ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, December 31, 2017

in memorian-john portman

John Portman was best known for his large buildings, but his forays into domestic architecture reveal the sensitivity of his design philosophy. That is why these photos of a house in Georgia have been chosen as the imagery of this send-off at towers of ilium. We can remember him as the most successful architect of the 20th century. (This compliment in a back-handed reference to Philip Johnson's comment about Frank Lloyd Wright being the greatest 19th century architect.) In terms of volume, Portman probably outdid all of his peers. In terms of critical acclaim, he was largely ignored--his name is absent from academic discourse, except perhaps as a cautionary tale.

His work has been called "neo-futurism" which in the age of smart-phones and Amazon feels distinctly nostalgic. He indulged in a form of heroic modernism distinguished by muscular shapes, high ceilings, and the occasional drapery of vegetation. His work spoke of indoor commerce, the click of heels across the terrazzo floors of a shopping mall or late nights in a hotel bar. Roger Moore as James Bond will come striding out across that orange carpet to greet us as we sip a vodka martini in the dim light of the atrium.

His career had its ups and downs--mostly ups, for a property developer he both absorbed and transferred financial risks. In the end, he was a good bet, and lenders never consigned his designs to value-engineering. His designs came pre-engineered--suitable for mass production and easy to renovate as stylistic trends shifted.

It will be curious to see if any of his work gets singled out for preservation. Such a tribute might be contrary to the energy of his work. His architecture was the progress of the 20th century, complete with all of its setbacks, from the decline of cities to their rebirths. That he could be imitated successfully is the greatest tribute of all.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

excitement for the past

2017 was a blend of events. The Trump administration and the Trump personality diverged in ways that the media did not fully grasp. Tweets are not policy, and with a few exceptions, U.S. government policy was standard, hard-right orthodoxy. The exceptions were the Mueller investigation and the expanded crackdown on immigration. Mueller's work will probably end in an anti-climactic fashion sometime in 2018. The issues surrounding immigration will persist for decades.

The U.S. continues to diversify, despite the feverish efforts of the Miller/Bannon crowd. The big questions circle around whether geographic divisions and ethnic divisions will maintain familiar patterns. Will cities continue to be "melting pots" with entrenched power bases that are still mostly white (cue, Boston) or will there be a true cultural reformation in critical areas like California and the Southwest?

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 prediction review

Towers of ilium has integrity and traditions. We can admit when we're wrong, however rare such an occurence may be. Here are the predictions for 2017 and our objective analysis:

-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)

The world economy has been doing okay--so the the "muddle along" prediction is mostly correct. China is stable, Europe, with the exception of Britain, seems to be doing fine. There are not disruptions evident other than the idiocy of Bitcoin.

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

Mostly wrong. Things are great, and will continue to be great.

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

Half right. Prices were stable and have only recently crept above $62.

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

The stock market surge has generally concealed any sector weaknesses. 

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

No and no.

-Fed will hike rates 3 times in 2017

Yes, it did.

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

Mosul was "liberated" and ISIL also lost Raqqa. The prospects of ISIL as a long-running terror franchise are robust.

-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.

Middle East is getting worse. The adventurism of Salman is defining the trajectory of many events in the region. Yemen is still terrible. Bibi and Sisi seem to be stable. Relations between Iran and the U.S. continue to deteriorate, but Iran can position itself with Europe and Asia if it wants.

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

Sort of and yes. A reckoning is coming.

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

Sort of, and maybe. There are no revolutions in design for the most part.

-Nothing dramatic will happen at the MBTA.

A mixed bag on this. Improvements to the Wollaston T stop are underway. The Green Line extension contract was awarded. Discussion about the future of the Allston railyard is heating up.

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

sears, roebuck, & bezos

This connection has been made before, so it is not the intent of towers of ilium to make a novel observation. A larger issue here is the conceit and goal of business that everything that can be desired can eventually be manufactured and sold. Economics stands in opposition to the principle of business, by postulating infinite, and ultimately unsatisfied desires. Sears, Roebuck circumvented this quandry of economics by legitimately offering more than any one person could ever want or buy. Their success laid the foundations for their ultimate failure. Bezos has simpler aims, but he has failed as a businessman because he always takes the customer and the supplier for granted. Intangible experiences are desired more, and command higher prices, than any item stocked in a warehouse. So far, Amazon cannot sell that.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

a yellow wind for predictions

A few days from now, after the stupor of the holiday has worn off, the editorial staff of towers of ilium will convene to discuss the appropriate response to the predictions made by the blog for 2017. They will also be working on predictions for 2018. Please try not to fall off the floor while this happens.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

the tax bill and architecture

The economics and business team at towers of ilium stayed up past midnight calculating the impact of the new tax legislation on architecture and construction. The following conclusions have been drawn;

-The lowering of the corporate tax rate gives companies an incentive to invest in more trophy buildings for management and executive staff. Some firms may even use the extra cash to dabble in commercial real estate, which could inflate prices in non-distressed regions. In sum, San Francisco, New York, and Boston will experience high end churn, flips, and development, e.g. more of the same

-Luxury homebuilders may suffer some setbacks in high-tax areas, but the overall residential building market will continue to expand in areas that are willing to permit development.

-Architecture firms will have more incentive to consolidate further and expand services into construction and property management.

This sounds like good news, but extra cash has a way of generating trouble, particularly when many urban markets are already overpriced. Another single-family bust is unlikely for a while, but bubble in commercial property could go sideways in a bad way.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

awash on the shores of an unknown land

Sometimes, things happen quickly. Improvements to American infrastructure, however, will happen very slowly and will be one of the chief sources of inequality in the decades ahead. Despite the congestion in urban areas, the greatest negative impacts will be in places with negative population growth--the countrysides.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

limits on reality

Machine learning, AI, Big Data, and augmented reality are the Big Ideas in technology. If history is any guide, none of these things will benefit the design profession. In fact, designers will continue to be held to ever more unrealistic expectations. Design explorations will continue through multiple iterations with no resolution, which will be fine if fees are in place to cover the time. Smart clients will be judicious in their use of this type of service. But what color should it be? The algorithms have declared mauve to be the in-color of 2056.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

boston odds and ends

-Governor Baker has proposed legislation that would make zoning changes in towns easier to pass. If zoning regulations are relaxed, more housing could be built. So goes the theory. Towers of ilium assigns low odds of success to this.

-Low odds of success are assigned to the second phase of the Fenway Center project. The second phase involves building a deck over the Mass Pike to support buildings. These projects are usually killed by recessions.

-A recession is still 12 to 18 months away. This blog made a similar prediction 12 or 18 months ago.

-The stone floor in the picture is not stone--it is porcelain tile.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

the problem with silicon valley

The problem with Silicon Valley is that it is a valley. This geographic fact is a major annoyance to the people who live there--and more importantly, to the people who want to live there, but can't because housing costs are too high, transportation is too restricted, and the damn mountains around the valley are mountains and not flat land. Agglomeration theory is good until it runs into geography.

But, what about densification? Good luck.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

the sublime

A sense of security is often achieved by elevation. Weight is associated with quality. Water reminds us of distant aquatic lifestyles. In sum, our senses betray us, because beauty does not hold the key to the next square meal, and a good night's sleep is worth more than all the gold sunk at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

the origins of formality

Architects are conceited enough to believe that every aspect of their design will elicit an emotional response. The shape of a room, the curve of a moulding, the color of a wall--all are regarded as notes in symphony. What people feel, however, can be dramatically altered by conditions over which the designer has no control. A bright day can make a marginal space feel wonderful--and vice versa. People who aren't architects tend to notice and comment on furniture and decorations most frequently. Architects respond by designing spaces stripped down to pure volumes, which are not often appreciated by the public.

Odds of a war with North Korea this year are at about 40%

Thursday, November 30, 2017

blog worthy

Towers of ilium has so far avoided scandals, harassment issues, accusations of fake news, Russian hackers, and truth.

Artificial materials are a critical part of architecture. The Egyptians and Greeks were constantly presenting stone as things that were not stone. Modern plastics manufacturers have carried the artifice of creation to the point where people no longer have a frame of reference for many materials. In some areas, the artificial products outperform their natural products in all areas. Consequently, natural materials become more prized for their irregularity, imperfections, and unreliability.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

the density delusion

In places with land use regulations there will be a tendency towards prohibitions on density. So, paradoxically, if density if desired, then zoning codes have to be abolished. But what about Houston? 
This is from the city website:

The Department checks subdivision plats for the proper subdivision of land and for adequate street or right-of-way, building lines and for compliance with Chapter 42, the City’s land development ordinance. Development site plans are checked for compliance with regulations that include parking, tree and shrub requirements, setbacks, and access.

So, contrary to some claims, Houston does have ordinances that tends to encourage lower density--just like Manhattan. And, both are prone to flooding in certain areas. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

in seek of improvements

The indoor waiting area at North Station in Boston is probably the worst public space in the entire city. The negative attributes are too many to count, but we will try to list the most egregious architectural errors:

-Too small
-Bad lighting
-Bad colors
-Bad seating
-Bad acoustics
-Bad sightlines
-Bad restrooms
-Bad signage

With the exception of size, many of these problems could be remedied. Why was it designed so poorly in the first place?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

plain sawn

Some readers have noticed the negative attitude towards architectural practice in recent blog posts. Towers of ilium apologizes for the tone, but not the content. Architecture thrives on constant criticism and revision. The aesthetic impact of anything built by humans--particularly shelters and infrastructure--is an essential component of culture. Diverse reactions are to be expected. When architecture drifts too far towards social engineering or when a designer takes an unequivocal stance on some issue, then it necessary to double down on skepticism. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

season ticket to a one way ride

This is important:

Kotkin makes the same solid arguments he has made in the past on this topic. One possibility he does not discuss is the possibility that current suburbs will increase in density as a consequence of improved transportation technology. This blog noted that the death of retail may open up land for more residential development.

Manufacturing may get automated to the point where it can move to more rural areas. Whatever happens, architecture is doomed.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

augmented reality

Amazing opportunities for this technology abound. We list some:

-Architects will become obsolete. Clients will rely on algorithms that show them infinite ways to arrange spaces and furnishings. It will be a glorious time.

-People who own seafront property that has been inundated will be able to experience memories of these places through sophisticated simulation programs. Parties, walks on the beach, good meals, sunsets from the deck, etc....

-Certain celebrities will allow fans to tune into their everyday experiences. Watch them sleep, eat, meet with important people, and interact with fans who are tuned into the experience.

-When the aliens invade, no one will pay them any attention.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

it can only cost more

An ongoing discussion is starting about the reconfiguration of the Mass Pike through the old railyards in Allston. Straightening out the highway, and removing some of the crumbling elevation sections, makes a lot of sense. The urban planning consultant hired by towers of ilium has made the modest suggestion that portions of the road should be built in conjunction with decks that can support buildings. This would double the cost of the construction but would improve the neighborhood in the long term. Comments are welcome--a public hearing will be held in Worcester on Monday morning.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

new morning

Where does design go from here? And what is "here?"

-Sustainable architecture is a typical design service for many firms. Its execution is still too frequently a box to check for LEED certifiability but it still matters. Much of the modern built environment would be worse off without the principles of green architecture reaching mainstream use.
-There is still no good substitute for spray-foam insulation
-The retail apocaylpse  is coming, but it will free up land for more residential development. It will be a long, slow, and bitter process that will be spread unevenly throughout the country. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

copperhead roads

The political turmoil in the United States is frequently being described in terms of geography. Election maps paint a picture of of an urban/rural divide that has deep roots in racial segregation, de-industrialization, and drug abuse. The most cynical observer could envision the 48 states divided into three distinct countries consisting of a central heartland flanked by  two coastal mega-cities. Such an outcome would require some creative map drawing--and a lot of barbed wire. To pursue such a fantasy would reveal that the weaknesses of the rural zones are even more significant than most people realize. Despite the results of the most recent national election, the balance of trade and power is heavily skewed towards coastal cities -whether they are near fresh waterways or oceans.

Towers of ilium, quite naturally, has a bias towards the cities. Commerce, consumption, congestion, drama, and innovation are the essential elements of the city. The conventional role of rural areas as places where natural resources are harvested points to a grim future where huge robots dig and till with tireless efficiency.

Monday, November 6, 2017

the crisis of durability

Why did the Greeks paint stone? If we consider the relative longevity of various building materials the very necessity of paint comes into question. Is there an architect out there who refuses to use it?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

cars in the sky and other fantasy stories

Major solutions to transportation problems are still far in the future. We can be sure that the solutions will not be perfect, and that the oldest among us will yearn for a golden age of open roads, clear sunsets, and V8 engines. Electric cars with self-operating software will be important, but the replacement period will be long and filled with some mishaps. Towers of ilium puts the odds of Tesla being in existence in 10 years at about 50%.

Oil is creeping above $60 a barrel. That's still too cheap.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

lost songs

Did Christopher Marlowe know he would die young? Did he seek out a life that would guarantee that? Did he enter that tavern in Deptford expecting fatal violence--if not for him, for others?
The context of his times suggests a more liberal attitude towards the young dying and great old age reserved for a very lucky few.

Modern fatalism seems to have greater diversity. A notable collection of fools--mostly middle aged white men in California--are investing great sums of money in the pursuit of life extensions. That they pursue this after the prime of their life, and with certain knowledge that their efforts will fail, is perhaps a greater error than those who take real risks in the pursuit of cheating death by a hair.

"Delight in your youth.....Fear God and obey His commandments...."

Sunday, October 29, 2017

liver and onions special

Was Mark Rothko a sculptor or a painter? The same question could be asked about Jackson Pollock. When the dust settles, who else will be remembered from 20th century American art? (Architects are excluded from this.)

Towers of ilium puts the odds of tax cuts passing at around 60%--and maybe not by the end of the year. 2018 feels far away.

Richard Serra, Norman Rockwell, and Georgia O'keefe.

Friday, October 27, 2017

almost real news

The media analysts at towers of ilium have spent the better week distilling the truth for the sake of our loyal readership. So, with no further delays:

-The war between Steve Bannon and mainstream Republicans is mostly a sham. Nothing will be reliable except election results in next year's midterms. Roy Moore is headed for the Senate before that happens but his effects will be negligible in the greater scheme of things.

-Puerto Rico is in bad shape. The scandal involving Whitefish Energy has legs. Hopefully, there will be some good stories there, and more importantly, the power grid will be restored soon.

-The other shoe is dropping for some Internet giants. Russian spies are mildly amused.

-New housing starts in Massachusetts fell sharply on a year over year basis. Is this a sign of an economic downturn or simply a consequence of exhaustive permitting processes and the challenges of land acquisition for development? Renovations to homes appears to be a robust business.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

seasonal remedies

New England folk tend to regard autumn as a mixed blessing. It's a good time to get work done, especially after the idiocy of the summer. There's a sense of false urgency created by the holidays, but everyone accepts that things won't get finished till the spring. 

Winter always brings a sense of accomplishment. The sun rests, but the blaze of headlights on the highways in the evening makes us all feel virtuous. Brave wanderers, bold conquerors all.

Monday, October 23, 2017

update on the AI

The algorithm employed by towers of ilium has been sacked. Editorial staff decided that the AI--known around the office as "Kenny"-- needed to spend more time with its family or some equivalent social experience. Regular programming will resume.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

no more auction block

The Amazon headquarters game has nearly reached its peak of absurdity. As of this morning every town and hamlet in Massachusetts has submitted a proposal. Some of the same people who were touting the Boston Olympics are now leading the cheering section for Amazon. We can be certain that Bezos is currently in secret negotiations with Atlanta--squeezing as many financial incentives and legal exemptions as he can. Most likely it will end up being a fully automated headquarters with no human presence at all-- just banks of computers with AI programs that write AI programs and robots to repair the robots that make the robots that deliver cardboard boxes to the last remaining humans on the planet.

Rex Tillerson is trying to get Saudi Arabia to form an alliance with Iraq to counter Iran in the Middle East. Perhaps he can make a pitch for Amazon while he's on the ground there. Nothing to lose, after all.

Friday, October 20, 2017

dreams of a better land

Towers of ilium is testing an algorithm that would replace its staff of costly journalists and deliver this blog's hard-edged commentary more reliably. A sample follows:

"Fear fear cats large doom Trump modernism betrayed calendar time time bulletin book book dead gone lost fear sky turning painted broken lies the bread of life pumpkin spicy write sing die repeat rinse shiny shattered drink child water rising"

The focus groups are delighted.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

over hill and dale

The romantic period of tall buildings is still going strong, but not in the U.S. or Europe. Africa is the last uncovered territory. Some entity in Lagos will build a thousand foot spire within the next ten years. A rising skyscraper does not lift all boats, but it is a useful symbol of the penultimate phase of urban development. What is the final phase of the city, you ask? Sprawl.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

bookmaking amazon in massachusetts

The economic and business team at towers of ilium has wrapped up its analysis of plans that Amazon has for a second headquarters site. They have concluded, after exhaustive research and many late nights, that the odds of any place in Massachusetts landing this fish are less than 1%. The reasons are as follows:
-Prime spots in the greater Boston metro region are too expensive and the infrastructure is already overwhelmed. The downmarket spots like New Bedford and Worcester don't have the talent pool.
-Saturation of the tech market in the Boston zone would make positions hard to fill at competitive salary rates. Political opposition to Amazon policies would be considerable.
-Neither Charlie Baker nor Marty Walsh needs to cough up bribes to another big company to sustain the state's economic system.

So, where will Amazon end up? Maybe nowhere. But, before we consider that possibility, let's state that the natural place for the company to re-centralize itself would be in some southern state like North Carolina. Costs are lower, infrastructure is less congested, and politicians of all stripes will open up taxpayer wallets in a hurry. 

Amazon actually doesn't need a second headquarters. What they do need is a national recession to test the resiliency of their business model and the business models of their competitors. The internet retailers with the best organizations and lowest overhead will emerge from this recession with bigger market shares--regardless of their home base locations. If Amazon does choose some hapless east coast city for its new digs, the plan will fizzle once the stock market crashes. Amazon, with all its warehouses and robots and employees will probably make it through.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

places to put stuff

Pure functionality is loathed by architects. The design profession places the highest value on things than cannot be justified beyond a moment of visual satisfaction or provocation. Fortunately, clients, despite occasional proclamations otherwise, have similar values. Even more fortunately, the trades deliver their highest performance for the most irrational components of a building.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

wood roofs

An architect from the old school was once asked if a house should have a wood roof. "Is there any other kind?" he answered. Indeed, they look nice, but should probably not be used in California.


The Catalonian independence movement certainly caught towers of ilium by surprise. Although it has been a few hundred years in the making recent events feel serious. More serious is the response by Spain and the position adopted by the European Union.

This blog predicts that things will proceed badly if Spain uses force in the matter. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

las vegas was never easy

Quite predictably, Blade Runner 2049 is included in the list towers of ilium architecture movies. The film-makers did a good job of referencing the original and adding some new visual twists. The long pan in the beginning over the solar energy fields can be juxtaposed against the 1982 movie opening. Overall, the effect of the new movie is more restrained than the original, while making an earnest effort to be more monumental in scope. Noir grittiness has been replaced with sepia-tinted drama. There is no vegetation anywhere.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

early fall review

The towers of ilium newsroom held a two week retreat to re-assess basic priorities. Nothing was accomplished. The next retreat will focus on how to better manage time at retreats.

-Hurricane season is not quite over, and there's a fair chance that when Nate makes landfall it will reveal yet more weaknesses in American infrastructure. The more prosperous parts of Texas and Florida will probably recover quickly, but Puerto Rico may be in lots of trouble for years to come.

-The Trump administration lurches forward. This blog hopes that war with North Korea will not happen.

-Urban planning and traffic management in the greater Boston area is officially dead. No improvements will be made ever.

-The new Blade Runner movie will get several reviews in the upcoming week by the entertainment division of towers of ilium.

UPDATE: The effects of Nate are so far relatively minor.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

the imagery of the 1970's

It did not seem to be a happy decade. Vietnam, Chicago, Watergate, New York City Bankruptcy, Inflation, Oil Crisis, Jonestown, and bell bottoms. Women's rights made considerable advances, but in the context of retrograde positions that persist to this day (see Schlafly, Phyllis and Trump, Donald)

The architecture continued the awfulness of the 60's.

Friday, September 22, 2017

houses are a good idea

Why would this even be phrased as a question? Even the most hardcore modernists loved houses--especially when they were located in remote areas uncorrupted by neighbors. A house encourages some degree of social isolation, which in proper doses is necessary for sanity.

So, forward exterior insulation!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

are houses a good idea?

Let's look at this question from a slightly different angle. Assume that houses (detached, single family, car dependent) are indeed a good thing. Then what about having more than one house? What is the limit to the number of houses a person could own and still derive use or pleasure from? The very wealthy probably limit themselves to two or three, even though they could own a few dozen.
Costs associated with travel and upkeep become more burdensome with multiple properties. 

At what density level do single family homes become miserable? In some large cities property developers made the decision that density pays. Do all apartment dwellers yearn for a yard?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

one good thing perhaps

It is getting hard to keep track of the natural disasters in the Americas of late. Harvey, Mexican earthquake, Irma, Maria, Jose, Mexican earthquake.

This building was damaged in the most recent quake in Mexico city. It does not appear to have collapsed although it probably cannot be repaired. We can speculate that arched windows helped to even out the stress distribution and save the walls from buckling. The diagonal shear cracks in the stucco and brick are very typical.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

not quite the truth

The problem with sketches is not that they lie, but that they reveal the truth. (Picasso said that)
The rougher a sketch is, the more it is appreciated by people who speak the same language--i.e. belong to the peer group of the artist. The rough sketch captures emotion and relieves the creator of having to solve fussy details. Clients and consumers are frequently overwhelmed by the sketch--or unappreciative of the subtlety of its intent. Feedback tends to focus on what is left unanswered.
Don't stop sketching, though.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

tribute post monday

Occasionally--nay, frequently, towers of ilium has to acknowledge the genius of others. In this case, it is Katerina Kamprani.

Her efforts are in some cases more practical than common items at Ikea.

Friday, September 15, 2017

a fantastic sense of style

Towers of ilium is adding Bruce Lee's iconic film Enter The Dragon to its architectural movie list.
This shot from the panoramic scene of Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbor is particularly relevant. It captures a moment in history that hints at the explosive power of the city. The film is a careful mix of order and chaos--Bruce Lee demonstrates the discipline essential to his execution of the martial arts. His enemies pretend at discipline, but are ultimately a bunch of poorly organized rabble. Characters frequently crash through walls and windows, or use the architecture around them as strategic props. An example of this is when Lee evades the gaze of a guard by hiding (improbably) behind pieces of furniture. The climactic fight in a room of mirrors is a heavy handed metaphor of the limits of deception in combat.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

respecting thorstein veblen

If something is efficient but inconvenient then people won't use it. If something is inefficient and inconvenient, then people will use it simply as a demonstration of consumption. An example of this is all fashionable clothing. High end restaurants are also a good example. Value is not assigned on the basis of logic.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Some forgotten industrialist was once asked by some forgotten architect what the ideal building for manufacturing would be. The answer was "no building at all." While such honesty is atypical of client/designer relationships the realization of that desire has distinguished a line of building types that is remarkably persistent. The single story "big box" model is as close to this ideal as we can achieve--and possibly represents a case of terminal design.

If the industrialist had been asked what the ideal worker would be the answer would have been: "not human." Progress is being made on that front as well.

Monday, September 11, 2017

it came and went

Sixteen years is not such a long time. The terrorist attacks resulted in a disastrous escalation of brute force American policy and the rebuild of the WTC site displayed the typical weaknesses of modern civic design methods. The recent hurricanes that pummeled the U.S. owe some of their intensity to human impact on the climate. A cynical reading of this recent history leads to some grim conclusions of what the future holds. Even our ruins seem to lack any romantic value. Yet, the end times of an empire don't have to be dramatic.

in the eye of the beholder

The house to the left of this one had a kumquat tree in the backyard. It may still be there, but we can be certain that many other things have changed here in the past thirty years. Currently, Irma is wrapping up its tour of mid-Florida and heading north. The destruction will be felt for at least ten years. In that span of time another storm is likely to pass over the state, bringing more change.

The Dutch don't have flood insurance--they spend their money on seawalls. The U.S. is too big to get a seawall. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

the rebuild

At this time damage from Harvey is still being assessed and Irma has yet to make landfall in Florida. In a previous post it was noted that not much will change as a result of a hurricane. Things will be rebuilt in much the same way as they were before. Specifically, houses in Texas and Florida will be site-built from conventional wood lumber. We might see an uptick in some pre-fabricated components, but more exotic and robust construction methods will not make appreciable gains. 
Curiously, even people with considerable wealth will probably not make an investment in elevated structures, concrete framing, or enhanced energy efficiency systems. Price point considerations will overwhelm memory of the storms, and few people--and organizations--will be able to change course.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

the endless detail

In architecture there is never just one way to do things. In the realm of detailing a major challenge involves balancing standard methods with evolving knowledge. One seemingly simple question to ask is: Did it work last time? Unfortunately, "last time" may be too recent to have fully tested the successes and failures of the design. Forensic awareness of critical parts of the building system is a responsibility of a designer who specializes in detailing. This specialist also has to be cautious about falling into the trap of prioritizing graphic excellence over an appreciation of the information that a builder actually needs in the field.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Odds and ends here....

-Lack of zoning probably did not enhance the damage caused by Harvey in Houston. In terms of pervious surfaces the metro area is in better shape than New York City. 

-Kim Jong Un does not have a deathwish. He knows that every provocation improves his bargaining position--up until the point that China grows tired of him.

-On the subject of deathwishes, the reputation of Sigmund Freud continues to get more complicated. His theories of the division of the human mind are not original and he had no scientific rigor. He was downright unethical, in fact. Should his monuments be toppled? Civilization and its Discontents is still compelling.

-This staircase is non-conforming.

Monday, September 4, 2017

tempered skepticism on indoor farming

Because it works in the Netherlands does not mean it will work everywhere. Such is the case with indoor agriculture--which is making considerable strides. It is a form of growing that makes sense for high value crops like lettuce, tomatoes, and marijuana. The excitement over this growing method will not translate into a feasible replacement for conventional farmland. Even if LED lighting continues to improve in efficiency and fall in price the intensive costs of indoor agriculture will not result in a proliferation of vertical urban farms. A metric that such a system cannot overcome is calorie units produced per acre per unit of cost. An examination of this would reveal that cattle grazing on the American plains are a cheap source of food. (The fact checking department at towers of ilium accepts challenges on this point).

Sunday, September 3, 2017

the week ahead behind

Although this blog is strictly apolitical and avoids all controversy a few items should be noted:

-Trump will rescind DACA. It's easy for him to do and carries little risk. Steve Miller rules Bartertown.
-Harvey will delay the recession. The surge in demand during rebuilding will have positive nationwide effects.
-Gas prices will stay elevated through the fall.
-The proposed museum for North Adams by Frank Gehry will die slowly
-None of these items can be considered predictions.

Friday, September 1, 2017

but does it look good?

Windows are one of the most important and frustrating features of architecture. The Parthenon did not have any, and ongoing revolutions in artificial lighting relieve many modern interior spaces of the need for them. Windows persist because people like them. The ongoing infatuation with all-glass buildings shows no sign of diminishing. From an energy use point of view windows are a mixed bag--too many is bad and not enough can also be bad. It's curious that modernism never managed to kill the traditional looking window. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

retail churn

The overbuilding of retail space in the United States has caused more suffering than the rise of Amazon and other online shopping sites. This suffering, however, is not spread evenly. Good space in the right place will always command tenants. Bad space in the wrong place isn't immediately doomed, but it will resist improvements because of the difficulty of reassigning the space to other uses. The trend in retail has been towards scale--with the ultimate expression being the box store and the fulfillment center. The small shop will always have a place, even as a loss leader for a brand, but most buildings on Main Street don't have the scale or logistical capacity for the type of sales model that dominates current shopping habits.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

a world hidden

The impact of the damage caused by Harvey defies analysis. This blog made an insensitive series of remarks yesterday expressing optimism about recovery and rebuilding efforts. A formal retraction is being considered by the editorial committee, but in the meantime it's worth considering the relative vulnerability of significant urban areas. New York City had localized flooding as a result of Sandy, but the topography of the region protects critical areas from everything short of a Biblical event. New Orleans is always in the cross-hairs. Los Angeles and Chicago are probably at near zero risk. Miami and Boston deserve close scrutiny--the former is already coming to terms with sea-level rise, but Boston has no comprehensive pre-planning efforts. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

there's not much rain here

Towers of ilium predicts that Houston will recover much more quickly and with less drama than New Orleans did following Katrina. It's rare that floods reach biblical proportions, and although the media has some dramatic images, the extent of severe water intrusion is not citywide. The region has a robust construction economy, decent administration, and a certain degree of experience. Efforts to prevent the next flood--or to lessen its impact--will not be implemented of course.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

architecture and productivity

Photo Levittown by Jon Smith

An effective method of increasing productivity in construction is by reducing the role of the designer. A design is required, but if interaction between client and architect is minimized--or eliminated--then the construction delivery process becomes the primary objective of a project. Does the end product suffer? Aesthetically, the consequences are often banal instead of disastrous. Functionality can be impacted, but not necessarily to a greater degree than when intensive design efforts are wasted on trying to predict future needs. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

building architecture and productivity

The technical research department at towers of ilium has been asked to comment on a recent article in The Economist magazine about the failure of the building construction industry to match the productivity gains of other manufacturing industries. The research department (which has no research budget) will recycle the following arguments:

-Buildings are large--large things make precision difficult to achieve and transport costs high
-Buildings are frequently unique to program and site. Even subtle differences in topography require re-design
-Building systems are more complex than in the past. A concrete wall with some single-glazed steel windows doesn't meet code and doesn't satisfy client/user expectations
-Architects are still involved. This point will be developed in later posts. Please do not adjust your set until Tuesday. In fact, do not stop staring at your computers for the next 24 hours--you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish!