ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

drucker for tuesday

A subtle point made my Peter Drucker is that management has very little to do with managing other people. He assigns people to people issues within an organization to the realm of leadership--which is a learned and not inherent trait. Management of resources is the major concern of all people, regardless of rank. Of all the resources in the universe, Drucker identified time as the most important, because for humans, there is a finite amount of it. He would give numerous examples of how people mis-use time, and more importantly, underestimate the time that it takes to do quality work.

Today, I'm wasting some time, but if I try to rush some things I'm working on, they'll leave the office half-done. I like to aim for 3/4 complete. 9/10 is a rare triumph.

Monday, November 24, 2014

meanwhile in chernobyl

This is nearing completion, but it is really only a second step in a series of temporary solutions. The original containment sarcophagus for Chernobyl is nearly 30 years old, and given the conditions under which it was constructed, it's in rough shape. The new containment system is impressive, but according to an article in the Economist, it will only last about 100 years (I'd put money on it to last longer, but who knows what will happen).

Designing for nuclear containment pushes the boundaries of modern permanent architecture. Despite the superior track record of ancient masonry structures, we don't seem to regard that as an option. Why are we putting our faith in new technology. Strange to hear this coming from me. I usually laugh when someone says "The don't build 'em like they used to."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

design principle #1.1

Architects and other designers never begin a project from a position of strength. Full comprehension of the requirements of a client is impossible to achieve. Prior knowledge, particularly of projects that seem similar, can turn out to be unreliable and dangerous. Research of all the variables that can potentially impact success or failure can consume more time than exists in the known universe. Above all, the designer can never admit these facts to a client, no matter how enlightened that person or group may be.

The designer starts from nothing. The more nothing, the better, because then bias can be overcome more readily. This ideal state can be nearly impossible to achieve--it can never be planned--but it can be revealed in those circumstances where the void of options is arbitrarily refined into one moment. It is documented, imperfectly, and presented.

And then the revisions begin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

michael sorkin on microhousing

Actually, this apartment building doesn't have microunits, but Sorkin mentioned it in a positive way in an essay on modern housing patterns. Writing for the Nation magazine, Sorkin blasted the concept of microhousing because it threatens to turn the clock back on efforts to ease urban congestion and is mainly a way to pad developer profits. The fad qualities of microhousing, and the fact that it is deeply inferior to the alternatives (thus spake the suburban homeowner) means I'm not concerned about the possibility that it will overwhelm cities and plunge us back into the dark ages. However, after looking at some of the living conditions in Asia, I can see the slippery slope of high density construction at play. First they take the bedroom, then they take the kitchen, and then the bathroom, and closets, and a desk, and a window--and why do the ceilings need to be at least seven feet high, anyway?

The issue of individual choice gets overwhelmed by economic forces that push safety, comfort, and family relationships out the window. But, we got rid of the window, because there was no code requirement for a window. I can make a design for a 400 s.f. house work, but there won't be a lot of elbow room. At some point, things fall apart and no amount of clever marketing can conceal the barbaric nature of the architecture.

Monday, November 17, 2014

robert campbell on the innovation district

This picture is out of date and it gives us a deeply distorted view of the Innovation District in South Boston (is it really South Boston, though? Haven't efforts been made to "protect" the old neighborhood from the new one?).

Robert Campbell described how the architectural effect of the new construction here lacks human scale and good detail. He pins most of the blame on the suburban style roadways and dull office buildings. To some extent, I agree with him, although I haven't had a reason to visit this place in several years. The development patterns in the area have been constrained by many forces that are beyond the control of the designers who might otherwise be inclined to give things a bit more soul. However, I think that Campbell is rushing to judgment. The neighborhood will take about twenty years to develop and refine itself. It will improve as long as Boston remains a viable city.

Friday, November 14, 2014

for sale cheap

If this gets sold will it get torn down? My sense is no, because the scale and geometry of the building probably allow for diverse repurposing. I could be completely wrong about this. It dates from 1980--a curious time for American architecture, and although I admire aspects of the design, it isn't aging with the grace of traditional Boston buildings. It might be partially demolished, which would have little effect on the sense of place created by the structure. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

urban scale tough love edition

Not surprisingly, most of the residents of the Harbor Towers in Boston are not happy about the skyscrapers being planned on the property next door. Since I live in a detached single family house in a suburb that has fairly strict zoning it's completely unfair of me to comment on this. I can't comprehend the struggles of people in a luxury high rise located on the waterfront. If you buy a property under such circumstances you should so with the assurance that no future development will impede your views, assault your senses, or offends you in any way. He who builds first should have all privileges.

Monday, November 10, 2014

richard wills

When I was a two week old draftsman at Royal Barry Wills I remember how Richard came over to look at my work. I was drawing plans for renovations to an unexceptional looking Colonial house. Richard looked at the elevation I had taped to my drafting table.
 "Put a chimney on it," he said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Right in the center of the roof, like this." He reached down with his pencil and sketched the block of a huge chimney on the roof.
"But there's no fireplace or anything below," I protested.
"It'll be fake," he said, and turned and walked away, "I have no shame."

That remains one of my most important lessons in architecture.The house needed a chimney for aesthetic reasons. The cult of functionality, of honesty, of the application of narrow science in design, cannot overcome the emotional impact of an architectural gesture. Why did the house need a chimney? What makes us human?

Richard said on more than one occasion that design is one piece. The inside and the outside have to be worked together and there are few fixed rules. Historical reference is useful, but reproductions rarely work.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

post election architecture

The events of Tuesday won't have much bearing on the design profession. Paralysis in Washington doesn't have any bearing on the price of oil, which has been going down due to depressed demand in Europe and Asia. I'm cautiously predicting three more years of prosperity in the U.S. market. Regional business is more significant than international business, even for the Massachusetts economy.

Some people are even discussing a shortage of design professionals. I'm skeptical of this. I think the BIM revolution, coupled with the adaptation to the lean years of the recession, has made the industry more productive. Service parameters are constrained except for the big name stars.

This post should have a third paragraph that provides some additional information or a sense of conclusion.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

open for business

So, One World Trade center is moving tenants into some of its space. Let us mark this victory for the democratic, peace-loving capitalist standard bearers of truth, freedom, American pie justice and make-work liberty for allish, home of the free Manhattan style architecture. That the planning and construction process took over 12 years is lost on no one, I hope. It's being proclaimed as the safest office building in the world (insert source here). I doubt that. I'm also not sure how much money the thing will make for its unflappable owners--the Port Authority. Probably more than the original buildings, but that's a function of New York City, not the crack team of development experts who organized this brilliant project. I regard it as a missed opportunity. I hope we can be united by that.

Monday, November 3, 2014

more on tom menino

Because he merits two blog posts.

He referred to himself as an "urban mechanic" which implies maintenance as much as repair. He appreciated Boston as a city of change, as much as he might have extolled its virtues of history. Tradition, for Menino, was useful only if it had more character and value than something new. This is a lesson for so-called preservationists, who place more value on the old at the expense of the new. If Menino had been more cautious and more polite, less would have gotten done.

I may or may not go see the procession this morning. I'm not one for crowds, and I feel that there will be some great turnout for him. But, what will I give to Boston today? Another pair of shoes on a sidewalk, some food purchased and eaten, trash in a trashcan. Riding home late on the T. And taking the normality of it all for granted and being a bit aware that I owe a large measure of that to his efforts.