Thoughts on Architecture

written during an april 2008 trip to boston

Although my training is principally that of a computer scientist, I have a deep appreciation for architecture. The glory of computing is that in a short period of time and with only a limited set of resources, one can impact a very large number of people. The computer in this sense is an Idea Amplifier, a megaphone of sorts. But architecture is exciting in the opposite “time-people” slice, where a building has the opportunity to impact a large number of people over a large amount of time. While at any given point in time its impact is limited due to the size of the building (which cannot fit one million people) and the fact that it is located in a specific geographic location (and thus out of reach of people who don’t happen to be there), the building remains in a way that software does not, standing for sometimes hundreds of years. So I suspect that at some point in my life I may become quite fixated on creating buildings.

My friend Eric Silverberg and I yesterday walked through the Boston Public Library and its architecturally famous reading room. After a brief discussion on patent law inspired by browsing the year-over-year rapidly expanding volumes of the patent office (and remarking on the fact that the Patent Office in the 1800’s kept incredibly detailed records on all sorts of metrics of agricultural production and trade), we walked to the new wing of the library, built in the 1960’s. The change was visceral – the design went from open and magnificent to cluttered and claustrophobic. Eric and I paused to discuss the differences.

“Eric,” I said, looking around the new reading area, “I don’t get it – this space has all the right ingredients. Tall ceilings, smooth lines, marble and matte black. I can understand why someone would have given a thumbs up to this design. What’s not working?”

Eric pointed out that the light was not sunlight and was not sufficiently bright, but also that the stacks didn’t work visually – “it’s like they forgot that there were going to be books on the shelves!” That was a helpful epiphany; an unbacked bookshelf is going to look scattered. When designing a room consider its appearance and character when filled.

We walked to the atrium of the new wing, and could see the parallels to the classic wing: light coming form a skylight some six stories above, smooth marble paneling, and staircases going up the side. Again, all of the right ingredients for a marvelous welcome to the library. But it felt like an industrial test chamber, not a grand entrance like the old wing. I noted three key differences: the stairs were angular instead of swept in a curve (hence the industrial feel), the marble was matte instead of polished (lower cost, but less elegant, also reducing the light reflected from the skylight), and there was no artistic detailing on any features. No engraved writing or crests or anything, just a giant American flag hanging five stories up. The eye had nothing to settle on and
appreciate.

Other themes I’ve noticed from architecture: homes should have a larger number of smaller rooms. Who the hell needs a cavernous 2000 square foot “master retreat” for a bedroom? That’s just creepy and lonely. Use the extra floor space for guest bedrooms and common space. People don’t need giant bedrooms to be happy; just something that’s big enough for a comfortable bed, a small closet, and a desk. A bigger room than that doesn’t make people happier, but being able to host friends will. Bathrooms should also be small and purposeful. 95% of the time they are utility; they don’t need to be apartments unto themselves. Architects should focus more on a home for entertaining and being hospitable.

Instead of having a “McMansion” you could for the same price and with the same space build out a home with eight small bedrooms, three showers, five toilets, a great kitchen, and plenty of common space for events. And presto! you’ve set yourself up for a much more interesting and fulfilling life.

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Architecture”

  1. I can see what you’re getting at w.r.t. the Boston Public Library, which I (coincidentally) looked at in an architecture class. We also looked at an earlier library, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, which was designed from the start with the books in mind. The architect even listed the names of authors on the exterior wall, corresponding with the locations of their books on the interior shelves. (Well, they used to. 8)

  2. (Please pardon me – I love architecture, and this got much much longer than I’d intended.)

    This is one of the reasons why I want to go into Historic Preservation. Modern architecture neglects the details in the rush to make building cheaper and faster. There are hundreds of magazines revolving around an attempt at “gracious living” inspired by the homes of a century past, but not a single one succeeds. The style is derivative, passed through the lens of a modern designer’s eye without the necessary attention to detail, much less any understanding of the *reasons* for those details. Thus, modern attempts at reproduction fall short, feel hollow and unsatisfying, leave their tenants shifty and unhappy once the initial period of novelty wears off.

    There’s a great article on reproduction bias in clothing called “Ruritanian Purple Feathers and Other Problems of Documentation”, which is sadly no longer available without ordering a large volume of SCA lore. The gist of the article is that every person copying *anything* (a painting, a page of text, an architectural style, etc) adds their own bias, and it takes long study and careful practice to overcome that. Most people have not the time or the inclination to invest that much in something that’s viewed as patently unoriginal. Americans hate anything that could be deemed “unoriginal”. It’s one of the biggest insults handed around. From an anthropological viewpoint, it’s interesting to see the tension between “originality” and “authenticity.” Design originality is seen as authentic to the individual, but authenticity to something else is considered copying.

    The anthropologist in me also observes that the addition of the wing may have been intentionally industrial. Back in the 60’s, industrial was modern and exciting. We were going to the moon! We were working on building computers weighing under a ton! We could make clothes out of plastic! Industrial was futuristic and high tech and neato, and the designers didn’t have a sense of the isolating and alienating effect that it would have further down the line. In a few years, I suspect that it’ll start to look quaint and nostalgic among a certain set, the same as 1956 Cheverolets, push-button transmissions, and Mid-century Modern designs do today.

    What you’ve observed about master suites and master retreats is true. The current trends in design are for privacy, and some would argue alienation and loneliness. (The meatspace reaction to a lack of privacy online?) Buildings today are bigger, not more thoughtful, because we’re still trying to get over our bigger-is-better mindset. But Hummer dealerships are going out of business, and the suburban populations are collapsing in on themselves and drifting more and more into the cities, so change is coming. The problem, at least in domestic architecture as I see it, is that these ideas don’t trickle-up well, and those who have the money have spent a long time getting it in order to gratify their (possibly now-outmoded) wishes. We have to wait for the next generation of builders, I think, to get much in the way of new design schema.

  3. “Architecture is a dangerous mixture of power and impotence.”

    – Rem Koolhaas, designer of the Seattle Public Library, one of my other favorite libraries for totally different reasons

  4. Not sure if this is a disagreement or not, but I strongly feel that the best use of square footage in a single-family residence is to include a large great room (kitchen/dining room/living room). We spend 90% of our time at home in one of those areas; why not optimize for them?

  5. I wonder also if your thought (and Ramit’s agreement with it via del.icio.us) is a reflection of your unmarried status…I haven’t shared a dwelling with anyone other than family since 1995, so I’m totally on board with the uselessness of large bedrooms.

  6. I’m not familiar with the Boston Public Library, but I can imagine that it’s not a very pleasing space. Mid twentieth century styles were especially unsuccesful for institutional architecture and creating inviting public spaces. Plus there were all those fluorescent lights…

    I think one of the reasons people really like all the semi-useless details found in modern new houses is that it really lets them know that they aren’t living in an apartment anymore.

    If you go on craigslist and look at pictures of apartments for rent, 70% of them have completely interchangeable interiors, no matter where they are in the country. It’s that style that started in the 1960s two-story stucco box apartments – the interiors of these buildings almost invariably have small bedrooms with white walls, 3 inch wide white plastic vertical blinds, and a dingy beige carpet. If you look at the kitchen, it will have fluorescent lights and speckled or beige formica countertops. It’s not really inspiring. Obviously the styles differ more in the northeastern cities that have a lot of older apartment stock.

    But I think there is still a widespread appeal of really feeling like you have moved up a level in terms of your “residence consumption.”

    As a side note, I don’t even think the classic postmodernist buildings of the late 70s-90s got the public spaces right. They may be scorned in architectural circles, but the neo-historical buildings that try to look old do actually manage to feel inviting.

  7. Residence consumption is rampant, especially where there is land and money, lots of money. It’s crazy to hear of buyers paying 4+million for a Peninsula property which they then tear down (even though it’s perfectly upgradeable/functional) and then build a multi-million dollar McMansion. This is in part why Whole House Building Salvage came into existence-to reduce the amount of construction waste going into landfills.

    Let’s hope that we become more socially responsible and move away from the McMansions or at least have them be “green”! (perhaps an oxymoron)

    I personally don’t feel these homes are warm and inviting but they do serve a purpose for corporate executives who have a lifestyle where it’s expected they live & entertain in these types of homes. Perhaps an adjustment in mind-set is in order?

    It is encouraging that segments of our population are asking for eco-friendly homes and homes which are designed with open living spaces and spaces which are used on a daily basis.

    One of my favorite books on responsible design is by Sarah Susanka, The Not so Big House:

    http://www.notsobighouse.com/books.asp

    I think statistically, it’s a fairly small portion of our population that can afford the McMansions & a larger segment who are driving the demand for sustainable housing. San Francisco is becoming a leader in this arena with both commercial and residential projects!

  8. This was posted to me today. I think I need to go out and read this man’s books.

    (I hope wordpress is okay with this embed.)

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