Best of 2018

At the end of the year I customarily reflect upon my personal architectural experiences from the year past—places I visited and other experiences. I didn’t travel much, so my best of 2018 is pretty modest…

Studio Gang’s New Dorms

Architectural surprises are rare and wonderful. I was in Chicago, in Hyde Park, to walk by Fred Keck’s 3-unit cooperative (where he & Lucy lived with brother Bill & Stella and professor Louis Gottschalk), on the way to the Oriental Institute, when I stumbled on Studio Gang’s new dorms for the University of Chicago (called the Campus North Residential Commons). 3D parametric cladding. Beautiful form-making. It strikes me, somehow, as a descendant of the Bauhaus. I didn’t get inside, but the exterior experience was pretty thrilling.

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The Apple Store, Chicago

As I wrote about here, I not only admire the work of Foster + Partners for Apple but think it’s historic. So when I visited Chicago in September I set aside time to visit the Apple Store on the river at Michigan Avenue, just south of the Tribune Tower. What a site!

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Was I moved? Well, I was in a hurry, and it’s a store. But surely the best store I’ve visited in some time.

Critique1: Is the form of the roof meant to refer to the form of an Apple computer? I think yes, and that diminishes the design quality, to me.

Critique2: Yes there are falling-ice problems. This truly surprises me, because it's my impression that Foster's office is full of pragmatic-thinking technically-oriented people.

The IIT Library

I’d been to Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus several times (and blogged here and here) but never before had I visited the library. It’s a completely different experience than Mies’ other buildings. The typical Mies building is set on a podium or plaza, but here you descend to the main entry, then you are immediately led up, through the floor, to the main space of the reading room. Note (again) the affinities between Foster & Mies in the supreme authority of the ceiling plane.

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The Year in Scholarship

Was it a weak year for architectural history? More likely, I didn’t read enough. Some favorites:

  • Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing by Mark Swenarton
  • Prefab Housing and the Future of Building: Product to Process by Mathew Aitchison
  • Elementhus” by Scott Hedges
  • "Glass buildings..." by Alan Short
  • "Against Historic Preservation" by Deborah Berke in the Journal of Architectural Education

And the best news (from late 2017): An Engineer Imagines by Peter Rice is reprinted, and affordable. Thanks, Batsford!

Beyonce’s Louvre

A virtual experience, but certainly architectural and tremendously powerful—Beyonce’s takeover of the Louvre. I bet I’ve watched it a hundred times.

The Last Word

When in Omaha, visit Herbe Sainte and order the Last Word (a Chartreuse-based cocktail).

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Thanks for Visiting
solarhousehistory.com had 16,100 pageviews in 2018.  That's about 45 per day.
The most popular blog topics were:
Le Corbusier and the Sun (2,520 pageviews)
The Roman Baths and Solar Heating (630)
Zeilenbau orientation and Heliotropic housing (570)
Solarpunk (330)
Nixon's Energy Policy (320)
Solar Orientation and Historic Buildings (290)
Speculative Redesign: Unité d'Habitation (270)

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Best of 2017
Best of 2016
Best of 2015
The Solar House: 2013 Year in Review

Gregory Ain's Ginoza house

In 2008 my book Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary was published by Rizzoli. It documents Ain’s works and ideas.

Ain’s last project—of minor importance—was a home for William and Midori Ginoza, in 1967 in State College, Pennsylvania. Ain was there for a few years serving as the Dean of Architecture at Penn State. Apart from the 1950 Museum of Modern Art house, it’s the only project in Ain’s oeuvre outside of California.

The Ginoza house was never photographed, and it was the only Ain project I did not visit before writing the book. When I was able to visit in 2013, the original client Bill Ginoza still lived in the house, at age 99. He passed away earlier this year (link).

Since this house has essentially never been seen before, I thought I would share some photos. It is wonderfully site-responsive, oriented to views of Mount Nittany. Prospect and refuge.

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Versailles and the history of the skylight

Anyone interested in architecture’s environmental history will find it puzzling that there is little written about the history of daylighting, or the history of the skylight. Who invented the modern skylight? We don’t know! It probably developed in France in the 18th-century.

The Palace of Versailles helps to define some boundaries for this question. The famous Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) exemplifies state-of-the-art side-lighting techniques for its time. Each tall window on the left of the image below (facing WNW) is matched by a mirror on the right; this works fairly well to distribute light throughout the space. The chandeliers help.

About 150 years later, the Galerie des Batailles (Hall of Wars) was constructed; second image below. By this time, the modern skylight had been introduced.* The skylight was a significant advance, because top-lighting techniques provide better illumination than side-lighting.

The two rooms provide an excellent compare-and-contrast for daylighting designers because they are about the same size and shape, and only a few hundred feet apart. (The pair is illustrated in David Lee Smith's Environmental Issues for Architecture, though the time interval isn’t mentioned.) For history students, this is also a fine compare-and-contrast of the Baroque and Neo-Classical styles.

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*An earlier skylight of note is found at the 1784 "La colonne brisée" at Désert de Retz, just a few miles from Versailles. Thomas Jefferson was “enchanted” by this structure, and he built the first skylights in America at Monticello after 1796.

The Harvard Home Builder Study

It’s a few years old, but I am just catching up with the 2012 book Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better: Lessons from the Harvard Home Builder Study, by Frederick Abernathy, Kermit Baker, Kent Colton, and David Weil. For those interested in the US home building industry, it’s a vital resource with significant findings.

The authors surveyed 88 home builders in 2005. This was the peak, when home construction “surged” from 1.2 million units/year in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2005. In other words, the industry had just grown by 142% in six years! It was “wildly profitable” to be a large home builder.

What did they expect? The authors figured that, during this boom time, large US home builders would take advantage of their scale to innovate and become more efficient. This is a basic principle of capitalism. Think of Ford in the 1920s, or Walmart in the 1990s. So large home builders should have improved their construction management processes, and developed better supply chains, and adopted new technologies, both in the field and the office.

What did they find? The title is the conclusion: Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better. The large home builders simply did not pursue innovation, and “did not outperform their smaller competitors” based on key measures such as construction costs, construction project time, and customer satisfaction (p. 29).

“For many of the nation’s largest builders, efficiency was simply not a priority” (p. 69).

In construction management, for example, large home builders should have consolidated their subcontractor base in order to drive efficiencies. But “no major home builder experimented with even small modifications that might have improved construction cost or cycle-time performance” (p. 57). Likewise, contrary to expectations, few large home builders developed specialized software for cost estimating (p. 84). The phrase “entrenched practices” is used frequently.

In other words, if you’ve ever encountered a home builder justifying a poor practice by saying “we've always done it that way,” it may be comforting to know that Harvard research says, in essence, that this attitude is characteristic of the whole industry. The culture of home building is deeply conservative, resistant to innovation. This is a fundamental problem.

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You might wonder: Since the study was conducted in 2005, and the bubble burst in 2007–09, hasn’t the home building industry likely changed quite a bit? While there is some evidence of innovation (or at least, interest in ‘disruption’), I’d argue that the salient features of the home building industry—decentralization and low-productivity*—haven’t changed much since 2005. Additionally, most home builders, large and small, are more properly characterized as land developers because they make more money on the land than on the houses. This too is a fundamental problem.

These are the largest (publicly-traded) home builders in the US, by market cap, today:

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That kind of capital could drive tremendous innovation, if the right kind of leadership existed.

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*Construction productivity has been flat for decades, according to a 2015 McKinsey article. The National Society of Professional Engineers said the same in 2014 (link to pdf).

Brutalism and Solar

Brutalism and Solar Architecture—two architectural movements which co-existed in the 1970s and 80s—are not like peas & carrots.  You don't necessarily think of them as complementary.

Yet behold the Central United Methodist Church, built in Milwaukee in 1982.  It was designed by William Wenzler and Associates.  The bell tower has tall south-facing windows to accommodate a solar heating system which was to be installed behind them.  A solar campanile!  Also, south-facing rooms designed for passive solar heating, with proper shading.  Plus earth berms. 

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