Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Next to a picture of Albert Einstein, a newspaper ad for “beautiful vinyl windows” declares: “It doesn’t take a GENIUS... to buy the right windows.”  

“RESTORE IT RIGHT!” fires back an ad for a competing firm that installs only wood windows--”the perfect fit for your custom home.”  So which replacement windows are really the right choice?  Vinyl? Wood? Some other kind?  Or none at all?
It may not take an Einstein to decide, but it does take some careful thought.  The right choice depends on the style of your house and what you’re expecting from your new windows.  And--surprise, surprise--in many cases, replacement isn’t the best choice.

For example, if you’re planning to replace your windows solely to reduce your energy bills, you may be disappointed.  In an average home, the vast majority of heat is lost through walls and ceilings, not through windows.  Therefore, simpler measures such as heavily insulating your attic and your heating ducts--perhaps even replacing an old and inefficient furnace--will show much more dramatic energy savings than new windows will.

If you have old wood windows that don’t operate properly anymore, replacement still might not be the best solution.  Though few people realize it, most older wood windows can be repaired for less than it would cost to replace them with new ones of equal quality.  What’s more, replacing basically sound wood windows with vinyl ones may come back to haunt you at resale time, since wood is still considered the premium window material.  

Maybe you're hoping that new windows will give your house that elusive “updated look” of magazine lore.  But beware once again:  Window trends regularly come and go, along with people’s preferences for colors, divided lite patterns, and all the rest.  It wasn’t so long ago that putting “modern” aluminum windows in an old Victorian house was considered an improvement.  Successive fashions for bright aluminum, bronze-anodized aluminum, and white-painted aluminum windows have all come and gone since then.  At the moment vinyl is king, but for how long, no one can say. 

Therefore, if you’re still dead set on having new windows, then let the style of your house guide you in choosing replacements.  In general, your best course is to replace the originals with a more energy-efficient version of the same material.  If your budget won’t allow this, tread carefully among the other choices. 

Most traditional homes homes built with wood windows will also look okay with cheaper vinyl replacements, whose thick frames somewhat resemble traditional wood window construction. However, vinyl windows will look bloated and clumsy on postwar homes originally fitted with steel or aluminum windows, because those old windows were intentionally meant to look light, slender and elegant.  In this case, stick to using new double-glazed aluminum windows in a finish as close as possible to the original. 

Architecturally, the only truly unassailable window choice is one that looks reasonably close to the windows your house was built with.  So if you must replace, choose your windows to suit your house, not just to suit current fashion.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Dear Pauline,

It’s me, Arrol, the kid who grew up next door to you back in the old neighborhood in Concord.  You used to babysit me, and in a way, over the years, you became the grandmother I never had.  

Anyway, I dreamed about the neighborhood last night, as I still do now and then, even though the whole place is of course long destroyed.  But there I was back home again, and in that aimless way that dreams develop, I thought I’d stop in next door and say hi to you.

I crunched my way down our long gravel driveway out to the sidewalk, past the hedge, then onto the narrow concrete walk between the twin green lawns and up the steps to your creaky old front porch. You weren’t sitting in your big green rocking chair--the one with the wicker seat--so I knocked on your screen door. 

The funny thing is, every detail on that porch was there as plain as day:  I  could feel the three slanting brass bars of the screen door grille through the screen, and the gray-painted porch floor, with the joints between the planks ridged up a little. Next to your rocking chair was the smaller wooden rocker where I used to sit and listen to your stories about the old days. There was the same old porch light with its frosted globe in the middle of the beadboard ceiling, strung with cobwebs and dead gnats, and of course your black ashtray full of stubbed-out Salems on top of the wide banister, the filter ends stained with bright fuschia lipstick.

As usual, I couldn’t really see into the dark front room through that big wooden screen door--just a glimmer of gold from the starburst-shaped clock on the back wall.  You came to the door, and in the dream I called you Pauline, which of course I never did as a child: You were always “Mrs. Meese”. You were glad to see me, and we talked a little bit about this and that, and I told you that we all missed you. Still, I had the feeling that you needed to get back to whatever it was you’d been doing.  

As I was turning to leave, you said “Love ya,” in that offhand Oklahoma way of yours.  “We love you too,” I said.  I don’t know why I said “We”; I suppose I was speaking for my family, although as good stolid Germans we never even said “I love you” to each other, let alone to the neighbors.  

We went out on the porch again, and I gave you a hug.  Something welled up in me, and over your shoulder, I began telling you how I missed the neighborhood, how everything had changed, how when I drove through town I didn’t even recognize what road I was on anymore.  And I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  That’s when I began to wake up--not all of a sudden, but little by little, the familiar surroundings seeming to slip further and further away without my having budged from that spot.  I remember staying very still for a while after I awoke, afraid I’d break the spell of having just stood there with you, Mrs. Meese--Pauline--on that comfortable old porch, in that long-vanished old neighborhood.

Anyway, I had a nice visit, and I guess I just wanted to tell you about it.  I know that we can never really go home again, but it seems I can’t help but try it now and then, in spite of myself. 

Monday, May 14, 2012


Architect Frank Furness was a mustachioed bulldog of a man who, by contemporary accounts, seemed better known for his extraordinary cussing ability than for his architecture. Yet in his greatest projects, which date from the 1870s and 80s, Furness gleefully took Victorian eclecticism to another plane entirely, if not to another planet. He replaced conventional Victorian detailing with his own peculiar idiom--strange piston-like columns, weirdly pinched openings, outlandishly overscaled ornament--and composed them into wildly polychromed brick and stone facades filled with such tense vitality that they seemed ever on the verge of exploding.  

It was these remarkable buildings, many of them long destroyed, that were skewered by one modernist-era critic as “relics of the low water mark in American architecture.” Thanks to the tenacity of such anti-Victorian sentiments, Furness’s reputation remained at rock bottom for nearly a century before being revived amid the more individualistic leanings of the 1970s. 
It’s notable how often architects like Furness--bad boys who confounded their contemporaries, and often succeeding generations as well--eventually seem to leave the most lasting marks on posterity.  

One of Furness’s few professional admirers was Louis Sullivan, who with his elder partner Dankmar Adler had won great respect for Chicago’s celebrated Auditorium Building of 1889. His star on the rise, Sullivan was invited to design the Transportation Building for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, already envisioned by its organizers as a sort of idealized Beaux-Arts dream city. Sullivan responded with an eye-popping design featuring a single enormous arch wriggling with bands of exotic ornament and flanked by strange motifs resembling giant scribbles. The spectacle of this structure blazing out amid the fair’s sedate white Classical temples outraged the architectural mainstream, and even sympathizers complained that, by overstepping his bounds to such a degree, Sullivan had set the fledgling modernist movement back twenty years. 

Sullivan’s pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright, didn’t get much more respect in his early career. Wright built many of his most famous houses in the quiet Chicago suburb of Oak Park during the 1900s. Bad enough that these otherworldly designs horrified the neighbors--one of whom memorably pronounced the epoch-making Robie House “monstrous”--but mainstream architects and critics were just as quick to chime in, branding Wright’s designs “prairie houses” and “steamship architecture” before those terms were considered laudatory. 

More recently, Robert Venturi, among the first architects who dared declare modernism an emperor with no clothes, was seen as more or less a crackpot by much of the architectural establishment. One esteemed architecture professor at Berkeley sneeringly dismissed Venturi’s 1966 book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” with the comment: “This is a guy who likes Las Vegas!” 

In that manifesto, which has since become a classic, Venturi wrote: 

“I aim for vitality as well as validity ... I like elements which are hybrid rather than `pure', compromising rather than `clean', distorted rather than `straightforward'... inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.”  
As one bad boy to another, Frank Furness might have agreed.   

Monday, May 7, 2012


Near my office there’s a stretch of sidewalk that typifies what passes for urban landscaping these days.  It’s a laser beam-straight ribbon of concrete almost a quarter-mile long. Trees--all of the same species and all spaced exactly the same distance apart--  march rigidly along one side, seemingly poked into the ground like so many Tootsie-Pops.

Granted, it’s a fine thing that developers and public works departments have begun cooperating to guarantee our city streets some kind of natural relief.  But it’s also appararent that we could do a lot better, at the price of little more than a bit of careful thinking.

It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a recognizable pattern brought to life by unexpected variations.  In other words, the human mind is comfortable with basic patterns that are familiar and easily grasped, but it also gets bored when it doesn’t come across a surprise or a challenge in these patterns now and then.  

Nowhere is this more true than in landscape design.  The human brain is not at all used to seeing mind-numbing sameness in nature--and why should it be?  There’s no such thing to be found there.  In even the most outwardly uniform forest or expanse of desert, Mother Nature is nevertheless teeming with variation.  Hence, when we see a line of trees rigidly arrayed and spaced equidistantly like points on a number line, our minds rebell.  Well, mine does, anyway.

What’s most puzzling about this sort of rote design is that making it less oppressive costs next to nothing when it’s done in the design stage.  There are plenty of simple and inexpensive ways to relieve the usual row-of-lollipops landscaping scheme, for example.  Tree spacing can be varied--oh, the shock!-- a few yards this way or that.  A different species can be introduced now and then as an accent, and the sidewalk inflected a bit to acknowledge it.  And once the streetscape is a little less daunting, a simple bench here and there might be welcome for people to sit down and enjoy it.

In landscaping, as in so many other facets of architecture, blind habit, laziness, and hurry are the archenemies of good design.  Especially with today’s computer drafting programs, it’s much easier to fire off a perfect row of identical trees on a landscape plan and call it good, than it is to introduce the sort of small variations that are the hallmark of all human endeavor.  And while precision can be a wonderful thing, it can also stultify the spirit.  Our world, like ourselves, is always a little bit off-center, unpredictable, and imprecise, and I suspect that most of us like it that way.  At least, we’d like it even less if it were otherwise.

In an era increasingly running at the pace of electrons, we have to be especially wary of what we stand to lose in worshipping speed and precision above all else.  Urban landscapes aren’t printed circuits, and planners ought not treat them as such.  It’s ironic that despite--or perhaps because of--our technical wizardry, we have to try even harder to do what Mother Nature does with ease.