Monday, October 13, 2014

PHONY BALONEY


The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”
Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?





Monday, September 29, 2014

FASHION OBLIVION


If you’re ever up for a slightly depressing tour of yesterday’s design fads, mosey on over to your local architectural salvage yard. There you’ll find a whole galaxy of onetime architectural must-haves, from stoneware sinks, pinstriped toilets, and gold-plated faucets, to elaborate wet bar cabinets and heaven knows what else.  

At one time, somebody somewhere paid dearly for each of these moldering castoffs in order to  be at the forefront of architectural fashion. Fast forward a decade or two: Since the fads that originally impelled homeowners are now stone dead, and since there’s nothing quite as dated as a formerly hot fashion, these once-coveted items are unceremoniously ripped out and demoted to scrap.

Whirlpool tub and fireplace: Two fads in one,
now playing at your local salvage yard.
 It’s surprising how quickly a design fad can make the transition from emblem of taste to architectural albatross. Case in point: Think back to one of the popular trends of the ‘90s, concrete countertops. Made with indisputable artistry, often with sinks or lavatories beautifully integrated, these were strictly custom items commanding astronomical prices in their heyday. Yet on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, concrete countertops seemed to be lying about in every corner, complete with their six-hundred dollar faucets.

Granite countertops--ironically just about the most durable items found in the average home--often suffer an equally ignominious fate. The material itself is timeless enough, to be sure, but the favored colors of the moment aren’t. Once those mirror-polished pink slabs have joined the ranks of yesterday’s high-end kitsch, another topnotch product ends up as scrap.

Whirlpool tubs were another architectural fad with a high price tag and a short life. Like so many fashion items, architectural and otherwise, they were sold using the classic materialist ploy of selling the sizzle and not the steak--hence the romantic advertising images of couples lounging under discretely chest-high bubbles, with glasses of white wine perched beside them. Back in the day, tub makers even offered remote controls that let you turn on your tub before leaving work, ostensibly ready for a steamy rendezvous when you got home. 

Real life: Who would even think of bathing
without a candelabra nearby?
Or those pointy things?
These kinds of fads present appealing images, yet they fly in the face of how real people actually live. We may well aspire to sitting around soaking and getting plastered, yet how many of us can actually manage this in lives already harried beyond belief? The manifestly impractical whirlpool tub, like so many other architectural fads, owes its success mainly to advertising-induced fantasies of the good life and our cravings for status. Yet all this idyllic marketing is sooner or later exposed as a pipe dream, explaining why countless whirlpool tubs are ripped out and end up you-know-where. 

There are two lessons in this unending cycle of aesthetic boom and bust. First, it’s a virtual certainty that the hotter a design trend is, the less real substance there is behind it, and the harder it’s going to fall. 

Second, and perhaps more useful: Your local architectural salvage yard is a great place to pick up yesteryear’s most extravagant fads for pennies on the dollar. You just have to wait until the trendoids are done with them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

OCTOGENARIAN ARCHITECTURE (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

(Author's note: I've was in China for the summer and was unable to post the blog due to the PRC's blocking of  Google. Thanks to all for patiently awaiting this long-deferred Part 2.)
Last time, we looked at architects who--not atypically--produced some of their best work toward the end of their long careers. In architecture, at least, it seems that old age doesn’t necessarily imply an inability to grow and change. This time, we’ll look at a few architects who changed their design philosophies late in life, and found even greater success.

Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) was one of the most celebrated architects of modernism’s second generation. In his mid fifties, however, Stone became disillusioned with the movement, declaring, “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity.  It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Curiously, this period of uncertainty in Stone’s life--coming at an age when most people are mulling retirement--instead marked an upturn in his career. He was awarded a number of important commissions, landing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1958. His firm grew from twenty people to two hundred, and he remained at the height of commercial success when he died at 76.

The career of Philip Johnson (1906-2005) also peaked between his sixties and his eighties, when he was busily designing large numbers of more or less generic modernist skyscrapers. But even these late-life works were a mere prelude. Johnson, like Stone, eventually abandoned modernism and produced a number of postmodern works such as Manhattan’s infamous “Chippendale” AT&T building of 1984--proving that you could indeed teach an old architect new tricks. His longevity, more than anything else, accorded him the title dean of American architects when he died at 98. 

With long life spans so commonplace among architects, it’s all the more tragic when brilliant talents are lost long before their time. Among these was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-18886), the all but single-handed progenitor of the Romanesque Revival of the late nineteenth century. Richardson made his mark with Boston’s Trinity Church of 1872, and had just completed Chicago’s epoch-making Marshall Field Wholesale Store of 1885--one of the seminal works of modernism--when he died of a kidney disorder at 47. One can only imagine the face of American architecture had Richardson lived.

Another premature departure was that of Addison Mizner (1872-1933), architect of many incomparably romantic Mediterranean Revival works. Mizner’s passing at 60 coincided with the close of the golden age of Revivalist architecture, and his infallibly picturesque sensibilities remain unequaled to this day. More recent but equally tragic was the loss of Pritzker prize winner James Stirling (1926-1992), architect of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and many other distinguished structures, whose best work surely still lay ahead of him.

Thankfully, these are anomalies in a profession blessed by unusually long and active careers. The likely explanation for this longevity is that one doesn’t simply fall into an architectural career. The grueling educational process--not to mention the modesty of the monetary rewards--ensures that only the fanatically dedicated will make the sacrifices involved. Architects practice architecture because there’s really nothing else on earth they’d rather do. So, even in the absence of more tangible rewards, at least we have happiness and peace of mind. We grow old because we love what we do, and we want to keep on doing it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

OCTOGENARIAN ARCHITECTURE (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

“The four stages of man,” Art Linkletter once observed, “are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.” 

While this bromide may well describe the lives of media stars and child prodigies, I’m happy to report that it seldom applies to architects. While many may grow old, few, it seems, grow irrelevant. In fact, most great architects hadn’t even hit their stride until midlife, and many kept going strong into their nineties.

Frank Lloyd Wright, still dapper at 91
Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the poster child for architectural longevity, yet there were surely times in Wright’s life when he doubted his own relevance. He’d begun his career with a bang, devising his brilliant Prairie Houses during the first decade of the 1900s, while he was still in his thirties. But by the time he completed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1923, his commissions had tapered off considerably. By normal career standards Wright, by then in his late fifties, should have been contemplating retirement. In any case, by the mid-1930s, his organic architecture was already being eclipsed by a younger generation of modernists, whose sleek International Style creations seemed even more advanced than Wright’s work had been. 

Yet it was just at this seeming twilight in his career that Wright staged a spectacular comeback. In 1937 he completed  the Edgar Kaufmann house (Fallingwater), a lyrical conception seemingly meant to outdo the International Style modernists at their own game. It was Bauhaus modernism with a heart and soul. Acclaimed worldwide, Fallingwater relaunched Wright’s career in the seventh decade of his life, unleashing a creative flurry that continued unabated until his death at 91.

Wright’s late-life renaissance isn’t at all unusual among architects, however. The first generation of International Style architects also had lengthy careers marked by equally late triumphs. After his famous stint as director of the Bauhaus, for example, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) came to the United States and, in 1945, when he was already in his sixties, founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC). It was soon to become one of the world’s most successful and respected architecture firms. Moreover, Gropius was nearly eighty when he completed New York’s Pan Am building with Pietro Belluschi (he lived to be 86). 

Le Corbusier's astonishing chapel at Ronchamp,
one of his latest and greatest works...
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) completed New York’s Seagram Building--a work often ranked among the pinnacle achievements of modern architecture--when he was in his early seventies. 

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 18887-1965) had a long and influential career, but arguably his greatest work--the lyrical chapel he designed at Ronchamp--was completed only when he was in his late sixties.  No doubt Le Corbusier, too, might have remained productive into his eighties, had he not ignored his doctor’s orders and gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, where he apparently suffered a heart attack and drowned at age 77.

---and the architect in his seventies: We wish he'd listened
to his doctor.
Curiously, while the first-generation modernists recounted above held fast to their convictions for the duration of their long and distinguished careers, some of their equally venerable successors renounced modernism in their later years--refuting the idea that old age breeds inflexibility. We’ll look at some of those long careers next time, as well as a few others that were cut tragically short.

Monday, June 2, 2014

NO THINKING ALLOWED


A while back, I was half-listening to a radio talk show when a guest’s comment struck me like a bolt from the blue. New York Times Magazine columnist Lisa Sanders, a practicing physician, was talking about the basic problem with America’s health care system. What caught my attention was the following statement:

“Thinking, which is really what a doctor does--thinking, examining, questioning-- is not valued by the system. We value doing rather than thinking.” 

At a single stroke, her words solved a mystery most architects grapple with for the whole of their professional careers: Why so few people understand what architects do, and why it takes us so long to do it. 

Citing an example in her own profession, Sanders described a day during which she’d seen a slew of patients with very complex medical issues, capped by a routine, twenty-minute procedure to remedy an ingrown toenail.  Later, to her surprise, she found that the medical insurers had paid her more money for the toenail procedure than for any of the more complex cases. This , Sanders believes, is because those cases required less action but lots of thought--time the insurance company didn’t value and wasn’t willing to pay her for.

Architects are a far cry from doctors, but we do face a similar problem. Most people envision us sitting rapt at drafting tables or computers, busily drawing blueprints. But the fact is that the most valuable part of our service is when we sit around and do nothing. That’s right--we don’t draw, we don’t research, we don’t talk: we just plain think. And, as Sanders notes, that’s the problem: We’re not used to putting much value on thinking. 

We Americans are a take-charge bunch, after all, and we’re leery of people who think too much. As that corporate clothing giant is always urging us: Just do it. Don’t waste time thinking, in other words--just go and buy gobs of our products. The danger of this viewpoint is self evident, since most of the stupid and tragic things we experience in our lives, whether car accidents, wars, or recessions, are precisely because someone “just did it” instead of thinking first. 

Unfortunately, the amorphous process of mulling over a problem is just the part of our work people aren’t too keen to pay for. Once, when I delivered a set of plans to a client along with my bill, he turned to me with unconcealed annoyance and asked: “So these two sheets of paper cost me three thousand dollars?” No doubt there have been many more folks who kept the same thought politely to themselves.

Faced with such reactions over the years, I’ve always hoped to explain how the real work was not in the roll of paper itself, but in the thought behind it--in the hours upon hours spent evaluating countless possibilities to close in on the one best solution. This never really seemed to register, and after hearing Dr. Sanders exclaim, “Thinking is not valued,” I guess I  know why.

Monday, May 19, 2014

THE NICK OF TIME


In architecture, the surest way to achieve a timeless design is to use materials that are familiar, durable, and that become more beautiful the older they get. Not surprisingly, most of the materials that qualify have been around for ages.

Brick is a classic example. It’s among the most ancient building materials--the oldest known bricks, found in the upper Tigris region of what is now Turkey, date back to around 7500 BC. In all the intervening millenia, not much about brick has changed, either: Even here in twenty-first century America, where nothing happens fast enough, genuine brick is still installed at a relative snail’s pace, one little piece at a time. 

Other common examples of timeless materials include stone, heavy timber, and metals with so-called “living finishes”, such as copper, brass, and bronze. All of these can shrug off decades and sometimes even centuries of abuse without losing any of their visual appeal. In fact, most people find them more beautiful when they’re old and weathered--”patinated”, in the parlance of the trade--than when they’re brand new:  

The value of a patina shouldn’t be underestimated, either: we’ve all seen episodes of Antiques Road Show in which an expert tells the hopeful owner something like: “Well, if you hadn’t polished this 17th century bronze door knocker, I’d have valued it at six thousand dollars, but all shined up like this it’s worth about $17.50.” That’ll teach a guy to keep his hands off the Brasso. 

The funny thing is that, while almost everybody finds the greenish patina of an old copper gutter beautiful, almost nobody feels that way about a weathered plastic gutter. The reason, I think, is that no matter how old the copper gutter gets, we know that it will still serves its purpose perfectly. On the other hand, we can also presume that a weathered plastic gutter has already bought a one-way ticket to the Dumpster. We’ve learned to associate visual cues of aging with intrinsic durability. We see beauty in the aging of certain materials, and just plain failure in others.

At the larger scale of architecture, though, there’s more to a timeless finishe than just aging gracefully. The appeal of a brick wall, for example, has just as much to do with its ability to reflect the human being who created it. Flaws and all, the wall becomes a compelling record of the mason’s skill and personality, frozen in time right before our eyes.

Other largely handcrafted finishes such as wrought iron, stucco, shingle, shake, and tile, all of which have been around for thousands of years, can also provide this sort of snapshot in time, precisely because they’re never perfect. The telltale flaws of hand workmanship are so integral to a timeless finish, in fact, that the manufacturers of mass produced wannabe products such as artificial brick and imitation slate routinely design in fake defects, straining mightily to evoke the charm of the real thing. 

Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it wrong enough eventually.

Monday, May 5, 2014

LOFTY MARKETING


A while back, I got a solicitation from a local real estate agent whose client was ostensibly in the market for a loft. The agent described her buyer’s ideal “loft”--apparently without irony--as having “at least 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, (and) 1500+ square feet.”

I wondered why the agent bothered using the term “loft” when it sounded more like her client was really in the market for a huge condo apartment, if not a fair-sized house.
Webster defines loft as “an upper room or floor” or “one of the upper floors of a warehouse or business building, especially when not partitioned.” The real estate and development industries, on the other hand, seem to define loft as “a chic new label that can be applied at will to a standard housing formula.”

Initially, the entire point of developing lofts--and perhaps we should be precise and call them commercial or industrial lofts or live/work spaces--was to utilize America’s growing stock of disused but often architecturally praiseworthy commercial and industrial buildings. Artists, musicians, and other people seeking wide-open, rough-and-tumble interior spaces were the first to occupy such buildings, often illegally. They were soon followed by other independent minded occupants of all kinds. 

Despite staunch early resistance from staid city governments and code-thumping building departments, it soon became clear that intelligent rehabbing of nonresidential buildings for living made perfect sense: It put substantial and often ruggedly beautiful structures to good use instead of consigning them to the wreckers. It offered inexpensive living space--initially, at least--along with unparalleled interior flexibility. And at the same time, it revitalized declining industrial areas by introducing a lively, round-the-clock population. 

So, despite bureaucratic opposition by the usual suspects, the loft movement became tremendously successful. Too successful for its own good, alas: It wasn’t long before a certain stripe of developer learned to exploit the profit potential inherent in this formula, while at the same time neatly circumventing the apparent annoyance of having to actually rehab old buildings. Instead, they simply started erecting new ones and tarting them up in quasi-industrial costume. Corrugated siding, metal windows, and a few exposed steel beams suddenly qualified a run-of-the-mill condo development as a “loft” or a “live-work” project.

Well, so what? Who cares what a building is called as long as it serves its purpose? You might as well ask the difference between apples and Apple Jacks. Calling an ordinary, new-from-the-ground-up condo development a “loft” simply plunders the most salable aspects of a valid and environmentally responsible concept without providing any of the social benefits in return. 

Like the US auto industry with its oxymoronic “hybrid SUV” offerings, developers who apply the term “loft” to otherwise unremarkable new projects kill two birds with one stone: They makes buyers--like that lady pining for a two-bedroom, two bath “loft”--feel warm and fuzzy about supporting the same old paradigm. At the same time, they sidestep the bother and expense of genuine innovation, conveniently ignoring the fact that true lofts are a lifestyle, not just a label.