Sunday, August 29, 2010

One last time.

Run away! Run away!

Leave here, go to

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A reminder

Leave here, go to

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Let's Blow This Popsicle Stand

Google deigns to restore this blog after deleting for it no reason - again - and that's my limit. New blog, old content at . To the many ones of people who've linked, please update to the new address.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Details 4

Went to see Salt this weekend. It has a decent first half before it descended into complete stupidity; I amused myself watching Jolie closely while Mrs. __B amused herself watching Schrieber closely.

Like most people in the design professions, I have a good visual memory. It was obvious from the beginning that Salt's "Washington DC" apartment was on Riverside Drive in NYC; when we got a look out her window, you saw the roofs of the pseudo-Acropolis of Audobon Terrace, which puts the building around 154th or 153rd St and Riverside.

During the car chase that is supposed to take place in DC - and most of which was filmed in DC - there's a scene on a complicated series of highway ramps that are in downtown Albany. I recognized three buildings on the Albany skyline (one was a project of mine) and the interchange itself is distinctive if you know it.

If this had been a better movie, it would have been jarring, but given the low quality of the ideas it was just amusing. The record for movie-makers assuming the audience wouldn't catch on to a detail is still a piece of 80s crap called Over the Brooklyn Bridge which has a shot of Elliott Gould driving a car over the Manhattan Bridge during the opening credits.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

WTC advertising

You can't blame people for not knowing the future. But as Copyranter points out, you can blame them for spreading their carcinogens around: The Joys of Asbestos.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Other Rear Window...

...and get your minds out of the gutter.

The view NW from my office is the previously-posted view of the new construction at the WTC site. The view due west (from the window closest to my desk) is the demolition of the Banker's Trust Trading Building / Deutschbank Building on Liberty Street.

The overview (click to engorge):

The tall building dead center and the similar one to the right are World Financial Center 1 and 2, on landfill west of the WTC site that was created with the excavation spoil from the WTC. The gothic building in front of WFC1 is 90 West Street, the building that was most heavily damaged on 9-11 that was repaired rather than demolished. The "construction" in front of 90 West is the demolition of Deutschbank. This was a 50-story building and is now down to about 6 stories.

The concrete is broken up, the steel is burned off, and the dumpsters full o' crap are hoisted down to the street. This building received some serious structural damaged on 9-11 - a chunk of steel falling from the south tower gouged Deutschbank's north face for about eight stories, cutting a dozen beams and destroying one column - but that was repaired by 12/01. The glass facade was pretty much shattered, and this allowed rain in, and the interior of the building turned into a huge mold farm. Since (a) no one really wanted the building, (b) Deutschbank was able to claim it as an insurance loss, and (c) it's in a prime spot for redevelopment, it's coming down.

The geniuses first hired to demo it managed to create an interior maze (the steel fireproofing is asbestos, so the whole building had to be abated) and cut the standpipes, leading to the deaths of two firefighters in the summer of 2007. The current demo contractor is being ever so careful.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How to Feel Superior

I spent the morning at a client's place. He plays with money for a living and is rich enough to afford a penthouse apartment in Chelsea (prob 1.5 to 2 million), to contemplate spending $100,000 or more on a basically meaningless alteration, to waste a few hours of my billable time, and to buy some expensive-looking art.

But at least my place isn't entirely decorated with Ikea furniture.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The List, Part 6

Tourists who are so intent on getting pictures of the FDNY at work that they get in the way of the firefighters and encourage their entire families to join them.

AKA morons.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reuse and Zombies

I'm not going to be shown up by a shambler.

In my business, you hear a lot of nonsense about old buildings: "They don't build them like they used to." "What a piece of crap." "It doesn't meet code."

Here's the thing about old buildings: they exist independently of our opinions of them. Codes change, but physical reality does not. About fifteen years ago, the U.S. wood code (AKA the National Design Specification from the American Forest & Paper Association) revised downward the allowable stress on nearly every commonly used species and grade of construction lumber. The code had been based on research performed using 2" x 2" pieces, which, it turns out, are not statistically representative of the 2x10s and 2x12s used in construction. A house that I designed before the code change would contain beams that, according to the new code, don't work. Did the house become unsafe because the code changed?

This has happened before. Cast iron columns were common in the 1800s and now are excluded from structural use. Ditto unreinforced structural concrete and concrete columns reinforced only with longitudinal bars.

Old buildings are full of structure that we no longer use or now use differently, but that doesn't mean they're unsafe. It means we have to understand how they actually work rather than blindly applying the latest codes. Most old buildings, if they're in fair or better condition, have greater load capacity than modern buildings because they were designed using more conservative codes, rules of thumb rather than codes, or both.

Engineering analysis is about creating a model of reality that can be easily calculated, because actual reality is too complicated for efficient (read: economical [read: I have to charge fees that clients will pay so I have to stop analyzing at some point]) analysis. But the model is not reality and the code is not a building. Analysis of old buildings for reuse more closely resembles the trial-and-error work of Dr. Gregory House than it does that of the Bernoullis or Euler, even though the Bernoullis and Euler actually created some of the mathematical tools we use.


So, the good guys include "architects" and the bad guys trying to kill DiCaprio are "engineers." One of these days, Mr. Nolan, when you least expect it...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Upward Mobility

Here's a nice career arc:

I blame the gradual decline of the image of engineers on (a) the computer geeks and (b) engineers dumb enough to confuse conservatism in design (meaning fail-safe design or minimizing the danger from failure) with "conservatism" as defined by Republicans.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Air Travel

Who whistles on a no-empty-seats flight? Someone with a death wish?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Our office has a bunch of high-end iMacs as workstations and a MacPro as a server, but the equipment that gives me the most headaches is our motley collection of field tools. We have two banker's boxes full of carpenter's rulers, tape measures, flashlights, awls, cameras, work gloves, and so on. On any given day I'll need some or all of those and the question comes up: how the hell do you carry it? Most briefcases and shoulder bags work very badly with irregularly-shaped objects and I've tried a bunch.

This month's experiment, a "contractor's briefcase." Less than $30 and nylon, so how bad could it be? This picture shows the "office side" of the bag; the "equipment side" has bigger pockets.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rear Window

The view from one corner of our office. The left is our window jamb, the right is the building across the street. The big thing on the left with the blue tarps at the top is the "Freedom Tower," up to about 300' of its 1776' eventual height; the tall glass building is the replacement 7 WTC; the two cranes crossed in front of 7 WTC are working on the  WTC memorial; the bare area on the right with a single crane is where the new (fourth) train station is going and currently has the 18th C ship archeology. (Click on pic for extra-largey goodness.)

Monday, July 26, 2010


I'm on the phone with a client and he hasn't said anything meaningful in...and I glance at the phone and the call has been going for 38 minutes and it was just to set up a fucking site visit and now he's repeating himself, repeating himself and why won't you DIE DIE DIE

"Dan, I gotta run. Call on the other line."


"Dan, as soon as I have a report ready, I'll email you."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The List, Part 5

The "technical" "writers" who create camera instruction manuals.

Yes, they meet the second criterion.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Technology Marches On

I recently had to explain to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission why my office was proposing using GFRC (fiber-reinforced thin-shell concrete) to replace damaged terra cotta ornament on a historic building. The short version is that the original system for some of the ornament was badly flawed, and rather than recreate the flaw 90 years after the fact, we prefer to fix it.

Something I didn't say, and shouldn't have to say to a bunch of preservationists, is that architectural terra cotta in its day was not a precious and highly-regarded material, but rather an inexpensive way to fake carved stone. This is exactly what GFRC is today. So our proposed replacement copied both the appearance and the rationale behind the original while improving structural performance, while a painstaking recreation of the original would have been false in terms of constructive logic and would have the same problems (inadequate handrail capacity at a balustrade, terra cotta exposed to leaks from a poorly-placed gutter) as the original. I'd like to believe the A/E/C community is capable of learning from mistakes and can improve a detail when it has failed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anything for Smut

Mrs. __B, ordinarily:

Mrs. __B, right now:


My new camera arrives in a day or two. Then I'll post my own damned pictures instead of trolling the inner-tubes.

Meanwhile, a self-portrait:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

While I'm At It

Having exposed T&U's true appearance to the world, I might as well continue.


Smut Clyde at work:

A night at the bar with B^4:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The List, Interlude

Because T&U asked so nicely*, here are the incredibly complex criteria to get on the list:
  1. Be a douchebag.
  2. Inspire others who would not ordinarily be douchebags to be douchebags.
  3. Not be a politician unless your douchebaginess and douchebag-inspiring abilities far exceed those that are the ordinary stuff of politics.
  4. Annoy me directly, either in person or by proxy.

*T&U asking nicely:

Can I refuse a pardon?


     We have received your appeal regarding your blog Upon further review we have determined that your blog was mistakenly marked as a TOS violator by our automated system and, as such, we have reinstated your blog. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused in the meantime and thank you for your patience as we completed our review process.

     Thank you for for understanding.


     The Blogger Team

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


On a private message board (for the condo I live in) I recently came across the phrase "F-bomb" as a euphemism for the word "fuck." I've heard it before, but it never fails to amaze me. A bomb is a device that, at best, uses physical destruction for a constructive purpose, and more often is simply destructive. "Fuck" is a word. Anyone incapable of understanding the difference in harm that can be caused by a word - particularly one that is not inherently derogatory of any person or group - and a bomb is too fucking stupid to take part in an adult conversation.

To paraphrase Redd Foxx, why do I use the words "fuck" and "shit?" Because people do. If you've never fucked, shiiit. If you've never shit, fuuuuck.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


From "Halting State" by Charlie Stross...

A mob of LARP zombies has assembled and chants:

What do we want?
When do we want them?

Real life can be so boring.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The List, part 4

Rudy Guiliani
Anita Bryant
Joe Torre
Barney (the dinosaur)
all three Stooges

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sheer Fucking Stupidity

Part of an architect's email to me today:
I was at the Building Dept to get structural drawings for [address]. Unfortunately, I couldn't get them.

Several hundred building in NYC were designated Security Risks after 9/11.  [Address] is designated a potential security hazard, so I have to apply for clearance. The process includes getting a written letter from the owner giving permission to accces the drawings. The security clearance would take about a week.
[Address] is a condo, completed about two years ago. The only people who'd want to blow it up are the minority with good taste.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

High Tech

The Gasholder House, Troy NY:

People today somewhat vaguely remember that, in between oil lamps and electric lights, we used to light our homes and business with gas lamps. The gas was refined coal gas and, like all such volatile products, had to be stored carefully for distribution. The Gasholder House is a large gas tank, with a brick exterior wall and trussed dome, and supplied gas to Troy. This was, for its era of construction, fancy stuff...and today requires a paragraph of explanation.

One minor linguistic hangover: we call natural gas "natural gas" to distinguish it from the previously used "artificial gas."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The List, part 3

John Calvin
The crazy preacher woman in "Silent Hill."

A Benefit of Insomnia

An absolutely beautiful yellow full moon setting over the harbor.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The List, part 2

  • Frederick Winslow Taylor
  • James Buchanan
  • Walter Gropius
  • Fred Silverman
  • All prop comedians
  • And, so that part 2 of the list is not a complete sausage-fest, Sarah Palin.

Monday, April 26, 2010

When Architecture Works

The thing about a building like the New York Public Library is that it enhances its occupants. I feel like a scholar - which I'm not - when I go in there.

My favorite image is snow covering the lions - Patience and Fortitude, of whom my father does a great impersonation - that guard the front door:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The List, part 1

Note: inclusion and exclusion criteria may not be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer on roller skates.
  • Sirhan Sirhan.
  • My third grade teacher, Mrs. Benjamin.
  • The guy on the 4 train picking his nose and eating his findings.
  • People who use the phrase "real americans" without irony, satire, or quotes.
  • Political trolls, grammar trolls, spelling trolls, purity trolls, under-the-bridge trolls.
  • 3 of the 5 structural reviewers of the New York City Department of Design and Construction.
  • John Sidney McCain II.
  • Menudo.

Veiled Hump Reference

I may have given the impression that I believe all tall buildings should be penis replacements. That is not true. Some of my favorite tall buildings are stocky and give the impression of being man-made mountains.

For example, 32 Sixth Avenue by Ralph Walker aspires to be the Matterhorn. It looked better before the 2001 addition of rabbit-ear antennae.

A few blocks down the street, Walker's AT&T building:

He was ecumenically-minded and gave Brooklyn one as well.

Other architects have played this game, but no one else makes me think of hiring sherpas.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

For the Record

Buildings I have inspected from scaffolds and not fallen off:

Travelers, Hartford



And several hundred others.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I was in Hartford today and walked past the Athenaeum. There were a whole bunch of these built in various cities in the late 19th century, as places to go hear people with opposing viewpoints engage in high-minded debate.

New York never had an Athenaeum, as far as I know. This is not surprising given New Yorkers' self-image. We need a Spartanaeum, a place to go watch people with opposing viewpoints beat the living shit out of each other.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cultural Circumstances

Mrs. __B and I spent yesterday on a tour of house museums in Queens. One building, the Bowne House, was built circa 1660 and is either the oldest or second-oldest building in NYC. It is, of course, a farmhouse.

One of the strange consequences of living in an area colonized after the "age of exploration" (my god I loved my 5th-grade history class) is that the oldest remnants are farmhouses and a handful of house-sized churches. Nothing much bigger was built back then except a few mostly-earth forts; the longest settled areas are mostly city centers and have been rebuilt multiple times. The Bowne house survived because (a) Flushing wasn't heavily built up before 1900 and (b) the same family lived in in through nine generations from 1660 to 1945.

In longer-settled areas (say, anywhere in Europe) the oldest above-ground remnants are big: castles, forts, pagan temples, cathedrals. Anything smaller had been eroded by thousands of years of social friction.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Switching your company's time-tracking and billing program, while emotionally satisfying and leading to a more aesthetically-pleasing computer session, does not actually increase the month's billings.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is Not a Safety Harness

Cautionary Tales

I took my 4-hour standing scaffold class last night, as required by NYC for anyone who works on scaffolding. (There's a 32-hour class to build scaffold, plus OSHA classes.) Part of the class was watching video of various idiots doing things that, hopefully, everyone in the room already knew they shouldn't be doing.

One video helpfully included pictures of two men's groins after their their testicles had been severed by improperly-fastened safety harnesses.

Here's one worn properly, from an equipment catalog:


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Details 3

People like detail on large objects. Without it, we have no sense of scale - the physical range-finding made possible by binocular vision is about as good as a cheap camera's focus, with everything beyond ten or twelve feet registering as "far." We use details we know to internally calculate distance, and this is learned very early in life. We come to understand that those little people we sometimes see are normal-sized but located far away. (Those who see actual little people, whether leprechauns or elves, are outside the scope of this blog.)

Traditional architectural styles provide a lot of detail for the eye. A common paradigm is that a building has three scales of detail: the overall shape (or "form" as architects insist on calling it), large detail, and small detail. The idea is that the building's shape can be read at the limits of vision, the large detail can be read from a distance, and the small detail provides scale when at close range.

A traditional example, 17th-century St. Paul's in London:
The dome can be seen from as far away as the building can be seen; the larger details such as the colonnade in he drum below the dome can be seen from a great distance; and the window details and stone jointing can only be seen at close range.

A modern example, the 1929 Chrysler Building in NYC:
From a distance you get the shape, with the spire most prominent. The hood-ornament gargoyles and windows are barely visible.

Closer, you see the black-and-white brick patterning and more details of the windows:

At very close range you see details of the brick and gargoyles:

and even seams in the stainless steel skin:

So if both traditional and modernist architecture give us multiple scales, what's the issue? Several types of modernism, most notably International-Style Modernism, tried to get rid of detail.

The 1958 Seagram Building in NYC
has only two scales: the overall shape and the grid of window mullions and floor spandrels. The overall shape is the combination of two simple rectangular prisms - a tall one in front and a short one in back - and the grid is unchanging. There is little here to give scale.

More recent examples are even more scaleless (less scaleful?). The two 1970s UNDC buildings in NYC, across the street from the UN, have nothing to relate their size to a viewer:

The problem with "glass boxes" isn't that they're sheathed in glass or that they have boxy shapes. The problem is they do not relate to human scale because they have too little detail. I've never heard anyone say they felt the Chrysler Building is too big, even though it's noticeably larger than the UNDC buildings.

Blame Mies if you want, blame Adolf "Ornament is Crime" Loos, but most of all blame developers who seized on an architectural philosophy of simplicity and use it to justify cheapness.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Details 2

Mies van der Rohe famously said "God is in the details." This is a statement of architectural philosophy, and like all such statements is open to debate. (Personally, I prefer a good overall design and mediocre detailing to mediocre overall design and good detailing.) What I find fascinating about this statement is its context: Mies did more to popularize International-Style Modernism than any other single person in the U.S., and that style's hallmark is that it eliminated most of the details of previous styles. In other words, Mies searched for perfect details by getting rid of most of them.

An obvious example of the International Style dropping details is the non-use of moldings where interior walls and partitions meet floors and ceilings. Crown moldings and baseboards may be associated in the popular imagination with historicist architecture - Louis the 57th or some such nonsense - but they serve an important function: they hide the juncture of two planes and therefore (a) allow for differential movement without cracking and (b) allow the laborers building the walls a place for slop in measurement. It turns out that replacing the dreaded "ornament" of moldings with the "detail" of a simple joint increases the cost of construction and the amount of maintenance required. Or to pound the already-in-place nail a little harder: the building traditions of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years had practical purposes not always obvious to those who would eliminate tradition in the name of modernism.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Details 1

We've just started watching Mad Men season 3 (on disk). The show has a reputation - generally deserved - for scrupulous accuracy about the world of the distant past...1 year before I was born.

One small mistake - in one episode they have a close-up on an elevator control panel and there are raised-text numbers next to the buttons. Those didn't exist in '63 but only came in with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


I'm an outer-boroughs New Yorker, which is different from being a Manhattanite. (It's like distinguishing between male and female turtles. Outsiders can't tell the difference, but it's important to the turtles.) I grew up in Queens (although no one from Queens thinks of themselves as being from Queens - the old town and developer names are still religiously used, so, accurately, I am from Flushing and a close friend is from...wait for it...Ozone Park) and now live in Brooklyn. One of the ways you can tell if someone is from the outer boroughs is how they refer to Manhattan. It's "the city," as in, "I'm going to meet a friend in the city." This makes sense in a suburban-urban-relationship way, but keep in mind that Brooklyn and Queens each has a population well over two million and would be damned big cities on their own.

Looking just at the Americans who've posted comments here, we've got people from Yonkers, L.A., Milwaukee, and Boston. Among the long, long list of stupidities I was guilty of in my teens and early twenties was arguing with people about where was the best place to live. The short answer that I couldn't see then: where you're happy. Any other answer leads to Yakov Smirnov telling Cleveland jokes and any life path that ends in a shithole like Branson...oops.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Perfect April Fools

In 1824, a joker spread the rumor* that the dense urban development at the southern tip of Manhattan island was causing the island to sink. Merchants and traders, heavily invested in the contents of warehouses along the dock streets worried* that they could lose all. The joker got financial backing* for his scheme** to saw Manhattan in half, tow the southern portion into the harbor, turn the thing around, and jam it back into place. He paid* dozens of unemployed men to stand around with saws, and then fled with the rest of the money*, claiming that the pressure had been otherwise equalized.

*Or maybe not.

**Possibly apocryphal.

This story has been retold on several occasions since the 1860s and damned if it doesn't get better each time.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Weather

NYC has just set a record for the wettest March since records have been kept (back to the mid-nineteenth century). This is annoying in general but has a particularly annoying side effect in my field: wet masonry fails at a higher rate than dry masonry. There have been a series of minor to mid-level wall collapses and similar events.

It's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, clay-product rain a gonna fall.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crystal, Baby

Following the internationally-famous success of the Crystal Palace in London at the 1851 Great Exhibition, several other overgrown greenhouses were built and named "Crystal Palace." New York's was built in 1853 on the current site of Bryant Park. The usual view shows the front of the building, facing Sixth Avenue, which at that time was more of a theory than an actual street.

What never seems to show up in these pictures is the old distributing reservoir for the Croton water system, which was immediately adjacent (at the current site of the public library) and was larger than the Crystal Palace. Here's one corner of it:

In any case, the great technological advance of the construction of exhibition buildings out of wrought iron and glass was that those materials don't burn, so the newfangled buildings were safer.

Of course, in 1858:
London's original made it until 1936 before burning down.

Then Tell Me If You're Mute

I've been informed that Google may be screwing up commenting. If you can't comment, leave a comment to tell me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Brooklyn Bridge and Destiny

The Brooklyn Bridge, as has been discussed by people far more scholarly than me and by people with teredo issues has been a cultural icon since it was built. On a personal level I can say that I would probably have drifted into structural engineering even if I had never seen it, but having read about it far more than I should have when I was 16, it was probably inevitable that I would attend Washington Roebling's alma mater.

The question comes up: why is it famous now? It was not the first record-setting long-span suspension bridge (although it did break the existing record by 50%, which is an achievement in any era), it hasn't had the longest span since 1903, and the hypertrophied NYC self-promotion machine has not made the newer and far bigger Verazanno Narrow Bridge famous as anything other than a pain in the ass for people in Staten Island and Brooklyn.

The answer, in my opinion, is a combination of two factors. First, the bridge is beautiful in its structure. There is a small amount of applied ornament - most obviously, the cornices and gothic arches of the towers - but most people who see it in person fixate on the appearance of the cables. Structures that are beautiful in themselves are rare, and this one is in a location that makes it incredibly prominent.

The standard view from the side used for bridges doesn't usually show the Brooklyn Bridge very well as it emphasizes the heavy masonry towers (click on the picture twice for full-size):

A modern high-res photo gives a better idea of the visual effect of the vertical suspender cables and the diagonal brace cables, even with the Manhattan Bridge standing in the background making rabbit ears over the Brooklyn's head (click on the picture twice for full-size):

It's pictures from the walkway that really give the full effect:

The second reason is less visceral but more obscure. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 at a critical moment in engineering history. The State of Liberty - the first tall steel frame in the United States - wouldn't be completed until 1886. The first steel-skeleton skyscrapers would be completed in New York and Chicago in 1890. The Brooklyn Bridge was the last large suspension bridge with masonry towers that visually (and in structural analysis) provide a rigid anchor for the flexible cables and deck. We know now, looking back, that this was the both the last of the old-style bridges, with six years devoted to masonry work before the steel superstructure began, and the one of the first demonstrations of the possibilities of steel construction.

But, hey, I just like it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Life in the Burbs

I had to go to Darien, Connecticut, today for a project. Darien is the buckle on CT's WASP belt and I felt swarthier than usual walking down the mostly-sidewalk-free roads.

One incident of note: as I passed a "medical arts" building, I noticed a used rubber glove on the pavement.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I went to the local burger joint for dinner tonight. It's set up very simply: you walk in, order at the registers, and pay. If you're taking out, they call your name when your order is ready; if you're eating in, they bring the food to your table.

I was there for about fifteen minutes until my take-out order was ready. Two men were standing at the registers, looking at the menu, and debating what to order for that entire time. I heard pieces of the conversation, which included such scintillating debate as whether or not the herbs were spread throughout the meat or simply sprinkled on top. It's a fucking hamburger. A good, well-made, and tasty hamburger, but nothing more. A burger joint with a half-page of burger options is providing a service to both regular customers and obsessive-compulsives.

I've used a variation on this phenomenon at work. If I need a fast response from a client, I give them one or two options. If I want a project to be delayed for a while, I give the client six options or more.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Master's Last

Watched Family Plot last night, for the first time since it came out in 1976. Hitchcock's last film, made on a small budget and with some problems in plot and continuity. But there are still a half-dozen "Hitchcock moments" when you sit up and shake your head. My favorite: a kidnapper in his secret cellar lair, hauling an unconscious body...and then the doorbell rings.

Also: the mid-70s. When William Devane, Bruce Dern, and Karen Black were considered good-looking.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Design Fallacy

First, those looking for the design phallus should check out "Paging Doctor Freud" a few posts down.

Second, a definition: the classic design fallacy concerns appliances. It's when the "artistic" portion of industrial design overwhelms practicality, so that you have a beautiful object that doesn't work properly because of the characteristics that make it beautiful. Olivetti has fallen into this trap a number of times and Bang & Olufsen are often accused of it. I once had a desk with beautiful drawer pulls that were too small for most men's hands, including mine. Looked good, didn't work because of the characteristic that made it look good.

Architects usually avoid the fallacy, but not always. You'll sometimes see handrails that are not easy to grip, for example. My favorite current example is the Gherkin in London, aka 30 St. Mary Axe.

The spiraling mullions are part of the beauty of the design, but they trap dirt. Up close, every intersection of two of those diagonals is marked by a streak of dirt. Oops.

Given the close relationship between engineering and industrial design, it should not be a surprise that "pure" engineering designs sometimes show the fallacy, but it is. Why is it a surprise? Because no one expects engineers to be thinking about aesthetics unless the topic is cars.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monty Python

I got the complete Monty Python for my birthday and I'm slowly working my way through it. The architect sketch remains as accurate today as it was the day it was filmed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Architectural Colonialism 2

Say, for the sake of argument, that you're an executive at New York Life Insurance in 1890, when your company is busy expanding your national presence. Instead of renting space for your regional offices, you're planning on building your own. What do you do to make it clear that the new building belongs to your company, the big bad New Yorkers?

The answer is obvious: you build New York-style skyscrapers* wherever you go.

Kansas City, 1890

St. Paul, 1890

Omaha, 1890

Minneapolis, 1890

Bigger and fancier buildings were built in Chicago in 1894 and New York in 1895 (this a third expansion of the existing headquarters), but these were simply individual tall buildings in two cities crowded with them. On the other hand, the Kansas City and Omaha buildings were the tallest in their respective citites when built, the Minneapolis building was one of three in the city taller than 10 stories, the St. Paul building was one of four in the city taller than 10 stories.

NY Life to the Midwest: HERE WE ARE!

*"Skyscraper" is a term without a fixed meaning. In the 1890s, a ten-story steel-frame building arguably qualified.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Architectural Colonialism 1

The city of Greater New York was created in 1898 when the cities of New York (and its existing absorbed suburbia in the Bronx) and Brooklyn, various towns in (the west half of the old) Queens County, and the farmland and villages of Richmond County merged. Even though Manhattan had less than half the total population, it was running the show, and local autonomy mostly disappeared never to return.

Brooklyn's city hall was renamed "Borough Hall" in a preliminary act of New York superiority. The real offense came later. The nineteenth-century city hall buildings were too small for modern bureaucracy and office buildings were built, first in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn.

Manhattan's Municipal Building, completed in 1915:

Brooklyn's Municipal Building, completed in 1924:

M to B: You get one just like ours, only smaller!

Random Political Factoid

Lee Papa, aka The Rude Pundit, teaches at the College of Staten Island. So when he's not writing scatological political humor, he's forcing guidos to read plays they don't like.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Paging Dr. Freud

If I'm going to discuss tall buildings, might as well get this out of the way. Skyscrapers are not penises unless you have a very strange definition of "penis." Most have flat tops and rectangular footprints, many of the remainder have spires ending in points. (Everyone together now: ouch.)

Except, of course that some are. The current champion, in my opinion, is the Williamsburg Bank on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Tallest building in Brooklyn from the late 1920s until last year and a big old dick:

The a/c equipment for the building is under the dome, and in cold weather it vents get the idea.

The all-time champion was the Singer Building, the headquarters of the sewing-machine company, which was demolished for a rather boring black steel-and-glass building. It had a large base with a curved mansard roof, a 65-foot square tower, and then another curved mansard on top of the tower.

Singer, in its rampant glory:

One Wall Street

I fell off this building in 1988 while conducting a facade survey. Safety harnesses are wonderful things.

Thinking like an Engineer

I was walking down a side street, minding my own business as much as that's actually possible in Manhattan, when I saw a young woman struggling to open the door to an office building.* The door was one of a pair of heavy glass doors with no frame, just hidden hinges; she was quite small and - important to note - wearing spike heels.

A lot of commercial building doors have stiff hinges. It's a combination of design (the doors won't accidentally swing open from wind or the difference in pressure between inside and out) and accident (the hinges are never cleaned). The woman pulled normally at first (standing vertically with her arm parallel to the ground), the way one would with an interior door, and nothing happened. Then she simultaneously pulled and leaned back slightly, and still nothing happened.

This is where the narrative switches to geek-speak because I switched to geek-think. She was approaching the problem as one of applying a force to the door, but that wasn't the problem. She needed to balance the force she was trying to apply with her arm and (by leaning back) upper body with a reaction to the ground. Her feet needed to be pushing towards the door with as much force as her arm was pulling, and her shoes made it nearly impossible: the configuration of the human body is such that we push forward with our heels, as in "digging your heels in." There was no way for her to do so on shoe heels that were probably under 1/4 square inch in area. On the other hand, if the door was set up to swing in, she could have pushed back off the balls of her feet and her toes to push forward with her arm.

I suspect that all women who regularly wear spike-heeled shoes understand this from experience, but I've never heard it discussed. As someone with large and partially flat feet, I take the reactive force for granted almost all the time. And, it can be endlessly fun demonstrating Newton's Third Law to people while ice skating.

*I might have been inspired to play Galahad, but a woman leaving the building pushed it open from inside before I was near enough to consider breaking stride to help.