ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, November 28, 2013

considering dan kiley

As a rule, I have more respect for landscape architects than building architects. Dan Kiley, who has a photo retrospective in the BAC gallery, stands on a higher plane than all the modernist American architects. He makes modernism look good. I'm not entirely sold on the hardscape elements, and some of his open spaces look a little authoritarian. His compositions are complete, no matter the setting, so I can't criticize minor details in good faith.

Bad landscape architecture seems to be exclusively modern. There is a lot of fussy pre-modern stuff, but it's never offensive or miserable. The Christian Science center is almost okay, until you try to spend some time in it. The fountain looks pretty when it is turned on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

the perils of false pattern recognition bias

I like to think that I understand Nate Silver, but my tiny primate brain still wants to believe certain things that are probably not true. For example, the graph above proves that it is impossible to claim that there is any sort of solid pattern to homebuilding in the U.S. In general, housing starts match population growth, but the complex interaction of interest rates, inflation, politics, and demographics create a natural volatility. No single factor can explain what can or should happen over the next decade. I'm tempted to say that there was less volatility prior to 1970, but if we were to extend this graph back to the 1930's we would see some real wildness.

Could there be a way to smooth this out? Could there be a way to make things more stable? Is that the dark cry of the Marxist? More on this later, maybe.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

the perils of a classical education

I misled some of my students last night. So it goes. They need to discover at some point in time that their instructors are flawed and confused about certain things. I wonder if I discussed the subject of "unlearning" on this blog before. It is more difficult than learning, because accumulation of knowledge is quite easy for humans. But, like cleaning out an attic, it's hard to get rid of false beliefs, or subtly change the perception of a complex idea. Grasping a simple truth that flies against convention is even more challenging. And, that simple truth can in turn be upended when new information is revealed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

when a wall is not a wall it is still a wall

It is a general rule of thumb in architecture that a wall is perpendicular to the surface of the planet. This principle holds for most buildings, but some architects like to push the envelope (literal pun there) and generate spaces that are defined by tilted enclosures. There's nothing wrong with this, but examples tend to be rare.

From the perspective of building scientists, the orientation of any surface of a structure is merely one condition that impacts performance in relation to water, air, light, sound, and construction technique. A wall can be a roof or a floor, as long as all of these forces are accounted for.

I tend to prefer vertical walls. If a wall tilts out, I think of it as a wall, but if it tilts in, I think of it as a roof. On that note: window sills are roofs.

Friday, November 22, 2013

leaves of glass

Was Walt Whitman a fraud? He has proved his use in popular culture (I have Breaking Bad on my mind at the moment), but as a literary figure I don't think he is going to demonstrate the longevity of Poe or Stephen Crane. Wait, maybe Stephen Crane has been forgotten outside high school English classes.

Whitman will certainly be remembered as a free-verse visionary, but I regard his work as overly sentimental, naive, and shallow. Despair and love have been more thoroughly examined by more talented writers. Imagery from Toni Morrison still haunts me, and how can we greet the dawn but with rose red fingers?

I still own a copy of Leaves of Grass. I'm not sure what book shelf if it is on.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

debacles and calamities

The website does not mark a high point in the world history of IT or planning, but opponents of the Affordable Care Act are fighting a fairly hopeless rearguard action against a force they do not understand. The media is having good fun with it, but no one seems to be remembering an essential rule of large projects: it doesn't matter if it is a good idea, it doesn't matter if it is poorly executed, it doesn't matter if it is underfunded at conception--it only matters that it starts and that the public is aware of it. One term for this is "stake-driving" and Robert Moses understood it. Steve Jobs understood it. Jesus Christ and his apostles understood it.

Which brings up another point I want to make about principles of management. The phrase "you can't manage what you can't measure" is bandied about as if it were some great Truth. However, measurement doesn't imply numbers. Numbers are helpful when it comes to assessing accuracy, but accuracy may not be achieved after a considerable period of time, at which point an opportunity will be lost. A good manager should make a rough calculation of risks, determine if a course of action can disrupt current trends, and act. Or not act. Not having all available data is a condition of living in this universe. It might rain on Saturday, but Sunday looks clear, so therefore, we will plan our trip for Sunday.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

origins of the malaise

It would have to be the architecture schools. And I am a willing participant in the perpetuation of those myths and delusions. I am on quicksand here--for I threaten a portion of my existence by daring to criticize the methods of an educational process that churns out the foot soldiers of the design profession. And it is that word "criticize" that sums up so many of the problems of the academy. For it is criticism, not performance of the design, that is held to the highest standard. It is the assumption of the major players that "critical thinking" is more valuable than knowledge. But critical thinking about what? The spatial experience is a deeply subjective thing, so the student must graft on a set of reasons, pulled from abstract sources, that are used to justify the curve of a wall, the shape of a roof, the use of a particular material. It invests the studio experience with a sense of wonder, which is a counterpoint to the real world experience:

"And now, for the door and hardware schedule...."

The student bursts into tears.

Monday, November 18, 2013

images of the ideal

I wonder if there is anything unique about American architecture. It could be argued that our relatively short history as a nation hasn't allowed for a cultural identity to form in the built environment. But what of the skyscrapers? And H.H. Richardson? And Frank Lloyd Wright? Surely those stand out as original? Yes, they do, but their influence on our day to day existence is minor. The American experience is of the single family home, the mythology of self-reliance on a quarter acre lot with electricity from the nearest nuclear power plant and smooth roads to drive your Buick down on Sunday afternoons.

Why would this paradise breed such malaise?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

indifference and frustration

Would it be fair to characterize Americans as nostalgic realists? Or would that imply a level of sophistication and introspection that is a projection of my own sense of nostalgia? Did I have a golden age? Do I look back on some period and regard it better than now? I remember a brief period of cheap gasoline when Clinton was president, and I remember all the frustration of youth. The age of mobility has been compromised by a gradual increase in energy costs, and the next generation has to be more careful with choices. And in that regard, the hope of the future is that it is still distinguished by choices--so different from the harsh choice of so many humans past and present--die of violence or die of hunger.

For the modern architect, the overwhelming number of choices--whether in the realm of material selections or design philosophy--is handled in a thoroughly brutal manner. Simply put, most choices are not even considered as worthwhile. Methods that worked in the past are put to use on future projects with minor revisions. Materials and construction systems are dictated by convention and economy. Experimentation is praised, but only for exceptional circumstances and with a whiff of disdain as much as admiration. It is only by setting clear boundaries that the architect can accomplish any work at all, much less survive long enough to find the next job.

What seems odd, is that architects appear frustrated, and are quick to claim to be frustrated by clients, budgets, shoddy contractors, poorly educated staff, and volatile economic situations. The show goes on, and the struggle between indifference and frustration plays itself out in venues like schools and magazines. And blogs, oh yes, for what is this place but a platform of grievances?

Royal Barry Wills seems to have been better at concealing his frustrations.

Friday, November 15, 2013

they built that deliberately

A book I'm reading about U.S. housing mentioned that Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill was a planned development. This shouldn't have surprised me because all the claims that are made about "organic" architecture tend to fall apart when a thorough investigation is made that reveals the motives of the original builders. A place like this was made for the wealthy, and due to very deliberate design decisions it has remained that way for nearly 200 years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

a monkey in my salad

Never mind all my cynicism and the miserable ramblings on this blog--this is a picture of Architecture. (specifically, the auditorium of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center designed by Zaha Hadid--who manages to outdo Saarinen at the drop of a hat)

We now return to our original program, featuring Las Vegas bashing (with content from special guest correspondent E. Jones) and thoughtful commentary on the Boston Redevelopment Authority by Edward Glaeser.

Las Vegas figures large in cultural and architectural imagination, but in the final assessment, it is a sad place. Its romance is derived from its tendency towards extremes--desperation and optimism, garish beauty and horrific ugliness, the falsehood of its promises and the brutal honesty of the motives of the casino business.
I embrace these seeming contradictions. If was invited to Las Vegas, I would jump at the chance to go there, but I would not plan a holiday there for any reason. Like other people who have been there, I would return with some stories, but none of them would be memorable or original.

Ed Glaeser had a good piece in the Globe this morning. He urged the incoming mayor to be cautious with tampering with the role of the BRA. Efforts to curb development by restructuring the organization would have the unfortunate impact of.........wait for it.......curbs on development, and a subsequent deterioration of Boston.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

second thoughts and third thoughts

The bid for an Olympics in Boston could help the region have a serious discussion about infrastructure improvements and housing development. I had made earlier comments that Boston didn't have the resources to support the Games, but in terms of overall population  of the Metro area we are similar to Athens, Houston, and Atlanta. Financially, the region could support the Games, and build to suit for the primary events. In some respects, I think Boston is better suited than New York City.

I would be worried about the form and location of the Olympic Village. Security concerns could create architecture that would be hard to adapt to future use. And again, where would we put it?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

they built a fire on main street

The Olymipic Village complex in Montreal designed by D'Astous and Durand. Interesting bit of architecture, which reminded me of some of Safdie's work.

Anyway, some more thoughts on a potential Boston Olympiad, and why my skepticism remains deep. Mitt Romney is one of the poo-bahs associated with the exploratory committee, and while his experience with Salt Lake City is notable, it does not make him qualified to make long term plans for a city as old and unusual as Boston. Romney specialized in short term thinking during his business career, and while he might prove capable of organizing a three week party in a city, and even help with some of the negotiations for the construction projects, his mind is not geared for thinking deeply about city planning. Granted, I have issues with "planning" as it applies to human settlement, but like the current spectacle of Casino plans in the state demonstrate, the success of highly concentrated projects distracts attention from more critical issues like demographics, income equality, industrial diversity, and environmental impact.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

more performance anxiety

Spruce Lake Perfomance Center in Stowe Vermont.

How do we kill Barabas on this stage?

the misinformed and the insane

Front page article in the Boston Globe on efforts to get the Summer Olympics for 2024. I've commented on this in the past, and even though I haven't read the article yet, I still think it's a crazy idea. In order for Boston to host the Games the following criteria would have to be met:

1. Hotel occupancy doubled
2. Public Transportation capacity expanded by 30% or more
3. Area for Olympic Village and Arenas to be established in a central location
4. Post occupancy plans for #3 thoroughly vetted for plausibility
5. Good weather

Boston has proven incapable of completing any major urban project in less than 25 years, so it is doubtful that a credible bid could be mounted by 2024. But even if we set our sights on 2036 or later, how could the region absorb the development cost hangover? Who would benefit in the long term?

It should be held in Dallas. Or Houston.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

how much is a pascal anyway

My insulation contractor is unhappy because my house is doing lousy on the blower door test. So it goes. He'll try again in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, this is fascinating:

Vehicle Miles Travelled has been trending downward for the first time in decades--largely due to the Great Recession, but Levinson argues that there are structural changes that will create even more downward pressure on individual car trips. He doesn't cite public transportation--mainly because it is statistically minor, but I like to believe that improved bus service and increased rail service will eventually play a positive role.

I wonder if self-driving cars could have an upward pressure on VMT--people who can't or won't drive will suddenly be able to order a car to take them places instead of waiting for the robotic bus.

it takes an architect 40 years to learn almost nothing

Since towers of ilium has neglected pictures for the last several posts we would like to have a double graphic feature for Thursday. This will not be repeated frequently. The images above are of the Twin Parks housing complex in New York. Typical, low income modernism that people have learned to be indifferent about. The buildings are stacks of double loaded corridors. The staircases and columns represent the heights of design ecstasy. Note how considerate the people are--they leave it empty so the architectural photography is pristine and uncluttered.

Public housing has always been one of the Ur-texts of modernism. Architects regard it as a great social responsibility, but they never really bother to listen to the users, and even if they did, there isn't enough money to do things properly in most cases. And what little money there is often gets spent on design gestures that do little good and frequent harm.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

noam chomsky is wrong

In a recent interview in Salon Noam Chomsky held forth on a variety of topics, including the recent housing bubble and the creation of American suburbs. Although Chomsky gave credit to Dean Baker for calling out the housing bubble while most economists were prostrating themselves before Wall Street and Alan Greenspan, he went astray when he discussed how the American suburbs came into being. He cites the post war era as the break-out period for American suburbs, and while the volume of housing starts during the period is staggering, the essential geometry of low density residential development had been worked out by the end of the 19th century. He also cites the conspiracy of GM to get rid of electric streetcars--which I am skeptical of because Boston still has electric streetcars and they are just as crummy a form of mass transit now as they were a hundred years ago.

Also, Chomsky states that he lives in a suburb "by choice" and by implication, condemns the choices of most other American families to coercion on the part of governments and corporations. I suppose that is partly correct, but he went along with the coercion by choice. I'm going to go admire my vinyl siding now.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

the bbc would like to apologize again

Towers of Ilium tends to be repetitive. The major themes on the blog are as follows:
-What is suburbia?
-What are the limits of the resources of the planet?
-What is the role of the architect in those things?
-Skepticism of the role architects play in worldly affairs
-Occasional commentary and criticism of modern architecture

I wrote the above approximately two years ago. Since then, this blog has become more diversified and sophisticated. We continue to leverage critical synergies with a broad array of stakeholders to improve user experience and maximize technological innovation. 

We also resist the use of jargon, cliche, catchphrases, and pop culture references. 

Last night I spread the gospel of the Building Science Corporation to a class of BAC students. I have a project at work that is testing my knowledge of building codes and systems. The critical question is this: Will I seek out the right type of help soon enough and will the client be able to afford comprehensive design services?

Monday, November 4, 2013

the reliability of memory

I'm trying to remember why I took this photograph. I think it was because the view in real life was much better--a tree lined street in a classic Boston neighborhood, or something like that.

I'm wondering if we're going to have any new revelations in Building Science over the next few decades. So many of the essential problems were solved back in the 1960's (and then forgotten for many years) that I can't help but think that we've got it all figured out. More has to be done to educate architects and mechanical engineers. We're past the days of 400 s.f. a ton.

Friday, November 1, 2013

the start of another winter of discontent

Actually, it is about 70 degrees in Boston this morning. Some warm, wet wind from a more favorable climate is blowing down our aged streets. Somewhere, a queen is weeping, somewhere, a king..... wait, I'm getting all mixed up here. I was going to try for a more professional sounding blog this month and I've already ruined it.

Maybe I should post a picture, but nothing is grabbing at me this morning. I'm wondering about the value of old books. They serve as an insight into the past, but they aren't entirely reliable because they represent a narrow point of view. I should spend some time considering nostalgia and architecture, especially since it is a topic that is so close to home. The United States uses nostalgia more deviously than any other nation. We have alternative histories like any culture, but we also have the ability to create future states, particularly in architecture, that are branded as "classic" or "timeless."  We undertake this delusional task with such enthusiasm that it distinguishes us from the rest of the world. The Chinese employ different methods in that they have no reluctance in copying other styles, but I sense that their actions are less naive and more deliberate. Then again, I can't speak for all Chinese--they are as fraudulent as any human group that seeks to forge an identity based on a common narrative.