Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tell us how you REALLY feel...

I recently stumbled upon a great little website called Wordle. What a great invention! Beyond just being fun, this smart little tool gives us a whole new way to appreciate and understand words and information.
For example, the above image is the "word cloud" of the text contained in this blog. The way Wordle works is that it takes the most common words in a given selection of text (i.e., the text in this blog) and enlarges the size and relvance of each based on its frequency of use. So, in the event you were unaware of what I've been harping about on this blog, here it is in clean bold text with a fantastic graphic design: design modern architecture!
This will be a good tool to revisit as this blog grows to see what common themes arise and how it may change over time. Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

You're not an effin' architect!

I wish I knew the author of the following quote, but its one I use often:
Everyone trusts their doctor and everybody takes the advice of their lawyer, but everybody is an architect.

I know it seems so simple. A little space here, a little space there, add some doors, windows, slap on a roof... et voila! But there is a good reason that it takes 6 years of schooling and 4 more years of internship to become an architect -- there is so much more to the process!

I blame those awful plan books you can buy in the supermarket for $4.99 for the awful state of architecture... you know the ones... 8000 floor plans except about 7000 of them are all the same plan with only slight variations. You just flip open the book, pick a plan and if you don't like part of it, you just pick another, and slap the two together. The problem is, if it didn't look bad enough to begin with, it probably looks like you slapped two plans together and it probably looks like somebody who wasn't an architect designed it.

But the irony is that the general populous is blissfully unaware of their shit-itude. Well, not really -- they pretend to be, but they're really not. They know it looks bad; they just can't admit that they don't have enough imagination to do it right.

Think about it: these are the same people who buy the "legitimate" design magazines and "ooo" and "aww" at how wonderful those homes in the pictures look. They know what they really like and what really looks good. But how can they gush over homes and pictures in these magazines and then completely ignore them when it comes time to build their own home? Here's the secret: 9 times out of 10, an architect or another design professional (like an interior designer) were involved in the magazine projects from the start.

There. The secret is out, everybody. The gig's up. You're not an effin' architect! So quit pretending you are and quit being so freakin' cheap. Just dole out the bucks and hire a professional to do it right. You'll be far happier with the end product... or at least you won't need the Prozac anymore to make yourself believe that your "design" is great. Sure some non-architects can do it, but good design is far more than picking a plan out of a book. And here's a fact that it seems everyone is unaware of: what is seen as simple (in architecture, anyway) is often the most difficult.

...and studies show that an architect-designed home makes the owners happier, they live in their houses longer, and they make a larger profit when they sell. It is well worth the investment and you won't have to fake happiness anymore!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Yeah... what he said

I couldn't have said it better myself. I recently stumbled upon a blog by S7g Architecture and it appears we share the same disdain for suburbia:

It’s obvious that suburbia is based on the ease of use for the automobile – the wide streets that allow faster speeds, the ample parking lots that at most times of the year remain for the most part empty, and the ubiquitous driveways that demarcate the garage door as being the new front door into our homes. Suburbia comes across as a haphazard “train wreck” development that is more driven by the profit margin of a development company rather than creating a livable environment (i.e. an environment that offers any other option other than getting in ones car and driving to a destination) for the populous.

This train wreck development is sorely lacking in any kind of meaningful design. And by meaningful design I don’t mean implementing an aesthetic that is pleasing (which of course is highly subjective), but instead I mean injecting a sense of purpose into the design, to create connections between buildings and open spaces, and ultimately build an environment that fosters personal interactions and promotes a democratic society. What suburbia does promote is a reclusive society that travels primarily in their cars and interacts with other people with their car horn and their middle finger.

So why has the last sixty years erased our knowledge of how to create viable communities? Has capitalism over-reached its bound and become more centralized to our society than democracy? We as a society are heading into a future where we know the current status quo can not carry us forward. The solutions for many of society’s problems – a more fuel efficient automobile, urban sprawl, obesity, a failing infrastructure – could be answered by asking one question – what if I could walk to the store?
It just seems so simple, yet why is it so difficult to get the masses to understand this? How can we move forward without destroying entire cities or leaving them for ruin? As much as I would like to do just that, a recent conference in Denver, Colorado called CNU 17 (Congress for New Urbanism) had an interesting session that discusses ways to reimagine and retroffit suburbia. Some cities, such as Denver, are already making great strides at reinventing themselves and many of the solutions are truly revolutionary. Unbeknownst to most architects and developers, maybe the suburbs are their next big projects?

The CNU session was hosted by the authors of the book "Retrofitting Suburbia," which S7g Architecture highly recommends. I'll have to add this one to my wish list for future reading. In the meantime, my favourite, dog-eared New Urbanism book "Suburban Nation" is in line for amother read.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The elephant in the room

I've never been there, but I like Seattle. More specifically, I like their urban design guidelines and how they control architectural design -- and they're progressive too! They've realized that people will build shit if given the opportunity and so a little guidance goes a long way.

So, I am very glad to hear that they've recently adopted a bylaw that bans garages that project beyond the front facade of buildings. It makes its really easy to avoid abortions like this:

Clearly, the automobile is the dominant feature in this house and the residents come second. I wonder, does the SUV pay the rent? Does it have a job to justify the size of its "house?" Even when horses were the primary mode of transportation they didn't require this amount of space and were always relegated to the rear yard -- through a narrow, non-descript alley in the carriage house! When did the garage ever move to the forefront of our architectural "imagination?" When did it become the elephant in the room?

These kinds of houses (dubbed "garage mahals") are the epitome of car-centric suburbia and do nothing to promote livable, sustainable communities and further distances the residents from their neighbours, connectivity and street life. Kudos to Seattle to realize the detriment the garage has on quality neighbouhoods and street life.

Cars need to take a back seat to good design and to the health of neighbourhoods and cities. More communities need to engage an urban design process to implement simple, positive changes such as the ban on protruding garages. As the saying goes, "the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time." Seattle has taken the first bite.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A lesson on Modern Architecture

Here is a snipet of an interesting discussion on the history and future of modern architecture from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy's discussion forum. The initial thread centered around the house where the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off was filmed. The entire thread can be read here.

. . . modern architecture survives to this day, and is practiced with more vigor than ever! Perhaps what is meant [by the failure of particular modern architecture projects] is that certain kinds of inappropriate planning have given way to better models?

Well, yes and no. Remnants of 50's and 60's modern architecture vocabulary remains today but not as much of the modern architecture theory as a movement has remained.

The modern architecture movement was the pinnacle of the age of Science and Reason where everyone believed that science and buildings would cure the evils of the world, eliminate death and suffering, and balance the universe. Any problem could be cured by science and architects were now at the forefront. Architects were seen to be performing "God-like" tasks by building heavenly images and utopian villages. Projects like Pruitt-Igoe brought architects and admirers back to earth to realize the limits of science, that it couldn't cure all problems and, in fact, created its own problems. This is where city planning got its big start as an independent curriculum and stripped the architect-planner of this service. Stripping cities and countries of their culture [such as at Chandigarh] was also seen as devastating rather that the renewal that was promised by the universal solution. What we call modern architecture today isn't the same modern architecture that was practiced in the 50's and 60's.

And we should also remember that whatever architectural style that was in fashion at a particular point in time was called "modern architecture." Baroque, and Rococo, and Gothic were all at one time called modern architecture in the same way that "Chinese food" to a chinese person is just called "food." Looking back to architecture after the 60's, we can see that we've, in fact, moved through several other architectural periods beyond modern such as post-modern and brutalism. What we are right now calling modern architecture, in my opinion, doesn't really have a name yet -- we're still trying to define it. Modern architecture appears to be the default term for architecture that is being built in the present and recent present.

I'm sure as we look back 20 years from now, we'll have a better definition of today's architecture is but, as I see it, we are now mixing the best of the modern architecture movement with the organic architecture movement and adding in the technical acheivements only now possible through the use of computers. We don't foresee solving world issues with these buildings (other than, maybe, environmental?) and we have a better understanding of what city planning entails. We've accepted that the modern architecture practiced in the 50's and 60's had its failings, but that it also had many strengths. We are building on those strengths by understanding that there is not one answer to all problems. Today's architecture is far more realistic in this approach.

Perhaps this movement will someday be called "Realism?"

Friday, July 3, 2009

Resale, my ass!

House-flipping has become a profittable fad lately. So much so, in fact, that the term "resale" has become part of the whole house-flipping mantra; second only to the classic real estate phrase "location, location, location," is "resale, resale, resale." With a glut of reality television shows perpetuating the idea, the term has also infiltrated common language and resale is on the top of everybody's collective mind -- the latest buzzword -- as they shop for a new house.

But unless you are in the business of flipping houses, you'd be a idiot to let resale value drive your house purchase decision. Here's a list of reasons why:
  1. A house is made for living in and it should suit your every need.

Huh. Pretty short list. But this is because this one item should be your primary objective. Will you sell your house in the future? Probably. Will you want the biggest bang for your buck when you do sell? Absolutely. But in the meantime, should you torture yourself for two years, or ten years or thirty years with a house that suits the traditional nuclear family with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage even though it doesn't suit you and your pet fish?

Think about it. If you have a busload of kids, get a house with a busload of bedrooms. Don't have any kids? Build a one bedroom or renovate a loft. Artist? Make sure you have a studio with plenty of windows facing north. Car collector? You'll need a 10 car garage. Don't have a car? Don't get a garage. Eccentric? Build a house out of straw bales or old tires or a wacky, off-the-wall modern design.

The truth of the matter is the house should suit you first and get you money second. This makes a house more than a house; it makes it a home. It makes it comfortable and makes it more likely that you will be happy in it for a long time. The only people benefitting from having resale as the primary consideration are the real estate agents. Not only do they have an easier time selling the homes they show, they sell more of them because the owners want out of them sooner because they don't match their lifestyle. This whole dilema has created a false economy and we've now seen the disastrous effects the collapse of that economy has done for the entire planet.

And consider this: you are the market. And don't let a real estate agent tell you otherwise. Chances are, if you want a particular feature in your house, someone else does too. It just might take longer to find that buyer when you go to sell or your real estate agent will have to market harder and think outside the box. Developers and real estate agents must also realize that traditional markets are changing and there is a greater desire for diversity in housing choices, particularly from younger buyers. Resale isn't everything.

Remember -- a house and a home are two very different things. There is a reason the business is not called "home flipping."

Magellan had it wrong... the world IS flat least in the eyes of developers.

Have you ever noticed the extent to which they will go to get a flat site? They'll often blast and chip and clear-cut sites and destroy any natural character so that they can pull a plan out of a tired, dog-earred book and plunk it on a site. Residential, commercial, or industrial development; it doesn't matter.

All in the name of making a quick buck.

Not only is this irresponsible and incredibly damaging to the environment but, ironically, its a colossal waste of money. Think of how much it must cost to use dynamite to blow up rock, excavate it, then truck it off or to hire a person to run an excavator and annoy neighbours with incessant pounding for two straight months. Wouldn't the developer be better off to invest that money into architectural and engineering fees and use the natural features of the site to their advantage? A well-designed building on an attractive site can easily warrant a higher resale value; isn't this what the developers are after? More profits?

If you don't believe me, listen to Bob Vila, the so-called "construction guru" and the person most apt to relate with developers. This article discusses all the benefits of investing in the right designers.

And who wants a site that is bland, boring, and devoid of trees and natural features anyway? Sure, developers will say that "this is what the market demands because this is what the market buys," but I'm of the opinion that there are few other developers offering anything else. We have few other choices!

Maybe developers prefer talking to excavators rather that architects? Or maybe they're afraid of losing control to the architect? I can't answer those questions but I am certain that their decision is costing them money because, given the choice, I am certain most people would chose the more interesting, natural site no matter who came to the decision, the architect or the developer.

Will developers ever learn? You know, to give people the choice they want while still making money? I'm doubtful; they've found a formula that has worked for the last fifty years and I'm not convinced they will change willingly. But as this world changes faster and moves toward a more sustainable future, developers will be forced to realize that the formulas must change, or that no one formula fits all circumstances. Better yet, if developers can't provide you want you want, become your own developer, hire your own architects and engineers, and show them how its done.

The concept is so simple that it almost sounds stupid, kind of like when Magellan proved that the world is round.