August 7, 2014

QotD: Hobbit architecture

Filed under: Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:52

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.

Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.

When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. […]

I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.

They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.

Eric S. Raymond, “Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-08-02.

January 27, 2014

QotD: Montreuil and Le Corbusier

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:16

Montreuil reminded me strongly of something: ah yes, I remember what it was, Eastern Europe in the good old days. It had that same air of inspissated gloom and ontological pointlessness; the architecture would have gladdened the heart (so to speak) of Elena Ceausescu. The bus passed through a wasteland of 1970s modernism, egalitarian doctrine made not so much flesh as concrete. The buildings did not age, they dilapidated; it was architecture that induced immediate thoughts of suicide. (Le Corbusier is still revered in France and treated as a hero, though it should be obvious to anyone who reads any of his voluminous writings that he was a psychopathic architectural delinquent of totalitarian pretensions whose talents belonged more to the field of propaganda than to those of architecture, in which his abilities were all negative.) The bus stops were in places such as Saint-Just, the patron saint of revolutionary terror, and Nouvelle France: new in the same sense that the New Man, so beloved of Mussolini and Che Guevara, was going to be new. Montreuil is, in fact, firmly communist, and it shows, although honesty compels me to admit that I don’t know which came first: the communism or the ugliness of everything. Probably the relationship is what Marxists used to call a dialectical one.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Museum of the Living Dead”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-01-26

January 5, 2014

QotD: The Law of the Custom-Built Headquarters Building

Filed under: Business, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 14:32

Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block, down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden. Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport? As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding. Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof. Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise. By the time the permanent building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.

The institutions already mentioned — lively and productive as they may be — flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity. The outer door, in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent elevator. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate toward departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily toward his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.

In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

October 17, 2013

QotD: Small town architecture

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Damariscotta, Maine, is a village about forty percent of the way to Canada along the Atlantic coast, with about 2500 people living in it, and at least that many gawping at it at any given time. It’s cuter than a baby trying to eat an apple.

Damariscotta is an Indian name that means something in Indian, I suppose. I don’t speak Abenaki, and neither do Abenakis, so there’s no use askin’, but I think it means: “Place we’ll burn down during King Philip’s War, and again a few times whenever we’re bored and the sheriff’s drunk during the French And Indian Wars.” The colonists got jealous of the Indians getting to burn the place down fortnightly, and burned the place down themselves so the British couldn’t occupy it during the Revolutionary War, or maybe so the bank couldn’t repossess it, I can’t remember, I was very young back then.


The restaurant was identified to me as haunted, anyway. I was likewise informed that there’s a tour that points out all the local haunted houses, which includes most every building in town but the Rexall. No one ever wants to die and haunt a Rexall. It ain’t dignified. I believe to a certainty that I was supposed to be interested in the fact that the building I was in was haunted by someone besides a man with a liquor license, but I have a defective nature and I wasn’t; but I was fascinated to learn that out-of-plumb doorframes, squirrels in the attic, and a hint of cupidity is enough to get you a paying job lying to people “from away.” And to think I’ve been lying to strangers for free all these years, and on more diverse topics.

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in small cities in the East. The really nice looking cities are made of brick, and all the buildings look like one another, because everything that was there before burned down eleven or four or nine times, until the residents all decided brick buildings were cheaper than a fire department, and built everything at the same time under a regime of architectural and intellectual coherence that is not abroad in the land just now. Damariscotta’s like that; Providence, Rhode Island, parts of Boston, and Portland, Maine are too.

One likewise cannot help but notice that in Damariscotta, the rhythm of the lovely brick buildings, with the occasional gawjus neoclassical residence smattered in, is broken only by the public library, which is fairly new, and built in the Prairie/International/Cow Barn/Reform School style, because reasons. There’s a plaque on the sidewalk that declares the entire downtown a member of the National Register of Historic Places, so you have to check with someone official about the color of the mortar you’re using to fix a brick on your haunted ice cream parlor or haunted Kinko’s or whatever you’ve got, but the town can hire Frank Lloyd Wrong to design the library and place it there like a dead cat at a picnic.

“Innocents Abroad: The Damariscotta Pumpkinfest”, Sippican Cottage, 2013-10-16

March 20, 2013

How Buildings Learn

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

H/T to Tim Harford for the link.

February 2, 2013

Hidden under Britain’s defence HQ: Henry VIII’s wine cellar

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:44

It’s not open to the general public — and given what’s built on top of it, that’s probably no surprise:

Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain’s Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and — at least in the MoD’s case — a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar.

IMAGE: Henry VIII’s wine cellar, photograph by Nicola Twilley. The cellar is apparently occasionally used to host Ministry of Defence dinners and receptions, but is otherwise off-limits to the public other than by special request.

IMAGE: Henry VIII’s wine cellar, photograph by Nicola Twilley. The cellar is apparently occasionally used to host Ministry of Defence dinners and receptions, but is otherwise off-limits to the public other than by special request.

This stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted undercroft was built in the early 1500s by Cardinal Wolsey, as part of a suite of lavish improvements to York Place, the Westminster residence of the archbishops of York since the thirteenth century. The additions, which also included a gallery, presence chamber, and armoury, were intended to make York Place into a palace splendid enough to host the King. They succeeded well beyond Wolsey’s intentions: when Wolsey fell from favour, due to his inability to secure the papal annulment Henry VIII needed in order to marry Anne Boleyn, the King decided to move in.

[. . .]

York Place became the Palace of Whitehall, the principal residence of the English monarchy in London for nearly two hundred years, and Wolsey’s expansive cellar (he apparently received the first delivery of Champagne ever exported to England) became King Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar, the name by which it is still known today.

In Tudor times, the wine was stored in barrels, which presented a certain problem for service: “The barrels are historical reconstructions to represent how wine was stored in Tudor times. Henry VIII’s court consumed something like 300 barrels of wine each year, mostly exported from France and delivered to the palace by river. Interestingly, the wine was drunk very young by today’s standards — an August harvest might be on the table by November — and it was carefully blended with water, honey, and spices to mask its increasing sourness, as half-drunk casks allowed air into contact with the wine, which gradually oxidised into vinegar.”

September 13, 2012

Cutty Sark now housed in “worst new building in Britain”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:33

Andrew Gilligan tells the sad story of the Cutty Sark‘s new “home”:

The architectural trade journal, Building Design, has announced that the historic tea clipper is the 2012 winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the wooden spoon for the dregs of British architecture.

The architects, Grimshaw, have taken something delicate and beautiful and surrounded it with a building that looks like a 1980s bus station. Clumsy and ineptly detailed, their new glass greenhouse around the Cutty Sark totally ruins her thrilling lines, obscures much of her exquisite gilding and cynically forces anyone who actually wants to see her to pay their £12 and go inside. The sight of people pressing their faces forlornly against the smoked glass to try to see something of the ship is one of the sadder in London.

Grimshaw have also punched a shopping centre-style glass lift up through the middle of the ship — and put two more lifts in a new square building, the size of a small block of flats, next to and towering over the ship herself. They’ve plonked a glass pod on the open main deck for a staircase (the old housing was wood, but that’s so nineteenth-century). They’ve installed lights on the masts which make it look like a Christmas tree. Above all, of course, they’ve hoicked the ship up on girders, dangling above the dry dock to create an “unparalleled corporate entertaining space” underneath — an act of vandalism that prompted the resignation of the chief engineer, who said it would place the vessel under unacceptable strain and end in its destruction.

Cutty Sark was severely damaged in a drydock fire in May 2007.

April 10, 2012

In praise of Britain’s National Trust

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:37

When we used to travel more frequently to the UK, we were members of the National Trust. It was a great investment for anyone interested in historic properties, and quite a bargain at the time. We let our membership lapse because we were no longer able to visit on a regular basis. Kelvin Browne discusses the great things the National Trust is doing and wonders why there’s no Canadian equivalent:

The Trust has lofty ambitions, but it’s not elitist: They know that without wide enthusiasm for the organization, it won’t survive.

Founded in 1895 to save Britain’s architectural heritage and open spaces, the organization’s initial purpose hasn’t changed much. In fact, many of its goals relate to today’s pressing issues, including stewardship of the environment and concern for the preservation of small communities.

The Trust protects and opens to the public more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments. They also look after forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, downs, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves and villages “for ever, for everyone.”

Its operating model addresses many of our own concerns related to preserving pieces of Canadian history. However, unlike our system, Britain’s is completely independent of government. the Trust relies on income from membership fees, donations and legacies and revenue raised from its commercial ventures such as cafés, event rentals, the sale of produce from its gardens and farm properties and from leasing a number of its smaller properties to individual tenants.

In other words, no additional taxes are raised to save heritage properties and no meddling bureaucrats inefficiently telling the Brits about their history.

As he points out, the reasons for Canada not having a direct equivalent are two-fold: we are a far younger country and therefore have far fewer truly historical buildings, and we default to expecting the government to take care of preservation of what little we have.

March 2, 2012

Britain’s railway engineering heritage

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Sarah Bakewell at the Guardian on the wonderful products of the railway building era in Britain:

Once I saw merely bridges, tunnels and stations, and mostly I didn’t even notice these, so busy was I rushing to get over or through them. Now, I see a delicate ecosystem of rivets, cleats, plates, gussets, joggles, spans, arches, ribs of attenuated iron and steel.

Scholars can already study railway archives in repositories all over the country, but Network Rail has just put part of its beautiful archive of Victorian and Edwardian infrastructure diagrams on the web. This amounts to an invitation to anyone, anywhere, to contemplate such images out of sheer curiosity and love of beauty. They give us plans of the high-level bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne, with its columns trailing down the screen like tall sepia waterfalls, and Bristol’s neo-gothic Temple Meads station, in ethereal ink outline. The Forth bridge of 1890 appears side on, elongated and webby as if someone had pulled a string cat’s cradle as far as it would go. Its vertical columns climb visibly week by week; target dates are marked at each level, like the tracking of a child’s growth against a wall.

Maidenhead bridge, designed in brick by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1839, has two middle arches spanning the river in great cheetah leaps. They were lower and broader than anything previously constructed in brick, and the Great Western Railway’s directors feared the bridge would collapse: they insisted on the bridge’s temporary timber supports remaining even after it opened. Annoyed, Brunel secretly lowered the supports a bit so they did not actually support anything.

(All links in the original article.)

May 26, 2011

Charles Stross on Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion House”

Filed under: Economics, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:07

I remember something about Fuller’s potentially revolutionary design for housing from a few mentions in Robert Heinlein’s work, but I’d never followed up those hints. Charles Stross did:

. . . the Dymaxion House was probably the most fascinating of his failures, because it was nothing short of an attempt to revolutionize how we live.

Modernist architects of the 20th century generally designed two types of house: those for rich architects and other members of the upper classes to enjoy, and grimly regimented concrete cookie-cutter apartment blocks for factory workers. Fuller’s approach to housing was cookie-cutter-esque, insofar as he planned to mass-produce Dymaxion Houses on converted B-29 Superfortress production lines after the second world war, and ship them to their owners in freight containers, but as far as I know it was radically different in conception, purpose, and design from any of the other modular homes of the period. For one thing, he was interested in portability and nomadism; while a concrete foundation with utility connections was necessary, Fuller’s idea of moving house was that you could pack your house down into a container that would fit on a truck, drive it to your new neighbourhood, and deploy it again — the design influences of the traditional Mongolian yurt should be obvious. The Dymaxion House used aluminium sheeting for floors and structures, suspended by wires from a central steel structural shaft: saving weight was a priority. As he famously asked an architect on one occasion, “why are your houses so heavy?”

For another thing, he took an early interest in minimizing the human impact on the environment. The Dymaxion House had passive air temperature control and a pressure-triggered roof vent to survive near-misses from tornados (by releasing over-pressure inside the building so that it didn’t rupture). It had a then-unique mist-spray shower and a grey-water system to reduce water usage; Fuller was also interested in non-flush toilets.

Finally, it was intended to be mass produced for $6,500 per house in 1946 money — the cost of a high-end automobile — with a design life of 30-50 years. Early development was funded by the Pentagon, for reasons that should be obvious: WWII generated unprecedented demand for accommodation on bases overseas and, later, demand for housing in war-ravaged regions.

The story of why we aren’t all living in Dymaxion houses today is a convoluted epic of business failure (for one thing, starting up a production line for houses using cutting-edge aerospace technology was something that had never been done before; for another, Bucky’s business sense was not, sadly, as good as his design sense) that has been recounted in numerous biographies. What interests me about it is that it’s a far more humane approach to the problem of providing housing for the masses than his Brutalist contemporaries, whose designs tended to be fixed, immovable, made cheaply out of low-end materials, and built with high density mass housing in mind rather than low impact customizability. It was also way ahead of the field in terms of awareness of environmental constraints; while we could design better today, we’d be making incremental tweaks, whereas Bucky came up with the original idea of modular, lightweight, mobile low-impact housing ab initio.

Image detail from Tim O’Reilly’s Flikr photostream.

More, including a few photos at Wikipedia. And Rivet-head has a picture of the house while it was in use.

January 23, 2011

Detroit’s abandoned buildings as “economic disaster porn”

Filed under: Economics, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Noreen Malone wants us to sober up and “stop slobbering over abandoned cityscapes”:

When I sat down to my keyboard recently to Google the city of Detroit, the fourth hit was a site titled “the fabulous ruins of Detroit.” The site — itself a bit of a relic, with a design seemingly untouched since the 1990s — showed up in the results above the airport, above the Red Wings or the Pistons, the newspapers, or any other sort of civic utility. Certainly above anything related to the car industry, for which the word Detroit was once practically a synonym. Pictures of ruins are now the city’s most eagerly received manufactured good.

We have begun to think of Detroit as a still-life. This became clear to me recently, when the latest set of “stunning” pictures of Detroit in ruins made the rounds, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for a book, The Ruins of Detroit. They were much tweeted and blogged about (including by TNR’s own Jonathan Chait), as other such “ruin porn” photosets of blighted places have been, and were described variously as wonderful, as beautiful, as stunning, as shocking, as sad. They are all of those things, and so I suppose they are good art. But they are rotten photojournalism.

[. . .]

I suspect it’s not an accident that the pictures of Detroit that tend to go viral on the Web are the ones utterly devoid of people. We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don’t. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin — you’d never see a magazine represent famine in Africa with a picture of arid soil. Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change — all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences.

H/T to Felix Salmon for the link.

October 26, 2010

Cost overruns are typical, but this is excessive

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:12

Canada’s parliament buildings have been sporadically under repair since 1992. The original estimate for all required work was $460 million. It has, of course, gone well past that budget:

The cost of renovating Parliament Hill is expected to hit $5 billion by the time the 25-year project wraps up, CBC reported Monday.

According to documents released by the Department of Public Works, the repairs to almost every building on Parliament Hill, originally pegged to be $460 million in 1992, will have ballooned to more than 10 times that amount upon completion.

Renovations started on the aging buildings in 1992, when builders began renewing Parliament’s West Block. The project was shelved in 1998, then restarted in 2005, with an estimated budget of $769 million. That total has since risen to more than $1 billion, according to CBC.

As Ezra Levant points out, “Burj Dubai, world’s tallest building, only cost $4.1B”.

Update: Ezra also pointed out that the “Bank of China tower in Hong Kong was $1.66B. Taipei 101 was $2B. “.

June 30, 2010

Here’s an example of a home that’s really a castle

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:03

Chateau de Guedelon is a real 13th century castle, or at least, it will be when they finish building it:

The ­Chateau de Guedelon was started in 1998, after local landowner Michel Guyot wondered whether it would be possible to build a castle from scratch, using only contemporary tools and materials.

Today, the walls are rising gradually from the red Burgundy clay. The great hall is almost finished, with only part of the roof remaining, while the main tower edges past the 15m (50ft) mark.

Builders use sandstone quarried from the very ground from which the castle is emerging.

[. . .]

The Guedelon site was chosen because it contained all the necessary materials: plentiful oak from the forests, as well as clay and water. Stone from the quarry had actually been used in the building of real-life medieval chateaux.

October 20, 2009

QotD: Craftsmanship

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:10

I’m not sure if the word "condo" is from the Latin translation "poor workmanship", or from the French "to work without pride".

John Schubarth, letter to Canadian Home Workshop, March 2000

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