Thursday, August 27, 2009

Will Main Street ever return?

For those of you interested in Architectural History, there was an event in this country in 1893 that influenced the Architecture of America more than any other since. This event, held in Chicago, commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. It was known as the Colombian Exposition, or more simply, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Before the fair ever happened, it was a big deal to even win the rights to have the fair. Chicago and New York fought for more than a year to see who would host. When Chicago was chosen in 1891, it seemed almost an impossible task to design all of the necessary buildings in so short a time. The effort was lead by Architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root (Root died before the grounds were completed) and they enlisted the best and brightest of their day to participate in the designs of the Buildings and Grounds. Included among them were Louis Sullivan, McKim Meade and White, Frederick Law Olmstead, and George B. Post among others. Now, I won't go into details about the fair itself, but I will say that the aesthetic was decidedly Classical. Columns and pillars as far as the eye could see and all at a scale that was more impressive than Disneyland. In fact, the buildings were so amazing that it brought in over 1 million people a day at its peak. That may not seem like a lot, but this was 1893, in the middle of a severe recession, and the only way to travel cross country with any speed was by train. Considering the circumstances, this was impressive.

A by product of the Fair's success was the creation of a new style of civic architecture. People were so taken with the Neoclassical revival that practically every big city adopted the same Architectural Language for the creation of their public buildings. From state capitals to banks to libraries, many new large projects constructed after the fair bore strikingly similar profiles to those in the Colombian Exposition. Now this is not to say that Classical Architecture was not used before, just not at the same scale as after the 1893 Fair. Even the United States Capitol Building in Washington DC was expanded (in 1904) to reflect a grander scale for a rapidly growing nation. Downtowns in every major city were bustling with new buildings and a cohesive Architecture that gave people Civic Pride and a sense of unity in their towns.

Now I don't have to tell you what happened next. In the middle of the 20th century, downtowns and Main Streets were being abandoned for the suburbs with tract houses and strip malls. People moved out of cities at an alarming rate and many great cities died as a result of this. Beautiful turn of the century buildings were torn down as developers moved in and bought up city blocks to build office buildings. The city became a place of business, not a place to live. McKim Meade and White's Pennsylvania Station was torn down in 1963 to build Madison Square Garden and One Penn Plaza and it's limestone columns were sent to the swamps of New Jersey where they still lay buried in the muck.

Fortunately, time heals all wounds. Main Streets are being re-discovered for their irreplaceable Architecture and the benefits of city living. Where I live, the most expensive towns to live in are the ones with beautiful historic downtowns where new restaurants and boutiques are thriving. This has always been a country where you have choices. It seems we are always at a crossroads waiting to choose. So with the national economy in the toilet, and the McMansion housing bubble burst, the question is this: Can it be possible for future generations to rediscover a smaller, higher quality lifestyle or will Walmart wipe out every store in the country? I think you know which way I'm leaning.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Being an Architect: Myth vs. Reality

If you have ever seen Seinfeld, you know that George Costanza is constantly lying about being an Architect. And why not? It seems to impress the ladies and gives George a sense of reputability and esteem that his normal character lacks. Having spent the last 17 years of my life in either Architecture School or the profession of Architecture, I can say that the public's perception of the profession is fairly consistent with the response George usually gets. Unfortunately, it's also not true. Below are some of the biggest myths about the Architecture (and Design) Industry and note that they are listed in no particular order.

Myth No. 1 - You need to be good at math to be an Architect.

I suppose in the 'old days' Architects had to do all sorts of calculations as it related to simple structures. As buildings got larger and more complicated, Architects handed all liability for computation off to Structural Engineers. If you are a small shop working on small projects, you can likely have the manufacturer's engineers help you with anything more difficult than reading a chart. And although you may get drilled with formulas in a college structures course, the real world value of that experience is zero.

Myth No. 2 - Architects get paid well.

I don't know where this one comes from. On my first day of school our critics told us that if we were going into Architecture to make money, quit now. Of course, there are famous Architects that make alot of money. And there are famous actors that make $20 Million per film. But for every box office breadwinner, there are 10,000 wannabe actors filling in as extras for $100 per day. That's kind of how architecture is too. When you graduate, most people will spend the first 3-5 years doing construction documents until you are deemed knowledgeable enough to talk to a client. Once this happens, you might go from draftsperson to 'job captain' or something like that. In a recent survey, starting salaries for Intern Architects averaged between $35K-$45K per year. It is also worthy to note that a Bachelor of Architecture is usually a 5 year degree. Between the schooling and the Internship, it will take you a minimum of 8 years just to be eligible to start taking your licensing exams. You find me a doctor or lawyer that starts at $35K per year.

Myth No. 3- You have to be able to draw well to be an Architect.

Having worked with many young graduates, I can tell you that this absolutely is not true. With computers taking over as the default production method, I don't know why you would even need to draw by hand. Computers can generate 3D models faster and more accurately than any human. You can also forget about Penmanship. What is often referred to as 'Architectural Lettering' is now found only in your font menu as 'City Blueprint'. Now don't be confused by my tone. I am not happy about it. It's just the reality of the world we live in. I was probably in one of the last graduating classes that had to stay up for weeks on end inking my final drawings on mylar. Those days are gone.

Myth No. 4- It must be great to Design things all day.

Prior to starting my own firm, I had about 10 years of experience working in various Architectural Offices and I had never really designed anything. This happens for a number of reasons, any of which may apply. It could be that the office you work in has a 'Design Director' who spends all day handing off sketches to junior grunts who put it in the computer. It could also be that the project you are working on is all about budget and the client is dictating every decision based on how much things cost. Or it could be that you were only hired to produce a set of filing documents because it is required by the municipality that an Architect be involved and no one really wants your opinion about anything (this is most common in retail work where you are just cranking out a prototype established by the Client by their 'in house design team'). In my experience, one of those three scenarios accounts for over 90% of the work.

Myth No. 5 - You need to be licensed to practice Architecture.

I find this one to be the most false. I have found that there are two types of Architecture firms: Service Providers and Design Firms. Service firms are crank out work. Design firms focus on problem solving using Design as a medium. Most firms in existence focus on providing a service, not providing Architecture. Look around your town at what gets built. In my town, most of what gets built are retails stores and houses. I would not call a Best Buy a work of Architecture, no matter how big the pointy sign is. In 20 years, it will not be there.

Now in contrast, look at Brad Pitt. Not an Architect. However, he has been largely responsible for the construction of more Architecture in New Orleans than most large firms that I know and he didn't even do the Design. Brad Pitt has essentially opened a Design Firm (by way of a not for profit organization) and brought together a staff of talented young Designers to conceive and execute thoughtful new housing. I don't know any big firms that have done that. So if you want to pursue Architecture, pursue Architecture. If you want to sign and seal drawings for demanding clients, pursue a license. Either way, make sure you are doing what you want to do for the right reasons.

Finally, don't mistake my intentions for writing this article. I love the profession. And that's why I started a development company.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Stylish Side of Sears Modern Homes

Lately it seems that every time I pick up a magazine about residential design or construction, someone is talking about 'green' design. Phrases such as 'rapidly renewable', 'eco-friendly' and 'prefab' are quickly becoming a part of the general public's vocabulary. Recently, I started seeing recycled glass tiles and zero VOC paints at the big box stores. And while all of this is definitely good for the planet, I can't help but wonder how it REALLY affects the architecture of our day. Are these new products really changing the general consciousness about Design, or is it just a marketing necessity to offer a sustainable option?

Consider this: In 1913, Sears Roebuck and Company offered 'kit houses' as part of their general catalog. For under $2,000 you could get an entire house in numbered pieces including Millwork, Plumbing Fixtures, Rough Lumber, Roofing, and Finishes. You had the option of putting it together yourself with an enclosed instruction manual, or hiring a local crew to do it. Now the interesting thing about these homes, was not the progressive method of distribution (decades ahead of IKEA), but rather the Design of each residence. With regards to millwork, exteriors, and planning, no detail was overlooked. In order to attract the would be buyers, each model had to be comparable in both price AND aesthetics.

Just for fun, do an image search for 'Sears Modern Home' and you will likely see a collection of modest but very charming homes. If you do a little more digging, you can probably find images of actual homes still in existence from the first part of the twentieth century. Now compare these homes with the current 2009 offerings for affordable 'pre-fab' or 'modular' homes. The results from this search will be dramatically different. Now don't get me wrong, there are plenty of companies that make beautiful modern pre-fab homes. But in my experience, they are not affordable to the average American. Take the Kithaus offered by Design Within Reach. Although visually elegant, it will cost you around $400 per SF for a single 9x13 or 11x17 room. Ouch.

So my challenge to everyone out there is this: If Sears could design and produce elegant and affordable homes made from high quality honest materials in the 1920's, then why can't we do it today? In all this dialogue about Environmental Design and Sustainable Building, perhaps people ought to look at the past before we miss a great opportunity in the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Elements of Style

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post as I have been taking it easy. One of those two weeks was spent on a beach with some books that I have been waiting to read for almost a year. I find that vacations are great for that sort of thing as it totally takes your mind off of all of the things that you go on vacation to forget. At any rate, I got through about five books in total and there were winners and losers. The winners were the ones that read very easily with great flow and the losers were the ones where I was wondering why I was still reading it after 300 pages. It occurred to me that anyone can author a book, but the truly successful writers possess something that makes their work more popular. That 'thing' is STYLE.

Now you cannot talk about Style at it relates to writing without of course mentioning 'The Elements of Style' by William Strunck and E.B. White. Although this book is small, it is has had a profound impact on the world of literary education. Having never studied English beyond high school, I first heard about it from Stephen King's autobiographical manual, "On Writing."

It goes without saying that artists and architects have their own style when it comes to developing designs for new projects, but I was wondering if there were any connections between the traditional design process and the construction of great prose. So I picked up Strunck and White and here is what I found. Section V of the book is called "An Approach to Style" (sections I-IV deal mostly with English and Grammar) and offers a look into the enigma of great writing. The author(s) say:

"If you doubt that style is something of a mystery, try rewriting a familiar sentence and see what happens. Any much quoted sentence will do. Suppose we take "These are the times that try men's souls." Here we have eight short words, easy words forming a simple declarative sentence. Yet in that arrangement, they have shown great durability. Now compare a few variations:

-Times like these try men's souls.
-How trying it is to live in these times!
-These are trying times for men's souls.
-Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can't readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion."

Reading those words made me realize how universal Style is. Here Strunck and White are talking about words, but you could easily replace the grammar of language with the colors in a fabric or parts of a building. We have all seen structures made of wood, concrete, and brick, but why do some call for attention and others 'marked for oblivion'? Style is something that must be a part of every great designer's toolbox. Projects that are executed with an eye for function only are functional, but boring. Louis Sullivan was function with Style. Frank Lloyd Wright went through multiple styles and the rest of the modernists got together and framed 'the International Style'.

Looking back at previous generations, I wonder if we have given up style as a society. Our cities are populated with the same identical big box stores and landscapes as every other one. I tend to think that this is good for those who want to think differently. So I encourage anyone to start their own company or open up your own shop. I believe you will be rewarded for thinking differently, just make sure you do it with Style.