A new graphic novel entitled Batman: Death by Design gets a good review in this week’s New York Review of Books.  

I’m not the biggest fan of comics, but with a twelve-year old boy in the house I get my fill through osmosis.  This one apparently draws inspiration from Hugh Ferriss, the demolition of Penn Station, a well-earned disgust at the Fountainhead‘s architectural ethic [sic], and an unholy hybrid of contemporary architecture: one of the protagonists is named “Kem Roomhaus,” but his design is lifted straight from the drawing boards of Santiago Calatrava.

So I’m likely to pick up a copy.  For the kid, of course, but it may arrive on his shelf well-read…


sci-tech and cinema

Class this week has been focused on HVAC systems.  Boring stuff, I’ll admit, but enlivened today by one student’s question.

“Could someone really escape from prison by crawling through the ducts?”

I don’t know if the makers of Escape From Alcatraz had any actual HVAC consultants or not, but this is a legit question.  If you were designing a prison, wouldn’t you be careful not to have your mechanical engineer design, say, six-foot tall ductwork?  This seems like a fairly obvious rule of thumb, but it does have consequences.  You’d probably need a distributed mechanical plant to keep from having large ducting trunks, for instance.

We spun that out for a while, and then another student pointed out that the giant fans that crop up in any good prison escape movie also struck him as odd.  We did a bit of quick figuring and agreed that the back pressure from any fan mounted in the middle of a duct run (six feet tall or not) would be, at best, counter-productive.

It ended up being a fairly entertaining class session.  And I’ll make this offer to any Hollywood producers out there who are losing sleep over whether their next prison escape movie is realistic or not.  For a very reasonable cut of the box office (and, say, a week or two on a Malibu beach), my class and I will gladly review your script and redline it for plausibility.  We think the world would be a better–or, at least, better educated–place.

CSI Iowa

Good crowd last night at the monthly CSI Iowa meeting.  I gave a talk on materials in Chicago skyscrapers, which seemed appropriate given the importance of specifications to material selection and installation.  CSI has sponsored our annual Comprehensive Design award for eight years now, and they’ve been great friends of the program, so it was nice to be the entertainment for the evening.  And, have to say, great questions afterwards–a knowledgeable bunch.  Thanks to Wayne Smith, Steve Watrous, and particularly Ann Sobiech-Munson, longtime colleague, who invited me to give the talk.


There’s an awfully good essay by John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker (subscription probably required, but worth getting one just for this) on his writing method that ought to be required reading for any non-fiction writer–academic or otherwise.

Thanks to my father, I’ve been reading McPhee since high school, and his writing has never failed to hook me.  His subject matter is always initially baffling (barge traffic on the Illinois River?  Seriously?  Seriously.), but his ear for a good story and his uncanny ability to explain complicated stuff makes him a must-read.  If there’s one writer I’d most like to be when I sit down to write about skyscrapers–or even when I stand up in front of a tech class–he’s it.

This article is about how he structures his essays, and I have to say I had never really noticed how big a role this plays in their clarity.  He’s an obsessive note taker, and I was happy to see that he and I share a spatial method–he lays his out on a plywood table, I pin mine up on a big cork board.  And he struggles (or claims to) with chronology vs. thematics.  Anyone who dabbles in history has this problem: do you tell the story from day one to day x in a straight line?  Or do you try to organize a piece around a set of themes or arguments?  He describes one essay (on the Metropolitan Museum’s Thomas Hoving) as being in an art gallery and looking at one painting or episode after another, which allowed him to bounce around chronologically.

McPhee doesn’t mention editing at all, which I suspect plays an equally huge role in how readable his work can be.  But he does talk directly about his method, which involves taking a small packet of notes out at a time once the organizational structure has been decided, and working only from those during a given day or week.  That, I’ve found, is the only way to do it–to take small bites and focus on a thousand words at a time (or about two dozen note cards).  He describes this in a priceless quote that deserves to go over every academic’s keyboard:

If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight.  Every organizational aspect was behind me.  The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week.  It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

Great stuff.

jenney, final thoughts

ext b+w

Some final thoughts on the Jenney symposium in Paris last month…both Gerald Larson and David van Zanten pointed out that it has been a long time since any historians took claims of the Home Insurance to be the “first skyscraper” seriously, to the point that our panel ended up pointing out that it might be time for a re-revisionist history.  Jenney may not have invented the skyscraper (you can’t point to a first skyscraper any more than you can point to a first fish in evolution), but he certainly contributed.  Part of the problem with assessing his legacy is that his buildings, like most of the era, represented small steps toward what we recognize today as a “modern” skyscraper.  In some cases–the Manhattan building’s very early iron wind bracing, e.g.–the steps were big, and noticeable.  In others–the Home Insurance’s very hybrid construction of brick and masonry–it’s difficult to say what, exactly, the innovation is.  This is one of the points I’m trying to make in the book–that the skyscraper emerged from a long chain of small innovations, experiments, and improvements.

Both Michael Fus and Julia Bachrach of the Chicago Park District made the case that Jenney’s contributions in landscape architecture were as significant to the city as his buildings, and it was refreshing to see his work for the West Side Parks get the attention it deserves.  These three parks are all in neighborhoods that are well off the beaten tourist path, but they’re spectacular and very obviously influenced by Olmsted, who played a murky role in their development.

Finally, the concluding session focused on the French influence on Chicago outside of the Beaux-Arts.  Jenney, here, was a leading figure, and there was a general consensus that the professional standards imbued by the Ecole Centrale could well have been the model for a very specific attitude toward practice that marked Chicago as different from New York or Boston.  My paper wasn’t the only one to pull this quote, from an 1889 talk to the Architectural Sketch Club, and it speaks to the way he organized his own office.  That professional organization influenced those who “grew up” within it, not least of them Burnham, Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, and Howard van Doren Shaw.  While the Beaux-Arts may have influenced a later generation of towers, the Ecole Centrale may well have influenced the entire profession through the 1880s and 1890s, via Jenney’s office:

“…the best detail drawings I have seen are those of French architects.  I do not mean those from students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, who have had little or no practice.  Far from it, for that is essentially an art school….I refer to details from the offices of French architects in successful practice.  Everything is thereon shown or explained, by elevations, sections, bits of perspective, or by written explanations…”[i]

[i] W. L. B. Jenney.  “A Few Practical Hints [Paper read before the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club, January 28, 1889].”  The Inland Architect and News Record.  Vol. XIII, no. 1.  February, 1889.  9.