ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, May 30, 2014

no trip to glascow

So I was supposed to comment on the fire at the Glascow School of Art, but that's old news by now. I found this pretty picture of the Pertamina Tower designed by SOM for the state run Indonesian Energy Company. It has a turbine at the top that will generate electricity. At least until it breaks.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

the big air

Modern buildings are just boxes full of air. Air that's being moved around by various forces. Air that's full of water, air that's cool, air that's warm, air that smells funny. Architects tend to focus on visual and tactile aspects of space and shove the air problem over to the mechanical engineers. This division of labor is necessary, but there's no guarantee that the left hand of the building designer can keep track of the right hand of the environmental engineer.

In most circumstances, our boxes of air are okay. The engineer relies on thermostats, the architect signs over important parts of the building for air distribution networks, and the client is mostly happy. Sometimes, the mechanical engineer confuses the current project with a previous project and makes assumptions that turn out to be wrong. The architect makes this mistake also. Efficiency, more than comfort, suffers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

songdo city and the limits of imagination

This is a street in New Songdo City, South Korea. It could almost be the United States, but the buildings are too new and stylistically consistent. The Globe reported that a Boston developer had a hand in its creation. I'm curious as to why the Koreans felt the need to recruit an American to help them do urban planning. The outcome would have been the same no matter who was involved.

Okay, that's not true. Some genius crackpot out there could have proposed something much more humane, but the vicious economic logic would have crushed that idea.

I'll have some commentary on the Mackintosh Library fire tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

and where will we put them?

Some nice looking row houses in Roxbury.

So, Mayor Walsh has made the claim that he will seek to encourage the development of more middle class housing in Boston. I wish him luck, but I'm concerned that the pace of new construction in the city is at top speed already. To increase the rate of construction, the mayor would have to find a way to create incentives for builders at all different scales. He would also have to find a way to encourage institutions of higher ed to build more dorms.

Many Boston neighborhoods are at a high level of density, and the people who live in them are not often eager to allow larger scale buildings. The build-out of the Seaport District is already accounted for. The wastelands south of Melnea Cass Blvd. and west of 93 constitute the most important development district, but I've already decided that the Olympic complex will be place there.

Monday, May 26, 2014

godzilla is a keynesian

Monsters that destroy cities have a net positive impact on economic growth. Although the loss of life and social trauma caused by these creatures is considerable, the rebuilding efforts will allow for considerable improvements--and one could hope--an elimination of red tape.

Monsters could also be used for select demolition projects, but I'm not sure they could be trained or manipulated to do limited damage. There are many cities in the southern part of the U.S. that have escaped significant monster attacks. Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and Phoenix have been bypassed. Chicago should also be destroyed, but I'm not sure why a large monster would travel to the midwest.

Friday, May 23, 2014

I'd buy that for a dollar

There's an idiotic news story out there about how JP Morgan is investing 100 million dollars in Detroit over a period of five years. This is being portrayed as a good thing, but it's actually quite pitiful. 20 million bucks a year doesn't buy very much, even in a depressed region. It could provided financing for a hundred new homes, or a thousand automobiles, or maybe ten crappy fast food franchises.

I do not know what type of investment would "save" Detroit, but JP Morgan is signalling that the city is not worth very much.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

from vision to enduring illusion

This image is from Boing Boing, which often has unique and exciting content, unlike towers of ilium. What we do offer here is sour commentary, absurd claims, and idiotic predictions. Today's post falls into the category of sour commentary, since the subject of Disneyland is loaded with cultural importance.

I cannot imagine contemporary America without Disneyland. This rendering might be the most important piece of architectural and commercial artwork ever produced. Herb Ryman, produced this over the course of a single day in collaboration with Walt Disney. I am struck by how this original vision has been so consistently maintained by the corporation. I don't know when they made the change to the more symmetrical version of the Fantasyland Castle, but the iconic details of every element are still in place.

Disneyland is the United States. We can all imagine living in a self-contained paradise that is well-stocked with nostalgic imagery. The barren wastelands of the outside world, which Ryman so skillfully portrays by that dark band of mountains in the background, remind us of how lucky we are to be in the one safe place.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

mcbride is probably going to be right

It has been noted in the media that single family starts have been depressed and that most improvements in homebuilding have come from multi-family construction. Bill McBride of Calculated Risk predicts that the multi-family market will start moving sideways, i.e; back to the trend level of 300,000 units a year. He also predicts that single family starts will continue to grow as we climb out of this long depression. Housing market demand is still regional but I think the hard winter slowed down lots of projects everywhere. The population of the U.S. keeps growing, and eventually, the overstock will be occupied (either bought or rented).

The next real estate/finance crisis will dovetail with the next energy crunch. I'm guessing around 2018, when people realize that the shale fuel boom was a bust. Maybe 2019. But then, ripeness is all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

all in springfield

Here at towers of ilium we just can't seem to leave casinos alone. I lifted this picture from this blog:

When it comes to Springfield, my sense of perspective and attachment is limited. The city feels familiar in the way that junkyards feel familiar. Despair is mixed with opportunity, but the opportunity comes from the potential for destruction and salvage, not rejuvenation. The casino plan is like the transmission from the Ford Bronco that can be put into an F-150 pickup so the thing runs for a few more years. If we had to write a song, it would be "Let's all limp together, let's all limp together...."

On net, the casino will have a positive regional effect in my opinion. But the benefits will be spread around the surrounding towns. Downtown Springfield will suffer from the inevitable negatives that the casino must bring--drug dealers, loan sharks, thieves, hustlers. They'll just have more energy.

Monday, May 19, 2014

jane jacobs and the limits of data

I read a newspaper article last week about recent research that demonstrated how older buildings with a diversity of scale helped foster better economic conditions in cities. Jane Jacobs made this observation many decades ago, and it should serve as a sobering lesson to city leaders and developers who become infatuated by the return on investment provided by office towers or luxury condominiums.

That's the old news. The new news is that Antarctica is going to be dumping large amounts of ice into the oceans over the coming decades, which means I'll probably be buying flood insurance sooner rather than later.

But, back to Jane Jacobs. She was critical of people who were obsessed with data, or spent more time trying to collect statistics than make observations about their environment. She realized that her qualitative assessment of Greenwich Village and the North End could be applied to nearly all urban situations. She also had history on her side because she was able to recognize how older cities with poor transportation infrastructure were nicer to live in.

Friday, May 16, 2014

more wright

I read an interesting review of the MoMA exhibit on Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City planning scheme. The article quite reasonably concluded that Wright was "anti-city" and that his notion of low density suburbs dominated by cars was a prototype for what actually happened in the post war housing boom. I agree to an extent, but where that thesis is weak is in the generous lot sizes Wright allotted for people. A one acre building lot is the exception rather than the rule in suburban development. Builders prefer higher density lots--4000 to 7000 s.f. What Wright's plan has in common with modern paradigms is a reluctance to intersperse commercial and social architecture within suburban neighborhoods. Commercial development, whether by virtue of zoning or economic logic, tends to concentrate near suburbs, and rarely accessible by anything but a car.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

architect of fear and terror

I was going to post an image of something by H.R. Giger, but just about everything I found scared me too much. He will be missed, but his legacy is solid. I think that subsequent generations will re-discover his visionary brilliance and experience the same sense of shock at the art he produced. I am glad he was in the world and did what he did. I'm also glad that it didn't set a stylistic trend in architecture or fashion. At least, not yet.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

to a man with a hammer (chapter XXIII)

I read an interesting article recently about how Steve Wynn's Mirage Casino changed the character of Las Vegas. Based on what I read, I was impressed by how Wynn managed the architecture and planning of the operation. He was able to create an environment where his design team could make good decisions and the end result was a project that proved many of his competitors and critics wrong. The Mirage became something that other people had to emulate to stay in business.

While I respect the process, I'm not particularly excited by casinos or gambling. The architecture devoted to such pursuits strikes me as ironic and a little bit poignant. The money that sustains such operations comes from zombies who push buttons continuously like they're in some sort of laboratory experiment.

It's also worth noting that Wynn has sought to replicate the Mirage model everywhere else--from Macau to Everett, Massachusetts. The Everett project is something that I assign a 25% chance of success. If Wynn does succeed in securing the license he'll plop down another Mirage look-alike. I doubt it will have the gilded luster of the original, and I doubt it will deliver benefits that exceed its social costs.

Monday, May 12, 2014

the act of making stuff

I was going to use a different word than "stuff" but this is a family friendly blog.

I participated in the making of the thing in the picture above. The shed is pre-existing, but the new section of roof is intended to improve the outdoor cooking experience of certain people. The structural characteristics of this roof are somewhat dubious, but consistent with other things built nearby. I can't predict its longevity, but I'm confident that it will last as long as it should.

Friday, May 9, 2014

elephants vs. mice

A house I designed was assigned a HERS score of 55, which is a good thing. It would be a better thing if the house was much smaller and had a slightly higher score (a lower HERS score indicates less energy consumption per unit of area). Someday, if we ever get to the point where we have unlimited supplies of solar energy, it won't matter that much.

On the subject of energy, there's this stuff:

The New Yorker magazine had an article about the company that is making and promoting this. Since I use supplements I can understand the convenience of high quality processed foods, but I do not think that this will catch on. Humans like food for reasons other than nourishment, and people who deprive themselves of the tactile and social pleasures of eating for the sake of higher productivity have obviously not read their Douglas Adams.

What the New Yorker article failed to address was the EROI (energy return on energy invested) of Soylent vs.other foods. The mass production and transportation of the constituent parts of the product involve major supply chains. I am aware that the 4000 calories I eat each day requires more than 4000 calories of fossil fuels to bring to my belly, and I know that this situation could unravel in the near future. Does Soylent beat out the EROI of a subsistence farmer? Certainly not. Does it beat out the eggs I usually have for breakfast?

I watched Soylent Green in a high school science class. I found it quite disturbing, but I do appreciate the humor this modern company is going after.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

covet thy neighbor's life

I think there's an old Russian joke about property ownership. When asked what he wants, a farmer says: "I'm not greedy, I only want the land that borders on my own."

When I look around my neighborhood, I see elements on other people's property that I wish I had--a south facing back yard, trim details, grape arbors, nicer trees and lawns (oh, the curse of the greenest lawn....). Before I get to wrapped up in buyer's remorse or envy, I find myself saying, "but thank goodness I don't live there" and focus on the negative features that I don't have to deal with.

The paradox of residential architecture in the United States is that we've resolved the important stuff in design and there's a great body of knowledge available for implementing it. 400 s.f. of shelter per person, a patch of outdoor space, climate control, access to transportation. The homes shown above have all that, and before I begin a long rant about sprawl and the desolation of the American experience, I have to admit that I under a different set of circumstances I would find happiness there. Wherever it is. Despite the uniformity, I could fixate on advantages that my house had, and criticize the condition of my next door neighbor.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

the inevitable

Mayor Marty Walsh and Mayor Bill de Blasio will most likely face catastrophic flooding in their respective cities within the next 10 years. I think that Boston has been due to have its ticket punched for about fifty years, and any measures that have been taken to mitigate the effects of storm surge will be tested beyond their capacity.

When the floods happen the media will fixate on high density areas because it's good copy when a city street has three feet of water on it. But like what happens in every flood, it's the lower density coastal suburbs that will get walloped. Quincy would probably be more adversely impacted than any Boston neighborhood. I wonder if I'll stay or go if something bad is on its way.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

once again rudolph

Paul Rudolph has a large footprint in 20th century architecture. His volume and diversity of work continues to amaze and frighten me. Just yesterday I came across an article about this government building in Goshen, New York. The Wikipedia entry does not paint an encouraging picture of its prospects.

As much as I am convinced of the need for every building he built to be demolished, I admire the confidence of his designs and his mastery of geometry. He knew exactly what he was doing, and I don't doubt that his personality helped to sell many projects. I also admire his absolute betrayal of the tenets of Modernism. He abandoned functionality, regarded durability with contempt, and embraced his egotistical form-making with no sense of remorse about its negative impacts on the community.

Monday, May 5, 2014

the fog of design

Should a designer be consistent in his or her approach to the architectural process? To what extent can the client be trusted to be aware of needs and desires? Until I retire (circa 2015) I'll be wrestling with this. I have several clients right now who do not know what they want. I find myself in the role of providing options, but every time I present something I try not to make it appear as though a conclusion has been reached. Even if I don't trust a client, I need to hear the phrase "Let's do this" before I close a chapter on that phase of the service.

Some clients employ judo on me, which puts me in a bind, because I don't want to be the one who says "black" when it should be a dark grey.

Friday, May 2, 2014

try the whiskey

Architecture criticism isn't just about shooting fish in a barrel, it's about making people think about the shocking waste of time and energy that occurs once a relatively small group of people makes a bad decision. Like wars, bad architecture originates from a sense of anxiety that gets misdirected into action. In the case of the Scots, the architectural legacy of their southern overlords created an environment of mistrust and vulnerability. Consequently, they allowed an academic architect to saddle them with a Parliament building that is at once unmemorable and wonderfully photogenic in its awfulness. 

However, the Scottish don't have to pin their entire hopes on one building. Some day in the near future they'll be faced with the same dilemma as the leaders of the City of Boston--how long do we maintain something that nearly everyone hates? Once doubt about a piece of architecture has been sown, it blossoms with a fervor for demolition, or more appropriately, quiet abandonment.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

creeping into the merry month may

The photo above depicts the recent failure of a section of floor in Boston City Hall. It is being investigated by structural engineers, but according to a Globe article this has happened before in the building. Before I start a long rant on this particular masterpiece of Brutalism, I want to point out that buildings are in a constant state of motion. Since I work primarily in wood I expect anything that is built off my designs to move the most in the first year of service. These movements create cosmetic failures that are fixed with plaster and paint. The failure exhibited in the floor above is slightly more serious but doesn't imply that the building is on the verge of collapse.

What I find  worth commenting on is how the space within City Hall is dismal, dank, and awful. I can imagine Willy Loman sitting on one of those concrete benches, contemplating suicide as he reviews the broken promises in his life. Anyone who argues that the manifest failures of City Hall are the result of value-engineering should be required to present a convincing rendering of the original intent of the designers. The overall character of the building is repression and despair--not things that can be fixed by some nice mood lighting.