Saturday, October 11, 2008

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling

Sorry that I've been neglecting this blog recently. I've been really busy with school and trying stay on top of my Archinect School Blog too.

Anyways, this week my writing assignment for Witold Rybcynski's class was to write a review of an architecture exhibit. I decided to take this opportunity to take a day trip to NYC to see the current show at MoMA. Here's my review, hot off the presses...

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 20, is an ambitiously comprehensive look at the history of off-site fabrication techniques in residential architecture. Stretching from as early as 1833 through today’s current experiments, curator Barry Bergdoll, with assistant Peter Christiansen, includes everything from LEGOs and Lincoln Logs to the Maison Dom-ino and MUJI House.

While impressive in its breadth, the exhibit on the sixth floor of the museum leaves the visitor wanting more. After laying a solid historical foundation for the industrialized fabrication of homes, the exhibit’s section of contemporary projects focuses on unrealized experiments like architect Greg Lynn’s Embryological House. Conspicuously absent are some of today’s more commercially successful examples of architect designed prefabricated homes like Michelle Kaufmann’s Glidehouse and Resolution:4’s Modern Modular line of homes.

The second part of the exhibit is located in an empty asphalt lot on the “west end” of MoMA’s property. Here Bergdoll commissioned five full-size model houses which use a variety of fabrication methods made possible by the latest computer controlled technology. This portion of the show emerges from a history of model homes built for world’s fairs, as well as the museum’s own popular House in the Museum Garden series, which included designs by Marcel Breuer (1949) and Gregory Ain (1950).

The most formally ambitious of the houses is Burst*008 by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier. Burst*008 is a reproduction of an Australian beach house that the architects built in 2006. In this case, the structural system of computer cut plywood ribs with structural insulated panel infill is roughshod and poorly detailed as illustrated by the addition of two-by-four crutch that was holding up the main entry stair when I visited. I hope that the Australian clients who actually live in their Burst got a more refined finished product.

The Instant House, by MIT professor Larry Sass, uses a similar system of computer cut plywood to very different ends. This small one room house is constructed from a system interlocking plywood panels that is meant to be assembled by two people with a rubber mallet. The most striking element of the Instant House is the use of the computer to create a filigree of applied ornament. According to Sass this “pixelated historicism” rebuffs the notion that prefab houses must be minimal and purportedly allows the Instant House to fit into its New Orleans context. This complicated system of interlocking notches and grooves is more decorative than efficient: why build a simple wooden shed out of a plywood jigsaw rather than a typical balloon frame?

The most successful of the five houses is KieranTimberlake’s four-story Cellophane House which uses the same off-the-shelf aluminum framed structural system as their award winning Loblolly House. The innovation here is that construction materials are “collected rather than fixed” allowing them to “retain their identity as discrete elements, but also to be disassembled instead of demolished, and eventually to be recycled instead of wasted.” Additionally, this system has the potential to be deployed in a variety of housing types from rural vacation home to urban townhouse.

My disappointment with these houses (with the notable exception of the Micro Compact Home) is that they are merely empty shells. Unlike Breuer’s house, which was fully furnished, there is no indication of how the spaces may actually be used. This renders it nearly impossible for the lay public to imagine actually living in one of these houses and results in the feeling that one is walking through an architectural model writ large.

Home Delivery offers a tremendous history of fabrication in housing; but given the overwhelming history of commercial failure in architect designed manufactured housing, I’m not sure that it adds any momentum to the prefab movement. In 1949 Time Magazine suggested that Breuer’s House in the Museum Garden “was perhaps too uncompromisingly ‘modern’ for its own age.” Unfortunately nearly sixty years, later the same problem befalls the model homes of Home Delivery.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Philadelphia Freedom

I've been out of touch for the last two weeks or so during our move, so this is going to be a pretty rambling update on what has been going on since we left St. Petersburg for our trek north to Philadelphia.

We've been in Philadelphia for one week now and we're starting to get settled in. We're about 90% unpacked and the main thing left for us to do is to hang all of our pictures and artwork. Our drive from St. Petersburg was pretty uneventful considering that I was driving a 22 foot Penske truck for the first time. I was ready to sit for my CDL by the time we rolled into Philly last Friday. Probably the most interesting part of the drive was as we were crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge from St. Petersburg into Tampa and Elton John's Philadelphia Freedom came on the radio. We thought that was a pretty good omen that our move was going to go well.

I'm really excited about our new neighborhood. Northern Liberties was Philadelphia's second suburb and is now one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city. There are a lot of cool shops and restaurants, as well as Liberty Lands Park and the Orianna Hill Dog Park, within a few blocks. It is located just to the northeast of Center City and is a quick subway ride to pretty much anywhere that we'd want to go in the city. We sold our second car before leaving Florida, so we are now carless. As such, we've jumped whole-heartedly into big city living and using public transportation. Also, some time next week I should get my membership stuff from Philly Car Share, so we'll be able to use a car to run to Ikea or Target or wherever.

I think that this will be a good home base for me given my research interests. Our elevated subway station is located above the median of I-95 which is appropriate given my interests in hybrid infrastructures. I also have a great skyline view from my desk which will be nice on the long nights of writing papers.

With all of that being said, I'm now getting really excited to be getting back to school. All of the orientation stuff starts on Monday. Orientation includes the obligatory campus tour, computer orientation, fabrication lab orientation, a walking tour of Philadelphia, and a Phillies game. Classes begin on Wednesday, September 3rd, although my first class won't be until Thursday.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The City Building Industry: Just Like Teapots

This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the recent emergence of cities being designed by starchitects. This trend seems to be resulting in developments that are more of a brand image than actual cities. While the designers tend to at least pay lip service to ideas of street life and community, I'm not entirely convinced. Of course, even in places like Dubai, such large projects take decades to completely build out, so the jury will be out for some time. As a result it will be many years before we'll be able to determine whether these new cities are a panacea or a disaster. My fear is that we are returning to the Corbusian idea where one visionary designer shapes the entire city. By definition, in my opinion at least, good cities must be developed and evolve over time. It's the mix of things being built over time that makes cities rich. Dennis Frenchman, director of the city design and development program at MIT, believes that we are seeing the emergence of a new industry. "It's not real-estate development; it's not architecture; it's not city planning. All I can do is name it 'the city-building industry." And this new industry seeks out the services of name brand architects because they make the product more sellable. As Frenchman says, "It's just like teapots."

Is it possible for one person to design an entire city? Can the built results ever live up to the glossy images? Are the results going to be lively neighborhoods or vacant gated enclaves? What happens when cities are conceived as products?

Projects mentioned in the article:
Kartal, Istanbul, Turkey - Zaha Hadid (pictured above - photo from
Waterfront City, Dubai, UAD - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Riga Port City, Latvia - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Downtown Orestad, Copenhagen, Denmark - Daniel Libeskind
Fiera Milano, Milan, Italy - Daniel Libeskind
Segovia, Spain - David Chipperfield
Zorrozaurre, Bilbao, Spain - Zaha Hadid
Lille, France - Rem Koolhaas/OMA
One-North, Singapore - Zaha Hadid

Also, the WSJ includes two pages on the history of City planning. 1 and 2.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Welcome to the DUAL:workshop Blog!

So, I'm about to make a major life change and I've decided to document it via a blog. Right now, I'm sitting at T-minus 18 days before we pack up our stuff and move from St. Petersburg, FL to Philadelphia, PA. Then, I'll have about 2 weeks before school begins and I officially start working toward my PhD in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania (PennDesign). It has been a little more than 5 years since I graduated from Georgia Tech with my M.Arch. and I'm definitely looking forward to returning to the academic life. The semester starts on September 3rd and my schedule is currently shaping up to include the following classes:

Writing on Architecture (Prof. Witold Rybcynski)
Architectural Research (Prof. David Leatherbarrow)
Proseminar in Urban Studies (Prof. Michael Katz)
Concepts and Theories in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (Prof. Anita Berrizbeitia)

At this point, I'm pretty sure that this will be my final schedule, but it is still subject to change. It looks like in addition to pursuing the PhD, I will also be working towards the Graduate Certificate in Urban Studies. This program is geared toward PhD students that are doing urban research, so it is pretty much in line with what I'm planning on doing over the next few years.

Anyways, other than maybe this post, this blog is not really intended to be a record of my personal life. If anything, I would say that the mission of the blog is to help me think out loud and develop my ideas about architecture and the city. Of course, given how deeply intertwined my life is with my thoughts about and practice of architecture and urban design, there is bound to be some blurring of the lines every now and then.

I've never really done this sort of thing, so hopefully it will be both interesting and educational.

The couple of posts that are below this one are ones that I have migrated over from the Emerging Tampa Bay Architects blog, where I have been a contributing editor (for lack of a better term) for the past year or so. I thought that they were at least somewhat relevant to the topic of this blog and they gave me some content to help with editing the layout of things before going public.