ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

the machine is the garden

Landscaping and gardening are design disciplines that present considerably more challenges than architecture that is oriented towards buildings. Exterior environments are in a state of change that overwhelms human intervention--while perversely,  human intervention constitutes a critical component of that change. The actions of an individual take on the flavor of futility and as a consequence, decay and movement become legitimate parts of the design composition. We are more inclined to embrace continual maintenance in a landscaping project. If a tree dies it is replaced, and no hard feelings arise. If a door in a building fails it becomes grounds for a claim. We expect retaining walls to fail--but the collapse of a building's foundation is a catastrophe.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

observations about eternity

Humans frequently have a tendency of assigning a "golden age" to a period in the past. It's a matter of economy. Like Gatsby, we know that it takes less effort to create lies about history than put the effort into creating a better tomorrow. True futurism consists of the actions of children moving into a world littered with the errors of their parents.

Now I'm getting side-tracked. This is supposed to be about architecture; specifically, religious architecture. I will make the claim that all golden ages of monumental building inspired by piety are behind us. We're still worshiping financial institutions, but as the experience of the Freedom Tower (or am I supposed to call it 1 WTC) demonstrates, our hearts aren't into it anymore. I think that religious institutions will persist for considerably longer than Richard Dawkins would like them to, but I think any construction projects they undertake will continue to be mundane, conservative, and unmemorable. Smart parishioners will make a point of investing in mixed-use or convertible structures.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The utility of space is viewed differently by architects. We assign it a higher value when it is unoccupied--hence the way renderings and photos often exclude entourage. The fact that the design profession makes such a big deal about "space" indicates the level of indoctrination. NASA may own space, but on the planet Earth everything that gets built gets considered and evaluated as an inverted sculpture.

This photograph seems particularly detached from today's blog content, but if we visually edit out the wagon, the people, the tools, and the clutter we have a pure moment of enclosure. A dim room with bright windows at one end. It's hard to do. That wagon is good looking.

Friday, April 25, 2014

failing to make a decision--food edition

Today's blog post will not break any new ground. Towers of ilium strives for nuance instead of originality.

I had a bad experience at Trader Joe's last night. I drove my car to the place, which made me feel slightly guilty--normally I shop at the Trader Joe's on Boylston Street and must adhere to the discipline of buying no more than I can carry on public transportation. So, the Trader Joe's as suburban shopping center experience was a definite betrayal of values. The experience inside the store was slightly different, but in a curious way. The aisles were wider but had the same items. I realized how the store caters exclusively to the "modern" shopper--a creature who is strapped for time because of a demanding white collar job. The food items are pre-made, conveniently packaged, reliably tasty, and cleverly set at price points that makes them feel cheaper than take-out from a restaurant.

I filled my cart with things I did not need, all the while telling myself the lie that I was making good decisions. I want to be well prepared and well nourished for the zombie apocalypse. I grabbed two boxes of brownie mix without meaning to. I bought ice cream because I had never tried ice cream from Trader Joe's. I bought a hundred dollar's worth of packaging, and I didn't plan a single meal.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

boston is probably not like great britain

The Boston metro region and the United Kingdom are similar when it comes to housing in one respect: supply is constrained by regulations and not able to keep up with household formation. As a consequence, housing prices are quite high and options limited. The housing bubble affected both places, but it's worth noting that in Boston, prices moved sideways after a three year decline from the 2005 peak. We're experiencing a demand driven price run-up right now, but nothing along the lines of the speculative madness of the previous decade. Britain, by contrast seems to be gripped by bubblemania again, with prices surging in and around London. It would be interesting to compare London to New York City.

Interesting. More similar to Boston than to the U.K. I wonder if ex-pats like to park money as real estate in London more than anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

obsolete, useless, and insane

I can't remember the last wristwatch I owned. When I was young I had a series of Casio digitial watches that I thought were the greatest things in the world. I was proud of the fact that they claimed to be waterproof up to 40 meters. I never had occasion to test that and in retrospect, I'm glad--I have a fear of deep water. I lusted after a watch that had a calculator, but I never owned one. I went cold turkey on a wristwatch after I got a cellphone and now I'm slightly puzzled by people who still own and rely on wristwatches. I'll admit that they're big business, and will probably continue to be big business up until the lights go out.

Now, I'm beginning to lust after a sealed combustion hot water heater. If I'm motivated, I'll have one installed this year. It's satisfying to own and display new and shiny things. A water heater doesn't have much weight as a fetish symbol, but I'll enjoy having one. It's only visible sign for the outside world will be two plastic pipes sticking out the plastic covered wall of my house. 

James Bond had a variety of souped-up, weaponized wristwatches. One of them was a teletype machine. Bond wore his wristwatch to bed--all the time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

all these yesterdays

The outdoor season in New England began a week or two ago, and like a few million other homeowners I've started paying my weekly tribute to the Home Depot. This ritualistic sacrifice of money is necessary for the well-being of that holiest of spaces on my property--the front lawn. Many birds are grateful for the seeds I spread in a futile effort to encourage the growth of non-native grasses. I occasionally worry about the downstream effects of some of the chemicals I have purchased. My experiments with clover have been limited in success. I'm worried that everything I've planted is dead or dying. Something always ends up growing--and I actually look forward to weeding some of the uglier species.

I enjoying seeing lawns that are in good shape--but I also enjoy variety. Residential landscaping will certainly become more diverse and hopefully, sustainable, in the decades to come. At some point I'll settle on a good solution, or somebody will reveal it to me, for the right price. Until then, the alchemy will continue.

Monday, April 21, 2014

architecture monday

At the risk of losing my credentials as a curmudgeon, I can state with confidence that architecture has been on a consistently upward trajectory since its inception. There have been some retrograde movements, but even then, building technology continued to improve in subtle ways. User expectations tend to be satisfied by banal experiences---air conditioned offices and factories, dwellings with multiple spaces, bathrooms, specialized art venues. Spiritual and inspired form-making still makes headlines, but a well designed operating room in a hospital is regarded as more important  to the public welfare. If we take a hard look at the profession we find a culture of wonks who play the struggling artist game--but only as longing as their cashing checks from ordinary clients for ordinary things.

The image above is from Peter Gruhn. He is not often bound by pragmatism in his design work, to his credit.

Friday, April 18, 2014

news from around the world

I'm partly responsible for the image at the top.

I need to share the last few lines from a short story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died yesterday in Mexico City. This is from "No One Writes to the Colonel" and I am reciting it from memory. Accuracy will suffer, but the spirit remains intact:

"Is there any money left?" his wife asked.
The colonel paused, and then said, "No."
"But what will we eat?" his wife asked with fear in her voice.
The colonel thought for a moment, and then answered:

Which seems an appropriate segue into the topic Peak Oil. According to a recent article on some analysts and investors have concluded that petroleum production peaked in 2005/2006. We're now bouncing along a Hubbert plateau of around 89 million barrels per day. While peak oil does not imply an immediate crisis, I'm almost willing to put money on the high probability of $5 per gallon gasoline within the next five years. It should be noted that "peak oil" actually means "peak cheap oil"

Aside from oil, I'm placing a lot hope in the veracity of the graph above. I'm not sure how the Koch family will be impacted by that. I would imagine that they are diversified, and will win no matter what happens.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

talking of michelangelo in the room

A student recently remarkd: "Architecture today is the death of change."

I once read an account of Michelangelo's approach to architecture. He operated in a theatre of constant experiment and movement. He would have full scale mock-ups of mouldings and materials hoisted up building facades so that he could study them from different vantage points. He was demanding that things be torn down and rebuilt because he was dissatisfied with the effect. For him, the building could never be complete. It is curious to compare how his process in subtractive sculpture was to remove the stone that was hiding a preordained shape in a block of marble.

I think I agree with that student, insofar as there is an expectation from nearly all members of a design and construction team that a building be fully realized in the computer prior to a shovel of dirt being moved. Changes in process are inevitable, but the success of project management is too often measured by how slender the portfolio of change orders can be.

Building users, however, operate in a state of constant motion--either through occupant turnover or the natural evolution of space requirements. Their frustration can be latent and repressed, or it can manifest itself in rebellion against the structure being occupied. People move, and buildings have to move also. The only static architecture is a tomb.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

the journey of new york

Some conservatives like to make the argument that New York City could solve its housing shortage if rent controls were lifted. This is naive thinking--Boston abandoned rent controls some time ago and we still have a regional housing shortage. These shortages stem from multiple problems; permitting bureaucracy, stupid zoning, financing inertia, and increasing inequality.

Another issue is nostalgia. The people in a city like Hong Kong have embraced verticality and density to a degree that is inconceivable for most Americans. Jane Jacobs spoke fondly of the necessity of old buildings, but she regarded them as a transitional necessity in the march towards urbanization. Historicists and embedded residents grow accustomed to a density standard and seek to preserve it even when the quality of the building stock is terrible.

New York has stopped reinventing itself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

good fences

Every boundary erected by humans implies the possibility of transgression. This picket fence seems to enclose a portion of someone's property and provides a clear visual marker that would be recognized by any other person. It performs its service as a barrier by tapping into a deep part of our psychology that recognizes artificial space definers and assigns them a form of power that is far in excess of their physical presence. Animals respond to these visual or symbolic markers with a similar respect. A highly motivated dog could surmount this fence with ease, but in most circumstances would understand that such an action would have negative consequences.

Last year, on this day, the Tsarnaev brothers committed a violation against public space and personal property. My thoughts on the event are still unresolved. From some things I observed yesterday near Copley Square, the consequences of their actions are reflected in some minor increases in public safety measures. However, these actions--fence building on a large scale--have not turned my work neighborhood into a police state. I expect to see large crowds in the following days. These crowds are the most effective repudiation of some of the intentions and aspirations of those two criminals.

Monday, April 14, 2014

the shoes are dropping

It's only been in the past few weeks that the Globe has started running articles on the potential traffic impacts of the proposed casinos in Everett and Revere. I predict that this issue will turn out to be the deal breaker for one of the projects. When I look at the map of these areas north of Boston I start feeling claustrophobic. The tangle of waterways, neighborhoods, airports, and industrial parks are all served by twisting loops of obsolete roadways. I am sure that both casino companies have crack teams of traffic engineers working on plans, but if I were a resident near either facility I would be a little nervous.

Previously on this blog I have probably made statements to the effect that traffic is the price that cities pay for prosperity. Towers of ilium stands behind its contradictions.

Friday, April 11, 2014

truth in advertising

Eastern Nazarene College has a series of ads posted on the MBTA which tout the convenience of their programs. One claim is that the campus is a "5 minute walk from the Wollaston T station." This is a conscious lie. It is a solid 10 to 15 minute walk from the platform of the train station to the main entrance pictured above. I don't hold much of a grudge against the school for promoting their location in this way--the copy wouldn't sound as good if the transit time was described accurately. I think it's more appropriate to comment on how we value time in discrete, and often useless quantities. If it takes me 5 minutes to do something important, would the task have been more relevant if it had taken 10? I don't plan on trying speed dating, but I know that if I were to participate in something like my personality would be defined by a ticking clock.

It's not a bad walk, by the way. Parts of the neighborhood are shabby, but not threatening.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

prediction dept. #66308308

Gail Tverberg referenced this chart in a recent article on There has been some talk in the popular press about the possibility of energy independence and of the U.S. becoming a net energy exporter. That is pure bullshit. The EIA came under fire from energy experts when it published projections that showed a surge in oil and natural gas production. I regard the steepness of that surge implied by the graph above to be a hilariously idiotic speculation. What I will be interested to see, however, is if the share of renewables beats expectations and predictions. If we are able to move our share of energy resources from wind and solar to 15% in the next several decades I think that would be a good thing. Nuclear could also see a mild comeback, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. I think institutional investors would prefer a windmill to a reactor any day of the week.

science wednesday

I've been observing how people arrange themselves on elevators. I'm sure that numerous peer reviewed studies have been done on this, but I'm enjoying my own informal research. My old building had a non-standard elevator, which tended to enforce an uncomfortable intimacy, and was particularly hard on the claustrophobic. Modern elevators, and their modern users, tend to arrange themselves with a high degree of predictability--As soon as you get on you arrange yourself in the back half of the cab. If your the first person on in a group you'll set up in the zone near the floor buttons and act as the car operator.

People who are experienced train users will exhibit a similar rational behavior. Inexperienced train users muck things up reliably.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

it was built once

How's that line go: "The technology of an advanced civilization is indistinguishable from magic." The actual quote by Arthur C. Clarke is slightly different, but I'm not big on accuracy. I'm offering a corollary to that sentiment: "The architecture of the present is indistinguishable from fantasy."

Emirates Airlines has been running big ads on MBTA trains in an effort to drum up tourism to the strange city built on nothing in the desert. I find renderings like the one above particularly eerie because they actually exceed the ambitions of many fantasy illustrators. I can picture Fritz Lang, transported by time machine, wandering the streets of this metropolis. I'm not sure how impressed he would be. At ground level grandeur has a way of fading. Hot winds blow trash from side of the street to the next, cars are stuck in traffic, people walk with purpose, and the sun causes all the bright colors to fade into nothing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

more of the same #45

My wife picked up the latest copyof Architectural Record, noticed that it was the annual "Houses" issue, and remarked: "Well, this won't be good." She flipped through it in less than 30 seconds.

In other news, I'm enjoying my book by Elizabeth Greenspan about the rebuilding of the WTC site. It makes me realized how detached I've been from the process. Despite having visited the place a few times over the past decade I have not personal stake in it. I am at turns courteous or contemptuous of the architecture. I'm looking forward to the day when I can just walk through the neighborhood, but by then my indifference will only have grown.I dislike that area of Manhattan because I recognize it for what it is: an industrial zone for finance.

I have scores of sketches of tall buildings safely tucked away in notebooks. Fortunately, none of them will get built. If a client were to approach me (a deeply insane and disturbed client) and demand a skyscraper, I would most likely decline the job. Actually, probably not--like all architects I can't afford to pass on a commission.

Friday, April 4, 2014

not here not quite yet

This is not my office. There are many offices like this, but this one is not mine. This office leads some one through green pastures, and it is full of want. Yet without places like this, how many of us would feel useless? So many are guided along the right paths, and this has led us out of the darkness. It is not the noise in the places like this that matter, but who is reached by the work performed therein. Every person prepares a table here. They are human, they keep clean and ready, and this place is a part of them. It will follow them home, through every day of life, until the cup runs dry. Here our country is saved and defended, and there are no enemies that cannot be defeated. We will dwell in this house forever.

The photo was lifted okchick.blogspot

Thursday, April 3, 2014

the suburban model and its fan base

The fact that people prefer to live in houses has not really ever sunk in with architects. The tendency towards hive design prevails, and those examples of suburban architecture that do manage to find their way into the magazines are invariably iconoclastic. For the profession there are two utopias: dense urban and rural seclusion.

Sensitivity to context makes us beholden to convention. I favor pitched roofs for aesthetic reasons more than functional ones. The last house I ever work one will almost certainly be traditional in form and detail.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

the world moves forward #402

I should plan on specifying this product for my next project.

The Massachusetts energy code changes from the 2009 IECC to the 2012 IECC in July of this year. Officially, it's already been adopted so we're in a transitional phase. I can't claim to know what the difference is between the two codes. Will triple glazing become mandatory? Will insulated sheathing be the only way to build a wall? Will enforcement of blower door tests become more stringent?

I should know the  answers to these questions. Learning is hard in a profession like architecture. Structural steel has only been around for 150 years. Insulated glass has been around for less than a 100 years. And yet, you can still purchase lead based paint and certain types of incandescent light bulbs for some applications.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

boston builds

Image not related to content of blog post.

Are we starting another real estate bubble? My sense is probably yes, but I think this one may end differently than the last time. There are a lot of projects active in Boston right now (not so much in Quincy--more on that topic later this week if I remember). The "luxury" residential boom is going strong, but an article in today's Globe pointed to friction at the BRA. In the Menino administration projects might have gotten a faster response from the city. If the development pipeline gets clogged, then there could be a slowdown of construction permits and starts in the city.

I'm wondering when interest rates will start to rise. My guess is not for a few years. If they do rise, the should rise in the context of true bubblemania--not perceived hints of shadows of gossip of threats of inflation that exceeds 2%.

Those people with fixed rate mortgages will be somewhat indifferent to this turn of events. Unless we lose our jobs.