When fenestration was a fad

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Architecture, like fashion and music, are driven by fads. I don’t think architects intend to follow another architect’s lead, but it’s very easy to see something you like and try to emulate it. Sometimes these fads promote revolutions that redefine how we design and construct buildings, and ultimately how we live our lives. Other times these fads make us vomit in our mouths.

I live close to a middle school that is in the process of being demolished. I’ve been trying to think of an eloquent segue into why it’s being demolished, but it really comes down to the fact that the damn thing was built without windows and doors.

When this building was being designed, someone (which it’s safe to say the architect whose stamp in on the drawings and the client who paid for its construction) thought that windows and interior doors leading into the classrooms were a bad idea.

I can begin to somewhat understand that maybe this school was an experiment in teaching methodologies, and they (whoever they are) wanted to observe if windows were a distraction to learning, and if doors leading into the classroom were a distraction to learning. There’s a part of me that can see the logic of this thinking, just like how I can see the logic for a drunk person to run head-first into traffic.

I actually know a few people who attended this middle school, and they each said the same thing–the school sucked. There were no windows. The classes were basically in a large open space separated only by thin partitions and no doors, so half the class could hear their teacher while the other half heard the teacher in the adjacent space.

The new school building that replaced the school-of-no-windows is a huge improvement (here are some images of the new school). Of course this new school follows its own fads (mix of mass and space, technology integration, and apparently desks that promote collaboration and cheating).

Fads come and go, and sometimes they come back. But living without fenestration is a fad that apparently ended with a wrecking ball.

 

Proposed Raised House in New Orleans

I just added a new design under Past Projects–something that was inspired by the homes I saw built for the Make It Right organization in New Orleans.

I think Make It Right is an incredibly noble cause, and Brad Pitt and everyone else associated with it should be commended.

I also think some of the houses can be designed better.

What to ask when designing

I’ve written numerous posts about design and how it’s defined, but I wanted to share the two questions I ask myself (as well as my students) when starting a design:

1) What problem does it solve?

If the design doesn’t solve a problem, then it’s art. (Art does have a purpose, but solving problems isn’t one of them.) If it doesn’t solve a problem, then why would anyone want to buy your design?

2) How is it better than anything else out there?

Design shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. If you spend time coming up with a design and someone has already done it better than you, then why would anyone want to buy your design?

People buy problem solvers, whether it’s an energy-efficient home, or a music player that fits in your pocket, or a car that efficiently makes doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Making money isn’t necessarily a measuring stick for the success of a design, but a great design is something that people should be buying.

Answer those two questions, and then the only thing you need to worry about is your marketing.

Why the American dream is a tribute band

“Helloooooooo, Suburbia! (The audience goes wild.)

“When the tour bus got into town this morning we drove by some Santa Barbara-styled homes (loud roar from the audience) on our way to lunch at a post-modern strip mall (another loud roar).

“Now who’s ready to rock? (Yet another loud roar.) And who’s ready to rock AND roll? (Loud roar, with a hint of bewilderment.) Let’s get this party started with some Rick Springfield! (Guitar riff; thunderous roar; mosh pit ensues; tear gas fills the air.)

This is what entered my head as I looked upon the “Foreclosed” article and slide show at Architectural Record.

Suburbia needs help. It was designed with the mindset that energy and resources will always be inexpensive and abundant. The amount of energy and resources used per capita is proving to be unsustainable. So what do we do?

We can’t continue to build suburbia the way we’ve been building it. But we can’t build it in a manner that won’t be accepted by contemporary society. Our culture moves forward by being nudged, not by being thrown over a cliff. The short-term goal of redesigning suburbia should involve a nudge, and the long-term goal should involve a series of nudges.

In regards to city planning, one could argue that we’ve seen it all. These nudges are going to push the designs of our cities towards something we’ve seen in the past, but should it resemble something that’s worked before (i.e. a city plan that’s been inhabited for hundreds of years) or something that’s been proposed (i.e. a city plan that’s been drawn and not built, or that’s been built and rejected by its inhabitants).

Does this design by Studio Gang Architects really differ from this by Archigram? Is the Simultaneous City really that much different from Pruitt Igoe? Is this neighborhood really just this neighborhood plus Frank Gehry?

We’re stuck with suburbia (think of the environmental impact if we wiped the slate clean), but there’s no reason why it has to be a bad place. (Bad is highly subjective, although my use of bad involves its complete dependency on inexpensive energy and resources.)

Suburbia will become better by taking advantage of what’s already there with more density (not high-rises–remember, just a nudge), making purposeful use of the spaces between circulation and destinations (just a fancy way of saying design and make use of the wide open spaces throughout suburbia that currently are a waste of unoccupied lawns and parking lots), and subdue the car-centric attitude of design and focus on alternate means for people to get around if they want to walk (and accomplish something by walking other than burning some calories).

We have seen it all. Suburbia will always be a tribute band and, if successful, will probably look like something from the 80s–the 1780s.

“Rock me Amadeus!”

Words on Wood Competition

Wood–the living and breathing building material, and that thing that Beavis and Butthead snicker about.

If you have nice things to write (or an inspirational photo) about wood and you’re in need of an iPad 2, then you should consider entering in this competition from reThink Wood website. The contest is open to all legal residents of Canada and the US, which I’m sorry to say precludes beavers. (“Whoa, you said beavers.”)

Get it done before February 29th, 2012.

Colorful homes (or why beige is no longer a color)

Most suburban developments consist of architecture filled with color. These colors range from sand to taupe, khaki to cream, and for the more exotic locales cafe au lait to ecru. But you have to believe that sooner or later we’re going to run out of synonyms for beige.

Color reveals a specific taste, a focused mindset on how a person views the world, an attraction to an attitude and lifestyle. The problem with color is that not everyone shares those tastes, views, and attitudes. We typically live in a particular home for a short duration, so when the house goes up for sale a significant amount of money can be lost be the seller simply because a prospective buyer doesn’t like the color.

(Side note: If Stalin was brought back from the dead, and then dropped off in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood filled with beige homes and conservatively colored minivans in every driveway, would he have thought the Soviets won the Cold War?)

Color is light, and light is good. Like them or not, the owners of these homes (another link) should be commended on their bravery for revealing their tastes, views, and attitudes.

(Another side note: I have to believe the Heidelberg Project belongs to Flea.)

Starbucks and shipping containers

Finally, the two things that the U.S. has too many of–Starbucks and shipping containers–have finally combined into one.

Using shipping containers can possibly be a future trend for small businesses (or large businesses that require a small commercial footprint like a Starbucks) for its low cost, its potential for being mobile, and its ability to be placed almost anywhere (think of a coffee shop or a drive-thru grocery stand in a mall parking lot).

A mobile architecture for a mobile society.