Monday, September 29, 2014


If you’re ever up for a slightly depressing tour of yesterday’s design fads, mosey on over to your local architectural salvage yard. There you’ll find a whole galaxy of onetime architectural must-haves, from stoneware sinks, pinstriped toilets, and gold-plated faucets, to elaborate wet bar cabinets and heaven knows what else.  

At one time, somebody somewhere paid dearly for each of these moldering castoffs in order to  be at the forefront of architectural fashion. Fast forward a decade or two: Since the fads that originally impelled homeowners are now stone dead, and since there’s nothing quite as dated as a formerly hot fashion, these once-coveted items are unceremoniously ripped out and demoted to scrap.

Whirlpool tub and fireplace: Two fads in one,
now playing at your local salvage yard.
 It’s surprising how quickly a design fad can make the transition from emblem of taste to architectural albatross. Case in point: Think back to one of the popular trends of the ‘90s, concrete countertops. Made with indisputable artistry, often with sinks or lavatories beautifully integrated, these were strictly custom items commanding astronomical prices in their heyday. Yet on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, concrete countertops seemed to be lying about in every corner, complete with their six-hundred dollar faucets.

Granite countertops--ironically just about the most durable items found in the average home--often suffer an equally ignominious fate. The material itself is timeless enough, to be sure, but the favored colors of the moment aren’t. Once those mirror-polished pink slabs have joined the ranks of yesterday’s high-end kitsch, another topnotch product ends up as scrap.

Whirlpool tubs were another architectural fad with a high price tag and a short life. Like so many fashion items, architectural and otherwise, they were sold using the classic materialist ploy of selling the sizzle and not the steak--hence the romantic advertising images of couples lounging under discretely chest-high bubbles, with glasses of white wine perched beside them. Back in the day, tub makers even offered remote controls that let you turn on your tub before leaving work, ostensibly ready for a steamy rendezvous when you got home. 

Real life: Who would even think of bathing
without a candelabra nearby?
Or those pointy things?
These kinds of fads present appealing images, yet they fly in the face of how real people actually live. We may well aspire to sitting around soaking and getting plastered, yet how many of us can actually manage this in lives already harried beyond belief? The manifestly impractical whirlpool tub, like so many other architectural fads, owes its success mainly to advertising-induced fantasies of the good life and our cravings for status. Yet all this idyllic marketing is sooner or later exposed as a pipe dream, explaining why countless whirlpool tubs are ripped out and end up you-know-where. 

There are two lessons in this unending cycle of aesthetic boom and bust. First, it’s a virtual certainty that the hotter a design trend is, the less real substance there is behind it, and the harder it’s going to fall. 

Second, and perhaps more useful: Your local architectural salvage yard is a great place to pick up yesteryear’s most extravagant fads for pennies on the dollar. You just have to wait until the trendoids are done with them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


 In 1913, Walter Gropius completed an unusual shoe-last factory in the sleepy German town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine, and ever since, architects have been obsessed with building glass boxes. Alfeld is where glass-wall architecture quite literally turned the corner, dematerializing what had always been the sturdiest part of a building into ethereal lightness (<>). 

The famous glass corner of Walter Gropius's
Fagus shoe-last factory in Alfeld, Germany--first
of the Modernist-era glass boxes.
Gropius’s factory wasn’t the first glass box, of course. Long before came London’s vast Crystal Palace, built at Hyde Park for the Great Exposition of 1851. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, was a landscape gardener already known for his innovative cast-iron framed conservatories. With the Exposition short on time, Paxton ingeniously conceived the 990,000 square foot building as a gigantic prefabricated greenhouse.

Thereafter, others used glass in innovative ways. But it was Gropius who showed architects just how much fun they could have with it. Alas, the real brilliance of his design--its elegant juxtaposition of solid mass and transparent membrane--was lost on the many who simply declared glass the quintessential modern material and began using it by reflex.

The postwar era brought many more famous glass boxes. In Chicago there was Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments of 1949, and nearby his Farnsworth House of 1951. There was Philip Johnson’s own glass house of 1949 in New Canaan, Connecticut. Glass boxes took commercial architecture by storm with two New York office towers, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House (1952) and Mies’s Seagram Building (1958). Thereafter, it became the accepted norm that a modern highrise building should be sheathed in glass.
Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology
campus: A classic Mies van der Rohe glass box. Before
IIT began air conditioning its buildings in the 1960s,
architecture students frequently sweltered in its
hothouse interior.

The trouble is that, as much as architects adore glass boxes, they simply don’t work as buildings. There are many subtle reasons--privacy, maintenance, people throwing stones--but the most obvious one is the sun, which rather unavoidably warms up our world in the daytime and lets it cool off at night. This makes it impossible to comfortably live or work in a glass box without having to pump in or out huge amounts of energy in the form of heating or cooling. 

Ancient cultures, who lacked our modern expedient of mechanical air conditioning, had the good sense to design and orient buildings in passive synergy with the sun--a basic intelligence that many of today’s architects seem to lack. Flying in the face of the green movement, they remain obsessed with building glass boxes. What’s more, computer-aided design has actually made the problem worse: Slick digital renderings of buildings with acres of sparkling glass invariably look stunning in renderings, where they’re forever immune from the exactions of actual use. For eventual occupants, however, the reality is quite different. 

Not far from my office is a civic building recently designed by a prominent modernist firm. It’s yet another iteration of the tired glass box formula, devoid of any architectural response to solar orientation or practical comfort. The predictable result: On the south face of the building, hapless employees tape newspapers to the windows to avoid being broiled at their desks, while on the north side, which faces the street, they do the same to avoid being displayed like dummies in a shop window. 

Modernism may claim the phrase “form follows function”, but for any kind of life beyond the vegetal, the typical modernist glass box is the least functional form possible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CHINA: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow

(Note: This is the final piece in a series of reflections on China, where I spent this past summer).

China is a nation of baffling contrasts. It’s a place that practically defines the notions of culture and permanence: consider the Great Wall, or the ancient garden residences of my adopted home town, Suzhou. And yet today’s China is better known by its mad scramble for status and wealth, its penchant for superficial glitz, and its monumental indifference to quality.

Jichang Garden in Wuxi, not far from my
summer home-away-from home
in Suzhou, China. The garden was designed
and built between 1506 and 1521.
In Nanjing, a glittering new railway station unveiled six years ago is already falling apart, thanks to modern China’s typically hasty workmanship. Another station just recently completed in my adopted hometown of Suzhou no doubt awaits the same fate. The main reason for the dismal quality of China’s built environment is the invariably breakneck construction schedules imposed by local governments, which serves to aggrandize the officials in charge, but at the cost of both careful planning and decent quality. The quality of commercial work is even worse, though in this case it’s because investors want their profits and don’t much care what happens afterward.

Still, a visit to any one of Suzhou’s many ancient garden residences--four of them are World Heritage sites--should convince even a hardened skeptic that China’s current deficiencies are just a momentary blip in its astonishing history (<>. Most of these gardens date from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and they exhibit sensibilities so refined that, truth be told, the West has yet to equal them in beauty and livability. Here, landscape and shelter are so artfully joined that it’s often difficult to tell where indoors begins and outdoors ends. 

Shanghai Tower, soon to be China's tallest
building, and the world's second tallest at
121 stories and 2,073 feet. The design
is by American architects Gensler Associates. 
Like most traditional Chinese buildings, these garden residences are designed with fastidious attention to both solar orientation and sensual experience. Often, I’ve visited them on ferociously hot and humid days, only to find myself almost supernaturally transported into a cool realm of shade, fragrance, and beauty the moment I passed through their portals. 

Granted, in ancient China, as in the Old World, only an elite few had the privilege of such gracious living--but that is, alas, how we measure culture’s high water marks. Nevertheless, the elevated living standard of China’s most fortunate ancients makes the lives of their European counterparts, miserably hunkered down in their dank castles, seem downright barbaric.

To keep China’s current situation in perspective, Suzhou has three thousand years of recorded culture. By contrast, a mere six decades have passed since China’s Maoist revolution, and only half that many since China reopened to the world. One can endlessly argue the present government’s strengths and weaknesses, but one thing is certain: China is no worse off under Communism than it was under the humiliating subjugation of its prior colonial masters--a time when the entrance to a public park in Shanghai’s British quarter could freely post the advisory, “NO DOGS OR CHINESE.”

Sixty years is just a heartbeat in the history of such a proud and ancient culture, and it would be a mistake to presume that tomorrow’s China will resemble the peculiar socialist/materialist hybrid we know today. Though we can only infer what lies ahead for China, the brilliance of its past is crystal clear.

Monday, September 8, 2014


America or China: Think you know who’s greener? Americans have long painted the Chinese as wayward polluters and environmental cretins. But the more you know about China, the less certain your answer becomes.

In the three decades since the Opening, the Chinese have indeed run roughshod over their environment when it suited their development plans. Then again, back when our own stage of development roughly matched China’s present one--perhaps around 1880 or so--our environmental policies were hardly more enlightened.

In China, electric scooters such as this one have already
completely replaced gas-powered models, and electric
cars are not far behind.
But that was then, and this is now. How do the Chinese actually fare in terms of green thinking? In many ways, they’re already well ahead of the United States. The Chinese government is acutely aware, for example, that a transportation future built on the internal-combustion engine is untenable--an unpopular conclusion that our own government has evaded for decades. 

For their part, the Chinese have done without internal-combustion vehicles for far longer than we have, and they’ll likely have less trouble bidding them adieu. There is also no built-in drag courtesy of a vastly powerful petroleum industry lobby, as there is in the United States. Nor is China's abandonment of internal combustion engines as distant an event as Americans might imagine--electric bicycles and scooters have already been part of the Chinese scene for years, and electric cars are not far behind.

China’s concern for a dire environmental future has also spurred policies that may surprise some Americans: In many stores, for instance, plastic shopping bags now carry a charge of 20 jiao (perhaps forty cents in terms of American buying power), encouraging typically thrifty Chinese shoppers to bring their own bags. Some cities have set aside wetlands parks, mainly to educate the population on the environmental value of such areas. 

In the meantime, this Ford pickup, powered
by a gasoline V8 whose basic design 

dates back fifty years, remains the
 number one selling vehicle in America.
China’s low-tech power generation is another shortcoming that takes a drubbing from American observers, and indeed, the majority of Chinese generating plants are--like our own--fired by dirty coal. Yet in a typical no-win critique by the West, the Chinese have also been thoroughly lambasted for their flagship zero-pollution hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam. 

Whether their power source is dirty or clean, however, it must be said that the Chinese use electricity with deliberate frugality. Commercial buildings have used energy-efficient lighting for nearly as long as ours have, and in wider applications. What’s more, in China, the current de facto efficiency standard, the compact fluorescent bulb, is already being superseded by newer light-emitting diode (LED) technology. Though ironically an American invention, the Chinese are now ranking world producers of LEDs, and they’ve widely applied their own product to traffic signals, signage, and roadway lighting. So much for the home court advantage.

Unlike most Americans, the Chinese have also overwhelmingly adopted energy-efficient lighting in their homes--partly out of patriotism, but mainly out of thrift. For the same reason, rooftop-mounted  solar hot water heaters have been a familiar sight on the Chinese skyline for decades. And while the Chinese have gratefully taken to electricity-gobbling air conditioners in their often torrid climate, they’re notably sparing in their use--sometimes uncomfortably so for foreign visitors.

When it comes to consumption, the historically impoverished Chinese have always been more parsimonious than the West. They currently gobble the world’s resources not because they’re profligate, but rather because they’re a vast country with an awful lot of catching up to do. By all indications, though, they won’t be playing catch-up for long.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


It’s hard to believe now, but the phrase “Made In Japan” was once synonymous with laughably poor quality. After the devastation of World War II,  Japan’s industrial exports of the 1950s were indeed clumsily designed and poorly built. Yet within the span of a decade, a remarkable thing happened. A few Japanese products--first transistor radios, then cameras, then televisions--began to equal and finally surpass the quality of their American-made counterparts. During the 1970s, Japan’s auto industry followed suit. In a stunning turnaround, “Made In Japan” became an assurance of exceptional quality. 

Not so the phrase “Made In China”. When the People’s Republic opened up to the world in 1978, China’s industrial products were pitiable, much as postwar Japan’s had been. The parallel ends there, however. Despite roaring economic gains and the passage of thirty-odd years, China’s product quality in general remains abysmal. 
This state of affairs matters to the U.S., since so many Chinese-made building products are sold here. And with China vying for superpower status in the coming years, its culture of quality, such as it is, will eventually have worldwide implications.

When I  built my own home outside Shanghai, I was anxious to give China’s products a fair trial, and I pointedly chose the best  domestic brands available. For example, I installed handsome, flawlessly finished Chinese lever handle lock sets on all of the interior doors. Within six months of very light use, every single one of them had broken. Likewise, an outwardly attractive Chinese-made toilet failed to flush properly no matter how carefully it was adjusted. Top-of-the-line cabinet hardware, beautifully finished when new, quickly corroded or fell apart. After a string of such fiascos, I decided that China’s products were not yet ready for prime time, and reverted to buying imported American wares.

China’s disinterest in quality is troubling in a society that aspires to be the next major player of the 21st century, if not a reigning superpower. The problem, I think, lies in China’s headlong rush to catch up with the West. Its industries are often less concerned with nurturing reputations than simply elbowing their way to the front of the pack, using any expedient necessary. 

Most Chinese manufacturers are content to simulate good quality by superficially copying reputable overseas brands (sometimes right down to approximating their names). Others ballyhoo adherence to international quality standards, but mainly, it seems, for marketing purposes. The results of such lassitude are only now coming home to Americans. 

In Florida, Chinese-made drywall used in thousands of new homes has been held responsible for toxic hydrogen sulfide outgassing that caused health problems and corroded ducts, pipes, and wiring. Test results found hydrogen sulfide emissions at levels of up to 100 times that of non-Chinese drywall. A court ruling requiring the affected homes to be gutted and rebuilt will cost developers dearly. 

Since recovering such damages from notoriously flighty Chinese firms is typically a fool’s errand, at some point wholesale buyers of Chinese products--at any price--will think twice before taking on this magnitude of risk. Eventually, even discount-happy American consumers may begin to have second thoughts about their Chinese-made “bargain” purchases. And while China’s indifference to quality may be our problem for now, it will be China’s problem in the long run.