ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, August 30, 2013

alterations for eternity

Someone I know who is looking to buy a house had this to say: "Everything that's original is in good shape; it's the newer stuff that looks bad." Or something along those lines. A year ago I was having a discussion with a fellow architect who was recounting a conversation he had with a very experienced remodeling contractor--"When you dig into an old house the original structure is well built. The additions built afterwards decline in quality."

And from these anecdotes we could reach stunning conclusions about the general decline of construction quality in the United States of America. Or, we can infer that the compromises and challenges involved with maintaining, updating, and adding onto existing buildings are so exhausting that at some point the person doing the work just shakes his or head and tacks something together that keeps the thing limping along for a few more decades.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

the triumph of systems

The three things pictured here are designed to deliver comfort with convenience for the occupants of a building. I don't find these pieces of machinery attractive, but that is because I am a snob and a philistine. I'm also snubbing the efforts of the design team that made an effort to make them attractive. I can't help but wonder what they would look like if the people at Apple built them.

When I speak of the triumph of systems in architecture I refer to things that are small, or in some cases invisible. We see mortar joints, and because we can see them they take on a visual significance that transcends their functionality. We do not see insulation, or wiring, or structure in many buildings. The HVAC system is assessed from the point of view of our comfort and our utility bill. Parts of a building that have been designed purely for visual delight are the first things to be cut.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

a world ending in fire

The architecture of the future will be less inspiring than what we see in science fiction. One of the consequences of more energy efficient design will be more practical looking buildings, devoid of the sculptural exuberance of the past several decades. We might have a revolution in culture and values that results in more durable construction methods and longer lasting buildings, but the current trend towards disposable systems is not showing signs of slacking off. Location will continue to be the determining factor in longevity.

Before the curtain falls I think we'll have a population on the planet that will have peaked at around 12 or 15 billion people. The built environment will be distinguished by lots of abandoned settlements in unworkable areas. In fact, we can expect an end to housing shortages, even if we wreck our agricultural land.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

the road and other stories

I just googled "post-apocalypse" images and was deeply amused by what I saw because it plays right into my hands. The artwork of the world after humans is deeply romanticized and idealized. The vestiges of our present are shown in glorious decay, a la Piranesi. Junk is artfully arranged, and in some scenes a lone survivor is shown amidst the ruins of some vague metropolis as a symbol of hope or as a reminder that even Satan needs a fan base. There is even a post-Apocalyptic fashion section, with Mel Gibson and Viggo Mortensen displayed proudly above the fold like a fantasy Jack Kerouac might have had after a hit of bad acid.

These visions manifest themselves in this way because the banal horror of our eventual extinction on this planet (see, even I hold out hope for a life among the stars) is something that we need to avoid thinking about or displaying in artwork. I spoke in my last post about optimism in this country for dying cities and towns. People there have a relationship with social mortality that denizens of Boston and New York simply don't have to consider yet.

I'll have more on this later.

Monday, August 26, 2013

settlement subordinate to landscape

So, what if there is nothing at all unique about American architecture? It's a comforting possibility, because then we don't have to worry about a cultural identity and embrace the purity of a thoroughly plastic design sensibility.  We can be completely derivative. We are not Egyptian, or Chinese, or Mayan. We have no Dresden cathedral, despite Sherman's acts of arson, and the cow in Chicago was merely setting the city up for a more robust architectural legacy, just like San Francisco had its great rebuilding. Who remembers the monuments of Radio Row? Who seriously considered a rebuild of the Towers?

Our legacy. I consider the vinyl siding on my house with a sense of grim indifference. I'm too cheap and lazy to do anything about it. I'll maintain and replace rotten woodwork with a half-hearted sense of craftsmanship as the years go by, pushing the utility of each structural element past the point of safety and with only a mild regard for aesthetics. I care what my client's houses look like, and I try to make decisions on their behalf that can stand the test of a twenty year timescale. No pharaoh would have hired me.

I"m getting off topic. What I wanted to point out is that buildings in America are subordinate to a social landscape. The physical characteristics of an urban settlement tend to be molded, at great expense, to suit the changing tastes and economic conditions of the inhabitants. In a recent post, I referred to the "flatland" and the relative fragility of our cities, spreading out along highway corridors in deserts, swamps, and old farmfields. Hillside and hilltop architecture is the anomaly for simple logistical reasons, and it points to our peaceful internal history, Sherman aside. Our social landscape is characterized by a sense of misplaced optimism. "Oh, we'll never really just abandon Detroit." We're not capable, in this country, of looking at our cities, and the buildings in them, from an archaeological perspective. Replacement carries more value than restoration, despite all the crowing of preservationists. Historic districts are in as much a state of flux as the nameless and countless strip malls that spring up overnight. The timescales are only slightly different.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


It's amusing that Ben Franklin's advice to buy land was made at a time when the U.S. was approximately one tenth its current size.  While this country does not have the stupefying vastness of Siberia, our acreage makes for a wide range of decisions when it comes to settlement patterns. We have tended to settle in flatlands; near water, usually in floodplains, and have resisted frontier building when the opportunity to do infill has presented itself. This trend has persisted into modern times. The word "sprawl" conveys an image of lateral growth in all directions, but developers have focused their efforts on clustering homes and strip malls along transportation routes. The strands in the net get thicker, but the spaces between the strands stay empty, and in some areas, they empty out even more.

Increased energy costs will make some of these settlements harder to sustain than others. Manhattan is held as a paragon of green, high density development, while the Broadacre City envisioned by Wright is a dangerous fantasy. The truth, and the eventual future outcome, will be somewhere in between. I don't predict a resurgence of decaying small cities in the Northeast unless climate change makes the agricultural picture more robust. Las Vegas is toast, Detroit is doomed, and Miami is the next Atlantis. Atlanta may be a surprising utopia, but not for a hundred years.

Friday, August 23, 2013

brief post

Busy lately, so less posting. I suppose that comes as a relief to some people.

I've never commented thoroughly on Robert Venturi. To be honest, I've never read Learning From Las Vegas, so I should do that before I start pontificating about his viewpoints. Of course, lack of information usually doesn't stop me.

I feel that Venturi will be useful to my discussion of Youth in architecture. I mean youth in the sense of age of buildings--not age of occupants. Las Vegas was built from nothing, is based on nothing, and is completely unsustainable. It can be used as the punching bag for the Greens, or as a symbol of our remarkable abilities to defy logic.

And then there is the issue of Ducks versus Decorated Sheds. Like Venturi, I prefer Sheds, but I don't mind having ducks to make the built landscape interesting.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

fragility (and l.a. story)

I should have added L.A. Story to my list of architectural movies a long time ago. Better late than never (a turn of phrase which is disastrously wrong). And now, we return to our pre-programmed program.

On Fragility in American Architecture:

There's a saying "we don't build 'em like we used to" which when uttered by some folksy idiot in a straw hat and overalls makes me just a little bit crazy. There is truth in that line, but it is mis-used. It has been a long time since anyone built a pyramid. Dry set masonry structures don't measure up to modern building codes for just about every use group and usually for very good reasons. This state of affairs came about gradually, and if society persists, we can expect there to be no monumental stone buildings in the U.S. for a long time. Some rich fool has the right to build a tomb for himself, or his wife, or herself, or her husband, or the favorite cat, but our great public buildings will continue to be built with more disposable materials--steel, glass, concrete, plastic, wood, brick.

Aren't those durable materials? Nope. Not when measured against the span of Roman engineering, and certainly not Egyptian. Nor do I expect materials engineers to come up with anything that will make our buildings last longer. We assign a twenty to one-hundred year lifespan to the things we build. I don't trust any architect to make design decisions that will be functional for long periods for certain types of large buildings or structures--notably in the transportation sector. Manufacturing facilities could have lifespans of months. Offices and hospitals undergo interior renovations every decade--whether or not it is necessary.

Residential architecture has reached a level point when it comes to improvements. We sleep, we eat, we watch television, we bathe, and we have arguments that make us grateful for being able to go to another room in a house. A house can last a few hundred years and undergo a few dozen renovations. Buildings do not learn, but sometimes, people do. I think that in this country we are struggling between history and desire when it comes to architecture. Desire wins in most places.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

defining the character of american architecture

More accurately,the architecture of the United States of America, dating from the post-war period into the near future. (Which war? We fight so many.) It behooves me to state that "character" should be regarded as a neutral description, and it encompasses the specific visual elements of a style as well as the compendium of attitudes that people bear towards that style.We often speak of something or someone as having "character" in a positive way, but truly, all things have it. I was prepared at one time to make the claim that American architecture had no character, that we had perfected the art of buildings devoid of lasting meaning or individuality. I realized that I was being stupid, and I needed to wrestle with the question that I have had ever since I was first exposed to architecture as a profession/craft/expressionistic fine art. That question comes in two parts: What am I looking at? Why does it look like that? I'm regretting not taking more art history courses, because now I have to make stuff up as a I go along. The very least I can do is propose a list of the most striking, but not necessarily the most important, aspects and attributes of the built world that I have grown up in:

-Settlement that is subordinate to landscape
-The triumph of systems over visual delight

In future posts, I may elaborate on this. Or not. Towers of Ilium prizes its lack of consistency and commitment.

Monday, August 19, 2013

post on the greenway in boston

An article in the Sunday Globe noted how the Greenway park in Boston--built over the Big Dig--has been increasing in popularity. This is not a surprise. Any piece of attractive landscaping in a city that is open to the public will attract people. The article revealed the disconnect between the people who use the park and the design professionals who remain critical of it. According to Alex Krieger of the GSD, the park is not a "great public space." He fails to define what "great" means. Architects once viewed Boston City Hall Plaza as a "great" space, but few people agree with that.

I think that the Greenway will continue to evolve, and if the resources dedicated to its upkeep are sufficienct, it will tend to improve over time. I happen to think it is a great place. I remember what was there before.

I apologize for the grammar errors in the last post and any pain they may have caused.

Friday, August 16, 2013

bury my heart at fan pier

Today's Globe had a story on the growing traffic congestion in the Seaport/Innovation District in Boston. Apparently, there is a link between prosperity and high traffic volume tend to have a positive relationship. The article noted that morning traffic wasn't as bad as evening traffic--the quote was something along the lines of "everyone leaves at 5pm."

This mass exodus at such a consistent time points to the need for more diversity in the district, which developers are responding to. More restaurants, gyms, leisure facilities, opium dens, and most importantly, housing, would help ease peak traffic congestion.

This is photo of Fan Pier from more than ten years ago. It's a bit different now.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

the challenge of character (partIV)

I'm not quite sure what to make of Jean Nouvel. Like so many of the best architects, his work retains more power when it is unbuilt--but is that still architecture? If a painter, at some New York cocktail party, announces that he has a vision of a portrait that will make the Mona Lisa look boring then he is under an obligation to produce the work. Architects seem to be held to a much lower standard.

But, I'm more interested in the issue of character in design. When does a building reach a point where an ordinary person walking by on the street stop and say "Gosh, that looks nice." In the U.S. we associate character with age and history--Beacon Hill, The Alamo, Los Angeles Art Deco, Greene and Greene, Chicago. Contemporary buildings can look interesting, but we  impose the test of time on architecture. When the original builders and occupants are dead, we elevate the work and document it, and in some cases, fight for its preservation.

The Old West End in Boston had character. The urban renewal that replaced it has none, and I doubt it ever will. Someday, it will be replaced, and if the forces of nostalgia are massed and organized, there is the chance that the Old West End will be restored, but in a way that precludes the organic purity of the original. The new buildings will be new, they will be functional, they will make sense for the banks that lend the money, and the hipsters who occupy them will expect all the modern conveniences. In the United States, we revere history, but only as we choose to remember it, and the craft of that illusion consumes the design profession at all levels.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

the population bomb

A decline in the population of a species cannot be judged good or bad without proper context. An article in today's paper ignored this rule in a discussion about the decrease in the number of people in Germany and how it would have negative implications. They compounded this error by extending this impact to the entire Euro zone.

Any living creature imposes stress on its environment. If the stress exceeds a certain level, then the species suffers, often catastrophically. The emptying out of small towns and cities in Germany is not an indication that people are on the verge of extinction in that country, nor is it any indication in a drastic reduction in the quality of life. If ten people try to eat one pie each person will have less pie than if it was shared by eight people. (Beware of arguments by analogy and metaphor).


Monday, August 12, 2013

atypical architecture

I could never design anything like this. Fortunately, Herzog and de Mueron can design stuff like this any day of the week. But will it set a precedent for parking garage design? I don't think so. Too risky, too expensive, too unconventional. It gets to stay special for a long time, but I wouldn't hold it against the architects if they re-use this design somewhere else.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

a shifting baselines special edition

Okay, I was about to start some rambling screed about the death of character in American architecture. I googled images for "mcmansion" and came across a picture of the Biltmore Estate. Now, I'm not sure that I can mount an effective criticism of modern American dwellings. How can I judge taste? My clients pay me for my opinion--at times I have to go so far as to make something resembling an argument. Meanwhile, the deep yearnings of millions of citizens take form in tracts of subdivisions and a profusion of rooflines and cheap brick. Its not as if I can pass judgment on this when I ride past rotting, fire-trap triple deckers every morning in Boston. My home has vinyl siding, vinyl windows, suspect plumbing, and inadequate insulation. My landscaping is an ongoing study in neglect and futility. My driveway needs to be repaved.

We all strive to keep the great game going.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

literature vs. architecture

Literature beats architecture any day of the week, provided we're making the comparison between two luxury services. Shelter can be almost devoid of architecture (lots of room for debate here, but bear with me). Architecture happens when a human embellishes shelter with something that conveys a meaning beyond the realm of function. Literature happens whenever someone opens his or her mouth. Even when we have a linguistic exchange that is oriented towards pure survival:

Caveman Thak: Oog was eaten by a lion.
Cavewoman Loona: Oh, that's too bad.

See what a world of possibility and interpretation is created by that story? How did Oog get himself in a spot where a lion could eat him? What kind of lion? What was the relationship of Thak, Oog, and Loona? Communication cannot be assigned boundaries, in contrast to architecture, which is exclusively about boundaries. The embellishment that defines architecture is open to interpretation, but the act of interpretation moves the architecture into a position that is subordinate to language.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

the longest tomorrow

I realized that I actually don't know enough about anything, and as time passes, the self-awareness of my ignorance will diminish, until I reach that state where I will be uncertain about what I know, and confident in a great number of things that are wrong. This is unfortunate, but a good description of the modern human condition--which consists of confused people stumbling around accomplishing very little and just barely staying alive.

More specifically, I don't know enough about timberframing details to feel confident incorporating it into an architectural design. I can make presumptions about column placement, but the myriad ways to devise the lateral bracing elements has me thoroughly boggled. It is as this point that I should seek out someone who knows what is going on and has experience with the craft. I should not, and let me emphasize this, rely on my own research and intuition.

Monday, August 5, 2013

prediction markets edition #17

"Why this is hell, nor am I out of it"

I predict that Homs will be rebuilt someday, but under what political conditions, I can't begin to fathom. I also predict that the hurricane that devastates Boston within the next thirty years will catch us quite unprepared. The people who I will hold most responsible for whatever state of unpreparedness we happen to be will be the executives of the major utility companies. They will not have made the critical improvements and investments in redundancy that will enable a better recovery. The MBTA will be largely unoperational for over a month, with some subway lines closed even longer. Bus service will pick up much of the slack but the city will take about five years to recover. That's actually not too bad.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

the suburban elysium

Human beings like to live in houses. I believe that the desire to have an individual nest, with a certain amount of distance to the nest of the next person, is a fundamental desire. As soon as economic conditions reach a certain level people build houses. Even if economic conditions aren't quite ideal, people build houses--and they build them out of the wrong materials, in the wrong place, and without all the features that would make their life comfortable. But, we're happier when we have our own space.

If you believe the claims I've just made, you're very gullible, but if you're living in a house and are happy, then you support my argument. If you're living in a more efficient dwelling system, which I will refer to in a very general way as "multi-family" then you will probably admit that you long for a house, particularly on those occasions when you are beginning to aspire to the murder of some particularly annoying neighbor.

In the end, it comes down to energy for transportation systems. A city is more efficient than a suburb, but without trucks or trains or cars, everyone would be dead in a week. (Well, not everyone; those who turned to cannibalism first would last longer.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

a qualification on the theme

Despite my ravings and ramblings of the past few days, I want to declare that I am not opposed to gestures of monumentality. I consider them to be an essential and worthwhile investment of resources, particularly in urban settings. This building, for instance, helps identify a city that has seen more than its share of hard times. Whether interpreted ironically or not, it serves to decorate a skyline in a manner that is far more effective than the generic, lumpy glass heap of the typical office high rise.

If a building can be economically viable, timelessly iconic, and relatively durable, then a success has been achieved. I classify the Chrysler Building in such a fashion. The World Trade Center--both the past and the present, do not seem to meet that criteria.