Time Management

My mother forwarded me this Dezeen article from a week ago. It was oddly coincidental, because at an office happy hour just a week before we had talked about the tricky balance, which all architects strive to find, between being productive and being creative. In fact, it is famously sensitive and controversial, especially when discussed between colleagues or professional peers. Imagine how easy it is to get competitive with each other about who works hardest in the office. Imagine how treacherous it could be for a CEO to discuss a firm’s compensation structure with a competing firm’s CEO.

What left me scratching my head was that in spite of having heard so many smart, successful people chime in on a well-trodden subject, there are still a couple of inner contradictions which haven’t been reconciled. So I’m going to try something new, and risky, for this post. I am going to express my frustrations with these contradictions.

To put it simply, architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.

Image via blogarredamento.

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about architects is that they are in the creative field. This is a misconception carried by architects themselves. We are often mythologized as kin to the plastic arts: siblings of sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, and dancers. But these relationships are most often collaborative flights of fancy, theoretical at their root, often a financial loss if developed, and vastly over-represented compared to the professions that architecture truly does engage with. Those professions include finance, macroeconomics, civil engineering, transportation engineering, real estate law, community activism, project management, logistics, etc. In my view, the moment you include gravity, money, or politics, you lose the ability to call yourself a sculptor. When there are concrete things at stake, there is naturally less time and space to be creative. You must spend much more time being organized, going to meetings, calling consultants and manufacturers, putting drawings and specifications together, all the rest of it. Schedules, budgets, expectations in general are almost always the first things established in at the outset of any architectural project (or any transaction, really). Looking at your average NAAB-accredited curriculum, however, these basic skills are largely absent. What, instead, do undergraduate curricula spend their time and resources training aspiring architects in? From my experiences at The Cooper Union, most of this time is spent alone in the studio, struggling to teach yourself how to compose meaningful project narratives and draw meaningful drawings. Many a late night I left the studio to wander the other rooms of the Foundation Building, and visited my artist friends, whom I discovered to be doing exactly the same thing. What’s wrong with that picture?

Here’s the list of accredited architecture programs in the united States, according to The National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). Follow some of the links for curricular information, and you get an idea of the paucity of management training in your typical undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program.

What would I rather have been doing at times when my creativity (on which my education as an architect hung) was unresponsive? I would rather have been developing a complementary set of skills. Skills which require you to be with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in office spending the lion’s share of my time on the phone, sending emails, and attending meetings. This the second contradiction which haunts architecture: the absence of “soft skills.”

The need for soft skills are painfully under-emphasized in the profession. Partially because they are difficult to represent in a drawing by a 20-year-old student. So, the seeds of ignorance are sown in school, and harvested in offices. Like I said above, most of an architect’s office work involves communication and management, so this becomes a recipe for failure. The “starchitect problem,” when seen in this context, is kind of a natural result: architects found themselves under-equipped in the office environment, so they grasped at a set of “skills” which would set them apart from the engineers and cost estimators. Something vague, something subjective. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the consultants sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.”

You might say, “Hey, Ivan. Ease off. Management isn’t something you can just teach. It’s a life skill. You learn it through experience.” Sure. But then, you can say the same exact thing about writing. We certainly don’t tell students, “We’re not going to teach you to write, because it’s a life skill. You’ll just pick it up by doing other things.” This laissez-faire attitude masquerading as liberal education is one of the root causes of late-night culture.

One day, I left the office and called my mother (SAFA, ABRA). It was 6PM. Her immediate reaction upon getting my call was “What, you’re not in the office?” We quibbled. I said I was proud that I managed to leave work in a timely manner. She said “Be careful, they will fire you.” She was only being overly cautious, of course, but she couldn’t grasp the notion that I would finish my work by 6 and leave by 6. To her, design should not have a timer attached to it. It stunts it, it prevents the best design decision from being reached. Personally, I cease to be creative after lunchtime. Most of my creative work happens in the morning when I feel fresh, and afternoons are spend organizing, scanning, and documenting the quick ideas I threw down. But aside from that fact, I had to say some words to my mother that I hadn’t ever said before. “Design is never finished…. my life is more important.”

My mother also suffers from the classical notion of architecture-as-art, or proto-starchitectitis. She is always telling herself: “I need to stay to finish this design problem. When I figure it out, I can go home.” I have news: nothing is ever finished. This is the contradiction I don’t understand. The people that stay late are typically the ones who defend architecture-as-art dogma. But the late-night mantra, which calls it a “design problem” implies that design has a concrete answer. It isn’t. In that sense alone, architecture is like an art: it is never finished. A design is finished only when a person decides it is. Whether that decision is made at 6PM or 12AM is entirely their choice. And I know there are exceptions to this rule, but most people become weary after dark, and the later they stay, the more energy they have to spend to just stay sharp, and the less likely they will be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.

Why not make yourself a plan, every day? List the one thing you want to get done before you leave for the day, then get it done. When you finish that thing, go home. Don’t stay on your computer clicking away groping around for problems to solve and drawings to make more perfect. Go home. Even if it’s 5:30. Enjoy your life. Get some sleep. Come to work on time tomorrow and set another plan for that day.

Most importantly, give yourself honest standards, when working on things alone, or when preparing for interactions with others. I believe that the benefits of high-caliber collaboration are also paid internally, to an individual’s expectations of their own abilities.

Also remember that I’m pinning this on everyone: the leadership and the juniors, the managers and the designers. We have to do better to both manage our own time and set an example for others. I am confident that no “stagnation” will happen as Patrik Schumacher fears, because hours worked is not always correlated with productivity and innovation. There is a point of diminishing returns. We have to start earlier in teaching architects that their profession involves incessant interaction with other trades and professionals, and make sure that they are using that interaction as an opportunity to manage their own time. We have to stop giving empty validation to those who stay late, and stop judging those who leave early. I am NOT endorsing a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), all I am saying is that I would love to see people meet short-term personal goals more effectively. If more architects can reliably deliver projects, it should ultimately boost productivity and allay clients’ and investors’ fears. The result will be both high-quality work, and an empty office at 6PM. And the best part: neither of those will be a compromise.

I’m calling on deans around the country and NAAB to expand professional practice and management in their curricula. Or perhaps I should start my own Academy of Architectural Practice & Management: AAPM.

Wait. Something like this already exists. Vonz’s Law holds. God bless Michael Riscica.

Living facades

I. Proximity

On a hot Friday afternoon, I was walking downhill toward the Hudson River through the Upper West Side with Alba and Josep, my friends from Barcelona. I was describing the peculiar kind of density found there: the neighborhood is a great example of how even 100 years ago Americans were able to build as densely as they do nowadays, even without glass boxes.

Aerial photograph of West End Avenue on the Upper West Side, Manhattan. Image via the New York Times.

Another thing that’s pleasant about the Upper West Side is that in spite of the solidity of the buildings, their bulk rising straight up from the property line with few giveaways to public space, and the inherent privacy one expects from residential neighborhoods, the sidewalks still feel alive. We could hear knives chopping, children shouting, and pianists practicing. I told Alba and Josep that I remember having the realization as a child that in New York City, and most metropolises, no matter where you are or when it is, you are never more than twenty feet away from the nearest human being. They may be behind a wall or on the floor beneath you, but they are always near.

The Catalans agreed. In Barcelona, even into the 21st century, people hang their clothes out to dry on clotheslines. You see independence flags strung out on balconies of the newest apartment complexes. In cities, other people are like family members in a large house. They are off in other rooms doing their thing, but signs of their presence are everywhere, and subconsciously you know that were you to call out, they would come.

Facades in the Fort Pienc neighborhood on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, Barcelona.
Juliet balconies in the El Born neighborhood, Barcelona. Charlotte enjoying a hot day.

Let’s crunch some numbers. You spend 8 hours a day in your 10-foot-wide apartment, which shares a wall with your neighbor, so your neighbor is approximately 15 feet away from you during that stretch. Your commute is 30 minutes each way, during which you are most likely squished onto a crowded train and the distance to the next person is 1 foot. Including the slightly less-squished time walking to and from the train station, let’s slacken that 1 foot to 3 feet. You sit at a desk in an office for 8 hours, during which, according to industry standards, a comfortable distance between coworkers is 5 feet. That leaves 7 hours of free time in the evening– let’s assume you spend 3 of those at a restaurant or a bar with friends, and the other 4 at home relaxing. At restaurants and bars, the next closest person is sitting slightly closer than in the office, so let’s approximate 3 feet. And at home, we’re back to 15 feet. So let’s calculate the average, split out by hour:

(15 feet x 8 hours) + (3 feet x 1 hour) + (5 feet x 8 hours) + (3 feet x 3 hours) + (15 feet x 4 hours) = 232 feethours;

232 feethours / 24 hours = 9.66 feet

So, on average, over the course of a typical work day, you are less than 10 feet away from the next nearest person. Jacques Tati captures this fact perfectly in a scene from his 1967 film Playtime, in which a man undresses in his living room while a woman watches TV in the next apartment. We cannot see the TV itself, making it look like the woman is watching the man. Meanwhile the camera is watching both of them from outside, turning the whole scene into an absurd voyeuristic striptease.

Still from Playtime by Jacques Tati, 1967. Our most private moments may not be so private after all.

Speaking of voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is build on the tension between privacy and society (side note: how strange is it that even though private and public are always placed opposite each other, it only works when they are adjectives. Change them to nouns and the balance breaks. Privacy and publicity? That’s not quite right. I chose society there, though it doesn’t fit perfectly. There ought to be a solid, reliable noun for publicness).

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954. Image via thefilmspectrum.com

That image of a couple relaxing on a fire escape brings me to the topic of living facades.

II. “Vertical Sprawl”

On my bike route to work, crossing 3rd Avenue, I happened to look up one day. I saw a building which surprised me: 220 3rd Avenue, at the southwest corner of 19th Street in Gramercy. It was a modest apartment building with about 8 stories, clad in subtly shiny metal panels, and on the front facade was something that surprised me. A fire escape!

220 3rd Avenue. Image via Google Maps.

My surprise requires a bit of explanation. Fire escapes have been obsolete for decades. One hundred years ago, they were important stop-gaps for a persistent fire problem in cities that were exploding in size. How to safely and rapidly egress people inside of a burning building without sacrificing valuable rentable square footage? The solution was a metal stairway attached to the outside of the building. But quickly, it became clear that these things introduced more problems than solutions. They corroded, they couldn’t hold too many people at once, and, to the ire of landlords and regulators, residents inevitably began appropriating them as gardens, storage, and private patios. Finally, New York City declared it illegal to build any new ones in 1968. The Atlantic has a great short history from 2018.

That means that any fire escapes you see around you are surviving from at least the late 60s. But that baffled me even more– this building, with its shiny metal exterior, must have been renovated recently. So how could a building’s facade be completely renovated without disturbing the clunky metal stair attached to it? I began imagining the complicated legal game of twister the building owner must have played to get approval for the preservation of this fire escape while everything around it gets renewed. Perhaps it was worth it. Looking at the building, I frowned trying to imagine the building without the fire escape. It would have become a jarring, barren, monotonous block. It would have been devoid of visual detail. It would never have caught my eye, and I would have felt one fraction less connected to my city.

All of us move through the city in this way. We make eye contact with others, we peek into windows, we read signs. Our eyes instinctively seek out clues which give us information about our surroundings. In a place as complex as a city, that need to know what’s going on around us is even more important. Whether it’s quotidian (when is the next train coming?), banal (a dog pooped here), dangerous (that car is not slowing down for the red light), educational (judging by the statue, this building was built in 1888), or an opportunity (the sign reads “buy one get one free”), everyone strives to connect to their city using this thick web of informal data. Facades of buildings are a prominent piece of that web, and even though they’re not strictly public space, they exact a strong influence on how we know our cities.

In this sense, the fire ecape’s swift transition into an ornament is a boon. Let them continue to be used as sculptures, as photographers’ darlings, as tanning salons and reading rooms.

In every nefarious regulation there’s a kernel of good intentions, and in every useful regulation there’s a kernel of nefariousness. Which side does the life of facades fall on? In cities, light and air are scarce, so dwellers take a special pride in their derelict fire escapes. I know I treasure mine. Even though I’m not allowed to, I’ve beaten rugs, spray-painted furniture, smoked joints, meditated, tanned, and chatted the night away with friends on tat extra bit of space. Tourists always take photos of our building from below. I enjoy posing for them, I enjoy being the human scale that upgrades those photos from good to great.

Theatrical release poster of West Side Story, 1961. Designed by Joe Caroff.
Ironically, fire escapes were no longer being built in the 60s.

Even The City of New York is aware of this topic. The Department of City Planning publishes numerous reports and studies– such as this one called Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience from 2013 (when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor and Amanda Burden was City Planning Commissioner). On multiple occasions, it discusses how facades should feature more architectural details and that massive, bulky buildings should be broken down.

Title page of Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience.

Page 87 of Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience, talking specifically about detailing facades.

Providing an increased level of detail in the lower portions of the building facades, breaking down the massing of larger developments, and allowing for a variety of speeds and types of activities, can ensure that the sidewalk space is engaging for the pedestrian.

Chapter 5: Summary; page 108

Articulation (architecture): The method of styling and physical manifestation of a building. In this document, it refers to the façade detail, which adds visual interest, depth, and character. These elements contribute to the walking experience and help maintain the pedestrian’s interest.

Glossary; page 110

Balconies: Unenclosed platform extensions that project from the wall of a building, with a railing along their outer edges, often with access from a door or window. Activities on these upper level balconies can contribute to an animated, lively façade.

Glossary; page 110

Fire Escapes: Structures used to escape from a building in case of an emergency. They are usually metal stairways located along the outside walls. Beyond their functional purpose, fire escapes add a sense of rhythm and texture to the building façades.

Glossary; page 111

New York is trying to avoid are the hyperdense, hyperhomogenous vertical fields buildings you often get from 1,000 feet above. Take most American downtowns, Sao Paulo, or Hong Kong, for example. The basic unit that composes a 20th century downtown is the skyscraper, which is a product of 19th century technology: structural steel, vision glass, and elevators. Industrial processes perfected the production of these three components efficiently and repetitively to create supertall buildings. However, towers that soar into the sky come with a hitch: the higher you go, the more separate you become from the street below, and its informal data web. Who occupies the top floors of skyscrapers? Usually, it’s those who benefit most from being insulated from society. I’m talking about corporate CEOs with corner offices and billionaires with penthouses. I shouldn’t have to stress too much the need for rich people not to become too separated from their communities and cities (in short, I think the American Dream narrative is missing one last step: giving back), but I will say that it’s important for our buildings to express that unbreakable bond more clearly.

Downtown Dallas. Image via Wikipedia.
Kowloon Bay district of Hong Kong, China. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sao Paulo residential towers. Image via Framepool.
Concept drawing for La Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier. Image via ArchDaily.

We are all familiar with the term “urban sprawl,” which describes outward, horizontal growth of cities (and the dull neighborhoods it creates), but there should be a term for vertical urban sprawl, in which faceless towers sprout like mushrooms and create a dull urban environment even in the heart of downtown.

London Terrace Gardens, New York. A delicate balance between repetition and variation. Image via Wikimapia.
The Seagram Building, New York. Image via Wikipedia. The facade is repetitive, masculine, and uninformative.
A private house on Francisco Sosa Street in Coyoacan, Mexico City. Classic pre-modern estates of rich people did exactly this: walled themselves off from city streets. Not only did the facade provide physical protection, but it made the property look dull and unenticing. Image via inmuebles24.

III. Greenify, Screenify, Humanize

There are three general directions that most architects take when trying to design an active, living building facade.

1. Make it green. Most people, when they think of “living facades,” think of green facades, thick with grasses, ivies, flowers…. The benefits of adding more plant life to buildings is well-known: reducing the urban heat island effect, absorbing stormwater runoff, providing habitat for animals, and more. Aesthetically speaking, they also are pleasant to look at if well-maintained. There are studies that show that the appearance and movement of plant life lives in the perfect middle-ground between order and randomness, which, when looked at, stimulates the brain in a healthy way, much more so than watching a screen.

A green wall interpretation of Vincent Can Gogh’s painting “A Wheatfield With Cypresses” in Trafalgar Square, London, UK. Designed by ANS Global. Image via Treehugger.
The Bosco Verticale in Milan, by Boeri Studio. Completed 2014. Image via TripAdvisor.

2. Screen-ify. With the advent of screens and pixels, any large surface can be turned into an active, responsive light show. Many buildings have taken advantage of this by demonstrating things like: a university’s research in real-time responsiveness (changing the color of a facade based on various dynamic inputs); programmed light shows just for entertainment or outdoor events; a single color on a stadium to indicate who is playing at the moment; the possibilities are endless. Are these stimulation enough? Do they provide enough activity and interest in the surrounding city? So far, this young technology only behaves like an enlarged screen, but its hypnotic draw is undeniable.

The Active Learning Lab at Liverpool University, UK. Designed by Sheppard Robson. Image via e-architect.
Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany. Designed by Herzon & de Meuron and Arup. Image via BayernForum.

3. Humanize. There’s no substitute for human life. Allowing people to use their little piece of a building’s facade the way they wish is a microcosmic analogy to city-making as a whole: the challenge is to establish a framework, a structure, a skeleton, within which people feel enough freedom to control their own destinies. It is a difficult balance to strike. To wit: give too little space, and life rebels by spilling out onto it and restricting utility (in the case of the fire escape); give too much, and you end up with barren balconies, walkways, and rooftops (in the case of the Nemausus housing project by Jean Nouvel).

Nemausus housing block, Nimes, France. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. 1987. The building gave very generous amounts of space to balconies which faced the street, but suffered from chronic underuse and emptiness of those balconies.

You will notice I began writing automatically about balconies. But they are just one example of how a building’s public face may be made more human. It may be as simple as a clothesline or a flag. It may be even just a few touches of (ornamental) detail. Both of these things require a combination of designer’s purpose and inhabitant’s will. It cannot be simply a given. It isn’t enough to give a balcony to a resident; the resident must feel pride in that small privately-owned public space, or at least the will to use it regularly. Be it for storage, even: as their fellow citizens walk the streets below and look up once in a while, they can’t lose sight of people.

Balconies in a Canadian apartment building. Image via The Star.

The Ghost of Ebenezer Howard

My gut feeling is that, like me, when you first learned about Ebenezer Howard and The Garden City, you fell in love.

Ebenezer Howard

England at the turn of the 20th century was living a double life. For centuries it had been defined by the characteristic rolling green hills and the shepherds and farmers who populated it. But it was also the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and all the fire, brimstone, grime, and soot that goes with it. How can one reconcile the productivity and squalor of city living with the majesty and health of the countryside?

Ebenezer Howard’s response was The Garden City. It was an abstract, rational plan for a city which segregated country living from urban working. While it makes sense in principle and in diagram, this segregation was The Garden City’s ultimate shortcoming. To say nothing of the impossibility of separating human beings from nature in general, people’s lives cannot be stretched out over such vast distances in order to separate their place of dwelling from their place of working.

But the diagram stuck, and the principles are by now folkloric. The Garden City is the quintessential example of a theory that is proven wrong again and again and yet refuses to disappear. Even as recently as the 1960s, Jane Jacobs observes in the introduction to Death and Life of Great American Cities that the urban planners of the day continued to promote Garden City-esque planning practices despite their obsolescence. I think the main reason for this is that the Garden City thesis is so simple and so diagrammatically clear that it seduces a design-minded individual into believing that it can solve a problem as complex as a city.

It begins by reducing all of the activities and functions within cities down to a handful of generalized categories (such as residence, industry, and commerce), and then these categories are each given a monolithic section of the city plan on which to exist. Intermingling and gerrymandering of these categories is strongly discouraged, and the more geometric the territories, the better.

A section of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. Image via interculturalurbanism.com
A rendering of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision. Image via the documentary “Urbanized”

This is the basic idea of Zoning. While the typical city zoning regulation is more complex and nuanced than this (for example, it doesn’t care about how geometric a zone is, or how whether multiple zones overlap or intermingle), it is only so by a degree or two of magnitude.

Color-coded zoning map of Brooklyn. Image via toursmaps.com

But, to fully appreciate the influence that The Garden City has had on planning, look no further than one of the last half-century’s most successful computer game franchises: Sim City. Will Wright, the game’s creator, must have jumped for joy when he first read about Ebenezer Howard. The Garden City, in its deceptive simplicity, practically anticipated city simulation video games. The two are mere steps apart.

Screenshot of Sim City 2000. A mayor has laid out zones and infrastructure and is awaiting their development. Image via vgmpf.com

Throughout its many versions, Sim City remains the same: the player is the Mayor of a city, and needs to grow it. How to grow it? He or she lays out designated “zones” (one of three: green residential, blue commercial, or yellow industrial), connects infrastructure (water, electricity), provides public services (schools, police stations), protects from natural disasters, and manages the city’s finances. I can’t praise this game enough for its merits AS A GAME– it forces the player to manage many moving parts at once, and the fact that it has no real “levels” to “beat” makes for endless gameplay hours. That being said, as a template for actual city planning, it falls into the same trap that Jane Jacobs accuses her contemporary planners of falling into: oversimplification.

The city develops. Image via nickpan.com

The simple truth we may have to admit is that city planning conducted by an individual designer (or for that matter even a superteam team of designers) is futile.

The superteam of architects and planners developing the United Nations headquarters in New York. Too many cooks in one kitchen? Or one misguided supercook? Image via wallpaper.com

Cities have long ago grown so complex that no single person can accurately plan their growth. There’s a clear paradox: how can something which is a part of a much larger system properly comprehend that system? How can a cog be expected to run a factory? How can an ant be expected to build an anthill? It’s unreasonable, and should not be expected.

Could this same claim be made, parenthetically, for individual buildings even? Are they also too complex to be fully comprehended by a single person? Perhaps, only if that person is meant to be the sole inhabitant and user of the building. Otherwise, they are bound to fail as readily as if they were redesigning from scratch the master plan of the City of Los Angeles.

I spent a childhood confronting this problem in front of a screen while playing Sim City. I was led to believe that the problems of a city are graspable, summarizable, comprehesible.

Or was that the point of Sim City?

Perhaps I’m thinking about this backwards. Perhaps the lesson there was that citymaking is an endless endeavor– hence, no levels or bosses. I’ve always been drawn to games about exploration, worldbuilding, and inventing your own fun. Put that in the context of a city huffing and puffing before your eyes in isometric birdseye, you begin to understand that you never can MAKE a city– you can only set yourself TO MAKING it.

MolleIndustria has a great write-up with exactly the same takeaway: let’s enjoy the game and its success, but let’s not forget that cities are too complex for one mayor to control. We may be able to nudge, we may be able to react, but we will probably never be able to control.

Jane Jacobs acknowledges this difficulty in Death and Life, and treads carefully and with great detail into her recommendations for city planning. She advocates for things like “diversity,” which at first seems too abstract to yield anything concrete. But that may be the point– city planning, as well as worldbuilding, may need guidelines that sit at the edge of concreteness, that require us, the inhabitants, to define them and make them real.

Image via milleindustria.org. Article link above.

ProproiSTEPtion follow-up: Barba

I was overcome with the quiet pride of a writer finishing her first novel when I packaged my thoughts on propriosteption. And then, in the kickoff session to our Robotic City seminar at IAAC, the concept reappeared before me, and I felt like the same writer learning that her novel got greenlit for a movie production.

The Why Factory have a project called Barba. There it was, the propriosteption bubble, wobbling and morphing in a black void. The thing I was trying so hard to carefully explain was captured and explained in a matter of seconds with The Why Factory’s crude but thorough animation.

Originality does not exist. Even the most prolific thinker in the world will only think  of a small fraction of truly “never-before-thoughts”– and of that small fraction, yet another small fraction will be realized. Add it to the list of ideas that I’ve had, which I thought were original, which ended up being authored and stamped-and-sealed by another. You can add THIS collection to my larger thesis (still in the womb) about how, epistemologically speaking, we have long ago reached a “creative singularity,” since which it is quantum-physically/mathematically impossible to invent something 100% original.

But more on that later. In the meantime, enjoy this awesome video.

La Sagrada Grúa

Every time we pass Spain’s most famous building, we have something to say.

“La Sagrada Familia. More like La Sacada Familia. La Chingada Familia. La Putada Familia.”

“It looks like someone bought one of those nozzle attachments for cake icing and decided to just try all the settings.”

“There was a time when you had one of everything: one spire, one entrance, one rose window… and they were special. This thing has SIX rose windows. On this side alone.”

“It’s melting.”

“It’s exploding.”

“Are they ever going to actually turn it into a cathedral once it’s done? Or would they rather keep making money? Because right now, it has no purpose. It’s just a monument to itself.”

“It’s like the Pepperidge Farm Bread of Catholic cathedrals. You finish it, and it still ain’t finished.”

“The construction cranes have now just become part of the building. Another style in the eclectic mix.”

This last one was my favorite. We wrote these down in a private place because we knew the world would scoff at us for not appreciating one of its wonders. Criticizing La Sagrada Familia sometimes feels like ordering tea at a bar: you won’t be rebutted logically, you’ll be overruled dictatorially. I had accepted this. But then, I noticed something: in many of the depictions of the cathedral in postcards, advertisements, and graphic designs around the city, the cranes were included! Most interestingly, in graphic designs. I wasn’t taking for granted that just because they were photographs that the cranes had to be there, since photoshopping has now become such common practice that a company with enough enthusiasm for La Sagrada Familia would take the extra time to spiff an image of it up by removing the cranes. So why have some artists chosen to remove the cranes, and some chosen to include them? Is this project a monument? A folly? A cathedral? The contradictory contours of Spanish pragmatic melodrama are briefly illuminated.

A visualization of what the Sagrada Familia will look like when it’s finished. Image via Revista AD.

Souvenir magnet. Cost you 3 euros. via souvenirsingular.com

Postcard.

Photograph hanging in the vestibule of my apartment building.

Decal on an office window.

Touching the ground – how?

For the past couple of years I’ve been proudly cultivating a theory of architecture and sustainability which I believed bridged all of the gaps between my various interests in the field and which could usher in a truly new way of seeing things to unite designers, engineers, and the inhabitant. In essence, it espouses physical closeness to nature and celebrates common building systems which mediate the relationship between natural resources and dwelling, all in order to elevate the status of ‘sustainability’ in our consciousness. One basic example that follows this instruction is a green roof, since conceptually, moving the ground that would be displaced by the building footprint up to the roof preserves the total surface area of the ground (if viewed from above, a house with a green roof would blend in with its surroundings). Another variation of this example is earth-sheltering, where instead the building itself is partially sunk into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s high R-value. Both of these approaches force the designer and builder to consider what they are displacing, and continuously strive for balance and homeostasis as nature does.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris does this as well, embracing the building’s lifeblood and turning it out for all to see. When we learned about this building in architecture school the upshot (to be memorized for the final exam) was that it’s the apotheosis of postmodernism, which may be true, but it’s much more than that. In light of the sustainability struggle, the Centre Pompidou takes the important first step of bringing us in direct contact with the elements that flow within the earth itself: water, gas, electricity. Forcing us to confront these elements directly will hopefully lead us to value them more– so rather than shoving them out of sight, we put the space allotted for them on equal ground with the space allotted for us. All this serves to bind our fate as a species with the fate of the planet. Therein, my core principle of what it is to be human.

Image via centrepompidou.fr.

Jacobs House II; Frank Lloyd Wright; 1948; the berm on the right side of the photo is evidence of earth sheltering. Image via columbia.edu.

A temazcal, the traditional bathhouse of the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica. These were typically designed as domes or small hills with very low ceilings. Inside was pitch dark. Entering a temazcal is symbolic of going underground into the core of the Earth, of burial and rebirth, and of a mother’s womb. Inside, one chants to the god Mother Earth. — Particularly after the arrival of the Spanish and the persecution and destruction of the indigenous population and their traditions, temazcals had to be built quickly and surreptitiously, often being half-buried in the ground to avoid being identified. Image via Mexplora.com.

But in April in Mexico I picked up a book of Buckminster Fuller’s lectures, and my mind was changed. There are other ways to be sustainable– in fact, there are situations in which the act of ‘digging in’ and immersing oneself into the earth does more harm than good. In those situations, one has to do the opposite. Instead of assuming that he needs to directly contact the earth to dwell in it, Fuller instead is interested in “touching the earth lightly,” floating above it, creating space between us and it (like the inevitable gaps you get when you fill a jar with marbles). In Fuller’s worldview, the next stage of human evolution will discard the old violent instinct of displacing earth in place for a more aerodynamic lifestyle, controlled by those invisible forces that we’ve learned to manipulate like magnetism and gravity, closer resembling the greater cosmos itself. He also predicts we will have prefabricated houses installed by helicopter and that our resources to be used for the benefit of 100% of mankind.

And what follows that? The cosmos, naturally. Buckminster Fuller sees no reason why humans shouldn’t begin inhabiting other planets once technology allows it. He is binding humanity to scales both atomic and cosmic.

Buckmister Fuller’s chart showing the relationship between world population and its percentage of slaves, or, “have nots.” Image via grahamfoundation.org.

Buckmister Fuller’s done home in Carbondale, IL. Image via architectmagazine.com.

I mentioned this flip in my mind to Justin, and he said that his structural engineering firm is becoming more and more interested lately in design for disaster relief. He traveled to Kathmandu shortly after the earthquake in 2015 and was struck by how the overwhelming majority of houses were built of unreinforced masonry (practically the worst construction type to resist the lateral forces of earthquakes). Simply switching to lighter timber frames with moment connections would make the population a degree of magnitude more resilient. Furthermore, if an when a disaster does strike, the first thing most relief organizations do is air-drop food and shelter. Touching the earth lightly suddenly becomes a most valuable asset. I’m unsure if Buckminster Fuller specifically had disaster relief in mind, but it’s certainly becoming a reality for a wider and wider range of people than ever. Geodesic relief domes, delivered by helicopter, assembled in two hours by two people, may by necessity become the dwelling place of the future.

Garrison Architects; NYC Emergency Housing Prototype. As visible in the photo, the entire house sits on small concrete spot footings, as minimally invasive to the ground as possible. Image via Designboom.com.

A Geodesic Dome being transported by helicopter. Image via smithsonianmag.com.

Assmebling a Geodesic Dome. Image via phaidon.com.

Placing

In my version of the Hippocratic Oath for architects (which I decided should be called the Vitruvian Oath), I noticed a challenge: if architects and doctors are equals, what is the former’s analog for “healing” and “sick?” What is the core action, the operative verb, without which architecture wouldn’t exist?

Not an easy question to answer. Thinking about it only for a second, one realizes that “sheltering” may be the closest thing (which I chose to use), but that word is like a machete to most of the profession. Essentially any architectural endeavor that is cultural, commercial, industrial, sculptural, outdoors (that is, not residential) is excluded.

So what could the core principle be then? Doug Patt, with his book How To Architect, makes a strong case for turning the word “architect” into a verb, and using that. But I think this is heavy-handed, and brings up another problem which is teaching the layperson what “architecting” even implies. No, one must find a word that already has meaning to the Average Joe. I propose “placing.” That is: cultivating a sense of place for an inhabitant. For Average Joe, what does “being placed” mean? It means an awareness of and connection to one’s environment, a desire to visit it and participate in its life after construction, a pride and pleasure in it. This definition would include all types of works: outdoor & indoor, renovations & new construction, cultural & infrastructural, permanent & temporary, monumental & incremental, and all the rest.

The core question an architect should ask is “is my solution cultivating a sense of place for the people it will affect?” The Vitruvian Oath would then read something like:

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unplaced… may I long experience the joy of placing those who seek my help.

I could get used to that.

The Hippocratic Oath, for Architects

Doctors and architects all too often lumped together as roommates in the penthouse of the apartment building of educated society. One particular quality they share is the obligation to serve the public, to improve the livelihoods of others. Doctors, for various reasons, are more front and center in the eyes of the very society they serve than architects. Part of this is that life-and-death struggles are laid more bare in the emergency room than in the design studio– which makes doctors’ stories easier to transform into soap operas and other commercial enterprises. But part of it comes from the inside– doctors, upon receiving their MD, must take a verbal oath. This oath was originally conceived by Hippocrates in Hellenic Greece, and has taken various forms, the most common of which was written by Louis Lasagna in the 1960s. I won’t write it out here, for reasons below, but it’s available on the Johns Hopkins website (where Lasagna was Dean at the time he wrote his version of the oath).

It begs the question: why do doctors have this oath, and architects don’t? The latter are certainly made exhaustively aware of the responsibility because printed versions of this oath, none of them official, cross your eye at every stage of the path to licensure. Are architects too shy? Not a chance. Louis Sullivan and Hugh Hardy, who have each taught me quite a few things, brought a performative quality to their work. Sullivan lectured broadly and bombastically on this topic of architects’ code of conduct one hundred years ago. Hardy was a glittering personality who always sought to bring out the theatrical qualities of architecture– in both the built form and the emotions of its inhabitants. It remains a mystery why an official version of an architect’s implicit code of public conduct is missing from our records, and why we never take an oath.

It therefore occurred to me to simply write one, in the exact mold of Lasagna’s Hippocratic Oath. Below is that same oath, with certain words replaced and emphasized to address architecture instead of medicine.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those architects in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the unsheltered, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overdesign and cookie-cutter solutions.

I will remember that there is art to architecture as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the architect’s pen or the engineer’s calculator.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a problem’s solution.

I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to build something, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to demolish something; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not serve a floor plan, a contract, but an unsheltered human being, whose dreams may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the unsheltered.

I will conserve the existing environment whenever I can, for conservation is preferable to replacement.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unsheltered.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sheltering those who seek my help.

“Unsheltered” here was used to replace “sick,” “infirm,” and terms like that. It might sound funny because the reality for some architects is the design of housing for the already-sheltered (high-end residential, I’m looking at you)– but I think this oath helps remind us of the “public service” part that is fundamental to the practice. Providing shelter is really the leading candidate for the most essential, basic service that architecture provides. High-end residential may be lucrative, but one should use it as a vehicle to get to design public housing. See Alexander Gorlin.

Many might recoil at the idea of taking a verbal oath, because it smacks of religion, of adherence to a belief or dogma, a notion that many young people today are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. In response to that niggle, I invoke David Foster Wallace. In his wonderful commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College called This Is Water, he said:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

I find it very hard to participate in this complex yet organized society, much less ascend to the higher, more respected, and burdensome positions in it, without having chosen something to steady the rudder, be a guiding light, or whatever metaphor you wish to use. I would say that, for the most part, architects already carry this guiding principle in their minds. The only difference I’m proposing is for some ceremony to exist, just like the MD’s donning of the white coats or the hand-on-heart when becoming a naturalized citizen. A ceremony would give the architect community some extra glue, and remind us of the responsibility we all share.

Lastly, what should this oath be called? The Hestian Oath? The Vitruvian Oath? The Sullivan Oath?

Fixing a hole

A model lives and dies just like the building it poses for. It’s preceded by dreams and drawings and logistics and a budget and a construction schedule…….. and of course a sharp drop in market value shortly after its completion. After that the name of the game is either find a can of spraypaint and a prominent shelf, or be dismantled for parts.

Learning to build a physical model is also learning how a building gets physically put together, though this is never emphasized. Without realizing it, I’ve been the Architect, Owner, GC, and Building Super of a hundred microcosmic architectural works throughout the past decade.

I was part way through building a light fixture model at half scale when I realized a problem: scoring & folding 1/2″ thick foamcore, while stable, exposes the crackling foam innards inside valleys with gaping shadowlines which at this scale can no longer be ignored. If the thickness of a sheet of museum board telescopes through a site model of a house, no one is expected to ask annoying questions about whether you actually intend for that joint to be part of the design. But I’ll be a dog if they don’t ask it of the 1/2″ vales and glens I’ve now proposed in their light fixture… which is another annoyance: every single thing you present to a client can be assumed to be your “proposal,” and boy does it irk me when they say things like “so, are you proposing the walls to be this color?” “So, are you proposing the walls to be made out of foam?” No, assface, I am not. We got two realities overlapping here in this model, you better get your 3D glasses on or stop asking dumb questions.

Back at my model, in deft anticipation of those questions that would inevitably happen, and already sweating about it, I had a choice about fixing the holes: I could either cover them with a thin layer of paper before painting, or I could fill them with joint compound. Now this may seem like a simple choice, resolved based on what’s around me and how much time I have, but at the root of it is actually an important distinction. If I went with the former, I would be doing something that would never happen in real life, only in the life of this microcosmic architectural work. If I went with the latter, I would be mimicking the actual contractor as he troweled paste into all the cracks when the eventual GFRG emerges from the mold. This, then, is the distinction between “model” and “mockup.” And I reached for the joint compound, because I had to treat this object as closely to its final form as I reasonably could.

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Despite of all this, however, there was a diagram on the back of the container that said not to use it for surface imperfections deeper than 1/8″.

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Dammit.

The Noble Shed

Transportation Centre, Incheon Airport, Korea by Terry Farrell

‘Tropical Islands’, Berlin, Germany

Will Pryce’s large photographs, his large subjects, and the title of his book all point to a purer kind of architecture. An architecture unburdened by program. It may be difficult to imagine such an existence, but there indeed was a time when the builder was not concerned with shaping a building precisely to fit the needs of its future inhabitants. As a matter of fact, in that time the boundaries between architect, builder, and client were quite blurred themselves. The dwellers built the dwelling. With such a setup, it’s easier to see how rigid expectations of ‘occupancy’ and ‘program’ were not even part of the picture. But even though times have changed, I believe there is still a chance to return to that. The sheds photographed by Will Pryce are evidence that it still happens, given the right circumstances.
I recently read an article in Science magazine about how humans are coping with urbanism and congestion. It says that our Paleolithic brains are unaccustomed to living in huge clusters with other strangers, that the human brain is only capable of maintaining about 150 meaningful relationships at a time (this is the famous Dunbar Number). So to cope with this, we developed things like fashion and dialects and architecture — in order to help sort strangers into known categories, and make life comfortably predictable. From my point of view it is an intriguing theory because it liberates architecture from prescriptions of program by pointing to a rather arbitrary heritage. If “facades” and “bedrooms” and “bathrooms” developed mainly for that reason, then there is absolutely no reason to hang on to it. Architectural program is not as hard-wired as it may seem. If humans could be nudged into this new state of freedom, we could start making buildings more like Hundertwasser imagined, or the rest of the 20th century for that matter: where the architect designs the “shell,” and the inhabitants come in and fill in the details themselves. Not only does it remove an unnecessary step from the making of solid buildings, but it gives everyday people the opportunity to participate in the making of their own dwellings. Then, the architectural shell itself would be liberated, free to explore form and materials that before weren’t practical because of use restrictions. It might not be so bad to live in a city composed only of noble sheds.

Laban Centre, London, UK by Herzog de Meuron