ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, March 31, 2014

john locke inspired rant

To whom does the world belong? The theme of dominion put forth in Genesis has had a deep influence on Western thinking, and it's one that I subscribe to with certain qualifications. The first qualification has to do with the simple matter of survival. If I have to steal honey from a bee's nest, then I can do it. The second qualification has to do with social impact. If I dump poison into a stream because I'm a chemical manufacturer looking to improve profit margin, then people have the right to put me in jail. The level of harm, the type of motivation, and the number of people involved define the morality of the situation.

When it comes to property rights, I'm inclined to take a hard stance in favor of the individual. In most developed areas of the United States the great harm of land division and title creation has been carried out. Property boundaries are as fixed as the motion of the planet around the Sun. In exceptional circumstances I support eminent domain, historic districts, and zoning. In all circumstances, I support building codes. What I do not accept is when aesthetic considerations, visual and otherwise, dominate the enforcement of social boundary rules. Property is the instrument of the individual when it comes to aesthetics. I'll paint my house purple to prove it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

this is the end my friend

Since this blog is frequently repetitive I don't mind bringing up the destiny of the Folk Art Museum again. It can be hard to define context in New York City from a photograph, but this image demonstrates how the scale of the building is inconsistent with its neighbors. If the site were  like Paley Park then MOMA would not be encroaching on it, but after seeing the area in person I'm even more curious as to how the FAM was built in the first place.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

the best way to do something

New York City is in a constant state of repair. This state of affairs should be regarded as a positive thing--if it has to be maintained, then it's still alive. I've come down hard in the past on the conceptual absurdity of "maintenance free" particularly when applied to architecture. The building picture above  is worthy of being repaired because it looks good, the spaces inside are still serviceable, and it is constructed in a way that allows for incremental maintenance. Consequently, the service life of some types of architecture is mostly a function of a desire to keep it going. No one cares about a Wal-Mart building, and I don't think they should be constructed with an eye towards durability.

On a separate note, I'm reading a book about the rebuilding of Ground Zero. The author discusses the history of the original Trade Center, with a focus on the relationship between Rockerfeller and Arthur Tobin. Rockerfeller had proposed 5 million square feet of office space, but Tobin doubled that number because he was concerned that the transit station planned for the site would be a money loser. The large floor area of the Twin Towers resulted in a glut of rental space that wasn't filled until the late 1990's. The rebuilt area seems to be mostly equivalent to the original.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

education day

Today is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It was a tragic event that resulted in improvements to fire codes in the United States. It also serves to remind us that beneficial progress is slower than it should be. I'm rethinking some word choices in that last sentence. Is "beneficial progress" redundant? Or is it a more accurate usage if we regard "progress" as a chronological description. A quote from Mark Twain comes to mind: "I'm all for progress, it's change I can't stand."  I think I'm going to abandon this topic now.

I teach part time and I'm aware that most of what I say in the classroom is forgotten. This is a good thing, because much of what I say is biased, lacking a factual basis, and eventually obsolete. The assignments I come up with probably benefit me more than the students, but only if I make an effort to revise them on a regular basis. 

In a few hundred years most education will be provided by sophisticated computer algorithms. I think there will still be a human component to learning, but teachers will have more fluid responsibilities and will be managed in large part by the AI systems. Students will spend more time learning how to formulate questions than regurgitate answers. Most answers will be provided by the computer network.

Monday, March 24, 2014

vanilla commentary on the manhattanville campus project

I am of the opinion that there are still many development opportunities on the island of Manhattan. Columbia University shares this opinion, and their efforts at the expansion of their campus demonstrate that they are committed to a long term stay in the city. I had an opportunity to see the construction site last week and I'm astounded at the resources being expended to build this massive project. A lot of big name architects are involved, but their design work seems to be strictly proscribed by a very conventional and rational master plan. I don't find the building designs that impressive--a lot of glass and metal--but I appreciate the concerted effort to define street edges and urban places. This is all standard contemporary architect jive. What's noteworthy is that it took a Supreme Court decision to grant the city and university eminent domain powers over all the junk that was on the site. Robert Moses lives, all hail.

Friday, March 21, 2014

china is new york city

Sorry, too lazy for a meaningless graphic.

Some people claim that China's efforts towards planned urbanization are doomed to failure (I'm misrepresenting the nuances of the poor guy's argument, but hell, this is the internet). My own poorly informed opinion is that most of the bureaucrats and leaders in China have accepted urbanization as a social force that is greater than any single coherent plan. In fact, I would say that Chinese infrastructure boom of the past several decades has a clear linkage to many other development phases in other nations. In urban development there is planning and there is reaction. Reaction tends to inform the planning process. Robert Moses did not invent automobiles.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

the 538 news blog

Since towers of ilium takes pride in its lack of objectivity and has no fear when it comes to making mindless comments or predictions, our criticism of the recently launched 538 blog is par for the course. I predict it will fail. Or more precisely, since nothing really fails on the internet, it will not be as successful as its creator or backers envision. Nate Silver is trying bring rationality and science to news analysis. This is a dumb idea. People do not read the news, do not understand science, and care more about emotional content than policy content.

I will continue to read the blog, however. I am an idealist, and I appreciate lost causes. And since we're on the subject of failure, I decided to post a picture of one of my poor design decisions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

boston building boom part XXXIV

I'm noticing lots of cranes in the city these days. Their locations feel concentrated in certain areas--"fringe of the core" districts. I wonder who finds clusters more attractive--the developers or the lenders. On the whole, Boston seems to be improving, but the construction of luxury high rises means less to the ordinary citizen than a major push for infrastructure improvement would have. I would be more impressed if there was significant mid-rise, middle income development occurring in fringe districts. That type of construction is hard to organize, design, finance, and permit.

Monday, March 17, 2014

the value of folly

The more functional a piece of architecture is, the more compromised it becomes.

longevity and the value of obsolete design

The modernists were driven by aesthetics to a greater degree than any architectural movement before or since. From 1930ish to 1980ish the triumph of form over reason reached such a height of absurdity that designers operated under the belief that water, air, seasons, and humans did not exist. All that mattered was the purity of the geometry, the expression of a specific group of materials, and the conviction that ego that could sustain this ideal in the face of any opposing force--especially the will of a client.

The modernist icons, and the trashier stuff, are not aging that well. I may live to see all of them destroyed.

But, they have a value. They serve as a reminder of what one should not do. They can be used as a teaching tool. Their replacement will keep my profession busy for a little while longer.

Friday, March 14, 2014

the winds of change

What do I want to do as an architect? Is the house under construction pictured above a good idea? Is it something I wish I had been involved with?

The first rule of architecture is to stay in business. Morality cannot invoice clients. Such is the crass reality of a profession that depends on the financial capacity of others to accomplish anything. Even a speculative development presupposes a client who has a set of wants and needs that may not align with the values set forth by a firm.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

the endless winter

I wonder how long it took to produce this painting (or is it a 3D rendering)? I'm hoping that it took longer than a 100 hours. If it's a full blown computer model, then I would hope a 1000 hours. Good art usually takes time, even when it looks effortless. There's a pile of trace paper and sketchbooks where the artists worked out significant details for this particular bit of imaginary landscape.

Windows is shutting down its XP operating system--which the computer I use at work happens to run on. A hardware and software upgrade would cost a few thousand dollars and I'm not sure how much of a net positive effect it would have on my productivity or happiness. I find Windows 8 annoying and pointless. It's a testament to how large organizations can make astonishingly bad decisions.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

public transit and its discontents

Ridin' in my car....

This graph is via the Antiplanner, who I follow occasionally. Although public transit use is higher than it has been since 1956, it still accounts for a small proportion of travel distance. What amazes me is the degree to which driving miles have outpaced population growth. Where the hell are we all going?

I am thinking of banning the use of the word "suburb" at towers of ilium. There is only the city--and there if we want to establish some arbitrary density cut-off for a habitation system that is not "city" then we'll set it so low that it only includes hinterlands like western Montana--basically any place where livestock outnumber humans.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

retraction #684

Okay, I'm not sure if Vance Packard deserves the commendation I offered yesterday. He's a second rate journalist and he wasn't really breaking new ground when he wrote about the advertising industry of the 1950's. I also don't think the "Mad Men" were breaking new ground either. Emotional appeals have been part of salesmanship since the time of Noah and his ship-building enterprise.

As an architect, I'm susceptible to a particular form of marketing techniques. The implication of low maintenance and high performance grab my attention, but I generally make decisions based on historical aesthetics. Many of the products I specify are interchangeable. I often say: "I have no brand loyalty." That is a lie, and I occasionally acknowledge that. I like how Pella windows look, but I'm not that impressed by their performance. I use them because they look like older windows.

I'm a fraud, a huckster, and hidebound traditionalist. Buyer beware.

Monday, March 10, 2014

multiple topics

Oh look, the genius Rem Koolhaas designed another iconic building. Let us hence forth to Rotterdam to worship it.

A brief article in Architectural Record noted that in New York large buildings account for around 4% of the building stock but consume around 50% of the energy in the city. My proportions might be off on that, but the principle is consistent with physical laws. Large skyscrapers built in the 60's perform poorly on all levels (except for the bottom line of a select few owners, lenders, and developers).

My new smartphone is an example of a manufactured desire. From Veblen, to Skinner, to Vance Packard, to Drucker, to Galbraith, to Steve Jobs, to Mark Zuckerberg ( I include him in the pantheon with reservation) marches forth the modern industrial state.

And now, back to architecture....

Friday, March 7, 2014


Because towers of ilium lives under a rock (despite purchasing a smartphone yesterday) we've neglected to call out Ai WeiWei as a genius. He claims that he doesn't make things, he directs others--that aspect above all proves that he's smart. His sculpture above is very similar to this other one:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

sad news

The pot store that proposed to locate near my office is now looking for a new place to set down roots. I think everyone realized that the neighborhood was a bit too rough and hostile for a legitimate business like medical marijuana. We'll continue to bash beer bottles over each others' heads on our lunch breaks.

Things in Ukraine are not good. Things in Syria are even worse. South Sudan, North Korea, Nigeria, and Congo round out the list of unhappiness. As a counterpoint, the Boston Globe had an article about high school students who have stressful summer vacations because they're worried about college prospects.

In architecture news there's nothing much going on. Towers of Ilium will do its best to uphold rigorous standards of journalism.

Oh, I just remembered, Michael Sorkin had a critical article in the Nation about MOMA's plans to raze the Folk Art Museum. It's more tilting at windmills, but I find it curious that Sorkin is holding MOMA to some idealistic standard--the purity and sanctity of art and all that. MOMA, along with every other museum, art gallery, studio, and design firm has to operate like a business. They have to consider the logistical circumstances of getting large volumes of people close by exceptional (and mediocre) art. Their  architecture is always subordinate to their collection--which I'll be thinking of the next time I'm staring at Jackson Pollock.

Monday, March 3, 2014

business edition

Here's a thought experiment: We have two companies that are in essentially the same line of business--widgets, massages, whatever; and we want to make a prediction about their prospects in a free market.

The first business, which we'll call Tversky Inc., conducts its operations based on the philosophy that its customers, suppliers, employers, and executives are deeply irrational. It gears its marketing and service delivery towards emotional appeals. Contracts and prices are arranged based on what it determines to be the psychological status of respective parties.

The second business, which we'll call Fama Corp., conducts its operations based on the principle of rational behavior on the part of all parties and individuals. It sets pricing based on input costs and reasonably sustainable profit margins. It does not assume that information asymmetry exists in its marketplace and it makes not efforts to curry political favor to create business opportunities.

What is the outcome after ten years for both companies based on market share, employer satisfaction, customer satisfaction, quality of service, profit margin, and social benefit?