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.