ruminations about architecture and design

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

zaha hadid

A tiresome question in architecture is whether unbuilt projects have a greater value than real buildings. Generally, a complete realization of architectural service is necessary to pay the bills. Hadid persisted as an artist before getting shovels in the ground. Her dramatic career cut short lends an air of drama to her unfinished designs and entertains the speculation of how feasible her more uncanny visions will be--provided a client with deep enough pockets.. Her firm persists, which makes us wonder how derivative they will be, and how long they will last. Frank Lloyd Wright's studio produced nothing of significance after his death.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

american infrastructure costs

The punchline to the joke of American infrastructure seems to be: "Spend more and get less." There does not seem to be a good solution to anything. Some clamor for privatization, but fail to understand that land acquisition is a public policy challenge. Others demand cheaper service with the stipulation that all areas are served regardless of demand density. Planning costs time and money--with time being the more onerous burden as system failures have to build to a critical mass before emergency funds are dispensed to solve small problems with great inefficiency. Towers of ilium will think about his more while stuck on the train today.

Oh, that punchline also applies to our healthcare system.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

shoots and leaders

Market watchers are starting to make more haphazard predictions of late. The Trump bump is fading--the market will surge once tax reform passes---earnings are good--wages are too high, etc. The economy feels sound and secure to the point where no one shock will have an adverse effect. Towers of ilium is willing to concede that things will continue on this path through the fall and beyond.

Friday, May 26, 2017

squaring the circle

It's a boat, it's a plane, it's deeply flawed piece of urban real estate! Towers of ilium confidently predicts (is there any other type of prediction on this blog?) that nothing dramatic will happen to Widett Circle in the next ten years. No Olympics, no hipster development, no railyard expansion. Even if the food wholesalers move somewhere else the complexity associated with this site will overwhelm a speedy decision. The circulation systems surrounding and through the site defy human activities. Although some developers have built on marginal sites further up the road they haven't had to overcome the triple obstacle of highways, truck services roads, and rail lines.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

we are not running out of sand

An overly dramatic article in a recent issue of the New Yorker talked about the coming worldwide sand shortage. Using some anecdotes and selective statistics the author was able to weave a tail about the "Sandpocalypse." Meanwhile, the world continues to move on. Natural resources are finite, but it is worth noting that the surface of the planet is composed mostly of water and rocks. The rocks turn into sand naturally, but if you're in a big hurry and have the right equipment we can make sand directly from rocks--much like we can make electricity directly from the sun. Granted, this is more expensive than just digging it out of the ground, but expensive products and services tend to create competitive production environments.
The earth has plenty of resources. In fact, the one resource that exhibits frequent scarcity is human intelligence.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


People far away of whom we know everything. Four years on from the Marathon bombings and Boston has achieved a state of normalcy. The next terrorist attack on U.S. soil may take the form of the Manchester concert attack. New York City is the mostly likely target, and we would hope that the majority of counter-terrorism efforts are focused on that region.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

security concepts

Security is a social contract that is deeply related to the disproportionate exercise of force. The theft of an item worth a few hundred dollars can result in police investigations and legal actions that can reach several hundred thousand dollars. But, to not pursue the action ultimately creates an environment of mistrust and chaos. The use of resources expended to stop a criminal is justified by the threat of future actions.

Architectural features that promote security have a high rate of failure. Walls can be scaled, locks picked, doors kicked in, etc...and a fortress under siege is not a fun place to live. In most instances, transparency and density can create better outcomes. A pile of treasure is safer inside a city than out in the wilderness.

Monday, May 22, 2017

random notes on speculative bubbles

Some economists dispute the existence of financial bubbles--citing how asset prices should reflect rational behavior and that large markets can accurately assess risk. Hence, a crash in prices is due to new information or outside forces that disrupt such rational behavior in a way this also rational.

That Isaac Newton lost money on speculative trading is a significant point in this argument.

That in a diverse economy bubbles can actually be helpful by spurring innovation and creating benefits for everyone (or a handful of very well-positioned people). 

That contagion is a consequence of meddling by governments or large firms. Hence, less regulation creates the ideal scenario for efficient markets.

That money is a critical component of modern human existence and all money naturally trends towards expansion beyond the present or near future value of all goods and services.

Towers of ilium is a bubble. Buy now!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

the footsteps of doom-again

Here's an observation from a pretty smart fellow. In case you don't feel like reading Robert Shiller, towers of ilium is happy to summarize: The U.S. housing bubble was caused in part by people who wanted to make money flipping houses using borrowed money. The concept of "flipping" as a sure way to get rich is entrenched in our popular culture--hence people who are bad at math or misread local conditions, can help create the next housing bubble.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

parts known

Although towers of ilium occasionally sends staff to far away places--Fitchburg, for example, the middle east remains a mystery. Tehran is just as unknown as Pittsburgh. Most American media portrays Iran as images of its leaders, which leads to a great misunderstanding of what is going on there. The recent election demonstrates that most people there care much more deeply about domestic affairs than foreign policy. Money, pollution, corruption, and opportunity are the concerns that demand the most attention from politicians. Trump, Saudi Arabia, and ISIL are distractions from daily problems.

Friday, May 19, 2017

car park special edition

Occasionally, a big name architect will produce an interesting looking parking garage, but such efforts are not typical. Car parks occupy marginal space in buildings, which is a slight improvement over the outside parking lot which tends to dominate a building site. The LED revolution will at least make the interior experience more bearable, and maybe even safer.

Self-driving cars, Uber, and expanded public transportation will not result in the abandonment of parking garages. In fact, we can expect even larger and more sophisticated structures in the near future. Forward the foundation.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

a field of stone

The transition of the use of stone as a load bearing material to a light-weight veneer is one of the greatest conceptual changes in the history of architecture. People probably perceive of the walls of buildings as structural, and several generations of modern architects have enjoyed challenging that attitude with building claddings that reek of instability--glass in large sheets being the most obvious tactic.

Building exteriors are more sophisticated, but less visually important. Form is valued over materiality, and craft is underappreciated. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

not immediately but soon

When you own a stone quarry, you keep digging. Politicians often do this, occasionally because they believe that consistency is important to their constituencies, more often because they're stupid.
Towers of ilium has started to contemplate the presidency of Mike Pence. His right wing credentials are impressive and it is easy contemplate how he would probably have run for president in 2020 of his own accord. His occupancy of the Oval Office seems assured, and he will most certainly run a tight ship. Congress will enjoy working with a former colleague, and significant pieces of legislation will be signed into law. He will probably avoid a war and keep the Obama foreign policy principles in place where it is convenient. He may help avert a Democratic takeover in 2018 and he will be a formidable opponent in 2020. Provided, of course, that Trump leaves office and keeps his head down--not good things to bet on.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

aspirational housing

The Vanderbilt Family has faded from the public scene, but their housing stock remains--but rarely as housing. The Biltmore seems to have been designed as a public gesture--perhaps even as a conspiracy between the local tourism board and the family architect. 

Despite its size, this structure reeks of domesticity. The deliberate asymmetry, the small windows, the gingerbread details. As a living experience, it is an assault on practicality.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

they drove old dixie down

As usual, the prediction department at towers of ilium was wrong. No one else quit or was fired in Washington aside from Jim Comey. All in all, it was a slow news week.

The topic today, fortunately, is architecture (not the Civil War). The capacity for repair is nearly unlimited. We can fix just about anything, given enough time and resources--and most importantly, a disregard for the economics of thing being fixed. Restoration is about nostalgia and romanticism. So, at what point in time do we assign the role of "ruin" to a building? Lack of occupancy can be remedied by repair. Fire can be remarkably effective, unless the major part of a structure is fire resistant. A heap of stones in the wilderness is the pinnacle of romantic achievement and a strong argument for selective abandonment--unless it threatens human welfare by increasing states of dilapidation.

Friday, May 12, 2017

good luck on the other side

Eddie Lampert, the CEO of Sears, recently made the ludicrous claim that poor media coverage is to blame for the accelerating decline of the Sears empire. Lampert, who fancies himself as a sort of John Galt character, attempts to lead Sears from his mansion in Florida, and legends abound of his hostile and combative manner with his employees. There is speculation that he is running the company into the ground so he can cash out on its significant real estate holdings, which if true, makes his current management style a case study in institutional sadism.

Sears is not unique in the revolutionary landscape of modern retail. The Wal-Mart/Amazon phenomenon often seems to be the only thing worth paying attention. The death throes of a sick dinosaur like Sears is mostly page 5 news (oh right, pages in newspapers are no longer a thing).

People who shop need places to shop. The Internet is not a place, but as long as there is electricity and roads, it will have a significant impact on how real shopping places conduct business. No one knows how this will end, but we can be pretty sure that Sears will end.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

comparison thursday

Hotel architecture tends to be very finely tuned. Exterior detailing is generally ignored, except to signal brand identity. Interior decor is carefully managed to create a sense of welcome, but not for too long. Privacy for guest is simultaneously respected and interrupted, and at the end of the visit, money always changes hands in a way that is most favorable to the establishment. A good hotel does not encourage loitering.

National events seem to be heading somewhere strange lately. The Democrats have a new weapon that they're not sure how to use. The Republicans are circling the wagons in a haphazard fashion. It is hard to imagine a scenario where some more people do not lose their jobs before the end of the week. Also, there is a high probability that somebody is preparing to leak something that will keep the story alive.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

and yet more john portman

According to the architecture editor at towers of ilium, John Portman has never been acknowledged by the major design publications. He might not care. His success at the business of architecture is sufficient rebuke to the academic standards that corrupt the profession.

We bring you this bit of imagery for no reason at all.

Monday, May 8, 2017


Douglas Adams did not invent humorous science fiction, but his synthesis of humor and humanity in the Hitchhiker's Guide stands in sharp contrast to some of the harder sci-fi efforts of the 20th century. Arthur C. Clarke might have invented humorous sci-fi in his short story Reunion, but that's another topic (and maybe too hard for towers of ilium).

For the moment, the new Blade Runner movie is being added to the towers of ilium official list of architecture movies. It should be noted that this list, despite being official, is not archived in an organized way. Maybe that is the answer.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

designed development

Scale is dead. Thanks to the proliferation of media platforms it is impossible to rely on a consistent representation of anything visual. Scale still pays, and it would not be wise to bet on the decline and fall of the movie theatre experience--or even dumber, a reduction in screen size in cinema complexes.

In the realm of architecture we always look for scale signifiers that calibrate our perception. People, cars, trees, and doorways are the most common clues that help ground project. The sketch above is deliberately loose, but there are shadows of pedestrians and trees that demystify the structure.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

more presidential library criticism

The concrete horror in the background is the presidential library of LBJ. As if we did not need any more proof that the architecture of the 50's through the 80's was cosmic obscenity.

Friday, May 5, 2017

architecture criticism post # 45981

At last, towers of ilium returns to its roots....

Presidential libraries are a contradictory expression of ego and civic outreach. This combination of forces tends to result in gestures that play to the worst instincts of the design team. Great effort is expended on making the architecture feel original. At best and worst, they become small set pieces of the prevailing style of the moment. In the case of Obama's library/park/museum in Chicago all these factors work together in a predictable way. The strong axis, the double buildings, the austerity of the plaza, and the plain facades speak more to the emotional state of the architects than they do to Obama's character. Of course, Tsien and Williams are the go-to experts for sensitive urban design, but given a blank slate they feel compelled to make a statement that is weakly modest and ambiguously revolutionary. The tower captures the challenges of the presidency perfectly: a man who desperately wanted to be a good steward of the country and ended up ruling from a small fortress amidst a prosperous grove.

More and more, the building resembles a Picasso cubist sculpture in a late term pregnancy.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

the limits of beauty

Are there limits to beauty? No. Such trick questions go straight to the heart of any discussion about the differences between objective reality and human perception. And to be clear, towers of ilium has no doubts about objectivity, despite the frequent difficulties the human mind has when it comes to grasping it. Objective conditions include the following: Earth's rotation, the boiling point of water, starvation, traffic jams, and death. Not a comprehensive list, but any compendium of truth will be overcome by a compendium of fantasy. Deciding what proportion to spend our lifetime considering is a personal affair.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ideas without place

The lost generation had Paris, and without Paris it is hard to imagine the literature and personalities of that period. Modern communities are often assigned, incorrectly, a sense of place simply because of their media presence. Humans will gather no matter how sophisticated computer technology becomes. The gym pictured above has moved 5 times in the past 20 years. Without a place it would not exist as a community. It has specific requirements that are difficult to achieve in a restrictive and overpriced real estate environment. It thrives in a marginal location. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

functional aesthetics

Military equipment is assigned a high aesthetic value, either on purpose or through the combined enthusiasm of users and spectators. Military architecture often has no aesthetic value, at least since people stopped building castles. This can possibly be explained by the fact that armies function as temporary phenomena. Vehicles and weapons have a defined stability; bases and camps do not. Even battlefields are forgotten without monuments.