ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, July 28, 2017

the last home

Finding a reason for any design decision is a sure path to insanity. Typically, design starts with precedents that establish a base for a handful of novel distractions. In the case of the bathroom shown in the picture above there seems to be an effort to make a statement about the intersection of domestic expectations and industrial products. Why isn't the sink blue, also?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

we came, we saw, we lost

Discussions of a memorial for those who died in the long-running Global War Of Terror have managed to touch on some important issues. Chief among them is a realization that the war is real and unending, and that those who fight and die in far off lands do so for reasons that have drifted into obscurity. No one has energy to support the troops, except for some "Like and Share" posts on Facebook and the ubiquitous "Thanks for your service" that is mumbled mechanically. To those who have lost much, the irony and stupidity of the situation must feel like a hard pebble that cannot be shaken out of the inside of the shoe.

That anything architectural should be suggested by this fiasco is appropriate if only for its cynicism. Unfortunately, we can expect a Maya Lin knock-off, a long debate, and nothing built. That is the memorial.

Monday, July 24, 2017

hungry lion in upper right frame

Lo, yonder lies the green hills of England; shaped and re-shaped by the human hand until nature complies thoroughly with our collective sense and sensibility. In more practical terms, the mind likes what the eye sees, possibly because we've inherited a rough genetic memory of prehistoric landscapes similar to this one. This theory is bad news for modern architecture because if innovation promises a break from traditional expectations then the mind will be staging a small rebellion against the design.
What if there's a glass tower rising from a green field? Will such an image convey a sense of security or threat?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

patience is the soul of progress

The only way to get things done is to wait out the people who can't get things done. Another feature of getting things done is to not try to get things perfect. If perfection was the only acceptable outcome God would still be reviewing design proposals for the Garden of Eden with his architect.

But what if it fails? That too, is necessary--we just hopes that it works for a little while.

Friday, July 21, 2017

mexico city parks here

Towers of ilium is late to this news party, but we still want to acknowledge that Mexico City has scrapped minimum parking regulations in its zoning code. Concurrent with this, they have adopted regulations that set limits on parking spaces with taxes on spaces constructed above a certain threshold. So, it's still a bit of the nanny state but moving in a refreshingly opposite direction than nearly all zoning codes worldwide. 

Great cities do not depend on cars. The depend on people, they depend on density, they depend on diversity. They depend on trucks. Parking spaces are dead weight.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

the limits of metaphor

One of the reasons that humans play games and sports is that the final outcome is perfectly defined. The winner wins and the loser loses--or, in non-combative sports, a number is achieved that is reassuring in its absence of ambiguity.

Using chess as metaphor for political negotiation is dangerous and misleading. In chess, there is no information asymmetry, whereas in politics information is fluid, unreliable, and carefully guarded.
Chess has an endgame, and the only endgame in politics is nuclear annihilation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

good enough for the passerby

Historicism is architecture. No designer really innovates--he or she simply nudges a previous design in a different direction. Some architectural elements have no origin because they are responses to necessity-- like columns, beams, bricks, windows, and doors. Decorative details often trace their origin to some convenience of manufacturing--e.g. columns are round because tree trunks are mostly round. A sufficient accumulation of details eventually gets regarded as a distinct design language. Nowadays, though, it's all about eclecticism.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

the truth

Courtney Humphries of the Boston Globe wrote an excellent article about the use of glass in modern buildings. She correctly identifies how a high rise with extensive curtain walls underperforms in terms of energy use and occupant comfort. It is good to see popular media catching up to building science:

Humphries does a good job of pointing out the pressures that designers face when trying to balance concerns about building performance with client aims. Developers like glass, so glass towers continue to be built.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


If you were to transport any human from the past to our modern era the one thing he or she would still be able to recognize and understand would be performance venues--stadiums, stages, arenas, theatres. Humans gathered around the spectacle of another human is fundamental to our existence. Even the most dedicated hermit would make a point of going to see  someone that excited or entertained. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

random updates

(Towers of ilium photography department overslept and failed to submit a spectacular picture of a sunset over the Grand Canyon)

In economics and business news it seems that things are moving sideways. The strong jobs report is tempered by the unimpressive growth in wages. The "Trump Bump" in the markets is an accurate response to deregulation efforts, but if consumer spending slows or dips then earning expectations inevitably follow. Housing starts are being slowed by zoning regulations (this claim bears continued scrutiny).

In other news, there is a movement to expunge track and field records set prior to 2005. Something similar was done in weightlifting decades ago, yet this blog still recognizes the efforts of Leonid Taranenko. A procedural move does not negate a fact of performance, regardless of how that performance was achieved. Also, the word on the street is that athletes have become more sophisticated about drug use since the heyday of the 80's.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

looking out the back door

Railroads travel through the places that people prefer not to think about very much. Because of this, it is possible to get a good sense of how things work--or don't work. Towers of ilium offers the following observations:
-Improvements to infrastructure are nearly always layered on top of, or woven within, existing systems. The results tend not to be visually attractive, but things keep on working.
-Private property that borders on rail routes probably has more volatility in terms of cash value. If there isn't a station close by, it suffers more.
-Room for expansion is desperately limited. Decisions made hundreds of years ago have defined right-of-ways within narrow parameters. The private property adjacent to these routes may have low valuation, but it imposes considerable costs on the entire urban network.

Monday, July 10, 2017

more scrutiny on type 5A construction

This drawing demonstrates some of the graphic limits of architectural detailing. It is a plan view of a very common 1 hour rated wall that can be used for bearing or non-bearing conditions. It fails to explain several things:
-Intersections with other rated walls, floors, or ceilings.
-Penetrations through the wall

If a contractor doesn't have experience with rated construction then this wall assembly could turn out to have an effective fire rating of about 10 minutes.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

high rise housing done right-mostly

Towers of ilium has criticized all forms of residential architecture. At times, this blog proclaimed the horror of rural frontierism, the decrepitude of suburbs, the evils of the detached, single family dwelling, and the stupidity of urban high-rises for rich and poor. 

Singapore stands out as an exceptional example of well-managed public housing. The government builds and sells apartment flats in buildings like these. Controls are strict, the architecture is banal, the residents are happy (they are not burned alive like in Britain), and the system is probably the only method that could work for a nation that has lots of people and no land.

Ben Carson has probably never heard of the place.

Friday, July 7, 2017

leviticus 16:20

The New York Times, along with several British news organizations, has done an excellent job reporting on the Grenfell fire. The technical reasons are still being investigated, but they will certainly conclude that the cladding assembly was the primary reason why the results were so catastrophic.

And who will pay? And how will they pay? Hammurabi would have cast several people into the flames, but such literal punishment doesn't fit well with our modern concept of justice. Presumably, the people high up in the food chain of the British safety organizations will not sleep easy for the rest of their life, but no goats will be driven into the wilderness.

The best outcome is the adoption of NFPA 285 by Great Britain and the costly retrofit of all buildings that have combustible cladding systems. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

this is the cloud, damnit

It is useful to reflect on the reality and fragility of the internet. When Skynet takes over it will certainly not initiate a nuclear war because such an action would destroy the infrastructure that keeps it alive. Instead, it will direct more investment towards power generation, grid redundancy, cooling systems, and well-trained human maintenance staff (until such staff can be replaced by robots).

Humans will be kept alive as a back-up. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

hide in plain sight

The brown smudge in the center of the photograph is a bunny rabbit. It has chosen a fairly obvious place to hide, but since the photographer is more interested in documentation than a mid-morning snack everything is okay. The fox that roams the neighborhood may have a different set of priorities.
Are suburbs a good place for wild animals? The question depends entirely on size and quantity. The same can be said for humans.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

understanding global trade

Towers of ilium ventures, once again, into the festering swamp of economic and business theory. Here is a brief explanation of trade between nations:
Nation A manufactures (or mines) heaps and heaps of useful things--like plastic cups or iron ore. Because it has more plastic cups or iron ore than its own people want or use it puts these items on boats and sends them across the ocean to Nation B. Now, Nation B might have iron ore of its own, and might have factories that make plastic cups, but in both cases it's easier to get them from Nation A. So, how does Nation B pay Nation A for all this stuff? It's simple; Nation B has a bunch of people at computers send some people in Nation A an electronic message full of ones and zeros which it calls "money." The people in Nation A can put this money in banks or exchange it amongst themselves for haircuts and vinyl siding and rock concerts. The ones and zeros keep on moving around--some even come back to Nation B when people from Nation A travel over to see the vast collections of plastic cups and piles of iron ore baking in the sun. Everything works as long as you have enough ones and zeros. If you happen to run out of iron ore or plastic cups, it's okay--switch to paper cups and start recycling some of the junk you built with the iron ore or use alternative materials like carbon fiber and aluminum.

This all makes sense. You just have to keep everything moving.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

and yet more modular

Not sure if this is a rendering or a photograph--probably a rendering. No matter, the criticism of modular home construction has been a frequent thread on this blog. A good time for the criticism of the criticism--not a rebuttal or argument for modular/manufactured/factory-built architecture--but an assertion that negative comments directed against that form of construction are not grounded in complete understanding.

A modular home company can stay in business if it does three important things:

-Not carry too much debt, either by too much capital investment or large volume speculative contracts
-Makes customization within disciplined parameters a core of the project delivery
-Maintains relationships with vendors and staff so that pricing can be consistently cheaper

In the end, all projects are site conceived and site built.