Monday, September 24, 2012


Thanks to the old stereotype of the architect hunched over a drafting board, tee square in hand, many people still think that an architect’s main purpose is to draw “blueprints” (nowadays more properly called working drawings).  The trouble with this romantic notion is that it suggests that architects are paid to draw, when in fact they’re paid to think.

In truth, producing working drawings is a tedious but relatively incidental aspect of the architect’s charge.  It’s roughly analogous to taking a novel that’s been written in shorthand and typing it into a computer.  The essential creative work--if it’s been done properly--is all but finished, and only the mechanics of formatting remain. 

Alas, this preliminary thinking, which is the real kernel of the design process, takes a lot of time and effort and yet may not yield much of a tangible product until much later.  Considering this dearth of physical results, it’s gratifying that many people nevertheless perceive why spending fifteen percent or so of their building budget on architecture might be a worthwhile investment.  

Still, there are also lots of perfectly intelligent people who are mystified, annoyed, or even angered that a few sheets of drawings should take months to complete, cost them many thousands of dollars, and further delay them from getting their project under construction.  These people quite reasonably reckon that all that money spent on mere paper could buy them a bigger Jacuzzi or a fancier front door.  

I can only counter such reasoning by pointing out that architects provide a service, not a commodity.  To say that your architectural investment only buys you a few sheets of paper is like saying that the cost of a Harvard education only gets you a lousy little diploma.

There are plenty of familiar arguments for hiring a licensed architect, most of them having to do with the technical side of the process. For one thing, the high level of detail found in a good set of working drawings--far from scaring off contractors as some people fear--actually makes the bidding and construction process easier and more accurate.  For another, an experienced architect can help circumvent building code booby traps that can make for nasty (and costly) surprises during construction.  These services alone can save thousands of dollars in lost time and change orders.  Hence, that seemingly extravagant fifteen percent fee can repay itself quite rapidly.

Beyond these cut-and-dry reasons for hiring a professional, however, there’s one more--perhaps the only one that architects care passionately about--and that is the pursuit of good design for its own sake.  Obviously, there are cheaper ways to get plans drawn than by hiring an architect, and no doubt there are times when a design that’s merely “good enough” would probably suffice.  But from this architect’s perspective, at least, there can’t be much magic in this kind of undertaking.  After all, humanity’s rise over the millenia has come, not from doing things well enough, but from doing them as well as we knew how. 

Monday, September 17, 2012


We Americans are a puzzling bunch.  We travel to Italy, France or Spain and come back smitten with the charmingly walkable streets, close-knit houses, and humanly-scaled public spaces we find there.  Yet we seldom stop to wonder why our own built environment is so utterly lacking in those traits.  

It’s no mystery:  In spite of rising population and dwindling resources, America remains saddled with long outdated planning ideals that are the furthest thing from the European examples we admire so much.

America is a vast nation, and perhaps in consequence, our planners and engineers have historically been trained to think big.  This tendency has produced some magnificent civil engineering projects such as railways, dams and bridges.  Yet it hasn’t  been nearly so successful at the scale of human habitation.  

Thanks to the megalomania of our traffic engineers, for example, American cities are among the least pedestrian-friendly in the world. Each year, larger and larger swaths of urban and suburban land are paved over with ubiquitous six-lane thoroughfares bristling with redundant arrays of traffic signals.  Aside from creating barren, monotonous and alienating cityscapes, such roads are also daunting barriers to people on foot, no matter how many kinds of whizbang pedestrian signals we install.  Rather than drawing our cities together, our roads tear them apart, providing one more incentive for Americans to drive instead of walking.    

Ironically, in the dwindling number of places where human-scaled roads still remain, city engineers are even now scrambling to widen them, always with the specious objective of easing congestion.  Yet as both traffic studies and common sense can easily confirm, this so-called improvement is pure bunk.  The only thing America’s incessant street widening programs really do--aside from keeping paving contractors in clover--is to invite even more automobile traffic.    

Europeans are notably less obsessed with road widening.  Unlike us, they recognize that the difficulty of negotiating their picturesque streets in a car is a blessing in disguise: It makes people prefer to take public transit, or to simply live within walking distance of their jobs. In short, Europeans design their cars to suit their cities, whereas we design our cities to suit our cars. 

As for our homes, the much-adored human scale of European villages is all but unheard of in suburban America.  This is no accident, either--our neighborhoods can’t help but be coarsely scaled, since our moribund zoning regulations typcially still insist that houses be surrounded by useless strips of setback land. 

The custom of spacing buildings far apart may have made sense a hundred years ago, when America was an agricultural nation and land was cheap and plentiful.  Yet that day is long past.  With today’s usual practice of shoehorning huge tract homes into postage-stamp building lots, the resulting sunless, ten-foot-wide gap left between houses has only one function: to let developers fetch higher prices by continuing to sell their units as “single-family detached”.

In older European towns, by contrast, even houses in wide-open rural areas are often clustered together in villages, their walls adjoining.  The cumulative savings in otherwise useless setback land can then be devoted to public space that actually has some purpose.  

The need to prize every little scrap of land has been central to Europe’s way of building for centuries. But it’s a lesson we Americans have yet to learn.  When it comes to our professed admiration for Europe’s charms, we talk the talk, but we sure don’t walk the walk.

Monday, September 10, 2012


If you’re of Baby Boom vintage or younger, you probably take your local supermarket for granted.  You walk in, round up Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, and Captain Crunch, mince your way through the checkstand, and you’re done. But grocery shopping wasn’t always like that.  The modern supermarket—technically known as a “self-service food store”—is a fairly recent invention.

Prior to World War II, grocery stores were usually very small, narrow affairs, and going shopping amounted to telling a clerk behind a counter exactly what you needed.  Since most of the merchandise was also behind the counter, out of reach, the clerk had to personally assemble your order item by item.  Often, he or she had to weigh and package items from bulk, whether coffee or flour or pickles, which didn’t speed things up any.  

But slow service wasn’t the reason traditional full-service grocery stores began to die out in the late 1930s.  Rather, rising labor costs and a boom in mass-produced packaged foods drove the rapid changeover to self-service supermarkets.  Allowing customers to select their own prepacked items meant less labor and higher volume, which meant more profit for the grocer.

As quaint as it seems today, the boom in packaged foods stemmed largely from the widespread introduction of a product we now consider totally mundane: cellophane.  Compared to paper, the new transparent packaging kept food fresher while allowing self-service customers to see exactly what they were buying.  Cellophane wrappers first appeared on dry goods, but quickly spread to baked goods, meats, and vegetables.

The quintessential supermarket layout--a central area devoted to dry goods, a produce section along the right side, and a meat counter at the rear—also gradually took shape during the early postwar years. Beginning with the fact that people naturally tend to circulate toward the right rather than the left, the various grocery sections were laid out in a deliberate sequence designed to increase sales, with staple foods first, then discretionary goodies with higher profit margins.  

For the first time, the grocery industry also strove to understand what was going on in a housewife’s mind when she went shopping--and mind you, in those days supermarket customers were almost invariably assumed to be women. 

“The housewife, her habits, her thinking processes, her frame of mind as she enters the store should always be given careful consideration,” advised one trade reference of the era.  “If the staple groceries are located well back, she will be drawn to the rear of the store...if the housewife can complete her “must” shopping list (there), so much the better.  As the housewife winds her way back to the front door, we want her to see our extras, specials, fancies, and high-margin goods, for now she is in a good mood to consider them.”

This carefully planned path of travel thus exposed the unwitting shopper to “silent salesmanship” of the kind we still find today: Mass displays (items stacked in huge quantity to suggest exceptional value), associated displays (for instance, packaged shortcakes placed alongside fresh strawberries); sale items with two-for-one pricing; and of course those checkstand displays designed to encourage the purchase of treats for nagging youngsters. 

Today, despite sixty-odd years of refinement—most of it having to do with pricing, inventory control, and payment—the supermarket remains a distinctly mid-century invention, one which any time-warped GI might recognize.  The tough part would be explaining why we now have ten different kinds of orange juice.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


In the twenty years that followed World War II, the phrase “Made In Japan” was transformed from a synonym for worthlessness into a mark of exceptional quality.  More recently, Korea’s reputation for quality has likewise turned around:  The automaker Hyundai, for example, whose early U.S. offerings were memorably panned by one reviewer as “supremely shoddy,” today ranks near the top in quality worldwide.

Alas, Asia’s real powerhouse, China, has not made similar gains in its culture of quality, despite the three-plus decades that have passed since the Opening in 1978.  In the area of building products, most of the quality problems I noticed on my first visit in 1994 still persist.  Items such as cabinet hardware, faucets, and bathroom accessories--many of them destined for your local home improvement center--are beautifully finished and packaged, yet after installation quickly corrode or fall apart.  

The locksets I chose for my second home in China looked impressive in the box, but after three months of light use, five out of six had broken.  Likewise, our Chinese-made toilet was the height of style, but due to a basic design flaw, didn’t flush properly and had to be replaced--ironically, with a U.S.-designed model also manufactured in China. Especially vexing is that these problems seem to occur regardless of a domestic brand’s price or alleged reputation.

One reason for these wide-ranging quality problems is that, in the mad scramble to cash in on China’s construction boom, building products are rushed to market with scant regard for performance testing, let alone time for evolutionary improvement.  But an even more fundamental problem is that the Chinese continue to equate intrinsic quality with superficial appearance.  Products don’t actually have to be good, as long as they look good.  

Somewhat more alarmingly, this attitude carries over to the quality of whole buildings as well.  Commercial facades carry elegant finishes of granite, glass, or stainless steel, yet the workmanship beneath--even in important public works such as airports and stadiums--often remains breathtakingly slapdash.  In the city of Suzhou, where I spend my summers, a gleaming new sports arena that opened to great fanfare six years ago is already streaked with rust. 

Given the great strides made by other Asian countries, one would think that such quality issues would have been addressed long ago.  Yet not even problems that could be easily rectified--such as China’s famously garbled English translations--have improved much.  A flashy Powerpoint presentation I was shown this year boasted of a government agency’s ISO 9001 certification, but was itself riddled with gross translation and typographic errors.  In another example of the kind one sees every day, I came across a purportedly “Tournament Grade”sporting product that was boldly labeled BADMINON SHUTTLECOKS.  Still, the prize for this year’s worst translation must go to the eyebrow-raising brand name I found on a set of bath towels:  Kingshore.

Seemingly, the cavalier attitude of China’s old command economy--an era in which quality truly didn’t matter--continues to dog much of the present generation’s owners and workers alike.  It may remain for yet another post-Opening generation to fully implement a culture of quality, but rest assured, it will happen eventually.  There is, after all, a limit to how far a low price can get you.