Monday, October 29, 2012


Cars can’t help but affect the built environment, since they constrain so much of how we design and how we live.  We devote a big chunk of our homes to them, and build shopping centers in which a quarter of the space is for people, and the rest is for parked cars.  Add up all this area given over to cars, whether moving or standing still, and you’ll find that around forty percent of our cities belong to our four-wheeled friends.  

Of more pressing concern to humankind, however, is the fact that cars consume vast amounts of petroleum while pumping out vast amounts of pollution.  Here, at least, there’s a ray of hope:  Americans can now buy not only hybrid vehicles (which use small, efficient gasoline engines to produce electricity onboard), but straight electric vehicles as well.  

Hybrids are far more efficient than the gas-guzzling, mechanical-drive dinosaurs most of us still drive, not to mention being being quieter and more powerful to boot. Straight electric vehicles are an even greater advance, as they do away completely with the inherently inefficient internal-combustion engine.

Still, industry analysts, bureaucrats, and other fonts of conventional wisdom would have us believe that, because hybrids and electrics still account for only a small fraction of vehicles sold, old-style cars will be with us for a long, long time. 

They may be in for a big surprise, and steam locomotives, of all things, can help us see why.

For over a hundred years after U.S. railroad service began in 1831, steam locomotives ruled the American rails.  What’s more, by the 1920s, only three companies were building all of the nation’s locomotives.  Sound familiar?  The largest of these was the mighty Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, whose vast Eddystone Works once ranked among the world’s largest industrial complexes.  Baldwin was, in many ways, the General Motors of its field. 

During the 1930s, a seemingly puny threat to this dynasty appeared.  It was the diesel-electric locomotive, an innovative product built by a complete outsider to the world of steam. The sleek, clean-running diesel-electrics cost a lot more than steam locomotives, but they were also about three times as efficient.  

The Big Three locomotive builders hardly took notice of this innovation.  They devoted trifling resources to developing their own versions, and instead kept right on doing what they’d always done--building bigger and more powerful steam locomotives.  After all, steam had been king for over a century, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

But it did change, and fast.  The railroads quickly saw the potential savings in this new technology. To the astonishment of Baldwin and its brethren, they began rapidly replacing their huge fleets of steam locomotives with diesel-electrics.  How rapidly?  In 1936, steam locomotives still outsold diesel-electrics by about four to one. In 1948, by contrast, the railroads bought 2,800 diesel-electrics--and exactly thirteen steam locomotives. 

The last American steam locomotive chuffed out of Baldwin’s Eddystone Works the following year.  While the steam engine builders had been snoring at the throttle, demand for their once-invincible product had vanished.   

Not surprisingly, all of the Big Three locomotive builders quickly succumbed in the diesel-electric era, since they’d done next to nothing to prepare for it.

The moral of the story is that the gasoline-engined, mechanical-drive automobile--the kind we’ve driven for over a century now--is far from invincible.  No one should know this better than General Motors. Why? Because they were the upstart firm whose shiny, efficient diesel-electric locomotives put the steam engine out of business.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Every so often, there’s a brief span of years in which innovation comes thick and fast.  In the area of building technology, the Roaring Twenties was such an age.  The houses of this decade were chock full of new ideas that, quaint as they seem to us now, let Americans live more comfortably than ever before.

The homes of the 1920s were, for one, the first to truly integrate electricity.  In prior years, clumsy surface installations of switches and wiring were still common, along with lighting fixtures that often consisted of little more than a naked bulb at the end of a cord.  The Twenties brought the wide use of two-button switches flush-mounted in brass plates, with the  “on” button elegantly marked by a circle of mother-of-pearl.  Electric wall sconces became the lighting fashion of the day, while electrical outlets moved from jury-rigged affairs screwed to the wall to being inconspicuously flush-mounted in the baseboard.  Granted, few rooms had more than one or two receptacles, but then this was an era of few electrical gadgets besides floor lamps and radios.

Another high-tech feature unique to the era was a built-in aerial serving that entertainment mainstay of the day, the console radio.  Rather than mounting an ugly mast on the roof as was later done for television, builders of the Twenties cleverly looped wire through the attic to form a giant hidden antenna. 

A simpler but equally useful convenience was the pass-through mailbox, in which letters dropped through a slot beside the front door slid into a small inside compartment behind a grillework door.  Alas, this charming device could never accomodate today’s huge quantities of junk mail. 

The 1920s also brought the wide use of speaking tubes, the low-tech ancestor of those garbled intercoms we’ve all learned to hate. Used mainly in upscale apartment buildings, speaking tubes were simply a network of tin pipes leading from a central panel at the front door into each apartment. Each end of the tube had a trumpet-like opening, allowing visitor and occupant to communicate without need for electronics. 

Also found in better apartment houses was central electric refrigeration, the forerunner of today’s home refrigerators.  In this system, a compressor in the basement furnished the cooling power for a small refrigerated cabinet in the kitchen of each apartment.  Cumbersome as it sounds, this was still a big advance over the standard cooling device of the era: A block of ice.  

No doubt the most technically sophisticated building innovation to take hold during the Twenties was air conditioning, a luxury so expensive that it was initially found only in movie palaces and in the best class of public buildings.  In those days, the machinery required to air-condition a building took up roughly the space of a four-car garage, and was deemed so impressive that at least one theater installed plate glass show windows to let passersby admire their mechanical wonder from the sidewalk.  

One innovation of the Twenties that never did catch on was a patented radio speaker hidden in a chandelier--a device that probably had more than a few startled dinner guests choking on their dumplings.  Then again, even this curiosity might have succeeded if the Great Depression hadn’t stopped it cold, along with all the other hijinks of this exuberant era. Thankfully, the greatest legacy of the Roaring Twenties--some of the most charming and livable houses in America--still largely survives.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Not long ago, in a pleasant, Sixties-era neighborhood of California ranchers, I came across a renovated house that looked all too familiar.  The owner had replaced the original front doors, all the windows, and the garage door in a style that could most kindly be described as Home Depot Eclectic.  To begin with, there was a huge, modernistic vinyl picture window.  A few feet away were a pair of casement windows bordered with those now-inescapable Craftsman style “simulated divided lites”.  The garage door, meanwhile, was topped with a row of little Colonial sunburst windows, while the front doors boasted an elaborate Frank Lloyd Wright pattern done in beveled glass.  Just about the only style that was absent, in fact, was that of the original California rancher.

Setting aside the wisdom of trying to transform one architectural style into another, any one of these motifs might have worked had it been used consistently and alone. Combining them all together, however, simply yielded a stylistic hodgepodge.

It’s amazing how a single motif can call up a whole architectural style. Motifs act as a kind of visual shorthand--when we see fishscale shingles, we think Victorian.  When we see zigzags, we think Deco. When we see curlicues, we think Spanish, and so on.  But this same evocative power can cause a lot of trouble when it’s not used carefully.  Few motifs, for example, could be more at odds than those New Englandish sunbursts being played against the jagged lines of Prairie School glass just a few feet away.

Probably the most clear-cut dividing line between irreconcilable motifs is the one between traditional and modern architecture.  There are always exceptions, but in general, traditional and modern styles spring from diametrically opposed philosophies, and seldom the twain shall meet.  This realization might have discouraged our exemplary renovator from mixing in a little Ben Franklin with his Frank Lloyd Wright.

Is all this just stylistic nitpicking?  Sure--but nitpicking is what makes for good design.  Nor are such clashing motifs something that would only bother an architect.  Lately, more and more homeowners come primed with an impressive grasp of architectural styles--due, no doubt, to This Old House-style TV shows and instant Google searches.  Lots of people are able to sense when things don’t seem to fit together right.

So unless you aim to be eclectic, try to limit yourself to a few favorite motifs, and apply them consistently.  If you use segmental arches, for example, don’t mix them with round ones--the first speaks Italian, while the second screams in Spanish.  For similar reasons, don’t mix double-hung windows with sliders, Art Nouveau with Art Deco, divided lites with glass block, and so on.  All of these pairings come from very different eras and sources, and they’ll get along none too happily in one facade.

If you’re not sure which motif goes with which style, consult some books on the style or period you’re interested in.  Find five or six examples of buildings you really like, and take note of the motifs they have in common.  Then, pay equally close attention to the things you don’t find, and you won’t be bedeviled by those mixed-up motifs.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Some years back, the FBI raided San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection and arrested an official for allegedly taking bribes from a contractor.  It was yet another embarassment for an organization that, rightly or wrongly, has long suffered from a reputation for favoritism and improprieties.  At the time of the arrest, the department had been under FBI investigation for five years.  

This event got me to thinking about the nature of corruption in building and planning departments--not just in San Francisco, but across the country.  It would be easy to blame a few bad apples for this not-uncommon problem, but in fact the process may deserve as much  blame as the personnel.  

Bribery is, of course, one way of circumventing normal channels that don’t function adequately. In the days of the old U.S.S.R., for example, staple foods like chicken, beef, and pork were often very scarce. Not surprisingly, corruption flourished under these conditions. While ordinary Russians routinely stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a few scraps of meat, people with money and influence could easily obtain fine wine, caviar, chocolate, or anything else they fancied. 

Thankfully, in the United States, we don’t have to bribe the butcher to score a few pork chops--we can just pick up a package, pay for it, and leave. If only getting a building permit were so simple.  Instead, it’s become one of the most exasperating processes in all of government.  Despite the best efforts of officials in many cities, obtaining a permit often still takes more time than constructing the actual project.  

Now, generally, we Americans are a very patient people.  We don’t mind jumping through our fair share of hoops to get what we’re after.  Yet there’s a point at which a process become so onerous and complex that even reasonable people try to circumvent it--not because they have criminal minds, but because each and every one of us has a limit of tolerance for unreasonable red tape.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.  After all, the American Revolution grew out of what normally law-abiding people saw as unfair taxation by the Crown. This kind of rebellion against unfairness is, if anything, a classic American trait.

The unfairness inherent in many big-city building permit processes is this:  Thanks to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, homeowners with ordinary resources must struggle for permission to build simple and innocuous home additions, while big-league applicants who are savvy, well-connected, and able to afford elaborate lobbying measures (whether legal or otherwise) can typically prevail with projects of far greater impact on the public.

It’s evident that if the approval process weren’t so convoluted, fewer ordinary citizens would be tempted onto the dangerous path of foregoing permits altogether.  Neither would well-connected applicants look for special treatment, nor would building officials be tempted to grant such favors in return for compensation. 

If we’re still shocked--shocked!--to find bribery in some of our building departments, we shouldn’t be. When a process becomes as byzantine as this one has, attempts to circumvent it are inevitable. And as we already know, people with means can always get their caviar, while the rest of us wait in line for scraps.

Monday, October 1, 2012


It’s been almost forty years since the architectural and decorative style known as High-Tech hit the American scene. Arising during the mid-1970s, and legitimized by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin’s eponymous book of 1978, High-Tech had every hipster architecture student of my generation designing facades with chain-link fencing and corrugated culverts.

Among High-Tech’s most celebrated paradigms was Paris’s Pompidou Center, completed by the architects Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano in 1976.  The Pompidou was essentially a building turned inside out, unabashedly wearing its guts on the outside. Color-keyed networks of piping, ducting, escalators, and other service systems were carried in a scaffold-like framework surrounding the building, essentially becoming the decorative elements.  The Pompidou predictably caused an uproar among Parisians and worldwide, with many detractors comparing it to an oil refinery.

The idea that structure was innately beautiful had been a longtime modernist tenet, but the Pompidou took this thinking a good bit further, showcasing technical features that had previously been considered ugly. 

Controversial as it was, the Pompidou spurred an entire generation of avant-garde architects and designers to feature utilitarian materials such as industrial lighting fixtures, subway gratings, galvanized and perforated metal, commercial rubber flooring, and non-skid steel plate in residential and commercial design.  This new functional aesthetic, theoretically unfettered by the tides of domestic fashion, soon acquired the only marginally accurate appellation High-Tech.  

Besides having great visual impact, the frankly functional items used in High-Tech design were sometimes--though by no means always--less costly than their more refined domestic equivalents.  More portentiously, High-Tech also afforded architects and designers a perfect opportunity to use prefabricated structures, commercial curtain wall systems, and similar modular parts in residential work, a breakthrough that had long eluded the housing industry.

“In the future, all buildings will be built like this,” said the German architect Helmut Schulitz of his steel-framed, largely modular High-Tech home in Coldwater Canyon, California, built in 1977.  Yet the future Schulitz predicted didn’t materialize. 

Rather, High-Tech went the way of most other aesthetic movements, devolving into a sort of decorative subset of minimalism that, ironically, often relied on expensive custom fabrication to achieve its spartan industrial look.  Along the way, the style’s real promise--the idea of building houses using off-the-shelf industrial products that were cheap, simple, and immune from the vagaries of architectural fashion--was largely forgotten. 

Instead, the legacies of High-Tech include such dubiously practical trends as using commercial kitchen equipment in private homes, which in turn inspired the commercial-wannabe styling so typical of today’s appliances.  But the style also gave us such now ubiquitous domestic furnishings as factory lamps, ergonomic swivel chairs, and wire closet shelving.

Of course, High-Tech architecture is still very much with us, too--though in a slightly less edgy form--as the standard interior style of countless coffee bars and twenty-something clothing boutiques.  It’s also the de rigeur interior style for those pricey loft developments that copy genuine industrial live-work spaces.  Perhaps it’s appropriate that the fake factory style ultimately came home to the fake factory.