ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, August 29, 2014

IKEA is Soylent Green

Firstly, towers of ilium would like to apologize for not posting in the past two days.

The big news is that the Market Basket standoff has ended, and the good guys seem to have won. The challenge for Arthur T. Demoulas is the restoration of his business model and management of debt. I regard the whole affair as an example of how the wisdom of Peter Drucker can prevail over the stupidity of modern business practice. Arthur T. has demonstrated an understanding of the purpose of a business--that it must create and sustain a customer. Too many firms today assume that the customer already exists, and that the purpose of the business is to extract rents and profits that are funneled to a small group of people.

I was reading a blog yesterday that claimed that 75% of the images in an IKEA catalog are computer generated. Although I might be tempted to feel bad for the photographers who aren't getting the work of shooting staged sets of home decor, I know that the labor associated with good renderings takes a lot of time and effort. Design on a computer is still design--only certain tedious tasks are streamlined so that the focus can be on more options.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

fashion edition

This weekend I got a flyer in the mail from a furniture company called "Room & Board." I'm familiar with them because they recently undertook an extensive renovation of a building at the far end of Newbury Street. I was not impressed by the offerings I saw in the flyer. To my eye, it looked like upscale versions of standard Ikea products. I can't quite explain why, but instead of seeming fresh, all their stuff looked dated.

I wonder if turnover in home furnishings is accelerating in wealthy economies. The Ikea stuff usually doesn't last long. Its obsolescence is an essential part of their design and manufacturing philosophy. They know that people will come back for more flat-packed junk that can be loaded into rental vans. The urban masses need sofas, couches, end tables, and dining room sets ad infinitum. 

And who will prove to have a better business model? Room & Board, Restoration Hardware, or Ikea? Whatever happens, I don't expect any revolutions in furniture design.

Monday, August 25, 2014

paul krugman on housing

Isn't that just the cutest little house? It was built at great expense and is probably used infrequently.

In a recent editorial, Paul Krugman pointed out that much of the economic and population growth in sun belt states is the result of lower housing costs. The fact that these places have "conservative" governments is less important than the fact that large developers can build suburbs at a blistering pace. People are willing to work for less because their housing dollar goes further.

It's a proposition I agree with, and I'll toss out a speculation that the housing stock in warm, right wing places is also linked to the fact that states, aided by the federal gummint, are able to build road networks more efficiently than in places like metro Boston. I'm not sure how much this has been studied, but the big stretches of flat land that exist in Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Arizona make highway planning really easy. Subdivisions and box stores need transportation infrastructure that makes supply chains reliable, fast, and cheap. Here in Massachusetts it takes us 15 years to build a few miles of underground highway--with marginal improvement to rush hour commutes.

Friday, August 22, 2014

art deco and neoclassicism

Is the evolution of architectural style an abrupt or gradual thing? Today, I'm going to make an argument in favor of abrupt change--and change that is mandated by select individuals who can wield considerable influence in the design profession. The picture above shows the boundary between two large buildings that were/are/might be part of the John Hancock complex near Copley Square. The street they share is thoroughly dead--dead because of the monumentality imposed by these icons of corporate logic. They were built within in twenty-five years of each other, and designed by architects who don't have to be mentioned by name.

The building on the right is a solid example of early twentieth century neo-classicism. The detailing is of average quality and I have no idea what the interior spaces are like. In the 1980's It was considered as a candidate for demolition, but economic logic prevailed over the idea of creating a compromised, semi-public plaza.

The building on the left is a deeply conservative example of the Boston art deco, but an art deco that was flirting with the vocabulary of modernism. The horizontal divisions of the window strips speak volumes about the ambiguity and confusion of its designers. But, and I say this with complete lack of irony, it has more character than nearly every modern building in Boston.

In the span of two decades, the neoclassical model, was supplanted by the art deco modern. But whereas neoclassicism feels like a solid part of the architectural landscape, the art deco comes across as a fringe movement that enjoyed less than thirty years in the architectural spotlight before getting steamrolled by the International Style.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

thoughts on the idea of the firm

I'm standing in Peter Drucker's long shadow here, so everything I say will be derivative and incomplete. But hey, half formed is better than no-formed, yes? Like a cake that is missing sugar and eggs, or a car without a gas tank, or any other bad analogy I could come up with if I was being paid by the hour to write this blog.

Once a firm is established by a group of people it is invested with a sense of reality that can be remarkably effective at fooling everybody--including legal systems. Since we live in an age of easily retrievable data, the symbol of a firm can persist indefinitely. The Atari trademark is still a real thing. I would not doubt that some lawyer is working hard on some idiotic brief about the matter. Someday, some other lawyer will be doing the same things for the Apple logo: "From now on all fruit, unbitten or not, shall belong to Base R...all hail Jobs, all hail Jobs"

The slow, hidden death of a firm can occasionally inoculate people against reality. But this is a good thing, because if a person invested in the idea of the firm maintains that sense of commitment, then the firm can persist. One good client can come along and change the course of things. One bad check, on the other hand, doesn't spell doom. The firm exists as long as at least one person shows up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

graphic excellence

I'm impressed by this photograph by the exceptional Peter Gruhn.

the plural of anecdote

A Boston Globe article about the boom in residential home remodeling in the state is consistent with what I've been observing over the last year or so. People are interested in changing the character of their dwellings. In most cases these changes result in significant improvements, but I'm not sure if the longevity of these renovations will match history. If a fifty year old bathroom is replaced in the 1970's I would wager that it will see at least two or three renovations in the next fifty years. This increase in renovation frequency, if a real thing, doesn't imply that things were built or designed better in the past--the opposite is often true.

Construction costs seem to be outpacing inflation, but like many other aspects of the economy, it's not reflected in improved labor compensation. The pricing advantage seems to be with mechanical products; everything from doorknobs to windows to HVAC. I feel like there are some groups of people who are in the middle of the supply chain who are making a killing on selling stuff at extreme markups.

But hey, I'm just a paranoid, misinformed architect.

Monday, August 18, 2014

the long game

I was in Quincy Center yesterday for the August Moon Festival. I have no reason to travel to that part of the city otherwise. The major development that was planned for the area is now stalled, and based on what I saw I don't think that things will pick up anytime soon.

The current economic boomlet--which is in full force in Boston, does not seem to be affecting Quincy. To my knowledge, there are no "big" projects underway, and after the debacle with Streetworks Development, I wonder if other players are averse to working with the city.

I should be careful what I say. I wish I was doing something closer to home. But what? My only ideas are located in the Wollaston downtown, and I think that any major proposals there would be a political non-starter.

As a friend commented: "I think people don't want things to change."

Friday, August 15, 2014

urban gestures

I'm still not convinced that this building is so special. It seems to relate more to the automobile than the street. As a design, it seems to be trying too hard--modernist details with lost of froo-froo.

The lawsuit by Beacon Hill Civic Association against the City of Boston will be as successful as Whitey Bulger's appeal to overturn his conviction for murders. Don't pick a fight against a federal law on the grounds of local procedural issues. The sidewalks are hazardous for everyone, but I suppose that's part of the charm up on the Hill.

I need to come up with a better way to explain Detailing to students. It should only take about four years.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

where is right?

If I claim something looks good that doesn't mean I have a good reason for it. If I'm asked to elaborate I may end up making a series of claims that weakens my initial position. On the other hand, if I criticize something done by someone elese, and I'm allowed to pursue a prolonged narrative , I can continue to find weaknesses.

Criticism of this post has been disabled. Thank you for reading towers of ilium.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

no more casino posts, we mean it!

Buy a copy of the Boston Globe if you want real news. If you came to towers of ilium, you'll be getting something different; something in that strange gray area between lies and fiction.

I've been wondering if modern medicine could function without disposable products. Steel instruments can be sterilized indefinitely, but the energy invested in collecting and washing plastics and fabrics would be subject to rapid diminishing returns. Getting blood stains out of things is tough, and bacteria can thrive in the crevices of things without anybody ever realizing it.

It's been a long time since I've dwelt on the idea, first introduced by Bill McDonaugh, of "waste as a nutrient." It's the obvious endgame of human manufacturing--a distinct type of biomimicry. I wonder what brand of toilet paper the bacteria at sewage treatment plants like the most?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the passages of power

The AIA has made critical comments about Wynn's proposed casino design in Everett. They specifically target its lack of contextuality, its poor use of public transit, and its low quality materials. They like the Mohegan proposal for the Suffolk Downs casino more.

This will all mean nothing when the Gaming Commission makes a pick for the operating license. The AIA, like any organization of architects, has very little political influence. Whenever architects talk or write, they're mostly blowing steam (wait a second, does that mean this blog is blowing steam?) and avoiding real work (yes, yes that's true here at towers of ilium). Something that the AIA finds frustrating is that Wynn has recycled this same design over and over with great success. Even though I was critical of this in a prior post, its important to note that large casinos have to function efficiently in order to extract the maximum amount of money from suckers. Wynn may very well have found the terminal design for the casino model. Like a modern supermarket, it works well for a wide variety of users, and makes the staff more effective at their jobs. And all by virtue of geometric layout. The aesthetic aspects of the design may be annoying, but you can be sure that Wynn has never value engineered the number of elevators in his buildings.

Monday, August 11, 2014

the persistence of appliances

Outside of Accessibility Laws, I don't put much stock in the idea that architecture can be a force for emancipation. Clients and designers are too focused on dramatic emotional effects, or worse, naked profit. Furniture and appliances, however, tend to have a positive impact on building users. The function of either is instantly realized, and when service lifespan is exhausted, it's replaced without any negative emotional impact. Few people miss an old dishwasher.

In other news, I had a dream last night that I went to a Taco Bell that was nearly totally automated. Robots made the sandwiches. There was no human interaction at the drive-up window, and there was only one employee inside the store. The selection was limited, but the food was remarkably cheap. Sanitation was monitored by a special computer program that recognized that my bread was stale.
It gave me extra lettuce.

Friday, August 8, 2014

a year from now and not much changed

I was going to feature some material from past blog posts, but realized that my audience is in constant demand of something new and fresh. Hence, a list of books and subjects I plan to read in the next year:

1. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

2. A recent biography of the Young Brothers (Australian folk musicians)

3. A book about Latin America

4. A book about the Cold War

5. Something by David Quammen

Here's what I don't plan on reading about:

1. Economics
2. Sports
3. Modern fiction (except for J.K. Rowling)
4. Politics

We'll see how this goes.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

guardians of galactic architecture

Apparently, the art department of a recent Hollywood sci-fi movie concluded that a utopian city on a far-away planet should be designed by Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava. I applaud this creativity, because after all, we all know that lots of glass and funky bridges are the most pure symbol of advanced civilizations. What could be the alternative? If you look closely, you'll see a lot of canals, so maybe the place looked liked Venice before an urban planning committee decided that a space-age society needed more European contemporary architecture.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

universal designs

I didn't design this. I don't know who did. In some respects it's hard to say that a structure like this needs to be designed. Functional designs do require decision making on the part of humans, but it's reasonable to assume that similar people, in completely different places and at different periods in time, will arrive at similar design decisions. The main source of differences in design is the materials available, the tools to work the materials, and the dominant climate. In coastal climates nearly everywhere in the world you can find wooden houses built on stilts because it's a reasonable response to the environment.

If I was motivated, I could design a better shed than this. At the moment, I'm not motivated, so I'll take advantage of SketchUp warehouse for something this basic.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

and watch your parking meter

The ongoing drama with Market Basket is still being played out. The Globe has done a pretty decent job of reporting the events of the past month, but since it is a family affair, I'm sure that there are things that will never come to light. I'm impressed that the ousted CEO has inspired such loyalty in his staff and customers and I think that the scorched earth policy being pursued is something that General Grant and Sherman would understand. The family members that fired Arthur Demoulas probably want to sell the business and sail off into the sunset even richer than before. The impact on workers and patrons would be negative because a larger company would not be as generous with wages and prices.

Supermarkets occupy a special place in architecture. I have trouble seeing how food could be distributed efficiently to the urban American population without them. In most respects, they are critical infrastructure rather than buildings. But, and this is a point not covered in depth by the public media, they have a large real estate footprint--both literally and symbolically. A good supermarket defines a good neighborhood, and lack of a supermarket represents a severe deficiency for a community.

Monday, August 4, 2014

world class city

The Rose Kennedy Greenway is doing just fine in my opinion. People who seek to compare it to great civic spaces like Central Park or the Public Garden aren't being fair. The Greenway represents leftover space, and the landscape design does an excellent job of creating a diversity of experiences within the confines of the surface artery roads. I hope that in the future, as transportation systems evolve, that the auto roads get smaller.

On a separate note, I'm somewhat worried about the state of things in this world of ours. My father remarked, with his characteristic black humor, that he was glad he was only a visitor to the 21st century. He came of age in the Cold War, when the only thing that separated us from Armageddon was a phone call and some well-trained men in bunkers with their fingers on nuclear triggers. Now, with climate change and constant political and economic crisis, it seems that Armageddon lurches forward with a momentum that cannot be curtailed by the prudent judgment of a few good men (or women).

I suppose Charles Dickens felt the same way at some points in his life.