Tuesday, May 27, 2014

CRACKING THE CODE (Part One of Three Parts)

“When I built my addition, the building inspector made me tear out the bedroom window and put in a bigger one! Personally, I don’t think it’s any of his (deleted) business how big my bedroom window is!” 

I hear these kinds of gripes from disgruntled do-it-yourselfers all the time. Not to rub salt in the wound, but in most such cases, a passing acquaintance with the building code--and even more important, an understanding of its intent--would have saved these folks an awful lot of frustration.

Though it may seem like it at times, building codes weren’t formulated to harass do-it-yourselfers. In fact, they arose to protect public health and safety during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when a population explosion in American cities was leading to ever more squalid and unsafe living conditions. This was an era in which tenement apartments variously lacked heating, natural light, access to fresh air, or a means of escape in case of fire.

The Triangle Fire.
On a larger scale, poor separation between closely packed buildings meant that a small fire in one structure could quickly spread to adjoining ones. Too often, the result was raging urban conflagrations such as the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which destroyed 1,500 buildings over an area of 140 acres.

Even nominally fireproof masonry buildings--whose entire safety equipment might consist of a red-painted pail of water labeled FIRE placed on each floor--were far from invulnerable. Such buildings commonly housed overcrowded sweatshops with inadequate means of escape in emergencies, and inevitably, there were a number of horrific fires. The worst was New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers, most of them immigrant girls and young women, either were overcome by the fire or leapt to their deaths from the building’s ninth floor. The subsequent investigation determined that one exit one the ninth floor had been blocked by fire, and that the other had been locked from the outside. The building’s exterior fire escape, the last possible means of egress, was flimsily built and poorly attached. It collapsed when the panicked workers swarmed over it. 

The fire escape that was no escape.
Building codes arose in an effort to prevent such needless tragedies from recurring. In one way or another, every code provision--including the one that raised that do-it-yourselfer’s hackles--trace back to this source. Ensuring an escape route in case of emergency is a primary function of building code provisions, and in residential buildings, this usually means providing more than one way out in case the primary egress is blocked by fire. In a bedroom, that emergency escape route is the window. 

Once we understand the code’s intent, requirements that may seem arcane or burdensome suddenly make sense. Most are meant to ensure that buildings will stand up safely, that habitable spaces have at least minimal access to natural light and fresh air, and that there’s always a way out in case of emergency.  Next time, we’ll look at a few  basic building code requirements, and what they’re meant to accomplish.

Monday, May 19, 2014


In architecture, the surest way to achieve a timeless design is to use materials that are familiar, durable, and that become more beautiful the older they get. Not surprisingly, most of the materials that qualify have been around for ages.

Brick is a classic example. It’s among the most ancient building materials--the oldest known bricks, found in the upper Tigris region of what is now Turkey, date back to around 7500 BC. In all the intervening millenia, not much about brick has changed, either: Even here in twenty-first century America, where nothing happens fast enough, genuine brick is still installed at a relative snail’s pace, one little piece at a time. 

Other common examples of timeless materials include stone, heavy timber, and metals with so-called “living finishes”, such as copper, brass, and bronze. All of these can shrug off decades and sometimes even centuries of abuse without losing any of their visual appeal. In fact, most people find them more beautiful when they’re old and weathered--”patinated”, in the parlance of the trade--than when they’re brand new:  

The value of a patina shouldn’t be underestimated, either: we’ve all seen episodes of Antiques Road Show in which an expert tells the hopeful owner something like: “Well, if you hadn’t polished this 17th century bronze door knocker, I’d have valued it at six thousand dollars, but all shined up like this it’s worth about $17.50.” That’ll teach a guy to keep his hands off the Brasso. 

The funny thing is that, while almost everybody finds the greenish patina of an old copper gutter beautiful, almost nobody feels that way about a weathered plastic gutter. The reason, I think, is that no matter how old the copper gutter gets, we know that it will still serves its purpose perfectly. On the other hand, we can also presume that a weathered plastic gutter has already bought a one-way ticket to the Dumpster. We’ve learned to associate visual cues of aging with intrinsic durability. We see beauty in the aging of certain materials, and just plain failure in others.

At the larger scale of architecture, though, there’s more to a timeless finishe than just aging gracefully. The appeal of a brick wall, for example, has just as much to do with its ability to reflect the human being who created it. Flaws and all, the wall becomes a compelling record of the mason’s skill and personality, frozen in time right before our eyes.

Other largely handcrafted finishes such as wrought iron, stucco, shingle, shake, and tile, all of which have been around for thousands of years, can also provide this sort of snapshot in time, precisely because they’re never perfect. The telltale flaws of hand workmanship are so integral to a timeless finish, in fact, that the manufacturers of mass produced wannabe products such as artificial brick and imitation slate routinely design in fake defects, straining mightily to evoke the charm of the real thing. 

Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it wrong enough eventually.

Monday, May 12, 2014


More than a half-century after his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright is still considered the greatest architect America has produced, and all but indisputably the greatest architect of the twentieth century. But how well have Wright’s ideas stood the test of time?

Wright has long been faulted for placing aesthetics above practicality. Such carping has died down over the years, since in retrospect uncomfortable furniture or a cramped kitchen seems a minor price to pay for an architectural masterpiece. But it’s also worth noting that Wright was the product of a time in which the most practical spaces in an upper-class home--kitchens, bathrooms, and the like--remained the domain of servants. Nor did his almost uniformly wealthy clientele give him much cause to change this view.

There’s no doubt that Wright pushed contemporary building technologies far beyond their usual limits (hence his unenviable reputation for leaky roofs). Witness such dramatically innovative structures such as Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, whose drilled-pier foundation famously floated it through the disastrous Tokyo earthquake of 1923, or the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, with its internal forest of astonishingly slender lily- pad columns. Despite vast improvements in technology since Wright’s time, few architects since have been as structurally daring.  

A more frequent criticism leveled at Wright these days is his penchant for romanticizing rural life. His hypothetical Broadacre City project, for example, in which every home was to occupy an entire acre of land, seems to modern eyes a delusional retreat from urban problems. But again, Wright’s America (he was born in 1867) was a very different place from our own. Despite the inroads of the industrial revolution, the nation remained overwhelmingly agricultural, and no place more so than the quiet corner of Wisconsin where he first began shaping his architectural ideals.  

Far from constricting his world view, though, Wright’s rural sensibilities lie at the core of many of his most revolutionary ideas: his emphasis on horizontality, his concept of “organic architecture,” and even the notion of open planning, which mirrored the unencumbered spaces of the prairie. His fervent belief in the indivisibility of man and nature also led to his rejection of the slick machine aesthetic espoused by many of his European rivals. 

One overriding aspect of Wright’s philosophy--his fervent belief in the power of the individual--clearly sets him apart from the European modernists, who saw technology rather than man himself as the great democratizing force. It’s easy to fault Wright for positing individuality, given his long roster of self-made clients and the extravagant budgets they afforded him. But as Broadacre City, the various Usonian House projects, and his voluminous writings make plain, architecture’s potential to improve the life of ordinary 
Americans was never far from his mind. 

In the fifty-five years since his passing, Wright’s works have largely retained their power to move us, while many revered examples of International Style modernism have lost, quite literally, much of their original luster. And while both Wright and the Europeans were given to high-flying rhetoric, time has shown that the Wisconsin farmboy had, after all, the surer grasp on how architecture might ennoble the everyman.

Monday, May 5, 2014


At least once a year, some bright-eyed young student calls me up and, either out of acdemic compulsion or actual interest, asks to interview me about the architectural profession.
I can never say no to these requests, since I had to do the same thing when I was in school. But as much as I try to put a happy face on my profession, when our little chat is over, these kids always seem to leave a bit discombobulated, their image of the architect suddenly not so much The Fountainhead as Mr. Potato Head. 

It’s certainly not my intent to disenchant them. It’s just that many people’s preconceptions about the architectural profession are pretty far from reality.
The romantic myth of the architect is that of a brilliant loner at the drawing board, conjuring poetic designs with dramatic sweeps of the pencil. And, truth be told, architects seem perfectly happy to sustain this notion: When Frank Lloyd Wright was asked where his creations came from, for example, he mischievously replied, “I just shake them out of my sleeve.” 

Yet nowadays, even among the relatively few architects in a position to design entire buildings, the artistic aspect of the profession comprises only a small fraction of the job. The rest is gobbled up in researching building codes, producing working drawings (the “blueprints” of yore), hewing to voluminous civic design restrictions, keeping clients happy, and not least scaring up enough work to pay the bills.

The majority of architects, however, don’t end up in solo practice at all, but rather go to work for larger firms where they seldom get to shake much of anything out of their sleeves. At best, they may design certain bits of buildings, while at worst they’ll be relegated to writing specifications or some other less-than-artistic pursuit. 

Money, or the lack of it, is another thing that shakes up these students. Among the professions that require  both schooling and a rigorous licensing process--medicine, law, engineering and the like--architecture is by far the least lucrative. According to U.S. U.S. News, the median salary for architects in 2012 was $73,090--actually a bit less than it was the previous year, despite the nation’s slow emergance from the Great Recession. 

Granted, this income is nothing to sneeze at, but given the academic requirements, it’s nowhere near salary league of physicians (average yearly income: $191,520) or lawyers ($113,530). It’s even quite a bit less than the $82,790 pulled down by our ostensibly lesser-trained colleagues, construction managers.

Faced with the prospect of enduring four or five years of college, three or more years of internship, and thirty-odd hours of examinations, this is not necessarily the kind of payback young people have in mind.

Given these realities, I always conclude my little lecture this way: If you’re absolutely smitten with architecture--if, like me, you’re happy spending both your working time and your free time basking in its intricacies-- and you also don’t care much about money, then there’s no more rewarding profession on the planet. But as these downcast young faces so often reveal as they’re going out the door, it takes more devotion than some people bargained for.