ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, April 30, 2017

the merry month of may

Currently, all major statistical indicators show a healthy U.S. economy. Modest growth is expected in consumer activity, unemployment is low, interest rates and inflation are low, energy costs are low, and everything is just find and dandy. Despite the occasional pessimism at towers of ilium, another 2 quarters of decent performance are reasonable to expect. American malaise is the substance of dreams and any policies from Washington will have a longer run impact. Unless, of course, something silly happens.

regulations and housing costs

Ed Glaeser has done a considerable amount of research on the impact of local rules on land use and real estate costs. His conclusion is simple: Zoning determines property values. A group of wealthy communities with restrictive building covenants acts as a planning body for a metropolitan region. Fewer regulations, like in the American South, result in lower housing costs.

This theme is an old one at towers of ilium, but it bears repeating.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Aside from current posturing by the Trump administration, the status quo retains an illusion of stability in North Korea. Towers of ilium does not maintain a field office there--one of those rare circumstances where our corporate policies are in line with other news organizations. It is hard to imagine that Kim sleeps easy, Trump or no Trump. The aura of the monarchy may have dimmed over the past few decades, and if China ever grows tired of the situation, then the endgame will play out with brutal speed.

In the meantime, our perverse--yea, even romantic fascination with the place will continue.

Friday, April 28, 2017

changes in perception over time

Was Jean Giraud a genius? As an artist, yes--as a storyteller, maybe not so much. Towers of ilium admires his singular visions of fantasy and science fiction, but does not hold out hope for continued influence.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

modernity and its practical impact

It's still a struggle to explain the origin of the forms of modern architecture. We can select key individuals--Wright, Mies, Corbu, and Gropius--and trace their influence on design over the course of a century. Was their influence in shape-making or rule-breaking? If the latter, then we have a better grasp of the eclectic designs of our modern environment. "It feels right" or "I just felt like doing that" become legitimate explanations to a client.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

worth a second look or two

Blueprint Robotics is a new company that is taking a big risk on pre-fabricated building components. They are opening a factory that can build walls, floors, and roofs for buildings using large scale robots.
Towers of ilium is skeptical of this method. Site building is very efficient if managed properly and doesn't have the capital investments of a large-scale manufacturing facility. The new angle on this is that the trades are losing workers and this offers an alternative to human labor inputs. 
Plumbers everywhere are probably not too worried.

Monday, April 24, 2017

walter arnold

The photography of Walter Arnold is both perverse and beautiful. He specializes in "The Art of Abandonment" and the American landscape gives him a lot of subjects to choose from. Abandoned buildings generate serious tourism dollars worldwide, so it is refreshing how Arnold seeks out more mundane subjects that he can frame in novel ways.

This scene could be titled: " 4 decades after Easy Rider"

Sunday, April 23, 2017

sunday apology edition

Towers of ilium regrets the repetitive nature of some of these posts. This is a sign of the poor quality of free internet blogs and the general decline in values across the entire spectrum of human existence--especially Netflix, which no longer seems to have an inventory of the most basic shows and movies.

A few comments on the U.S. protest movement and its potential consequences:

-There is a protest movement and it is spontaneous and well organized in many areas. Case in point:
the volume and quality of port-a-potties at the Boston March for Science/Earth Day Celebration

-The robust financing of left wing alternative media; e.g. Mother Jones, The Nation, Vox, etc...

-The sense of a need for another rebalancing of American politics.

Prediction: It will be a tough week for Donald Trump and Republicans.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

the armies of the right

The chroniclers of the 1960's and 70's--Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson--ultimately took a dim view of the protest movements and spiritual fervor of the times. The great gathering of Woodstock, the march on the Pentagon, and the debacle of Chicago were media sensations but fell short of expectations. The idealism felt wasted, despite Nixon's resignation and the brutal winding down of the Vietnam War. The decade of Reagan seems like the vindication of this cynical narrative, when any vestige of the Beats and the hippies was ground to dust by the relentless narcissism and greed of 
the urban elite. And lo, what have we now?

Friday, April 21, 2017

fantasy architecture

This proposed design for Trump's border wall will not be built. Neither will any of the other walls proposed. A few sections of wall will be erected in convenient locations to serve as a backdrop for a press conference or two, but then they will fall into disrepair--which will be documented by another news conference or two.

We can be certain that any walls erected will involve the labor of undocumented workers at some point in the supply chain. Hopefully, they'll be paid well.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

the value of preparation

Poor planning is too frequently blamed when things go terribly wrong. What if there had been no concept of a plan and things still went wrong? What if there was a "good" plan and things still went wrong? Random outcomes will always outnumber the considerations of the most sophisticated plan. 
Architects and engineers are tasked with describing the outcome of a design within the limits of the rules of geometry. If a room needs to be a minimum of ten feet wide, then the architect would do well to make it twelve feet wide. What if the client doesn't like the room? What if the client buys a sofa that is fourteen feet wide? Does this prove that redundancy is a complete waste?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

what's in a name?

The art of placemaking is more difficult than putting a man on the moon. For some people, the state of Maine is indeed "Vacationland" but for the people who live there, it's just "Maine." The Pioneer Valley, which refers, with some accuracy, to the region of land flanking the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, is a place-name with as much staying power as the "Midwest." People who live there can refer to the "Valley" without generating too much confusion. A person from Oklahoma might require a short explanation as to the history and significance, but such effort needn't justify a branding campaign.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

the twilight of type x drywall

Eventually, Type "C" gypsum panels will be the standard for fire resistant interior wall and ceiling finishes. Type X has been useful for several generations as the standard treatment, but if Type "C" is rendered generic and sold at an equivalent price-point then it should displace all Type X products. Much like terra cotta was displaced.

Friday, April 14, 2017

there is no spoon

Human design efforts nearly always involve a tension between a singular decision-maker and the semi-organized movement of the collective. Take this plan of a small city somewhere in Britain--it implies an organization based on simple geometry. It was not the vision of one person, although one person did make some significant contributions to parts of it. The good fortune that made this city a visual delight is strange soup coincidence that included a nearby quarry, the popularity of certain parts of Georgian architecture, the rampant greed of speculative developers, and the technical limits of architecture.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

the measure of plan

The concept of terminal design has been discussed occasionally on this blog. It needs constant clarification and refinement--hence, a perfect example of how the design of arguments and ideas is never terminal as long as there are humans alive in the universe. In architecture, putting a stop to the design process is a function of time and money, and it is the responsibility of the architect to know when to stop. Perfection is not achievable, and if a client emerges who claims to have infinite time and money, then the architect should walk away from the job. To be trapped in a cycle of endless revisions and studies is a hell that should be avoided.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

the long game-subway station edition

Towers of ilium was not privy to the decision making process for the 2nd Avenue subway system in New York, but reports of its cost are a matter of public record. Those costs, incidentally, are quite high--somewhere north of 14 billion when it's fully complete in about five years. A design feature that drives those costs is the double height stations. A group of people thought this was not just a nice idea, but an essential idea. Now, design costs and initial construction costs are completely sunk.

No one asked the question: Will the average commuter give a damn?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

the long game-university edition

This picture is out of date by a few years, but it gives a good overview of the challenges facing UMass Dorchester--and by extension, the JFK library and Ted Kennedy Center. As the sole occupants of a peninsula made out garbage, any traffic from parts elsewhere has to have a compelling reason to come and stay. One consideration is to find another home for a minor state office building located on the site. Another, is to improve traffic access from JFK station and the highway. And, keep up the expansion of the college and replacement of the older buildings. All of this takes money, which seems to be in short supply. Hence, the long game, which implies some private development.

Monday, April 10, 2017

2 esdras 16

Predictions are not hard work--they are impossible. Acceptance of this fact defies human nature, since our brains have evolved to construct elaborate fantasies about future states. Hence, our obsession with design and constant efforts to improve design through elaborate strategies backed up by complex narratives grounded in nothing.

So far, not much that has happened this year has been predictable. The behavior of world leaders is in constant flux. The weather is uncooperative. The economy is regarded as strong by nearly all economists.

A time will come when food is so cheap that people will imagine peace and prosperity have arrived; but at that moment the earth will become a hotbed of disasters--sword, famine, and anarchy.

Even that won't be completely realized.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

schedule, budget, and reality

The images above reflect two states: The top one is the current Wollaston Red Line station. The bottom one is a rendering of the proposed renovation. Work is planned to start this fall, and towers of ilium is accepting wagers on the following:

-The work starting on time
-The work finishing on time

Issues of budget can be ignored for the simple reason that renovation projects involve a high degree of unpredictability. Also, the MBTA has been undertaking difficult renovation projects for several decades and has a high level of experience doing work on infrastructure while maintaining service. This method is expensive and garners criticism from both transit riders and so-called budget hawks, but is necessary in a civilized society. 

With this in mind, towers of ilium is confident that work will not start on time, and will be finished when it is appropriate.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

the longest tomorrow

The recent cruise missile attack on the Syrian airbase by Trump is being treated by some parts of the American media as a rash and impulsive decision that was stimulated entirely by gruesome pictures on cable TV. What is missing from most of this narrative is that the attack was a deliberate push against Russia that reflects all too perfectly Trump's brand of crazy foreign policy. Assad and the Syrians are deep pawns in a bad, strange 6-way chess game in the Middle East.

Like Kim Jong Un, Trump understands the crazy--and he has more firepower, and a deeply bellicose nation, to give him looser reins. Putin, who helped Trump get elected, had probably been waiting for him to play his hand. Instead of being compliant and easily manipulated, Trump made an effort to put Putin back on his heels--and to some extent, Xi--who was sleeping on an American pillow in Mar a Largo when the missiles were launched.

This will not end well, of course. Especially for Assad and the Syrian people who will suffer through at least five more years of proxy war, and probably more American troops on their soil.

And, speaking of North Korea, Kim is well aware that the U.S. has a large inventory of Tomahawks.
He might start walking a little more quietly, unless he's stupid as well as crazy.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

the long shadow of TAC

YMCA in Roxbury by TAC

Sooner rather than later, everything designed by The Architect's Collaborative will be demolished.
The legacy of the firm is in all ways more important than its buildings. Its founding and association with Gropius is significant, but its greatest reputation in the Boston area is as teaching firm. Not in the explicit manner of a teaching hospital, although its links to Ivy League architectural schools was robust, but as the important first job for many designers. As one former principal of the firm noted dryly: "We trained all of our competition."

Monday, April 3, 2017

manufactured anxiety

Towers of ilium was mildly annoyed, but not entirely surprised, to discover that Connor Homes closed its doors four months ago. The tale of their demise is a little too familiar--they were acquired by a New York equity firm that had inappropriate expansion goals. The new owners pulled the plug when they realized that their investments would never pay off.

Manufactured housing is a tough business. A firm can achieve only minor efficiencies compared to a site-built/stick-built contractor. The temptation to focus on quantity over quality can become impossible to resist. Connor seems to have had a niche business, but Wall Street ambitions doomed them.

Next up: Unity Homes


Counterfactuals always leave a bitter aftertaste. What if Grant had not been available to fight the Civil War? Would it have ended the way it did? Would it have ended at all?

Grant himself had the most humble and fatalistic view of his contribution to the war. Were he to observe events of the modern day, he would perhaps shrug and reach for the bottle and another cigar. He would answer the call if it came, but with only limited enthusiasm. Those who died on his command were many. Those who conquered bore harsh wounds.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

nothing to see, or do, here

American infrastructure is the most abused victim of the nation's prosperity and democratic process. People drive cars--but cars are merely a side effect of congestion problems. The root cause is the simple desire to go places and assume that a route to places exists. Once the journey has been decided on, obstacles en route are generally regarded with mild annoyance. We get where we need to go nearly all the time, and on time.

The externalities are considerable: pollution, time wasted, madness, and the visual defilement of the world. The only solution to transport infrastructure woes is less infrastructure. Which would mean more regional diffusion, more separation of the so-called American culture, and less opportunity.

Positive programming returns tomorrow.