ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, January 30, 2017

act II preview

The political analysis team at towers of ilium is a bit more disorganized than usual. The actions of the Trump administration have generated controversy and protest, and they are far from complete. The greater impact on international affairs will play out over the next few months. The relationships with China and Russia will require particular observation. But, for now we can speculate on how aggressively Trump will prosecute the Global War on Terror and if he will seek to expand the battlefield. The status quo established by Obama--drone strikes, proxy armies, Special Forces--may not be enough for Trump and Bannon. Where the hammer blows fall, or could fall:

-Iran: An obvious choice for those neocons who saw it as the next battlefield after a swift and successful victory in Iraq. But, they are an organized state with geographic advantages.
-Syria: Ground intervention will be measured according to Putin's willingness to tolerate an "ally" in his theater of operations
-Yemen: Already there
-Iraq: Already there and more on the way. The battle for western Mosul will be a proving ground of sorts.
-Afghanistan: Already there, but bogged down. An attempt to confront the Taliban again may draw the ire of Pakistan.
-Northern Africa: Ripe with possibility--vengeance in Bengahzi?
-Latin America: An intervention in Venezuela, perhaps? Cuba?--Familiar territory in many respects.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

history repeats--tragedy or farce TBD

The American left was fractured during the 1960's and 1970's by the ongoing turmoil of Vietnam, the retreat of the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement. There was a two-part nadir: The disaster of the 1968 convention in Chicago and the annihilation of McGovern in 1972. Despite Nixon, the right capitalized on the disorganization of liberals through the 80's and 90's--had some mild stumbles during the regime of Bush/Cheney, mounted effective resistance against Obama--and surged forth to victory again with Trump. (towers of ilium is making the case that Bill Clinton was a moderate conservative on some important fiscal issues)

The Left is still back on its heels, but the protest movement seems to be gaining some ground. Space for protest in urban centers is a critical component of this evolving situation. Any intelligent politician realizes that crowds are important to campaigns--and to have natural crowd resources is a significant source of cash on the table.

Pay attention to stock markets tomorrow. A mild downturn is expected, but towers of ilium reserves the right to be wrong, as always.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

the purpose of planning

The purpose of planning authorities is not to guide development, but to prevent it. By establishing regulatory structures that make large scale projects costly and time-consuming major improvements to commercial property are effectively halted. Properties and businesses that are "grandfather" have no incentive to expand or improve and will continue to operate with little regard for adapting to growth or or changes in demand. Meanwhile, single family homes proliferate and people have to drive further to find basic necessities amidst the wastelands of decaying business operations.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

random picture wednesday

This is the High Line prior to hordes of tourists. It's always a pleasure to find unequivocal moments of successful architecture. But, to quote Yogi Berra: "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

Some people have suggested that Boston could have done this with the elevated section of I-93 as part of the Big Dig project. The scale is different and the surrounding architecture is different, so it would not have worked as well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

last year's man

H.H. Richardson was the greatest architect that Boston ever produced. We give credit to the region of his practice for his success because it is true. He developed relationships with local craftsmen who could carry out his designs without an undue need for detail drawings. This type of relationship has largely disappeared from professional design practice. We now have more communication--and more paperwork, and less art.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

all things great and small

A metric to keep track of in the years ahead is volume of drone strikes and number of U.S. military service personnel deployed abroad. Towers of ilium predicts that drone strikes will increase in proportion to a decrease in troop levels. This has little to do with the policies of the incoming administration and more to do with the perceived success of one method over the other.

Friday, January 20, 2017

the limits of design & the limits of craft

Humans are optimistic. We know that we can make things work, even if they aren't perfect. We strive for improvement, and those among us who count perfection as the ultimate goal always have to settle for things that don't ever meet that goal. The alternative is madness, starvation, and a continuous scheduling of meetings with the design team and contractors. God didn't seem to dwell long on the failures embedded in the creation of the Garden of Eden. He continued in his role as manager of the universe, confident in the delegation of authority to humans for a few non-essential roles in the business--piling up stones, scrawling paint on cave walls, digging tunnels under oceans, and a few brief strolls on the moon. Quarterly reports show growth, although there are rumors of major restructuring. Fetch hither the consultants!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

somewhere riding in triumph

The existential threat posed by terrorists is fairly negligible. But as is too often the case, perception of threat guides policy to a greater degree than statistics. The question: "But what if they...." leads to poor allocations of resources like bombs, drones, and proxy wars.

That ISIL will eventually become the premier terrorist organization after the collapse of their state is inevitable. Will they be able to sustain their recruitment without having a state? FARC persisted for so long because they had physical territory where they could sustain their myths of victory. ISIL has demonstrated an eagerness to destroy territory through overreach and bad management.

Monday, January 16, 2017

modern architecture was inevitable

The Bauhaus is one of the Ur texts of the Modern Movement in design and its legendary status can only be reinforced by a messy history. The most significant part of that history is the escape/expulsion of Gropius and the eventual mark he left on design teaching in the United States.

What we find interesting here at the towers of ilium is how well this building has stood the test of time. A few shifts of form and material and we would have the newest office building or "green" university structure. Granted, we are a bit more eclectic these days, but no architect would be punished by pulling ideas from this box. The same cannot be said for more classical architecture.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

he's not there

More than anything, the New York scene of the 1960's was a concept that defied a sense of place. Seeking preservation of specific buildings from that era is the worst form of nostalgia. History has not just moved on, it has trampled on the collective memory and the physical reality of what happened. This goes beyond "you can never go home again" and encompasses the failure of narrative to adequately convey what happened. Did Bob Dylan arrive by bus or train? Who did he know when he got there? Where did he buy his first pack of cigarettes, have his first meal, pick up some guitar strings? It's all gone.

Why was Warhol famous? Answering that question would lead us into the vortex of a most pure American madness.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

computer aided design

This concert hall was designed by Herzog and de Meuron with an assist from Yasuhisa Toyota. And a computer algorithm. An article in Wired makes it seem like this is an innovative moment in architecture, but it's not. Since the first drafting program was released architects have been influenced in deceptive ways by a thing that is often considered a tool. Computers aid considerably in repetition, for which we are grateful, and they make certain arcane, curved geometry buildable. They do not replace intent, and most significantly, they do not replace craft.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ben carson at HUD

This post should be classified as a prediction, but we'd like expand it into a commentary on the role of government in the built environment. In the savage state of nature, people build what they want and it  doesn't last very long. The establishment of standards and laws, by whatever means, tends to improve the quality of buildings--both in terms of occupant comfort and as an economic investment in the future.

We know little of HUD, but it certainly wields influence and is staffed by people with good intentions. Ben Carson may have a mandate to dismantle as much of the agency as he can--through active and passive means--but the next administration will probably reverse the damage. The portfolio of structures under the purview of the agency will persist through this turbulence.

that brutalism show

Heck, you can't trust Google images anymore. This came up under the search heading "greatest brutalist building"

And it almost qualifies if we classify brutalism as "an architectural style popular in the 1960's and 70's characterized by roughly cast concrete and exuberant geometry" (that definition came from the towers of ilium copy department--not wikipedia). This building is painted, so it subverts the honesty that is a hallmark of the brutalist style.

No one is perfect.

Update: some errors in the original post have been corrected. No one is perfect.

Monday, January 9, 2017

more australia

Perhaps it is because a few staff members at towers of ilium have an obsession with Mad Max, but whatever the case, we now turn our sights on Australia. We are reassured by a familiar scene--suburbs (or sprawl, as some are inclined to call it) and trucks. Deeper research indicates that Australia resembles the American Southwest, or inland California. The great architectural innovation of the ranch house with faux Tuscan roofs works well here.

There is a real estate bubble in the country. It may persist for several more years and deflate slowly, but there is poor history of good things happening when bubbles pop. Australia might be in for some hard times--ask the Toecutter.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

we are all rational-real estate bubble edition #17

Towers of ilium is going to try to keep an eye on this:

The Canadian property bubble seems to have been driven by foreign investment and if new money exchange rules are enforced, it could deflate.

And whither Australia?

human here

Photo by Steve Boote

Before the British Isles had humans they had forests. Now, humans plus sheep equals less forest. At least, that's the theory that towers of ilium subscribes to. Although more destructive than beavers, our species can adapt to different states of ravaged environments. Quality and quantity of life can change, but things move on. The endgame is still a mystery.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

this blog is a puppet of the kremlin

Perhaps, perhaps not. The editorial staff doubts that loyal readers have the resources to prove such a thing. And what would it matter? Media outlets exceed media inputs--just ask any one of our gumshoe reporters--they walk the wet streets of dangerous cities in the darkest hours, talking in doorways in whispers with unnameable sources, pounding out print before deadline on manual typewriters. It's a hard life. The art department has it much better, and senior management, as could be expected, has it the best.

Friday, January 6, 2017

and yet another trump prediction--friday discount deal

Lest towers of ilium turn into a running screed on our dear leader, we want to assure our followers that most content will be focused on more fundamental matters, but today...

The Trump administration will set a record for leaks. Although Trump has good experience with secrecy we doubt he is prepared for such an unwieldy organization that is the United States. He simply can't fire all of us---nor does he want to. He will embrace leaks because they will allow for expressions of his personality and power.

The amusing consequence will be an era of federal government that is more open and accountable, and will make stars of the media after the debacle of the election year. Please, please, don't laugh so hard you fall out of your chair--this is just a prediction.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

the civil savage

The power of digital technology has spawned new forms of abuse and torture. Blogging, for instance, creates a social environment where misinformation can be spread by idiots. Tweeting does the same thing with greater speed and efficiency. Those yearning for a pre-internet age have no concept of the cruelty possible when a communication network is stripped back to the point where information can only travel as fast as any other human product.

In the good old days it was much easier to cause harm simply by ignoring people. Failing to write, failing to visit, failing to seek out alternate sources of information. Those over the horizon or in the next town had no bearing on local existence. Those who controlled media had a deeper appreciation (sometimes) of the responsibility and power they wielded. These people also suffered from the same deficits of knowledge--they had to trust travelers from antique lands, stories told by sailors of whales and nudity. People could seek legitimate comfort in ignorance.

We still do, but the ping of the smartphone promises another morsel of abundant knowledge.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

predictions for the trump administration

The election year and its outcome can be given the title: "Twilight of Idols." The high climbing chariot of Donald Trump has created a spectacle beyond the limits of imagination. If towers of ilium lacked courage we would make no attempt at predictions on his behalf, but we have equal measures of courage and mania.

Before predicting his actions and and impacts it bears outlining the basic facts about his personality and legacy so far:

-He likes to build things and he is not afraid about borrowing money to do that.
-He did most of his building in an earlier era. Recent projects have involved leveraging and franchising his brand.
-He relies on his family and close personal connections to manage projects.
-He has been a creature of New York and Florida his entire life.
-He makes no distinction between style and substance. He is keen at exploiting weakness in others.

1. Immigration will be curtailed under his administration. Prosecution and deportation of undocumented people in the country will continue the pace set by Obama.

2. Trade policies will have a negative impact on imports first, and consistent with economic principles, will have a negative impact on exports.

3. Trump's relationship with Putin will turn sour. The relationship with China will grow more sour.
Curiously, China may reach out to the international community with more vigor, seeking to establish a stronger position.

4. U.S. and world  military spending will increase, including the development of new nuclear weapons--again, a continuation of the Bush & Obama policies. However, foreign adventurism will decline, particularly in the Middle East--most likely concentrated on the defeat of ISIL.

5. There will be a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The event will be smaller than 9-11, but the reaction and aftermath will be nearly as bad.

6. The Democrats will not mount an effective opposition to Republicans in Washington D.C., but state level operations will gain more traction, most notably in California, the Northeast, and the Southwest. Legal challenges to Trump will be significant on all fronts.

7. The U.S. will enter a recession in 2018.

8.  At least half of Trump's cabinet will resign or be fired within two years.

9. He will be a one-term president. (This does not contradict prediction #6)

Monday, January 2, 2017

critical regionalism criticism

On a street in a town anywhere in New England it's perfectly appropriate to propose a new building made of brick and wood. This effort, by a famous design firm in Cambridge, continues a streetscape tradition in a way that respects local context without being historicist. Scale, use, and geometry are consistent with the vernacular. The primary goal of walkable street level retail is an open facade and good signage. Achieving these goals has now been codified in the planning guidelines of many towns.

The planning and construction of one building, however, does not make a town. Architecture rarely creates prosperity, but rather reacts to it. Regional decline overwhelms the most sincere design efforts.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

the golden age of the joint venture

The challenge of identifying design ownership is not a recent phenomenon. Imhotep may be given credit as the first architect but towers of ilium is certain that he wasn't responsible for solving all the problems that arose on the Egyptian jobsite.

Most design comes from the toil of the obscure. This project, a joint venture by AECOM and others* is a good example of the way in which an initial idea gradually turns into reality. The concept of expanded rail service in London dates from 1974, the design and construction--consisting of underground work and above ground work--spans decades. So much of the effort is expended on hidden details that this rendering is a thin shadow of all the time and money spent.

*"Others" includes those responsible for anything that goes right or wrong.