ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, October 30, 2014

thomas menino

His image will be available for as long as the internet exists. How should we portray him? Older, younger? With a cane observing the calamity at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

He built the Boston that I know. Oh, not the new buildings or the fluff, but the way that Boston saw itself. A bridge between Bulger's Boston and the real city that we have now with the sidewalks and the potholes and the traffic jams and the crazy T and the pond in the Boston Common with the crazy people. Here we come and this is our city and he loved it and that love was appreciated by everyone. You can live in the suburbs, but this is Our City.

He lived as long as my father and that is long enough to do important things in the world. If he had been well, would he have tried to keep on? Better to go out on top. The Seaport District is real. The South End is real. The towers and the parks and the way he touched people is real. Walsh knows that he can't match the drama, and that is not his style. That is Menino.

And what do I know? I came from New Hampshire. I live in Quincy. When I want to do something I think what I can do in the City. And the City is always Boston. All that he saw built will be removed, replaced, improved, re-imagined. Let us salute him forever.

meanwhile at a pet shop in bolton....

Actually, this is the train station in Bath. I wonder if it has been renovated or replaced. If so, in what style? Although I admire the architecture of the city, I wonder if the train station could tolerate something completely modern.

I admired how quiet the trains in England were. Why not here?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

mid week crisis

There is never crisis, nor panic, nor hysteria at towers of ilium. We strive for calm, rational, and skeptical discourse here.

-The Ebola epidemic is mostly a public sanitation problem. The U.S. is safe, and the least we can do is spend money to find a cure and a vaccine. Some politicians, in particular, Chris Christie, are demonstrating a sickening ignorance. He should be quarantined to prevent the spread of his stupidity.

-Home prices fell in Massachusetts. I take this as a sign of constrained inventory. The good stuff has sold and there isn't much movement on both sides at the moment.

- They're hanging drywall somewhere in my building. I don't expect anyone to invent an alternative to gypsum wallboard anytime soon. I just had a sudden flashback to demolishing plaster and lath. Ugh.

Monday, October 27, 2014

architecture vs renderings

Is this architecture? No, it is not. It is a rendering that has been carefully constructed to describe an architectural space. It is deeply fantastical. The perspective is unreal, the position of the viewer is false, the sky is too perfect, the building is too clean. The Globe had an article today that gave the burden of responsibility for architectural renderings to the rendering contractor. I found it irritating and mostly true. Architects juggle a lot concerns--too many to often do justice to a complex effort like a modern rendering. Although the design comes from the architect, the emotional content often comes from the rendering. For the work I do I try to keep renderings descriptive and banal. It makes the reality look better.

Is that confetti in the upper left quadrant of this image? Why?

Friday, October 24, 2014

it lasts

I don't know who came up with the final design of this John Deere log skidder, but I suspect that they were trying to transcend function. The problem with it is that it was built too well. Many machinery form the 1960's is still in active service. Although there have been significant improvements in design, engineering, and concepts, the old stuff can keep going. Barring a catastrophic accident it's hard to put an end date on some pieces of equipment.

I have to go to work now. I'll be riding a subway train that is more than two decades old. Cutting edge. In better shape than my train station, actually.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

preservation architecture special edition

This is a picture of the interior of the Faneuil Library in Brighton that I took last night. It was built in 1932 and from what I could observe, no major alterations or renovations have been done. The lighting and windows have been updated, and the vinyl floor dates from the 1980's, but in all other respects, the mundane art deco glory of the place is intact. It has one bathroom--in the basement. It is not accessible in any way. Its egress components are obsolete, but it appears to be of mostly fire resistant construction--aside from being filled with books (another obsolete gesture, perhaps).

I do not think that this building will see its 100th anniversary. I am glad to have seen it as it is now. I felt transported back in time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

truth and the news cycle

I'm running out of blog titles. I'll have to crowdfund something to get better titles. Another thing for the to do list.

In today's Globe, Paul McMorrow pointed out that Boston has lagged other cities in housing creation. We're even behind San Francisco. He didn't cite his statistics in per capita format, but I think his argument is sound. Boston doesn't have enough housing because the city, and more importantly, the surrounding communities,can't build it fast enough because of local zoning restrictions.

My wife and I drove through Revere and Lynn a few days ago. We wish we hadn't, but we were trusting the logic of our GPS. Live and learn. We drove past the Suffolk Downs (former) racetrack. To me, it looked like a bit of nothing, near nothing, and worth almost nothing. I'll be proven wrong about the last part.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Conceptually, I know that this will work. But, I don't know how well it will work. There is no way to eliminate all risk from design. Low risk design can perpetuate annoying failures that people adapt to because they don't want to invest in something new. The cycle of error and dissatisfaction is robust and infinite. My declaration that this design is functional is a statement of hubris, not fact. If you want facts, seek blogs other than towers of ilium. Happy Monday.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

oddly topical for once

Keene, N.H. is not technically my hometown, but it is close by. When I heard of the incidents at the annual Pumpkinfest yesterday, I was inappropriately amused. Now that I've had some time to reflect, and read some scattered news reports, I have two unoriginal observations to make:

-The Keene police were geared up, quite literally, for a fight. They made a deliberate plan to over-react to a situation, knowing that this would escalate things and justify their initial over-reaction. I suspect they did this due to political pressure.

-The college students were acting in a disorganized fashion. There were no ring-leaders, no plans, and no sense that they would be the target of violence. Most of the worst things done were probably done by a small handful of drunk assholes.

No one will be held to proper account for this. The real battle is probably between the city political leaders who are somewhat frustrated by the hard-partying of the college students, and the administration of the college. I am sure that a useful and constructive dialogue will result.

Friday, October 17, 2014

picture friday

This project has been completed for over a year now and it's still not finished. There was nothing false in that statement. Architecture only appears complete in photographs, but buildings are dynamic objects. Stillness with movement. Solid voids. Still air with a breeze. Poetry without words. Frozen music. Oh heck, this post is getting out of control and drifting into plagiarism.

I walked through the Bay Village this morning. Falling leaves had made soft, yellow blankets on the streets. The scale and detailing of the buildings was perfect. There was a graceful dilapidation and sense of calm to everything. Even the man pawing through the trash for cans seemed relaxed. I wonder if Hong Kong has places like this.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

the precast revolution continues

Based on what I observe around Boston, the use of precast concrete as a cladding system for highrise buildings is robust. I want to believe that modern precast will outlast the older systems. If I were a betting man I would assign modern panels a 75 year lifespan before cosmetic failure starts to evolve into comprehensive failure.

I'm also starting to rethink my attitude towards cavity walls as the be-all and end-all of enclosure systems. If panelized, barrier systems are the preferred method for large scale structures, then they must be okay. Right?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

irish architecture

It's two post Wednesday.

This link is worth checking out:

And now, for towers of ilium pontificating. The Irish really screwed up--even more than the U.S. did. The mentality of "build it, and they will come" falls apart more quickly when your country is small. I feel that the burden of responsibility is not on the developers or the local officials, but on the lending agencies. They are the people who are supposed to assess the risk of the loans, and they obviously failed. And yet, none of them are in jail. So it goes.

concrete architecture

The fact that every piece of concrete produced by humans will have to be replaced in the next 100 years doesn't bother me at all. I have deep ambivalence about the value of longevity in the built environment. Why should future generations suffer so much from the dead hands of dead architects? I won't live long enough to see the dismantling of the Empire State Building. But, I won't be surprised by the voluntary demolition of some other big-name high-rise. If I had to pick a Boston landmark, it would be the JFK Federal Building. The tower at the Christian Science Center is in tough shape. (This reminds me that I should take some of my students on a field trip to see some of this stuff) We can't make things last forever. Except for Pioneer 10. Godspeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

tuesday is for retractions

The Everett Recreational Center could stand a renovation or two. I wonder if Wynn will kick in something.

As was expected, the Hong Kong protests continue to evolve. I don't have a clear sense of what is going on, and I doubt anyone does. No pictures of tanks yet, and I don't expect any, but given the prediction success rate at towers of ilium, it can't be ruled out. I doubt Beijing would need tanks to subdue the protests.

By mentioning this topic on this blog I like to think that I'm important enough to warrant attention from some censor in China.

Friday, October 10, 2014

social outreach opportunity

This rusting bridge connects an island in Boston Harbor to the mainland. It is owned by the city of Boston. It has been closed because it has been deemed unsafe and people in the homeless shelter on the island have been removed.

I think the bridge should be torn down, but before that happens, the Catholic Church should lend or lease a building it owns in downtown Boston as a temporary shelter for the people displaced from the island. I sent an email to this effect to the church this morning. Nothing will come of this, but it demonstrates how there are millions--nay, billions--of unused space in this country. They exist in legal or design purgatory. People feel like they have to make long term decisions, but this is a mistake. Short-term decisions can be of greater value to many people when it comes to architecture. Better a roof over a head than a picture of one.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

420,000 dollars buys you a home

In Boston at least--if things go according to a plan recently released by the Walsh administration that calls for an investment of 20 billion dollars over the next 16 years to build 50,000 housing units. If I was in some other line of work, or in a different part of the world, I'd loudly proclaim the great cost of this idea. Such a sum of money could only pay for about 15 F-35 warplanes. I'm not sure what will get built first, either.

Based on housing start trends over the last 10 years, this is an achievable goal--especially if you include surrounding urban areas.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

probably doomed

The factories along the Connecticut River in Turners Falls are well on their way to becoming archaeology. There economic value has faded, and their romantic value is only enhanced by continued decay. There will be at least two more hopeless schemes to repurpose them, but within fifty years, there will be nothing to save. I doubt that anyone even has the resources to demolish some of the buildings.

The lack of permanence in architecture will continue to be a theme on this blog.

In other news, the towers of ilium prediction market is rushing to a premature celebration over the outcome of the Hong Kong democracy protests. The whole affair seems to be fading--and with no loss of life that I am aware of. I call this a victory for the existing leadership, both in the city and in Beijing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

is it good for boston?

This is a rather attractive and uninformative rendering of an office tower proposed near Government Center in Boston. The design is by Cesar Clarke Pelli and it is proof that the International Style is alive and well. Although this blog is noted for its inconsistency, I would like to point out that contextualism is important when you consider energy use. This curvy, all glass facade will probably will result in high energy costs for the building for as long as it remains standing. Of course, it will get a LEED stamp, but that cannot overcome the fact that glass is not a good insulator.

There are few clues that this building is located where the developers say it is. But, the purpose of renderings is more to confuse than to describe.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

grant and sherman

In the pantheon of significant Americans, those two generals earned their place. Both were criticized deeply by the press, fellow officers, and politicians. The legacy of their actions is the proof of their success. What is more troubling is the veneration of the position. To this day we jump to the conclusion that competent leadership can work miracles. Grant did not consider himself a miracle worker. Sherman's march to the sea was a calculated risk. Lincoln's confidence in their abilities is a credit to his character, although it came at great cost.