ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

why people move to colorado

And other places in the American West.

Since we moved to a new office I've discovered how my morning commute has shifted in subtle ways. Although we are only two city blocks away from the old location I find that I know longer take the same walking routes to and from the train stations I use. If I want, I can walk through Chinatown without feeling like I'm going out of my way. When good weather comes again I may switch back to my old route because it brings me through more green spaces.

Monday, December 30, 2013

functional and attractive

Wood shutters are an interesting architectural product. In contemporary houses they are value engineered into oblivion in some circumstances. If used, they are installed incorrectly. They are actually solar shading devices--not something that helps protect windows during storms (usually).

Closed shutters make a house look a bit foreboding.

A new year is coming. I should be working on my prediction list. Or decorating my office. I don't have any of my work pinned up anywhere.

Friday, December 27, 2013

large building syndrome

I'm reading a book about Comic Con right now and it has me thinking about convention center design. I don't think I've ever been inside the main hall of any modern convention center building. I attended a seminar at the Boston Convention Center, but not in the main hall. Architects refer to them as "black boxes" because they create a complete sensory experience that makes the outside world seem like a distant memory. This psychological independence is an illusion that becomes all the more ironic when we consider the massive support infrastructure needed for a Convention Center. We call this support system a "city."

Incidentally, the Boston Convention Center is smaller.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The movie "Elysium" makes list of architectural movies

Okay, I had trouble finding images of the urban landscapes used in the film. I guess Google images is more interested in the prettier images of the space station than the misery of Earth.

In any event, the movie isn't very good as a story, but its visual imagery puts it on my list of films where the architecture plays a primary character role. I couldn't help but notice that the preferred architecture of Elysium seems to be Southern California/Eastern Florida resort style. Spanish revival/eclectic with large yards and palm trees.

No one considers New England to be paradise.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 predictions revisited

Okay, here's what I said about a year ago:

1. The American economy will muddle along, despite any idiocy in Washington, Europe, or Asia. The Massachusetts economy will do slightly better than expected (this is a high risk prediction...I may eat crow by the end of the year, or sooner).

2. Things will get worse in Egypt, Syria, and Israel. Worse how? does it matter? worse always for ordinary people.

3. Things will get worse in some parts of Europe--Spain, Greece, Italy, Britain.

4. Energy prices will increase slightly, but not enough to really impact economic growth trends. The shale gas and oil boom will fade a bit. I should insulate my attic.

5. No meaningful action will occur on gun control.

6. Architecture will get more conservative. We've entered an age of maturity and relative sobriety in design. No major revolutions in building technology will occur. The "wired" (or wireless) building will not gain traction. If we're smart, energy efficiency performance of enclosures will improve, at least in the U.S. We might start to catch up to Europe.

And, my analysis:

#1. Mostly right. Massachusetts isn't is doing as well as it should be doing. So it goes.

#2. Mostly right.

#3. Mostly wrong. Things are still flatlined, but not that worse from what I've been reading.

#4. Mostly wrong.  Energy costs are flat. I got my attic insulated, but I won't know the effects until the end of the heating season.

#5. That was an easy one. If anything, we've slid backwards.

#6. Too soon to tell.

very late in the day monday blogging

Some buildings. Some lawn. A hedge-row. A sidewalk. A street. All the elements of urban landscaping are shown here. Is it helpful to know that this is in the Northeast? New York City specifically? I'm still trying to figure out if there's something noteworthy here. Towers of Ilium always has a comment, but maybe this sublime image of the built environment is beyond criticism.

Or, maybe I'm being lazy. What I should do is go back to the predictions I made for 2013 and come up with some sort of spin that makes it seem like I knew what I was talking and writing about.

Friday, December 20, 2013


I predict that the current Ikea business model will fail in the next 4 decades. I present the following argument:

-A Chinese competitor will engage them in a price war and poach  market share in emerging markets
-People will get sick of the lousy quality of most of their products (but won't mind the lower prices of the competition for the same junk)
-Their physical plant, particularly stores, will deteriorate and will not be refurbished aggressively enough to attract new customers
-Their products will become stylistically obsolete
-Their management will become complacent, corrupt, and useless

In other words, Ikea will end up like Sears, Bradlee's, Howard Johnson's, Packard, etc....


My post title has absolutely nothing to do with the post topic. Towers of Ilium apologizes for the lack of consistency.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

it looked best just before the end

A client sent me this picture as an inspiration. He's candid enough to admit that he likes the aspects of decay and dilapidation.

Everything I design will one day end up in a landfill, or be consumed in flames. I find comfort in this. Only yesterday I threw away some sketches I had done for a project twelve years ago. Who am I to judge my work as worth saving? Good art gets saved because it gets lucky. If we stop to ponder what has been lost over the ages we should be filled with a sense of hope and joy. Someday, someone may come up with something similar and we can enjoy that creation for its novelty without the burden of comparing it to some dusty relic.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

defining architectural service

A client commented that they expect to receive a "final and complete design" and would not pay their bill until we delivered on this.

There is no "final and complete design" in architecture--or any artistic or technical process. The design is a fluid and always incomplete description of a future state. Certain arbitrary milestones, which are reached by consensus or fiat, signify a temporary state of completion, but finality should never the be objective. Even the endpoint of a construction or assembly period should be used as an opportunity to make a critical commentary on the success of the design.

Something on paper means nothing if it doesn't reach the right person.

Monday, December 16, 2013

meanwhile, back in middle earth

Just saw the second installment of the Hobbit movie today and I'm a bit grumpy. While I appreciate the effort that goes into the visual effects of today's movies, I'm getting irritated by the insanity of the architecture. There's no logic to how the buildings go together--everything is just a profusion of staircases, towers, and deep pits that orcs are constantly falling into. The sets don't seem to advance the story, they just exist to serve as backdrops for elaborate, drawn out fight scenes.

I know that towers of ilium is old-fashioned, but many modern movies would be better served by less computerized clutter. The Avengers movie did a decent job of using the sets as a framing device for the storyline. The Lord of the Rings also did a good job with its sets--grand halls, simple halls, evil towers, the lovely warmth of Bag End, and a structural realism that helped the characters instead of getting in the way.

another question

On his blog Boing Boing Cory Doctorow mentioned in passing that he thought that architecture peaked in the 1920's. He happened to be linking to James Kunstler's blog "Eyesore of the Month."

I'm still trying to formulate a response to that claim, partly because I agree with it, and partly because I'm irritated with the proposition of such a question. 16th century English drama and poetry peaked with Shakespeare--full stop. Jazz age architecture peaked with the Chrysler Building.

People like Doctorow and Kunstler tend to look at the stylistic elements of buildings. They sense in modernism, and its descendants, the decline of concern in designers for visual delight. What they don't acknowledge is the increasing complexity of building function and the often vicious economic pressures at all levels of construction services.

Friday, December 13, 2013

the performance of memory

This image is a good example of the limitations of architectural photography. If things go according to plan I'll be having a cultural experience here tonight. Sometimes things go to plan, but they rarely go exactly to plan.

I've been thinking a lot about office space lately. I wish that I had put more thought into that subject several months ago. But, as I noted above, things don't always go exactly to plan. The space I need for a computer, some useful odds and ends, inspirational artwork, and random junk is quite limited. But, my experience of an office is governed by the total work environment. My productivity depends on good architecture, but it doesn't suffer if things aren't quite perfect.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

where christmas comes from

As the boys say, Santa can go F*@# himself. Amazon runs Christmas now. Hub distribution warehouses, along with data centers, are the critical architecture of the wired age. We should remind ourselves that modern technology needs large, generic buildings with good vehicle access, staffed by underpaid people who are treated like shit. The Nation had a pretty good article on this recently.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the crossfit bubble

While I am intrigued by the Crossfit phenomenon, I doubt I would ever joing such a gym. In general, I think they are positive force in the fitness industry. They have more credibility than the Nautilus/Cardio/Toning/Pilates outfits (it's unfair of me to lump those disparate exercise systems together, but towers of ilium is not about fairness). As an architect and a weightlifter, I appreciate the aesthetic quality of their gyms.

But, I think there is a Crossfit bubble developing. Eventually, some of these franchises will fold and the financial underpinnings of the system will face contraction. Injuries will generate negative feedback and potential lawsuits, and fickle consumers will embrace some new fad. I think the "Crossfit" model can survive by diversifying and creating more exercise and training protocols. In essence, they can follow the dictum of Dan John that he applied to training methodologies: "Everything works for two weeks, but nothing works for more than six weeks."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

the furniture edition of towers of ilium

I have two glaring deficiencies in my design education and knowledge base: HVAC and furniture. I am aware of HVAC design in a general sense, but I need to find some opportunity to do actual layouts--maybe even calcs. Furniture is a whole other bogeyman. Architects think they know about furniture, but we're actually quite dim. All generations are littered with building design that doesn't consider furniture. Worse, when architects design furniture they do it in complete ignorance of the human body. Granted, for many centuries there was not much in the way of true knowledge of ergonomics, but Architects saw fit to disregard common sense in search of some lofty concept. 

I feel comfortable at the chair I am sitting in now. Maybe I'm deluding myself.

Monday, December 9, 2013

the value of unexceptional places

This has been my office for the past 7 years. Prior to having this as my exclusive domain I had a desk out in the drafting room for about 5 years. The building my firm has been in for 47 years has been sold and we're moving a few blocks over. Adieu Newbury Street.

This space has always been this shabby and messy looking. I'm sitting at the computer right now. There are pieces of foam core over the window to block out the glare and the view westward down Newbury Street. The desks and drawers are built in. The flooring is vinyl asbestos tile. I have various decorations, but nothing sophisticated. It is, in nearly all respects, a luxurious and commodious space.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

the glory and joy of home ownership

A client had a good rejoinder to a claim I made last week at a project meeting. When I was asked about a certain door layout decision, I said: "We've done it before." He replied: "Yes, but that doesn't mean it was a good idea." And, now back to the original programming:

The purchase of a dwelling creates a powerful, and often subtle change of mindset. Where a renter can feel isolated from decisions about the layout and character of a living space, a homeowner operates in an environment of long term responsibility. Even the regularity of monthly payments takes on a different meaning. A renter simply sends money somewhere and doesn't worry about things for another thirty days. A homeowner sends money somewhere and worries about things for another thirty years.

But, in general, the homeowner doesn't have to operate in an atmosphere of panic, or feel burdened by the countless decisions that could consume all the freedoms and privileges of a house. Rather, the homeowner gets to eliminate a layer of bureaucracy and communication in the context of repairs, improvements, and maintenance. All architectural problems associated with a house can be resolved with money and labor. There is no need to negotiate or consult with a landlord or the associated minions of property management companies. Also, with the exception of fire, no repair has to be conducted immediately.

Friday, December 6, 2013

relatively easy fascism

I'm considering adding the Hunger Games series to my list of architectural movies. I'm particularly struck by the portrayal of the Capital City. It does a good job of being surreal and familiar. The CGI isn't over the top and I get the sense of restraint displayed by the visual team that put it together.

Fascist architecture is most often associated with Albert Speer, but he was merely channeling the dominant themes of his day and rendering it in a manner that taps into the uncanny. His work cannot be viewed separately from his client, even for the purposes of intellectual discussion.

Meanwhile, they're remaking Robocop, and towers of ilium is not pleased by that. We can expect 60 million dollars of computer generated stunts and gunfights. Probably flying cars. The visceral power of the original cannot be repeated by the formulaic producers of contemporary Hollywood.

I'm wondering if the corporate modernism of the 50's, 60's, and 70's--which I thoroughly despise--was an accurate reflection of the prosperity of the nation. It feels like an aberration. The real story is in single family housing and the suburbanization of the country. 57 million houses and the thousands of miles of roads connecting them seems more important than the steel and concrete idiocy created by Rudolph, Kallman McKinnel, TAC, Ben Thompson, and others.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

it was a nice idea

Something I designed--a theater in steel framed industrial building somewhere in Massachusetts. It won't get built, but I don't regret the experience. I hope a check is in the mail.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

the continuing saga of rafi segal

I wonder if anything I post on this blog will come back to haunt me. Efforts at self-promotion, the exercise of free speech, and lunatic ravings are all worthwhile ventures--especially in the age of the internet.

So, Bing Wang wrote a response to Michael Sorkin's article in the May 2013 Nation in which she points out that Segal was disqualifid from the National Library competition because he misrepresented the level of his collaboration with Wang's firm, Hyperbina. Given that all architectural competitions are corrupted by subjectivity I don't hold anything against Segal. I also think that Wang is being vindictive. She is not the wronged party in this affair, and her collaboration with Segal was bungled more by her than by him. All architecture is collaborative and we only assign authorship because we have a humanistic bias towards the mythology of individual creation.

(add. typo corrected)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

while riding on a train heading west

I paused on my walk to the office this morning to observe the progress of demolition at a building site in Chinatown. I had been expecting this move for over a year based on the status of construction  of the new building adjacent to it, but I will admit that I was still surprised. Demolition thwarts our perception of the permanence of buildings. It also forces us to consider that the association between age and quality is quite subjective. An old building may have an abundance of poor attributes, but it can persist for generations because the justification for tearing it down didn't exist. Also, I have learned the hard way that the cost of renovation often exceeds the cost of new construction, and more importantly, does not guarantee the improvements in function that can be achieved with a new design.

We persist in renovating older structures for reasons of nostalgia and short term economy. All forms of repair work are more expensive in the context of existing conditions. However, the repairs and upgrades do not have to be undertaken all at once, nor do they need to be done correctly. This last point is frustrating but it is the reality of modern building operations and architectural services. We do not build for all time--only for a few years.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

better than vinyl siding

This is what the BAC building on 320 Newbury Street could look like--a double skin glazing system over the existing concrete exterior. In many respects, it is an obvious solution to a very visible problem. What is curious is that the current building is probably protected by the Back Bay Historic District Commission. I wonder how they would respond to something like this.

This was designed and rendered by a student I have been working with. I hope she gets a chance to work on a project like this someday.