2011 Year End roundup of architecture trends: fail

I don't have the usual end-of-year wrap up.  It's been a busy, tumultuous 6 months, personally more than professionally, but I haven't really paid much attention to the architectural world outside my own studio. I was thinking of putting a list together in the last hurried days of the year, gleaning architectural blogs and websites to try to portend some trends and fads already fading.  And then, just after Christmas, splashed across the media was the news of the awful tragedy of a deadly house fire in Connecticut that claimed the lives of the owner's children and parents.  Partly because of the immensity of the tragedy but largely due to the images of the burnt house, I can not seem to get the thought of that trauma off my mind.

I think my generation of architects have largely dispelled with the notion that architecture can save the world.  That absolutist notion was demolished along with the buildings at Pruitt Igoe.  Buildings can make our lives better, but only incrementally so.  But certainly what buildings can do is kill us.

Trained primarily as "designers" we often decry the density and wisdom of so many building codes and zoning regulations.  We so frequently are arrogant in the face of the messy regulations of fire separations, ignition resistant construction, fire alarms and smoke detectors mucking up our pristine designs.  I don't know a lot about how the fire in Stamford started or if smoke detectors were working, but almost assuredly if there were sprinklers installed, precious minutes would have been gained for the escape of the family.

There has been much written this past year about the decreasing number of architects gaining or attempting licensure across the United States.  It is often considered useless and a wasteful expense of time and money.  It guarantees no design competency or even fluency.  However, it is supposed to be a baseline of knowledge and familiarity with life safety systems and maybe that can not be overemphasized.  For all that a building is, for all the ambitions that I know that I fight for on every project, its function, beauty and poetry, a building is above all else to keep us safe, physically as well as psychologically.  Old Victorian houses like the one in the recent fire can be graceful and pretty, but their wood siding, wood framing, and wood floors and interior trim are tinderboxes.  Just imagine the typical balloon framing of that vintage house - tall, narrow air spaces running vertically in every stud cavity, creating a chimney effect in every wall, surrounding the inhabitants.

Why are so many old and beautiful buildings rarely wood framed and sided?  Not because of the scarcity of building materials, but because old wooden structures are all living on borrowed time, waiting for the eventuality of a fire.  Almost every house built in the US is constructed with a wood structural system of walls and floors and roof.  As wood is cheap and easy to build with, dense pages of building codes are dedicated to making this type of construction nominally safe.  Even the brick and stone houses displayed in magazines and in the popular imagine as paragons of stability and security are mostly veneer applications stretched over the usual wood framing.

So, in lieu of a trending topic or motif, or a prediction of architectural things-to-come, I would like to put forth my own resolution for our profession and the state of the built environment:  a renewed interest in and awareness of life safety issues in design, maybe even as design.   I don't think this has to make our buildings paranoid expressions of a fearful culture, but rather one that values human life and champions that in the form of the building itself.  Maybe architecture can not save the world, but a building should give us a fighting chance of doing it ourselves.

(Image from A Victorian Housebuilder's Guide, Woodward's National Architect of 1869, reprint)

(Our heart goes out to Madonna Badger, a former high-school classmate of mine, and the unspeakable loss of her children and parents from a house fire.)

mississippi river mansions

On a narrow spit of land, at the confluence of two mighty rivers, lies ancient Cairo.  Not the one in Africa, with pyramids and camels, rather the one along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo, Illinois.

Cairo has seen better days, the 1920 population of 15,000 having dropped below 3,000 souls.  Once a shipping center strategically located at the two rivers, the city later developed as a rail center, consolidating its status as a bustling nexus of commerce.  During this period of prosperity, merchants and shippers built themselves grand mansions and protected them with ever-increasing levees.  However, as commerce increasingly hitched a ride on trucks and roadways, ever more efficient and larger bridges were constructed across the Mississippi River, by-passing Cairo.  This loss of trade and a history of violent racial interactions isolated the city and like many cities in the turbulent late 1960's lead to white flight and subsequent further loss of businesses and population.  Rapid economic decline soon followed and with it came its usual fearsome playmates, crime and poverty.

Cairo now is a shell of its past former glory and the old mansions and former Custom House still haunt the city's architecture and memory.  Even when restored and blessed with careful stewards, the grand houses of the wealthy businessmen only accentuate the despair of the place.  Hundreds of years after the Fall of Rome, when cattle grazed in the Forum and moldering ornate capitals and pediments lay half-buried, what did the contemporary Romans imagine of their past? Were they proud of their heritage crumbling under their feet or burdened by it, unable to synthesize their current plight with the desperate melancholy of a past long since gone.  And once mighty Cairo, by-passed by technology and progress, torn apart by race intolerance and violence, has to live with the mocking edifices of past glory glaring with unapproving eyes, fully restored in body but not spirit.

midwestern bridges

Before interstate engineers replaced our river crossings with solid, straight, under-supported super-slabs of concrete highways, spidery steel bridges carried us across the impediments to the relentless to- and fro- of an increasingly mobile society.

When you pass through the steel rib cages of these older bridges, especially the narrow, long spans, crossing a river feels like a celebration, an exciting transformation from one place to the next.  The uniformity of road surface, side rails and driving surface of concrete pier bridges celebrate only the efficiency of travel, not the journey.

These bridges make a space amongst themselves, an interstitial place between here and over-there.  Because the structure of the bridge is above you and around you, you don't simple glide across a river or steep valley, but you feel the suspension from gravity of that leap across space.



roads West

On a recent roadtrip I followed the path of two of America's most famous roads - the Oregon Trail and old Route 66. They say the adventure is in the journey, not the destination, but both of these pathways existed to traverse the country as quickly and safely as possible on the way to the West and a better future.  The journey was long and arduous, sometimes dangerous, and the prospect of the gleaming future in California was ardent enough to persevere the trials of the trail.  You might get your kicks on Route 66, but you weren't too linger too long.

The Oregon Trail, as most of us know from school, was the primary wagontrail west that departed St. Louis and crossed the plains of what was later to become Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and beyond.  The trail itself is not a single path, but a series of braided trails largely following water courses and passing through the Rocky Mountains and over the Continental Divide at their lowest and most accessible location, South Pass City in Wyoming. And like that city, now a ghost town, the paths of the Oregon Trail are long-abandoned and obscured.  There are some places where roadways were put down in their place, some contemporary river and stream crossings in the same historical locations.  But for the most part, the Oregon Trail has disappeared in farm fields, pastures and range.

Route 66 is the fabled early automobile journey west, from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Like the Oregon Trail, it was a path of dreams, a trajectory to sunshine and the abundance of the West Coast.  And like the Oregon Trail, it has also largely disappeared.  There are sections in most states that can be identified and even driven along, but there are significant stretches that have been lost.  The interstate highway system made Route 66 obsolete and greatly reduced the driving time across the midwest.  But with this efficiency gain, there has been a loss of the progression of small towns and eateries, gas stations and motels that were sprinkled along the route.

What is most interesting to me is that these two most famous routes West, fundamental chapters of the history of the country, have largely disappeared in a relatively short span of years.  Searching websites, old maps and documents can reveal their paths, but actual on-the-ground discovery is rather difficult.  Route 66 is infrequently  marked with some historic road signs and you can find the occasional historic markers for the Oregon Trail, but history and 'progress' fling us along so rapidly, that these old routes are swept away with little regret and short eulogies.

Maybe these paths West, these winding journeys to a better life, have withered away like the pilgrimage paths of the Middle Ages.  No longer able to sustain our belief in the myth of redemption at the final destination, the presence of the paths themselves are unwelcome reminders of dreams lost to reality, faith in that "next great future place beyond the horizon" exposed as naive myth. Better to erase that nagging reminder in the guise of progress.  We get there faster now, but the journey is not so rich and the destination no longer Shangri-la.

the long house

We have been working on a project in Boulder that holds a number of challenges, not the least of which is a long narrow lot with severe building restrictions.  My client's property is 50' wide by 188' long, but because of its corner location, both street-facing sides of the lot require a 25' wide setback from the street.  That setback along with additional side and rear yard setbacks makes the building envelope 20' wide by 128' long, a 6 1/2 : 1 length to width ratio.  A potential upper level is even more restricted by a solar shadow ordinance making the available building envelope up there an amazing 9' wide by 128' long or 14 : 1 ratio.

I have developed some long, narrow projects in the past.

The Cornhouse project was a speculative effort for a long, narrow house nestled within the parallel, seemingly endless rows of corn that one sees in the upper midwest.  Driving between where I lived, Chicago, and where I grew up, Kentucky, I would pass through hundreds of miles of Indiana corn fields, their arrow-straight rows creating a pulsing rhythm looking down their long furrows.  Fundamental to the design of this house project was its position among the corn and the changing relationship to the horizon that occurred as seasonal corn grew from the damp ground to its late summer height well over the heads of the inhabitants.  Equally present in the scheme was also the narrow layout of the house based on the typical 22" module of corn furrows.

That long narrow Cornhouse has its urban twin in a competition design executed a few years later.  Where the cornhouse was long and narrow in an expansive landscape, the layout of the city house was dictated by the long, narrow property lot boundaries of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood.  Designed for a tough, urban setting and for universally accessible use, this long house was internally focused, centering around a courtyard space and incorporating two units, distributed over the building's three levels.

I have written in the past about the unconventional massing of these kind of long and narrow buildings and the jokingly absurd Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome. A brief study of the work of Pritzker-prize winning architect Glen Murcutt reveals more than a few quite extraordinary long and narrow building designs.  These works, especially the houses, seem to slowly reel themselves out, room after room unfolding as you progress through the house.

Our current project's history is marked by our initial attempt to make a smaller more compact house that substituted height for length.  After an anguished meeting with neighbors stridently objecting to the potential loss of views because of the proposed height, we may be shifting back to the long house.  I'm not sure if this kind of elongated house will be more or less opposed by the neighbors, but given the strictures imposed by the setbacks, we have only two ways to go - tall and more compact or the stretched out massing of the long house.

small town movie theatres


Most of the smaller towns that I passed through on a recent road trip had their version of the local movie palace.  And most were closed down along with the rest of the storefronts along the main street.   The emptiness of middle America is remarkable and so sad.  We all hear the statistics about the growth of the larger cities and the gradual emigration away from small towns.  But something about the desolate marque of the old movie theatre strikes me as the most melancholy of the all the main street ghosts.

You can almost see and hear the activity of the crowd out front, the ticket sellers booth and the couples lingering after the show.

These buildings were also the real stars of the main street.  They were fantastical and showy, brash and sometimes clownish in their attempts to draw our attention, and all the more so when standing next to the somber drugstore and barbershop.

Some are still open of course.  I would have loved to have seen a show at the eponymous theater in Lamar, Colorado on the eastern plains.  Any movie in that place gets an extra star.