Monday, June 25, 2012


Suppose a developer wanted to advertise the name of his subdivision by building a sign five hundred feet long on a prominent hillside that was visible for miles.  Suppose each letter was going to be fifty feet high and built out of telephone poles, pipes, and sheet metal.  And suppose the whole thing was going to be lit up by ten thousand or so unshaded forty-watt bulbs, so it couldn’t be overlooked even at night.

A design review board’s nightmare?  Not really.  In 1923, a pair of developers named S.H. Woodruff and Tracy Shoults proposed--and built--just such a sign in a sleepy hamlet near Los Angeles.  It advertised their 500-acre housing development, which was called Hollywoodland.  In 1949, the sign’s last four letters were removed by the local chamber of commerce, leaving a landmark now famed the world over: the giant hillside sign reading HOLLYWOOD. 

The point is that our ideas of what’s aesthetically right or wrong can change drastically over time.  During the 1920s, no one gave a second thought to outlandish structures like the Hollywood sign--they were considered a natural expression of an exuberant era.  Today, however, conventional planning wisdom frowns mightily upon any structure that dares call attention to itself and thus potentially upsets the equilibrium of the mundane.  Today, a developer proposing a 500-foot long advertising sign would either be run out of town or politely referred to a psychiatrist.   

The Hollywood sign and other ebullient structures like it--including some of America’s most beloved landmarks and icons--could never come to pass under today’s withering regulatory scrutiny.  Imagine the hurdles faced by someone today proposing to build a 305-foot high statue on an island in the middle of New York Harbor.  It’s almost too easy to predict the ensuing litany of objections:  Construction on the island could adversely affect nesting seabirds; rain could cause the statue’s copper skin to shed toxic sulfates; the statue could obstruct Bayonne’s view of Manhattan; a statue promoting Liberty might offend those favoring alternate forms of government.  

In today’s ultra-deferential planning climate, simply mitigating or refuting such objections might take decades, if it ever happened at all.  A modern-day Statue of Liberty would no doubt look quite different--not because the risks have changed, but because we have.

Just about every state in the Union has manmade structures that are the product of eccentricity, obsession, megalomania, or just plain shameless commerce.  They range from Mount Rushmore to the Watts Towers, from Sam Hill’s Stonehenge replica in southern Washington right on down to the Big Duck of Flanders, New York.  Such icons are a part of any vibrant culture, yet practically none of them could have arisen under the crushing heel of today’s regulatory bureacracy.  

The Chinese have no such qualms about building with exuberance. Just across the river from Shanghai’s famous Bund, they’ve built a 1,536-foot-tall broadcast tower that looks like something straight out of Buck Rogers.  Called the Oriental Pearl Tower, it’s the tallest such structure in Asia.  Every evening, this amazing colossus is lit up by animated cascades of colored lamps, making it impossible to overlook by anyone within a ten mile radius.  In the span of a decade, the Oriental Pearl has become the instantly recognizable symbol of Shanghai, and in a sense, of China’s renaissance itself.

As for the United States, the nation that turned exuberance into an art form, we have for the most part turned off the lights.  What our aesthetic tiptoeing and whispering has gained us is a way to ensure the least offense to the most people.  What it has cost us is our magic portal to the offbeat, the extraordinary, the insanely great.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It’s human nature to crave the fresh, the new, and the fashionable, and that goes for remodeling as much as anything else.  The quest for the mythical “updated look” of magazine lore has long tempted both owners and architects to graft trendy additions onto older homes just to make them ever-so-briefly fashionable again.  Alas, you need only leaf through a twenty-year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens to see how such “updates” have stood the test of time.  Most would elicit groans,if not laughter.  

The lesson is simple:  Given the ever-shifting sands of architectural taste, the only kind of addition that’ll be permanently in fashion is one that respects the original architecture. 

But how to do this?  It goes without saying that the overall proportions of any new addition--wall heights, window styles and sizes, and the roof style and finish--should be in keeping with the original building.  Beyond these basics, though, the real trick to making an addition “lock” into the original house is to identify and repeat the designer’s signature details. By sussing out these characteristic traits--and incidentally, every house, new or old, has a whole raft of them--you can pretty much make any addition look spot-on original.  Typical candidates include: 

•  Porch railings and columns.  Repeating these often charismatic details will go a long way toward knitting an addition into the original building. If the original railings don’t meet the current building code, find a workaround--don’t just use an entirely different design.  For example, if the old railing has openings larger than the current 4” maximum, install a heavy wire mesh on the inside face of the new make it comply.  

•  Window muntins (the narrow divisions between the glass) and window trim.  Every home style has its own characteristic trim and muntin patterns; look for them and repeat them in the addition where possible.  Muntins are less common in postwar homes, but if they’re present, it’s doubly important to echo them in the new work.  Avoid using the two-dimensional “sandwich” muntins found in most modern windows unless that’s what you find in the original building.  You’ll pay a premium for true muntins, but they’ll make a huge difference.

•  Roof edges.  The strong lines of roof eaves are a central element of any home style, so it’s imperative to get them right.  It’s not enough just to match the width of the overhang--you also need to match the fascia (the board behind the gutter, if any) and the gutter itself.  If you can’t find the original gutter style, consider replacing all the gutters with a close match to ensure that the new work ties in flawlessly with the old.   

•  Attic vents.  Here, look for characteristic shapes: Did the designer use rectangular, pointed, arched, or circular louvers, or perhaps round or square clay pipe vents?  It’s small flourishes like these that visually lock the addition into the existing structure.  Again, if the original vent design won’t meet current codes, include it for appearance and provide additional venting elsewhere, out of sight.   

•  Lastly, if you have trouble coming up with a detail that has no direct precedent on the existing building, ask yourself:  What would the original designer have done?  Would he have used paired french doors, or a sleek aluminum slider?  Would he make the chimney skinny, stout, or asymmetrical?  In short, what would he have recommended?  With the original designer guiding you, your addition can’t help but fit. 

Monday, June 11, 2012


Charles Kuralt, the longtime “On The Road” correspondent for CBS News, once observed:  “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.”

Since Kuralt made that comment a generation ago, things have only gotten worse.  Nowadays, instead of not seeing anything, we just see the same things over and over, no matter where we go.  Although the Interstate system crisscrosses some of the most splendidly varied landscape on earth, it has helped make traveling that landscape an experience of unparalleled monotony.  It matters little whether you’re on the left coast or the right, on the Canadian border or in the Deep South:  As long as you stay near the freeway, you could be anywhere or nowhere.  

Kuralt traveled the United States at a time when the only truly ubiquitous national chain was McDonald’s. Today, however, you can take any suburban offramp in the country, whether in Bangor or Barstow, Boise or Birmingham, and you’ll likely find an identical brace of corporate franchised minimarts, fast food joints, and chain motels.  A bit further on you’ll come to the inevitable strip mall with its Wal-Mart, Subway, and Starbucks, all duded up in a false-front interpretation of the local architectural style: A fringe of red tile in California, a pediment in New England, or a few fake shutters down South.

What’s so bad about this?  Nothing, if our aim is a totally homogenous nation in which every growing town, whether north, south, east, or west, looks exactly the same as its neighbor.  This outcome would suit the corporate megachains just fine, since it’s that much cheaper to parcel out the same stores, shops, and restaurants over and over, tossing in a few cliched regional details to please the local planning department.

The pity is, you wouldn’t know what was lost unless you’d seen what came before.  Motor down what’s left of Highway 97 in northern California, or Highway 1 along the New England coast, or the legendary Route 66 that once spanned from Chicago to Santa Monica, and you can still get a vivid sense of it:  In your own time, you traverse a landscape redolent of America’s kaleidoscopic variety, each town unique in its geography, lifestyles, industry, food, and pastimes.  

This linear pageant of Americana is what the Interstates and and their environs deny us.  In its place, we’re fed a bland cultural pablum for mile upon monotonous mile: a landscape strategized, formulated, and set in place by indifferent strangers in a far-off boardroom, instead of by the locals in their own front room.

Granted, we’ve willingly submitted to such expedients.  In a rapidly changing world, some of us probably find it reassuring that a Subway sandwich in Bangor tastes exactly like it does in Barstow.  And, let’s face it, many of us would rather go flashing down the interstate at eighty rather than toodling through some backwater that, heaven forbid, might be lacking a Starbucks.  

But in paring off those few minutes and miles, we’ve also doomed ourselves to miss that Hoagie, that Cheese Steak, that Spiedie, or that slab of Flint’s Barbecue; not to mention that clunky cup of MJB served by a waitress named Dot, whose greeting comes out of her own head instead of some corporate manual, and who reminds us that the real America is still out there, beyond the offramps and down the road apiece.  

Monday, June 4, 2012


In contrast to our primadonna image, we architects are for the most part fairly quiet souls. Still, there is one surefire way to get us apoplectic, and that’s to have people second-guessing us and meddling with our work. So if you ever want to drive an architect crazy, that’s a fine way to do it. 

It’s important to understand that architects--good ones, anyway--spend dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours considering every aspect of a project, weighing the pros and cons of a whole array of possible solutions, and in short devoting a ridiculous amount of time and effort to thinking things through on the client’s behalf. This is not to say that no one else can contribute good ideas: well-reasoned opinions are always welcome. But when some clueless outsider blunders in and offers a critique based on a grand total of about five seconds of thought, we don’t respond well at all.  

What’s even worse is when clients accord such opinions equal weight to our own. I mean, if the mailman has such great ideas, why isn’t he designing additions?

I once had a client who was a delight to work with. Over the many months it took to plan her sprawling addition--which included a new kitchen and family room, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a poolhouse--she cheerfully accepted my ideas without hesitation. And I soon found out why: she accepted everyone’s ideas without hesitation.  Long after I began the final drawings--in painstaking accord with the scheme she’d approved--I’d get weekly calls that went something like this:

“Gee, yesterday I was talking to (insert: my brother-in-law, my ten-year-old nephew, the Maytag man, the kid who cleans the pool) and HE thought you should try putting the door to the laundry so-and-so...”  Each time, I’d listen quietly as I felt my blood pressure climb.  Then I’d explain yet again how I’d already considered and rejected that idea--which, after all, was what she was paying me for--and that for reasons X, Y and Z the best solution was the one we’d long since agreed upon.  

“Oh...okay then,” she’d reply, apparently satisfied--at least until her next chance encounter with the meter reader or the ice cream man. 

But the last straw came just before the construction drawings were finished.  At this point my client hired a kitchen designer--with my encouragement--ostensibly to work out the details of cabinet hardware and the like.  Alas, this person seemed to have grander ambitions, and decided to appoint herself oracle of the entire 1600-square foot addition.  Sure enough, I got a note from my client telling me to hold off finishing the drawings until the kitchen designer could tell me what to change.  

“She looked at your plans for a couple of hours, and she had some really good ideas,” said my client, evidently impressed. 

Well, that finally transformed the mild-mannered architect into the Incredible Hulk.  I told my client--as politely as possible--that after spending some six months refining her plans, I wasn’t about to take any snap architectural judgments from a renegade kitchen designer, much less one who presumed to second-guess my work based on a few hours of study.

Happily, the situation was defused after some discussion.  The kitchen designer was summarily returned to her territory, the pool boy and the ice cream man were kicked off the design team, and I put away my tattered Hulk outfit till next time.