Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why I started Pocono Modern

If you have ever read this blog, I suppose you have come to know alot about what I think about the current states of things.  Like most Architects, I have quite alot of opinions about how things run and I do my best to try and affect change where I can. I think that's all you can really do. 

When I worked for other companies I found that clients were seldom interested in my opinion about things.  In most cases they had already made up their minds about what size workstations they wanted to use or how best to layout a space.  I was merely a facilitator.  I was the one who put it all on paper and validated their theories about how many people could fit on a floor.  That kind of work makes you money but doesn't give you much else. 

When I would drive to meetings, I would think about the kind of job I REALLY wanted.  It would be the kind of job where you could create things that matter to people.  And when I say 'matter' I mean things that were important in the context of a person's life. 

A number of years ago there was this documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright that I saw on PBS.  One of the stories that was recounted was about a couple who had commissioned Wright to design a home and were very pleased with the result.  Unfortunately for this couple though, they could not agree on much else and so it was decided that they would get a divorce.  The only problem was that neither one of them wanted to leave the house.  Apparently, the only thing they could agree on was how magnificent the house was.  And so they both stayed, one on one side and one on the other.  I hope to design anything that matters that much to someone.

Four years ago I decided I was going to try and do something that mattered to me.  I bought a piece of land. I designed a home.  I managed to find a way to build it without getting a loan.  I was really proud of it. 

I believe that anyone can have a great place to live.  It doesn't take alot of money. It doesn't take a big piece of land.  The only thing it takes is a person to pay attention to how they live and then to create the kinds of spaces that serve those needs.  I believe that we are doing that at Pocono Modern.  I am thankful that we have found a group of clients that believe many of the same things that we do about what a home is.  I will end the year with a quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:

'"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

She was from Northeast PA after all.  See you all in 2012.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and a Legacy of Design

I started writing this post over a month ago when Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple.  At the time, I felt really disturbed over this news because it signaled something that many people did not want to acknowledge.  It signaled was that Steve Jobs was near the end of his life on earth.

To most people, his death will probably be a blip in the news feed and by next week we will go back to talking about Greek debt or something.  But to me, I found a kinship in the work that Steve Jobs did and how he saw the universe.  In a world where so many leaders seem to be following a broken compass, I felt reassured that somebody at the top gets it.  And not only do they get it, they want to share it with everyone else.  This thought gave me comfort.

As I read the many articles and editorials that are flooding the news stream right now, I feel a little scared.  Probably more scared than I feel about the economy or terrorists and I know that sounds horrible to say.  Yes, I'm sure Tim Cook and Apple will continue to churn out great products and build on the foundation that Steve Jobs created.  But somehow, I really did feel like Steve Jobs was looking out for people like me.  People who feel that the world could be a better place if we focus on just a few really important things.  Steve Jobs used Design to create a line of products that focused on improving communication, creating art, and providing entertainment.  Steve Jobs believed in Design against all odds. Although Apple's growth had always outpaced industry standards, his focus was never corporate profits.  His focus was on changing the world and making it better.  And even though his success is undeniable, it is funny how many business minds dismiss it as a 'one-off' phenomenon.  Apple always seems to be cited as an example and almost dismissed as quickly.  And that is what really scares me.  It scares me that most people really don't understand how building a quality product that is well designed will translate into both success and value.

Steve Jobs was the loudest voice for the movement of Design and Quality.  Now that his voice has left us (at least physically) I worry about who will take up that stance.  I worry that it won't be taken up at all.  At least for the moment, we have enough of his wisdom to help us find the way.  I will leave you with a couple of quotes from Steve Jobs on Design and Quality:

'Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it.'

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Rest in Peace Mr. Jobs.  We miss you already.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Architecture Matters after Sept. 11

I grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan in Long Island.  A trip to New York City was about as foreign an adventure as one could hope to have.  I remember taking the Long Island Rail Road into Penn Station and looking out the window the whole time. Right before you take the final plunge into the tunnels of  New York, there is this moment that you can see the skyline .  I remember being 12 years old and looking at that skyline thinking how impossibly tall the Twin Towers seemed. It would be many years later that I stood at the base of those buildings and looked up watching the towers disappear into the sky.

On September 11, 2001 I was a young architect working in Manhattan for a large design firm.  Most of my clients were financial firms in lower Manhattan and I would routinely take the Path train in from Hoboken, where I was living at the time.  On that day, I would have been coming up from the Path around 8:45 AM if not for a last minute schedule change that put me in Midtown instead.  I remember coming up from the N/R subway line and seeing crowds around the TV's in the lobby of the GM Building.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I spent the better part of the day walking all over Manhattan trying to get back to New Jersey. I made it as far south as 14th street and as far north as 96th street. I watched ash covered people emerging from downtown as a chimney cleaner would emerge out of a chimney.  The loss of human life was incomprehensible.  It's the kind of thing you never quite get over.  Even 10 years later, the loss that we feel for those who died cannot be repaired.  Not with a memorial.  Not with the death of any terrorist leader.  Not with the sacrifice of thousands of others.  It will never heal.  Unlike Pearl Harbor, this attack was right in our face, in the wide open space of a beautiful morning and broadcast internationally for everyone to see.  It's not the kind of thing people will laugh about in 30 years.  It's the kind of thing that stirs up the same emotions every time you think about it.

I don't know if it's because of my career or my personality, but I have always felt that the best tribute to those who died would have been to build those buildings back, exactly as they were.  I mean no disrespect to the families of the victims by saying this.  I realize that there were many bodies that were never recovered and those families will never be made whole again.  But I also believe that those buildings represented more to our country than just steel and glass. When built, they were innovative, iconic, and symbolic.  They represented the greatness of American engineering and were incredible works of Architecture.  There are few buildings that have been built in NYC in the last 40 years that could be identified by the average person on the street.  A visit to the top of the World Trade Center was nothing short of magical.

Architecture is not exactly America's national past time.  There are few notable structures that really influence people's lives.  The destruction of life on Sept. 11 was irreplaceable.  The destruction of Architecture was replaceable.  I can't think of any better symbol of American resolve and unity than to put those buildings back exactly as they were.  It would have sent a message to the world that we will get back up.  And in that ascension we will heal together.  As far as I know they did not leave a big hole in the Pentagon.   I think the memorial that was built is moving and elegant.  I also think that it would have been just as elegant if it were a few blocks south.  To visit the site of the former World Trade Center a decade later and be staring at two holes in the ground only makes me feel sad. And while that might be the desired result, I don't want to feel sad anymore.  I would rather feel inspired and proud.  I think that Architecture could have done that.  I think that Architecture can do that.  I think Architecture has to aspire to that, otherwise what's the point?

Friday, September 9, 2011

What does 'modern' mean anyway?

If you are one of the many people who attended a Design school of any type within the last 30 years you probably were taught to be somewhat forward thinking.  Most schools today try to best prepare their students for the world which they will enter upon graduation.  And let's face it, that world is a MODERN world.  It is a world full of technology and opportunity for those who wish to embrace it.  I don't know how many successful architects are still using a T-square and a drafting table, but I doubt it's very many (Glenn Murcutt may be the only one).  

That being said, when the conversation turns to Architecture, the word 'modern' has a very negative connotation.  Modern buildings are thought to be harsh and cold, made of steel and glass and very often devoid of emotion.  Modern homes are thought to be reserved for movie stars and egomaniacs who like the idea of living in a place that looks like it's meant to be on display but not really 'lived in'.  Even the real estate industry has turned it's back on the word 'modern' by replacing it with 'contemporary' in its listings.  If no one disputes that we all live in a 'modern' world, then why are modern buildings so few and far between?  I don't see people driving around in Model T's, so why would people build their houses in the styles of by-gone eras?  I think the answer lies in the fact that no one really knows what 'modern' is.

Let's start with a textbook definition.  Modern is defined as 'of or relating to present or recent time'.  By that definition anything that exists today is Modern.  If you went out and built a pyramid tomorrow, it would be a modern pyramid.  This is part of the problem.  I don't really think that the definition of the word itself is applicable anymore based on how quickly our society changes.  Relatively speaking, a Sony Walkman relates to recent time.  Compared to a record player,  a Sony Walkman is modern.  It is also extinct.  

The next problem is that there are very few examples of great modern design.  If you open a trade publication you will find that most of the modern buildings that get published border on the ridiculous.  They may photograph well and appear very progressive but in fact are borderline dysfunctional and very expensive to maintain.  To me, this is not what inspires people, or at least, it doesn't inspire me.  Judging from the widespread lack of modern housing, I'm guessing it doesn't inspire alot of home buyers either.

A few years back, the American automobile industry was headed for extinction.  For years they had just regurgitated the same old designs and relied on the American consumer to buy their cars regardless of the competition.  For 'the big three' there was only one way out  of the crisis and that way was 'modernization'.  They had to update their product lines, focus more on design and fuel efficiency in their fleets and start creating products that reflected the technology of the day.  They introduced features such as parking assist, voice commanded automation, and better engine technology.  All of this in sleeker more interesting modern designs.  It has been shown time and time again that creating well crafted, socially relevant products will yield great success.  To circle back, we have to ask ourselves:  "Is the building industry really doing this?  Are they giving modern design a good name?"

I think that modern architecture is not about building something that relates to present time.  I think it is about building something that relates to present life.  And in that pursuit it cannot be contained within an Architectural style.  When I look at the homebuilding industry at present, I see the automobile industry three years ago.  Unfortunately, there are no major homebuilders leading the way with socially relevant, modern designs.  They just keep reformatting different versions of the same thing.  If we as a society are truly to embrace modern design as a medium then we have to look at the most successful examples from Joseph Eichler to Steve Jobs and understand how the tools that we have available to us today can carry us into a better tomorrow.   

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Genius of Louis Sullivan

It is widely accepted that the origin of modern architecture can be found in the mid nineteenth century with the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1851 by Joseph Paxton. What is often not discussed is that Joseph Paxton was not an Architect, but a horticulturalist (is that a word?) who specialized in the design of greenhouses and conservatories. What is also not well known is that the Crystal Palace was a 'prefab' structure in that it was designed in a modular fashion and erected on site in a matter of months. The use of iron and glass as well as the progressive technology used in the construction ushered in a new era of 'superstructures' that led to the development of other modern marvels such as the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge (neither of which was designed by an Architect either). And while each of these structures is remarkable in its own way, none of them encapsulate the meaning of Modernism as well as three simple words attribute the great master Louis Sullivan - Form Follows Function.

Form Follows Function changed my life. It is not only the defining detail of Modern Design but it mirrors how nature truly works. Prior to Form Follows Function, Form Followed Technology where people built whatever was possible at a given place with the given tools and materials. The industrial revolution gave us the tools to build bigger and standardize building components at any given location. The genius of Louis Sullivan and the modern movement comes in the restraint that needed to be exercised in order to produce true works of art. Form Follows Function is the directive for that restraint.

I imagine that when Louis Sullivan uttered these words he was looking at the Neoclassic buildings of the Colombian Exposition and wondering why we were still building gigantic structures adorned with Roman and Greek columns when we were capable of so much more. What is interesting to me as an Architect is that not much has changed in over 100 years. Our buildings are as sad and referential as ever. We have forgotten about Form Follows Function and have gone back to Form Follows Technology. The Modernists of the early 20th century were all about Function. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, Marcel Breur, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames. While their work is remarkable, none of them were ever interested in building the biggest or most ostentatious structure. I was recently struck by how small Saarinen's TWA terminal looks when compared to the new Jet Blue building that envelops it.

The genius of Louis Sullivan was that he understood that people are small. Gigantic buildings only become architecture when they are designed as a series of smaller human sized moments. If you ever get to NYC take a look at Sullivan's Bayard Building on Bleecker Street. You may have walked by it a hundred times, but if you stop and look at it closely, you will notice it is no ordinary building. It is a series of small gestures designed to engage and astonish the viewer. It's function is to demonstrate beauty amongst its giant clumsy neighbors.

Form Follow Function respects nature. It wastes nothing. It is not interested in ornament for ornament's sake. In Sullivan's world, ornament has a function. I once stumbled upon a book of banks that Louis Sullivan had designed and was struck by the attention given to the way that a teller would work, the procession of the customer, the appearance of safety and monumentality that each building had. When compared to what passes for a bank today, it is hard to imagine that we live in a 'progressive' society. The fact that Sullivan and his contemporaries were able to create such beauty in a world that did not have even a fraction of what is available to us today is staggering. When you look at what Eames did with plywood, what Wright did with textile blocks and stained glass, or what Mies did with structure, it is clear that they were all putting function before beauty.

Although I hardly ever quote, I will leave you with one of my favorites from Buckminster Fuller (another function guy): 'When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.'

Next time you are stuck on a design problem, put functionality first and I'm sure you will find that the solution is not far off.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Starting a new Architecture Firm - Lessons Learned

I have to apologize for my absence in the blogosphere. For the last six months I have been setting up a new company focused on the practice of Architecture and Interior Design. (For all you Pocono Modern fans: not to worry. Things in Jim Thorpe are unaffected) Luckily for me, I had already done this back in 2005 so I knew what to expect. What I could not anticipate was the current economic climate and the changes to the way business is done. Having now worked through most of the challenges, I wanted to recount some of the more interesting moments in the hopes that others who are considering starting a new firm (or any business for that matter) can be prepared. And while this topic diverts from the usual shop talk of Architecture, I hope that some may find it useful if you may be considering breaking out on your own.

Challenge #1 - Credit for small businesses is virtually non existent. In the old days, you fill out an application with an office supply company or an equipment company and they open an account for you. If it turns out that you don't pay your bills, they shut your account and send you collection notices until you pay. If there is equipment involved, they come and take it. Simple. This is not the case anymore. In order to get any account opened (from the phone company to the copier lease) I had to provide a valid credit card, checking account, professional references and sign a personal guarantee statement. In some cases, I was even turned down despite having near perfect personal credit. The bottom line is that if your company is less than 2 or 3 years old companies don't want to take the risk on you. My recommendation would be to start an LLC on paper even before you know you want to set up shop. That way you can say your company is alot older and skip alot of the red tape that a new business has to deal with.

Challenge #2 - Prices have skyrocketed. For the last few years, business has been down. Many companies have responded to this by raising their prices. I guess they figure if they are going to do less business, the business that they do have should be more profitable. In addition to this, raw material and shipping costs have generally gone up due to additional fuel costs and labor wages. The best way I know to combat this is to try and buy slightly used things that you can get a deal on. For example, there are many places that sell second hand office furniture (such as desks, chairs, and filing cabinets) where the pieces are like new. You can also get computers and office equipment off lease at a big discount. Let somebody else pay for the new stuff. Get yourself a better deal and save a little bit of the planet at the same time.

Challenge #3 - No one wants to help you. I remember when I started my last firm, there were people lined up to try and help us get work and spread the wealth around. Today, everyone is trying to take care of themselves. Most businesses are just trying to stay afloat until things normalize. Many have already laid off people and are operating on a skeleton crew. Companies are cutting back to the bare minimum and that doesn't leave alot of room for going out of their way to look after your interests. If you are going to build a company now, you have to do it on your own.

Challenge #4 - Every company has cut back on something. When we order product literature for building products, we used to get these big binders full of information. Now we get a stack of loose tearsheets with no binder. Companies used to beat down your door to come in and do a lunch presentation where they provide the lunch. Now you don't get so much as a cookie until you actually throw some business their way. Most companies think that these small saves add up to big savings. To me though, it tells you which companies are stable enough to satisfy a customer and which companies have poor management and are fighting for their lives.

Challenge #5 - The cost of money. If you are lucky enough to get some business line of credit or a business credit card, be prepared for really high interest rates. Despite record low borrowing costs from the federal government, banks are taking it to the few customers they have left. I recently cancelled a business credit account from Citibank when they jacked my rate to 28.99%. President Obama's credit card reform bill has done little to avert these kinds of abuses. Combine that with the fact that banks are not lending and you have a perfect storm for high interest rates. My suggestion would be to pay cash for as much as you can and use smaller local vendors that may extend better credit terms. They may charge a little more for the item, but in the end you will be ahead.

So, that's kind of what I have been doing for the last few months. I promise to return to my normal Architectural subject matter in the next post. For those of you who are also working on new businesses, I wish you all the best.