ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, June 30, 2014

the final disposition

Healthcare architecture will never achieve a state of terminal design. Improvements and modifications will always be required and occur at 10 year intervals--with radical interventions most likely every 30 years. I'm sure that there some nihilists who envision completely automated and robotic care delivery for complex cases. Scenarios would unfold where an injured human is transported by drone into the gentle arms of machinery that performs miracles. Family members will be able to watch the proceedings from a smartphone app.

This will not happen in my lifetime. I expect periodic and unplanned visits to places similar to what is shown in the picture above. Endless corridors, drab waiting rooms, mysterious looking equipment, and a lot of people dedicated to a war against death and decay.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

let's monitor this one

According to this source there is a looming crisis in the residential rental market.

I'm skeptical of this, but the facts on the ground in eastern Massachusetts are consistent with this thesis. I don't think that we've worked through the overhang of the housing bubble overbuild and we haven't begun to tap into the housing resources of distressed cities. So, in some respects we have a housing shortage because vacant housing is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Would it be easier to build more houses where there are jobs, or move jobs to where there is plentiful housing stock. I hew towards the former.

Monday, June 23, 2014

harry ellenzweig

Boston architect Harry Ellenzweig died recently and I only discovered that I was familiar with his work because of his obituary. From what I can see, he belongs to a group of architects who applied the vocabulary of modernism to the design of buildings and spaces that worked for the user. His efforts at Alewife station speak to the success of his approach.

I also heard a story about his firm that I find noteworthy. Ellenzweig, and some of his senior associates, would conduct a "walk of pain" in their office. This consisted of stopping by the workstations of junior designers and drafters and asking comprehensive questions about the coordination of drawings and specifications. This quality control procedure resulted in buildings that had fewer errors.

Friday, June 20, 2014

religious observance friday

Featuring a church that needs part of a steeple.

While walking through Chinatown this morning I got a better sense of the eventual outcome of that neighborhood. Gentrification may have reached a stopping point for the next decade, and not because the buildings left over are worth saving, but because a sort of balance has been achieved between the new and the old. Eventually, the old stuff will get replaced but at a more leisurely pace. And what becomes of neighborhood? Does it really ever disappear?

In other news, I'm not very impressed with any grocery stores in the Boston area. No merchant seems to have grasped the deluge concept of retail. This involves stocking lots of wonderful foodstuffs that attract a lot of people that keep the wide variety of food fresh. Zabar's does this, but they have a population that can support their establishment easily. The problem in Boston is that there doesn't seem to be a consolidated leader of really good foods. People with means eat out a lot, or are willing to drive to different locations for peculiar items.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

possibly more on the larkin building

All architecture is potentially transformative, and the original designer has a certain amount of power when it comes to defining the level of effect. Boston City Hall is a deeply memorable and emotional space, but for the people who work in it every day I imagine a form of numbness has set in.

I believe office space should be generic, bland, predictable, and comfortable. Efforts to create "fun" can come off as creepy or ironic. Attempts at efficiency in the utilization of space may yield benefits to the bottom line of a company, but could backfire if a competitor realizes that work can be improved by giving people more elbow room.

The Larkin Building, like everything Wright did, sought to create a revolution, but it looks much like other office spaces of the time. Technology and gender values defined much of the space.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

lark on

Given that my last post set a new standard for unreadibility I feel compelled to dish out some standard architecture fare. And, yet, I cannot do it. I looked at some images of the Larkin Administration Building and realized that I know nearly nothing about office architecture. This is a cop-out; akin to a fish saying it knows nothing about water, but I'm not sure I can grasp the consequences or merits of such a potent symbol of white collar drudgery.

Who worked there? What did they think? I wonder if the BAC library has the book on it.

a house divided against itself stands

I've been thinking about the necessity of division and classification. At a fundamental level our universe is made up of atoms that have distinct characteristics that are quite dramatic. If I fuse elements lighter than iron I get energy, but it takes energy to fuse iron into heavier elements, so I need a supernova....Okay, let's back up a bit, or move forward. A human will look at two different things and immediately realize that they are different. We assign gender to people we see even if we don't know anything about them. We're hard wired to consider gender an important thing. But, if we start to let this immediate observation inform all of our subsequent actions we can get into deep shit. "But, I thought you were a woman, I didn't realize that you were undergoing reassignment---would you still like to get a drink?"

And now, changing gears before I get towers of ilium in trouble, I want to bring this back to architecture. There's a conceit among architects that they know everything, but they're quite happy to divide the labor of making buildings into discrete parts. Contracts are written to clarify these divisions of labor. Although much is being made of Integrated Project Delivery, the scope of responsibility functions better if individuals can concentrate on their specialty.

More on this later maybe.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

the future moves backwards

A rendering of proposed renovations to my former office building (it's the beige, narrow structure)

I don't think I have strong feelings about this.The last time I was in the office I had a brief sense of nostalgia, but then I got on the elevator and rode it down and walked away. Whatever poetry the architecture had wasn't that significant. We invest places with a sense of soul and spirit, but we sometimes forget that it's only the people who keep a place alive. When you come across an old cellar hole in the woods you can imagine who was there, and your imagination invests that  collection of rubble with a reality that transcends the facts of history.

For 8 Newbury Street, there is only money.

Monday, June 16, 2014

olympic cynicism reconsidered

So, Boston has made the short-list of U.S. cities that will vie for the 2024 Olympiad. While I am still skeptical, I am feeling more charitable towards the people who think this is a good idea. We should all have dreams, and as I have stated previously, discussing the Olympics can be a good way to address the infrastructure needs of the city as a whole.

No matter what decision the IOC makes, the Olympics are not something the city could prepare for in the space of ten years. The acquisition of the land required for the venues would take at least twice as long. Construction of the venues would take another ten years. We are not a third-world dictatorship that can impose large construction projects by fiat over the objections or concerns of the citizenry.

Friday, June 13, 2014

the end of product

Now, aside from the fact that I'm down on the Apple corporation, I'm still strongly leaning towards buying my wife an iPhone. I even took the step of visiting the Boston Apple store for the first time ever. I was mildly impressed by the architecture. I found the spiral stair a bit awkward, but appreciated its craft and sculpture.

Now that Steve Jobs is gone I don't think there will be any real product revolutions in electronics for another decade. Google glasses might be the closest thing to a "new" concept, but flat touch screens have made their mark and can enjoy a major foothold for the next century.

Linked data is the only thing I'm looking forward to. Google seems to know enough about me to keep some of my junk in order, but I'm expecting a lot more. The computer I'm using now is pretty much a stand-alone piece of plastic and wires. It's utility is profound and it's fragility is something I don't respect enough. One good fire would put me out of business for a while.

Fortunately, most of what I've produced in the past few years has been built. The unbuilt stuff is unmemorable. I have some personal items, but they're of limited value in the grand scheme of things.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

thursday news round-up

The Boston Convention Center will be expanded. Huzzah. I guess when you're in an arms race you can't back down. Or, to put it more bluntly: when you're in a hole, keep digging. I haven't come across an article that assesses the impact of the Convention Center. Is it net positive? What happens to the Hynes Convention Center?

MGM will most likely get to build a casino in Springfield. It will not save the city.

Continued bad news in Egypt, Syria, Iraq. Am I leaving some country out? And, don't be a construction worker in Dubai or Qatar.

The World Cup is starting in Brazil. I predict that things will go relatively smoothly.

I wonder if masonry construction will make a comeback.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

the world will start to end again next year

At least according to Gail Tverberg. She predicts that energy production will peak next year and then begin a rapid decline that will be accompanied by complete social and economic breakdown across the world. Although towers of ilium cannot claim to be as smart as she is, I doubt that things will play out in the neat fashion that her graph shows. Tverberg is demonstrating a peculiar myopia about the nature of energy resources--they're still too cheap, plentiful, and diversified to play a major role in Armageddon. Although I believe we're seeing a drop-off in fossil fuel production and use right now, market slack will be filled by an increasing share of renewables and nuclear.

I hope so. I don't own a shotgun and am not fond of canned food.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

tuesday defines architecture

I've managed to get into a situation where I have to come to a clear understanding of interior architecture. It would be my preference to avoid having to define this, but the circumstances are beyond my control. It is a human obligation to set arbitrary limits on things--we are after all, thoroughly linguistic in mental capacity. Dragons do not have fur.

It's not enough to say that interior architecture is the inside of a building. An open air stadium is an inside that is also an outside. The user experience is internal and boundaries have to be clearly established in order for spaces to function. Weatherproofing becomes a component of design.

The best I can come up with is that an interior architect has a greater degree of responsibility for internal adjacency, lighting, surface textures, color, and furniture.

Monday, June 9, 2014

fire and building types

In theory, this shouldn't happen in the U.S. and  the fact that this happened in China four years ago is embarrassing and tragic, but it demonstrates how fire resistance is something of a learning curve for people. Most construction materials demonstrate poor performance when subjected to fire. Concrete is not necessarily the best choice, nor can it be considered "fireproof" by a strict definition of the term.

I need to get more familiar with fire resistant assembly methods. I feel like I understand the basic principles, but I can't answer complex questions. Can I have a wood floor in a high rise? Sure, as long as it is a finish surface only. Can I fill any building up with paper and plastics? Sure, no problem.

Friday, June 6, 2014

the waiting

In past posts I've used the phrase "terminal design" to describe certain things made by humans that have a fundamentally fixed form that defies dramatic refinement. Sledgehammers, machine guns, shipping containers, cranes, and file cabinets are potent examples. Architecture has fewer examples of terminal design, and I argue that it's concentrated in residential buildings. Living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms constitute endpoints in space management. Decoration and geometric arrangements are unlimited in scope, but there are certain proportions that most people agree are suitable.

Healthcare architecture is by far the most protean of design challenges. We can entertain the idea that in the future sophisticated robots will undertake nearly all procedures in pleasant settings with a far greater degree of success than our fellow humans. Until then, we will all be condemned to waiting rooms and exam rooms that amplify anxiety and distress. And all the magazines will be out of date.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

we live in fear here also

By commenting on the event I can guarantee that this will be censored. I can enjoy that small bit of power--a day late and a dollar short. It's been a while that public demonstrators were shot on orders of the government in public. We prefer to keep  massacres in this country more personal--nuts with guns, etc...

The Chinese Party (I think we can dispense with the "communist" part--it's out of date) exists to survive. The people in positions of power seem to be working hard to achieve the right balance of bread, circus, repression, and patriotism. Without free speech, however, there can be no quality control at any level of society.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

the scale evolution

The term "human scale" is tossed about with little regard for how contextual it is. The building codes set some definitive guidelines for heights, widths, and areas that are derived from human proportions, but these have little bearing on the normal functions of architecture.
Spaces in commercial architecture were transformed by Accessibility laws, but in my opinion,  the more significant changes have occurred at the residential scale. Much of the Colonial era architecture is notable for its cramped qualities--even in homes of the wealthy. A signal of increasing prosperity is the increase in ceiling heights, but even that can be a limited gesture. Servant spaces stayed small for a long time, and when they started to get larger, the live-in serving class disappeared in the U.S.

The scale evolution has reached a plateau in terms of size. The diversity of scale within houses will oscillate unto infinity. My boldest prediction is that attitudes towards storage space will get more refined. More people will start demanding less of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

this is my only line

Something that's been bouncing around in my head for a while about the nature of human organizations. People in business and politics often talk about the "public sector" and the "private sector" as if this division were a clear thing. As far as I know, most companies use public infrastructure, which was often built by private companies, with money borrowed by public entities, which was lent to private investors, who would seek to have political influence, and so on, and so on. I think this division is mostly false and muddy enough to be a distraction from what I regard to be a more potent definition of organized systems.

I propose two types of firms: Those that accomplish a defined task, and those that do not. By this rule, many popular dysfunctional corporations and governments are getting things done. A business that is being liquidated, or a dictator who is being strung up are the only clear examples of complete mis-management and failure in the face of countervailing forces.

A proper analysis of organizations becomes an effort to predict whether or not failure is just around the corner or if things will continue creaking along for a while longer. The organization is something that can do good things if small parts are made to work better. Searching for the "perfect" business model or right group of leaders becomes secondary to a piecemeal approach to improvements.

Monday, June 2, 2014

order of operations

What is an architectural detail? My definition is shifty and unreliable, but I often try to be pragmatic about the subject because some of my students actually trust me. So, an architectural detail is a graphic depiction of a construction assembly. Now, a detail can also be the built item, but I like to focus on the graphic component, because most design starts with a drawing--and I'm not fussy about the medium used.

The curious thing about architecture is that a major design element can start off as a small item. The issue of scale can be distracting, and untrained observers often sense details without being able to describe their importance. Something that has been lost, or deeply buried, in the design education models is the value of details as decoration.