Saturday, June 30, 2007

collect all four

Anyone seen the article about space gloves in the NYT magazine? Someone finally won one of NASA's open competitions for new technology-- a former sailmaker invented a superior astronaut handcovering on his 30 year old Singer and won $200,000, plus a valuable patent.

This adds a whole new twist to a good new article by David Celento in Harvard Design Magazine. In between making fairly accurate assessments of contemporary practice, prefabrication, rapid prototyping and fabrication, and BIM, he makes this point:
Architects are among the very few providing custom design services in a product-infatuated society. this presents a profound problem, especially since few clients possess an understanding of the efforts necessary to create custom, products, and even fewer are willing to adequately finance them
And this one (about the current state of government projects):
An imperfect but illustrative parallel in manufacturing would be if Boeing were contacted to digitally design and construct a one-of-a-kind “blue-sky” airplane. The client is interested in exclusive rights to Boeing’s five years worth of design data, prohibits Boeing from making more than one plane, will only pay for error-free parts, and expects to pay little (or no) more than the cost of a standard plane of similar size. Boeing wouldn’t even bother to return the call, yet architects are competing for design opportunities where the conditions aren’t that much different.
Somewhere between space gloves and t-shirts we have a new solution. Art museums and megamansions can still be made painstakingly bespoke, but perhaps what we should really be competing for and slaving over are systems: structural furniture, cladding signage, countertop/lighting, or even just a better way of doing ceilings. Once the production of an object goes beyond a few dozen, the cost of designing that object becomes only a tiny part of the process, instead of fifteen percent, giving the designer a lot more leeway, and a lot less breathing down the neck.

This has been said before (and more eloquently). But I am not going to take the next step in exhorting all young practitioners to take up the mantle of rapid fabrication and systems design, claiming that if we don't do it, someone else will, relegating architects to mere decorators. That's Arup's line, and I don't buy it. No matter how monolithic the pieces of a building get, you will still need someone to negotiate between all of the internal and external pressures. Someone to dance around keeping the water out and holding it up, while keeping their eyes focused on something more distant. If anything, industrial designers might take this place, and if they do a better job, maybe they deserve it. Maybe we will see a collapse of building, furniture, and device, and we'll all live like Dave in 2001. But if the future is all about products and consumption, why the hell would people choose to buy one thing when they can buy hundreds? And hasn't the last half-century taught us that monocultures are weak and potentially hazardous?

I think that the near future will be just as haphazard, heterogeneous, and multilayered as the present. And we should be here to reap the chaos, and nudge things towards a slightly more ordered state.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Two views of I-45

Today, two different ghosts of Houston's automotive past, both sent to me some time ago by Jean:

The first, a planned expansion in 1946 (pulled from a newspaper article) that shows how freeways (or "urban expressways") used to get planned... a gradual slowing of traffic through an intensification of on andofframps (incidentally beautiful from above), until it spreads out into a downtown "delta", which reconnects at the other end of the city into tributaries. Note the striking similarity in image and concept to the human circulatory system, albeit one that does not circulate. An oscillatory system, I guess. Nevertheless, it does show that as they were originally conceived and constructed, freeways did not strangle or bypass cities any more than a half-dozen railway stations strangle or bypass Paris. Here is symbiosis, not separation.

A mere fifteen years later, demolition had already begun to run an elevated expressway directly south of downtown, directly through a busy and successful commercial street (Pierce). The property values on this right-of-way were so high they could only purchase one-half the requested width, and Pierce elevated remains narrow today. This diagram was lifted from a detailed (if not terribly critical) history of Houston's transportation systems, commissioned by TXDOT . Look at the 45/59 interchange in the lower right--did you know that it took up more than six city blocks? According to the last census, 43% of land in downtown Houston is taken up by right-of-ways. 2.4% of this same area is public open space. Perhaps some of this transportation space could serve a second use...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

industrial consumerism

When I am overcome by the desire to own something, it is almost always an industrial, not a consumer product. I think this may be the product of too many William Gibson novels in my youth-- the idea that sparsely designed, no-frills tools are superior to the chaff sprinkled on the common people. So, when we were talking about kitchens, I got excited by the 300,000 BTU 10-burner superranges at Surfas. I can spend hours looking at foam rubber and vapor-tight light fixtures at McMaster-Carr. It's even influenced my choice of offices-- I am thrilled that I get to work with a factory every day.

My latest obsession is from ISO. Yes, the International Standards Organization. Yes, the people that brought you such blockbusters as "ISO 22000: Food Safety Management Systems" and "ISO 14000: GHG emissions accounting and verification." What has me all hot and bothered, however, is ISO 7000: graphical symbols.

For a little over $200 (paid in Swiss Francs, natch), you can get over 2,400 fantastic standard icons, from the seat belt symbol, to low tire pressure, to the ever-popular "lightning-bolt" danger triangle, in several formats! Think of all of the uses-- someone at my office already suggested a machine that prints a different icon-based t-shirt every day, for six and a half years.

I'm saving up.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

move to bejing? $2000

I've mentioned before that it often seems like the future is already here, it's just looks to boring to be noticed. Seabox is a custom container company that makes the current mobile-design architects look like kids in a sandbox.

This may not look like much, but here's the description:
In the closed configuration, the structure meets all the ISO requirements for transportation on a container ship. Once on site, the Folding House can be set up in about one day. Custom designs and materials are also available.
For those of you that are a little more impatient, there's a version that involves a tentlike configuration that can be unfolded in under 20 minutes. Or if you desire the bad-ass over the expedient, go with one of these:

Here we have an open-frame, stackable "ratpac" system with reconfigurable exterior and interior partition walls, capable of pretty daring cantilevers. It was designed as a system for SWAT urban warfare training. Check out the shiny interiors:

Sinister and kick ass.
For something more heartwarming, try this:

Oh, just a portable standing wave generator. Shippable, of course. There are also portable workshops:

And, of course, you could just hire them to make impromptu ziggurats and 100 foot walls, on demand--here's a temporary outdoor movie screen in Central Park:

And, of course, the requisite art opening monoliths:

These guys will design for you a 40' container with integral generator and A/C unit, built-in furniture and even a little plumbing. And since everything still meets ISO code for international shipping, you can ship your house at the going rates (currently, about anywhere in the world for $3000 or under. And China is especially cheap). For a harder sell, check out this video.

I'm going to petition Seabox to change their motto to "Up Yours, Lo-tek."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

gardening architecture

[All images taken from the reference library blog. While I'm not sure the "quality" the writer is searching for is quite as ineffable as he makes it out to be, the site has a fantastically even feel.]

There is an often unacknowledged side to biomimicry that I feel might be as interesting a consequence as the possible responsive and regenerative aspects that are much talked about. These buildings will age.

Your house could get hot flashes and headaches. Your school would slowly weather into a softer, less resiliant, slower form. The subway station would forget things. With the modernist concept of a priori materiality repaced with mutable,ageable substances, one's relationship with buildings would transition from detached viewer to constant caregiver and maintainer. If we build like trees, we must prepare to be the gardeners of our structures.

I'm just hoping that my house doesn't get chronic headaches or a predisposition to the yearly flu.

Monday, June 18, 2007

two views on global warming

Inaba projects has made a verifiably fantastic video (available on YouTube) forecasting a gently totalitarian, evolving, regenerative urban future. The title, "Moore's Law Meets Sustainability," should give you a teaser of it's unbridled positivism. This relentless, mechanistic optimism could have easily derailed the video, but it is just creepy and unreal enough to inspire rather than pacify.

On the other end of the spectrum, the City of Santa Cruz provides us with a powerpoint presentation entitled "Turning the Tide." Buried within the promises to cut emissions and provide more greenspace, which (to me) only highlight the issues of attempting local solutions for a global problem, is the following slide:

This list can be seen as histrionic and alarmist by some (100 year flood levels, widespread drought, etc etc), but I actually found it to be comforting: here is the end result on urbanism in a few decades if we can't manage to turn around world trends in industrial pollution and unbridled waste-- desalinization plants, levees and dikes, and-- as was suggested in a recent NYT article -- urban shorelines that look more and more like Venice or Amsterdam.

I am somewhat reminded what I was once told on a tour of Prague, that centuries of debris had made the former first floors of many old buildings into the basements. I can only imagine, if the worst-case scenarios for ocean levels come true in fifty years, that some localities might choose canals and waterlogged first floors over losing long-held property. How do property rights fit in when the shoreline moves 200 feet inland in a decade?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

march starch?

One of the localised weather phenomena that I had to get used to, alonside the Santa Anas and "fire season", is the fact that most of the early summer here is cloudy. Not just a little cloudy. End-of the world cloudy.

They give it cute names like "May Grey" and "June Gloom," but the fact is, if you live and work west of Overland Avenue (such as I do), you get pretty depressed this time of year. And it doesn't even rain-- these are angry, but impotent clouds.

It's as if, for the few months of the year the rest of the country is having clear weather, southern California is forced to borrow their clouds, and store them in the first few miles of land next to the Pacific, for use later in the fall.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

my line

Doulas Tomkins, the man who brought us North Face, allowing us to have wonderfully warm clothing that was either fuzzy on the outside, or makes little zip-zip-zip noises when you move, has been buying land in South America, piece by piece, as a private ecological preserve. At last count, he owns around a million acres in Argentina and Chile.

This is something like .15% of these two countries combined. This may seem small, but it is also over 1500 square miles, much of it in a long skinny squath about 35 miles across, next to the ocean. So there is a wee bit of controversy, not only for reasons of access, but because the land also happens to be on top of a very large resivoir.

All of this aside, I wonder what it would be like if someone purchased a long, skinny piece of, say, Utah, piece by piece, until they had bisected the state completely. All of a sudden, you would have a new datum, a Mason-Dixon line of the 21st century. Not to mention that you could now feel free to start a whole series of linear enterprises, from a linear accelerators to speedways for land-speed records, and, maybe, in the future, magnetic space launch facilities.

UPDATE: speaking of strategic reserves in the desert, this just appeared on archinect.

Monday, June 11, 2007

for your consideration...

... Tony Garnier's Prix de Rome-winning "project for a national bank", of 1899. Image lifted from "Theory and Design in the First Machine Age", in which Banham notes the embarassment "young progressive architects" had explaining how such a formalistic, nonfunctional plan could win a trip to Italy. To get a sense of the
scale, check out the tiny conference tables in the lower third. There were no sections or elevations in the submission.

I almost wish that this had been built, leveling some declared "slum-ridden" portion of Paris in the early part of the last century. Over the years, it would decay and the maintenance costs would skyrocket, until 100 years later (perhaps today), Parisians would decide that the only recourse would be to remove all of the windows and make an enormous enclosed city park, much as they did with some slaughterhouses a few decades back. A now-acclaimed losing entry from that competition would be revived and the marble halls meant originally only for "monumental circulation" would be reinterpreted as badminton courts, skating rinks, and art galleries (and, of course, a boulodrome). The collonades provide perfect goalposts, and the main banking room would become a quasi-open air cafe from which one could watch sumptuous anarchy unfolding in every direction.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

mp3 copout: audiosports

Softball today. All I have to show for my efforts this time is a left thumb that looks like a link sausage. Therefore, today's unearthed audio file is of me kicking ass at a perhaps slightly less athletic sport: boules (or petanque, if you're snooty about it):

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

hydrocarbon atlantis

[Chris Jordan makes fantastic images of sifted waste. I can't help but imagine Scrooge McDuck swimming in this pile of cellphones.]

Yesterday, I found out (thanks to BLDGBLOG) that Shell Oil Plans to create 1,700 ft high walls of ice in shale under the Rocky Mountains. This is to prevent groundwater contamination when they pump 800 billion gallons of crude sequestered in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Today, NY Magazine told me about a much smaller oil deposit -- only in the range of 30 million gallons -- that is notable because a) it sits in the middle of Brooklyn, and b) it is manmade (thanks, Mobil!). BLDGBLOG made a quick notice of this one as well.

This oil is going to be massively expensive to recover, and it's not crude but an amalgam of decayed motor oil, benzene and other lovely poisons, but all the same, how long is it going to be before we start mining our own waste? Thanks to microelectronics, there is a higher concentration of gold in some landfills than in many mines. The only problem is that current recovery methods would be as destructive and messing as strip-and-leach mining already is; in other words, we'd just be making a lovely soup out of our trash and sucking up what we like. Kind of makes me think that the real action of much of industry is to select and purify specific, rare materials, make intricate weavings of these threads of pure stuff, and then pulverize these assemblies and scatter them into a giant pit.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

total control

The Isle of Man TT Race turned one hundred last weekend.

The thirty-seven mile circumference of this island, located between England and Ireland, is completed in about seventeen and a half minutes, by motorcyclists, frequently exceeding 150 miles an hour. The world record lap time features an average speed of 129.451 mph.

The villages along the race path are often transited in only a few seconds. For the entire day of the race, motor traffic is shut down, and over 600 volunteers are placed in a continuous line of sight along the entire course. In this way, the entire 37 mile journey is witnessed and protected, not unlike that of Xiang Xiang, the panda whose "return to the wild" was recorded in minute detail until her death.

In the past century the Isle of Man TT has claimed 226 lives. At current speeds, in the two-lap race, this is a death every 15 minutes. To add to this insanity of velocity, there is the annual "Mad Sunday" in which any member of the public can run the 1300 foot mountain section of the course. To those of you that wonder what this might have to do with architecture, may Marinetti visit you in your sleep (as the ghost of futurism's past, of course), crashing ancient motor cars into your dreams.

(All images courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Monday, June 04, 2007


Went to the season opener for Sam's summer-league ultimate team (go blue!). They won, of course, and we also got to dig out and play with my over-powered pre-digital flash from high school. Dragging the shutter is the coolest.

Friday, June 01, 2007

virtual provence

Continuing on my perusal of old recordings.

To go here:

Look at this:

While listening to this: