ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, October 31, 2013

the intersections of social responsibility

Well, I lost a dollar. That was front page news, along with an article about the developer of the Fenway Center Project requesting 7.8 million dollars in tax breaks from the city of Boston for his air rights project over the Mass Turnpike. Whenever I read about tax breaks being granted to a private business I get an immediate surge of irritation--a libertarian/primate revulsion towards a wealthy person getting a handout. Upon reflection, I think tax breaks for this project are justified, and not just because the city will recoup the money more than ten times over. The MassPike was a social investment that also had a detrimental impact on the social fabric of the community. It is fitting that there be a social investment in the repair and remediation of the original project.

And, 7.8 million dollars is pocket change--not enough to buy a good pitcher for the Sox.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

picture tuesday

Okay. I recently based a $1 bet on the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. I might have to pay up after Wednesday. I expect the Fenway Park crowd to be hostile and aggressive that evening.

Meanwhile, in architecture news I'm going through my first HERS rating for a new house. It's a process I feel I should know more about, but, I let myself get complacent. From what I've learned so far, I'm still a bit skeptical of the process, but I think it has a good philosophical foundation. My main objection is that it evaluates a house as a unit, as opposed to evaluating a weighted unit area. As a consequence, a large house can appear more efficient than a smaller house. Passive House also suffers from this approach.

Tomorrow's blog will be easier to understand.

Monday, October 28, 2013

the idea of the machine

These things did not prove to be the breakthrough that some people hoped they would be. It's a nice idea for places like California or Florida. And it's nice if you don't have to carry anything like groceries or children, but it ain't no car.

I'm not bold enough to think of something like this, and I like to believe that I would never participate in a venture that invested considerable resources in an unproven idea. Innovation is mostly failure, but in order for social progress to happen, failed innovations have to, well, fail.

Friday, October 25, 2013

frustration (part of the series)

Based on what I've been taught about architectural history, the concept of "crisis" didn't exist until the early twentieth century. Prior to modernism, architects competed against each other, but they did not attempt to foment revolutions or declare stylistic approaches criminal or foolish. The continuity and consistency of style that was expressed at the Exposition of 1893 in Chicago can be regarded as a high point of agreement on aesthetics. The legacy of that attitude, and of the conservative eclecticism of the 19th century, can be seen in the finest neighborhoods of towns and cities across the country.

Modernism killed the historical approach towards architectural design. Novelty became prized ahead of craft. The Art Deco represented a bright period of compromise, but at the end of the day, the glass and concrete box became the symbol of the new industrial state. The single family home was relegated to the domain of the developer/builder.

The modernists created a war out of nothing, that served no purpose except to alienate users and spawn a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions in the academic institutions. Modernism begat Brutalism, which begat Post-Modrnism and Deconstructivism. Maybe things have come full circle in that no one can lay claim to a predominate style at the moment, but what is clear to me, and what is the source of my frustration--and in no small part, the purpose for towers of ilium--is that architects cannot communicate the idea of beauty to regular people.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

the big data architecture smart city thing job quest

An unflattering picture of a part of Masdar City. I suppose it will make an interesting ruin someday.

I just remembered that I was supposed to be working on a book about architecture. My editor has been remiss in not hounding me for material. I may have to return my advance (wait-- I drank that beer).

I've read in a few places about the concept of Big Data--which I loosely interpret as a future state, which is already built in some places like Google and Netflix, where computer algorithms make basic life tasks more efficient and fulfilling. I'm optimistic about Big Data because I think it will be essential to the operation of self-driving cars. I'm also not that worried about nefarious organizations like the NSA, the Chinese government, or international terrorists corrupting such large systems. I think that the good people will outnumber the bad people and the level of mischief will be about the same as it always has been in modern society. (Note towers of ilium disclaimer about future predictions).

As applied to architecture and urban planning, I have some skepticism. Design is an emotional endeavor, and the management of large cities is often like efforts to control climate systems or plate tectonics.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

a good season

Apples are doing particularly well in the northeast this year. Last year was a near disaster for orchards, but the pendulum swings. Maybe next year will be average. I've read that climate change will eventually wreck the maple syrup operations in New England. Hopefully, Canada will pick up the slack.

Over the next 100 hundred years the adaptation of humanity to a warming planet will make for some real horror. Those who are struggling now will certainly be struggling more. Coastal architecture will have to be evaluated carefully. The hard terms of insurance companies may force abandonment of settlements in a few critical areas.

As always, towers of ilium will certainly be wrong in the prediction market.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Louis Kahn could do architecture. But, I've never read or heard much about how his buildings have performed over time. Students probably still love his library at Philips Exeter--and I'm sure it has inspired some to try their hand at architecture. I never heard of Kahn until deep into college.

Looking at this building, I'm seeing how the work  of Charles Moore, Michael Graves, and Robert Venturi can seem pale and flat. Kahn never went for irony--he took everything he did seriously. We will return to him in a hundred years.

Monday, October 21, 2013


I've been thinking about theatre seating a lot lately. Curved is better, but straight is simpler. If it is a small space then straight is fine, but at what number of seats should we start curving? And, how many rows of seats can be on the flat part in front of the stage if the stage isn't raised? These questions have a mathematical solution, but viewer comfort and expectations still lend the analysis a subjective slant. At least, that's what I think.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

on democracy

I don't have a good alternative to the way governance is conducted throughout the U.S., but I can think of some ways to improve the process.

-Put a shelf life on laws when they are enacted.
-Maintain meeting schedules
-Use electronic communication more aggressively
-Have technical review and explanatory organizations
-Remove power from uninformed constituents
-Have more public financing
-Have fewer boards

Oh well. It's nice to think about things like this.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

the end of litter

Despite the idea of "cradle to cradle" product design, humans will continue to excel at making trash. I am a particularly profligate trash producer--I read not one, but two, printed newspapers each morning. The one I read on the train is in my possession for less than an hour. I always make a point of throwing out the loose advertising flyers included in my papers.

Someday, this might all change. I should be getting all my media content on a computer anyway. Speaking of which, I have to throw out an old computer tomorrow. Because it contains toxic materials, I have to call for a special pickup. Is there an app for that?

I decided not to clutter up the blog post today with a superfluous graphic.

Monday, October 14, 2013

the discretionary home

The fact that this image did not load properly is actually appropriate for today's post.

A recent incident with the smoke alarms in my house made me aware of one of the most important qualities of residential architecture--perhaps the most important quality: Passive Reliability. Fundamentally, the critical components of a house that make it essential to survival do not rely on moving parts. Foundations, Roofs, Walls, Windows, and Doors are all static systems from the perspective of the occupant. Doors and Windows, if they are operable, move under use control and the energy input for use is minimal.

Modern houses contain a variety of mechanical devices--namely heating/cooling systems and electricity--that are also under user control. Both these systems are miraculous and reflect deep technological investments of multiple generations, and their impact on the maintenance of comfort exceeds the labor of an army of servants. They are discrete, fairly reliable, and surprisingly cheap to maintain and operate (but for how much longer?)

The electronic excitement of our internet age makes the experience of a home that is quiet, warm, and dry  a wonderful experience. Many people feel enslaved by their smart phones and social media constructs, so the brief joy and solitude of hearing your front door close behind you at the end of a day is of profound importance.

Friday, October 11, 2013

machine age

This is a deceptively simple piece of machinery. Some people would say it is only one part of a system of a more complex machine, but I think it has enough stand alone qualities to be placed on the same shelf as a Boeing airplane. I have no idea how it is put together. I have a conceptual knowledge of how it works, but if tasked to design and build something like it, I could spend a lifetime and not match it or improve on it.

And like all things metal made by the hand of humans, it will deteriorate and become rubbish with a marginal scrap value.

I can't justify the expense of this piece of machinery for my personal use, but I appreciate its quality.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

methods of accuracy

This sublime image is of a tar and gravel roof.

My question for the day is this: Where should the most effort be expended---preventing errors, or establishing a system for fixing errors at all points in a  process? Error prevention is preferable from the perspective of a person who is a victim of a preventable error, but it implies a perfect world with perfect operators. Also, what about the errors that don't manifest for a long period of time? How can a prevention system be established without constantly analyzing what is going on?

I favor a revision heavy approach to design and construction. You can't know what could go wrong until you start doing something.

Today, I will be asked to address at least three errors that I bear responsibility for.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

meanwhile, in gonic new hampshire

I was just told that the Vermont Brick company has gone out of business. Vermont Brick was, in some respects,  the successor to the Kane-Gonic Brick company, that was based in Rochester New Hampshire. It is tough to be a small scale brick manufacturer.

Here is a picture of Rochester New Hampshire.

Monday, October 7, 2013

government shutdown curtails pictures on this blog

Okay. I'm curious about what's going through the minds of some of the people in Washington D.C. right now. I'd love to get the input of a game theorist, and I'm sure that some cursory web searching could turn up some analysis. One of the larger issues here has to do with risk taking. Humans love to take risks, and the majority of us demonstrate a poor grasp of the odds of success and failure. The politicians in Washington, most notably, the Tea Party representatives, are making a big gamble. However, they will not suffer real, personal  consequences should their venture fail.

This plays out in many aspects of our society. Fund managers get to gamble with other people's money. They are rewarded for bad decisions and good ones. Architects gamble with a client's money, but the failures can be safely contained in piles of paper. Built failures test people's patience and capacity for adaptation--but only for a little while.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Did I spell that right? Too lazy and busy to check this morning.

I painted myself into a corner yesterday. Actually, how could anyone be dumb enough to do that?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

more interesting times

Towers of Ilium occasionally makes loud, poorly reasoned claims. Actually, towers of ilium frequently does that, but a focus on journalistic integrity and philosophical consistency was never a high priority. In that regard we are like the rest of American Media.

The current events in the Republican controlled House of Representatives are not good at all. If things get worse, certain Tea Party legislators will find that their fundraising prospects will be diminished. Furthermore, their constituents--more than a handful dependent on Medicare and other benefits of government--may decide that the warmth of ideological purity are outweighed by continued membership in a civilized society.

We'll see. At the moment, towers of ilium is somewhat concerned about immediate economic prospects and fallout.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

the unreliability of memory

I've probably driven by this building more than a hundred times over the past twelve years, but if you had asked me yesterday to locate it on a map I would have blanked out. I don't think I'm suffering from memory failure, yet. The issue is that buildings that are memorable can slip from our understanding. Now, this isn't the most memorable building, but it is more unique than the local CVS drugstore. If every CVS were to be torn down overnight, people would be puzzled more than outraged. "Did they even exist?" we would all ask, before shrugging our shoulders and walking into the nearest Walgreens.

This is the Masonic Temple Building downtown Quincy. It was badly damaged in a fire on Monday. No sprinklers.