ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, September 30, 2013

about that location thing

Okay, yesterday I made a passing reference to the phrase "if we built it, they will come" and now I find myself wondering how valid that is for circumstances of successful architecture. Location is terribly, terribly real, but it involves factors that transcend physical geography. What I am referring to can roughly be described as "social location" and it is the sum total of all the people who are in a place, as well as the people who want to go to that place. Sentimentality also plays a role, because we assign a value to the people who used to be in a place--i.e. Elvis is Graceland.

But what about the architecture? Surely it plays a role? I contend that the role of architecture in place making is more temporary than the people--past/present/future. Too much emphasis on the architecture of a place makes the person less valuable, and can have a negative impact on the value the architecture returns to people. We value Pompeii because it is a ruin, and its worth can be assigned to its destruction and subsequent  re-discovery and preservation. There can be no talk of restoring the city to its glory.

architecture as nonfiction

This space could end up being important. Or maybe not. From the point of view of pure space, it scores very high marks--broad spans, high ceiling,  robust structure. From the point of view of functional adaptability, it requires money, patience, and motivation. The location is bad, but we like to hope that if we build it, someone will come--a few hundred people a week, or something along those lines.

That's all the information I can give out right now. In other news I made a purchase this weekend that is forcing me to think about space planning in my own home. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, September 27, 2013

where angels fear to tread on architects

Paul McMorrow had a recent article that criticized Boston City Hall and proposed (as have many other people) that it be sold to a developer. Predictably, the Globe published a few letters from defenders and apologists for the building.

Ultimately, the building and the plaza are doomed. Boston property is coming of age in value and no mayor has a political stake in the preservation of the building. The re-development will proceed like an opera, but the end result will be some form of improvement to public space and steep profits for a chosen few.

I think this image is model of one of the losing entries in the original design competition.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

a question posed and answered

How many cars is a Zipcar worth? I might have posed this question in the past, but I have yet to see an answer anywhere.

For the sake of discussion I propose that a Zipcar, when provided in the context of an urban, residential development, is worth between four and six normal cars. Thus, a developer who provides dedicated car sharing parking spaces near a project should be credited with more spaces than if they are reserved for tenants.

Why between four and six? Because here at towers of ilium we make up numbers. (That's our new slogan.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

and the long walk continues

I worked on the design on of this house, but that was in another country...

The images on this blog have been either non-existent, or uninspired as of late. Yet another example of the ennui of the 21st century--the long, slow decay of art and culture, the degradation of morals, etc....I'm just feeling guilty because I haven't mowed my lawn in over two weeks. I suppose I'll do it one last time before the leaves fall so I look somewhat respectable. My wife pointed out that the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" refers to Edith Wharton's family from the great gilded era in New York. The Joneses were extraordinarily wealthy and to aspire to be like them was one of the things that drove the inequity, greed, and corruption of that period. Nowadays, values have shifted and inequity deepened and broadened. No one in Edith Wharton's time could get Botox or owned a television set.

Things will persist for at least four more decades, in my opinion. The era of cheap, solar power will then be upon us.

Monday, September 23, 2013

modernity in a nutshell

A few days ago I was having a discussion with my father about the state of the world and prospects for the future. We concluded that that major difference between his generation and mine was the cost of energy. For most of his life, energy was cheap, and for most of mine it has been expensive--and will grow more costly as time goes by.

No more commentary on Steve Jobs except this: He had his moment in the sun, and I do not begrudge him for his success. His legacy will only significant for a few decades. That too, is modernity in a nutshell.

As a matter of form, I refer to "modernity" as the here and now, not the great heyday of Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and Fitzgerald. If we can't own the word "modern" what point is there in even having it?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

projections of future states (part IX)

The Boston Globe had an article today that raised questions about the revenue projections for the proposed Suffolk Downs Caesar's Casino. Naturally, the proponents of the project are sticking to their claim. They could turn out to be right if two things happen; inflation picks up and no significant competing venues are built nearby. In the meantime, I will side with those who are more conservative in their approach to the income promised by this venture.

In general, I have mixed feelings about organized gambling. People want to bet on things, and it seems to be ingrained in our nature. I am skeptical when politicians and business interests collude to promote these activities. (See item #2--Wall Street)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

meanwhile at pixar studios

I'm listening to the radio right now. I feel that is a mistake. It's making me forget to do simple things, like load the picture for this blog post.

So, more Steve Jobs today. I'm finishing up the biography by Isaacson, so pretty soon, we won't have to be bothered by this drivel much longer.

This is the Pixar headquarters, which Jobs was instrumental in designing. He insisted on an atrium/hallway that would encourage collaborative meetings and chance encounters. I guess it's working. Bohlin designed it. It looks more practical than the Apple Stores.

Monday, September 16, 2013

the eichler legacy

So, Steve Jobs grew up in a house like this one. I'm impressed by the stylistic purity of Eichler's houses, and I can see the strong links to the Modernist continuum. These are very dated houses from the perspective of enclosure design and material usage (and probably seismic considerations). Also, a photo like this makes the design appear more like a fishbowl than it actually is.

I need to find out more about him. Royal Barry Wills had a stock plans that was stylistically similar.

Friday, September 13, 2013

the sixties

There's a line from Peter Fonda in  the movie The Limey, that goes something like this:

"It was a dream, not a place....that was the could speak the language... And it was only '66 and early '67, that's all it was."

For me, the sixties reach out across the decades and place a heavy hand on all that seems to transpire in the present. I was never there, nor would I want to go there, but I feel that events of that period resonate more strongly than things that happened in the years preceding or following. The trippy dope fiends and the military created the computer age. The international efforts of the government were revealed as insane, naked aggression, and the bright light of the atomic age shone down on every living thing. Men walked on the moon.

I do not know if the world we live in today is more mad, or less.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

thoughts on yesterday

Twelve years out. For a teenager in an American high school the events of that day must seem surreal. What spin do their textbooks put on it? The ongoing wars, which I know less about than I ought to, continue to cause havoc out of proportion to their inspiration. The walls of our prison in Cuba seem sturdy enough and there is certainly no trace of that body in the Indian Ocean--and what comfort does that give us? What sense of security have we gained, or given to others?

I picture an office worker that day, going through the ritual of the elevators, feeling glad to get to work on time, to have a job, to have someone to look forward to going home to that evening.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

how humans make progress

The debut of the latest iPhone gives us an opportunity to consider how we actually move culture forward--very slowly, by increments, and by the inputs of many people who will be forgotten. I regard our obsession with heroes a bit silly and anachronistic. When we were small tribes of hunters and peasants it made sense to acknowledge the achievements of the Big Man or Big Woman who could make a real difference to the group. Steve Jobs was never a Big Man--he just thought he was.

I'm reading about how the CIA discovered the mole Aldrich Ames after a lengthy and exhaustive investigation. The book, written by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, is plodding, bureaucratic, detailed, repetitive, and indispensable. Please note that I use those adjectives in a positive way in an effort to highlight how things actually get done in the real world. If they had proceeded in any other way they would not have been successful. Few members of Congress of the media could possible understand that.

While I am skeptical of the utility of Heroes, I do believe in Villains. It is far easier for some malicious bastard, or deeply stupid idiot, to completely mess things up to such an extent that no group of people, no matter how motivated or dedicated, can put it to rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

that's not a house, that's a home

The problem with older buildings is that they're old. Now, before anyone starts attacking the circular logic that is the hallmark of this blog (when there is any logic at all), let's consider the ways in which we assign value to certain things. Age is credited with imparting character, and it correlates with scarcity, which in turn increases cost in the right marketplace. But age implies deterioration for human made things, and deterioration creates a dilemma, for a certain aspect of character depends on it. Age implies uncertainty--when will this break? becomes a constant question.

Architecture outlives expectations with a bare minimum of care and maintenance, but age inexorably wears everything down. We rarely say that a building collapsed because of age--we assign a more proximal cause--and deny the cumulative impact of years of bad decisions.

Monday, September 9, 2013

the prison of architecture

Michael Sorkin's most recent article in the Nation magazine challenges architects to boycott prison design. He acknowledges that the ethical dilemmas presented by certain types of commissions are something that all designers have to confront periodically, but prisons in the U.S. are the worst case. We discriminate against minorities with our sentencing laws and create environments for punishment that only worsen crime.

I would sign onto this. I consider my involvement in the design of an incarceration facility unlikely, and I would only take on such work if I was starving. If things get to that point, then I might have other priorities.

A cynical observer could claim that the modern American way of life is a type of prison. But such metaphors don't stand up to the reality of waking up in a concrete cell. Spiritual fortitude and asceticism are much lauded by certain religions, but I prefer being able to drive to a Wal-Mart to buy cheap objects. The issue of freedom is not a simple one, but as John Cash noted "The culture of a thousand years is removed by the clanging of a cell door." Or something like that.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

deterioration of beliefs

Are all glass facades okay for some building types? I'm starting to struggle with that again. I think it comes down to the gain vs. enclosure dominated building condition. Suppose an office building has an all glass facade with with spectrally selective glazing and exterior sunshading supplemented by interior shades. In northern climates will the heat gains on the interior, plus solar gains, mitigate heat loss to the exterior? Will occupants be more comfortable and pay lower utility bills than occupants in an equivalent building with a more "appropriate" wall to window ratio?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

the unprivate dwelling

I wonder if any states have built a governor's mansion in the last fifty years. Massachusetts does not have one, and I consider that a symbol of the stupid Yankee frugality that manifests itself in this oh so liberal state. A governor's mansion helps to emphasize the public role that the highest elected official has in the community. Critical social functions, including fundraising, can take place there and will be more open to the public eye than if the governor has a more private residence.

I'm not sure what forces would have to align to build a governor's house in this day and age. I wonder if the forces of tradition would triumph over the forces of modernism. Probably.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

the long death of springfield massachusetts

I'm having a hard time describing what is wrong with Springfield, Massachusetts. If you want an objective assessment, this blog is certainly not a resource, but I don't think objectivity can quite do justice to the manifest urban failure of that city. It wasn't until I was driving back into Boston yesterday that I noticed one of the big differences--Boston is cluttered; Springfield feels like an empty house after an estate sale--empty rooms full of nothing but dust and scraps of worthless paper. I'm painting an extreme picture here, but people who work and live in Springfield must notice the oddness of the place.

I feel that some of the major corporate players there have written the place off. Mass Mutual has a miserable concrete office building, Smith and Wesson assembles guns, The Basketball Hall of Fame sits grandly next to the highway,  and a handful of businesses try to make a go of it amidst the genteel decay and misery. So what if they get a casino? Probably just another white elephant and a broken promise

Sunday, September 1, 2013

the end of apple and the triumph of the system

Computer not letting me post image of Apple's proposed headquarters.

I predict that in about thirty years the legend of Apple and Steve Jobs will have faded into obscurity. I own no Apple products, and based on the other options out there for technology devices, I probably won't ever.
People will drive by the steel skeleton of the Apple building in California, rusting in the bright sun, and wonder what it was for. If they are curious, they can try Googling it, or asking Siri. Maybe they'll be more focused on survival at that point, what with the genetically engineered zombies and the Hollywood stars who have been upgraded to vampire status.

And what will happen to the money? Apple has cash on hand that could almost keep the U.S. government running for a few weeks. Consultants, shareholders, vendors, and corrupt management will siphon it off over the years. The iPhone 10 will be a complete flop--the design team will have gone retro and made the thing seven pounds with a coal burning generator and a touchy self-destruct mechanism. But people won't buy it because it only comes in two colors. So sad.