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Monthly Archives: October 2010

Final PortfolioClick the image to view my the Final Portfolio for the Master’s of Architecture in Architectural Design I completed in 2009-2010 at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.

You can’t make up Norman Foster‘s story. It is almost unbelievable that someone so powerful and talented is so likable, erudite, and circumspect.

Here he is, charming the world as always, this time on Charlie Rose. Like Peter Eisenman, his reputation is complex, and still should be VERY open to debate, but his work and his legacy is always worth discussion.

There are many standard post-industrial/post-apocalyptic narratives regarding Detroit’s rise, fall, and possible reemergence as something new.

But in his newest journal post, David Byrne talks about Detroit and its failure, which was written into it’s DNA: the more successful the car companies became at forcing their will, politically and in terms of the market, the more possible it was to abandon the city they had built. Logical.

He then posits something I’ve never heard before at all that would have – and still could be – the way forward for rebuilding America’s industrial production…

One wonders, if the federal government mandated that the car companies must build planes and tanks and all sorts of other stuff during the war, why these same companies couldn’t have been similarly diverted from building Hummers and SUVs to building trolleys, urban transport, high-speed trains and other bits of infrastructure we all could all use.”

David Byrne from Don’t Forget The Motor City.”

We could still do it. It would take a lot of bravery from corporations known for their incredible tunnel vision. But now that the model upon which the American automotive industry was built has proven unsustainable, what do they have left? A new generation of SUV’s, with the accompanying wars to keep gas prices low? A new Manifest Destiny – not for territory, but the spoils hidden beneath? The failure of our latest military ambitions have already proven that we’re on serious decline as a superpower: are we just going to keep missing the forest for the trees we’re cutting down to feed the bonfire consuming our influence in the world?

It was surprising and pleasant while in Barcelona to look down as one enters a metro train and see the Bombardier marque on the sill plate. I didn’t know the company until I spent some time as a baggage handler for a large regional airline, which flew exclusively Bombardier regional jets (CRJ). I heard stories of reliability and simplicity – purely anecdotally – from the airline’s mechanics, and they’ve always products with a certain aesthetic pleasantness, so I was quite excited to know that I was on a Bombardier train.

They were not pressed into this by government action – their entry into transportation was a free market decision.

General Electric, who incidentally makes the engines for most if not all of Bombardier’s aircraft, has been in the locomotive industry for a century. In the last couple decades, have repurposed their advanced jet engine turbine knowledge into turbine driven locomotives that are ridiculously efficient.

These are two companies exercising in the free market – so much so that both had financial wings that failed, or all-but, in the credit crunch. LIKE GM HAD.

So the idea of GM following their lead and diversifying their manufactured products is not earth-shattering. They would just be doing similarly to what they did in World War Two and turning car production lines into tank production lines; but only rather than tanks they build commuter rail coaches, and rather than functioning car lines, the one’s that they would be closing instead.

And considering that this is all government work, it would be far more recession proof than the car market. It’s time to consider all options, because the ones we’ve had for the last fifty years are obsolete. And through questioning the nature of policies and industries, we could take our strengths repurpose them in systems and infrastructures that have been sorely neglected.

Maybe the way forward for the whole American “free market” is a new deal with industry, where with systems like this, we make it lucrative to serve the common good.

And speaking as a free market scoundrel, what kind of great business plan would it be for the auto companies to build the newer and better transit systems (public systems, publicly funded) to replace the unsustainable old ones (private transport, privately funded) that they flogged for a hundred years?

They made a mint selling the poison for generations, now they could make another mint selling the antidote.

Television 3.0.

“It has unleashed value for us and given us options and opportunities we never had before,” said Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten and a driving force behind the network. “When President Obama comes to the University of Michigan, we can televise it. When there are flood relief efforts in Iowa, we can be part of that. It has not only extended, but has changed the shape of our brand.”

Of course, I heard the idea first years ago and thought it was daft – a network whose only visible means of support was big-time football and basketball, showing all the other random sports at a loss and filled with those low-budget promotional programs for universities. I thought they were silly to prefer their own network to the massive exposure of the big four and other sports networks. But if you think of something like the Big Ten Network (which I’ve never watched, by the way) as a melange of ESPN, CNN, PBS, and (here’s the surprising bit) C-Span, the equation gets really interesting. Here’s why.

A network like the Big Ten Network – with coverage of 35% of the nation (I assume that measures territory, not population) cuts out the middle man on keeping the profits for its major sports. Of course this was the intent. They knew going into the TV business that they would have to rely on non-revenue-generating athletics to fill most of their content. But as it turns out, these have “overperformed.” So the lower profile athletics are now turning a profit – I assume by providing what actually turned out to be interesting content off of which to hang advertising. This is what Delany referred to as “extending” the brand.

The traditional networks have completely abdicated their responsibility to public service, and there is no place for a serious public discourse either. Even news is entertainment, not public information. If it doesn’t sell detergent, it won’t air. BUT the success of athletics on this new network and the need to fill airtime has led the Big Ten Network to “change the shape” of their brand. The network is now in the news business. And if the standards of the member Universities are applied, this should reach a minimum standard of accountability and factuality. And because it’s lower budget, it does not have to draw the same viewership to stay afloat, thus hopefully bucking the trend of news as entertainment…

Further – the biggest potential I see is not for current events coverage to be the public service – but a two-pronged reimagining of the member Universities. First, the fact that it could provide a medium for the dissemination of academic work. Imagine academic conferences, lectures, and public education airing just a few hours after Ohio State Buckeyes’ games. This realizes the true heterodox mission of the American university system.

Second – and most importantly, universities are growing in power and influence by the day, and the public needs to be allowed scrutiny. On this “Big Ten Network,” the universities of the Big Ten, and the administrative structure of the Big Ten should be given the C-Span treatment and exposed to the public; allowing analysis, critique, and contribution. Especially considering most of the conference is composed of large state-run schools, this accountability is essential and powerful in allowing the population to be partners in defining – or at least understanding – the changing nature of the University and its place in the American system.

In short, having a unique position in the American governmental and business landscape, Universities are changing. The existence of the Big Ten Network is proof of this – and its potential reaches far beyond sports into the community as news about that community; but most interestingly opening the classroom and the university boardroom to the public they are supposed to serve and extending the mission of the University in the exercise of American civil society. The success of collegiate athletics has led to an elevation of the whole system of higher education ever since the rise of football in the early 20th century, and this is another evolution of that, which could change the landscape not only of education, but of the media for good, and for better.

I was thinking about emergence, possibility, and narrative today. Then I ran across these two pertinent articles.

Gijs Van Vaerenbergh‘s completion of the Dome at St. Michiel Church via Bldgblog:

“But the method of analog calculation seen both in “Upside Dome” and in the work of Ball-Nogues—that is, simply drooping pieces of chain or string through space till they stabilize, like architectural stratigraphy—gives force and form to gravity and to the potential architectures tucked away in empty space.”

(emphasis mine)

Almost all generative systems define a range of possible outcomes – a space of potential forms that can be vast. Often the visual complexity in generative art is actually visualizing a part of this form-space by overlaying or combining a range of forms into a single outcome.

found here.

As discussed in the generative art article, there’s the element of what Eno calls “surrender” that unites the work here.

Only – what differentiates architecture as a spatial exploration in the catenary net from the visual complexity of the draughting exercises in the second is the surrender to an undeniable and very non-virtual force. Gravity. Therein lies the grace that is both architecture’s biggest liability and its most substantial contribution as a critical practice.


Speaking of emergence, take a look at another Bldgblog post that will be the subject of much more speculation soon.