Category: Books

On reading Strange Details by Michael Cadwell

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4 architects, 4 buildings, 4 essays. I’m going to treat each one individually, not in order, and I may not cover them all. So, to start with we’ll look at Chapter 2: “The Jacobs House, Burning Fields.” In this chapter Cadwell considers one of the later Usonian houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house has survived well for almost 100 years due mostly to the care that its owners have lavished on it over the years. Cadwell theorizes that perhaps the house was never intended to.

Platform frame construction, originally balloon frame construction, is the norm for residential construction in the United States and has been since the turn of the last century. Houses built this way have, in some cases, lasted quite well though that fact has depended on continuous occupancy and a regimen of ongoing maintenance. My own house was designed by another local architect, now retired, and built in 1985. I can say with certainty that the service life of a platform frame single family house is approximately 25 years. I’m defining service life here as that point where major systems will begin to require replacement and the ensuing period of time will require an additional investment approaching the replacement cost of the building. In my case, I purchased a house with roof, siding, and windows all failing. The hot water heater did fail and the air conditioning is gasping its last breath. We are replacing each in turn and all the while keeping our fingers crossed. We knew what we were getting into when we purchased the house and expect to eventually have renewed and even improved the original construction.

At the Jacobs house, Wright specified a construction that consists of little more than two layers of wood screwed together cross grain with a layer of tar paper sandwiched in between. There is no siding, no cavity, and no lath and plaster. The painfully thin wood sandwich is both the structure and the finish. This tent-like partition is then wrapped around a series of spaces, themselves wrapped around a central masonry mass containing the building services and ever so important fireplace. The most durable components of the house were buried in the center while the least durable were pushed to the edges much as a body consists of a hard skeleton wrapped in soft flesh and draped in continuously renewing skin. Cadwell suggests that Wright, at this point well into his sixties, had come to see the Usonian house as partaking in a natural cycle of life. We’ll never know for sure because even if he did he could never have advertised the fact. “I designed your house to rot away and return to the earth in the span of a generation” is not something an architect can easily say to his or her client. It’s not an easy thing for an architect to accept even privately.

At heart we all harbor the desire to leave a legacy, to create something that will outlast us, and architect’s exemplify this trait even more than most; it is, in part, why we became architects. We see it everywhere though and, in fact, the perpetuation of historical styles comes from a desire to impart a sense of permanence – even if the brick is just a thin veneer and the “stone” a coat of latex stucco over glued together bits of foam.

The Jacobs house was possibly a critique of this false image of permanence. It predates today’s understanding of closed-loop manufacture, reuse, and sustainability but I think old Frank had it basically right. For each project it’s important to understand the place of that particular building in the culture before assigning it a place on the sliding scale of “more permanent vs. less permanent.” If the project is to be more permanent then design it for real durability, not just the appearance of durability. And if the project is to be less permanent then we have to consider how the materials that go into it will live after the project has come to the end of it’s life. Because whether in another building or product or in the landfill the stuff we work with will persist.

Photo credit: John S Turner [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More books

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Look what I got! It might look boring to some – it’s all nonfiction. But to me, it looks like a great place to explore. Some I’ve heard of before and others just sounded interesting so I grabbed ’em.

Condemned Building by Douglas Darden: Doug Darden lectured at Auburn when I was a student. I missed the lecture and therefore missed the whole Douglas Darden fandom that emerged. The original drawings hung in the gallery for awhile and were just spectacular. Lots of gorgeous pencil rendering of machine-like buildings. If I had to guess I’d say that Tom Kundig has this one on his shelf.

Strange Details by Michael Cadwell: The description sounded interesting. We’ll see.

Refabricating Architecture by Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake: I’ve enjoyed their built work for some time and as I’ve said before, I’m very interested in the research component of their practice.

Surface Architecture by David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi: I read another called On Weathering by the same pair several years ago and got a lot from it.

The Mathematical Mechanic by Mark Levi: Solving problems by physical modeling. For someone into making things and figuring them out this should be great geeky fun.

The Marlinspike Sailor by Hervey Garrett Smith: Knots, block and tackle, and fancywork. Because you never know what you might need to know. Maybe I’ll incorporate coachwhipping on the handrails of my next project.

On Reading Success Through Failure

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When I was a young undergrad living in the student slums of Auburn, Alabama I had a neighbor named Pat Duke. Pat was short, stocky, full of energy, and irresistible to the ladies, but that’s not where I’m going with this. Pat drove a Honda CVCC that was ancient even in that long ago time. It ran like a top. There wasn’t a linkage, belt, hose, or bearing that Pat hadn’t personally removed, inspected, and reinstalled. Pat repaired electronic equipment to make pocket money. Once, when I took him an amplifier that was misbehaving he examined it for a few minutes and said: “Oh yeah, they always break like that.” What I’m trying to say is that Pat had a finely honed sense of all the modes of failure of the many imperfect things in this world. So does Henry Petroski, author of Success Through Failure.

 

As he examines the evolution of such things as slide presentations, band-aids, and automobiles as well as buildings and bridges, over and over again he posits the notion that failure or the observation of an imperfect solution is more instructive to the designer than the emulation of past success: “Our built environment is populated by structures that have survived proof tests of all kinds. We term such structures successful designs, and they are. However, successful designs do not necessarily tell us very much about how close to failure they are. Sometimes cracks develop, which signal problems, but they can be attributed to settlement and interpreted to be the cracks of age. Any failure, however, is incontrovertible evidence that weaknesses existed – in the design, the workmanship, the materials, the maintenance, or the defense against terrorists. Failure is the counterexample to the hypothesis of success. This again is the paradox of design: Things that succeed tell us little beyond the fact that they have been successful; things that fail provide incontrovertible evidence that the limits of design have been exceeded. Emulating success risks failure; studying failure increases our chances of success.”

 

Petroski borrows his definition of failure from the American Society of Civil Engineers, stated as: “an unacceptable difference between expected and observed performance.” The troubling part of avoiding failure is the expectations part. In my experience, most problems can be solved if they are correctly defined. With the tools and expertise to solve a wide array of problems, understanding the problem in many ways is the problem.

 

In the world of architecture every building is its own prototype. There are no test runs and no do-overs. In architecture “fail early and fail often” is not an option.  And so, unfortunately, some small degree of failure in the sense of unmet expectations is the norm in most projects, whether it’s a consequence of design or workmanship or confusion about what was intended or wanted. Clients frequently don’t tell us everything, either because they think we should already know or because they’re just too busy or distracted to give their project the attention it deserves. Oftentimes vendors, eager to sell their products, aren’t forthcoming about the limitations. Workmen show up drunk or hung over and cover up faulty work because they’re tired or indifferent. Usually these problems get resolved as they arise and good designers have learned to avoid the big failures and adapt to the small ones.

How do you ask? Imagine disaster. Imagine tornados; imagine wet dogs and sick kids; imagine driving rain and burrowing insects. Imagine lover’s quarrels. If being a successful designer is avoiding failure then every successful design team needs a Jeremiah. That guy or girl who imagines Armageddon in every decision from the color selections to the bolt patterns. That’s me. Living every imaginable excruciating mistake in my head so that you don’t have to.

On reading Down Detour Road

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The first meeting of the office book club was a qualified success. A success because there was plenty of interesting discussion generated but qualified because I think I was the only one who had read the entire book.

 

If you’re familiar with Down Detour Road by Eric J. Cesal it’s one person’s critique of the architecture profession as it stands today. His central theme is that by limiting our role and influence to the form-making of the building we undermine our ability to have any influence at all. One of the major mechanisms for this is the celebration of iconic works and celebrity architects. After introducing his premise, the author uses the bulk of his pages to try and outline some of the larger forces at work on the profession and some of the expanded roles that architects will need to fill.

 

Cesal doesn’t offer any final solution to the dilemma that the profession finds itself in, but it seems to me there are signs in the practices of several architects who have thrived through the last recession. In every case they involve architects broadening their role to include parts of the project normally done by others in recent tradition, such as the:

 

Architect as Developer:     Jonathon Segal

Architect as Builder:          Marmol Radziner

                                          El Dorado

Architect as Scientist:        Kieran Timberlake

 

There are a lot of other examples and other areas of concern where we can add expertise and value but the point here is that we can have a more influential role in the part of the project we are most interested in by bringing value to the project earlier and in more areas. I’m starting a running list of firms and projects where the architects role is expanded from the traditional basic scope of services and may report on some of my investigations later.

 

One of my colleagues made the point that the old ideal of the architect as renaissance man or generalist among specialists is not going to work any longer if the firm is going to take on expanded roles. Even in a small firm varying degrees of specialization are going to be required. To an extent this happens naturally as we take advantage of our own and others’ strengths but it will need to be expanded on and made more deliberate in the future. In addition to the spec. guy, the budget gal, and the codes guy, we need to add others such as the researcher, the finance gal, and the real estate guy. The heroic architect needs to die and be replaced by a collaborative vision of practice.

 

My take away from this is that to be really successful going forward we will have to vary our role, our services, our process, and our delivery, matching each to the particular needs of the project and the client.