ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 salutes you

I took this picture nearly eight years ago and I offer no justification as to why it is appearing on this blog. I don't remember why I took it. Perhaps I was admiring the urban landscaping gestures--the trees, the planting bed against the building, the wide sidewalk, and the bench. A lot of progress in the development of human civilization is described by this scene. Eventually, the brick building will be demolished and something better will be built in its place. Will the new thing last longer? Probably. Will it be better? Almost certainly. Will it generate controversy? Yes, but that's the way it goes.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

the third place and its discontents

Even though it is the great American novel, I find certain aspects of the story unbelievable. Gatsby is believable, but his death was a convenient device that Fitzgerald used to spare the character the embarrassment of being exposed as a fraud. Nick gets clean-up duty and comes across as more heroic than is reasonable to expect.

In a few years, we'll be in the 20's again. I don't think they'll be roaring.

And, where was Shafter's? Gatsby certainly had vices, but with one exception, he wasn't consumed by them.

Monday, December 29, 2014

housing tensions

In the Sunday Globe, Shirley Leung pointed out that the Boston metro region needs more large scale residential developments in order to meet housing demand. Today, the Globe has an article on the tensions created by residential development in Alewife.

Let's make it clear for the 23rd time: Without major planning changes, any new development creates tension--particularly transportation tension. People drive cars. Trucks deliver stuff. When residents of neighborhoods ask for better planning, they're really asking for development restrictions. It will always be hard to build new stuff in this area. If you want cheap housing, go to Texas. Or Holyoke.

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 predictions revisited

Okay, time to beat up towers of ilium....

This is what I said in January of this year:

1. The Architecture/Engineering/Construction industry will have an okay year. Things in China might start to slow down a bit--or get more sophisticated. African nations (the peaceful ones) may lead in percentage growth. In the coming decades that continent might become the "place" for new architecture and engineering.

Score: Mostly correct. AEC is doing quite well in the Boston region. 

2. The composition of Congress will not change dramatically in the 2014 midterm elections. I'm going to end up stepping in this one somehow.

Score: Stepped in it. Ouch.

3. Mayor Walsh will reveal that he is just as pro-development as Menino was.

Score: Still playing out. Probably correct. He has signaled a desire for more housing.

4. However, growth in Boston suburbs will continue to be restrained by the usual bevy of regulations and poor population growth.

Score: Correct, because it's not much of a prediction. I'm also not bothering to check any facts.

5. The health care cost curve will bend a bit more.

Score: Maybe correct. ACA has traction, but Congress and Supreme Court could erode it.

6. Unrest and repression will continue at the same rates as in 2013. A long, horrible stalemate in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Palestine. Possible liberalization in Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be offset by crackdowns in Russia and North Korea.

Score: Situation in Ukraine is bad, but I didn't predict that. I didn't predict Hong Kong uprising, which seems to have ended peacefully. Didn't predict Feguson.

7. NSA activity will continue unabated in the U.S. Restrictions on media content, patents, copyrights, etc.. will be maintained. Spurious blogs like this one will be ignored.

Score: Yeah, so what. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

random picture tuesday

This expensive house has a plastic door. Or is it fiberglass? And that's only the beginning of a series of poorly executed details and inept design decisions throughout the structure. Fortunately, I wasn't involved, and I'm grateful that I can identify the mistakes without being responsible for providing a solution. If there needs to be a solution, that is.

This picture was taken a few years ago during the darkness of the recession. I don't know what became of this house, but I suspect that the current owners have taken measures to corrects some things they didn't like. Maybe it's been torn down.

Monday, December 22, 2014

yay olympics boston

Towers of ilium is considering supporting the Boston Olympics in 2024 if  the bid was to result in a complete overhaul of the JFK/UMass Red Line Station. Now, notice how I phrased that--- "if the bid was to result..." If work began on the station, albeit in planning phase, and Boston lost the bid for the Games, then I would regard the whole affair as a success. Now, about Wollaston Station....

Sunday, December 21, 2014

review of the news

Towers of ilium has been distracted by internal events and has not had a chance to comment on current news:

-The potential normalization of trade relations with Cuba is an impressive accomplishment by Obama and Castro. It might spell an end to the time capsule architecture of Havana. As always, progress does not guarantee improvement.

-The decline in crude oil prices, while a temporary condition, is having interesting impacts. I don't feel sorry for Putin. I'll reserve further comments for my 2015 predictions edition.

-The debacle at Sony caused by the not(never?) to be released movie, The Interview is still playing out. To quote a fellow I was talking to on the eve of the financial collapse in 2008--"the shit's just getting warmed up."

-I'm losing confidence in self-driving cars appearing on the roads within the next decade.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

unequal architecture

In the post yesterday it was stated that towers of ilium supports innovation. Let me qualify that a bit: Limited experiments that are tested by the market are the only effective way to achieve progress. Too often, innovators get caught up in the implications of their schemes and assume a level of market disruption that is bizarre. The iPhone is a remarkable toy that has so far failed to disrupt face to face communication. Likewise, the Apple aesthetic will someday be regarded as a design curiosity similar to fins on cars.

In architecture, innovation depends on subtlety, and that often doesn't make for good magazine articles. The awards and press tend to focus on what appear to be disruptive models of design, but are in fact rare events with limited influence. Housing is an area of particular concern to me. The obsession with high density lifestyles is an epidemic in the design profession. Innovative schemes are used to conceal the fact that most modern urban living models depend on bland, repetitive, conventional, and above all, reliable, buildings. Double loaded corridors, simple facades, predominantly private space, and very little ornament.

And the suburb shall be our aspiration..... (more on that later, maybe)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

capitol won

Towers of ilium generally supports innovation, and is not afraid to make predictions about the probable success of innovative efforts. With regard to the Capitol One 360 Cafe venture, which has two locations in downtown Boston, we are not maintaining a positive attitude. If you combine two contradictory business activities you can't expect people to respond well. It would be like a loud/quiet room or a wet/dry swimming pool.

And what the hell are we supposed to get from the "360" logo? A 360 degree experience implies that I've turned in a complete circle, and if I do that multiple times in a row, I'll get dizzy. Or does it refer to the complete experience that can be had within the establishment? Are there services offered beyond coffee and routine banking? Speculation on this topic could violate the family friendly policy of this blog.

Monday, December 15, 2014

to everything there was a season

As is the custom, I can refer to myself as an award winning architect. I participated in the renovation of this house. I contributed something, and although some of my efforts fell short, the outcome was generally well received.

The balustrade over the entry porch is detailed and built incorrectly. But it's hard to tell from this angle.

Towers of ilium seeks to avoid controversy and conflict. Since it is a blog it is an easy thing to do. Posting this week may be erratic. But no more than usual.

Friday, December 12, 2014

the frontiers of architecture

It's only a horse barn. And a garage. And an expression of desire. What it doesn't represent is an effort towards revolutionary design, and I think the client was grateful for that. In fact, the issue never came up. An architect signals expected performance through past jobs, and consequently, a design style can be solidified and sustained. A dilemma for designers is how much change should be sought after and tolerated in the context of a commission. Commercial projects like hospitals and schools tend to have fixed parameters and expected solutions. However, there tend to be enough challenges that make the projects unique.

Once again, towers of ilium apologizes for blog posts that have nothing to do with blog content. Post titles are outsourced to a specialty firm that does not have awareness of the post's subject matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

the show goes on

I should really show the before picture too. Let's do that.

I really need to take a picture that doesn't feature some fellow experiencing a lower extremity wardrobe malfunction.

The clients were quite happy with this project. It improved things. It qualifies as architecture.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

someone built that

A client remarked recently "it looks just like the rendering you showed us." We were standing in the building pictured here. That made me feel good.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

up vs. down and in vs. out

Architecture disrupts memory. Traditional architecture, because of its unabashed historical references is actually more subversive than contemporary expressions. Now that we have different stages of the modernist revolution, the map of traditional architecture has gotten more complicated. The house pictured above is old by the standards of the internet age. Its date of construction--1960ish---is less important than its date of interior renovation from 2007ish. That the owners were seeking a more colonial living experience didn't lead them to stint on systems like air conditioning, good wiring, and comfortable furnishings.

The eclectic approach is now the only honest one--where you put the flat screen television is all that matters.

Monday, December 8, 2014

joe fallon vs. robert campbell

Actually, it really isn't a contest. Campbell is an architecture critic who has no influence on architecture. Fallon is a developer who might seem to have a profound influence on architecture, but in reality is constrained by the strong hand of market reality. The Globe had a profile of Fallon, who is responsible for much of the development in the "Innovation District." He came across favorably, and he responded to Campbell's critique of that neighborhood. He pointed out that the streetscape will improve over time and that the development decisions (most of which were defined by the afore-mentioned market, the FAA, and traffic engineers) will prove to be okay. I tend to agree with that. From what I can see, the areas with new construction feel better than most of the Financial District in Boston proper.

On a side note, I'm giving much thought to the current state of architectural communication in construction documents. I contend that there is too much information and not enough knowledge displayed by the heaps of paper devoted to drawings and specifications.

Friday, December 5, 2014

the unreliability of memory

It's awkward how little documentation I have of things I've worked on. I didn't design the space pictured above, but I was responsible for managing the people who did the design work. I should have paid more attention to the HVAC design, but I certainly wouldn't be the first architect to drop that ball.

The rest of the spaces in this building aren't as dramatic. But they work.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

a spectre is haunting...

Actually, it's the spectre of persistently low inflation, stagnation, and ennui.

Here in the U.S. we are starting to see mild signs of price increases, which for those who fall into the "all inflation is bad camp" is the sign of doomsday. In the years I've been practicing architecture I've seen a consistent upward trend in construction costs. Some of this is due to an aggregate response to upward pressure of all wages and prices. More significantly, we've seen an increased complexity of building systems--better insulation, more robust structure, more bathrooms, large houses. Some of these things are improvements, which come at a cost. In general, building quality improves. But, the distribution of cost increases and improvement is not equal. Low quality construction, albeit better than older construction, can still be done cheaply if the development team strips all character and amenities from a project. Luxury clients, meanwhile, pay through the nose for diminishing marginal returns in quality. Finish carpentry and cabinetry feels like a good racket--those who can do it well command premium prices and are in high demand.

I don't know what to make of this. I remember that 13 years ago we would tell prospective clients that $200 a s.f. was a reasonable price to pay for an architect designed home. Now, we tell clients that construction costs range between $200 and $250 a s.f. I no longer trust my ability to estimate costs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

los locos lobos

Some bits and pieces here:

-Wall Street Journal (which is trustworthy and useful about 33% of the time) had a story about how home appraisers are starting to inflate house valuations. Again. This won't end well. Again.

-Is Las Vegas sustainable? No, but who is?

-I'm still searching for a way to explain the difference between gain dominated buildings and enclosure dominated buildings so that is useful for architects.

-The Financial District in Boston is a tribute to bad architecture and planning decisions from the 1920's through the 1990's. Tear it all down and salt the earth. I suppose I should take another post to elaborate on this claim.

-Does the weight of cities compress the underlying bedrock?

-My Droid phone navigation system could not lead me out of a paper bag. How can we hope to achieve an Orwellian police state with such shoddy technology?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

world war I

So far in life I've managed to avoid military duty. If I had been a Briton alive 100 years ago I would most likely be charging a machine gun nest somewhere in France under the command of an upper class officer who had been raised to believe that war was a sure path to glory. I like to believe that we've made progress since then. Our modern wars seem to be affairs of attrition. Sporadic criminal activity that is covered by grim faced journalists. Property damage and civilian misery are the rule, as they always were. I am disturbed how some communities--in Afghanistan and Israel--have developed a type of siege architecture. What type of mental effect can this have?

Monday, December 1, 2014

get carter

This a photograph of a portion of the parking garage that was used in the 1971 movie Get Carter. I'm including that film on my list of architecture themed movies because of its portrayal of Britain. Despite the demolition of some of the major locations in the film, including the garage, the dismal atmosphere of the country is still a fact of life for many people.

Despite the ugliness of much of the built environment, people can overcome its effects. Humans do not have a "natural" setting. We can die miserably just as easily on the African savanna as in the sordid glitter of Shanghai. Architects can improve the visual experience of urban life for many people. Using less exposed concrete is a good, first step.