ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, January 31, 2014

the department of preordained defeat

Reading anything by Peter Drucker--or about his theories of management--is a sobering experience. Drucker's attitude towards business can be summed up in the following:

-The purpose of business is to create a customer

-Profit maximization can be counter-productive. However, profit is critical to the success of society

-All organizations should practice abandonment

-If something isn't working, what are you going to do about it?

Architecture firms fall apart because they ignore the last two items on that list. Profit in architecture firms can be realized at a lower margin than organizations that have higher overhead, but if there is no money coming in, then a firm will eventually cease to exist.

That's all for today. Towers of Ilium is looking forward to the month of February. The usual topics will be covered.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

prediction dept. #7087 quincy growth 2030

I need to note this for my own personal records, and then promptly forget about it. The Globe reported that population growth projections using U.S. census data point towards a 16% increase in the population of Quincy over the next 15 years. So, by 2030, the city might have around 106,000 residents--up from the 92,000 reported to live in the place currently.

I predict that this growth will not be realized because the city will not support the construction of the dwellings, schools, businesses, service spaces, and infrastructure that would be required. By "city" I mean the combined efforts of voters, representatives (local and state), and engineers who are bound by inertia.

If towers of ilium is still around in sixteen years we'll get a chance to see who is wrong.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

the zoning bubble

I am dimly aware that my knowledge of economics would fit comfortably inside a thimble, but I can't help but comment on the connection between strict zoning regulations and sustained property bubbles. The Boston metro region has inflated home prices and rents due to the challenges involved with building new stuff just about anywhere. Texas does not appear to have a housing shortage, or excessive median home prices or rents. Parts of Great Britain have inflated house prices and strict NIMBY regulations on new development in urban greenbelt areas.

Okay, so there is a pattern, and many astute economists have pointed to this. My question has to do with duration more than causal relationships. Boston house prices will stay high for a long time because of zoning. A severe downturn in several key industries would create pressures that would depopulate the state and result in a housing surplus and subsequent crashes in valuations. Specifically, bio-tech, education, military equipment, finance, and technology would have to spiral into the toilet. Zoning regulations have no sunset, and few communities welcome relaxations of their laws. So, even a long depression in all those service sectors would take a while to overcome people's perception of housing value. Rents would fall first.

How long can a price bubble be sustained by the collective fiat of myriad building regulations?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

the purpose of the architect--#34

I went to a good talk by Dr. John Straube of the Building Science Corporation last night. He described some basic issues with highly glazed buildings and the state of modern curtain wall design. The room was mostly full of old, male architects.
The issue with glass buildings is that they can be hard to keep warm--or cool, because glass, and more importantly, the aluminum frames that typically support the glass, is not a very good insulator. This basic fact of physics is something that an architect may forget in the ecstasy of the design process. I find myself frustrated at the slow pace of improvements to this commonly used building system. What can I do about it? Not very much, but if I was ever confronted with a situation where a client was considering a curtain wall I hope that I have the courage to advocate something that is better than average.

So, what is the purpose of the architect? Well, an architect is someone who goes into the office on a Monday and makes a decision on behalf of a client that can have significant effects, in terms of time, money and impact on the well-being of quite a few fellow human beings. This decision is made with confidence and presented with confidence to the client and contractors. On Monday night, the architect should lie awake in bed and wonder if that decision was really the best possible decision. With this seed of doubt planted, the architect can go to sleep, and on Tuesday make a slightly different decision in an effort to improve on the course of action made the previous day.

Monday, January 27, 2014

in shelbyville, illinois

This is a building in Illinois that serves as a multipurpose gathering space for the surrounding community. It was built in the context of the Chattaqua movement of the turn of the last century. It has been used well over the years--some friends of mine were married there--and the community is planning a 5 million dollar renovation project. How long will something like this last? To what standards should it be held? I fear that it will burn down one day, which would be unfortunate, but its preservation in common memory has invested it with a power equal in some respects to Brunelleschi's masterpiece that I featured last week.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Architecture--Italian edition

I know that this blog occasionally drifts into negative territory. The subject matter can be depressing, the tone can be cynical and sarcastic, and the graphic content is often lacking. But, ultimately, I enjoy architecture, and if you want it, then here it is.

My one comment on this masterpiece is that this building is in nearly all respects an exterior experience. If the cathedral were filled up with concrete, or turned into a shopping mall, I doubt the city would lose a dime of tourist revenue. Oh heck, I just went cynical again....

Thursday, January 23, 2014

oakland county michigan

I was too lazy too search for a good graphic, but I also couldn't find a graphic that seemed to immediately describe the PLACE. It goes to show that PLACE cannot be summed up by a graphic. What is Boston's symbolic marker, anyway? Should I have a picture of the Back Bay? Downtown Crossing? Boston Common? The Harbor? City Hall? It seems that with Boston I have lots of choices. With Oakland County, Michigan, I have nothing visually significant--at least according to Google--which filled the screen up with maps of the county. Maybe that type of abstraction is accurate, but it's disappointing to an architect who identifies PLACE with spaces, objects, textures. An economic blueprint is more relevant to people, in the same way that food digesting in your stomach is more relevant than food on a plate. The calories are real in the first instance and only a promise in the second instance.

Anyway, the New Yorker has a decent article on Oakland County. What Detroit has lost, that place has gained over the past several decades. Will the pendulum swing back one day? Or should we abandon that metaphor, and seize on the optimistic notion that both places can get better over time?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

the future of computer software

As a non-owner of a smart phone, I don't have a good grasp of their influence except through what I see of other people's use of them. I'm not about to write off the desktop computer, however. Scale and place matter. I can't fulfill my functions as an architect purely from home--too many distractions and not enough social interaction.

The revolutions I hope to see in the realm of information technology would be more about software than hardware. I think we've established all the fundamental hardware devices, and I don't think that wearables are going to catch on that quickly (I'll be proven wrong about this). I think all software should move to the "cloud"--like this blog and my email service.

I also hope that software becomes more intuitive. When I operate an architectural modeling programming I should be able to interact with it in a variety of different ways. I should be able to say: "Let's draw a wall" and expect some responses from the program. Analog methods will still play a large role, but the help and support functions should become more sophisticated.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the folk art museum and destiny

These are pictures of what used to be the Folk Art Museum. It used to be located adjacent to MoMA in the grand city of New York. I come to bury Caesar, not to honor him, so pardon me if I jump to conclusions.

I've been to MoMA a few times, and I can't recall going into the Folk Art Museum. I've been dimly aware of the controversy surrounding its impending demolition to make way for MoMA space. After looking at these images, and reading a recent interview with one of the new architects, Elizabeth Diller, my lack of concern remains at the same level of indifference.

Diller said some very intelligent things about the temporary nature of buildings. She regrets having to tear something down, but she regrets spending resources making something that exists work in a compromised way for future users. She says that when she designs, she thinks of the occupants, and since occupants change with time, the building has to adapt or get demolished. She accepts the same fate for projects she has worked on. (Are those wrecking balls I see near the Boston ICA?)

Maybe I'm just feeling harsh about preservation today, but I will try to make one original observation: The scale and geometry of the Folk Art Museum resembles that of many urban structures that fill up urban streetscapes. A narrow front, an off-center entrance, and unique, but not spectacular details. These are the types of buildings in cities around the world that get built, get used, and then get torn down. They don't have the scale or properties to justify a lifespan of more than a few hundred years, particularly if they're in a hot neighborhood surrounded by bigger structures.

And MoMA itself is just ghastly.

Monday, January 20, 2014

it was all too easy

Modern architecture and planning has not been kind to downtown New Orleans. The main commercial district consists of some of the worst examples of post-war design that I have ever seen. Monolithic high rises and high speed roadways speak to a vast conspiracy of the nihilistic functionalism. I can imagine  how the scenes played out in the 50's and 60's as the white men from the firms gathered in rooms around the models and renderings of buildings that were in complete contradiction to the mad charm of the French Quarter. They all smoked unflitered cigarettes as the Harvard architects presented their dismal tributes to the gods of modernism--the derivative Miesian slabs of office space with tinted windows and yards of buff concrete. The triumphant claustrophobia of the Superdome.

Why did the Art Deco never contribute anything to that surreal place? I feel like there was a big leap from the 1800's to the darkness of the mid 20th century. I can imagine the great river washing it clean one day--with boat tours through the shattered canyons of the office buildings, all the history drowned in the relentless brown water, and the echo of jazz from the hot nights so long ago on Bourbon Street.

Friday, January 17, 2014

we'll see if this turns out to be a good idea

As you might know, towers of ilium has voiced skepticism about the concept of the "smart house." However, I am intrigued by Nest technologies (recently acquired by Google) because they seem to be making products that are actually "smart" without the extreme infrastructure required by the conventional "smart houses." I'm seriously considering getting one of these for my dwelling. I'll probably wait a while, though--at least ten years--the same week I buy a smart phone.

Behavior tracking technology is something that will probably be with us longer than personal automobiles. The ultimate implications are a bit spooky, but as long as there is an override switch, then things should be okay. Thus spake Skynet.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

the delta

I don't know why the hell I have a picture of this. Oh wait, now I remember--it's the mud nests of some sort of crab that occupies Louisiana. Not a special crab, but then that's my point of view. The crab doesn't have enough of a nervous system to feel special.

I have a slightly more nuanced view of Louisiana after my latest visit. I went on a swamp tour with a Cajun who knew a lot about his home state. He gave an effective description of the causes and effects of salt water intrusion and seemed to harbor no illusions about its long term consequences. He also pointed out how the infrastructure of the waterways in the region is managed with some rather sophisticated technology.

Meanwhile, in back home, a high school in Western Mass. is proposing a four day school week so they can save $400,000 a year on busing costs. I take a rather dim view of this. That amount of money is not large, but it points to the dire state of finances in that educational district--and the mean cheapness of its residents. According to some research, the academic effects are a wash, but that's because they don't teach much in schools these days. All the critical standardized tests could be administered online and we could eliminate physical classrooms altogether. No more money wasted on school building, teacher training and salaries--lavish as they are. A core group of private testing companies could run everything from outer space and we could have a glorious community of well-tested young adults roaming the land with bright eyes and soft smiles.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

madeline gins and the architecture of eternity

Madeline Gins died recently. I had never heard of her, and I don't regard that ignorance as a notable deficiency in my education as a designer. From what I can see, she practiced a rather silly type of architecture--more Dr. Seuss than I think is appropriate for the forces real buildings have to cope with. On the other hand, if I were a child who grew up in one of the dwellings she designed I might have a more sophisticated outlook on the world due to the wonderful geometry that surrounded me.

I recently returned from a trip to Louisiana. Some of the old row houses in New Orleans adopt the same flamboyant colors that you see in the picture above. It's a rebuke to the threat of destruction that persists in that place. Go to it, and let architecture thrive, for we all dwell in Arcadia.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

inside outside up and down

What should an architect really know? Here's a short list off the top of my head:

-Client personality and goals
-Construction materials
-Methods and process of construction delivery
-Ability to convey the major ideas of a building or space before it is built
-Relative time required for design and construction tasks
-Relative cost of design and construction tasks
-Impact of design and construction decisions on the environment

How much of that is taught in design schools?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

what lies beneath

Compared to underground construction, architecture is easy. People are doing work on the Callahan tunnel in Boston right now, and according to statements recorded in the Globe, things are going smoothly. Some public officials made the smart decision of closing the roadway to traffic to shorten the construction schedule.
In twenty or thirty years we will have to do major renovation work to the Big Dig tunnels. That will present quite a challenge of construction sequencing. Hopefully, our robot cars will adapt to such a situation without too much inconvenience.

It is difficult, maybe impossible, to make an underground transit tunnel into a compelling and inviting architectural space. Maybe someday in the future, if we much wealthier, we will devote more resources to making undergound infrastructure look pretty. For now, let us walk in the sunlight.

After some research on the internet yesterday, I have come to the tentative conclusion that sub-slab ductwork is not the best idea. Gravity causes trouble.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

the happiness of plants

I need to do some research on sub-slab ductwork.

In other news, it's quite cold here in Boston, but by the standards of many places on earth, it's really not as cold as it could be. People in Norway would laugh at this weather, but I don't think they would wear a t-shirt.

I like to think that the buildings I design or work on will help keep people warm. And their plants. Plants like the warmth. I'm wondering if indoor plants are a good idea. They symbolize an effort on the part of modern humans to demonstrate absolute control over indoor environments. "See, I have a tropical plant next to my desk. I keep it alive because I think it looks pretty and it makes me feel strong."

In the move to the new office I had to give up a few plants. So it goes.

Monday, January 6, 2014

where they lived

This is a picture of some public housing in England that was demolished. The U.K. has some housing problems that makes the ones in the U.S. pale in comparison. By most accounts, they still have a bubble. We know what happens next, and we know who will get hurt the most.

The Globe did something of a follow-up article on Menino's built legacy that was more positive and objective than the piece by Robert Campbell. Development seems concentrated in core areas of the city, which is to be expected. They cited one statistic that gave me pause: Housing stock increased by 8.6% in the twenty years that Menino was in office. That amounts to about 1,000 units a year, which towers of ilium does not find to be that impressive, and points to the great difficulties associated with getting things built in the city despite the more aggressive approach taken by the former mayor. Also, I agree with Campbell that the housing that was built was primarily luxury class and thoroughly unaffordable by the average city dweller.

When the population of the city was much higher--i.e. in the immediate post-war era--where did all those people live? I suspect that families were larger and density per unit was consequently higher. Now, with more luxury style dwellings, density is lower and the inhabitants are likely to be itinerant.

Friday, January 3, 2014

critique of robert campbell's critique of menino

Before I get into my long winded screed against the front page article by Robert Campbell in yesterday's Globe I need to set out some things I don't know: I don't know exactly what impact Mayor Menino had on development patterns in Boston over the past twenty years. His administration existed during a period of national prosperity but increasing inequality and the current makeup of the city is evidence of that. From what I read in the papers over the years I got the impression that he had a motivation to make things happen--even if it was a bit rough at times. I don't know how different things would have turned out if the city had had a different type of mayor--would there have been more development or less?

Robert Campbell implies that there would have been less development, and he teases us with the notion that had more deliberate methods been employed in the permitting and design process then the city would have ended up with "better architecture." He also states that the planning of the future of the city should have been entrusted to a more diverse group of people (i.e. more intellectuals). He claims that Menino was not a visionary and that Boston did not get "great architecture" under his tenure. By way of comparison, he cites recent project in New York City, and the memorable architecture of the past--specifically Boston City Hall, The Christian Science Center, and the Hancock Tower. I suppose my view of the great architecture of the city does not include all of those structures, but then, I am old-fashioned and probably not enough of an "expert" to be included in the planning process.

Campbell sets up conditions of idealism that could not have been realized by the city that Menino was a part of. The for-profit developers who put up buildings like the one pictured above had to answer to the forces of the market. They were not in a position to create civic monuments like the property next door, nor could the afford their architects the time to meet the nebulous standards of some design priesthood. Menino, for all his lack of "vision" recognized this reality, and he also recognized that investment dollars would flow to parts unknown if he did not do what was within his power to streamline certain projects.

More fundamentally, the ability of a city to plan its future is limited and deeply flawed. Although business school aphorisms like "fail to plan, plan to fail" sound convincing, the complex, evolutionary reality of the urban condition cannot be understood by the individual or the group. We all muddle along, and seizing on some "great idea" to inform the next fifty years of existence for something like a city is complete act of hubris. Because architects, urban planners, and art critics possess this hubris we are the last people who should be left to contemplate some unknowable future state.

Menino recognized that Boston is not New York City. Nor is it Dubai. His administration made an effort to get things done. Other people just write about things that could get done.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

predictions for 2014

Okay, time to make towers of ilium look like an idiot again.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.