A Point In Design

Commentary – Cribnotes for Architecture Fiction
August 29, 2012, 5:39 am
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

Hello readers,
I came across this great synopsis of the novel/movie the Fountainhead on ArchDaily’s website today. Here is the link to the summary.

Photo from the 1949 Movie

Below is the trailer from the 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper in case you want to check out the movie adaptation.

Book: The Fountainhead
Author: Ayn Rand
Pages: 704 pages
Year Published: 1943

I have never read the book or seen the 1949 movie, yet after reading the précis I would have no desire to read it either. I had heard of this book before and it was even mentioned in passing in a design studio lecture, but I never really knew what it was about other than it featured the life of an architect, so for me this plot summary was a real time-saver.

The characters in this novel are truly repugnant. Howard Roark, the novel’s protagonist embodies the absolute worst personality characteristics associated with a difficult and demanding artist. Sure, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier had huge egos like Roark and were cantankerous to boot, but today even the biggest names in design such as Frank Geary or Rem Koolhas quietly acknowledge that they are not infallible and that their work does go out of favor. Not so with Roark who was blinded by his own ego.

The central theme in Rand’s work espousing the value of greed and selfishness as the path to personal freedom completely ignores the value of Roark’s friends, mentors, and lovers that helped build his career. Rand also seems to overlook that Roark’s personal failure in business was a direct result of his own selfishness. I find it amazing that the incoherent rambling of Rand are given so much credence in today’s society or at least within the inner circles of power in DC. But aside from my personal reactions to the story, I thought it would be interesting to examine just how accurate Rand’s fictional portrayal of the architecture profession really was.

Fact vs Fiction
Are architects as unwilling to compromise on their designs as Roark in the real world?

I would say no, architects are trained to be flexible and open minded, perhaps even too much so. In reality the client exerts lots of influence as they are ultimately paying for the building and they are the one who actually uses it. If you are really really famous like Peter Zumthor or Louis Kahn, then you can get clients to bend to your vision even on the smallest of details, but it is worth noting that even though these 2 men are acknowledged geniuses they were also known to be difficult to work with and lost just as many if not more clients than they got.

Would an architect deliberately destroy one his own creations as Roark did because his vision wasn’t executed as he designed it?

No. The most he/she may do is leave it off his catalog resume, if he felt it was really bad, but today architects are often lobbying to preserve their creations in the face of public opposition set on tearing them down. The architectural community rallied behind Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles to preserve Boston City Hall even though the mayor and the general public declared it an ugly and unsuitable building.

What is the most accurate aspect of the novel?
I would say that most if not all architects never achieve the fame, recognition, or wealth by practicing architecture. It is a profession where struggle is paramount. Most architects go through a personal bankruptcy or end up closing their practice at some time during their career. Roark had to close his office and take employment at a stone quarry to make ends meet. Kahn with all his fame and recognition died bankrupt. This is not an uncommon story either.

That is my two cents. If you have an opinion on the Fountainhead, feel free to leave it in the comments section of this post.

Commentary – Trends in Architecture
February 28, 2012, 9:14 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

The big news in Architecture this week was the announcement of the winner of the annual Pritzker Prize for Architecture for 2012. This year’s winner was Chinese architect Wang Shu. For those unfamiliar with the award it is Architecture’s highest honor, similar to a Nobel prize. The award was created by the Pritzker family from Chicago to recognize truly exceptional architects. The past couple of years the Pritzker Prize has been awarded to relatively unknown architects who are doing quality work in their respective region or country. Also of significance, the prize recipients have generally tended to create their own ascetic rather than follow trends. Trends are what this post is all about.

Architecture like fashion is very trendy and ephemeral. It is interesting to drive through older neighborhoods and see what was considered ‘avant garde’ 40 years ago compared to what is being celebrated today. For example in the 1970s, clerestory windows were all the rage. Similarly, the 1950s were all about tract housing, ranches, and car ports. The 1960s were are all about round skylights and the early 80s architects were hot on glass block. Looking through the pages of architectural publications I have picked out a few trends that seem to be everywhere on buildings today, but in my mind have been done to death. They are the following:

The stock market chart roofline (zig zag roofs)

Museum of Cultures Hertzog & deMeuron

These roofs seem to be everywhere, even this year’s winner Wang Shu is guilty of using it. I will admit it looks cool, but it serves no real purpose other than eye candy and I am sure that such a roof doesn’t shed snow well.

The Research and Technology Innovation Park by Brooks + Scarpa

Residential Project By Wang Shu

Compare the zig zag roof with the older saw-tooth roofline design found on Alvar Aalto’s Riola Parish Church or this mill building in Great Britain. The saw-tooth design captured light from above and filtered it down into the space below while the zig zag roof serves no function other than to draw the eye to it.

Corus Rotherham, the Bright Bar rolling mill

Arctic Ice Cave Monumentality
Frank Geary started this trend as seen in the entrance to the Disney Concert Hall in LA but other architects have borrowed it and it keeps reappearing.

Disney Concert Hall by Frank Geary

Magma Arts & Congress Center by Atrengo Mis Pastrana

I suppose one could argue that this is a revisiting of Brutalism of the 1970s, but done with more rustication than the plain concrete monolithic structures of the 1970s. To me it feels like the entrance to the polar bear exhibit at the zoo.

Storage Containers as Housing
I absolutely despise this trend. Yes, a crate is cheap ($2000) and yes it can be stacked to create architectural forms, but it is not meant to be inhabitable, even if you spend extra money to outfit the inside, it is still going to feel like the inside of a corrugated box. Stupid trend. Disappear from the pages of my magazines.

Photo taken from Jan 2012 issue of Dwell Magazine

The recessed curtain wall within a box
This is my winner for the most overdone, over copied, over used detail in architecture. Literally every single new design published uses this. Its origins can be traced to the Karmoy Fishing Museum project by Snøhetta where a linear plan was terminated with a big picture window as seen below.

I completely get why this detail is so popular; the view from the inside looking out is great, but there are other ways of connecting the outside with the inside.

ICA Boston view looking out on Boston harbor

Hadid's Maxi Museum, Italy

This photo of Jyvaskyla University in Finland by Alvar Aalto is just one alternative.

The Arriva headquarters (a public transport bldg) in Portugal by RVDM architects was the first project I came across that exhibited the boxed curtain wall idea, but there are literally thousands just like it.

RVDM architect's transport building

All of these design details are very current, but how many will be around in 2013. I personally hope none of the above. Often when clients interview an architect they ask if they specialize in a particular style, and the standard response is we design to meet the needs of the client/the site/the culture, etc. yet all of these trendy details seem to find their way into their clients’ projects regardless. Are today’s architects really just trend whores copying the trends of a handful of starchitects? If so then perhaps the Pritzker jury’s nomination choices are justified, awarding the prize to the architect who is his own artist.

Building Typology – The Parking Garage
January 6, 2012, 7:58 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews, Commercial Work, Photo Galleries

Winthrop Square Parking Garage, Boston, MA

Hello readers,

It is a new year and for the first post of 2012 I thought I would devote it to a building type that rarely gets any attention, the parking garage. Normally these are structures that are made as nondescript and forgettable as possible; their sole purpose being a place to park vehicles. However when an architect pours his energies into creating something beautiful as well as functional, the results are often exemplary. Below are a few of the more noteworthy parking structures that I have seen.

Of all the places that I have visited, I would have to say that Melbourne, Australia is the city that really knows how to do car parks the best. There are more underground parking facilities in Melbourne than any other city I can think of. The best being the one right on the Uni Melbourne campus. You would never know that there was a garage right below the quad.

Melbourne Uni Quad, Carlton, Victoria, AU (garage underneath)

Commentary – Facade Based Design
November 29, 2011, 7:13 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

Are buildings with images plastered on them the new trend in Architecture? A recent article in the Melbourne Age documented this trend popping up in Australia’s biggest cities. Thus far I have yet to see this catch on in the US, but then again not much is really being built here right now. The general opinion among those that commented on the article was decidedly against this trend and I tend to agree with their assessment. This is merely pastiche, or pointless ornament designed to give interest to a drab exterior. These murals will not hold up well over time. Are people really going to want a picture of Pamela Anderson on their house 25 years from now, long after the actress has been even relevant culturally speaking. The article suggests Architecture is just reflecting the ephemeral nature of culture. But given the cost of constructing anything these days, why would someone want something that is going to be dated a year after its built. The true measure of a successful project is how it ages over time.The AIA doesn’t give out awards for buildings until they are at least 25 years old. Many buildings from the recent past (1960s) are today considered ugly and cold. What was once avant garde is now dated and dingy; Boston City Hall is a prime example. That said I do have to admit to liking the office tower project. The face in the building evokes the image of Mustapha Mond from Huxley’s Brave New World
or something from 1984. Ultimately it is all about the image you choose for your facade.

”Good buildings dealing with interesting contemporary ideas in an appropriate, powerful way don’t date because people look at them as extraordinary historical documents that tell a story about their time. Diversity makes a city fantastic.” – Carey Lyon architect and proponent of facade based design

Project Photos

The Age Article

Redevelopment of Chernobyl – A fool’s paradise
November 2, 2011, 5:45 am
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

A recent article appeared on the ArchDaily website presenting a tourist redevelopment scheme for the area around the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine. Although novel and space age in design, such a proposal is downright stupid and speaks to our arrogance and presumed mastery of nuclear power as a species. The article claims that the area around the plant is no longer dangerous,

“The majority of people have an extremely negative idea about the exclusion zone around Chernobyl nuclear power plant, though quite a big part of this territory does not pose any radioactive hazard.”

This is nonsense. Off course it is still dangerous. Only an absolute fool would intentionally go into this area deliberately. Anthony Bourdain I am speaking about you here. Compare the propaganda from the architects with actual photos taken from the area with gieger counter readings shown in the photo. This photo taken next to the concrete encased reactor shows a reading of .481 Roentgens. And a mile or two down the road, the grass is reading .139 Roentgens. To put these values in perspective, The typical exposure to normal background radiation for a human being is about 200 milliroentgens per year (.00200 Roentgens), or about 23 microroentgens per hour (.00000023 Roentgens/hour). 100 Roentgens will lead to radiation sickness and 500 Roentgens to death. So even in the grass a mile or so away from the power plant, (the proposed area for development) the .139 Roentgens reading is many many times the normal background radiation dose. To account for the radiation exposure the proposed housing will have decontamination units on the ground floor of the housing modules. Do people really want to live their lives going through decontamination units on a daily basis?

Photos of Site Today taken from a tour of the area.

Photo of Concrete Encased Nuclear Reactor with reading from Gieger Counter

Photo of ground reading a mile away

The rendered people walking in the grass are looking pretty stupid aren’t they. Now lets compare the situation in Japan where 3 reactors melted through their containment units as well as evidence of a fire over an adjacent fuel pool. As of this post date (Nov 2, 2011) Reactor 1 is just getting its concrete containment finalized some 7 months after the initial accident while Reactors 2 & 3 remain uncovered and continually leaking radiation. The level of coverup, denial and downright indifference to this ongoing problem is more evidence to our arrogance and willingness to bury our heads in the sand to the detrimental effects of radiation on our planet and humanity in general. Since the mainstream US media chose to ignore the issue and focus on drivel (aka Kim Kardashian’s divorce) the real costs of these disasters go unrealized and vastly underreported.

To me it is inconceivable to even think of building in a nuclear fallout zone, and actively encouraging tourists to come to receive sizable doses of radiation willingly and to pay to do it to boot. Just how stupid are we.

I am including links to all the facts cited for this article if you are curious and would like to validate it independently. I am also including links to the Fairewinds website, which posts the most up to date no bullshit reports on conditions in Japan to educate yourself on the cleanup and true impact of the Japan and Russian catastrophes.

Arch daily article

Photo tour of Chernobyl

WikiLeaks Info on Roentgens

Anthony Bourdain’s Trip to the Ukraine

Fairewinds Website

Commentary – The Unknown Krefeld Villas
July 9, 2011, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

The Krefeld Villas

Few architects receive the acclaim and recognition associated with Frank Lloyd Wright in their lifetime or even after they have passed. The life and work of the architect is unglamorous and often goes unnoticed. Even the uber-famous have projects that tend to get overlooked. This week I am focusing on a pair of villas designed by Mies in the town of Krefeld, Germany. The two houses were built between 1927-1930 in the International style. From the outside these two properties resemble office buildings rather than residences. A critical reader may consider them drab if not downright ugly. Mies himself was rather critical of these buildings as well, indicating that his client chose not to include as much glazing as Mies would have preferred. Mies said, “I had great trouble”. Today the two villas serve as a museum to contemporary art in the city of Krefeld.

In honor of these overlooked projects, I opted to made a study of the villas and found them quite fascinating. Below are some photos of the Krefeld Villas by Mies.

Inspired by the Krefeld Villas, I decided to create my own version. My villa is a 2 bedroom, 3.5 bath home with a separate in-law apartment and a two car garage. The house has amenities such as a library and a total of 4 fireplaces along with ornamental ponds and gardens. Below is a rendering of my creation.

Review of Revit 2012
April 15, 2011, 8:09 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

Download Revit 2012

After using the above download link I gave the new version a test drive. Note, the download is 3GB so it will take an hour plus depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Installation & setup
Even though the file was huge, the setup was painless. I like that the installer didn’t have to connect to the internet again to download all of the families (ie balusters, doors, etc) like in previous versions. That is a time saver. I chose a custom install, choosing not to install the Design review software, which in my mind is pretty useless running on Microsoft bloatware (.NET crap). I also chose to install all the rendering libraries for fear that if I didn’t (as in past releases) rendering won’t work. About 30-40 minutes later the install was done. No reboot necessary.

Uses & Workflow
After passing on Revit 2010 & 2011, the 2012 release seems to have finally gotten the UI ribbon right. Object layout seemed obvious and I finally felt that I could transition to the new UI. The new version has all the features I mentioned in my initial post with more apps for evaluating solar heat gain/loss. Being a single seat user, I didn’t evaluate the new work-sharing features, so I can’t comment on those. I really appreciated the decision to place the properties dialog front and center along with the apply button. This makes changing the position of an object (say from 1′ high to 2’6″ high) a lot quicker with fewer mouse clicks.

In terms of overall use, the only limitation I did see on my machine was that the 3D views seem to take a little longer to open then in Revit 2009, perhaps a second or so longer, but the resulting image was more detailed. This time delay may be a function of my video card, as my card is not on Autodesk’s approved list and my computer is 8 years old. Rendering takes longer (specifically the amount of time the computer needs to calculate the model before the rendering engine launches and starts counting). I also noticed that Revit 2012 seems to be better integrated with windows as it shows the correct amount of memory being used by the application in windows task manager while running and rendering. Prior releases would indicate the app was using only 100k of memory when in fact it was using well over 2GB.

Materials & Rendering
I love that you can finally purge materials, and as I suspected it does dramatically reduce the size of the project file by doing so. I also liked that you didn’t have to go back and update the materials in individual families unlike the upgrade from Revit 2008 to 2009. Having the background image for renderings is great, so you can finally get images that don’t have the crappy horizon line scarring your rendering. I was also amazed that the application was able to locate all of the decal items that were imported from a 2009 project without having to remap their location. I was really surprised by that. Revit 2012 also remembered all the lighting groups and their settings for individual views.

I did come across an issue with sun setting and renderings. By default the sun setting dialog is set to (In Session, Lighting) (See image below)

I found on my machine that when I ran the rendering it would fail with an error that an unknown error occurred while processing the image prior to the rendering engine even starting. I then located my old custom sun settings created in Revit 2009 under the still tab and used those. Things worked fine after that.

Bugs & Issues
I was initially disappointed that Sketchup import functionality was not working for me. Importing a sketchup file would just hang at 2% and you would eventually just have to kill the revit application. I resolved that by copying the dlls for sketchup from Revit 2009 into the 2012 directory. After that sketchup imports worked fine. My bigger problem came from a print spooler issue that appeared in windows. The Revit install appeared to have corrupted the print spooler service in windows so whenever you went to print a document, even outside of revit, the error “print spooler was unable to start” appeared. I uninstalled Revit, then the material libraries, and finally deleted the created folders in the install directory. I then reinstalled the product. Both the sketchup import issue and the windows print spooler issue disappeared. My suspicion is that all of that .NET bloatware that is bundled with Revit corrupted the windows OS.

Despite my initial hiccups with the first install, I like this new version of Revit and think it is worth upgrading to it. For future releases, consider porting the help subsystems and design review to a java or a flash based app. It smaller and more streamlined. So readers, Check out Revit 2012, the app has a 30 day trial period before needed to license and email me with your reactions.