down the toilet.

The "geography is destiny" argument holds a lot of power (see exhibit A: Antarctica) but I'm not sure that sprawl killed Detroit. I doubt it helped it, but I think more patterns can be uncovered in this area.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

mega city one

I'm adding the movie Dredd to my architectural movies list. (can't upload silly picture--see the movie--but only if you have a strong stomach)

Urban horror depends on the depiction of a city that is clearly impossible. And yet, the places of fiction have become real. This phenomenon is probably better understood by people in Asian nations, where the density of development has passed beyond anything our primate brains can cope with. But, what is the alternative? Living spread out? We have the land to do that, and look at our nation now.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

the longest way around

The industrial legacy of the ancient empire Massachusetts. Almost as good as aqueducts, and with more variety in form and scale. A place like this could be more than what it is, but it might be in the wrong Place. Architects are always confusing Place for place. Place (with a capital "P") is the broad platform of history, culture, money, and infrastructure. It may be ugly, but it has to be of sufficient mass to support "places" (lower case "p"). A nice "place" is useless in the wrong Place.

I've been through this before. Curiously, bad buildings in good Places are actually good things because it means that they will be torn down and replaced. Nice buildings in Bad Places have romantic value, but they can lead well-intentioned people astray.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

houses in greenland

As is frequently the case, towers of ilium is wrong. There are colorful houses in extreme northern climates--like Greenland. I suppose my claim about drab houses colors is a reflection of my upbringing in the dour, miserable, stale, bland, and hopeless environment of New England. The Puritan sensibility (now I am misrepresenting the Puritans) frowns upon all forms of creative exuberance or artistic expression that is not specifically related to themes of penitence, modesty, thrift, and repression of emotion.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

tuesday time

The downtown urban paradise of Sanford, Florida. Seems like a nice place.

A moment of silence on the blog. I'm considering commenting on the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman ordeal, but I don't have much to add other than some ramblings about my skepticism of gated communities, the quality of race relations in the U.S., and the culture of fear that has defined human interactions since the dawn of time.

Silence is better. It's a hot day in Boston, which is good for my garden, bad for electric bills, and a grim reminder of how our position on this planet is a balancing act that we're still all trying to figure out.

You can get away with more colorful buildings in southern climates. Up north, a bright cheerful building would look downright annoying in the depths of winter.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

the monday post a day early

A fantastic drawing of Grand Central Station by a fellow named Carl Hsiung. It is on display at the New York Transit Museum along with other interpretative drawings commemorating the famous train station.

Transportation architecture tends to fall into two categories: Excellent or Dismal Junk. There are a few middle-of-the-road facilities, like Logan airport, but it has more Dismal Junk moments than Excellent (I like the pedestrian walkways that connect the terminals to the parking garage). Grand Central may be a timeless building in that it will be functional and beautiful for as long as we care to maintain it. Sort of like the old Penn. Station.

Friday, July 12, 2013

better post planned for Monday

Given the challenges inherent in building over the Mass Turnpike, I continue to be perplexed by the Shaw's supermarket that is positioned here. Was it built while the Pike was under construction? Was there something funny going on? Who made those decisions? I am fairly confident that no single-story structure will  ever be erected under similar circumstances ever again. It's nice to think of parts of Interstate 90 treated like the Rose Kennedy Greenway, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I didn't take this picture, by the way. I hope the person who took this picture wasn't also driving the car.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

the last normal

This could be a lot of places in America. Off in the distance is a wall that is part of the levee system around the Mississippi River--a brutal reminder of the fragility of New Orleans and just about anywhere else for that matter. We do a pretty good job of controlling water 99% of the time--so it is that 1% of the time that really messes things up.

The train derailment in Canada is another reminder of how close we are to danger. Every resource comes with a cost, but as it is often the case when dealing with Nature, we don't know exactly when the bill comes due, or how much it will be.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

eternal suburbs

An article on the editorial page of the  Globe today by Paul McMorrow might have given some people the impression that suburbs around Boston are entering a state of decline. Property values over a ten and twenty year period contradict this impression. McMorrow is correct with regard to the fact that dense urban areas are becoming more popular, but this has not come at the expense of the suburbs (and what is a suburb, anyway?). The Boston Metro region suffers from a housing shortage in places where people want to live--which includes good Boston neighborhoods and medium density suburbs in towns like Melrose, Weston, Quincy, Wellesley, and Needham.

This is interesting:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

architectural bias-edition #12

I think it's fair to say that many people, architects included, have a preference for "durable" buildings. For fundamental structural considerations, this preference is well justified. We don't want the handrail we are holding  to come of the wall while we are descending some Victorian stair. The Bangladesh Factory Disaster demonstrates the need for building codes and basic life-safety procedures.

However, we often confuse durability with permanence. I contend that durable architecture need not last more than a 100 years, particularly for buildings that accommodate diverse and frequent uses. Our methods of living and working are evolving, and at some point, the architecture for those activities doesn't work. Some buildings can be designed for multiple renovations, and this is a good thing, but we shouldn't obsess over preservation when a better solution can be had by starting fresh.

Also, our bias towards long lasting masonry buildings obscures the fact that most structures throughout history have been temporary: i.e, in the range of 10-50 years, through a conscious decision. Masonry architecture is seen as defining the "great" cultures of history, but it could easily point to a misappropriation of resources by an elite minority. Case in point: Pyramids--Egyptian, Mayan, or Cambodian.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Providence, Rhode Island is a city that has a few charming moments, but it has more than a few rough patches. This photo presents a view of the place that is odds with the experience of people who race through it on the highways, hugging tight curves and desperately keeping out of exit only lanes. The city is not large enough to justify a Big Dig type of road project, so it will remain fractured and compromised for decades to come.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

thoughts on parking

It seems that the city of Boston is reconsidering its minimum parking space zoning requirement for residential development projects. Some people who live in neighborhoods where there is limited driveway parking and a reliance on street parking for car storage are concerned. Here at towers of ilium (which has a large driveway in a suburb) there is a mild interest. Manhattan does not seem to be suffering economically from a shortage of parking spaces (at least according to model zoning codes that date form the 1950's).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

details and decoration

Detailing is a discipline in architecture that involves the method of describing how different parts of the building fit together. Details can be visible, or as is often the case in many modern structures, hidden by other building elements.

Decoration is too frequently regarded as a bad thing in architecture. I blame it partly on Adolf Loos, but his polemic on Ornament came from the age he was in, and that we still occupy to some extent. An iPhone is not "decorated" and consequently, its value is independent of any special holders or geegaws that are applied to its case.

Where am I going with this? The building above is decorated, but it is poorly detailed. The balustrade on the roof looks like a maintenance nightmare to my eye.  The exterior trim was applied as an afterthought because  there is very little proportional relationship to the windows and the door. I don't mind this building--I've done a lot worse and I appreciate that somebody took the time to think of a way to make beauty.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

robert parker again

Ah, it's so nice to read a Spenser novel. Since I've been working in Boston for more than ten years now, his descriptions of various parts of the city resonate more deeply with me. He provides a catalog of past places--The Ritz Hotel, The Old Elevated Section of 93, the chaos of the Big Dig.

Spenser's office was located in this building. It's one of the best looking structures in the city.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

gloom and doom tuesday

EROI stands for Energy Return On Investment, and it typically refers to the net gain of an energy resource used by humans. There's a school of thought (Gail Tverberg is one of the names at that school) that proclaims that modern life starts to break down when we start to exceed a 1:5 ratio on EROI. So, for every five gallons of oil I take out of the ground, I have to spend one gallon to get it out of the ground and distribute it to the various productive activities around the world. For every increment over that one gallon I need to keep the energy resources moving, I have to sacrifice a portion of my production. At some point, I have to spend so much on energy extraction and transportation I have to give up my amusement parks, my drag car racing, my wars (unless it's to protect diminishing oil reserves), my health care, my manicured lawn, my big house, and other big house on the seashore.

So it goes.

But, when does this happen? According to some people, it's happening right now. We're feeling it a little bit in the U.S. in the form of high gas prices and a persistent current account deficit. Can we improve energy efficiency in existing buildings at a rate that keeps our standard of living on an upward trajectory? Can we frack a few more billions of oil out of the ground in the American Midwest?

Monday, July 1, 2013

more thoughts on TAC

I think this is one of the last projects by the The Architect's Collaborative. It's hard to reconcile this thoroughly contextual building with the revolutionary modernism that distinguished the firm over four decades, but I don't regard this as a betrayal of a dogma. Despite the stylistic bent of Gropius and his contemporaries, the imagery of modern architecture was supposed to be less important than the method of design.

The word "collaboration" stands at odds with the trope of the heroic architect who has a vision that is unique, powerful, and not subject to revision or criticism.Gropius, by some accounts did not fit this image of heroism--he served a more important role as visionary and philosopher. He was not embroiled in conflicts within the firm, or during the construction process. Perhaps he helped create a different character in the architectural profession; that of the inspirational collaborator.

I wonder if any of these stories are even true.