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The Fun We Had

I’ve been thrust into social distancing, working from home, etc. I consider myself lucky because my wife was recently relieved of caring for her aunt, and so has moved back in with me. So I’m not completely alone. Still I miss the little conversations I had with coworkers during the day. Oh yeah, so far I still have a job. So, I’m really lucky.

My mind soon turned to some science fiction I had read as a child. It always does. One was a mystery about a murder in a future society where Spacers, on colonized planets like Solaria, dislike seeing each other face-to-face, instead preferring viewing each other on holographic screens. Hardcore SciFi fans probably remember The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. I had to do a little digging. I remembered the name R Daneel Olivaw, which led me to all the rest. The R meant that Olivaw was a humanoid robot, but the detective was a human, named Elijah (Lije) Baley. They had previously worked together in The Caves of Steel, which my mother and I both read. These two novels are now considered part of Asimov’s Robot series, beginning with the short stories in I, Robot, and hew to his Three Laws of Robotics.

So these spacers – living far apart on low population planets – hated and avoided being in each other’s presence, making grudging exceptions for procreation, and even more grudging exceptions for being interviewed by Lije Baley. Conversely, they had little modesty while being viewed holographically, which seems unsurprising in the age of selfies and dick pics, but made for spicy reading material in 1956. Spacers were also not averse to being around robots – in a later book, one woman considered herself married to a robot. I guess we aren’t at that stage, though I have seen reports of guys who are very attached to their adult sex dolls, like Julietta and Saori. Man, how did I get there?

The other story I thought of also turned out to be by Asimov, his 1951 short story, The Fun They Had. You can read it from an instructional PDF, with a series of questions afterwards. Essentially a young girl of the future is surprised to learn that students used to gather in schools led by human teachers, instead of learning at home from machines.

The Fun They Had strikes home more than ever, as I am currently designing buildings for colleges and universities, most of which have sent their students home, and are rapidly implementing distance-learning for the time being. One of our core beliefs in campus planning, architecture and other services, is that students learn a great deal from residential life as well as from the academic curriculum that we usually see as the goal of education. I suppose I did, though I didn’t know it at the time. So while I suppose there may something to be learned from distance-learning as well, especially if that becomes the norm in business, I can’t quite imagine colleges churning out students that view each other, but rarely ever see each other.

On Friday afternoon, many of my coworkers logged in for social gathering via the Go-To-Meeting app. It was fun. Some had pets in their laps. Several of us were drinking beer and wine. We said goodbye to two employees leaving for other opportunities, one of whom was drinking tequila. We ended up wearing funny hats, which had nothing to do with drinking, of course. But again, I do still miss the small interactions when I am simply walking around and asking someone how it is going. I suspect that will be true for college students as well, when all contact is intentional rather than incidental.

Can Big Chem Meet Green Building Standards?

Several weeks ago, I attended a brief talk by a green building consultant. Before the talk, I might have called him a LEED consultant, but in his remarks he made it clear that he was not tied to the USGBC’s rating system. He noted that “LEED-lovers” had concerns about Green Globes, but he expressed just as much willingness to consult based on the plastics-friendly rating system as on LEED.

I had wondered whether LEED consultants would find the prospect of the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC) – which is ideally to be evaluated by local code officials – to be a threat to their business model, and as confirmation, he had very little good to say about the IgCC.

But now I am reading that the ICC, ASHRAE, AIA & USGBC have signed an agreement to develop a joint ANSI standard based on both LEED and the IgCC. Leading Building Industry Groups Agree to Streamline Green Building Tool Coordination and Development:

Washington, D.C. — (Aug. 21, 2014) — The International Code Council (ICC), ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announce the signing of a memorandum to collaborate on the development of Standard 189.1, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and the LEED green building program.

The unprecedented cooperation aims to create a comprehensive framework for jurisdictions looking to implement and adopt green building regulations and codes and/or provide incentives for voluntary leadership programs such as LEED.

Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter asks whether this signals the end of the plastics wars:

Big Chem has been relentless and had racked up a string of victories, but the USGBC was not without its successes. Just last week they inked a deal with four other organizations to collaborate on the development of the International Green Construction Code.

Now, the USGBC and the ACC are actually setting up a committee to work together, with the USGBC issuing a press release with the surprising title U.S. Green Building Council and the American Chemistry Council to Work Together to Advance LEED.

Alter’s question is whether ‘science-based’ means the sort of science we see from Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Ag, where studies are commissioned to prove what needs to be proved, or whether materials will still have to meet stringent tests like those found in Cradle-to-Cradle certification.


In a New York Times OpEd, They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To – Inferior Products and Labor Drive Modern Construction, Henry Petroski rants about materials and workers:

Workmanship has declined in parallel. There continue to be expert craftsmen — carpenters, roofers, painters — who work with precision and pride, but they are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills (which is, of course, why the labor is cheaper). …

As an architect, I see good and bad work all the time. I have swum in old pools with playful, elegant ceramic tile curbs that I know I could never hope to have duplicated today. I have taken measurements in old buildings with tight brick joints and expertly-mitred woodwork the sort of which I never see when I do punch lists today. I have been to project meetings where an electrical subcontractor objected to the difficulty of the work – running utility outlets in a furniture store – by claiming to be installers, not designers.

As pointed out in the Times comments section, many great old buildings survive and many shoddy old buildings don’t. But that argument only works if there are great new buildings with excellent craftsmanship. Even the most costly of today’s buildings should probably be called assemblages or installs because to a great extent, builders do a lot more assembling and installing today than cutting, molding, fitting and building.

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

As pointed out in the Times comment section, cheapskate homeowners are just as complicit as anyone else. But as also pointed out, homeowners have less and less money to spend on quality work. Petroski goes on:

I can’t help but think that this experience, multiplied by those of millions of homeowners, affects how we as a country view our public infrastructure. We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

I’m running across that hyphenated word, short-term, in more and more articles. We have short-term energy policy, politics, and attention spans, but long-term climate, water, healthcare and employment problems that we are hoping will just go away. Unfortunately it may be our infrastructure that just goes away.

Architects Upset

From a lifetime of reading trade magazines, my memory is filled with plans and photos of many, many buildings and the names of a great many firms. I can connect the famous architects with their buildings, and the famous buildings with their architects, but I also recognize a lot of firm’s names even though I don’t remember exactly what they’ve built.

The names Billie Tsien and Tod Williams were immediately familiar to me, as were Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, from countless in-the-news and featured architect articles, but I couldn’t have named any of their projects from memory. So when I read Building Faces Wrecking Ball. So Does Couples’ Friendship. my reaction was, “Oh yeah, them.”:

Two celebrated architect couples, whose careers took off almost simultaneously in the hothouse of New York City design and who supported each other’s successes, are barely on speaking terms.

One pair, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, designed the former home of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street; the other, Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, just recommended demolishing it as part of their plan to expand the Museum of Modern Art next door.

I had forgotten that Tsien and Williams figured at all in the PMA’s appropriation of the Barnes collection but while I had sympathy with opponents of that move, I thought this quote was a bit snippy:

“It’s delicious irony that the architects who needlessly pressed their personalities onto the ‘re-creation’ of the building to house the Barnes Foundation collection now protest the decision to demolish their museum,” said Jay Raymond, a former teacher at the Barnes and a litigant against the move.

My career hasn’t led to design ownership of many projects – I usually take someone else’s design and work out the kinks, making it code-compliant, energy efficient and buildable. But I have designed one or two houses that turned out well, and remember being offended to find one in the portfolio of some former coworkers without any credit to me. I suppose I’d be disappointed if one of my friends redesigned one of those houses. But I wouldn’t be devastated.

In my view any architect that is not inured to having their work reimagined or rejected or value-engineered must have been incredibly fortunate or entitled this far.


At The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova pens, THE OPEN-OFFICE TRAP

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

Speaking from within the architectural profession, when we do office spaces, I currently see plans with enclosed, windowed offices – for the pointy-haired bosses – surrounding an interior officescape of low walls or or modular furniture – for the support staff.

Such layouts are largely determined by the clients. As architects we try to make office layouts as efficient as possible – we suggest ways to bring daylight and views to those open areas – but the clients usually tell us exactly who will be in offices and who will be in open office areas.

What is driving open layouts is status and money. Employees with higher status, or a demonstrable need for privacy to do their jobs, get private offices. Providing individual offices doesn’t necessarily cost that much more than a good quality modular work station, but a firm can write off the depreciation of a modular system on its taxes in a way that it can’t write off permanent improvements. They can also move and bring their investment along to a new space.

It’s going to fall

Architects always squirm a bit when we hear about a building collapse, especially when people are injured or killed. The 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, in Kansas City, was a big deal because all the professionals involved probably thought they had exercised due diligence – but changes that subtly weakened the structure had slipped by during construction.

In Philadelphia a building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring thrift store that was still occupied. Talking Points Memo reports that several workers nearby were worried by what they saw:

For weeks, people working nearby had watched with growing concern as a demolition crew took down a vacant four-story building next to a thrift store at the edge of downtown Philadelphia.

A roofer atop another building didn’t think the operation looked safe. A pair of window washers across the street spotted an unbraced, 30-foot section of wall and predicted among themselves the whole building would simply fall down.

On Wednesday, that’s what happened. The unstable shell of a building collapsed into a massive heap of bricks and splintered wood, taking part of the Salvation Army thrift store with it and killing six people. Fourteen others were injured.

But no one reported their fears. Every morning on the light rail I hear, “If you see something, say something,” meaning suspicious-looking people or packages. I wonder what would have happened if one of those workers, or a passing engineer, had called the authorities to express their concerns. Would they have been ignored, as were the engineers at Dhaka, or would they have been thanked for their vigilance? Or would they have been told to mind their own business?

In light of the Ag-Gag bills, do we now have to stop and wonder who we might be reporting to the authorities, lest we be charged as a whistleblower? With revelations about wiretapping of journalists, monitoring of phone records and increasingly pervasive video surveillance, can we afford to even voice our fears to each other?

Now Showing

Knowing I attended CMU, a coworker just had to tell me about this story:

A Carnegie Mellon University student’s march across campus, half naked and handing out condoms while dressed in mock papal finery from the waist up, “crossed over the line,” Bishop David Zubik said on Tuesday. … someone sent the diocese photographs of the young woman, whose pubic hair was shaved in the shape of a cross.

The photos were taken when the College of Fine Arts hosted its fourth annual spring carnival parade, the Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, on April 18.

Someone snapped a picture.

Art students at CMU dabbled in nudity while I was there, but Spring Carnival parade was run by the social societies – mostly frats and sororities. On my first semester at campus, in the lobby of the ugly student union building, was a TV with a grainy student film repeating over and over. At one point, a boy chases a girl (through Schenley Park, I suppose) as each shed articles of clothing. Yeah, I watched that one a lot.

Sometime later four art students, two boys and two girls, posed frontally nude, again in Schenley Park, then posted the pictures all over campus – with black magic marker over their genitals and faces – to advertise an art showing. One of my friends snagged a copy and cleaned off the marker. One girl looked boldly naked, I thought, while the other seemed to be having second thoughts. Too late.

In a later year, the school paper reprinted Playboy’s pictures of Teri Hope, a Carnegie Tech alumna who was playmate of the month in 1958. The pictures were fairly tame compared to many magazines you could buy at the school store, but feminist students were predictably outraged.

One of the reasons I chose to attend Carnegie-Mellon was the brochure in which they asked students about the place. They were brutally honest, but still it seemed preferable, and less expensive, than the manicured little campuses I saw presented elsewhere.

I’ve often wondered where I would have gone if I knew then what I know now. One choice I didn’t even know about was the Boston Architectural Center, where you worked in the field by day and studied at night. Now it is the Boston Architectural College, but everyone called it the BAC. I’ve known a few people that were attending – one was commuting in from New Hampshire (sheesh). I’d like to think I could have handled that sort of schedule, but it is daunting to consider now.

Another choice was Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in NYC. Cooper was a free school, but I was frankly intimidated by their rigorous application requirements, which seemed to assume that applicants had a burgeoning portfolio. I had good test scores but nothing like a portfolio.

As Felix Salmon writes for Reuters in, The tragedy of Cooper Union, Cooper may start charging for tuition, and losing its unique status. The story reminds me a lot of the independent Barnes Foundation being made into just another museum after its board was coopted by rich Philadelphia art patrons.

…Cooper Union has always been an extremely special educational institution, the kind of place where a little went a very long way. The faculty was not well paid; the facilities were bare-bones. But the students were fantastic, because Cooper could pick the very best of the very best.

While the Cooper Union ethos never left the students or the faculty, however, it did seem to desert a significant chunk of the Board of Trustees and the administration. Starting as long ago as the early 1970s, the board started selling off the land bequeathed by Cooper, not to invest the proceeds in higher-yielding assets, but rather just to cover accumulated deficits. Cooper hated debt and deficits, but that hatred was not shared by later administrators, who would allow debts to accumulate — bad enough — until the only solution was to sell off the college’s patrimony, thereby reducing the resources available for future generations of students. If you visit Astor Place today, the intersection once dominated by the handsome Cooper Union building, the main thing you notice are two gleaming new glass-curtain-walled luxury buildings, one residential and one commercial, both constructed on land bought from Cooper Union.

Then, when you turn the corner and look at what hulks across the street from the main Cooper Union building, you can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building, built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.

Designing Towards Abundance

Writing about their latest book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance in Metropolis, William McDonough and Michael Braungart expand on their Cradle to Cradle advocacy:

Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

Such talk may seem counterintuitive to peakists and doomers, but in Depletion and Abundance, Sharon Astyk also saw past energy depletion to a possible future of abundance. McDonough & Braungart envision a more industrial future than Astyk’s Nation of Farmers, though:

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief. The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this: Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.” Use less energy. Poison less. Cut down fewer trees. According to these current “best practices,” all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily—bottles, paper—and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more. But then where does this product go? Into a landfill? An incinerator?

Rather than simply conserving, McDonough & Braungart think it makes more sense to design our way out of scarcity and into abundance:

… eco-efficiency — setting a metric of tolerable levels of a gas—is simply not sufficient for positive design.

Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example. But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true.

It sounds great, but it also sounds like a tough sell. In the wake of the West, Texas explosion and the Dhaka, Bangladesh collapse, in a global business-scape where cutting costs is paramount, it is frankly difficult to conceive of industry taking such prescriptions to heart.

Cool Jazz, Rational Cities

The death of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who died a day short of 92, was widely reported, accompanied by quick clips of the quartet performing Take Five or Blue Rondo a la Turk. Oscar Niemeyer’s passing at 104 made the major obituary sections, and both men’s achievements will probably merit retrospectives in Sunday Arts sections of the major papers. Over five hundred Filipinos died in the recent typhoon, but you’d hardly know that from watching mainstream media news. And my friend Chris reported that his mother died after going to the hospital with a hip fracture — probably from an infection.

I can’t remember where I first heard about Dave Brubeck. My college roommate was a jazz aficionado, so perhaps he had a copy of Time Out. But I always think of a line from Donald Fagen’s tune, New Frontier: “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck, I like your eyes, I like him, too. … He’s an artist, a pioneer, we’ve got to have some music on the new frontier.”

Like almost everyone I’ve heard Take Five many times through the years. I first saw a video of the Dave Brubeck quartet in Ken Burns’ documentary. Compared to other jazz players, Brubeck’s quartet looked like a college chess club playing instruments — four guys with short hair and glasses playing a mathematically intricate composition. I first heard Blue Rondo as a vocal by Al Jarreau on Breakin Away, not realizing until much later that it was another Brubeck piece. I never heard Koto Song until yesterday, but Michael Franks singing, “Paul Desmond on the stereo, we sip the sake very slow …” is ingrained into my memory, and clearly draws from the older piece. Paul Desmond was the quartet’s sax player, wrote Take Five and died at only 52 of lung cancer.

Cool jazz still involves improvisation, but comes across as a more restrained and intellectual version of older jazz forms like Swing or Bebop. Some see a classical influence. Cool jazz seems to be part of a movement that led to Bossa Nova, experimental Free Jazz, World Music and of course the Steely Dan and Michael Franks music that I love. But it also led to more commercial New Age and Smooth Jazz music.

New Frontier goes on, “Well I can’t wait ’til I move to the city, ‘Til I finally make up my mind, To learn design and study overseas.”

I first heard about Niemeyer in art class. My high school art teacher, Mr LaLiberte, had a few of the Brazilier books on famous architects of the era: Wright, Corbusier, Aalto, Van Der Rohe, Gropius … and Niemeyer, who with Lucio Costa had designed quite a bit of the new capital city, Brasilia. As influenced by Corbu, Niemeyer’s modern city featured a palette of ideal geometric shapes. Modern urban critics claim the city didn’t work, but it looked great in the pictures. Niemeyer had virtually disappeared from the discussion by the time I attended college, but he seems to have remained busy.

It isn’t too hard to look at modern architecture and cool jazz and see a connection. We were redesigning and rationalizing a lot of stuff in the mid-20th century — sweeping away what was old, and imposing a rigid order based on what was new and important at the time. Modern cities had to accommodate high-speed roads, airports, and large complexes of buildings. Zoning was cool, so everyone was supposed to live in the residential part of the city, work in the office block, shop in the mall, play in carefully planned parks and attend massive theatres and arenas. Because everyone drove large automobiles to get to these places, there also had to be parking lots, parking structures and underground parking. Older cities were subject to the same rationalization in what poignantly became known as Urban Renewal. Great old neighborhoods were swept away, along with the people that lived in them.

At a lecture at CMU in the late 1970s, some big shot guest speaker said, “the problem with Modern Architecture is that it goes so quickly to third-class.” At their best, cool jazz and modern architecture were very cool and very modern, but the hands of ordinary practitioners often turned out humdrum, commercially-driven efforts. Now we’re redesigning our cities again — trying to get people back into diverse-use neighborhoods. Music has changed a lot, too, but fortunately it requires a lot less infrastructure.

Earthships, and Everything

We ran across the “biotecture” of architect Michael Reynolds and profiles of his “earthships” several years ago, and I was reminded of him by a recent piece on Democracy Now!

Garbage Warrior has its own website, and the full length documentary is well-reviewed on Heso Magazine. The full film is on youtube, but we ordered the DVD, which includes half an hour of extra footage.

The documentary is fairly straightforward. Reynolds and his followers build a collective of various earthships, which combine trash recycling, solar collection, solar mass, and water recycling to function as very sustainable homes in semi-arid open land near Taos NM. After many years, their collective draws the ire of traditional planning and building code officials, who want to see a normal subdivision with storm drains, sewage fields and power lines. Reynolds must stop construction, layoff workers and even loses his architectural certification. Reynolds tries to introduce a new law to allow experimentation in building design. He finds some allies, but mostly runs into a wall of hidebound politics.

In contrast to the developed world’s refusals to let him work, Reynolds and his team head to the Andaman Islands to provide technical assistance to survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Instead of the usual corrugated metal quonset huts, his team build a small earthship that solves the critical problem of fresh water by harvesting and collecting the ample rainfall.

Somehow, their efforts overseas begin to be rewarded here in the US.

There was a lot less technical information than I would have liked, but the documentary is very inspiring. Whenever I read about these guys, I wonder why I didn’t follow a less conventional path towards sustainable architecture.