ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, July 31, 2014

crackpot physics

I'm wondering if any type of elastic reaction in a building material results in permanent creep. If the answer is yes, then the structural performance of a building is a function of stress generated by use and external natural loads. A designer cannot expect a heavily used building in a hot, windy climate to last very long.

A client remarked yesterday that the economy might be overheating. I responded that we are still climbing out of a deep, deep hole. The Boston region seems to be doing okay; in fact it's getting hard to find good contractors for high-end work. Everybody seems to be busy. I don't remember what stupid predictions I might have made earlier, but absent an unknown shock, I think things will be okay for the next year or so.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

news roundup-non comprehensive version

The recent shake-up at the BAC made the local paper. The reporting seems to be objective based on what I know about the event.

There was something I wanted to comment on, but it seems to have slipped my mind. Sloppy things, minds are. Where did I hide those nuts for winter?

I am very much in favor of Chiafaro's tower proposal for the waterfront. But, that's old news. I wonder if Marty Walsh's new and improved BRA will go crazy over building heights on him.

The tornado in Revere was an odd event. I'm glad no one was killed, and I hope that the rebuild results in improvements.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

olympic fires

The Weekly Dig had an article by an Atlanta native that was deeply critical of the consequences of the 1996 Olympics. The benefits of development flowed almost exclusively to the wealthier parts of the city. There was massive displacement of citizens from poor neighborhoods. The venues--stadiums, housing, etc...---created for the games seemed to amount to little more than expensive giveaways to private corporations.

I don't think Boston will get the games. Resistance to the physical displacement required for the Games will mobilize neighborhood groups. And where would the money come from? Mayor Walsh did go to some sort of junket in Utah to discuss the bid, but I'm trying not to feel worried that he's catching the fever. He has enough challenges with the BRA, Casinos, and basic city management.

Monday, July 28, 2014

a long walk

Based on what I saw a few days ago, I'm going to approach a discussion about the revitalization of Holyoke with caution. The industrial building stock is impressive, and the canal could serve as a defining feature of a refurbished downtown. I just read that work on the "Canal Walk" started recently, but I didn't take advantage of it. And who would live there? Who would work there? Why would people choose the challenges of turning around so many decades of decline and misfortune? Architects could make an argument about the character and beauty of the place creating an attractive force, but I doubt that a critical mass could be established based on that.

There are some notable places in New England defined by brick and water. The water will endure, the brick crumbles. The romance of the pastoral, rendered in the form of thousands of suburban homes, is the alternative vision. Character fades.

Friday, July 25, 2014

why human

Animals do not design things. Natural selection has honed certain creative impulses in many creatures which are remarkably sophisticated, but there are no art critics in a termite mound. Human design expression, and the ability to carry it out probably derives from some obsessive compulsive hard wiring that compels us to seek order from nothingness. Pattern recognition mechanisms don't go deep enough here. We arbitrarily apply order to phenomenon. Then, and this is the crucial step, we formulate context specific judgments based on that sense of order.

We mill the selected tree parts into board and panel products and place them together. Aside from the efficiency incurred by dealing with modular components, we assign a value to the act of joining these products. When is a joint between two piece of flooring correct? We just know. That's the miracle there. We can tolerate certain deviations from quality, but not in areas where we'll be reminded of it. The pain caused by a sense of disorder, particularly when that disorder was not corrected when it was most easy to correct, festers for a long time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

it can take a long time to die

I should have paid more attention to the Cooper Union saga. Towers of ilium is often late to the party--more frequently, it misses the party completely. No matter, we ruminate forward....

Thom Mayne's rather ridiculous, and very expensive, building wasn't the cause of the financial troubles that plague the school, but it is a symptom of the stupidity that can drive organizations into the ground. I'm not in a position to do a thorough analysis, and perimortem speculation could turn out to be spectacularly wrong.

All institutions, all organizations, all cultures, and obviously, all people, have an expiration date. This date, which can be accurately established for individuals, can be much harder to identify for groups. It usually takes more than one bad decision. The worst decisions are made in an environment of collective optimism.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

a year ago today

Actually, I don't feel like going back on this blog timeline to exhaustively criticize whatever I happened to be ranting about. The only relevant thing I can think of is that last year, the planet Earth was a slightly cooler than this year. I can't see the ocean from any window in my house yet, but I do have some concerns.

What I find curious is that many people in Florida, particularly people in positions of authority, are in a state of denial over the implications of sea level rise. This will end poorly for many of them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

does it work?

Functionality and aesthetics are inseparable in architecture. Engineers can take a pass on the emotional impact of many of their decisions, but comprehensive design demands a consideration of how people will react in what will seem to be irrational ways to the consequences of small details. "Does it look pretty?" is a more relevant question than "does it work?" This imbalance of power leads to many sleepless nights for designers. With regard to the pictures shown above, I am acting in the capacity of draftsman. I'm more concerned about representative aesthetics than ultimate design impact. But, I'd be lying if I claimed to not have an opinion.

 I favor a more expensive solution.

Friday, July 18, 2014

a pause for friday

Just one question: If both a Boston and Springfield casino are built, which one will do better over the long run?

This question doesn't have a good answer, because the "long run" is an ambiguous length of time. I predict that a Springfield operation will do better on relative terms because the break-even point is lower. Performance of a Boston casino will get swallowed up by the general economy of the city. Springfield can maintain lower standards for architecture and service. They will also have better bargaining leverage with the city because of their monopoly power.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

the end of monumentality

I doubt that anyone will be planning monuments to the Global War on Terror anytime soon. The nature of that conflict, still ongoing--possibly never ending--doesn't lend itself to architectural gestures. The culture of commemoration is strong in human society, but the face of modern warfare seems to be obscure. Instead of Gettysburg we have IED's and nameless hills in Afghanistan. The legacy of the struggle is broken bodies and wealthy military contractors.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

manifesto--dining room edition

This is not a picture of a dining room, but we won't let that stop us. American homes need to rid themselves of the most useless space in the house. The distinction between a dining room and a more general eating area can be a fine one, but architecturally, we can identify a formal dining room by its near total lack of use. This occurs once the space is bounded by four walls and furnished in such a way to discourage casual meals. Proximity to the kitchen is compromised, on purpose, so that an air of obsolete social convention is preserved.

An eat-in kitchen is somewhat misleading. It is possible to eat food in any kitchen, but as soon as a definitive place is created for a table, and a subsequently redundant space is created for another, larger table nearby, then the sin of "dining room" is perpetuated. Islands and seating counters don't count.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

innovation week

Sometimes I'm amazed that architects and builders are willing to try anything new. Even incremental changes in building construction methods need to be treated with skepticism and caution. A novel approach to solving a problem presented by a client results in unintended consequences--some of which can be disastrous.

Right now I'm feeling deep skepticism towards structural insulated panels--a.k.a. SIPs. These are used on timberframes or as independent wall and roof systems. They seem to make life hell for electricians, and since electricity is vital to building performance, this conflict steers me back towards a new appreciation of conventional framing.

When a purported solution is more complicated than the problem it's meant to solve, one should not expect rapid adoption.

Monday, July 14, 2014

american mundane

This is a suburb. Although I've been critical of how suburbs are defined, it's hard to deny the obvious when it clubs you over the head. This place is thoroughly real and a vital part of the American landscape. The people who live here are able to find satisfaction on their own terms, no matter what they happen to teach at the design schools. The architecture of the houses is unimpressive. Construction quality of the finishes was personally discouraging, but over time, some homeowners will probably seek aesthetic improvements that will help create a sense of character.

What's most notable about this community is that the investment in the infrastructure seems to be top-shelf. Drainage is good, the roads are good, there's public water and sewer, underground utilities, a sidewalk, trees that will keep getting bigger. Functional things not noted for their visual appeal have an aesthetic character that cannot be denied.

I found myself asking the usual questions: Why couldn't there have been a grid street layout instead of the typical loopy roadway pattern? Why didn't they invest just a few more dollars in the house design? Were any sustainable features considered?

How long will this last? What will it look like in 50 years?

Friday, July 11, 2014

summer review

Summer isn't even halfway over, so this review may be modified at some unspecified future date.

-The weather has been exceptional. This means we're entering a drought. Droughts in the northeast are fairly pedestrian affairs.

-I was intrigued by archaeological research that points the age of the Amazon rain forest as only 15,000 years old. I wonder if pre-Columbian human population in that area was experiencing growth trends concurrent with the increase in the size of the forest.

-The tragic fire in Lowell yesterday was probably started by fireworks, but the seven people who died were probably killed by the architecture. The fatalities were located on the third floor in the rear corners of the building. This hints at a central stair at the front of the building and no other interior or exterior stairs. A floorplan that consists of two dead ends is a death-trap.

-I'm being asked by clients to put on my landscaping and interior architecture hat more frequently. This still makes me nervous but it demonstrates that architecture is not bounded by arbitrary designations of responsibility.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

things come together

Things also fall apart, but as long as there are human beings on this planet there will be small victories in the struggle against entropy and nihilism. This is something that I designed that is being built. I find that to be encouraging, although I'm trying not to be too invested in the purity of the structural system. Timberframes lend themselves to that nostalgia.

I hope this experience plays out in a positive way. I still have mixed feelings about pre-fabrication. The utilization of lumber for a project like this represents a small fraction of forestry stock. Its lifespan will probably be longer than any other structure on the property, but future inhabitants might struggle with the challenge of assigning a use to it.

Note: Grammar and spelling has been improved after reader feedback. Towers of ilium strives for excellence and accuracy. Not all the time, but sometimes. Usually on Tuesdays.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

magical realism

I was going to discuss Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the context of urban planning, but I may not be able to make a clear set of associations.  But, here goes:

Macondo is a real place. Marquez did not create it because he based it on reality, and if we examine his descriptions we can realize that he did not intend to be a controller of that space, but an observer. By wrapping narrative about people into the Place that was more real than anything that could be derived from pure memory he defied the label of fiction author. His career as a journalist proved his ability to make stories from non-fiction. The Buendia family can be viewed as part of a larger structure. They, like Marquez, were subordinate to the Place.

Its relation to the BP oil spill also proves that Fate has a good sense of humor.

So what about urban planning? No amount of propaganda can overcome structural deficiencies in a place that has been forsaken. Generations have to pass before people can find a reason for re-claiming a lost place. Pure abandonment, usually for environmental reasons, is a the better alternative. Don't go confusing paradise for that home on down the road.

Monday, July 7, 2014

too small?

If you look very closely, you will find that the exterior dimensions of this house are 18'x25'--a gross area of around 450 s.f. In real estate terms, it is a two bedroom dwelling, but there are some minor code violations that would render its construction a bit difficult. In terms of suitability for living, it would  please many people--provided the family size was relatively small.

I'm worried that the small dwelling phenomenon is garnering too much attention. The desire that people express for 3 and 4 bedroom houses with lots of space is a real thing and dominates residential construction. The focus on the Sun Belt as the stylistic and cultural is reasonable when we consider that most construction starts are in that region.

The nuances and characteristics of the New England vernacular are losing their portability. Why put a Cape on a lot in Texas?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

we now return to our unoriginal programming

Something I designed is currently under construction and in the next week it will start the "moment of truth" phase of the building process. If part A has not been drawn to properly receive part B then it will be time for tears and finger-pointing.

Architects learn to accept mistakes. Some mistakes are hidden forever. Some are corrected in a half-assed fashion. Sometimes there is an apology and nothing else. The world hasn't seen a perfect building yet.

So, is an architect who claims to be a perfectionist a delusional idiot?

The heat in Boston is a real thing right now. Should I water my garden or wait for rain?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

civic responsibility

I've heard the expression: "People get the government they deserve" more than a few times. I think it's wrong. People often don't have influence over the power structures that shape their lives. Representative democracy is the exception in world history, and its tenure is in most cases a function of prosperity.

Civic engagement for an architect often requires a more refined sense of compromise. Budgets and public opinions can have an outsize effect and lead to mediocre design. Despots are probably easier to work for, unless they decide to shoot the architect to prove a point.

I'm going to try to do something architectural and civic for this building. Not simply as a memorial, or as a civic gesture, but as an intellectual challenge. I'm not optimistic about anything I design being realized in any capacity, but why should that deter me?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

never finished

I need to learn to stop being honest with clients about architecture. They ask me: "When will it be done?" My honest answer: "Never." What I should be doing is making up some date in the future when the project will most certainly not be done. Phrases like "a couple weeks" or "by the end of summer" or "by Thanksgiving" are usually effective.

Every once in a while, by accident, something gets completed, but even then, we can find reasons to keep modifying it, or tearing it down to start over. Such is life.

I meant to put the ladder away. I'll get around to that.