sweet home…

July 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

IMG_3441…away from home, anyway.  Three days in the big city and the weather has gone out of its way to remind me how amazing Chicago can be.  5ICCH planning lunch today, bits of research to do here and there, and then there was this:


5ICCH–scientific committee announced

July 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

5ICCH logo smallAn all-star cast…here’s the scientific committee for the 5th International Congress on Construction History, announced just a short while ago.  It reads like a who’s who of the discipline, and from the looks of it this group will have plenty of work this summer…

petroski’s Times article

June 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

Henry Petroski’s op-ed in the New York Times last week has made the rounds, and it’s the kind of thing that–on its surface–I’m all about:

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.


When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.


Hear, here, right?  Petroski is one of my heroes–his books on engineering and in particular on the role of failure in design have been inspirational, and I use his examples all the time in my teaching.  So the first few times I saw this in my inbox over the weekend I was smugly happy to see the culture of cheap, shoddy building that amortizes quickly and represents a “waste of resources” that “will not last” come in for a very public comeuppance.

But the more I’ve read this piece over the weekend, the more troubled I am about a couple of things.  First, Petroski goes right after “workmanship,” conflating “inferior products” with “less skilled labor” to describe the state of American construction today.  Anyone who’s worked on a job site knows that this is both totally true and totally untrue depending on the day of the week.  There’s no measure for “workmanship” that we can point to, but I’d argue that–compared to, say, the 19th century–the quality of building stock today is far better.  While I totally agree with Petroski’s lament about new residential construction (decaying vinyl siding and off gassing drywall, for instance), the well-crafted homes of the past that he refers to are examples of survivor’s bias; the really atrocious homes of those days are long-since gone.  Slum tenements, rural shacks, firetraps of apartment buildings in major cities–all of these have been replaced, while the best-crafted examples are the ones we look at today and imagine as standard housing from the past.  (See Jordan Ellenberg’s great How Not to be Wrong for a great explanation of survivor bias…)  Building codes and industry standards have ensured that the average house of today is better built, safer, and sturdier than the average house of 1900.

But the other problem, more serious, I think, with Petroski’s column is whom he blames.  In mixing up residential construction with infrastructure, he ends up calling on “homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike” to “call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.”  This, I think, unfairly blames builders for our problems with collapsing bridges, shabby housing, and potholes that reappear within weeks.  What Petroski fails to note is that all of these things cost money, and the budgets for quality construction in the public and private spheres have imploded over the last forty years.  Maintenance budgets, too, have been slashed by public institutions desperate to meet politically-minded budget cuts, donors fund new construction with no endowments to maintain their named buildings, and homeowners purchase more house than they can afford to buy, much less maintain.  It’s not that builders, contractors, or craftsmen are necessarily worse than a hundred years ago.  It’s that their clients, in particular public ones, have stopped asking for their best, and have stopped taking care of the things they make.

Blaming “cheaper labor” and “inferior new materials” sounds awfully grumpy, particularly when Petroski demands “almost maintenance-free” infrastructure.  There ain’t no such thing, and the unglamorous, unfunded task of keeping up the nice things we do have is just as big a problem.  It’s money, not a mythological lost “workmanship” that determines the quality of our infrastructure.  That lovely cedar siding he mentions needs a good coat of paint every twenty years…


June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_3317Just a quick note…I’m on a two-week European coda, backpacking with my daughter through her choice of cities and enjoying the chance to be a tourist.  But along the way…

I listed off day trips from Berlin and Dresden sounded most interesting to her.  I was here about ten years ago doing a bit of writing for my old firm, and found the place utterly fascinating.  Her tastes run toward the historically complicated, too–we’ve seen a lot of Cold War and WWII sites in Berlin proper, and Dresden is all of that piled atop one another.  And atop a rich history of baroque architecture and urban design.

The Frauenkirche is the prime example of just how layered Dresden has become.  Built in the early 18th century, it was from the beginning a Lutheran church (there’s a statue of Martin Luther in front of it), but it was intended to rival anything the Catholics had built in Europe–at nearly 100m tall, its dome was 2/3 the height of St. Peter’s.  But its central plan was designed to emphasize the inclusiveness of the protestant liturgy, making it a unique example of neo-Italian baroque combined with the (relative) simplicity of plan and ornament of the north.

The church survived wars, riots, and serious doubts about its stability until February 1945, when along with everything else in Dresden it fell to Allied bombing.  After the war, the East German regime maintained the pile of rubble as a ‘peace memorial,’ but one with a clear subtext that kept memories of the British and American raid alive.  Popular sentiment for rebuilding the church only gained traction after reunification, and the church was painstakingly rebuilt–using volunteered wedding photographs where original documentation was missing–between 1989 and 2004.

IMG_3315The finished reconstruction uses a combination of charred original stone and clean new stone, which highlights the fact that what you’re looking at is essentially a new building while commemorating the losses from 1945.  Most of the exterior, in fact, is new stone, which makes the original pieces all the more compelling.  The interior is entirely new, of course, and its bright finishes and perhaps too-flawless faux marble have struck some as a bit slick given the intentionally blemished exterior.  The project remains dogged by controversy over its costs, its faithfulness or lack thereof to the original, and its status as a object of complicated blame–does its reconstruction read as an attempt to claim victimhood?  Is that appropriate given the massive civilian casualties of Dresden?  And how do we measure the impact of the bombing against that of German aggression?  Obama’s visit to Dresden in 2009–during which he lit a candle in the church–was a flash point for all of these issues.  Sixty years, it appears, is still too soon to really contextualize.


A finer balance between old and new, and commemoration and function takes place in Dresden’s train station, done by Foster’s and completed around the same time.  The arches of the original shed survived the fire, along with the head house’s structure and the undercroft that served as an ineffective bomb shelter for thousands.  Keeping all of those, but replacing the burned-out roof with a light shelter of translucent fabric created a bright but elegiac space, a fitting way to come into and to leave the city.

The whole day left me missing feedback from my colleague this year at AAR, Max Page, whose work focuses on preservation of difficult or complex sites.  He’s been studying fascist architecture and WWII sites in Italy, and Dresden offers the same sort of paradoxes at every turn…

glasgow school of art

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Glasgow_School_of_Art_LibraryThe horrific news about the loss of Glasgow School of Art’s library in a fire last month is slowly becoming worse.  The School itself has praised firefighters for containing the blaze, pointing out that most of remaining building emerged with only minor damage.  But that is small comfort compared to the loss of “Scotland’s Sistine Chapel.”  And details have emerged over the last couple of weeks that make the incident all the more tragic and–depending on your point of view–scandalous.

Glasgowarchitecture reports that sprinklers were “weeks” away from being installed in the building, but had been delayed due to lack of funding.  That has struck many as odd, since the School topped out its new Steven Holl-designed £55m wing on May 8.  The anonymous architecture columnist for Private Eye (subscription needed) has gone so far as to accuse the School’s management of “complacent negligence” for waiting so long to address the very acute fire risk in the studio building while directing their attention to the new building.  The Eye further notes that the fire has allegedly been traced to a student installation that used flammable, expanding foam in the presence of a hot projector lamp–a similar source to the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island in February, 2003.  “Those in charge,” the column goes on, “failed to look after” the school and the activities within.

That’s a harsh judgment, but possibly a fair one–with the additional loss of a trove of paintings and furniture stored in an attic above the library, the loss to Scotland’s design culture is profound and ought to be investigated fully.  But the real issue here is the fact that the School had little difficulty in raising the money for the new building even as it “struggled to attract” the finance it needed to maintain its admittedly high-maintenance home base, according to Glasgowarchitecture.  Now, having suffered a very public disaster, donations and government support are flowing freely even as the debate over how to restore or rebuild the library kicks off (you can donate to the cause here).  The real debate to have, though, is why institutions are left chasing money for new projects when what’s desperately needed is funding to maintain what’s already there.  This isn’t unique to the School of Art–it’s rampant in an age where “charitable” donations come with giant naming rights attached.  Donors to the School’s new building probably wouldn’t have given to a sprinkler fund–there’s little opportunity for a donor plaque of sufficient scale there.  To pry loose cultural capital requires not just an honorable mission, but a publicly identified thing that can be named.

If donors aren’t willing to give to the core mission–maintaining, say, a national treasure against fire and daily use–I’m not sure their name belongs in 6″ letters anywhere near the institution as a whole.  Maybe the School of Art will be a catalyst for an important change in institutional giving.  This would be the single most productive thing to happen to preservation: finding ways to leverage reasonable maintenance, repair, and services upgrades out of donor’s generosity.  As it stands, the loss of Mackintosh’ masterpiece should be a humbling reminder that it takes money not just to build, but to maintain.

5ICCH–five days left to submit

June 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

…and a quick reminder that the Call for Abstracts for the 5th International Congress on Construction History in Chicago was extended to June 15…now five days away.  We’ve had a great response so far and are looking forward to the inevitable last minute rush.  

More information and the submittal link at:



June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_2839Last post from Paris…Architecturefarm is going on a brief hiatus while my daughter shares my last couple of weeks in Europe with me. Musical theater? Yes. Obscure examples of early concrete? Not on the agenda.

Francois Hennebique was the greatest concrete contractor and innovator in Europe around the turn of the century—France’s Ernest Ransome and C.A.P. Turner put together. His patented system was used throughout the continent for warehouses, factories, and bridges—the Ponte Risorgimento in Rome was only his most famous.

The system of reinforcing and forming that he patented was largely comparable to how we build in concrete today. The reinforcing is in the tensile zones of slabs and girders throughout, and he recognized that the location switches in continuous beams—the tops of the beams are in tension over the supports, while the bottoms are in tension at mid-span. You can also see acknowledgement of shear issues toward supports, with rudimentary stirrups and wide caps between column and girder to distribute these forces and the increased amount of reinforcing. The formwork was all straightforward—proto-Perret in its flat detailing, but with chamfering in key locations to prevent chipping of fragile corners. The system’s regularity and repetition instilled some natural sense of order, rhythm, and proportion, and it’s possible to see in it precedents for both Perret’s work and (less apparently, but still latent) Corbusier’s.

IMG_2860But Hennebique’s work wasn’t limited to such a pragmatic, industrial system. He built two demonstration projects around Paris—his own house in Bourg-la-Reine and a development project that housed his offices in the middle of St. Michel, just across the river from Notre Dame. In both of these, he went out of his way to show off concrete’s plasticity. The house is an encyclopedic collection of concrete forms and techniques—most famous for the giant tower (under restoration—good for the house, bad for blog photos), but also full of eclectic forms and ideas throughout most of its fabric. The block in St. Michel is a long, slender plan, almost entirely façade, but that façade is as voluptuous as any art nouveau building in Paris—just done out of a material that had a reputation to earn, rather than stone or iron.

IMG_2855Like Coignet and Perret, Hennebique was a businessman first and a designer second—pretty apparent from the blocks of glorious self-promotion embedded into the façade announcing the building as Systeme Hennebique. And just in case you didn’t get it, the roundels at the roofline include an “SH” at their centers. Hennebique was justifiably proud—the Systeme was as close to a universal building system on the continent as anything since the Roman armies built their network of coordinated camps throughout their domain—and it would also be as influential as any single invention in Europe’s building world until mid-century.


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