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I've been doing a bunch of reading lately, so I thought I'd share some highlights with you. First, I Seem to be a Verb, by R. Buckminster Fuller. This book, written in 1970, attempted to capture the spirit of the day by combining graphics with snippets of text. The top and bottom halves of the book are flipped, so that you'd read the top half of the pages, and then turn the book over when you got to the end and read the other half back to the beginning:

Page 60 of I Seem to be a VerbThis book really shows its age in some ways, but is timeless in others. There's a real sense of excitement and purpose that's typical of architectural manifestoes of the 20th century (see the great Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture, edited by Ulrich Conrads, for more). The formatting reminds me of many later works, most notably those of Rem Koolhaas. Unfortunately, it also has the problem of being a little too optimistic. Fuller was convinced that mass production and automation was going to free mankind from its labors, allowing all of us to reach our full creative potential. Unfortunately, we all know what really happened, at least in the U.S., as a result of industrial automation. Just take a look at Detroit, starting around that time.

That being said, a few choice quotes:

"Thinking is the consciously disciplined separation of relevant feedback from irrelevant feedback." p. 152a

"The totality of spaceship earth and universe is ahead for all of us. (Mankind was born with legs--not roots.)" p.19b

"Thinking is a momentary dismissal of irrelevancies." p. 64b


Another book worth checking out is Thoughts on Design, by Paul Rand. Rand was a graphic designer, most known for his work in the 1950s to 1970s, when he designed the iconic logos for IBM, Ford, Westinghouse, ABC, and others. The book, written early in his career, presents his attitudes about design, as well as some examples of his work. Though the following passage is not about architecture, I do believe it applies to most design fields:

Visual communications of any kind, whether persuasive or informative, from billboards to birth announcements, should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful. In an advertisement, copy, art, and typography are seen as a living entity; each element integrally related, in harmony with the whole, and essential to the execution of the idea. Like a juggler, the designer demonstrates his skills by manipulating these ingredients in a given space. Whether this space takes the form of advertisements, periodicals, books, printed forms, packages, industrial products, signs, or TV billboards, the criteria are the same.

That the separation of form and function, of concept and execution, is not likely to produce objects of esthetic value has been repeatedly demonstrated. Similarly, it has been shown that the system which regards esthetics as irrelevant, which separates the artist from his product, which fragments the work of the individual, which creates by committee, and which makes mincemeat of the creative process will, in the long run, diminish not only the product but the maker as well.  (p. 9)

Logos by Paul Rand

Both of these books are quick and enjoyable to read; I highly recommend them. If you do read them, please share your thoughts in the comments.



The End of the Suburbs?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The event was hosted by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and was held at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, which is featured in the book as an example of one type of neighborhood that people are choosing over suburbia.

About one hundred or so people were in attendance, including neighborhood leaders, real estate brokers and developers, designers, and even our City Councilman. On stage were Ms. Gallagher and Inga Saffron, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who covers architecture, design, and planning. Prompted by questions from Ms. Saffron, Gallagher gave a brief synopsis of the book and then took questions from the audience.

The two main points of the book, extremely briefly:

  • The suburbs--with open space, cars, and single-family home ownership--defined the "American Dream" for a period of nearly 70 years. This definition of success was directly opposite from the image of city life.
  • In recent years, the housing crisis exposed problems with the suburban style of development, exacerbating long-running economic, societal, and demographic issues. The nuclear family is no longer the dominant social structure, rising oil prices and long commutes have turned the younger generation away from cars, and cities are experiencing a renaissance that has led to the smoothing over of their rough edges.

Gallagher does not argue that the suburbs are going away, but she does make the point that recent data show a change is happening. Cities are getting healthier. People are tired of commuting for work and play.

Of course, it's not all roses in the city. In particular, the issues surrounding public education are overwhelming, and Gallagher acknowledges that a lack of quality public education might be the biggest thing holding most cities back. There may be a "sweet spot" in the middle--older "streetcar suburbs" with their own downtowns (for example, Media, PA, where Gallagher is from) offer many of the benefits of both the city and the suburbs.

Some questions I thought about during and after the presentation:

  • If the more affluent leave their suburban homes and move back to the city, improving (gentrifying?) neighborhoods and raising property values, where do the poor, who were originally left behind in dying cities, going to go? Those with limited financial means are the least equipped to re-populate the suburbs, with their dependence on cars, large plots (=higher taxes per home), and lack of adequate social services.
  • If the suburbs are left abandoned, what happens to the homes and infrastructure that's left behind?
  • How will cities react to increased population? What vestiges of their old suburban lives will those new transplants bring with them? Will they be able to make themselves comfortable with less space, less stuff, and fewer cars? Or will the city begin to take on some aspects of suburban culture?

Do you have a story about moving from suburbia to the city, or vice versa? What was your experience?



Adapting Buildings

I recently went on a long walk and came across this block on South 9th Street. What I find fascinating about this block (and the many other similar blocks in Philadelphia) is that if you look closely you can see that at one time these buildings were all the same.  Over time, however, they have adapted to their owners' preferences and have become individualized.  Below, I have added drawings to the panorama; the first row is drawn as the buildings appear today (awnings not shown, for clarity) and the second row is how they appeared when new:

click to enlarge

The house that most closely resembles its original is #8, though its front door has been replaced and the transom over the door has been removed.  This block is a chronicle of the neighborhood's stylistic past.  Some examples of neighborhood-typical modifications are:

  • Remove and/or cover wood cornice (the decorative woodwork at the top of the building) due to rot, need for repainting, or "modernizing" via vinyl siding.  (removed: houses 1, 2, 11, 12, 17-22.  covered: houses 3-6)
  • Replace brownstone watercourse (the stone base from the bottom of the building up to the first-floor window) with brick or fake stone.  The brownstone often deteriorates due to weather, water, and freezing, and is expensive to repair.  (houses 1, 2, 4-7, 15, 16, 19-21)
  • Completely remove and replace brick front.  Done for any number of reasons including changes in fashion as well as deterioration. (houses 1, 11, 12, 17, 18, 22)
  • Add vinyl/aluminum siding.  Usually there is some insulation board behind the siding.  Added to avoid masonry maintenance and increase insulating value of wall. (houses 2, 5, 19-21)
  • Add stucco over brick.  Done to avoid masonry maintenance. (house 11)
  • Reduce window size.  Done when windows need to be replaced to reduce cost of new windows.  Also done during the energy crisis to reduce window area and save on heating costs. (houses 5, 11, 12, 15-22)
  • Add awnings.  Done to help with summer heat gain. (houses 2, 3, 6, 13, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22)
  • Replace front stoop.  Done when original marble steps become worn, or to convert from straight stair to stair-and-porch design. (houses 1, 2, 4-7, 12, 13, 15-22)

What I find most fascinating about this is that while we often think of buildings as permanent, they also age and adapt along with us.  Each one of these buildings reflects the priorities (and available finances) of its owners, former and current.  Some buildings age and adapt well, and others do not.  Some adaptations are hurtful to the buildings, their inhabitants, and their neighbors (a bad waterproofing choice could cause this, for example).  Others make sense at the time, and then as technology improves, make less sense (making windows smaller made sense before we had insulated double- and triple-pane windows; now we wish we had those big windows back to let in more light and fresh air).

This isn't a new topic; it was most notably covered in Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn (1995).But it's an idea worth reminding ourselves of every once in a while.  How will you adapt to your changing environment?  How will you help your building learn?



Read this book.

I recently finished reading Italo Calvino's first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nests.  Unlike his later, more famous works, including Invisible Cities and Marcovaldo, which are written in the style of "magical realism", this book takes place in the very real world of WWII-era Italy.  The protagonist, Pin, is a young boy caught up in the events taking place between Mussolini's Fascist government and the Italian Communist resistance.  Much of the story is influenced by Calvino's own experiences, though he was in his 20's at the time.

What I really appreciate about Calvino is his ability to very carefully and clearly set a scene, drawing our attention to many things beyond the visual.  As a designer, it's important to keep in mind that, though we communicate design ideas mainly through visual means, the user actually experiences a place with all five senses.  Below is the opening passage of the book:  

To reach the depths of the alley, the sun's rays have to plunge down vertically, grazing the cold walls which are kept apart by stone arches spanning the strip of deep blue sky.

Down they plunge, the sun's rays, past windows dotted at random over the walls, and plants of basil and oregano in cooking-pots on the sills, and underwear hung out to dry; right down they go until they reach the cobbled, stepped alleyway with its gutter in the middle for the mules' urine.

As I read it, I thought about how much Calvino's engagement of all the senses adds to the reader's ability to feel absorbed in the scene.  This is similar to how a good architect tries, during the design process, to envision the space he or she is creating.  Designing architectural space is a challenge that requires the use of all senses, in order to create a place that feels totally right for its purpose (or feels neutral enough to house its multiple intended purposes).