Thursday, May 22, 2008

Learning from the Ads

In this month's ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) News, there are a couple of things of note. The first is that the opening column from ACSA president Kim Tanzer makes note of the professional constitution of Richard Rogers' firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) as an exemplar of professional culture. You can read excerpts from it at their website. But the preamble language is inspiring. "The practice of architecture is inseparable from the social and economic values of individuals who practice it and the society which sustains it." Yup.

But the other thing I noted was an ad in the back (p.35, if you want to look) for new books from the MIT Press. There are three books stacked vertically on the right side of the page that deliver three very different visions of what the profession ought to be about. It's a miracle that they haven't caught fire from being placed so close together. I'll go through them from bottom to top, because I feel like it.

David Orr, Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building. "Allows us to understand why we'll need to cleverly maneuver both the technological and the human track to have any hope of avoiding the ecological abyss we find ourselves approaching" -- Bill McKibben

Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics. "A vision of architecture that transcends concerns of form and function and finds the connections between the architect's wish to design a beautiful world and architecture's imperative to provide a better place for society."

Francois Blanciak, Siteless: 1001 Building Forms. "An attempt to free architecture from site and program constraints and to counter the profusion of ever bigger architecture books with ever smaller content."

So we have buildings as necessary responses to an ecological crisis. We have buildings embodying the tension between beauty and social responsibility. And we have not buildings but "building forms" which revel in their freedom from either place or purpose.

Y'know, if I were a better man, I'd go look for Blanciak's book. I would seek to immerse myself in his argument, to understand the nature of placelessness and uselessness as worthy pursuits. But I'd rather have strep throat again. Just the level of hubris in the blurb -- "to counter the profusion of ever bigger architecture books with ever smaller content" -- is warning enough.

And this matter of having 1001 of them... it seems oddly precise. Mathematically, it seems far more likely that there might be 1,297 interesting forms, or 833, or any other non-centennial number. I mean, I can understand having 101 Dalmatians, because it was written for eight-year-olds. But grown-ups can handle somewhat greater numerical complexity. Chris Alexander and his colleagues identified 253 patterns in A Pattern Language: 94 having to do with community, 110 having to do with buildings, and 49 having to do with details. They didn't see a need to have some pretty number that they could advertise; they named the things they believed in, and stopped when they were done. I think there's a lesson there for us all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Architect and the Engineer

The old saw is that an engineer learns more and more about less and less, until eventually she knows everything about nothing. The architect learns less and less about more and more, until eventually she knows nothing about everything.

Sure enough, NCARB agrees with that. NCARB, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, has published a document entitled Architecture as It Differs From Engineering. It's a 2004 update of a document originally created in 1982 and amended in 1995, and its purpose is "to assist its Member Boards in their continuing effort to prevent the unlawful practice of architecture by unlicensed persons." Basically, it's a legal brief to be used by state boards when they go after non-architects for providing design services. They go through differences in training; outline precedent cases in which engineers were sued or blocked from project completion because they had done design work; compare the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) to the Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practices of Engineering exams; bring in quotes from an "expert group" about professional differences; and compare B.Arch and B.S. Civil Engineering curricula from six colleges.

The argument boils down to this:
  • architects go to school longer than engineers;
  • architects have broader training than engineers;
  • this training is more "integrative and imaginative" than that of other fields;
  • this training allows architects to coordinate the work of others; and
  • this training ensures that architects promote individual, community, and ecological values.
Therefore, "a registered architect should be involved in the design of all buildings intended for human occupancy and habitation, and...a registered architect is the only design professional prepared to coordinate all the other disciplines required for the project."

Being someone involved in the training of architects, I think I'd have to respectfully disagree. There aren't an awful lot of courses in the curriculum that help students manage teams of diverse specialists. There's only sporadic attention to ecological concerns and data-driven outcomes testing. The consideration of "how does a building impact its surroundings" is typically true only inasmuch as the surroundings are mass models of gray chipboard. And the understanding of culture and behavior and values is also not a feature of most architectural curricula.

In the end, as we look at the comparison of the B.Arch and B.S.C.E. curricula they provide in Appendix C, the only fundamental differences are that the engineering students take a lot more math, physics and technical systems, and that the architecture students have studio and architectural history. So in order to bolster NCARB's claims, studio and arch history courses had better have a lot of attention paid to team facilitation, post-occupancy evaluation, individual cognition and social behavior, cultural norms and values, contextual sensitivity, and ecological fit.

And, as the saying goes, how's THAT workin' out for ya?

Buildings for Paparazzi, Part 2

SO last year...

Those of you who know me realize that I don't care an awful lot about clothes. I have about 20 shirts and six pairs of pants that I rotate through, and I think everyone at work saw all of my ties in the first month I was here.

So working on Newbury Street in Boston has been quite the revelation. I mean, just the shoes alone! Square toe, pointy toe, open toe, pointy toe that's about a foot and a half long. Spike heel, block heel, kitten heel, wedges, flats, flip-flops. Those funny little Pumas that look like bound feet. For the past month, I've seen tons of high heels that have red soles.

The thing about fashion is that it's supposed to make you feel stupid and outdated and insecure. Wearing last year's shoes or last year's hair is the worst of all possible fates. But fortunately, we have a solution: buy new stuff. Then you'll be smart and current and admired -- for a few months, until you're stupid and outdated and insecure again.

As Carrie Bradshaw once said, "I like my money right where I can see it... hanging in my closet."

In the past few years, there have been more than a few exhibitions and monographs that attempt to draw the links between architecture and fashion. Do we really want that to be true? Do we want to reduce architecture to immediacy and tastemaking? "On the runway, inspired feats of virtuosity are all too often quickly forgotten by blasé audiences rushing to the next show." (Judith Thurman, "Frocks and Blocks: Fashion meets architecture in Los Angeles," The New Yorker, December 4, 2006). You can't exactly give away your Steven Holl building to Goodwill when your magazine-driven lust for current taste kicks in.

The historic preservation movement is in the midst of a crisis. Originally formed to save the buildings and streetscapes of the 19th Century, they couldn't just come out and say that old buildings are simply better: better in scale, better in proportion, better in materiality, better in detailing, better in most of the ways that laypeople appreciate. (They're worse, of course, in mechanical performance, which is why a lot of preservation work is really taxidermy -- removing the entrails and stuffing the preserved hide with modern materials. But I digress.) So if the preservationists didn't want to make the argument from quality, which would have made them seem old and stuffy and out of touch, they had to make the argument from heritage and historic importance. And that argument has come around to bite them in the butt, because now there's an awful lot of really bad Modernism that's old enough to be the subject of preservation. Boston's City Hall, one of the most reviled buildings in the past half-century, will soon be a half-century old. That doesn't make it any better, but it does force people's hands in some uncomfortable ways. I have a technical term that I teach my students -- the FUB, or F----ng Ugly Building. But the preservation community hasn't yet adopted it.

I think that the historic preservation of late 20th-C buildings is going to tell the tale of mass gullibility, of the pursuit of fashion and novelty without concern for endurance. Look back at your high school yearbook, and cringe at what you thought was cool. And then think twice before you decide to put the architectural equivalent of a mullet out onto the street for the next few decades.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Here's what Getting It Right looks like...

My partner was at a one-day conference last week, convened by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. One of the speakers was John Abrams of South Mountain Company, a small design-build company located out on Martha's Vineyard. She was impressed with his talk, so I started poking around their web site ( Now I'm impressed, too. Here's at least eleven ways they get it right.
  1. They're employee-owned. Any employee who's worked there for 7500 hours or five years is eligible to become an owner; of their 32 employees, 15 have an ownership stake, and they think four or five more will this year. And this isn't just financial partnership; the owners all have decision-making responsibility. This does a couple of things. First, there's not the situation where one person's driving and everyone else follows. Second, every time they hire a new employee, they're hiring a potential co-owner, so they take pretty good pains to bring on people who share their values.
  2. They do their work locally. They'll never become Skidmore Owings & Merrill, because they do their work in the community that they understand and that they value. They're building for their neighbors.
  3. They use reclaimed building materials, found objects, and very selective site-clearing practices. One of the ways that buildings fit their environments is when they're actually made out of their environments.
  4. They do the whole job. The company does the client work, the design work, the site work, the construction work, the finish work. They have subcontractors and suppliers with whom they have long-standing relationships. They never "throw it over the fence," as we used to say in the consulting world; they're responsible for every element of the work.
  5. They turn down work. They accept work that fits with their values (and state their guiding principles very clearly).
  6. They have a transparent pricing process. They bid the job (materials, labor, subcontractors, etc.), and add a profit number. If they come in at or under bid, they get the whole profit amount; if they run over without owner-approved changes, the overrun comes out of their profit envelope. The client knows every number in the process.
  7. They have a simple and thorough programming process. And they're not asking their clients to do any design work; the only "traditional" programming question in their script is an approximation of how many square feet the client is after, and answering that question is clearly labeled as optional. Instead, they're building an emotional program, a set of criteria that fulfills the deeper stories we build from.
  8. They keep going after the building is done. They provide their homeowners with owner's manuals; they include post-occupancy work in their costing; they do a walk-through with the homeowner a year after handover.
  9. They're politically engaged. They have a stake in the Martha's Vineyard community, and work to facilitate strong discussions about its future. They strive to develop public transportation options, help the elderly to remain able to live there, and try to keep the economy vigorous enough to keep kids from having to depart in order to make their living.
  10. They're educators. Aside from going to conferences like the VBSR, they publish in design/build magazines, Fine Homebuilding, local newspapers and magazines, materials magazines (Timber Framing, Solar Today, etc.), and small business magazines.
  11. They build with craft and endurance in mind. As their website says, "If our buildings are not designed to last at least 250-300 years, we're not asking the right questions. Our industry is making buildings designed to last the life of a mortgage - they should last at least as long as ten."
I'll definitely need to make a site visit and have a talk with these folks as I start to build the list of practices that will revitalize the profession.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Losers' Club

My favorite pianist is a fellow named Yakov Kasman. I had the chance to hear him play Mussorgsky at a small church in Lompoc, California; the power and utter absorption of his playing is wholly unlike anyone else I've ever heard.

I discovered him when I was watching a PBS documentary on the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in which he was a competitor. The competition gets hundreds of audition tapes, brings in dozens of players, knocks the field down to 24, and then the work starts. If I remember correctly, they play public performances with a string quartet and with the Fort Worth Symphony. They give a performance of a brand new piece specially written for the competition, a piece that none of them have ever heard before. And they give a recital of material of their own choosing.

The six finalists are all better piano players than any of us have ever met, better than anyone else in their city or state or country, better than all but a handful of people who've ever lived.

Five of them lose.

Kasman finished second, but to my tastes, was the most remarkable classical musician I had ever come across. Now, the fellow who won, Jon Nakamatsu, is a hell of a pianist. I have a CD of his work, and think it's fabulous. But Kasman is supernatural. And a loser.

I've been reading Jack Nasar's book Design by Competition (1999, Cambridge University Press), a serious study of architecture competitions and the buildings that come from them. He was spurred to study this because he's at Ohio State, and had a front-row seat at the competition and creation of the Wexner Center. There were five firms invited to participate in the competition: Eisenman/Robinson (the ultimate winner), Arthur Erickson, Michael Graves, Kallman McKinnell & Wood, and Cesar Pelli.

People at OSU pretty much despise the Wexner Center. It cost about four times as much per square foot as the average building on campus, and came in at 270% of its estimated cost. It costs about 30% more to heat and cool than other buildings on campus, about 30% more for everyday maintenance and cleaning. It leaked badly and immediately. It's reported to be a horrible place to look at paintings, it has problems with sunlight damage to artworks (a problem shared by a fair number of high-end museums, most notably Meier's High Museum in Atlanta), and the staff hates it as much as the visitors.

Nasar showed all five of the final entries to people unfamiliar with the Wexner. Eisenman's design was rated next to last. He also grabbed entries to other major design competitions, and showed the winning design and one of the other finalists to 50 architects and to 50 laypeople. Both the architects and the laypeople thought that the losing designs were, on average, superior (the laypeople especially so).

Nasar then goes on to describe the jury process, with some remarkable quotes from jurors. Here's one from the landscape architect Martha Schwartz:
At first we went through every one in about ten seconds. That's awfully fast. But by the time we started getting into it, we realized that we could see whether or not there was any merit in a project in even less time. We actually got it down to about five seconds.
It takes five seconds to be a loser, to be judged as being without merit. At least at the Van Cliburn competition, you got to play for a few hours before they threw you out.

Jon Nakamatsu, the ultimate winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn, gave a wonderful talk at an amateur competition for which he was a juror. It was a talk about losing. You can see it here.

There are some things we should compete over. Seeing who can throw a rock furthest out into a lake, for instance. But basing a multimillion dollar investment that will impact thousands of lives on the judgment of five people in a windowless conference room with stale coffee and no empirical criteria for success... maybe not such a good idea.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Identity Crisis

I sleep with the radio on. I've found that having the news on quietly helps me wind down at the end of the day, and if it's quiet enough and the story isn't deeply compelling, I'll fall asleep in no time.

So this morning I woke up for some reason around 2:30, and the BBC World Service was doing a story about discrimination against African immigrants to Italy. Now that Berlusconi is back as Prime Minister, the newly-resurgent Right has fired up a big wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. It's couched in terms of threats to Italy's cultural identity — the shared language, religion, clothing, foods and other elements of daily life that let people say "We are this way, and these things help define who we are."

In psychology, identity is an individual concept, the idea and definition of oneself. And that identity can be surprisingly fragile. We all have periods in our lives where identity is ruptured, where the old story no longer holds. Adolescence, graduations, "mid-life crisis," illnesses, divorces, menopause, retirement. At those points or transitions, we are no longer who we were, but we've yet to figure out who we are now.

I think that cultural identity is equally fragile in our Modern age. We are highly mobile, pursuing work around the world and blending our habits with those of people from everywhere. Americans are increasingly non-European, and the country is soon to be majority non-white. Ideas and entertainment and material products come from everywhere, and belong nowhere.

I think we find this normal now. But imagine living in 1850. Born and raised in one town. Living your whole life in the same region. Inheriting the family farm or learning the family trade. Member of the same church as your great-grandparents, and headed one day for the same cemetery. Eating what comes out of your garden. Waiting weeks for a letter, and rarely seeing a newspaper. Now that's an identity-rich environment; you'd never have any question about who you were, or wonder what you might become. It's also extraordinarily constraining when seen through our modern eyes. But for most of human history, this was completely the norm. (For much of the world, it still is... except that the ubiquity of television brings Western life to even the most remote places.)

One quick response is that we might have had greater security in who we were (as individuals and as a community), but we also had pretty horrific gender repression, regularly died of malnutrition or tuberculosis or childbirth, and lived lives that, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." For most of us, it's a pretty easy tradeoff to choose modern conditions.

But I think that those two poles represent an artificial choice. We get to choose (if we want to) what kinds of world-awareness we embrace, what kinds we accept, and what kinds we refuse. I read quite a lot, listen to music from multiple continents (and centuries), get my news from NPR and the BBC, drive a tiny little Korean car, and appreciate having access to all of that. I also don't watch television or listen to pop music or go to many movies, because I find them a) tedious, b) embarrassing, or c) uncomfortably violent. These are my choices, based on my own identity issues. And I like living in places that look like they belong where they are, that have a meaningful local vocabulary that's endured over a long, long time.

As architects, we get to make that choice on behalf of lots of people — do we reinforce the local sense of cultural identity and place, or do we challenge it? It might be polite if we asked first. I mean, if you were going to order pizza for a group of friends, you'd ask how many were vegetarians and whether someone had allergies and if you should leave off the anchovies on part of it. Think how much more substantive, enduring, and deeply personal our relationships with places are — why should we presume that we can place the order for all of our neighbors?

Disclaimer: I have a BA and a PhD in Architecture, but I am not licensed to practice the profession, and thus cannot appropriately use the term "architect" to describe myself. So when I use the term "we" when describing what architects do, I include myself only in the community of those who are academically trained in, and have a deep interest in, the built environment (and who feel a strong responsibility for it). I offer no architectural services. Do not call me to design buildings, interiors or landscapes at any scale. If swelling or redness occurs, contact your physician.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Buildings for Paparazzi, Part 1

It wasn't long ago (but before she shaved her head, I think) that Britney Spears had those "scandalous" photos taken of her night on the town with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. I had a chance to see a video of the scene: three young women walking down the sidewalk, inside a moving oval of about 50 photographers firing their 4-frames-per-second cameras with the electronic flash units blazing away, all shouting "Lindsay!! Look up!! Paris, look over here!!!"

What a way to live. Nobody cares about you as a person; you just exist as an object to be photographed and discussed over donuts in every office in North America. And you'd pretty much have to drive the Mercedes SLR McLaren and have five thousand pairs of shoes; you can't afford to be photographed getting into a 2005 Accord wearing your beat-up Chuck Taylors. Geez, I'd drink, too...

I sat down this evening with the acknowledged masterwork of architectural history, Spiro Kostof's A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (Oxford University Press, 1985). Kostof was almost certainly the most humanistic of the great architectural historians, spending more analytical time on cultural narratives than most of his peers, hence the subtitle of the book). I wanted to see what buildings he discussed in the Modern and PoMo eras (admittedly, a book from 1985 won't deal much with Gehry or Holl or Hadid or Calatrava). It turns out that there are 68 photographs of buildings created since 1900 that are not intended to be direct historical throwbacks (Edwin Lutyens and Frank Lloyd Wright were contemporaries, but you'd never guess it by their intentions).

So here's my little geek moment about those 68 buildings. In each case, imagine the buildings that would be added to those categories if we did a 2008 update covering the past 25 years.

The largest number of buildings photographed were a three-way tie between skyline towers, museums & theaters, and civic buildings. None of these are programmatically driven buildings; they're exercises in branding, the "look at me" function we get so tired of in our celebrities. The additions would be no end of newer skyline towers, some from Dubai and Kuala Lumpur; and lots of museums and civic centers.

Industrial and mass-housing buildings are next on the list, mainly shown because they're unique to the 20th century and also because they have intellectual connections with modern processes of efficiency and economies of scale; they tell a story about cultural change. We quit seeing them pretty much around 1935 or so, once their novelty goes away.

Religious and commemorative buildings come next. Again, these aren't so much programmatic buildings as they are places to change your mindset toward contemplation. Their whole purpose is to be entirely different than what's outside, because they're asking you to shed the outside world and get in touch with god.

The two full-time residences are far outshadowed by the seven vacation homes. You can get away with a lot in a vacation home.

The three academic buildings are all schools of architecture. You can get away with an AWFUL lot in a school of architecture.

There are four "installations" that have no function intended whatsoever (for instance, the Barcelona Pavillion). You can get away with ANYTHING in an installation; look at the Diller Scofidio + Renfro Blur building, made of sprayed water vapor except for the parts that actually have to accomplish something — the nozzle system and what you're standing on. Try making the floor out of water vapor.

By the way, when did "+" start to emerge in architecture firm names? I'm tired of that; it's very '90s and used up, like calling some function an "e-function" just because you used a computer.

You can easily add your own more recent list of museums, campus buildings, vacation homes, skyline towers, installations, and any number of other buildings (or "buildings") that have no responsibilities. I think of them as indolent buildings, lounging around wearing their price tags on every surface, existing only to be photographed. I wonder if they're bored. Maybe they take Xanax or long rehab weekends.

(I'm imagining the Stata Center and Bilbao holding each other around the shoulders as they stagger down the sidewalk, singing "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no.")

I don't know why we teach from them. Like Paris and Lindsay, they're not exactly role models; more nearly cautionary tales.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Paradigm and the Cognitive Frame

One of the things we've learned about successful social change is that different behavior must be preceded by different ways of thinking. I'll take up two examples here, one from science and the other from politics.

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientific theory doesn't really change because of newly introduced evidence, at least not much. Really major changes come about because some small group of scientists see the existing data in different combinations and with a different interpretation, and they construct a parallel body of theory that seems also to fit with the data at hand. They then conduct new experiments that would indicate some further reach of their theory, and gradually (through publishing and teaching) gain converts until the new paradigm, to use Kuhn's term, displaces the old one.

Kuhn gives a striking example of this "paradigm shift" in his book Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912 (1987, University of Chicago Press). In BBT, Kuhn explores the original published papers and unpublished correspondence — in French, German, and English — of the leading physicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at the moment when Newtonian physics was called into question by the new quantum physics we now associate with Einstein and others. Kuhn focuses on the work of one notable physicist, Max Planck, who was doing work on the mathematics of energy emission and absorption (a "black body" is an object that absorbs 100% of its received energy and reflects 0%). He discovered a small error in the most widely accepted calculation, and introduced a microscopically small multiplier (0.00000000000000000000000000000000006626...) that seemed to resolve most of the issues at hand. This was in 1901.

By 1905, a number of physicists working across Europe and the US had come to the belief that this dinky little number represented not a statistical tidying-up job, but rather suggested that there were indivisibly small units of matter and energy that they began to call quanta, and that these energy/matter units would predict all kinds of unexpected things about physics at scales other than the everyday. Quantum physics was the outcome, and Planck's Constant, as it is called, is seen as the origin. But Planck himself never believed that quantum physics made sense, and died twelve years later as an unrepentant Newtonian.

Now the political. A linguist at Berkeley named George Lakoff who is politically very left-leaning has done some fascinating analysis for why conservatives have so firmly held political power for the past 30 years, even in the face of some pretty objective failures. He argues (like Kuhn, but without invoking his research) that people aren't fundamentally swayed by evidence unless that evidence can be organized into a compelling cognitive frame (the equivalent of what Kuhn called the paradigm). Lakoff and others believe that the thing that conservative thinkers have done best, and what liberal thinkers have to learn to do, is to offer an overarching view of the world that encompasses the evidence at hand, and to recast the vocabulary in a way that supports that bigger frame. As conservative intellectual Eric Huebeck put it,
We must win the people over culturally—by defining how man ought to act, how he ought to perceive the world around him, and what it means to live the good life. Political arrangements can only be formed after these fundamental questions have been answered... The ideas of the masses never come from the masses. The most important thing any movement can do is capture the imagination of the people. One must give them dreams and ideas that have been put in terms they understand, and touch their hearts as opposed to their rational minds. If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us. (Huebeck, Eric. 2001. "The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement." Available at the Free Congress Foundation website, )
All of the core ideas of conservative thought — that government is invasive, that markets are self-regulating, that the media is liberal, that the left is untrustworthy, that patriotism should be uncritical, and so on — are drawn from an overarching (and emotionally attractive) cognitive frame about the strength and autonomy of the individual. We stand and are judged on our own merits, with no strength but ourselves, our family, and our faith. Lakoff and others argue that if a political left is to be resurgent, it also needs to express an overarching and emotionally attractive cognitive frame. Facts and policies are not enough, and can never be enough, to change minds in the absence of that larger narrative.

Hey! This used to be an architectural theory blog... how did we get over to physics and politics?

Because I think that both Kuhn and Lakoff are right. If we hope to change the practice and the teaching of architecture, we have to offer an emotionally compelling story about why our vision is attractive and would result in happier communities. We have to reclaim architecture from the profession's current narrative of architect as intellectual and artistic pioneer and from the popular narrative of the architect as master technician. We need to develop (and do the work to support) a new story, that architects know more than anyone about how to enhance personal and social happiness through manipulating the physical world.