Who Needs Function?


Despite being retired, I maintain my Massachusetts architect’s license. $125 a year allows me to add RA to my name and seems a small price for the privilege of officially calling myself an architect. There is a catch, familiar to most professionals: I must acquire 12 “Continuing Education Units” or CEU’s to maintain my license.

For many years I was privileged to teach a summer seminar at Harvard with my friend and colleague Bill Rose, in which architects in need of CEU’s paid dearly to spend 3 days listening to us lecture and enjoying the pleasures of Cambridge. Those days are long gone: today all one needs to do is read an article on the Architectural Record website, pass a 10-question quiz and bingo, you get a PDF certificate for 1 CEU. You can refer to the article during the test, and if you don’t pass they show you which questions you missed so you can try again. This year I forgot to renew until the last possible day, so had to speed-read 12 boring articles to log my CEU’s in time. This took about 6 hours.

Architectural Record and Architect (the journal of the American Institute of Architects) are the only American architectural magazines left standing (discounting Architectural Digest, a vanity magazine focused on interiors). When I was in school and apprenticing there were four. The best of them, Architectural Forum, dropped away in 1974, then Progressive Architecture disappeared in 1995 (the AIA magazine picked up its awards program).

I subscribe to Architectural Record mainly to marvel at the preposterous, expensive, impractical, solipsistic, irrelevant and/or environmentally disastrous monstrosities that pass for avant-garde architecture, along with occasional handsome and well-thought-out works. But one article in the August 2017 issue struck me so forcibly I must share it.

It is the Visitor Center for Park Groot Vijversburg in the small town of Tytsjerk, The Netherlands, about 100 miles from Amsterdam. It was designed by Junya Ishigami and Associates with Studio Maks; I know nothing about either architect. Their brief was to design a visitor’s center in association with a locally treasured landmark, a handsome 19th Century villa. The center was to have a tearoom, shop, information desk and toilets.

Instead, it is a Y-shaped glass-enclosed walkway with a flat roof, winding through the park from the villa to, as far as I can discern from the article, nowhere in particular. It was influenced by and somewhat resembles the SANAA structure at Grace Farms in New Canaan Connecticut, which I recently visited. However, unlike the open SANAA structure, it is completely enclosed, the roof supported by glazed walls on both sides, something of a technical feat. Both are curving walkways that purportedly blend into the landscape (a favorite conceit of architects who plant structures in the middle of nice parks). Being fully enclosed, it had to be mechanically heated, ventilated and air conditioned.

The punch line, quoted from the article:

” ‘We asked for a functional building, and the pavilion is not functional,’ admits the park manager Audrey Sielstra in a matter-of-fact way. ‘If you look at it in practical terms, the building is problematic [!]. Yet a practical building requires walls for each separate program, and that would clash with the landscape [Grace Farms has subterranean bathrooms and mechanical spaces and fully glazed above-ground enclosures]. What Kums and Ishigami designed is an artwork. In order to use this artwork as a building, people need to be creative, and that, I think, is very beautiful,'”


Almost ready

View of Grand Canyon, May 2017, from Mather Point – pencil, actual size

The process of preparing the house (and ourselves) for sale is traumatic in the extreme for most people, and especially for my wife and myself. But we are almost there, and the house will be on the market next week if all goes as planned.

This has been a huge distraction and I have not had the energy to post anything. I have lots to say about current events, and would like to do a review of a great (but rather technical) book “The Vital Question” by biochemist Nick Lane and the more accessible “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong. Both are well-written and up-to-date, and both describe startling discoveries that drastically revise one’s view of life. The books are complementary, the first dealing with the origins of all life and of complex life, the latter the meaning and extent of the symbiotic relationships among animals, plants and microbes.

So I look forward to more posting, once the last-minute crunch is over with and our house is finally in the unlivable state necessary to attract buyers.


Hurricane Katrina: How a “Free Enterprise” Economy Budgets

In sorting my papers, I ran across an article I had saved from the April 30, 2002 NY Times entitled “Nothing’s Easy for New Orleans Flood Control.” It described in detail what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. One quote:

“Perhaps the surest protection is building up the coastal marshes that lie between New Orleans and the sea and that have been eroding at high rates. But restoration will require time, a huge effort, and prohibitive sums of money, perhaps $14 billion according to a study…”

Here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina, which occurred three and half years later:

“All of the major studies concluded that the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers], the designers and builders of the levee system as mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1965, is responsible. This is mainly due to a decision to use shorter steel sheet pilings in an effort to save money.”

“Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, making it the deadliest United States hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.

Free enterprise is anything but!

More Depressing News

I wish I could find something to cheer about, but this article in today’s Times is so terrifying that I have to pass it on. It is unfortunately a must-read.



The 60’s Cough

Listen to recordings of live performances by pianist Sviatoslav Richter from the 1950’s and 1960’s and you will hear frequent coughs in the audience. I only heard Richter once, in Newark in 1960, but I vividly recall the coughing. He played Prokofieff’s 7th sonata, brilliantly and powerfully.

Today, it is rare to hear anyone cough in an audience. I wonder what was going on then. Was it bad manners, or bad air pollution, or radioactive fallout, or less effective medical care, or leaded gasoline, or something else, or some combination? I have no data on the dates when coughing was common in audiences.

Today’s cough is the cell phone.

Breaking News About Our Ancestry

A New York Times article on Beethoven’s birthday, 2016 (December 16th) alerted me to three studies published in Nature based on extensive and detailed DNA analyses of several hundred living people from all over the globe.

The studies all agreed that there was one population of Africans that migrated out of Africa between 50 and 80 thousand years ago (kya), and that all living peoples except Africans are descended from this small population. In addition, African populations became genetically isolated by 125,000 kya and probably earlier, which implies that language (and very likely art) arose earlier than that.

This is big news, because there has been disagreement both about how many of the populations that emigrated from Africa are ancestral to modern humans, and about when language developed.

There is a small amount of mixing in New Guinea between this founding population and a somewhat earlier population of migrant modern humans, and also between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals. But the basic news is that almost all our genetic inheritance funneled through a population bottleneck, which corresponds to much earlier findings (the “mitochondrial Eve” hypothesis).

This adds credence to the idea that “click languages” such as that spoken by the Khoi-San people were antecedent to non-click languages, since the Khoi-San split off from our ancestral mainstream around 125 kya. This makes sense simply because clicks are hard to produce and are more likely to have been dropped than added.

What is of particular interest to me is that language developed earlier, maybe much earlier, than many have thought. This makes great sense to me, because I believe that language, music and other arts co-evolved in complex ways over a long period of time, as our ancestors became more able to form symbolic abstractions.

Here is a better write-up than the NYT article: https://singularityhub.com/2016/09/23/genetic-studies-reveal-diversity-of-early-human-populations-and-pin-down-when-we-left-africa/

Why I Went to Architecture School

I drew a lot when I was a kid, mostly sequences depicting incredible explosions, or cars each with more exaggerated features than the last. I didn’t have good drawing materials, just bond paper and pencils, so the drawings had no depth – they were outlets for my distressed imagination rather than productions for display.

Then I got into model railroading, and spent all my spare time designing the layout, putting the layout together in our tiny cellar, or making rolling stock, but I never finished the layout – I dreamed its completion, just as I dreamed my own completion, my own empowerment. I was never finished.

My uncle Bud, one of father’s half-brothers, was a contractor, and he designed and built suburban houses in Southern California were we lived at the time. I watched his and others’ houses go up, utterly fascinated by the wood framing. I remember climbing onto the roof of one of his houses under construction and sticking a meat thermometer under the black shingles – it read 180 degrees, a datum that I found useful many years later.

I took mechanical drawing in high school and loved it. I loved the wonderful ruling pens, I loved the precision, and I loved the geometry. We drew other views of objects for which some views were given – a great aid to spatial visualization (which may be learned and not innate – why don’t they teach mechanical drawing today?)

My brother Bob and brother-in law John ran a blueprint company for a couple of years and I helped out, trimming blueprints. In those days, the early 50’s, blueprints were really blue. A roll of heavy paper coated with light-sensitive dye was kept in the dark under the machine. You pulled the paper across a table and up through a series of rollers. Once the machine was started, you laid the tracing paper original drawings one after the other onto the moving paper, being careful to align them correctly and avoid wrinkles or folds.

In their trip through the machine’s rollers, the blueprint paper and drawings first moved under a brilliant light source, which exposed the paper except where the pencil or ink links on the tracing paper blocked the light. The paper then ran up vertically, and you had to grab the originals as they peeled off the blueprint paper (while simultaneously feeding in the new originals – it required some skill). Up and over, the paper then ran through a bath of developing fluid that activated the dye, turning the exposed paper a beautiful Prussian blue.

The wet paper traveled over some burners that dried it (and shrunk the image – hence the dictum “never measure a blueprint”). All this paper was under tension, and if it got off track, it would wrinkle up dramatically, and you had to cut the paper and re-feed it. Finally, the trimmer used long scissors to trim the final prints as they came out of the machine. I searched the web and could find only one image of blueprint machine, from a patent application. This one has many more rollers than the ones I worked with, and doesn’t have a table to trim the prints.

Blueprint machine diagram from patent application
Blueprint machine diagram from patent application

The new “diazo” process was just coming into favor. Diazo paper was coated with a yellowish dye that was actuated by intense ammonia fumes. In this process the paper didn’t shrink, plus you got a black on white image (actually more purple on yellowish-white). Not long after this, the diazo process replaced blueprinting, but the old name stuck. The diazo machine was trade-named “Ozalid”, which is diazo backward with an added “L”. The ammonia came in big 10-gallon glass bottles. Once my brother-in-law dropped a full bottle and we all had to run out of the shop before we burned our lungs. Both diazo and blueprints faded when exposed to light for any period of time.

When I trimmed blueprints and diazos in the blueprint shop, I got to look at the plans for new houses that we were printing. I would take cast-off prints of them home to study, and then draw up my own floor plans. All these houses were one-story ranch houses without basements, with hipped roofs, one where the roof planes slope in all directions, like a tent. You can design a hipped roof over any plan, no matter what its shape, so you never had to think about anything but the plan layout. That’s where the idea of architects “drawing up the plan” came from. Few people were sophisticated enough to ask an architect to “draw up the spaces.”

So that’s why I went to architecture school at Berkeley: to learn how to draw up the plans for houses. Nothing more enlightened than that. My folks somehow managed to pay for college, which was affordable in 1953. The $1,200 cost per year for tuition, room and board was partly offset by $200 scholarships, available to anyone who had a B average. I had a scholarship every semester, one I remember getting because I was from Nebraska. In later years when I had my own apartment and car, my annual outlay including plane fare to and from home for Christmas and summer vacation, was around $2,500.

My first job as an architectural drafter (draftsman in those days) was 65 cents an hour, so $2,500 was not chump change, especially for my not so rich parents. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the 65 cent hourly wage and $1,200 annual cost with contemporary numbers. Let’s say a beginning drafter in an architectural office makes $15 an hour ($31,000 a year). The cost of a year in college varies, but I read on the web that Berkeley is in the $30,000 range. So that’s a year’s pay. A year’s pay at 65 cents an hour is $1,352. If my numbers are correct, today’s college tuition compared with earning power hasn’t changed that much, at least at Berkeley. It has become much more selective, however. In the 50’s, you got in if you had a good grade-point average and were a California resident.

Needless to say, architectural education does not consist solely of “drawing up the plan.” But that is another story.

I'm still drawing up plans for houses, typically in traditional styles
I’m still drawing up plans for houses, typically in traditional styles

No-Growth Economy

Looking for enlightenment on the subject, and hoping to find some good news, I Googled “no-growth economy” and found this article at the top of the list:


It lays out a convincing case that civilization as we have constituted it cannot exist without growth. As far as I know, most mainstream economists would agree with him.

At the end, he references another 2014 article he wrote that lays out how to grow and not fry ourselves:


Its credibility is marred by his comment that he is not considering “speculative technology” like cold fusion, which has long since been round-filed as a bad piece of research. He also features carbon capture, which is highly speculative. This indicates to me that he is behind the curve regarding technological possibilities.

If you have some time (ha!) and want to see what no-growth theory looks like, you might read


I am impressed with its detachment from reality, especially with these prescriptions:

  • The first institution is to correct inequality by putting minimum and maximum limits on incomes, maximum limits on wealth, and then redistribute accordingly.
  • The second institution is to stabilise the population by issuing transferable reproduction licenses to all fertile women at a level corresponding with the general replacement fertility in society.
  • The third institution is to stabilise the level of capital by issuing and selling depletion quotas that put quantitative restrictions on the flow of resources in the economy. Quotas effectively minimise the throughput of resources necessary to maintain any given level of capital (as opposed to taxes, that merely alter the prevailing price structure).

These policies aren’t consistent with a democratic, liberty-based social structure, to dramatically understate the issue. However, the prescriptions are the sorts of measures that would be needed to control growth. So I deduce that solving the problem of growth means giving up many of our liberties. I am highly skeptical that this can happen without a crisis.

Visualizing a Very Large Number

I mentioned in another post on the Powers of Ten a visualization of the number of combinations of 52 playing cards, taken from a Vsauce video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObiqJzfyACM. The number is 8.06 times 10 to the 67th power, and the example counted that number of seconds.

  1. Stand on the equator for a billion years
  2. Take one step, and wait another billion years
  3. At this rate, walk around the earth – this gets you to about 2 x 10 to the 23rd power, which is about a third of the number of atoms in a half ounce of carbon (Avogadro’s number, 6.022 x 10 to the 23rd power))
  4. Every time you complete a trip, remove a drop of water from the Pacific Ocean
  5. When you have drained the ocean, lay a piece of paper on the ground This gets you to 9 x 10 to the 48th power.
  6. Keep refilling and draining the Pacific, adding a sheet each time until the pile reaches the sun. This gets you to about 2 x 10 to the 63rd power.
  7. Do this 40,000 times (he says 1,000 times but I think he is mistaken)

I think this powerfully illustrates how big this big number is. Science articles throw powers of ten around without anchoring them in experience, which distorts our perception..