Monday, December 17, 2012


Aside from my usual grumbling over Hewlett Packard products, I seldom mention brand names in this blog.  Today, however, I’m going to mention a whole raft of them.  Before I’m accused of selling out, though, let me say that none of the firms I mention have paid me to drop their names, nor so much as taken me out to lunch.  Just for future reference, however, I could probably be bought off with a nice fresh rhubarb pie.  

Today’s building materials market is flooded with newcomer brands.  While choice and competition are generally a good thing, the current galaxy of choices in the building field is largely among a whole raft of Johnny-Come-Lately manufacturers, many based overseas, whose main objective is simply to cash in on America’s vast home-improvement market.  This unpleasant fact ought to make consumers think twice before purchasing brands they’ve never heard of before, no matter how slickly advertised.

Quite a few American brands, by comparison, have histories dating back a century or more. While a distinguished past doesn’t necessarily guarantee modern worth--as General Motors can amply attest--there’s nevertheless no substitute for long experience. And there are plenty of experienced old brands to go around.  

One well-known American plumbing fixture maker, for example, traces its lineage back to 1872, when John B. Pierce opened a tinware shop in Ware, Massachusetts. Pierce later founded one of three firms that merged in 1892 to form the American Radiator Company.  In 1929, American Radiator in turn merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. By the eve of World War II, products from this unwieldy new combine--it was not called American-Standard until 1948--could be found in about half the homes in the U.S.. 

Just as venerable a name in plumbing is the company founded by 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873 to produce cast iron and steel farm implements. In 1883 Kohler applied a baked enamel coating to one of his company’s horse trough/hog scalders, thus creating the first Kohler bathtub. 

Other old hands in the building industry include the window manufacturer Anderson, founded in 1903 by Danish immigrant Hans Andersen and his family in Hudson, Wisconsin.  In 1932, in the very depths of the Depression, Anderson introduced the first fully assembled window unit in the industry.  This was a revolutionary idea in a day when windows were either shipped in pieces, or else were locally built from scratch.  

Another familiar name in windows got its start in 1925, when Pete and Lucille Kuyper founded a small Des Moines company to manufacture a novel type of window screen that retracted onto a roller.  The Kuypers’s Rolscreen Company moved to Pella, Iowa, the following year, began manufacturing wood windows, and the rest is history.

Innovations, whether large or small, have been central to the rise of the companies recounted above.  Next time we’ll look at a few more such stalward American brands, some of whom essentially invented their own industries.  So take note, industry reps--there’s still time to get me that rhubarb pie.

Monday, December 3, 2012


People do lots of thinking when they remodel a bathroom.  They agonize over colors, countertop materials, and choosing the latest lavatory sink, but too often, they overlook the kind of improvements that would matter most. 

Simply upgrading your bathroom with fancy fixtures and materials won’t do a thing to improve its function.  You’ll just be trading a lousy old bathroom for a lousy new one.  So make sure you don’t miss these basics:

•  Don’t rule out relocating a toilet, a sink, or even a bathtub if doing so would definitely improve the room’s layout.  The old notion that moving plumbing fixtures will break the bank simply isn’t true in most cases--in a major bathroom remodel, the biggest expense is in finishes, not in rough plumbing. 

A common example:  Building codes allow a toilet to be centered in a space as little as thirty inches wide.  Yet many older bathrooms have much more space than that between the toilet and adjoining cabinets or walls.  In a case like this, moving the toilet to the modern minimum may gain you a nice chunk of counter space. 

•  Stay away from hard-to-clean fixtures, no matter how fashionable.  The usual suspects include topmount lavatory sinks, whose raised rims prevent puddled water from being wiped directly into the sink.  And the cleaning headaches inherent in those oh-so-trendy free-standing-bowl style sinks hardly need pointing out.

Likewise, while sparkling glass shower enclosures look great in designer magazines, in real life they’re a drudge to keep clean.  For my money, a shower curtain--which won’t obstruct the room when not in use, and which can be easily replaced--is a more practical choice.

•  In the shower, provide a niche for storing shampoo bottles and the like. Make sure the soap dish is high enough to avoid the need to stoop down, and provide a hook or bar for hanging a washcloth.  A small built-in bench or at least a ledge will be welcome, too.

•  Set aside some wall space for both 18-inch wide face towel bars and 24-inch bath towels. Ideally, the bath towels should be within arm’s length of the tub or shower, and the face towels should be right beside the lavatory sink.  If space is tight, either can be mounted on the inside of the bathroom door, or you can use towel rings instead.

•  Building codes require an exhaust fan only if the bathroom doesn’t have an openable window, but you should plan to include one regardless.  Insist on a top-quality, super-quiet model--not one of those howling bargain-basement jobs.  Better yet, consider a remote-mounted fan, which will be even quieter. 

•  If the bathroom feels cramped but there’s no way to physically enlarge it, try an optical illusion:  Use a large sheet mirror on the wall behind the lavatory, extending from corner to corner and from countertop to ceiling, to visually double the room’s volume.  Although it takes a little extra effort to incorporate a mirror this big, the result is far more dramatic than the usual scrap of mirror screwed to the wall.

•  Lastly, don’t forget storage for bulky items like toilet paper.  To this end, a vanity cabinet is more practical than a pedestal sink, though it may not necessarily suit the style of your house.  Here again, you might wish to trade fashion for function.

Monday, November 19, 2012


A while back, I stopped at a locally-owned burger emporium for one of my periodic hits of cholesterol. The giant cheeseburger was stupendous, but the decor was something else again.  

In architecture, there are few things as tawdry as yesterday’s red-hot fashion.  Judging by its unsettling paint job, this restaurant had apparently been redone during the 1980s, when a television series called Miami Vice, of all things, inspired any number of hack architects and decorators to run around purportedly “updating” buildings with appliques of glass block, neon, and stucco, lastly topping them off with the color scheme then approvingly known as dusty rose and teal.   

It’s clear enough why fashion trends exist.  For marketers, it’s a diabolically clever way to ensure that people never remain satisfied with what they have, and instead will eternally crave a newer car, a different cut of clothing, or what have you.  What’s harder to understand is exactly what makes the rest of us--including design professionals--so willing to be swept up in the fashion industry’s calculated tidal pull.

Would any architect or decorator, for example, sincerely believe that a color scheme inspired by a momentary television series would be just the thing to make a lasting contribution to their client’s project?  And for that matter, could any reasonably intelligent client really overlook the stunning shortsightedness of such a concept?

Apparently, they could, and they did.   There are countless moldering examples of this particular fashion cliche still hanging on across the country, ranging from relatively forgiveable examples like my hamburger joint, all the way to egregious revamps of entire hotels, shopping centers, hospitals and even banks--all of them still ridiculously decked out in fading shades of turquoise and pink, and looking more like colossal ice cream parlors than serious institutions.

But of course it’s not fair to pick on weak-willed architects of the Eighties for such dismaying transgressions. Every decade, every era has its equivalent of glass block and neon, and of teal and dusty rose.  Today’s faddish architecture--those buildings bristling with nonfunctional sunshades and outriggers, short-lived varnished wood exteriors, and harlequin paint schemes of olive drab, dried blood, and mustard--are destined to look just as embarassingly dated in a few years. 

The saving grace here, however, is that qualifier “new”.  However trendoid they may be, these buildings were at least conceived with details, finishes, and color schemes that were integral to the whole.  On the other hand, cosmetic updates superficially pasted onto buildings for the sake of chasing one fad or another are by definition dis-integrations.  These kinds of “improvements” are invariably short-lived, and just as invariably diminish any building that is subjected to them.  

Practically every historic structure we cherish today, from New York’s Grand Central Station to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, has had to be rescued from at least one and sometimes multiple “modernizations” perpetrated by architects and decorators, who most assuredly touted them as improvements in their day.  With friends like these, old buildings don’t need enemies.  

Monday, November 5, 2012


Over a century ago, American builders began using a remarkable mineral product.  Mined from a type of serpentine rock, it was natural, abundant and easy to produce, yet its unique properties made it almost limitlessly useful.  It was resistant to chemicals and intense heat. It was an excellent electrical and thermal insulator.  Out of its fibers, you could weave a cloth that wouldn’t burn.  You could even mix it with other materials to make them stronger and more fireproof. 

Over the course of the twentieth century, American industry--with the government’s blessing--found thousands of uses for this miraculous mineral.  Woven into a cloth, it was used to insulate electrical wires.  Mixed with a binder, it made a fireproof insulation for pipes and ducts.  Mixed with cement, it made a host of practically indestructible building materials such as corrugated siding, shingles, and flue pipe. Mixed with vinyl, it made an incredibly durable floor tile.  

Nor was its usefulness limited to construction. This same amazing mineral allowed the brakes on your car to survive blistering temperatures. Inside your home, you could find it in stoves, heaters, ovens, toasters, hair dryers, and ironing board covers--pretty much any product that had to resist high heat.  And if you happen to have an older example of any of these items--or perhaps an old furnace down in your basement--that miraculous mineral may still be there, silently doing its job.

The miraculous mineral is asbestos, a substance whose modern reputation is considerably more sinister than when it was found in countless industrial products.  Long-term occupational exposure to asbestos is now known to cause a number of terrible lung diseases, one more ghastly than the next.  The risk of exposure to the amounts of asbestos found in a typical older home is less clear, but on the premise of being better safe than sorry, asbestos is no longer manufactured in the United States.  Nevertheless, since it was used in thousands of long-lived domestic products, and because its peak period of use stretched from World War II well into the 1970s--in fact, the last U.S. asbestos mine closed only in 2002--its complete removal from the environment is a virtual impossibility.  

Millions of older American homes contain significant amounts of asbestos, found mostly in the form of insulation on steam pipes or heating ducts, in resilient floor tiles, acoustic ceiling tiles, and sprayed acoustic ceilings, and in asbestos-cement shingles, building panels and flue pipes.  Although removal was once widely considered the preferred remedy, today many authorities believe that the safest approach is to leave asbestos-containing building materials in place so long as they’re in good condition and not subject to disturbance. For the official policy in your own area, contact your local hazardous materials authority.

So it is that, after a century of vast commercial use, the miraculous mineral has now become the malevolent mineral.  If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it’s that sometimes, things that seem too good to be true--whether X-rays, atomic power, DDT or asbestos--are in fact exactly that. 

Monday, October 22, 2012


Every so often, there’s a brief span of years in which innovation comes thick and fast.  In the area of building technology, the Roaring Twenties was such an age.  The houses of this decade were chock full of new ideas that, quaint as they seem to us now, let Americans live more comfortably than ever before.

The homes of the 1920s were, for one, the first to truly integrate electricity.  In prior years, clumsy surface installations of switches and wiring were still common, along with lighting fixtures that often consisted of little more than a naked bulb at the end of a cord.  The Twenties brought the wide use of two-button switches flush-mounted in brass plates, with the  “on” button elegantly marked by a circle of mother-of-pearl.  Electric wall sconces became the lighting fashion of the day, while electrical outlets moved from jury-rigged affairs screwed to the wall to being inconspicuously flush-mounted in the baseboard.  Granted, few rooms had more than one or two receptacles, but then this was an era of few electrical gadgets besides floor lamps and radios.

Another high-tech feature unique to the era was a built-in aerial serving that entertainment mainstay of the day, the console radio.  Rather than mounting an ugly mast on the roof as was later done for television, builders of the Twenties cleverly looped wire through the attic to form a giant hidden antenna. 

A simpler but equally useful convenience was the pass-through mailbox, in which letters dropped through a slot beside the front door slid into a small inside compartment behind a grillework door.  Alas, this charming device could never accomodate today’s huge quantities of junk mail. 

The 1920s also brought the wide use of speaking tubes, the low-tech ancestor of those garbled intercoms we’ve all learned to hate. Used mainly in upscale apartment buildings, speaking tubes were simply a network of tin pipes leading from a central panel at the front door into each apartment. Each end of the tube had a trumpet-like opening, allowing visitor and occupant to communicate without need for electronics. 

Also found in better apartment houses was central electric refrigeration, the forerunner of today’s home refrigerators.  In this system, a compressor in the basement furnished the cooling power for a small refrigerated cabinet in the kitchen of each apartment.  Cumbersome as it sounds, this was still a big advance over the standard cooling device of the era: A block of ice.  

No doubt the most technically sophisticated building innovation to take hold during the Twenties was air conditioning, a luxury so expensive that it was initially found only in movie palaces and in the best class of public buildings.  In those days, the machinery required to air-condition a building took up roughly the space of a four-car garage, and was deemed so impressive that at least one theater installed plate glass show windows to let passersby admire their mechanical wonder from the sidewalk.  

One innovation of the Twenties that never did catch on was a patented radio speaker hidden in a chandelier--a device that probably had more than a few startled dinner guests choking on their dumplings.  Then again, even this curiosity might have succeeded if the Great Depression hadn’t stopped it cold, along with all the other hijinks of this exuberant era. Thankfully, the greatest legacy of the Roaring Twenties--some of the most charming and livable houses in America--still largely survives.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Some years back, the FBI raided San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection and arrested an official for allegedly taking bribes from a contractor.  It was yet another embarassment for an organization that, rightly or wrongly, has long suffered from a reputation for favoritism and improprieties.  At the time of the arrest, the department had been under FBI investigation for five years.  

This event got me to thinking about the nature of corruption in building and planning departments--not just in San Francisco, but across the country.  It would be easy to blame a few bad apples for this not-uncommon problem, but in fact the process may deserve as much  blame as the personnel.  

Bribery is, of course, one way of circumventing normal channels that don’t function adequately. In the days of the old U.S.S.R., for example, staple foods like chicken, beef, and pork were often very scarce. Not surprisingly, corruption flourished under these conditions. While ordinary Russians routinely stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a few scraps of meat, people with money and influence could easily obtain fine wine, caviar, chocolate, or anything else they fancied. 

Thankfully, in the United States, we don’t have to bribe the butcher to score a few pork chops--we can just pick up a package, pay for it, and leave. If only getting a building permit were so simple.  Instead, it’s become one of the most exasperating processes in all of government.  Despite the best efforts of officials in many cities, obtaining a permit often still takes more time than constructing the actual project.  

Now, generally, we Americans are a very patient people.  We don’t mind jumping through our fair share of hoops to get what we’re after.  Yet there’s a point at which a process become so onerous and complex that even reasonable people try to circumvent it--not because they have criminal minds, but because each and every one of us has a limit of tolerance for unreasonable red tape.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.  After all, the American Revolution grew out of what normally law-abiding people saw as unfair taxation by the Crown. This kind of rebellion against unfairness is, if anything, a classic American trait.

The unfairness inherent in many big-city building permit processes is this:  Thanks to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, homeowners with ordinary resources must struggle for permission to build simple and innocuous home additions, while big-league applicants who are savvy, well-connected, and able to afford elaborate lobbying measures (whether legal or otherwise) can typically prevail with projects of far greater impact on the public.

It’s evident that if the approval process weren’t so convoluted, fewer ordinary citizens would be tempted onto the dangerous path of foregoing permits altogether.  Neither would well-connected applicants look for special treatment, nor would building officials be tempted to grant such favors in return for compensation. 

If we’re still shocked--shocked!--to find bribery in some of our building departments, we shouldn’t be. When a process becomes as byzantine as this one has, attempts to circumvent it are inevitable. And as we already know, people with means can always get their caviar, while the rest of us wait in line for scraps.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Thanks to the old stereotype of the architect hunched over a drafting board, tee square in hand, many people still think that an architect’s main purpose is to draw “blueprints” (nowadays more properly called working drawings).  The trouble with this romantic notion is that it suggests that architects are paid to draw, when in fact they’re paid to think.

In truth, producing working drawings is a tedious but relatively incidental aspect of the architect’s charge.  It’s roughly analogous to taking a novel that’s been written in shorthand and typing it into a computer.  The essential creative work--if it’s been done properly--is all but finished, and only the mechanics of formatting remain. 

Alas, this preliminary thinking, which is the real kernel of the design process, takes a lot of time and effort and yet may not yield much of a tangible product until much later.  Considering this dearth of physical results, it’s gratifying that many people nevertheless perceive why spending fifteen percent or so of their building budget on architecture might be a worthwhile investment.  

Still, there are also lots of perfectly intelligent people who are mystified, annoyed, or even angered that a few sheets of drawings should take months to complete, cost them many thousands of dollars, and further delay them from getting their project under construction.  These people quite reasonably reckon that all that money spent on mere paper could buy them a bigger Jacuzzi or a fancier front door.  

I can only counter such reasoning by pointing out that architects provide a service, not a commodity.  To say that your architectural investment only buys you a few sheets of paper is like saying that the cost of a Harvard education only gets you a lousy little diploma.

There are plenty of familiar arguments for hiring a licensed architect, most of them having to do with the technical side of the process. For one thing, the high level of detail found in a good set of working drawings--far from scaring off contractors as some people fear--actually makes the bidding and construction process easier and more accurate.  For another, an experienced architect can help circumvent building code booby traps that can make for nasty (and costly) surprises during construction.  These services alone can save thousands of dollars in lost time and change orders.  Hence, that seemingly extravagant fifteen percent fee can repay itself quite rapidly.

Beyond these cut-and-dry reasons for hiring a professional, however, there’s one more--perhaps the only one that architects care passionately about--and that is the pursuit of good design for its own sake.  Obviously, there are cheaper ways to get plans drawn than by hiring an architect, and no doubt there are times when a design that’s merely “good enough” would probably suffice.  But from this architect’s perspective, at least, there can’t be much magic in this kind of undertaking.  After all, humanity’s rise over the millenia has come, not from doing things well enough, but from doing them as well as we knew how. 

Monday, September 10, 2012


If you’re of Baby Boom vintage or younger, you probably take your local supermarket for granted.  You walk in, round up Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, and Captain Crunch, mince your way through the checkstand, and you’re done. But grocery shopping wasn’t always like that.  The modern supermarket—technically known as a “self-service food store”—is a fairly recent invention.

Prior to World War II, grocery stores were usually very small, narrow affairs, and going shopping amounted to telling a clerk behind a counter exactly what you needed.  Since most of the merchandise was also behind the counter, out of reach, the clerk had to personally assemble your order item by item.  Often, he or she had to weigh and package items from bulk, whether coffee or flour or pickles, which didn’t speed things up any.  

But slow service wasn’t the reason traditional full-service grocery stores began to die out in the late 1930s.  Rather, rising labor costs and a boom in mass-produced packaged foods drove the rapid changeover to self-service supermarkets.  Allowing customers to select their own prepacked items meant less labor and higher volume, which meant more profit for the grocer.

As quaint as it seems today, the boom in packaged foods stemmed largely from the widespread introduction of a product we now consider totally mundane: cellophane.  Compared to paper, the new transparent packaging kept food fresher while allowing self-service customers to see exactly what they were buying.  Cellophane wrappers first appeared on dry goods, but quickly spread to baked goods, meats, and vegetables.

The quintessential supermarket layout--a central area devoted to dry goods, a produce section along the right side, and a meat counter at the rear—also gradually took shape during the early postwar years. Beginning with the fact that people naturally tend to circulate toward the right rather than the left, the various grocery sections were laid out in a deliberate sequence designed to increase sales, with staple foods first, then discretionary goodies with higher profit margins.  

For the first time, the grocery industry also strove to understand what was going on in a housewife’s mind when she went shopping--and mind you, in those days supermarket customers were almost invariably assumed to be women. 

“The housewife, her habits, her thinking processes, her frame of mind as she enters the store should always be given careful consideration,” advised one trade reference of the era.  “If the staple groceries are located well back, she will be drawn to the rear of the store...if the housewife can complete her “must” shopping list (there), so much the better.  As the housewife winds her way back to the front door, we want her to see our extras, specials, fancies, and high-margin goods, for now she is in a good mood to consider them.”

This carefully planned path of travel thus exposed the unwitting shopper to “silent salesmanship” of the kind we still find today: Mass displays (items stacked in huge quantity to suggest exceptional value), associated displays (for instance, packaged shortcakes placed alongside fresh strawberries); sale items with two-for-one pricing; and of course those checkstand displays designed to encourage the purchase of treats for nagging youngsters. 

Today, despite sixty-odd years of refinement—most of it having to do with pricing, inventory control, and payment—the supermarket remains a distinctly mid-century invention, one which any time-warped GI might recognize.  The tough part would be explaining why we now have ten different kinds of orange juice.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


“People will not look forward to posterity,” said the English statesman Edmund Burke, “who never look backward to their ancestors.”  

Burke’s words ring truer than ever today, when many of the world’s most fortunate inhabitants behave as if they were the only ones who ever mattered, or ever will.
Although many of our ancestors have been pictured as heavy-handed exploiters of the environment, at least they had the excuse of ignorance.  Nor were they quite as wasteful as we might imagine:  None other than the English aristocracy of the seventeenth century, for example, routinely used salvaged stone, iron, lead, and glass in the construction of their manor houses.  Closer to home, our Yankee predecessors well knew the value of materials such as lumber, glass, and hardware, since they were obliged to either laboriously produce them on their own or import them at great expense from abroad.  It wouldn’t even have occurred to early Americans to waste containers such as crates, barrels, and bottles, which were purposely well crafted to be reused time and again. 

Ironically, it was the unmatched prosperity of the post-World War II era that gave rise to the concept of the disposable society.  With a booming economy and material goods aplenty--not to speak of persuasive corporate advertising--Americans bought into the idea that the world’s resources were essentially unlimited, and that throwing things away and buying new ones made better economic sense than conservation.  

As if disposable consumer goods were not enough, we now have disposable architecture as well.  A century ago, buildings were constructed to stand for many generations.  By the late twentieth century, this expected lifetime had withered to about 30 years.  It’s not uncommon to see commercial buildings demolished after a decade of use, and sometimes even less.  

Particularly short-lived are the sort of gimmicky buildings thrown together by briefly booming commercial chains--whether muffler shops or pizza merchants--whose fortunes often end up declining just as swiftly.  Service stations and other businesses prone to market fluctuations appear and disappear with equal frequency.  Given such dismal odds for survival, such structures are often built as flimsily as usage will allow, to be thrown away when we’re finished with them.

In the meantime--and for the same shortsighted economic reasons--substantial and beautifully constructed old buildings continue to be destroyed, squandering a vast and irretrievable investment of labor and material.  

It’s easy to blame corporate greed and moribund institutions for such policies, and to be sure, they deserve a share of the blame.  Yet conservation begins with the individual, in the way we respect our finite resources and the energy required to put them to use. 

Take something as mundane as running hot water.  It’s a relatively recent amenity, one which our great grandparents would still have considered a genuine luxury.  Today, we use it as casually as if it rained down from heaven--using a torrent of hot water when a trickle would do.  Yet think about how long it takes to heat a kettle of water on the stove, and you can appreciate how much energy is literally going down the drain when you take that steamy twenty-minute shower.

Does all this mean we should wallow in guilt and deny ourselves the kind of luxuries our good fortune affords us?  Maybe not.  But at the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to bear Burke’s words in mind.  Now and then, we might look back to see just how much we’ve come to take for granted.  And now and then we might try looking ahead, and think to save a little something for the world we leave behind. 

Monday, July 16, 2012


People love things that come in threes, from musketeers to little pigs to stooges. Compelling arrangements of three also show up in more hifalutin’ places: A symphony has three movements, a play has three acts, and a novel has its proverbial beginning, middle, and end.  

The peculiar power of three-part compositions appears in architecture as well.  Take, for instance, the division of the classical column into base, shaft, and capital--a sort of beginning, middle, and end in three dimensions.  In one form or another, this same vertical composition appears in everything from classical temples to skyscrapers.  It also appears in the individual parts of buildings, such as the way interior walls are divided into base, wall, and crown, and even in the design of moldings, whose profiles are often built up with three elements of different hierarchies, more or less like miniature buildings.

What makes three-part compositions so effective?  One answer may lie in the way we think.  Our brains strive to find rational patterns in everything we experience, yet paradoxically, they also seem to get bored when things fall into place too easily.  What the human mind really seems to crave--and what may even constitute the very essence of beauty--is a comprehensible pattern that contains unexpected variations.  Three-part arrangements seem to furnish the ideal venue for this delicate balance.

Visually, groups of three also provide just the right degree of complexity without losing clarity of composition.  Consider an arrangement of windows:  A group of two can’t quite get a rhythm going, while four or more can start to look redundant.  Not so a group of three, however:  Like Goldilocks’s porridge, they’re not too little, not too much, but always just right.  

Three-part arrangements can also be easily tweaked to create visual movement without destroying their symmetry.  For instance, the Palladian window, named for the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio, is a classic three-part design featuring two side elements flanking a larger central portion with an arched top.  The simple addition of this dominant central arch creates movement while still retaining the inherent calm of bilateral symmetry.  

Three hundred years after Palladio came the Chicago window, first used in early skyscrapers, but better known for brightening the living rooms of countless bungalows of the Twenties.  It featured a pair of double-hung sash flanking a large central picture window--another unbeatable dot-dash-dot arrangement that creates more visual tension than would three equal-sized openings. 

Beyond such aesthetic subtleties, though, there’s a practical reason why tripled windows, doors, or archways work better than ones with two or four elements:  They have an opening in the center instead of a mullion.  This seemingly obvious advantage is routinely overlooked by architects, which is why so many people at kitchen sinks end up staring at a mullion instead of a beautiful view.

There you have it, both the mystical and the mundane.  If you’re looking for a timeless basis for design, maybe all you need to do is count to three.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Suppose a developer wanted to advertise the name of his subdivision by building a sign five hundred feet long on a prominent hillside that was visible for miles.  Suppose each letter was going to be fifty feet high and built out of telephone poles, pipes, and sheet metal.  And suppose the whole thing was going to be lit up by ten thousand or so unshaded forty-watt bulbs, so it couldn’t be overlooked even at night.

A design review board’s nightmare?  Not really.  In 1923, a pair of developers named S.H. Woodruff and Tracy Shoults proposed--and built--just such a sign in a sleepy hamlet near Los Angeles.  It advertised their 500-acre housing development, which was called Hollywoodland.  In 1949, the sign’s last four letters were removed by the local chamber of commerce, leaving a landmark now famed the world over: the giant hillside sign reading HOLLYWOOD. 

The point is that our ideas of what’s aesthetically right or wrong can change drastically over time.  During the 1920s, no one gave a second thought to outlandish structures like the Hollywood sign--they were considered a natural expression of an exuberant era.  Today, however, conventional planning wisdom frowns mightily upon any structure that dares call attention to itself and thus potentially upsets the equilibrium of the mundane.  Today, a developer proposing a 500-foot long advertising sign would either be run out of town or politely referred to a psychiatrist.   

The Hollywood sign and other ebullient structures like it--including some of America’s most beloved landmarks and icons--could never come to pass under today’s withering regulatory scrutiny.  Imagine the hurdles faced by someone today proposing to build a 305-foot high statue on an island in the middle of New York Harbor.  It’s almost too easy to predict the ensuing litany of objections:  Construction on the island could adversely affect nesting seabirds; rain could cause the statue’s copper skin to shed toxic sulfates; the statue could obstruct Bayonne’s view of Manhattan; a statue promoting Liberty might offend those favoring alternate forms of government.  

In today’s ultra-deferential planning climate, simply mitigating or refuting such objections might take decades, if it ever happened at all.  A modern-day Statue of Liberty would no doubt look quite different--not because the risks have changed, but because we have.
Just about every state in the Union has manmade structures that are the product of eccentricity, obsession, megalomania, or just plain shameless commerce.  They range from Mount Rushmore to the Watts Towers, from Sam Hill’s Stonehenge replica in southern Washington right on down to the Big Duck of Flanders, New York.  Such icons are a part of any vibrant culture, yet practically none of them could have arisen under the crushing heel of today’s regulatory bureacracy.  

The Chinese have no such qualms about building with exuberance. Just across the river from Shanghai’s famous Bund, they’ve built a 1,536-foot-tall broadcast tower that looks like something straight out of Buck Rogers.  Called the Oriental Pearl Tower, it’s the tallest such structure in Asia.  Every evening, this amazing colossus is lit up by animated cascades of colored lamps, making it impossible to overlook by anyone within a ten mile radius.  In the span of a decade, the Oriental Pearl has become the instantly recognizable symbol of Shanghai, and in a sense, of China’s renaissance itself.

As for the United States, the nation that turned exuberance into an art form, we have for the most part turned off the lights.  What our aesthetic tiptoeing and whispering has gained us is a way to ensure the least offense to the most people.  What it has cost us is our magic portal to the offbeat, the extraordinary, the insanely great.

Monday, June 4, 2012


It’s human nature to crave the fresh, the new, and the fashionable, and that goes for remodeling as much as anything else.  The quest for the mythical “updated look” of magazine lore has long tempted both owners and architects to graft trendy additions onto older homes just to make them ever-so-briefly fashionable again.  Alas, you need only leaf through a twenty-year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens to see how such “updates” have stood the test of time.  Most would elicit groans,if not laughter.  

The lesson is simple:  Given the ever-shifting sands of architectural taste, the only kind of addition that’ll be permanently in fashion is one that respects the original architecture. 

But how to do this?  It goes without saying that the overall proportions of any new addition--wall heights, window styles and sizes, and the roof style and finish--should be in keeping with the original building.  Beyond these basics, though, the real trick to making an addition “lock” into the original house is to identify and repeat the designer’s signature details. By sussing out these characteristic traits--and incidentally, every house, new or old, has a whole raft of them--you can pretty much make any addition look spot-on original.  Typical candidates include: 

•  Porch railings and columns.  Repeating these often charismatic details will go a long way toward knitting an addition into the original building. If the original railings don’t meet the current building code, find a workaround--don’t just use an entirely different design.  For example, if the old railing has openings larger than the current 4” maximum, install a heavy wire mesh on the inside face of the new make it comply.  

•  Window muntins (the narrow divisions between the glass) and window trim.  Every home style has its own characteristic trim and muntin patterns; look for them and repeat them in the addition where possible.  Muntins are less common in postwar homes, but if they’re present, it’s doubly important to echo them in the new work.  Avoid using the two-dimensional “sandwich” muntins found in most modern windows unless that’s what you find in the original building.  You’ll pay a premium for true muntins, but they’ll make a huge difference.

•  Roof edges.  The strong lines of roof eaves are a central element of any home style, so it’s imperative to get them right.  It’s not enough just to match the width of the overhang--you also need to match the fascia (the board behind the gutter, if any) and the gutter itself.  If you can’t find the original gutter style, consider replacing all the gutters with a close match to ensure that the new work ties in flawlessly with the old.   

•  Attic vents.  Here, look for characteristic shapes: Did the designer use rectangular, pointed, arched, or circular louvers, or perhaps round or square clay pipe vents?  It’s small flourishes like these that visually lock the addition into the existing structure.  Again, if the original vent design won’t meet current codes, include it for appearance and provide additional venting elsewhere, out of sight.   

•  Lastly, if you have trouble coming up with a detail that has no direct precedent on the existing building, ask yourself:  What would the original designer have done?  Would he have used paired french doors, or a sleek aluminum slider?  Would he make the chimney skinny, stout, or asymmetrical?  In short, what would he have recommended?  With the original designer guiding you, your addition can’t help but fit. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Dear Pauline,

It’s me, Arrol, the kid who grew up next door to you back in the old neighborhood in Concord.  You used to babysit me, and in a way, over the years, you became the grandmother I never had.  

Anyway, I dreamed about the neighborhood last night, as I still do now and then, even though the whole place is of course long destroyed.  But there I was back home again, and in that aimless way that dreams develop, I thought I’d stop in next door and say hi to you.

I crunched my way down our long gravel driveway out to the sidewalk, past the hedge, then onto the narrow concrete walk between the twin green lawns and up the steps to your creaky old front porch. You weren’t sitting in your big green rocking chair--the one with the wicker seat--so I knocked on your screen door. 

The funny thing is, every detail on that porch was there as plain as day:  I  could feel the three slanting brass bars of the screen door grille through the screen, and the gray-painted porch floor, with the joints between the planks ridged up a little. Next to your rocking chair was the smaller wooden rocker where I used to sit and listen to your stories about the old days. There was the same old porch light with its frosted globe in the middle of the beadboard ceiling, strung with cobwebs and dead gnats, and of course your black ashtray full of stubbed-out Salems on top of the wide banister, the filter ends stained with bright fuschia lipstick.

As usual, I couldn’t really see into the dark front room through that big wooden screen door--just a glimmer of gold from the starburst-shaped clock on the back wall.  You came to the door, and in the dream I called you Pauline, which of course I never did as a child: You were always “Mrs. Meese”. You were glad to see me, and we talked a little bit about this and that, and I told you that we all missed you. Still, I had the feeling that you needed to get back to whatever it was you’d been doing.  

As I was turning to leave, you said “Love ya,” in that offhand Oklahoma way of yours.  “We love you too,” I said.  I don’t know why I said “We”; I suppose I was speaking for my family, although as good stolid Germans we never even said “I love you” to each other, let alone to the neighbors.  

We went out on the porch again, and I gave you a hug.  Something welled up in me, and over your shoulder, I began telling you how I missed the neighborhood, how everything had changed, how when I drove through town I didn’t even recognize what road I was on anymore.  And I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  That’s when I began to wake up--not all of a sudden, but little by little, the familiar surroundings seeming to slip further and further away without my having budged from that spot.  I remember staying very still for a while after I awoke, afraid I’d break the spell of having just stood there with you, Mrs. Meese--Pauline--on that comfortable old porch, in that long-vanished old neighborhood.

Anyway, I had a nice visit, and I guess I just wanted to tell you about it.  I know that we can never really go home again, but it seems I can’t help but try it now and then, in spite of myself.