The Pursuit of Happiness through the Ordinary



See Maira Kalman’s very touching illustrated diary of her trip to the Inauguration:

Part of the pleasure of her unfolding narrative is the mix of happenstance observations and her musing about significant artifacts from history.  The structure of her unfolding narrative is also important. The cadence of her observations is central to the overall emotional impact of her story.  In many ways, this could be a model of how we tell stories about our projects. More generally, Kalman is suggesting that we need to find a balance between the pleasure of the ordinary and the significant as we continually look for clues in the world for our own design-thinking.


OfficeBoat: the answer to the global economic/environmental crisis


There is an article in the New Yorker this week about dystopian theorists, among them James Howard Kunstler (a Duany favorite), and a guy here in Boston named Dmitry Orlov.  Suffice it to say, there are a lot of these dooms-dayers/-sayers coming out of the woodwork in these grim economic times.  But, there was one aspect of the Orlov story that seemed particularly relevant to the Utile story.  For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t here yet: the OfficeBoat.


Back in the day, when Utile consisted of 6-8 of us crammed into a 4-person cubicle in large-firm-to-remain-unnamed, the romance of the nearby water was a draw, and the spatial efficiency as would be required under nautical conditions didn’t feel so different from the existing conditions.  While the idea was more happy-hour fodder and less actionable, maybe now’s the time to revisit it.

Orlov claims that, given the dire state of affairs, “we don’t have long to wait before sail-based transportation is the only option”.  Why not start now?  There are some interesting off-the-shelf contemporary options from a Danish firm called Waterliving.  Me, I’d advocate for the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina for our docking spot (yes, it’s in East Boston).  Not only because we’d have the best view of downtown Boston from our computer stations, but because we could have lunch at Scup’s everyday, hipster Eastie’s new favorite spot.

And, Billy: now’s the time to move to owning, right?


Yale 3: Urbanism, Politics, and Narrative

Pier Vittorio Aureli’s essay “Towards the Archipelago” is emerging as the critical theoretical text in our section of the Yale Urbanism Studio because of the direct link that Aureli makes between a political (and social) agenda and form.  Along these lines, we are going to recalibrate the focus of the studio by foregrounding a socio-political agenda for each emerging scheme.  Importantly, the provisional agendas that follow did not anticipate form but were rather scripts that were written after a certain period of messing around with the stubborn dimensional constraints of mid-rise market-driven building types.

Brett/Jason’s scheme:

The buildings are organized around evenly distributed plazas and parks.  Given the overall pattern of the plan, every building fronts an open space and typically five to seven buildings define the edges of each space.  Each public space organizes a population of a approximately 600 to 900 people with a relatively even mix of student residents and daytime researchers. 

The population that is coalesced around each open space is organized in a neighborhood union that meets once a month in a community room that fronts the square and abuts the neighborhood café.  Given the population of each neighborhood, only one retail establishment – the neighborhood café and bodega – is feasible. 


Rather than see the limited amount of retail as a negative, concentrating all small scale retail needs such as coffee, newspapers, lottery tickets, cigarettes, gum, and Doritos in one general store is meant to engender a sense of community at the smallest functional scale.  It is hoped that entrepreneurial store owners will extend their business to include an outdoor café, beer garden, or karaoke bar to attract residents from nearby neighborhoods.

Occasionally, a building will face two squares.  The population of these buildings are free to belong to both neighborhood unions.

Rachel/Courtney’s scheme

Both the research program and student residential units are organized in a connected matrix of double-loaded corridors.  Rather than see the double-loaded corridor as an anathema to socialization (see Christopher Alexander et. al. A Pattern Language), the double-loaded corridor is championed as the ideal spatial form for the informal interaction between individuals already aligned by institutional allegiances.  Lauded examples include the Infinite Corridor at MIT and the original home of the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, CA (based on Michael Kubo’s important and ground-breaking research).


In both examples, the memoires of researchers cite the spatial context itself as a vital component of the creative environment.  Artist communities also tend to favor double-loaded corridors as the ideal social space for interaction because of its immediacy to their individual studio spaces and because it creates an egalitarian and casual gallery to hang on-going work. 

The scheme is organized like a stack of pancakes, with the Rand-like research space on the second floor and four floors of student housing above.  The corridors are open and continuous with the necessary fire doors between buildings held open with special hardware that closes the doors in case of fire.  The corridors and room numbers are organized like streets in a city.  North-South corridors are labeled with alphabet letters and East-West corridors are labeled with numbers.

The tone can be anywhere from Koolhaas/Delirious New York (cultural/surrealistic) to Calvino/Invisible Cities (poetic) to a more hard-nosed socio-political theory for the more earnestly and/or pragmatically inclined.  

Both a sustainable design and real estate development agenda can build off of these initial narratives.



Duany’s Polemic

While we certainly don’t agree with Andrés Duany’s recommendation that the classical language is the true path, there is something to be said for working within a shared tradition rather than forging a completely independent aesthetic territory.  Of course I am thinking of the beautiful Rick Joy house that Michael just showed many of us and not Alan Greenberg’s work.

It is enlightening (and entertaining) to note the wide range of architects that Duany’s uses as examples of the good, bad, and ugly (highlighted below, like the business section of the newspaper).  Peter Eisenman ends up on two teams – he is held up as the devil incarnate in the first few paragraphs only to be cited as one of several “brilliant architects that were later marginalized” later in Duany’s argument.  It’s also nice to see Plecnik included, one of my all time favorites.



    Today we have spoken about Richard Driehaus, of his generosity and perspicacity. But something I’ve come to see in him is perhaps of greater importance: his enthusiasm. The energy of enthusiasm is important to move things forward. Most of us here are enthusiasts about this great thing, traditional architecture and urbanism. And we are something else that we don’t often realize: most of us here are brave, too, as by practicing traditional architecture and urbanism we enter the ring with champions like Lutyens and Palladio.

    Modernists do not. They write their own rules of the game, so they always win. Peter Eisenman, for example, is invariably the champion of Eisenman-esque architecture. There are no other contenders. This is clever, but in the end it is not interesting because there is no tension. Eisenman‘s achievements are noticed less every time. He does ever bigger buildings that are ever more swiftly forgotten. They are victories over himself, about which only he can care.

    But what if Peter were to design a classical building? What if he were to attempt something as dangerous as to enter that ring with the real champions? There would be a renewed interest in him as an architect, to say the least. And I’m sure it would be a great performance — Leon Krier, who is his friend, says Eisenman knows Palladio very well.

    Designing a classical building is virtually the only thing that remains for those avant-garde architects. They have already explored every shape that could be hyper‑cantilevered, crashed, randomized, slashed, perforated, photo-tuned, upturned, bent, dematerialized, dissed, or otherwise transgressed. It is by now the expected. There remains only their engaging in the ultimate test, to compete with the likes of Lutyens and Palladio, under common rules.

    But even that would be merely entertainment. For the challenge that is upon us, traditional architecture and urbanism must be more useful than amusing.

    It has been Lizz’s and my most serious contribution, I think, not so much to recover traditional architecture and urbanism, nor to evolve it, nor even to practice it as widely as we have, but to empower it again through collective endeavor. This achievement requires that credit be widely distributed, because our work is also the work of others; so there will be many names mentioned in this presentation.

    But for not having met Robert Davis, some of these others may well be up here today receiving this award. Among them are Robert Orr, John Massengale, Victor Dover, Dhiru Thadani, Neal Payton, John Torti, Pat Pinnell, Peter Calthorpe, Liz Moule, Stef Polyzoides, Peter Katz, Ray Gindroz, Dan Solomon. It is very unusual, in this field of authorial individualism, to have such people working towards the same end.

    And we should not make a distinction between designers and developers, as both are creators. Buff and Johnny Chace, Galen Weston, Patrick Bienvenue, Robert and Daryl Davis, David Tomes, Greg and Susan Whittaker, Joe Alfandre, Steve Maun, Craig Robins, and scores of others are as knowledgeable about design as we the designers must be about development.

     And then the teachers. In the schools, for a short window either side of 1970, there was a genuine open-mindedness about architecture. It was the time when Michael Graves, Alan Greenberg and, above all, Vincent Scully, taught us to love and appreciate all good buildings. They didn’t turn us into style bigots. I’m most grateful for that. Because of them I visit the world with much more enjoyment.

     With the partners at DPZ, and the professors at the University of Miami, Leon Krier holds a special place as a teacher. In addition to urbanism, he taught us how to be polemical. Those razor-sharp cartoons clarified timeless concepts at the explicit expense of the ridiculous practices of modernism. Over the years his drawings, projects, and writings have systematically engaged everything from the region to the detail of buildings. They now constitute a complete body of knowledge. We had only to adjust them to American conditions, and to develop the massive delivery systems required by the present situation.

    Receiving the Driehaus Prize with the help of so many, it is right that we should share it. It would be incorrect to take the stipend for ourselves. So Lizz and I have arranged its donation to a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the furtherance of this endeavor that we share. The publication of Leon Krier’s complete works will be its first achievement.

    As you may know, it is not my practice to be as nice to everyone as I have been today. But on this beautiful occasion I will continue to do so by thanking our opponents. We are grateful to them because they have discerned the threat that our ideas pose to theirs. By relentlessly attacking the New Urbanism from their illustrious institutions, they have provided us with visible platforms. I must thank them also for maintaining such a high level of strategic ineptitude. How easy they have made it for us outside their circumscribed world. We thank them for how much they concede by sticking to irrelevant ideologies; by their fascination with the transient, the unworkable, the uncomfortable, the unreproducible, the unpopular, the expensive, the unbuildable, the useless, the repellent, and the unintelligible. That has been a gift greater even than this prize.

    This gift has not been without sacrifice on their part. Modernist architects of great talent have willingly performed for the regard of only about six critics. And they do so knowing that these critics have a history of raising them up and then discarding them once they are bored. We have seen in our own time the marginalization of truly brilliant architects — Paul Rudolph, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, James Stirling, Bob Stern, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman — all once raised to the heavens and then dismissed, even when at the peak of their powers. As with Paul Rudolph, these architects will outlive the critics, but it is a terrible waste of resources.

     We have taken a different course. We seek judgment, not at the mercy of those six, but in the regard of America at large. When people ask, “Aren’t you worried about what Orousoff wrote?” I tell them, “But I don’t know anyone who matters to our practice who knows him.” What he writes has no effect. For the time it would take me to write a publishable response, I could edit a code that would affect perhaps hundreds of buildings. Besides, if we were to respond, it would only empower those critics by granting them a visibility in our world that they do not have.

    What then is this world of the New Urbanism, and why is traditional architecture important to it? There are many reasons, but the primary one is that because traditional architecture is a common language of the American middle class, it is the symbolic discourse through which we implement the social and ecological ideals of the Charter of the New Urbanism. The enormous American middle class is the group that really matters, and yet they are the only consumers of architecture not addressed in the modernist schools or the professional periodicals.

    Beyond the snobbism, there is a reason for that. To the middle, class unlike the poor, the market gives choice — and given choice they choose traditionalism. Their ability to evade the modernist discourse (which the poor cannot do) confuses architects. But it does not confuse us. It is through the steady reputation of traditional architecture that we enlist the middle class to our cause, which is to have them inhabit again a walkable, compact, and diverse urbanism.

    You might ask: but isn’t the American middle class culturally trivial? The response to that depends on your conception of culture; it can be either the late modernist one of cultural activity as critique, or ours (coinciding with the early modernist concept) of cultural activity as action. Theirs attempts to express the condition of the world, while ours attempts to reform the condition of the world.

     You see, the lifestyle of the American middle class is the root cause of the environmental problems of the world today. It is that simple. It is the way we supersize our habitat, the way we consume as entertainment, the way we drive around to do ordinary things, the way we so freely allocate land to our use, and even how we choose to eat, that is the cause of climate change. It is this lifestyle, and now its export version (pushed by architectural consultant-criminals) to Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, South America and Eastern Europe, which is responsible for the environmental problems we will all suffer. It was traditional architecture that both politically and technically enabled New Urbanists’ extraordinarily early commitment to environmentalism.

If that is what traditional architecture has done for us, the urbanists, what can it do for itself?

    The current renaissance of traditional architecture must be seen not as a single event, but as a process. A first generation restored the old and sturdy citadel which is the discipline of the classical language. The next generation now entering the peak of their practice can continue to unfurl beautiful banners from the ramparts, in the hopes that virtue will be recognized by all … or it can sally to take territory by force. There is so much territory forlorn by American design. I do not allude to the bits held by modernism, but to the vast areas held by mindless production builders, by the green gadgets that pass for environmental buildings, by the nauseating plan books, by the junk-space of civic buildings, by the junk-products at Home Depot, by the hapless mobile home industry. These are blights on our physical and cultural landscape that can only be redeemed by traditional designers. This is risky, I know. We could jeopardize the impeccable reputation of the citadel … but we could also show the space that traditional architecture can occupy as nothing else can.

    In this quest, we must be as courageous as the generation of pioneers. Bob Stern, Alan Greenberg, Tom Beeby, Rob Krier, and Thomas Gordon Smith all risked their good name by entering the trackless wilderness of post-modernism. But see what they gained on the other side: the architecture that we now so confidently reward with the Driehaus Prize.

    The best proof that architecture has been well and truly recovered through that heroic thirty-year campaign is that it can be dependably taught. Classicists today can be as good as their masters even while still young. I am aware that the rigor of the classical canon enables this instruction. I am also aware that the discipline of the Orders was the compass that guided architecture out of postmodernism. But in teaching the Orders today we should take care that students not become overly dependent of bookish authority. They must not learn the fear of being caught “incorrect.” The measure should be what Lizz calls “plain old good building.” We are, after all, building primarily for common folk and not patrons.

    Will the current generation bore deeper still into refinement and elitism, or will it spread classical architecture out to a broad democratic, indeed populist, future? Will it continue republishing ever more esoteric treatises, or will it write new ones conceived to serve, not the 16th or even the 20th Century, but this future which is upon us?

To explain what I mean, please permit me a rudimentary example. How can there be a viable canon of architecture that is incapable of producing an opening wider than it is high — by that I mean a horizontally proportioned intercolumniation? We cannot be effective today if we cannot even deal with a simple barn opening or porte-cochere. And that is just one problem. We confront the conclusion that the classical canon must be expanded if it is to engage the 21st Century.

    I would propose a new ethos — one no longer dedicated to the recovery of the classical canon of Vitruvius, Palladio and Vignola, but to expanding that canon. Taking care that this process does not devolve into neo-postmodernist dissipation, it must be based on the authority of masters and masterpieces. First we must transcend the authority of the historic treatises, to rescue that which was discarded in the reductive process of writing them. Then we must recover to our side those transitional 20th Century architects that historians have assigned to the modernist camp — where they reside as the foundation of their authority — when they are, in fact, a late, great flowering of classicism.

    Take Frank Lloyd Wright. You could see the Prairie School as the beginning of the fall, but you could also see it as the last of the Greek revivals. Wright was among those who, instead of the Parthenon and all of its proprieties, took the Erechtheion and all of its freedoms, to extract a contemporary architecture. If the Erechtheion — its dynamic massing and multiple columniations, its agile engagement with topography, its free repertoire of moldings, its localized symmetries and rotated approaches, its complex, multi-leveled interior, its contradictions and unresolved tension — is classical, then the young Wright is certainly among the great masters of classicism. Wright must be on our side if we are to take the territory defined by the 21st century.

    Another master of the canon would be Jose Plecnik. Plecnik, who knowing the classical language perfectly, took it and translated it to the folk vernacular. Like Shakespeare, who found literature in a moribund Latin and bequeathed it in a native English with vitality to spare, Plecnik shows us the workings of what my brother Douglas calls “the vernacular mind.” Not “the vernacular,” which is a style, but the vernacular mind, which is the way of folk art. It is the ability to compose from memory and circumstance, with found materials, of working sequentially through anything and everything, with craft but not perfection. The robustness which Plecnik brought to architecture is essential, I think, to the withering that the 21st century will impose upon us. Leon knows it. Look at his American buildings at Miami, and at Seaside and Windsor. What lessons do they hold? Not one of them is correct in the canonical sense, and yet they are canonical buildings. And so I would also bring into the canon the work of Leon Krier.

    An expanded canon would include newly drawn plates alongside Vignola‘s: the Orders of masters like Friedrich Gilly, John Soane, Alexander Thompson, Tony Garnier, Auguste Perret, Josef Hoffman, Gunnar Asplund, Adolf Loos, Jose Plecnik, Marcello Piacentini, Michael Graves, Rob Krier, Robert Stern, Scott Merrill — and a score of others. This treatise would claim an enormous amount of new territory for classicism.

      A portion of this Driehaus Award will be applied to such a treatise.

      We are almost there. We have only to climb one last Everest.

Cookie-cutter Duck

We have all heard of a Duck; Robert Venturi’s paradigm for buildings where the sculptural form of the entire building is at the service of the expressive agenda of the architecture (as opposed to the Decorated Shed).  But more recently, more economical ducks have emerged: dumb building types that have been given shapely silhouettes to make them more interesting. Normal clues of architectural scale such as legible windows and the rhythm of structural bays are typically suppressed by an overall graphic pattern or a homogenized cladding strategy that disguises the location of vision glass.  Aude Jomini, a Yale student, has named this class of buildings Cookie-cutter Ducks.  Contemporary Cookie-cutter Ducks are the progeny of the three large buildings that Cesar Pelli designed for the Pacific Design Center, beginning with the Blue Whale in 1975.  Rodolfo Machado and Rodolphe El Khoury talked about the same kinds of buildings through a slightly different theoretical lens in their 1995 book Monolithic Architecture.


Cesar Pelli, The Blue Whale (Pacific Design Center), Los Angeles, 1975


Neutelings Riedijk, Concert Hall, Bruges


Neutelings Riedijk, College, Rotterdam


Human Fuzz

Rachel Hsu, one of my Yale students, alerted our studio to this amazing aerial photograph of the Inauguration.  We are going to use the photograph as one of the plans (along with urban classics like the Projecte d’Eixample de Barcelona , Savannah, and the 1748 Nolli Map of Rome) to test the scale of the studio site: the CSX rail yards in Allston.


This image provided by GeoEye Satellite Image shows Washington D.C.’s National Mall and the United States Capitol (top), in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009 taken at 11:19AM EDT during the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The image, taken through high, wispy white clouds, shows the masses of people between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. (AP Photo/GeoEye Satellite Image)

Blog Themes

Wordle is a super cool website that allows you to submit a block of text or a URL, then produces a collage of the most frequently used words.  Check out a word-cloud comparison between Obama’s inaugural speech and Bush’s second inaugural speech.  I plugged in our blog URL and this is what I got:


I think it only grabs words off of the current blog page (not any of the older pages) so with a little fidgeting, we could track trends across each of our blog pages (I have a feeling the word ‘Wonka’ is not actually used as much as this diagram suggests).  



I’d like to get my hands on a laser cutter. I’ve recently come across a couple of projects that involve smart graphics and etched plexi. The first (via SerialConsign) is a plaque honoring an outgoing exec for 15 years with Sony. Designed by Build. And the second, is the programming model that IDEO built for our Harbor Park Pavilion project.

Aside from the seduction of precisely etched glass, what’s interesting to me is that with relatively minimal effort (aside from the upfront laser cutter cost and maintenance), graphics that were created for print or other uses can be recycled and given new life in a 3-D or relief format. Along those lines, I wonder how we could more effectively use our digital models for urban projects in a physical format – we’re already building the digital models, why not print them out?



The Super-Dutch and the Super-Dry Reaction

See this story about the growing reaction to the Super-Dutch:

“A Brick is a Brick for Dutch Practice Wingender Hovenier,” Paul Shepheard, from BD: the Architects’ Website, 31 August 2007.

We need to understand more about the larger cultural context for this work and firm, but I like the super-dry buildings highlighted in the article and they seem appropriate for Boston infill sites.