ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 salutes you

I took this picture nearly eight years ago and I offer no justification as to why it is appearing on this blog. I don't remember why I took it. Perhaps I was admiring the urban landscaping gestures--the trees, the planting bed against the building, the wide sidewalk, and the bench. A lot of progress in the development of human civilization is described by this scene. Eventually, the brick building will be demolished and something better will be built in its place. Will the new thing last longer? Probably. Will it be better? Almost certainly. Will it generate controversy? Yes, but that's the way it goes.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

the third place and its discontents

Even though it is the great American novel, I find certain aspects of the story unbelievable. Gatsby is believable, but his death was a convenient device that Fitzgerald used to spare the character the embarrassment of being exposed as a fraud. Nick gets clean-up duty and comes across as more heroic than is reasonable to expect.

In a few years, we'll be in the 20's again. I don't think they'll be roaring.

And, where was Shafter's? Gatsby certainly had vices, but with one exception, he wasn't consumed by them.

Monday, December 29, 2014

housing tensions

In the Sunday Globe, Shirley Leung pointed out that the Boston metro region needs more large scale residential developments in order to meet housing demand. Today, the Globe has an article on the tensions created by residential development in Alewife.

Let's make it clear for the 23rd time: Without major planning changes, any new development creates tension--particularly transportation tension. People drive cars. Trucks deliver stuff. When residents of neighborhoods ask for better planning, they're really asking for development restrictions. It will always be hard to build new stuff in this area. If you want cheap housing, go to Texas. Or Holyoke.

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 predictions revisited

Okay, time to beat up towers of ilium....

This is what I said in January of this year:

1. The Architecture/Engineering/Construction industry will have an okay year. Things in China might start to slow down a bit--or get more sophisticated. African nations (the peaceful ones) may lead in percentage growth. In the coming decades that continent might become the "place" for new architecture and engineering.

Score: Mostly correct. AEC is doing quite well in the Boston region. 

2. The composition of Congress will not change dramatically in the 2014 midterm elections. I'm going to end up stepping in this one somehow.

Score: Stepped in it. Ouch.

3. Mayor Walsh will reveal that he is just as pro-development as Menino was.

Score: Still playing out. Probably correct. He has signaled a desire for more housing.

4. However, growth in Boston suburbs will continue to be restrained by the usual bevy of regulations and poor population growth.

Score: Correct, because it's not much of a prediction. I'm also not bothering to check any facts.

5. The health care cost curve will bend a bit more.

Score: Maybe correct. ACA has traction, but Congress and Supreme Court could erode it.

6. Unrest and repression will continue at the same rates as in 2013. A long, horrible stalemate in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Palestine. Possible liberalization in Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be offset by crackdowns in Russia and North Korea.

Score: Situation in Ukraine is bad, but I didn't predict that. I didn't predict Hong Kong uprising, which seems to have ended peacefully. Didn't predict Feguson.

7. NSA activity will continue unabated in the U.S. Restrictions on media content, patents, copyrights, etc.. will be maintained. Spurious blogs like this one will be ignored.

Score: Yeah, so what. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

random picture tuesday

This expensive house has a plastic door. Or is it fiberglass? And that's only the beginning of a series of poorly executed details and inept design decisions throughout the structure. Fortunately, I wasn't involved, and I'm grateful that I can identify the mistakes without being responsible for providing a solution. If there needs to be a solution, that is.

This picture was taken a few years ago during the darkness of the recession. I don't know what became of this house, but I suspect that the current owners have taken measures to corrects some things they didn't like. Maybe it's been torn down.

Monday, December 22, 2014

yay olympics boston

Towers of ilium is considering supporting the Boston Olympics in 2024 if  the bid was to result in a complete overhaul of the JFK/UMass Red Line Station. Now, notice how I phrased that--- "if the bid was to result..." If work began on the station, albeit in planning phase, and Boston lost the bid for the Games, then I would regard the whole affair as a success. Now, about Wollaston Station....

Sunday, December 21, 2014

review of the news

Towers of ilium has been distracted by internal events and has not had a chance to comment on current news:

-The potential normalization of trade relations with Cuba is an impressive accomplishment by Obama and Castro. It might spell an end to the time capsule architecture of Havana. As always, progress does not guarantee improvement.

-The decline in crude oil prices, while a temporary condition, is having interesting impacts. I don't feel sorry for Putin. I'll reserve further comments for my 2015 predictions edition.

-The debacle at Sony caused by the not(never?) to be released movie, The Interview is still playing out. To quote a fellow I was talking to on the eve of the financial collapse in 2008--"the shit's just getting warmed up."

-I'm losing confidence in self-driving cars appearing on the roads within the next decade.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

unequal architecture

In the post yesterday it was stated that towers of ilium supports innovation. Let me qualify that a bit: Limited experiments that are tested by the market are the only effective way to achieve progress. Too often, innovators get caught up in the implications of their schemes and assume a level of market disruption that is bizarre. The iPhone is a remarkable toy that has so far failed to disrupt face to face communication. Likewise, the Apple aesthetic will someday be regarded as a design curiosity similar to fins on cars.

In architecture, innovation depends on subtlety, and that often doesn't make for good magazine articles. The awards and press tend to focus on what appear to be disruptive models of design, but are in fact rare events with limited influence. Housing is an area of particular concern to me. The obsession with high density lifestyles is an epidemic in the design profession. Innovative schemes are used to conceal the fact that most modern urban living models depend on bland, repetitive, conventional, and above all, reliable, buildings. Double loaded corridors, simple facades, predominantly private space, and very little ornament.

And the suburb shall be our aspiration..... (more on that later, maybe)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

capitol won

Towers of ilium generally supports innovation, and is not afraid to make predictions about the probable success of innovative efforts. With regard to the Capitol One 360 Cafe venture, which has two locations in downtown Boston, we are not maintaining a positive attitude. If you combine two contradictory business activities you can't expect people to respond well. It would be like a loud/quiet room or a wet/dry swimming pool.

And what the hell are we supposed to get from the "360" logo? A 360 degree experience implies that I've turned in a complete circle, and if I do that multiple times in a row, I'll get dizzy. Or does it refer to the complete experience that can be had within the establishment? Are there services offered beyond coffee and routine banking? Speculation on this topic could violate the family friendly policy of this blog.

Monday, December 15, 2014

to everything there was a season

As is the custom, I can refer to myself as an award winning architect. I participated in the renovation of this house. I contributed something, and although some of my efforts fell short, the outcome was generally well received.

The balustrade over the entry porch is detailed and built incorrectly. But it's hard to tell from this angle.

Towers of ilium seeks to avoid controversy and conflict. Since it is a blog it is an easy thing to do. Posting this week may be erratic. But no more than usual.

Friday, December 12, 2014

the frontiers of architecture

It's only a horse barn. And a garage. And an expression of desire. What it doesn't represent is an effort towards revolutionary design, and I think the client was grateful for that. In fact, the issue never came up. An architect signals expected performance through past jobs, and consequently, a design style can be solidified and sustained. A dilemma for designers is how much change should be sought after and tolerated in the context of a commission. Commercial projects like hospitals and schools tend to have fixed parameters and expected solutions. However, there tend to be enough challenges that make the projects unique.

Once again, towers of ilium apologizes for blog posts that have nothing to do with blog content. Post titles are outsourced to a specialty firm that does not have awareness of the post's subject matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

the show goes on

I should really show the before picture too. Let's do that.

I really need to take a picture that doesn't feature some fellow experiencing a lower extremity wardrobe malfunction.

The clients were quite happy with this project. It improved things. It qualifies as architecture.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

someone built that

A client remarked recently "it looks just like the rendering you showed us." We were standing in the building pictured here. That made me feel good.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

up vs. down and in vs. out

Architecture disrupts memory. Traditional architecture, because of its unabashed historical references is actually more subversive than contemporary expressions. Now that we have different stages of the modernist revolution, the map of traditional architecture has gotten more complicated. The house pictured above is old by the standards of the internet age. Its date of construction--1960ish---is less important than its date of interior renovation from 2007ish. That the owners were seeking a more colonial living experience didn't lead them to stint on systems like air conditioning, good wiring, and comfortable furnishings.

The eclectic approach is now the only honest one--where you put the flat screen television is all that matters.

Monday, December 8, 2014

joe fallon vs. robert campbell

Actually, it really isn't a contest. Campbell is an architecture critic who has no influence on architecture. Fallon is a developer who might seem to have a profound influence on architecture, but in reality is constrained by the strong hand of market reality. The Globe had a profile of Fallon, who is responsible for much of the development in the "Innovation District." He came across favorably, and he responded to Campbell's critique of that neighborhood. He pointed out that the streetscape will improve over time and that the development decisions (most of which were defined by the afore-mentioned market, the FAA, and traffic engineers) will prove to be okay. I tend to agree with that. From what I can see, the areas with new construction feel better than most of the Financial District in Boston proper.

On a side note, I'm giving much thought to the current state of architectural communication in construction documents. I contend that there is too much information and not enough knowledge displayed by the heaps of paper devoted to drawings and specifications.

Friday, December 5, 2014

the unreliability of memory

It's awkward how little documentation I have of things I've worked on. I didn't design the space pictured above, but I was responsible for managing the people who did the design work. I should have paid more attention to the HVAC design, but I certainly wouldn't be the first architect to drop that ball.

The rest of the spaces in this building aren't as dramatic. But they work.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

a spectre is haunting...

Actually, it's the spectre of persistently low inflation, stagnation, and ennui.

Here in the U.S. we are starting to see mild signs of price increases, which for those who fall into the "all inflation is bad camp" is the sign of doomsday. In the years I've been practicing architecture I've seen a consistent upward trend in construction costs. Some of this is due to an aggregate response to upward pressure of all wages and prices. More significantly, we've seen an increased complexity of building systems--better insulation, more robust structure, more bathrooms, large houses. Some of these things are improvements, which come at a cost. In general, building quality improves. But, the distribution of cost increases and improvement is not equal. Low quality construction, albeit better than older construction, can still be done cheaply if the development team strips all character and amenities from a project. Luxury clients, meanwhile, pay through the nose for diminishing marginal returns in quality. Finish carpentry and cabinetry feels like a good racket--those who can do it well command premium prices and are in high demand.

I don't know what to make of this. I remember that 13 years ago we would tell prospective clients that $200 a s.f. was a reasonable price to pay for an architect designed home. Now, we tell clients that construction costs range between $200 and $250 a s.f. I no longer trust my ability to estimate costs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

los locos lobos

Some bits and pieces here:

-Wall Street Journal (which is trustworthy and useful about 33% of the time) had a story about how home appraisers are starting to inflate house valuations. Again. This won't end well. Again.

-Is Las Vegas sustainable? No, but who is?

-I'm still searching for a way to explain the difference between gain dominated buildings and enclosure dominated buildings so that is useful for architects.

-The Financial District in Boston is a tribute to bad architecture and planning decisions from the 1920's through the 1990's. Tear it all down and salt the earth. I suppose I should take another post to elaborate on this claim.

-Does the weight of cities compress the underlying bedrock?

-My Droid phone navigation system could not lead me out of a paper bag. How can we hope to achieve an Orwellian police state with such shoddy technology?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

world war I

So far in life I've managed to avoid military duty. If I had been a Briton alive 100 years ago I would most likely be charging a machine gun nest somewhere in France under the command of an upper class officer who had been raised to believe that war was a sure path to glory. I like to believe that we've made progress since then. Our modern wars seem to be affairs of attrition. Sporadic criminal activity that is covered by grim faced journalists. Property damage and civilian misery are the rule, as they always were. I am disturbed how some communities--in Afghanistan and Israel--have developed a type of siege architecture. What type of mental effect can this have?

Monday, December 1, 2014

get carter

This a photograph of a portion of the parking garage that was used in the 1971 movie Get Carter. I'm including that film on my list of architecture themed movies because of its portrayal of Britain. Despite the demolition of some of the major locations in the film, including the garage, the dismal atmosphere of the country is still a fact of life for many people.

Despite the ugliness of much of the built environment, people can overcome its effects. Humans do not have a "natural" setting. We can die miserably just as easily on the African savanna as in the sordid glitter of Shanghai. Architects can improve the visual experience of urban life for many people. Using less exposed concrete is a good, first step.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

drucker for tuesday

A subtle point made my Peter Drucker is that management has very little to do with managing other people. He assigns people to people issues within an organization to the realm of leadership--which is a learned and not inherent trait. Management of resources is the major concern of all people, regardless of rank. Of all the resources in the universe, Drucker identified time as the most important, because for humans, there is a finite amount of it. He would give numerous examples of how people mis-use time, and more importantly, underestimate the time that it takes to do quality work.

Today, I'm wasting some time, but if I try to rush some things I'm working on, they'll leave the office half-done. I like to aim for 3/4 complete. 9/10 is a rare triumph.

Monday, November 24, 2014

meanwhile in chernobyl

This is nearing completion, but it is really only a second step in a series of temporary solutions. The original containment sarcophagus for Chernobyl is nearly 30 years old, and given the conditions under which it was constructed, it's in rough shape. The new containment system is impressive, but according to an article in the Economist, it will only last about 100 years (I'd put money on it to last longer, but who knows what will happen).

Designing for nuclear containment pushes the boundaries of modern permanent architecture. Despite the superior track record of ancient masonry structures, we don't seem to regard that as an option. Why are we putting our faith in new technology. Strange to hear this coming from me. I usually laugh when someone says "The don't build 'em like they used to."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

design principle #1.1

Architects and other designers never begin a project from a position of strength. Full comprehension of the requirements of a client is impossible to achieve. Prior knowledge, particularly of projects that seem similar, can turn out to be unreliable and dangerous. Research of all the variables that can potentially impact success or failure can consume more time than exists in the known universe. Above all, the designer can never admit these facts to a client, no matter how enlightened that person or group may be.

The designer starts from nothing. The more nothing, the better, because then bias can be overcome more readily. This ideal state can be nearly impossible to achieve--it can never be planned--but it can be revealed in those circumstances where the void of options is arbitrarily refined into one moment. It is documented, imperfectly, and presented.

And then the revisions begin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

michael sorkin on microhousing

Actually, this apartment building doesn't have microunits, but Sorkin mentioned it in a positive way in an essay on modern housing patterns. Writing for the Nation magazine, Sorkin blasted the concept of microhousing because it threatens to turn the clock back on efforts to ease urban congestion and is mainly a way to pad developer profits. The fad qualities of microhousing, and the fact that it is deeply inferior to the alternatives (thus spake the suburban homeowner) means I'm not concerned about the possibility that it will overwhelm cities and plunge us back into the dark ages. However, after looking at some of the living conditions in Asia, I can see the slippery slope of high density construction at play. First they take the bedroom, then they take the kitchen, and then the bathroom, and closets, and a desk, and a window--and why do the ceilings need to be at least seven feet high, anyway?

The issue of individual choice gets overwhelmed by economic forces that push safety, comfort, and family relationships out the window. But, we got rid of the window, because there was no code requirement for a window. I can make a design for a 400 s.f. house work, but there won't be a lot of elbow room. At some point, things fall apart and no amount of clever marketing can conceal the barbaric nature of the architecture.

Monday, November 17, 2014

robert campbell on the innovation district

This picture is out of date and it gives us a deeply distorted view of the Innovation District in South Boston (is it really South Boston, though? Haven't efforts been made to "protect" the old neighborhood from the new one?).

Robert Campbell described how the architectural effect of the new construction here lacks human scale and good detail. He pins most of the blame on the suburban style roadways and dull office buildings. To some extent, I agree with him, although I haven't had a reason to visit this place in several years. The development patterns in the area have been constrained by many forces that are beyond the control of the designers who might otherwise be inclined to give things a bit more soul. However, I think that Campbell is rushing to judgment. The neighborhood will take about twenty years to develop and refine itself. It will improve as long as Boston remains a viable city.

Friday, November 14, 2014

for sale cheap

If this gets sold will it get torn down? My sense is no, because the scale and geometry of the building probably allow for diverse repurposing. I could be completely wrong about this. It dates from 1980--a curious time for American architecture, and although I admire aspects of the design, it isn't aging with the grace of traditional Boston buildings. It might be partially demolished, which would have little effect on the sense of place created by the structure. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

urban scale tough love edition

Not surprisingly, most of the residents of the Harbor Towers in Boston are not happy about the skyscrapers being planned on the property next door. Since I live in a detached single family house in a suburb that has fairly strict zoning it's completely unfair of me to comment on this. I can't comprehend the struggles of people in a luxury high rise located on the waterfront. If you buy a property under such circumstances you should so with the assurance that no future development will impede your views, assault your senses, or offends you in any way. He who builds first should have all privileges.

Monday, November 10, 2014

richard wills

When I was a two week old draftsman at Royal Barry Wills I remember how Richard came over to look at my work. I was drawing plans for renovations to an unexceptional looking Colonial house. Richard looked at the elevation I had taped to my drafting table.
 "Put a chimney on it," he said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Right in the center of the roof, like this." He reached down with his pencil and sketched the block of a huge chimney on the roof.
"But there's no fireplace or anything below," I protested.
"It'll be fake," he said, and turned and walked away, "I have no shame."

That remains one of my most important lessons in architecture.The house needed a chimney for aesthetic reasons. The cult of functionality, of honesty, of the application of narrow science in design, cannot overcome the emotional impact of an architectural gesture. Why did the house need a chimney? What makes us human?

Richard said on more than one occasion that design is one piece. The inside and the outside have to be worked together and there are few fixed rules. Historical reference is useful, but reproductions rarely work.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

post election architecture

The events of Tuesday won't have much bearing on the design profession. Paralysis in Washington doesn't have any bearing on the price of oil, which has been going down due to depressed demand in Europe and Asia. I'm cautiously predicting three more years of prosperity in the U.S. market. Regional business is more significant than international business, even for the Massachusetts economy.

Some people are even discussing a shortage of design professionals. I'm skeptical of this. I think the BIM revolution, coupled with the adaptation to the lean years of the recession, has made the industry more productive. Service parameters are constrained except for the big name stars.

This post should have a third paragraph that provides some additional information or a sense of conclusion.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

open for business

So, One World Trade center is moving tenants into some of its space. Let us mark this victory for the democratic, peace-loving capitalist standard bearers of truth, freedom, American pie justice and make-work liberty for allish, home of the free Manhattan style architecture. That the planning and construction process took over 12 years is lost on no one, I hope. It's being proclaimed as the safest office building in the world (insert source here). I doubt that. I'm also not sure how much money the thing will make for its unflappable owners--the Port Authority. Probably more than the original buildings, but that's a function of New York City, not the crack team of development experts who organized this brilliant project. I regard it as a missed opportunity. I hope we can be united by that.

Monday, November 3, 2014

more on tom menino

Because he merits two blog posts.

He referred to himself as an "urban mechanic" which implies maintenance as much as repair. He appreciated Boston as a city of change, as much as he might have extolled its virtues of history. Tradition, for Menino, was useful only if it had more character and value than something new. This is a lesson for so-called preservationists, who place more value on the old at the expense of the new. If Menino had been more cautious and more polite, less would have gotten done.

I may or may not go see the procession this morning. I'm not one for crowds, and I feel that there will be some great turnout for him. But, what will I give to Boston today? Another pair of shoes on a sidewalk, some food purchased and eaten, trash in a trashcan. Riding home late on the T. And taking the normality of it all for granted and being a bit aware that I owe a large measure of that to his efforts.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

thomas menino

His image will be available for as long as the internet exists. How should we portray him? Older, younger? With a cane observing the calamity at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

He built the Boston that I know. Oh, not the new buildings or the fluff, but the way that Boston saw itself. A bridge between Bulger's Boston and the real city that we have now with the sidewalks and the potholes and the traffic jams and the crazy T and the pond in the Boston Common with the crazy people. Here we come and this is our city and he loved it and that love was appreciated by everyone. You can live in the suburbs, but this is Our City.

He lived as long as my father and that is long enough to do important things in the world. If he had been well, would he have tried to keep on? Better to go out on top. The Seaport District is real. The South End is real. The towers and the parks and the way he touched people is real. Walsh knows that he can't match the drama, and that is not his style. That is Menino.

And what do I know? I came from New Hampshire. I live in Quincy. When I want to do something I think what I can do in the City. And the City is always Boston. All that he saw built will be removed, replaced, improved, re-imagined. Let us salute him forever.

meanwhile at a pet shop in bolton....

Actually, this is the train station in Bath. I wonder if it has been renovated or replaced. If so, in what style? Although I admire the architecture of the city, I wonder if the train station could tolerate something completely modern.

I admired how quiet the trains in England were. Why not here?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

mid week crisis

There is never crisis, nor panic, nor hysteria at towers of ilium. We strive for calm, rational, and skeptical discourse here.

-The Ebola epidemic is mostly a public sanitation problem. The U.S. is safe, and the least we can do is spend money to find a cure and a vaccine. Some politicians, in particular, Chris Christie, are demonstrating a sickening ignorance. He should be quarantined to prevent the spread of his stupidity.

-Home prices fell in Massachusetts. I take this as a sign of constrained inventory. The good stuff has sold and there isn't much movement on both sides at the moment.

- They're hanging drywall somewhere in my building. I don't expect anyone to invent an alternative to gypsum wallboard anytime soon. I just had a sudden flashback to demolishing plaster and lath. Ugh.

Monday, October 27, 2014

architecture vs renderings

Is this architecture? No, it is not. It is a rendering that has been carefully constructed to describe an architectural space. It is deeply fantastical. The perspective is unreal, the position of the viewer is false, the sky is too perfect, the building is too clean. The Globe had an article today that gave the burden of responsibility for architectural renderings to the rendering contractor. I found it irritating and mostly true. Architects juggle a lot concerns--too many to often do justice to a complex effort like a modern rendering. Although the design comes from the architect, the emotional content often comes from the rendering. For the work I do I try to keep renderings descriptive and banal. It makes the reality look better.

Is that confetti in the upper left quadrant of this image? Why?

Friday, October 24, 2014

it lasts

I don't know who came up with the final design of this John Deere log skidder, but I suspect that they were trying to transcend function. The problem with it is that it was built too well. Many machinery form the 1960's is still in active service. Although there have been significant improvements in design, engineering, and concepts, the old stuff can keep going. Barring a catastrophic accident it's hard to put an end date on some pieces of equipment.

I have to go to work now. I'll be riding a subway train that is more than two decades old. Cutting edge. In better shape than my train station, actually.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

preservation architecture special edition

This is a picture of the interior of the Faneuil Library in Brighton that I took last night. It was built in 1932 and from what I could observe, no major alterations or renovations have been done. The lighting and windows have been updated, and the vinyl floor dates from the 1980's, but in all other respects, the mundane art deco glory of the place is intact. It has one bathroom--in the basement. It is not accessible in any way. Its egress components are obsolete, but it appears to be of mostly fire resistant construction--aside from being filled with books (another obsolete gesture, perhaps).

I do not think that this building will see its 100th anniversary. I am glad to have seen it as it is now. I felt transported back in time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

truth and the news cycle

I'm running out of blog titles. I'll have to crowdfund something to get better titles. Another thing for the to do list.

In today's Globe, Paul McMorrow pointed out that Boston has lagged other cities in housing creation. We're even behind San Francisco. He didn't cite his statistics in per capita format, but I think his argument is sound. Boston doesn't have enough housing because the city, and more importantly, the surrounding communities,can't build it fast enough because of local zoning restrictions.

My wife and I drove through Revere and Lynn a few days ago. We wish we hadn't, but we were trusting the logic of our GPS. Live and learn. We drove past the Suffolk Downs (former) racetrack. To me, it looked like a bit of nothing, near nothing, and worth almost nothing. I'll be proven wrong about the last part.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Conceptually, I know that this will work. But, I don't know how well it will work. There is no way to eliminate all risk from design. Low risk design can perpetuate annoying failures that people adapt to because they don't want to invest in something new. The cycle of error and dissatisfaction is robust and infinite. My declaration that this design is functional is a statement of hubris, not fact. If you want facts, seek blogs other than towers of ilium. Happy Monday.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

oddly topical for once

Keene, N.H. is not technically my hometown, but it is close by. When I heard of the incidents at the annual Pumpkinfest yesterday, I was inappropriately amused. Now that I've had some time to reflect, and read some scattered news reports, I have two unoriginal observations to make:

-The Keene police were geared up, quite literally, for a fight. They made a deliberate plan to over-react to a situation, knowing that this would escalate things and justify their initial over-reaction. I suspect they did this due to political pressure.

-The college students were acting in a disorganized fashion. There were no ring-leaders, no plans, and no sense that they would be the target of violence. Most of the worst things done were probably done by a small handful of drunk assholes.

No one will be held to proper account for this. The real battle is probably between the city political leaders who are somewhat frustrated by the hard-partying of the college students, and the administration of the college. I am sure that a useful and constructive dialogue will result.

Friday, October 17, 2014

picture friday

This project has been completed for over a year now and it's still not finished. There was nothing false in that statement. Architecture only appears complete in photographs, but buildings are dynamic objects. Stillness with movement. Solid voids. Still air with a breeze. Poetry without words. Frozen music. Oh heck, this post is getting out of control and drifting into plagiarism.

I walked through the Bay Village this morning. Falling leaves had made soft, yellow blankets on the streets. The scale and detailing of the buildings was perfect. There was a graceful dilapidation and sense of calm to everything. Even the man pawing through the trash for cans seemed relaxed. I wonder if Hong Kong has places like this.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

the precast revolution continues

Based on what I observe around Boston, the use of precast concrete as a cladding system for highrise buildings is robust. I want to believe that modern precast will outlast the older systems. If I were a betting man I would assign modern panels a 75 year lifespan before cosmetic failure starts to evolve into comprehensive failure.

I'm also starting to rethink my attitude towards cavity walls as the be-all and end-all of enclosure systems. If panelized, barrier systems are the preferred method for large scale structures, then they must be okay. Right?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

irish architecture

It's two post Wednesday.

This link is worth checking out:

And now, for towers of ilium pontificating. The Irish really screwed up--even more than the U.S. did. The mentality of "build it, and they will come" falls apart more quickly when your country is small. I feel that the burden of responsibility is not on the developers or the local officials, but on the lending agencies. They are the people who are supposed to assess the risk of the loans, and they obviously failed. And yet, none of them are in jail. So it goes.

concrete architecture

The fact that every piece of concrete produced by humans will have to be replaced in the next 100 years doesn't bother me at all. I have deep ambivalence about the value of longevity in the built environment. Why should future generations suffer so much from the dead hands of dead architects? I won't live long enough to see the dismantling of the Empire State Building. But, I won't be surprised by the voluntary demolition of some other big-name high-rise. If I had to pick a Boston landmark, it would be the JFK Federal Building. The tower at the Christian Science Center is in tough shape. (This reminds me that I should take some of my students on a field trip to see some of this stuff) We can't make things last forever. Except for Pioneer 10. Godspeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

tuesday is for retractions

The Everett Recreational Center could stand a renovation or two. I wonder if Wynn will kick in something.

As was expected, the Hong Kong protests continue to evolve. I don't have a clear sense of what is going on, and I doubt anyone does. No pictures of tanks yet, and I don't expect any, but given the prediction success rate at towers of ilium, it can't be ruled out. I doubt Beijing would need tanks to subdue the protests.

By mentioning this topic on this blog I like to think that I'm important enough to warrant attention from some censor in China.

Friday, October 10, 2014

social outreach opportunity

This rusting bridge connects an island in Boston Harbor to the mainland. It is owned by the city of Boston. It has been closed because it has been deemed unsafe and people in the homeless shelter on the island have been removed.

I think the bridge should be torn down, but before that happens, the Catholic Church should lend or lease a building it owns in downtown Boston as a temporary shelter for the people displaced from the island. I sent an email to this effect to the church this morning. Nothing will come of this, but it demonstrates how there are millions--nay, billions--of unused space in this country. They exist in legal or design purgatory. People feel like they have to make long term decisions, but this is a mistake. Short-term decisions can be of greater value to many people when it comes to architecture. Better a roof over a head than a picture of one.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

420,000 dollars buys you a home

In Boston at least--if things go according to a plan recently released by the Walsh administration that calls for an investment of 20 billion dollars over the next 16 years to build 50,000 housing units. If I was in some other line of work, or in a different part of the world, I'd loudly proclaim the great cost of this idea. Such a sum of money could only pay for about 15 F-35 warplanes. I'm not sure what will get built first, either.

Based on housing start trends over the last 10 years, this is an achievable goal--especially if you include surrounding urban areas.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

probably doomed

The factories along the Connecticut River in Turners Falls are well on their way to becoming archaeology. There economic value has faded, and their romantic value is only enhanced by continued decay. There will be at least two more hopeless schemes to repurpose them, but within fifty years, there will be nothing to save. I doubt that anyone even has the resources to demolish some of the buildings.

The lack of permanence in architecture will continue to be a theme on this blog.

In other news, the towers of ilium prediction market is rushing to a premature celebration over the outcome of the Hong Kong democracy protests. The whole affair seems to be fading--and with no loss of life that I am aware of. I call this a victory for the existing leadership, both in the city and in Beijing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

is it good for boston?

This is a rather attractive and uninformative rendering of an office tower proposed near Government Center in Boston. The design is by Cesar Clarke Pelli and it is proof that the International Style is alive and well. Although this blog is noted for its inconsistency, I would like to point out that contextualism is important when you consider energy use. This curvy, all glass facade will probably will result in high energy costs for the building for as long as it remains standing. Of course, it will get a LEED stamp, but that cannot overcome the fact that glass is not a good insulator.

There are few clues that this building is located where the developers say it is. But, the purpose of renderings is more to confuse than to describe.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

grant and sherman

In the pantheon of significant Americans, those two generals earned their place. Both were criticized deeply by the press, fellow officers, and politicians. The legacy of their actions is the proof of their success. What is more troubling is the veneration of the position. To this day we jump to the conclusion that competent leadership can work miracles. Grant did not consider himself a miracle worker. Sherman's march to the sea was a calculated risk. Lincoln's confidence in their abilities is a credit to his character, although it came at great cost.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

predictions about hong kong

I'll offer a few scenarios which will all turn out to be wrong:

1. The protests lose momentum spontaneously.

2. The Chinese government backs down and allows open elections in 2017.

3. The Chinese government does a repeat of the 1989 crackdown.

4. The Chinese government backs down slightly but undertakes a shadow campaign against the leaders of the protest and gradually tightens rules on assembly and free speech. Nobody remembers anything by 2017 and only approved candidates run in an election that no one cares is rigged.

Monday, September 29, 2014

monday transportation edition

I just found out yesterday that a portion of the Frito Lay delivery fleet consists of electric trucks. This is probably good for the company's bottom line as well as air quality in urban areas. Hooray.

I'm tempering my enthusiasm for fully autonomous self-driving cars. The software will have a lot of trouble with unusual situations and unmapped roads (like where I grew up). For many years, the technology will be shared with human controlled cars. The future is here, but it will be postponed until more funding can be found.

Friday, September 26, 2014

composition imposition

No architecture today. Commentary on music instead.

A Day in the Life is an acoustical masterpiece and its uniqueness is its greatest curse. Although it's inspirational, it can never be replicated. I predict it will have staying power. The same thing goes for We Will Rock You. The deadly beauty of that song is that it ends too soon--and there is no doubt in my mind that Mercury did that deliberately because a principle of performance is to never give the audience too much; leave them hungry, make them return, make them crave the same thing with just a hint of variation.

The Doctor Who theme, on the other hand, can be rebuilt indefinitely. If they ever make a Doctor Who movie (which would be a disaster) some talented people will spend some time making a memorable version of it.

The guitar riff that anchors Bad to the Bone will be with us always. Ad men will return to that with disturbing regularity. Hell, they play AC/DC in Wal-Mart.

The worst music is more valuable than any work of architecture.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

belkin's tower

The tall building in this picture will never be built. I'm inclined to believe that Boston will never have a skyscraper that tops 1,000 feet, and that's not a problem. The FAA has de facto control over certain building heights in metropolitan areas and that makes quite a bit of sense.

I recall reading somewhere that you get diminishing returns from a tall building after 500 feet or so. The area occupied by elevators and the structural components starts to compete with usable floor space. Ultra tall buildings exist because of ego and exceptional real estate environments. But this is old news. What is new news is that towers of ilium has entered into a franchise deal with various famous brand name retailers. Expect to see some exciting ads soon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

the arts of abandonment

This doesn't look like this anymore. When a building changes collective memory is compromised. "But I knew it was around here somewhere..." Presumably, Google is keeping an inventory of its street views, so some enterprising person will someday make a 100 year timelapse montage of certain streetscapes in certain cities. Lesser known parts of the world are imperfectly documented, however.

If we were able to expand our sense of time it would be easy to see how entire cities can just vanish--buried by drifting sands or consumed by jungle. I saw a good cartoon of this once. Can't think of the person who drew it. I might mention it sometime again, but by then, this blog post will be forgotten also.

And, for the record, this entryway, and the house it leads into it, is as ugly as sin. If I was ever told to design something that bad I'd smash my drafting board in half. (I don't use a drafting board anymore, but the imagery sounds more dramatic)

Monday, September 22, 2014

is the best art spontaneous?

Since my paycheck depends on my ability to revise a design multiple times, with the aim of improving upon an initial concept, or when necessary, discarding that concept in near entirety, its reasonable to say "no" to the question posed.

However, on a personal level I hold the roughest sketches in higher regard than finished products. A sketch often has a power that transcends reality. Reality, with all of its various bureaucracies and committees tends to trample that power.Square pegs are shaved into rounds, values are compromised, inferior materials are settled on for the sake of economy, and above all--a deadline must be met--for without deadlines, we are all dead.

Friday, September 19, 2014

elements of style

This picture demonstrates the necessity of landscaping. But, I've always tended to rush things, so I have no shame in posting this. My participation in the design was considerable in some respects.

In other news, I came across a statistic in the Boston Globe that put Boston at the bottom of a list of cities in terms of commercial real estate development. I'm not sure how to interpret that, but I think it's significant. If it's too hard to build things here won't people go elsewhere? Or does our scarcity create a more robust form of demand?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

privacy thursday

I'm often reluctant to post images of things I am working on in a professional setting. It could result in an awkward conversation with a client. I should be less paranoid although I can indulge in the fantasy that some tool at the NSA is actually taking an interest in this blog. I try not to say anything controversial or subversive. My plans for world domination are all kept on paper and the network I'm establishing to further those aims operates with remarkable discretion. If you're interested in joining, I'll send you the PO Box and a suggestion for a donation.

Yesterday, quite randomly, I found myself wondering "What happened to David Frum?" Now, I wish I hadn't asked.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

retraction and apology

Two days ago I said that a detail on one of my projects had been rendered incorrectly. Subsequent investigation proved that I was wrong,and that the picture I posted on my blog reinforces an optical illusion. Such is the challenge of representation and documentation.

Wynn might have won. It would be characteristic Massachusetts irony if voters repeal casino gambling in November. I wonder how much Wynn has sunk into this venture? My guess is somewhere around 50 million dollars.

I'm reading about Grant's assault on Vicksburg right now. His primary battle was with the Mississippi River and its various tributaries. Yet another lesson on the dominance of geography.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

olympic fever swamp edition

The Globe had a breathless and highly speculative front page article concerning the presumed advantages that Boston has over the other American cities that are tendering a bid for the 2024 Olympics. In some respects, I agree with the proposition that Boston would serve as a better venue because of the compact and intimate qualities of the city. However, as this blog has argued in the past, the work required to develop a viable infrastructure for the games is not something I regard as possible.

It is instructive to examine the international picture, because ultimately, the IOC does not care about the status of Boston vis a vis its American counterparts. The decision will involve the usual amount of graft, deception, and intrigue, as well as a more realistic assessment of the capacity of the host city. In this regard, I would put equal money on Paris or Berlin at this point in time.

Also, I think that John Fish is playing the long game here. He wants Boston to be the U.S. front-runner for the 2024 venue, but he probably knows that we will not be successful against the international competition. This bid merely sets the stage for subsequent bids with any eye towards hosting in 2032 or 2036.

Monday, September 15, 2014

and yet more casinos

We would like to apologize for the lack of posts last week. In some respects, I was busier than normal. The picture above was built off something I designed. Wait, let's be honest, my design was adapted from an older design. Now that I am looking at it again I'm noticing a terrible mistake. The mistake is a consequence of the carpenter following my plans exactly as opposed to exercising artistic judgment. The architectural profession as a whole is to blame for this because we have created an atmosphere of mistrust between the designers and the trades. Drawings and specifications are treated as gospel, instead of as guidelines. Somewhere, there are some lawyers to blame as well.

Oh yes, I wanted to mention that Wynn's strategy for the Everett casino will take the day. That's just my opinion, but for once I expect it to play out in a way that actually makes sense. His financial position is much better than the Mohegan Sun proposal. He will change his architecture to make other people happy, and I think he was planning on that all along.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

sprinklers are a good idea--full stop

The Globe had an article this morning about a recent meeting of regulators of the State Building Code where there had been some heated discussion about the impact of sprinkler regulations on building costs. Apparently, to install sprinklers in a 3 family structure costs about $27k--which by my math works out to about $6 per s.f.--peanuts by any definition.

The major regulation that influences construction costs in Massachusetts is local zoning. Land costs are so incredible that any developer who undertakes major renovations or new construction is already sunk the cost of the property before a single nail is driven. Sprinkler requirements for major renovation work are a good idea and cannot be regarded as discouraging improvements to a property.

In my opinion.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

progress continues

A nation dividing itself into have mores and have lesses builds different sizes of housing. These graphs, which I lifted from Catherine Rampell's blog, show the divergence in housing unit sizes. Simply put, if you can afford to buy a new house, you'll buy a larger house. If you rent in new construction, it will be a smaller apartment than you could have gotten at the peak of the real estate bubble.

Why do people want or need larger homes? (Cue George Carlin) My concern is that people buying certain spaces to satisfy the lurching demon of resale value. I regard this as dumb, particularly when an extra room is designed in a way that doesn't allow it to be repurposed as something useful--i.e. turning a dining room into an S&M dungeon can be a bit of a challenge.

Monday, September 8, 2014

what is detailing--the show goes on

The detail required for this architectural condition is a lot less important than the carpenter who was responsible for installing it. A decision--and some sort of graphic instruction--was required and I hope the designer or drafter didn't spend an inordinate amount of time on it. I don't think that the decision to impose this geometry on the client and future users was a very good one, but it has persisted. The use of the oak trim contrasted with the rough finish of the plaster is quite pleasing. Some student looking up at this ceiling will feel something different than if they were looking up at a standard 2x4 acoustical tile grid. But, did the bad acoustics of this space impair their learning? Who knows.

Friday, September 5, 2014

trust and don't verify

Something that would be deeply troubling to me is some poor soul were to cite this blog in some capacity like a term paper or a report. Content on these posts is pure opinion. Any factual or truthful content is purely coincidental and does not reflect the intent of towers of ilium.

That being said, I feel like I made a worthwhile contribution to architectural dialogue a few days ago when I made a list of design elements that seem to be universally appreciated.

-Flat surfaces
-natural light
-wood elements


I wonder if this leads anywhere.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

in the eye of beholders

This building was recently awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building in the Great Britain.
I'm not sure why. Given the stuff that wins prizes these days, I see more similarities than differences. Perhaps because this is a basic mixed use building--parking garage, supermarket, and flats above--it's not allowed to have the expressive idiocy of a museum or performing arts center. The architects are just complying with the zeitgeist.

Now that I look closer, I'm seeing its failure to engage with the street in a positive way. The sheer faces and monotonous cladding make for an inhospitable experience. I think the design team was trying to hard in the wrong places. At least there's no exposed concrete. God help us if that comes back in style.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

the will to shelter

Have I posted a picture of this already? It doesn't matter.

I wonder if humans have a shelter building gene or genes. We die outdoors in most places, but most of our evolutionary development took place in a pretty hospitable landscape--at least compared to New England. I'm inclined to subscribe nearly all architecture to culture, and assign sheltering instincts to a slightly messier Freudian narrative.

There are some things that we all seem to like:

-Confinement, but only with a clear avenue of escape
-Good views, but not too exposed
-Level changes
-Flat surfaces
-Restrained air movement
-Mobile furniture

Friday, August 29, 2014

IKEA is Soylent Green

Firstly, towers of ilium would like to apologize for not posting in the past two days.

The big news is that the Market Basket standoff has ended, and the good guys seem to have won. The challenge for Arthur T. Demoulas is the restoration of his business model and management of debt. I regard the whole affair as an example of how the wisdom of Peter Drucker can prevail over the stupidity of modern business practice. Arthur T. has demonstrated an understanding of the purpose of a business--that it must create and sustain a customer. Too many firms today assume that the customer already exists, and that the purpose of the business is to extract rents and profits that are funneled to a small group of people.

I was reading a blog yesterday that claimed that 75% of the images in an IKEA catalog are computer generated. Although I might be tempted to feel bad for the photographers who aren't getting the work of shooting staged sets of home decor, I know that the labor associated with good renderings takes a lot of time and effort. Design on a computer is still design--only certain tedious tasks are streamlined so that the focus can be on more options.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

fashion edition

This weekend I got a flyer in the mail from a furniture company called "Room & Board." I'm familiar with them because they recently undertook an extensive renovation of a building at the far end of Newbury Street. I was not impressed by the offerings I saw in the flyer. To my eye, it looked like upscale versions of standard Ikea products. I can't quite explain why, but instead of seeming fresh, all their stuff looked dated.

I wonder if turnover in home furnishings is accelerating in wealthy economies. The Ikea stuff usually doesn't last long. Its obsolescence is an essential part of their design and manufacturing philosophy. They know that people will come back for more flat-packed junk that can be loaded into rental vans. The urban masses need sofas, couches, end tables, and dining room sets ad infinitum. 

And who will prove to have a better business model? Room & Board, Restoration Hardware, or Ikea? Whatever happens, I don't expect any revolutions in furniture design.

Monday, August 25, 2014

paul krugman on housing

Isn't that just the cutest little house? It was built at great expense and is probably used infrequently.

In a recent editorial, Paul Krugman pointed out that much of the economic and population growth in sun belt states is the result of lower housing costs. The fact that these places have "conservative" governments is less important than the fact that large developers can build suburbs at a blistering pace. People are willing to work for less because their housing dollar goes further.

It's a proposition I agree with, and I'll toss out a speculation that the housing stock in warm, right wing places is also linked to the fact that states, aided by the federal gummint, are able to build road networks more efficiently than in places like metro Boston. I'm not sure how much this has been studied, but the big stretches of flat land that exist in Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Arizona make highway planning really easy. Subdivisions and box stores need transportation infrastructure that makes supply chains reliable, fast, and cheap. Here in Massachusetts it takes us 15 years to build a few miles of underground highway--with marginal improvement to rush hour commutes.

Friday, August 22, 2014

art deco and neoclassicism

Is the evolution of architectural style an abrupt or gradual thing? Today, I'm going to make an argument in favor of abrupt change--and change that is mandated by select individuals who can wield considerable influence in the design profession. The picture above shows the boundary between two large buildings that were/are/might be part of the John Hancock complex near Copley Square. The street they share is thoroughly dead--dead because of the monumentality imposed by these icons of corporate logic. They were built within in twenty-five years of each other, and designed by architects who don't have to be mentioned by name.

The building on the right is a solid example of early twentieth century neo-classicism. The detailing is of average quality and I have no idea what the interior spaces are like. In the 1980's It was considered as a candidate for demolition, but economic logic prevailed over the idea of creating a compromised, semi-public plaza.

The building on the left is a deeply conservative example of the Boston art deco, but an art deco that was flirting with the vocabulary of modernism. The horizontal divisions of the window strips speak volumes about the ambiguity and confusion of its designers. But, and I say this with complete lack of irony, it has more character than nearly every modern building in Boston.

In the span of two decades, the neoclassical model, was supplanted by the art deco modern. But whereas neoclassicism feels like a solid part of the architectural landscape, the art deco comes across as a fringe movement that enjoyed less than thirty years in the architectural spotlight before getting steamrolled by the International Style.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

thoughts on the idea of the firm

I'm standing in Peter Drucker's long shadow here, so everything I say will be derivative and incomplete. But hey, half formed is better than no-formed, yes? Like a cake that is missing sugar and eggs, or a car without a gas tank, or any other bad analogy I could come up with if I was being paid by the hour to write this blog.

Once a firm is established by a group of people it is invested with a sense of reality that can be remarkably effective at fooling everybody--including legal systems. Since we live in an age of easily retrievable data, the symbol of a firm can persist indefinitely. The Atari trademark is still a real thing. I would not doubt that some lawyer is working hard on some idiotic brief about the matter. Someday, some other lawyer will be doing the same things for the Apple logo: "From now on all fruit, unbitten or not, shall belong to Base R...all hail Jobs, all hail Jobs"

The slow, hidden death of a firm can occasionally inoculate people against reality. But this is a good thing, because if a person invested in the idea of the firm maintains that sense of commitment, then the firm can persist. One good client can come along and change the course of things. One bad check, on the other hand, doesn't spell doom. The firm exists as long as at least one person shows up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

graphic excellence

I'm impressed by this photograph by the exceptional Peter Gruhn.

the plural of anecdote

A Boston Globe article about the boom in residential home remodeling in the state is consistent with what I've been observing over the last year or so. People are interested in changing the character of their dwellings. In most cases these changes result in significant improvements, but I'm not sure if the longevity of these renovations will match history. If a fifty year old bathroom is replaced in the 1970's I would wager that it will see at least two or three renovations in the next fifty years. This increase in renovation frequency, if a real thing, doesn't imply that things were built or designed better in the past--the opposite is often true.

Construction costs seem to be outpacing inflation, but like many other aspects of the economy, it's not reflected in improved labor compensation. The pricing advantage seems to be with mechanical products; everything from doorknobs to windows to HVAC. I feel like there are some groups of people who are in the middle of the supply chain who are making a killing on selling stuff at extreme markups.

But hey, I'm just a paranoid, misinformed architect.

Monday, August 18, 2014

the long game

I was in Quincy Center yesterday for the August Moon Festival. I have no reason to travel to that part of the city otherwise. The major development that was planned for the area is now stalled, and based on what I saw I don't think that things will pick up anytime soon.

The current economic boomlet--which is in full force in Boston, does not seem to be affecting Quincy. To my knowledge, there are no "big" projects underway, and after the debacle with Streetworks Development, I wonder if other players are averse to working with the city.

I should be careful what I say. I wish I was doing something closer to home. But what? My only ideas are located in the Wollaston downtown, and I think that any major proposals there would be a political non-starter.

As a friend commented: "I think people don't want things to change."

Friday, August 15, 2014

urban gestures

I'm still not convinced that this building is so special. It seems to relate more to the automobile than the street. As a design, it seems to be trying too hard--modernist details with lost of froo-froo.

The lawsuit by Beacon Hill Civic Association against the City of Boston will be as successful as Whitey Bulger's appeal to overturn his conviction for murders. Don't pick a fight against a federal law on the grounds of local procedural issues. The sidewalks are hazardous for everyone, but I suppose that's part of the charm up on the Hill.

I need to come up with a better way to explain Detailing to students. It should only take about four years.