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.