ruminations about architecture and design

Saturday, December 31, 2016

gone such a short time

Humans seem to process time in short intervals--life or death decisions are made in split seconds, we say stupid things without considering the consequences, we get impatient when things are late by a few minutes. Some blame the internet, but we created the products of linked computers to conform to our way of perceiving the world.

Architecture is offered as a flawed antidote to the super fast. The "build for all time" motto is carved on the ruins of the Egyptian empire. The value of the built environment can reasonably be measured in decades, occasionally centuries, and in rare circumstances, milenia. In light of this, making fast decisions in design should be treated with caution. A design decision that is not reviewed at least three times often turns out wrong. But, we cannot escape our nature, and decisions that are made instantly and arbitrarily often define the course of work. If these quick moves weren't made then nothing would ever get built.

This building no longer exists. It's removal was the result of much deliberation.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Predictions for 2017

The only way to make mistakes is by doing things, so here goes:

-The world economy will muddle along for most of the year. As potential impacts from Trump start to percolate through markets there will be signs of disruption towards the end of the year. China may have some minor crises, but will be managed. Russia will be stagnant. Europe will improve. Developing countries will improve slightly. Major drama will be reserved for 2018 (to be discussed in the towers of ilium Trump Predictions special edition)

-U.S. economy will start strong and then weaken as the year progresses.

-Oil prices will be volatile and end the year above $65 a barrel.

-Renewable energy will continue to grow globally, but will suffer setbacks in the U.S.

-U.S. housing starts will surge, but will be tempered by rising interest rates

-Fed will hike rates 3 times in 2017

-ISIL will lose Mosul, and Raqqa will be besieged but not fall.

-Middle East turmoil will be variable. Saudi Arabia will pull back some on its military adventures in Yemen and will seek more diplomacy with Iran. Bibi will continue to isolate Israel. Sisi will get weaker in Egypt.

-Boston real estate will continue to cool. Prices will not soften.

-Architecture will continue to improve sustainable design practices. There will be more conservative buildings coming online and on the boards.

-Nothing dramatic will happen at the MBTA.

2017 will be less exciting than 2016 (long drumroll on that one please.....)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

paper tiger architecture

The efforts of the Boston Olympics organization were regarded with gentle skepticism by towers of ilium. That it was doomed was never in doubt. It failed to spark a serious dialogue about the state of Boston infrastructure. Perhaps we are all united by the hopelessness of the situation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

pre-planning the prediction market

2016 was a bad year for polling and the conventional wisdom. 2017 may be even worse. The prediction staff at towers of ilium has been doing more research than usual on what may happen in the year ahead. Topics worthy of predictions include the following:

-U.S. economy
-Energy prices
-Armed conflicts-ongoing
-Armed conflicts-potential
-Architectural trends
-Real Estate trends-local
-Real Estate trends-national/international
-Donald Trump's presidency

This last topic will get special treatment because it requires a multi-year window of possible effects.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

a sketch about economists (up there)

The Economist also had a very good article on their own headquarters building-which they are in the process of vacating after many years. Towers of ilium can only comment on a few items:

-Peter and Allison Smithson are given credit for inventing the Brutalist style with these structures.

-The author of the article has experience working in the building and was generally pleased with the design--except for the Plaza--modernist plazas are usually shit.

-Office towers pose considerable challenges for communication between groups. This can be a boon for some companies, but not for journalists.

Monday, December 26, 2016

many happy returns

The last time towers of ilium commented on Celebration, Florida, it was dismissive. A recent article in The Economist magazine on the community was thoughtful and frequently critical. This blog continues to remain dismissive. The town--if it can be called that--is simply another  upscale suburb located between a swamp and a highway. Some of its planning features still feel dumb, in particular the way garages empty onto back roads between house lots.

Giving credit to Celebration for serving as a building block of the New Urbanist movement is a bit of a stretch. New Urbanism is a sham; a marketing slogan that developers can paste onto projects in the hope of gaining sympathy votes for some common sense design features. Celebration is derivative and unoriginal when compared to the slightly more revolutionary status of Seaside. As an intellectual experiment it barely qualifies as a footnote to Venturi & Scott-Brown.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016 predictions post-mortem

The spin department at towers of ilium has been burning the midnight oil for this one.

- Hillary Clinton will be elected president (defeating Ted Cruz). GOP will retain  control of Congress by a more narrow margin.

Annnnnnd.....that's not how it turned out for the first one. Cruz slithered nearly to the end of the primary. Whether his political career will survive and expand is a question that we don't have the luxury or the interest in discussing. Hillary gave it a college try, but this issue has been beaten to death quite thoroughly. The second part of this prediction turned out mostly right. 

-Economy will start to sputter in early/late fall. Fed will hike interest rates 3 times this year.

Nope and nope. One interest rate hike only in December.

-Oil will end the year with an average price of above $50 a barrel for WTI.

Right, but not by much. About $53 as of this writing. Gas for two bucks a gallon is our constitutional right--heh, heh.

-Syrian civil war will stabilize, but not permanently.

If by stable we mean moving to a new level of hell, then yes. Assad and Russia have secured Aleppo and things are bad. 

-ISIL will continue to experience setbacks, but will not be defeated outright.

Yes, but the franchise and ideology is strong.

-Marijuana acceptance will continue to gain traction in U.S.

And, that's a heck yeah. Massachusetts, Florida, etc....all in the gunsights of Mr. Sessions.

-MBTA will putter along. Baker will not be able to make any major changes. The Green Line extension plan will be delayed but not abandoned.

Mostly true, but efforts to secure more Red Line cars are impressive. Baker's team nibbles at the edges of things, securing some union concessions, but no real money for the system.

-Nothing dramatic will happen in Quincy, Mass.

Almost too easy. Downtown development is moving ahead and traffic gets marginally worse each week. All signs of prosperity and joy.

-Housing starts nationally will start to decline towards the end of the year.

Nope. Decent gains, but we see headwinds ahead.

-Europe will lurch more towards the right.

Yes, yes it did.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Until we get funding for more research, we'll blame it on Renzo Piano. The phenomenon can loosely be called "stripitecture" and it involves wrapping buildings in an expressive fretwork of materials in dominant linear patterns. The method lends a richness to the facade of the structure and creates ambiguity about where walls start. A clever architect can make a series of arguments about how the cladding mediates sun/wind/rain, etc..

It looks expensive, and it is. But so what?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

a garden runs through it

According to most sources, the agricultural revolution is in its twilight. The next frontier is food storage and distribution. The United States has been dealing with this challenge by growing and processing billions of tons of carbohydrates that can be kept shelf stable for eons. Meat and vegetables, which many people would prefer to eat fresh (or properly aged) present greater logistical problems. Should it be treated from the demand side or the supply side?

Monday, December 19, 2016

the way it is

Urban planning in the United States does not exist. In its place we have the consequential effects of the need to provide space for roads, cars, and buildings. For an object as simple as a single family home the formula is simple: 5000 s.f. for the building lot, of which  2000 s.f. is house footprint, 600 s.f. is driveway, and the balance is front, rear, and side yards.

For commercial buildings, the formula varies more, but a reasonable starting point is to assume that for every square foot of building at least an equal amount will be required for site---and that's at the low end. For strip development, a 1:3 ratio is a safer starting point.

These observations are the work of towers of ilium, and do not constitute an official or reliable analysis.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

failures of imagination

"Make no little plans" might be one of those statements that old-school designers frequently seize on when they're trying to work the crowd when proposing a large scale project. America in the 21st century, which may or may not achieve some historical level of "greatness," has to find a new organizing slogan. Towers of Ilium is prepared to suggest a few;

"Make no large plans, for they will only attract the ire of lawyers, special interest groups, and idiots."
This can be the rallying cry for any major changes to urban areas.

"Make no practical plans." This applies mainly to architects. The 2030 challenge is an example of this
hubristic thinking. Net zero buildings are achievable in limited circumstances, but only a handful of clients are enlightened or funded enough to consider as a primary goal.

"Make no plans." Most people live by this principle and are better off for it. We believe that we can plan for life, but are often swept away by tidal forces that defy all human control or understanding.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

transportation costs in perspective

According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, the MBTA is facing criticism for granting a 285 million dollar, no-bid contract extension to China Rolling Stock for an additional 134 Red Line trains. The company currently has a contract to replace most of the Red Line cars in service for nearly 600 million dollars.

That type of money doesn't go far these days. In fact, 285 million buck will not even buy you three F-35 fighter jets. Some staff members of towers of ilium rely on the Red Line every day and would keenly appreciate a modest investment in their transportation system. If the deal goes through we should hope that the new trains are safer and more reliable than these junk airplanes.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

prediction predictions

The editorial and research staff at towers of ilium has started examining the predictions made for 2016 and has also started the exhaustive and comprehensive research necessary for predictions for the upcoming year. It's a grim and humbling task.

One area of concern is the future of American healthcare. Will it continue its decline or will there be any signs for optimism? Political prognostications will be particularly fun. Optimism will obviously take a vacation, but we'll shoot from the hip on a few items.World affairs, the environment, the economy, and the Boston region will also figure large in the biased effort.

Comments are welcome, but not expected. Most will be ignored.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

it happened here

Urban warfare is a puzzling thing. Every large city seems to have similar features--a central area with large buildings surrounded by smaller buildings of varying density that consist mostly of houses. Fighting in such an environment favors the defender, but attrition costs are incredible the most effective tactic is to engage in a "bleeding retreat."

Towers of ilium is curious about how warfare in an American city could be conducted from both angles. Would a spread out city like Los Angeles favor a defender more than a compact city like Boston? Perhaps it comes down to natural obstacles, in which case the Charles River would be the primary strategic impediment to both besieger  and defender.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


The intrepid and dedicated staff of towers of ilium has been summoned back from the long vacation.
Certain events in the past year have made us realize the dire need for another source of hard-hitting, gumshoe wielding, objective, fact-driven, brand driven, content advocated, user responsive, truth wielding, and award-winning media content. Advertisers take heed: We are responsible to no one--corporate, spiritual, or otherwise. (Except Cth'ullu and the great green gods of Yag the Accursed--but we'll cover that topic in our weekly religious broadcast)

In the weeks and months ahead we want to assure readers that we will be there for you, on the front lines or wherever.

Topics of note:

-The results of the election did come as a surprise to some staff members. Like others in the mainstream media we are doing some post-event explanation. We have little new to add to the discussion. Trump's victory does vindicate some people and some positions and we expect things to get a bit messier after the inauguration.

-Towers of ilium reaffirms the claim that the completion of the new Apple and Google headquarters complexes in California will coincide with the next depression. More on this topic later (maybe).

-The relative prosperity of the Boston region is showing signs of a downshift. We don't know what the cause is, but the boomlet in multi-family residential seems to be coinciding with some fatigue in single family construction. The multi-family situation is one tied up with permits, land costs and rising borrowing costs. We don't expect a hard crash, but possible a correction over the next few years.

The picture above is not related to any content--either implied or explicit.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

acceptance and love

Towers of ilium has come to terms with the personal automobile. It is still the defining invention of human development and modern civilization. It is here to stay as long as there is civilization. We will not abandon our cars and live in high rises. Jesus built my car, as the song goes.

Meanwhile the boom in speculative luxury housing might be reaching a climax in urban areas. Boston is building a little of that, but not as much as Miami, New York, and London. We'll keep this monitored with the usual casual indifference that distinguishes the fine journalism of towers of ilium.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

where were you during the revolution?

Somewhere in China a solar panel factory is on double shifts. It's probably not pleasant work, and we can be fairly certain that environmental concerns and employee happiness aren't the top priority. But it's happening, and the visual consequences are proliferating in many parts of the United States.

Homo consumeris is a fickle creature--hard to predict, easy to manipulate, and eager to punish. But when it comes to residential solar power, towers of ilium is willing to make a prediction nearly devoid of cynicism. And although the consequences are yet to be fully realized and explained, we can see a million wheels turning in a million heads: if you can put these on your roof and you can plug your car into an electrical outlet....

Poor buggy whip makers.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

rip van winkle early morning edition

Ah, where did the months go? Towers of ilium had a staff shake-up due to a loss of readers to print media. The world turns strangely these days.

The decay of American infrastructure is not a pretty thing. A Roman aqueduct makes great postcard material, but the dilapidated bridges, roads, and rail facilities in this country do not make for much of a tourist attraction. Lest we fall into the "Make America Great Again" trap we must consider that political will functions based on voter priorities. Maintenance does not impress on the campaign trail.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

a mild success of urban non-planning

That the Lawn on D is the only successful green space in the Fort Point area speaks volumes about the development trajectory of that particular piece of Boston. Its existence is apparently accidental and precarious. Towers of ilium dispatched a reliable team of reporters to the neighborhood make an objective survey of the architecture. The overall impression is not positive; Windswept streets and uninspiring buildings compete with feeble clusters of commercial activity. Advertisements for "Loft Living" can't hide the paucity of amenities and character. Wastebaskets are hide to find. Dogs on leashes look sad and lost--uncertain if they are allowed to mark their territory of it is expressly prohibited by zoning regulations. Street crossings for pedestrians develop into mini-dramas that would make Samuel Beckett lose hope in humanity. Cars race by, searching in vain for the vast parking lots that once made up the district.

In twenty years, things may have improve somewhat, but the austerity and crassness of the infrastructure and architecture is depressing. Take us home to Boylston Street, or even Government Center.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

where many martyrs fell

Towers of ilium was wrong about the boom in domestic oil and gas production that started about a decade ago. On a side note, Gerald Ford deserves some measure of credit for encouraging research in fracking--more gummint meddling in the glorious free market.

The oil endgame is probably a few decades off--at which point more than 20 million American homes will have rooftop solar. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

things that get forgotten

Towers of ilium frequently suffers from amnesia. In this post we will try to remember some important things about architecture and building science.

-Durability is an illusion
-Flow-through assemblies are okay if you have exterior insulation and rainscreen cladding
-Double vapor barriers in wall cladding is okay for certain panelized systems
-Roxul is still too expensive
-OSB can act as a vapor barrier
-Continuous insulation will soon be mandatory for all cold climate buildings
-Glass is a lie

Saturday, January 16, 2016

pictures of 1980's nyc from the gothamist

Photojournalism, like all forms of eyewitness testimony, cannot be trusted. New York City, and Boston for that matter, were not nice places in the 1980's. Urban conditions were romantically bad, and we're fortunate that many photos were taken during this era. They give the impression of a disaster, which conceals the fact that cities were still engines of prosperity and represented significant concentrations of wealth.  This condition has expanded markedly since then, to the point where inequality is masked by the visual improvements in such places.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

the revolution is incremental

Okay, so Georgia Pacific will be rolling out a commercial equivalent to the ZipSystem sheathing product. Towers of ilium supposes that this was inevitable. It seems like a good idea, and I wonder how the fluid/sheet applied WRB folks will respond to this. Probably something along the lines of "it's nice, but....."

Towers of ilium observes that fasteners have to be covered with some sort of goop or tape. The labor associated with this makes it inferior to Zip System. Also, where is the insulation?

Friday, January 1, 2016

predictions for 2016


- Hillary Clinton will be elected president (defeating Ted Cruz). GOP will retain  control of Congress by a more narrow margin.

-Economy will start to sputter in early/late fall. Fed will hike interest rates 3 times this year.

-Oil will end the year with an average price of above $50 a barrel for WTI.

-Syrian civil war will stabilize, but not permanently.

-ISIL will continue to experience setbacks, but will not be defeated outright.

-Marijuana acceptance will continue to gain traction in U.S.

-MBTA will putter along. Baker will not be able to make any major changes. The Green Line extension plan will be delayed but not abandoned.

-Nothing dramatic will happen in Quincy, Mass.

-Housing starts nationally will start to decline towards the end of the year.

-Europe will lurch more towards the right.