What’s Wrong With Plastic Trees?

Isolating oneself from the natural environment is a strong statement but seems to lead to failed spaces. Even with energy savings, extra square footage, etc, why go to all this trouble for dead materials and spaces. There are too many buzzwords within the architecture field, such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘green,’ ‘biomimicry’ and ‘LEED,’ that generally don’t push the envelope far enough.

Recently there have been a number of architectural and landscape competitions and movements devoted to solving the problem sustaining trees within the urban environment, including Boston Treepod 2011, MillionTreesNYC, Boston Tree Party, and the New Urban Tree Competition. Statistics have shown that trees within downtown areas generally cannot survive for more than 10 years due to the lack of space for root growth, pollution and chemicals.

In the city, trees enhance the climate, attract birds and other wildlife, convert carbon dioxide emissions into oxygen, lower air conditioning costs, reduce erosion costs and generally raise property value. A single tree can turn 260 pounds of carbon dioxide into oxygen in one year.

They provide shelter from sun and precipitation, and a filter for wind. Deciduous trees produce leaves in the fall that serve to insulate the ground and can be recycled into mulch. They are perfectly designed to allow sun into buildings in the winter and block solar heat gain in summer. Natural spaces encourage gathering and can be pleasing to all the senses, unlike plastic, concrete, etc.

Recently, I received a poorly written overgrown landscape violation notice for a beautiful blooming tree in my yard. It stated that the branches could not hang over the roadway lower than 10 feet. I figured this must be due to the fact of protecting the finish of cars, and when I thought about it, it seems a completely backwards concern. Cars are responsible for deteriorating the environment. Why do we care so much about how they look? And trees and greenery are a much more desirable groundcover than asphalt, since they temper the environment and reduce the urban heat island effect that plagues cities. The next day, I received a compliment on the tree by a passerby, stating that he has never seen such a lush freely growing tree.

In some respects, architects have taken biomimicry too far and create systems that are less effective than nature. Why do we need to build new machines for functions that automatically occur in nature. With the Boston Treepods winner, in particular, why waste the time and resources needed to produce these artificial structures when we could use trees or plants that would build themselves over time. Wouldn’t it be more desirable and interesting to create a system of modular plant holders with drought tolerant plants that could be easily replaced.

Do we really want to bury ourselves in plastic? I have to wonder, is it really desirable in any way to live in places that are so dense and polluted that trees have trouble surviving.



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Marketing Architecture: What Sells and What Is It Really Worth?

Why does it generally seem to be that architects are the only fans of architecture? I have to wonder when I visit most architectural landmarks if what we were taught to appreciate in architecture school is an utter failure. I always meet other architects in parks and cemeteries, and generally they are as fanatical as I am about the spaces, but the space often serves to alienate the majority of the public, at least initially.

I have to admit to liking several projects that have been considered failures, due to the fact that they are generally deserted: Moshe Safdie’s Chapel at Harvard Business School, Eero Saarinen’s Chapel at MIT, and Enric Miralles & Benedetta Tagliabue Park Diagonal Mar in Barcelona. I consider all of these projects great places for reflection, in a world where private space within the public realm is frowned upon.

The sense of social isolation created by Diagonal Mar has led the organization Project for Public Spaces to describe the Park as one ‘designed by lawyers, a place where no spontaneous, unforeseen event can ever happen. It’s a classic case of design run amok, where creating a place for human use was merely an afterthought.’ I do question all the use of bent metal in the park, I had a good time in this park, as evidenced in the pictures below. We met some American architecture students there who were really excited over the project and they interviewed us about what we thought.

An interesting article by Roger Ebert takes a reactionary approach to architecture, comparing the works of the organic architects in Chicago to the “Less is More” attitude to the Mies van der Rohe approach. Living his whole life in Chicago he has noticed the praise that the ornate older buildings have gotten from people who visited. Less seems only to mean more in the pocketbook of cost savings and these buildings. Less materials and less relation to the active and changing natural environment seem to foster buildings that are considered totalitarian, soulless and spirit-breaking. It is a problem that seems to be affecting virtually every career in our increasingly high-paced society. We want to get more bang for our buck, but often fail to consider the impact of our buildings over time or even on the current inhabitants.

Analyzing Recent Buildings Around Boston
Heralded as one of Boston’s greatest new buildings, the Institute of Contemporary Art moved into a deserted carpark area of the city and hasn’t seemed to change the surrounding environment in any way. It was very disappointing to me when I realized that most of this building is off limits, devoted to office space and an auditorium that is not accessible most of the time. To me it just seems just like something plopped down on a desolate landscape. The entrance is entirely confusing and I have seen many people climbing up a slope of rocks to try and reach the museum. The back outdoor landscape is interesting, but not as enticing as I hoped.

Similarly the Museum of Fine Arts expansion seems to be a major failure. This building shows that Less is More – in terms of more money to the pocketbook. The total cost of this renovation was a whopping 300 million dollars, and I have to ask, could a building be anymore gray?

It is interesting to me that the new wing claims to promote “improved navigation through the galleries.” From my experience, it looks like they had to hire tons of new staff to direct visitors as to which way to enter the neverending labyrinth of lines. The most logical entrance directly from the parking area to the building is now closed off. Given the pricetag of this place, these spaces should work a little better.

Just across the river, Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT was built at a similar cost. Even with all its problems and leaks, I am still torn over what to think of this building. In many respects I was trained to hate architects like Gehry in school. He plops down all these similar buildings across the world, often not considering climatic conditions or user needs. Famous inhabitants such as Noam Chomsky have complained of a vertigo feeling and the lack of straight walls to put bookcases. And in general it seems that the exterior is given more care than the interior spaces. Yet, this building really excites the environment and it is great to see how it unfolds as you drive down Vassar Street. It seems to be one of the few modern buildings in Boston that even non-archictects admire. Still, I wonder about all the exaggerated geometry is necessary, and I tend to be more drawn to the top floor gardens of the Picower Institute across the street.

Finding Beauty in Stark Environments
Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute is sublimity at it’s finest. His use of light and shadow, and the simple act of incorporating water transforms the whole space. Brutal environments like this make us question where our world is going. I can’t even ever imagine people walking around this area. It is interesting that architects often prefer that their spaces be photographed without people in them, which says something unto itself. It seems lately that architects do not like or appreciate things that aren’t directly under their control like people, change, and the environment.

So ultimately, my article has gone all over the place, praising unappreciated little known spaces that interact with their surrounding environment, criticisizing and questioning so-called “Starchitects” and what is valued as architectural commodity, complaining about modern buildings that don’t push the envelope enough, and questioning how architects can build and market ideas that are more appealing to the general public.

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Getting on the Boat and Wading through the Muck

It is completely discouraging to see that someone who goes through legitimate pathways to become an architect, and build buildings that function so well in their surroundings should be given so much trouble. Both inspiring and upsetting, the documentary “Garbage Warrior” describes the conflicts and ridiculous struggles that Mike Reynolds and crew from the Earthship Biotecture project have had to go through to build sustainable buildings and communities within the United States.

Imagine not needing any utilities and being set up to grow your own food. Meanwhile our leaders in Washington only consider green energy and sustainability as related to major corporations and lobbyists. Why bother using clean coal if there’s a way we can live without it in net zero buildings (period, end of sentence).

Granted, these buildings do not fit the typical idea of what we imagine a typical American house to be, and so obviously hoards of the general public will be against them. It is as discouraging as when I recently went to a town meeting regarding a new windmill proposal that was getting attacked because they thought it might cast a shadow or flicker on the local golf club, causing them to lose customers. Earthship Biotecture does not use typically use the materials we have become accustomed to in housing. Utilizing local recycled and salvaged materials and dirt directly from the site allows them to nearly eliminate shipping costs and reduce material costs. It is a major difference from one of the highly recognized projects I worked where I had to coordinate furniture deliveries shipped from all across Europe. Yet ridiculously, it is these high profile projects that are given all the acclaim. It is nice to see that Earthship is getting some much deserved recognition after 35 years, at least from other countries.

The world is changing in tremendous ways and it seems if our profession stays within the currently accepted boundaries, we will fail to keep up with it. The government and the AIA should support experimentation in architecture, instead of trying to reinforce an out-of-date codes and laws. Instead of building weapons and allocating so much money to ‘defense,’ we should be creating programs to build housing prototypes. It would be a great way to address the natural and manmade disasters occurring in the world today and cope with the most pressing issues of basic survival.

Movie Trailer:

Legal Resistance Interview:

Full Movie:

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I’m the Operator with My Pocket Calculator!

Remember back in the day when technology was a good thing, used not only for corporate profit. I have learned to appreciate the little things that see me through time without asking anything in return.

This year, I thought for sure I would have to buy a new calculator for my new structural engineering class, since I haven’t done serious mathematics for over 5 years.

Of course every battery-powered calculator I found in my house wasn’t working, but then I found my good ol’ Texas Instrument-36X Solar calculator. Older than dirt with no protective case, it still works like a charm. Why can’t we create more things like this nowadays. This is one invention I can bet people are angry they’re not making money from. I am so relieved I don’t need a subscription or 2 year contract for the TI-36X.

So for the last couple of days in a related topic I have been very interested in the latest developments in piezoelectricity, architecture, and energy generating pavement. It’s nice to read that such experiments are taking place in free safe energy. Of course not much is being done on this in the US, most likely because it may not generate any profits. Free, safe electricity – Bah, who needs it!

But I do know my old, beaten up solar piezoelectric calculator still works perfectly. To quote a popular sales phrase the guy who sold me my last car said continually, “it’s a no-brainer.” Why not transform the energy and sound that already exists in this world into power?
Also, in a related note, I was unable to take a picture of my beloved calculator because my higher tech digital camera just crapped out, and I can’t afford an iPhone. But seriously, am I getting older or just more rational?

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What survives…

With the recent devastation in Japan, is the next wave in architecture the water age? It has been the element behind recent crises these days, yet we hardly ever consider incorporating it into our buildings. With tsunamis, flooding and the glaciers melting and global warming on the rise, this is a force that needs to be further addressed.

Due to masterful earthquake design, many of the buildings in Japan. I find the first video of the ductile building completely amazing. But oftentimes buildings that are good at resisting seismic forces may be completely useless at dealing with tsunamis and water damage.

Likewise, Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque sustained little damage during the earthquake because it was designed with base isolators, irregular tubes that supported thin honeycomb concrete floor plates. Ito planned with his structural engineer to make the building flow like a piece of seaweed in the water.

Video footage showed how the lightweight building responded to the earthquake, with the ceiling moving independently from the building structure.
Sendai Mediatheque Structural Concept

The building still stands and no one was seriously injured, but it requires resetting and rebolting the structural tubes before re-occupation.

It is a sad fact that many times especially within modern architecture, architects and engineers fail to address concerns of the surrounding environment and work with nature.
I think most engineers would cringe at the thought of designing buildings so that raging water can pass through underneath, but it definitely should be researched further. There is an interesting article here about ways to design for tsunami-prone coastal cities, and most likely codes will change after this disaster.

Tsunami-resistant building design
In the past, the buildings that survived were stone fortresses, but now with advanced technology, I think we can consider buildings as more ductile and limber, similar to trees, flowers and other elements in nature that respond to and interact with their environment.

A good place to start building new ideas is the Japanese architecture, the Metabolist movement, Mitchell Joachim, Achigram and organic theories of architects like Antoni Gaudi. Modularity seems key, and looking to natural organisms for structural and organizational ideas now seems more relevant than ever. A recent article in Inhabitat describes a recent home using stilts to avoid flooding.

Flux architecture, and floating buildings, pods, and cities may be the way of the future.

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Rethinking Architecture in the 21st Century

Getting Some Common Sense Before We Die Out as a Profession

OK, I’ve been trying to get my Structural Homework done and it has caused the following rant:

Architecture excludes the poor and jobless in the world today. It shouldn’t be a question of money, but many simply can’t afford to be an ‘architect’ these days. I have never had this problem with my other two careers. I am eligible to take all the exams but could barely afford the study materials, nevermind the exam fees, dues, etc, which would all go way up if I passed the exams and were still unemployed. And does the exam even matter? Life is short and these are all questions I keep asking myself.

When I look at some of my favorite architects, they were pretty much self-trained and not checking in with an outdated bureaucracy every 3 months to pay money or get credits. Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, Luis Barragan and Tadao Ando – of course, these are no names to scoff at. Yet, nowadays, the more you try to branch out on your own, the more you are penalized and isolated.

Architects who are interested in learning shouldn’t be discouraged through exams that are too expensive to take, especially minimum wage interns or those out of work. It does not help that there are no used books to study and you must spend thousands of dollars to get all the recommended study materials or attend a study group. Through this process the profession is being killed off. We have the Internet now and all this material could be published online to enhance the profession as a whole instead of private corporations who make money from study guides and continuing education. The economic downturn could be used as an opportunity for out of work architects to become more knowledgeable in technology and the changing world around us, but it seems that this information is restricted to only more privileged souls.

The field is definitely split in two, between the idealistic professor PhD architects versus the realistic AIA architects that are currently in practice. Two completely different worlds at odds with one another. The practicing architects who are completely bitter with the idealistic picture some had painted of architecture in school. Especially at my last job, I was considered to be one of the design school architects, determined by those without much formal education to be useless in the field. The big ideas don’t matter in construction – you simply need to slap that thing up no matter what it looks like or we won’t make any money.

So now there is also the pretty much silenced “what the heck” branch that I fall into. Too poor to take the exams, too poor to continue going to school, wondering what to do next, reading a lot, writing, rendering, doing competitions, learning software, taking exams, most likely ready to fall out of the field altogether.

I haven’t even mentioned all the mistakes in the textbooks that cost thousands of dollars. Should I even be wasting my time trying to learn all this material and rote memorization for the exams if it may not even be correct? Plus, I know for a fact that I won’t use most of this information in day to day practice. There is a huge discrepancy between architecture, reading, and writing. The teacher from my latest course has explained that my current structural study guides are riddled with mistakes. Is this really the correct way to train people who are designing buildings? If it is really this nonsensical and unregulated, shouldn’t it at least be fun in some manner?

Likewise, it shouldn’t be necessary to waste time learning an outdated, nonexistent software program in order to pass each portion of the exam. The practice program would not even run on my computer, even with a special CD I had mailed to me from NCARB. So I must purchase a new computer with a new operating system to simply practice a program I will never use again in real life.

The current role and future of the profession as a whole is not being properly considered and evaluated, especially in regards to rapidly increasing technology. For most jobs, firms seem to be looking for a pretty much cookie cutter idea of what an architect used to be, yet at least from my experience, my career has been completely divergent and not specialized in one area. I have done everything from design to graphic design, writing, and accounting. This is not considered strength as one is expected to simply specialize in one of 10 or so areas based on code design expertise, Commercial, Residential, Corporate, Healthcare, Institutional, etc… Ultimately, all of these universally accepted distinctions seem hollow and really mean little to me, yet I must explain I have experience in all of them at every place I apply. I guess ultimately we have do determine whether to sell out and survive in this lifetime or struggle to make buildings that will be appreciated most likely after we die. Perhaps a universal question for most fields, but it does seem very pressing in our field at the moment.

So where does one focus nowadays? Any thoughts?

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Why Lag Behind in Eco-Design?

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I wrote this article to apply for architectural writing job before I determined the place was a scam, so I’ll put it up here for now. Why is American construction so fixed, inadaptable and out of step with the current … Continue reading

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