ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, June 30, 2017

pending lawsuits

Towers of ilium is a soulless corporate entity--driven by the profit motive and the maximization of shareholder value. Occasionally, for tax purposes only, we promote other information sources. So, with no fanfare we provide a link to McMansion Hell. We should offer the caution that posts on that blog are insightful and nuanced.

The photo on today's post was flagrantly taken from 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

instructions for reality

Not sure where these ruins are

Prior to the exhaustive and diverse design representation tools of our modern age information about building construction depended primarily on spoken and written communication. At least, this is the impression that the historical record conveys. The Bible gives written descriptions of various temples, but any effort to physically realize these structures would result in endless variations. Architectural plans, no matter what age they come from, are like DNA---critical features are proscribed but the ultimate form of the geometry depends on the influence of the environment.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

what is really important

Occasionally, towers of ilium steps back from its idiotic ramblings and discusses a topic that is fundamental to the health and well-being of humans. In this case, we direct attention towards Quabbin Reservoir. This system of artificial lakes is the second step in a system that brings water to the Boston Metro region. It speaks to a time of more powerful eminent domain and forward-thinking by engineers and public servants. Its current administration seems to be deeply committed to its original mission and also looks to the future with plans for continued upgrades and redundancy programs.

A public water and waste treatment system is the foundation of a healthy population. Clean springs and streams, along with a few hand dug wells, works okay for the rustic adventurer, but for a group of people that wants to settle down in one place a massive infrastructure is called for. Roads are nice, shelter is important, and jobs are good, but water is king.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

the watchmen

Despite claims to the contrary on this blog and other even more reputable sources, Craft is not dead. This photo was taken ten years ago on what looks like a nice day down on the Cape. The space depicted was conceived as the functional and spiritual center of a large home. Despite the effort lavished on the details, the overall feel of the rooms is meant to be informal. For the very wealthy, good taste is a dialogue between designer and checkbook. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

intent vs reality

Architectural details occupy a strange place in the design process. They force the architect to fully explain concept. They force the builder to learn new assembly methods--which are frequently of dubious value. Older buildings that had exquisite details benefited from a long chain of craft knowledge that architects could trust implicitly. New buildings introduce complexity that isn't visible at the surface.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

the international desk update

-Saudi Arabia seems to be trading youth for age in its ruling structure. Will  the successor to the throne learn restraint or does he see himself as the conqueror of Tehran?

-Things in Qatar appear stable for the moment. Hopefully, the 4000 cows enjoyed their flight to the country.

-China gets a new factory from Ford. We'll keep an eye on this one....

-Is solar power in Africa a real thing? Probably, because the small scale of units and expanding customer base point to it being the incumbent power source sooner than we realize. It's the type of product/service that can transcend social upheaval.

-Cubans are probably annoyed.

-North Korea works on its arsenal. China will have to play their hand at some point.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

brief update on grenfell

Although the full results of an investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire won't be available for years, we can expect some major consequences within the next few months.
-A full death toll has not been reached. As of this writing it stands at 79 people.
-The management company, the contractor, and the cladding supplier will be investigated and possibly face criminal charges.
-Towers of ilium maintains the position that this fire would have been prevented by the adoption and enforcement of NFPA 285. Lives would have been saved by a better alarm system. This will probably spur tougher restrictions--both for existing buildings and new construction.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

help is not on the way

A curious feature of the human mind is an intuition about order and cleanliness. Dust and decay are immediately recognized and assigned a negative value. Clutter impacts our level of anxiety, but we can easily be fooled if the clutter is arranged into a grid or similar pattern--if only for a brief period of time. Cleanliness is achieved by removing things, and where appropriate, dousing with water. When taken to an extreme, cleanliness becomes frightening because it departs so far from nature. The ocean is clean, even when the chaos of its movement becomes a threat to safety.

We hear little talk about the sublime any more. Temporary experiences, shiny objects, and the last pop song seem to consume our attention. Architecture, in its best efforts, has become more subtle and discrete. The vastness of the cathedral is a relic of a more sacred and primitive past.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

a good idea, but

The Tesla venture into solar roofing shingles is good marketing, but not a revolution. The revolution in rooftop solar is already underway and the most mature solution is still modular panels offset from the roof surface.  The reason for this ties into an important concept in engineering and design: beware of a device that claims to do two things at once. In the case of building envelope systems waterproofing is the primary role of roofing materials. A product that can do this reliably and cheaply wins the consumer over. The Tesla roof provides waterproofing protection, but at considerable cost, and because its application defies mass production opportunity, it will be the last choice for most homeowners.

Friday, June 16, 2017

cuba policy

Cuba was not mentioned in any of the predictions made by towers of ilium. The reason for this is a little sad--there was the small hope that the Trump would continue major parts of Obama's policies. That Trump is about to take a step back from those policies is consistent with hardline ideology and will gain him a few votes in Florida from the older Cubans.

Cuba, meanwhile, can try to reach out to the rest of the international community with increased vigor. Maybe some hardliners there are secretly relieved, as trade and tourism with the U.S. would have weakened the regime.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

NFPA 285 and its discontents

The Grenfell fire story has disappeared from front page American media. Reports have confirmed that the exterior insulation used in the buildings was flammable, which means that London does not have building codes that recognize NFPA 285. After this tragedy I hope they adopt it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

grenfell tower

This is gone now. A massive fire consumed this residential tower in London over the course of last night. As of this writing, there is not a firm count on casualties or cause. From an architectural perspective, high rises are among the safest building types, but older structures tend to lack design features such as better alarms, better compartmentation, and robust sprinkler systems. Even if the cause was malicious, modern methods of containment could have prevented severe loss of life and damage.
Harsh commentary for those who died or were harmed.

Update: Some residents worried that something bad might happen. The building was under renovation at the time of the fire. A major element of the work was a complete re-cladding (did it conform to NFPA 285?).

Monday, June 12, 2017

shelf stable-and other horrors of the 20th century

A house designed by William Krisel--and architect who was almost as important as Royal Barry Wills and even more prolific. He brought modernism to California, which was a good thing, because such designs can actually work out there.

We also acknowledge the passing Fred Kummerow, who fought a 60 year battle against trans fat and won that battle a few years before his death this year. He powered through his day on a diet rich in eggs, meat, and butter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


To invade this city an army has to drive by a U.S. military base. Another significant obstacle on the invasion route is the Qatar Aqua Park. For people living in the country there is probably some concern about how the U.S. would react to an escalation of the current blockade by Saudi Arabia. 
A card that has not been played yet is Qatar shutting off natural gas shipments to UAE. Towers of ilium puts the odds of a peaceful resolution to this situation at 75%.

Friday, June 9, 2017

peter eisenman

Peter Eisenman was once interviewed on television about a football stadium he had designed. He spoke briefly about the size of the air conditioning system and how important it was for spectators. 
It was a curious moment, since his architecture is often associated with breaking the boundaries of the practical. It's more useful to think of his buildings as sculpture.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

not all that we seem

The graphics department at towers of ilium was tasked with finding some compelling images of Morocco. A Google search turned up this lovely view of Tuscany. No effort has been made to find pictures of Morocco that are similar--Assumptions of what that country looks like will be left to the imagination or to more thorough searches on the Internet.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

and aldo rossi

Don't be a stodgy old fool! Get buried in post-modern splendor! Such is the legacy of Aldo Rossi, who continued the fine tradition of cemetery design. This structure is a highlight. It reminds its inhabitants of the office buildings where they toiled away their lives.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

unencumbered by the weight of all these crowds

The machine in the garden usually implies some form of prosperity--and it matters little whether that belongs to the past, present, or future. The romanticism of the human intervention saves a natural landscape from drifting too far into the sublime. What is El Capitan without the scars of crampons?

The resurrection of old factory towns is a romantic pursuit. Those who indulge in it experience occasional victories, but at great cost. Cheaper to build a strip mall and a suburb where every house has an obligatory patch of chemically enhanced front lawn. The old factory towns decay better.

Monday, June 5, 2017

grid land

Multi-unit residential architecture has made some minor advances in the past few decades. Developers tend to focus on interior amenities like in-suite laundry closets and logical floor plans. Accessibility codes mandate well proportioned bathrooms and energy codes guarantee a comfortable indoor temperature.

Exterior treatments are another matter. Cheap windows and siding materials are the rule, and architects are asked to mitigate this obvious poverty with pointless massing and flashy colors. Monotonous grids are frowned upon except in luxury high-rises.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

sailing for the horizon

Long suffering readers may note the inconsistent treatment of modern architecture on this blog. Although the overall tone is negative, grudging respect is accorded to some of the big names of the movement: Mies, Wright, Saarinen, Ben Thompson....all managed to produce memorable works. The harm they did with individual buildings in the service of their art is not the real issue. They inspired generations of less talented designers and brainwashed thousands of institutional clients. The mediocrity and hypocrisy that distinguishes so much of the practice of those educated in the tradition is discouraging. Now, preservationists are adding second rate design efforts to their list of protected buildings--the most egregious examples include anything by Paul Rudolph and most buildings in the greater Boston region. Ultimately, the indifference of the general public and the unchecked greed of developers may remove most of these insults from the landscape. Even if the replacements are banal, they won't be dripping with bombastic ideology and near complete lack of function.

Towers of ilium is seeking a marketing consultant to expand the reach of this blog. Inquiries can be slipped under the office door along with cash donations. It will be a competitive interview process.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

ruin and hopelessness

Journalist Jill Lepore has a new piece in the New Yorker on the evolution of dystopian/utopian genre in modern media. She argues that we've entered a period of hopelessness and despair as real life events infect our production and consumption of the medium. Towers of ilium begs to differ--not just because of the overriding belief that we shall prevail, but because dystopic authors need to cultivate an extreme atmosphere of authenticity in order to sell their ideas. No one writes seriously about Utopias, and for that, we're grateful. It's no fun when everyone is having fun.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

not zaha hadid

Towers of ilium has so far avoided any discussion of really famous architects. Today, we rectify that omission in order to discuss Richard Meier. Good, we got that out of our system.