Writing Architecture

Tropolism Books: The Green Workplace

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Title: The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line
Author: Leigh Stringer
Publication Date: August 4, 2009
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230614284
Available at Amazon.


Have you ever presented a recycling plan to the superiors at your office, only to be met with blank stares? Told bewildered colleagues that the florescent office lighting they replaced with extra hot and dim halogen track lighting is burning five times more carbon? Explained yet again that plastic bottled water is a ridiculous waste of resources, from cradle to grave? Wondered if there was a resource for people who somehow missed the entirety of the factual information they were exposed to in An Inconvenient Truth?

I have.

It's a pain. In this day and age there are still folks who don't know that recycling makes a difference, certain light fixtures burn loads of power, bottled water is wasteful, and that without a reduction in carbon emissions (forget reduction in rate of emissions, which is all politicians talk about) we are going to burn ourselves out of a home. One way to get people's attention, or to clear away their stubborn ignorance, is to direct them to The Green Workplace, a book by architect and MBA Leigh Stringer (who was also a classmate of mine in architecture school).

The book is aimed at CEOs and CSOs and other C-Suite folks who may be titans in the business arena, but are painfully dumb when it comes to the tidal wave of sustainability issues that are going to affect their bottom line in the next few years. The book makes a convincing case for how sustainability can benefit the bottom line, making the case so plain that even business owners who won't spend a dime to sustain their community or environment will be forced to acknowledge that there's money to be made by going green. The least interesting thing about this book it that it sometimes feels like it's overcompensating for the C-Suite folks. Does anyone who is playing at the upper levels of business really not know about how major corporations save oodles of money by saving energy, reducing waste, and making employees more productive? The answer to this question is, unbelievably, yes, and the author is well aware of it. The flip side of this is that Ms. Stringer patiently goes over these points in great detail, and undoubtedly there are some details that those who are very trained in sustainability issues (like me!) have missed.

The book also plays double duty. It is both a how-to book for the enthusiastic in-house environmental organizer and also an eye-opener to the internet deprived business traveler who found the book on a layover in Tuscon. Like the blog from which it sprang, the book is good for grazing on the parts you are interested, and discovering new concepts and ideas that you will read about later. For me this new territory was the introduction of a few green business measuring systems I didn't' know about (Triple Bottom Line or Balanced Scorecard), none of which are new concepts. You'll find your own new territory, and undoubtedly create a new reading list as a result.

The refreshing part of Mrs. Stringer's approach is that the focus is doggedly on organizational behavior. It assumes that everyone agrees that our behavior effects planetary environmental shifts, and that no convincing on that front is necessary. It gets to work. It also feels like a work in progress, like one in a series of books, or blogs. When I chatted with Leigh about the book, she acknowledged that the metrics of environmental business are not equal to the task at hand, and will probably need updating. What ever Book 2 looks like, we admire that this one covers all the bases, for now, and is plugged into a more active blog that will continue the conversation. When you choose to tune in, Leigh Stringer will be ready for you, and she will get you up to speed in no time.

Available at Amazon.

Tropolism: Moving Up To 7

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Tropolism made it into the top 10 of the MoPo 2009 list of most popular architecture weblogs (written in English by primarily one person, and vetted by this or that metric) again this year, except moving up to slot #7. We were thrilled last year that we got in the top-10 at all, taking the #9 slot. Except we just learned that in 2007 we were #4.

The takeaway: top-10 trifecta!

Amazon Wishes

Just so you know, we have a wishlist at Amazon.com. And, our 4 year anniversary is fast approaching. Click the button to send us stuff:

My Amazon.com Wish List

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Atlantic Yards: The First Post

missbrooklyn.jpgAtlantic Yards by Frank O. Gehry: we never liked it. It might be too big. It was a stadium for basketball, a sport we just don't care about and whose only reference point for us is "Madison" "Square" We Knocked Down Pennsylvania Station For This Pile Of Crap "Garden". It had open space on the roof that was accessible by only residents of a bunch of towers. But, it was Frank O., and it was glassy, and it was interesting. It would have densitized (densified?) a neighborhood, adding (more) life but also more traffic, congestion. It was going to amplify the city, this ever-pregnant corner of Brooklyn where it seems like something great should be built but is actually where nothing great has been built, and along with that building would be all the side effects that greatness brings: dirt, noise, change, conflict, and many messy conversations. In short, it was urban.

I took a wait and see attitude: the drawings and models looked somewhat great, but it was difficult to understand how it was going to interact with Brooklyn. Folks were up in arms about it, but these days you have to judge these things for yourself, because what with the internet and all, folks yell about everything in this town, as if every concerned citizen is a self-appointed Jane Jacobs, and every little brick repointing project a city-destroying commission by Robert Moses. Judging for yourself: it is the very purpose of Tropolism. It is what Tropolism means. Watch as the Atlantic Yards Project unfolds, better drawings come out, the project makes its way through court, and something happens, so that you can find your time to weigh in.

What happened you all know, or can easily find out: Gehry designed something awesome, the developer, Forest City Ratner, got all sorts of tax breaks and court victories, many riding on the fact that that particular design was going to be built. Then it turned out that design was too expensive, so Gehry redesigned it and it was less interesting. But OK so what, the central idea was still there, and it was still Frank O.

05gehry_600.jpgThe recent replacement of Frank Gehry as the architect of the project isn't the problem with the new Atlantic Yards design, although Nicolai Ourousoff's reaming article would imply otherwise. Ellerbe Becket doing a super simple and cheaper-design version of Gehry's design would have worked just fine, given that they followed his floor plan and massing outlines to the letter. Instead, the project has simply been redone, shorn of its residences and shops and now it's simply become one of those deadening black holes in the city, just like "Madison" "Square" "Garden". It's a classic, bald-faced bait-and-switch, which is a cute New York way of saying that Forest City Ratner are crooks. They have stolen the public's patience and benefit of the doubt in exchange for their own personal profit. The effect of which is that this part of Brooklyn will be dumb and cold and dead until 2050 when some even more stupid gyration will have to happen in order to renovate the dumb thing that might get built right now.

Atlanticeastbig.jpgThere is some crap glassy entrance so that yes 50,000 people or whatever can stream on through on their way to basketball a few nights a year, but nothing else except a huge box stadium. We get it. The roof looks like a basketball. This is the opposite of great architecture: this is cheeky architecture trying to get on our populist good side, while simultaneously sucking all the life out of our home city. There is no add here, only subtract: subtract money, subtract street life, subtract public conversation, subtract density.

And our great omission has been to not bring up, years ago, that this was a possibility all along. That the devil in Gehry's plan was that if Gehry didn't do his design, and someone did even and almost-version of his design, then the effect would be this drek. Our apologies for being quiet. It won't happen again.

Tropolism Books: Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul

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Title: Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul
Author: Caroline Maniaque Benton
Publication Date: April 2, 2009
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
ISBN: 9781568988009
Available at Amazon.

The Maisons Jaoul, two weekend houses designed by Le Corbusier representing a period of intense work, have apparently not had their due. The author of Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul traces the intensive period of work between 1951 and 1955 that created these houses.

If you can't distinguish Maisons Jaoul from Villa de Mandrot, The Villa in La Celle-Saint-Cloud (sometimes known as Villa Felix), or the vacation home in Les Mathes, or the house for Mrs. Manorama Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, or a dozen other examples, you might be forgiven. They all contain some combination of Le Corbusier's signature Catalan vaults out of terra cotta tile, exposed brick, beton brut concrete, or rusticated brick. Like much of Le Corbusier's oeuvre, the overabundance of work, the myriad overlapping examples, the constant, calculated, conflicting, and recurring areas of exploration tend to hide entire buildings in the fold. Case in point: the houses were originally sketched up in 1937, but the sustained work of design and construction happened 1951-1955. Just try finding them on this timeline if you need further proof. If you have to survey his entire life for a show, will Maisons Jaoul really make the cut? Not always. But they should. They are the clearest examples of these particular explorations, and the ones that get knitted up most comfortably into a livable set of houses.

This book rectifies their past omission from surveys (like the 100 year anniversary surveys had in the 1980s), in that it collects contemporary photographs of the houses (taken after restoration a decade ago), interviews and documents from the original craftsman, drawings that probably haven't been dusted off by FLC since Corb chucked them into box 1,277,569 fifty years ago, and a selection of wonderful letters between Le Corbusier and parties involved in the house. The balance of history and discovery is pitch perfect.

This book is available at Amazon. Your purchase supports this site.

Tropolism Books: Geologics: Geography, Information, and Architecture

GeoLogics.jpgTitle: Geologics: Geography, Information, and Architecture
Author: Vincente Guallart
Publication Date: April 2009
Publisher: Actar
ISBN: 9788495951618
Available at Amazon.

Oh great, another book with swoopy land-looking mountainbuildings, you might be thinking. Another snapshot of an architect with way too many free student laborers in his office, insulated from the need to produce actual buildings to keep the firm afloat, and inured to the need to have his written, visual, and spoken communications make simple sense. This is not that book. The difference with Vincente Guallart's monograph/handbook Geologics is that from word 1 it is a set of working ideas. It is a sketchbook, portfolio, and online photoalbum formatted so that someone on another continent can pick up the ideas, take them into practice, and work on the same set of problems. The format of the book, a thick 5x7 volume, makes it more like a field guide to Guallart's firm's ideas than a monograph. The first sentence:

"This book represents, at last, the beginning of a new cycle in our architectural practice, in which many of the questions outlined here should be corroborated..."

What allows all this to happen is that Guallart's ideas are clear. This is particularly useful since they all represent complex thoughts, phenomena, and conceits. It is the unabashed beauty of the conceits, and their integration into the research and buildings, that open the ideas up for discussion, preventing them from ever becoming declarations or unexamined dogmas. We expect some of the several dozen concepts in the first part of the book (full of ideas like geomorphosis, arborescence, re-urbanizing, ringing) to disappear as Guallart's firm exhausts their usefulness.

The second part of the book is a project-by-project account of the firm's favorite projects, some which you may be familiar with just by reading this site. And what projects they are: a range from swoopy mountainbuildings (a few of which need to get built) to a simple house, the built work is exhilarating, even when it's as simple as the wood decking of the Microcoasts project. Even if you've seen them before, they are placed in powerful context of the firm's inquiry by being cross referenced to the appropriate ideas in part 1 of the book. It's a technique we've mused on before, and one that we continue to think works well in this format. The second part of the book includes outstanding drawings, ranging from plans to diagrams, as well as well-edited set of photographs. The book is another must have for the practicing architect, theoretician, or architecture fan.

This book is available at Amazon. Your purchase supports this site.

Hemeroscopium House

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The Hemeroscopium House, by Ensamble Studio in Madrid, is a refined combination of heavy infrastructural pieces. The pieces are stacked; the resulting spaces are a house. Most awesome is the pool deck, entirely under what is typically used for highway or parking superstructures: a giant precast beam. The surreal scale of the elements--nothing except the furniture appears people-scale--reminds us of OMA's work. Yet this is almost post-OMA, in that there is a clear pleasure to living underneath a highway overpass. The deck you walk on is polished and smooth, the pool and furniture are gorgeous, the landscaping mellow. There's no brutality to this brutalism, only refinement and play. In short a place to live.

Via Architect, which also has a big gallery of pictures.

Tropolism Books: Hybrids II

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Title: Hybrids II
Authors: Aurora Fernández Per, Javier Mozas, Javier Arpa
Publication Date: Autumn 2008
Publisher: a+t ediciones
ISSN: 1132-6409

Hybrids II, the sequel to Hybrids I (about high-rise mixed-use buildings), published earlier in 2008, continues a+t's beautiful large-format periodical series. Although Hybrids II ties up the year's theme in a neat symmetry--its topic is low-rise mixed use buildings--the book is in many ways an improvement over its predecessor. It continues a+t's gorgeous plans, building analyses, and geographic locating diagrams. Yet the opening essay seems to cover the same points, but does so with more specific history, and a greater ease with the material effects of theoretical play:

The development of technology and trust in prefabrication caused science fiction and urban planning to find common friends. With the development of spatial bar structures, industrial modular cities made up of three-dimensional systems were starting to be drawn, though still only on paper.

This essay covers all the points on the historical spectrum between the invention of the skyscraper (that is, as it was formulated in Delirious New York), the superbuildings referenced in the quote above, and the megastructures developed in the late 1960s by Archizoom and Fumihiko Maki.

The activity of celebrating the culture of low, city-like superbuildings is of course fraught with the danger that one will ignore its most city-deadening invention, the plinth. Denise Scott-Brown's 1968 quote is presented as a warning of painting the world with acontextual supercity buildings: "What do they all do up there in those megastructures?"

Yet in the last 40 years, superbuilding has not died. It merely needed improving. Like before, during its plinth-era incarnation, it seems to remain a tool for economically efficient consumption. Yet it has survived in many cases only by allowing the cross-pollination of programs to happen, and for public space to infect it. The easiest example of this is The Ehwa Campus Complex in Seoul, by Dominique Perrault. It is a building whose entire roof is either a sloping grassy park or a monumental stair and plaza. The plinth is indistinguishable from the surface of the earth, a hybrid indeed.

It has also become commercially unviable for a building to not be contiguous with the city. A good example is OMA's return to fine form with their Bryghusprojektet in Copenhagen. A continuation of the diagonal spatial arrangements found in their 1992 Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the project proposes a 'heaping' of different programs to create hybridization, overlap, and new connections. However it does so by being contiguous to the ground of the city at many points along its edges.

What's astonishing in this book's survey is not only the scale of the projects being undertaken (such as the 100,000 square meter sporting complex in Kuwait, or Steven Holl's Vanke Center in Shenhen, China) but the diversity of solutions being proposed by architects. Megabuilding has taken on any form imaginable, making material the the possibility in ultra-dense city-scaled structures.

Tropolism Films: Brooklyn DIY

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Last week’s world premiere of Brooklyn DIY brought a motley crowd of artists, performers, and groupies to MoMa. Through interviews and photographs, the film documents the “creative renaissance” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Employing an ambiguous timeline, the narrative favors subjective experience over specificity. However, the disjointed “mapping of memory” is grounded by focusing on a handful of seminal moments that defined the neighborhood.

Right this way for the full film review...