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.