Category Archives: Theory

Architecture Local Reno Park Project Theory

How can Fort Reno’s history come to life?

Fort Reno Park is not a great park. It’s mostly unstructured green space: empty and unpleasant. It does have a great community garden, tennis courts, and two playing fields. But, those uses collectively occupy only a fraction of the land. And they don’t really draw anyone in. Even Fort Reno’s most popular event, the summer concerts, are a lucky accident.

In fact, the only users who really enjoy the park are dogs. The empty fields at Fort Reno are great for letting dogs run free. The only problem is that it’s illegal. Dogs must be on a leash on NPS land. There is just nothing right with Fort Reno Park, is there?

renodogs

Now, it’s easy to spitball amenities to fix the park, but Fort Reno is uniquely charged with history. There’s was a Civil War Fort and then a Black town bound up in its formation. Buried under the grass are vast possibilities to impregnate our lives with history. On the other hand, as more and more residents return to the district, we will really need useful parks.

So, how do you take this kind of site and interpret it while also making it a great urban place?

A recent project in Brooklyn shows us a few ways.

photo copyright nic lehoux

Strategy One: Put a frame on it 

Take a look at the Weeksville Heritage Centerlocated in northeastern Brooklyn. Not so much of an open space as a corner of East New York, the site preserves five houses from a historical Black settlement. Most of Weeksville came down for projects during Urban Renewal, but a tiny portion remained, wedged laterally into a block.

Like Tenleytown, Weeksville was quite some distance away from the city (Brooklyn), but was later absorbed by urbanization. Unlike Tenleytown, none of the roads were converted into the grid, and few of the houses were. Tenleytown used to be two settlements: a largely White area near the Wisconsin-River intersection, and the Black town occupying what is now Fort Reno Park. Very little of both remains.

1907 tenleytown baist s

Weeksville was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by an extension class at the Pratt Institute. Residents were still floating around, but its history was unofficial and uncollected. In the same sense, Tenleytown was rediscovered in the 1970s, as the last people to remember it tried to collect their memories. Weeksville has been slowly doing the same for years.

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Architecture Computation Theory Writing

Defining “Building Information”

Students at Yale’s Architecture School are invited to propose topics for an annual journal named Perspecta. I co-authored a proposal with my classmate Raven Hardison intending to expand the theoretical background of building information modeling. I find that the discussion over its uses is largely focused on building process improvement, which is itself valuable, but only a narrow band of its potential. The nature of technologies as disruptive and immature as building simulation and information modeling is that we haven’t yet begun to imagine uses for it. See, for example, this week’s article about the Kinect hacking culture in the Times.

Since we were not selected, it seems in the spirit of things to publish the proposal in hopes that it can germinate other ideas in topics we ourselves were blind to. The original proposal included the names of proposed authors, which have been edited out.

 

 

A Failed Proposal for Perspecta 48:

BUILDING INFORMATION MODELING

Building information modeling has become fait accompli in the discipline of architecture. Sales of Revit subscriptions steadily rise, while technical facility becomes commonplace. Resignation to BIM’s inevitability has caused a critical blindness toward the nature, forms, and influence of those first two words,building information.”

For Perspecta 48, we propose to step back and investigate unresolved aspects concerning the use of knowledge in design and construction. As a metaphor for the discipline’s approach, consider the parable of the blind monks and an elephant.

A king brings a pachyderm to a few sightless monks as a test. He asks them to reach out and describe this “elephant” they had never before encountered. Unable to perceive the whole creature, each groped at different body parts and returned a correspondingly different answer, all rooted in something familiar. The tail became a whip, the body a granary, the tusk a plow, and one man declared the leg to be a column.

When the king revealed the elephant, he showed their wisdom to be burdened by two key epistemological errors: assuming one has the full scope of information on a subject and, secondly, relying on preconceptions to understanding new information. By approaching the issue from a business side and avoiding theory, the discipline has ceased examining information in a multifaceted way, as it once did.

Forty years ago, researchers like Charles Eastman and Nicholas Negroponte imagined software reminiscent of information modeling and parametricism. Over the next forty years they worked to realize these dreams. But at the same time, the scope of the theoretical aims narrowed from world order to interface to tool and finally to product. In order to produce viable software, designers had to cut back their ambitions to basic commercial goals. Speculation on the radical political uses of data or how digital tools transform our relationship to the physical have been left to coders at the margins.

To reorient the debate, Perspecta 48 looks at “building information” from five key angles. Taking a fundamental perspective, the authors in the first section will examine the epistemology of building. By this we mean what is considered constructional knowledge, and how the discipline organizes it. Another group will look at the ways simulation and dematerialization have transformed humans and their environment.

A third set explores the diverging ends of authority and participation on that building modeling is driving the profession to. Looking at the politicization of knowledge, one group will examine how information multiplies of power and raises new ethical dilemmas. Finally, one collection of essays will discuss the technical difficulties of realizing architecture with digital technologies, and even how to embrace them.

We aspire to reinvigorate the discourse about building information by revealing it to be not merely a technology, but rather as a fundamental element of architecture.

 

The proposal continues.

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Architecture Theory

Drawing is Dead, Long Live Drawing

This past March, Yale hosted a conference on the role of drawing in architecture in an age where most design occurs in the head and on the computer. “Is Drawing Dead?” I don’t have too much to add, but if you have a few hours of thoughtless labor, listening to it can be surprisingly informative and you don’t really need to see what’s going on. The third session, “The Critical Act,” is much more oriented toward architects themselves.

The highlight of the series, for me, was (go straight to it) was Andrew Witt’s discussion of the much longer use of computer drawings than the architecture profession typically admits. Witt is director of research at Gehry Technologies, and spent a few years studying 19th-century mechanical tools to reliably draw the complex shapes desired by Beaux-arts architects but very challenging to obtain with the accuracy or precision needed to actually construct a building. So it’s a very interesting talk. Patrik Schumacher, on the other  hand, does nothing but embarrass himself and bloviate.

Here are links to all of the sessions, each three hours long, except for the keynote, #4.

  1. The Voice of Drawing: The history of and an apologia for hand drawing.
  2. Burning Bridges, Questioning Practice: New technologies and scientific developments in design.
  3. The Critical Act: What are we trying to do when we design?
  4. Real is Only Halfway There: Peter Cook on how architects draw for each other.

The answer to the question, BTW, was that drafting is dead, but sketching will be around as long as we have bodies. Seems simple enough, right?

Russia Theory

Figure/Ground

January, 1905. St. Petersburg.

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: An Unintentional Project

So, it’s been a while, right? Well sometimes you get stuck and you just have to back away from the block. If you’ve fortgotten the previous installments, they’re here, and here. One more will follow in about a week. Alright.

back-from-condo

But from the enormous source material of the existing buildings, the Alexander Company took what opportunities it had and exploited them into a quiet celebration of the specific context. The original buildings, despite their conversion to a warren of private apartments and condominiums, have kept of their idiosyncrasies. In spite of sparkling new halogen lights and granite countertops, the apartments retain the unique elements that make the buildings meaningful to residents. read more »

Architecture Theory Writing

Reburbia and the future of suburbs

Frogs Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands
Frog's Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands

Beginning with this post, I’ll be writing on some local and urbanism-related issues at Greater Greater Washington from time to time.

In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”

Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.

Edible Parking? Bumper Crop
Edible Parking? "Bumper Crop"

Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient.  Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development. read more »

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: One Thing Leads to Another

Part two of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.

fglinden

Against rich complexity of the old Seminary, the houses designed by EYA are then a real letdown. They carry the superficial veneer of “context” that is endemic to New Urbanist planning and its most visible error. To be clear, they are not abominations, but they are dull and only stylistically similar to the outré conglomeration across the street. The application of traditional elements here fulfills a requirement that new buildings  respect the architecture of the historic landmark. Okay, sure, sounds good, but the legislation is fairly scant in the details of execution. The easy option, a cynical abdication of artistic responsibility, is to copy the notions of form in hazy facsimile and slap it on off-the-shelf buildings. Even where the designs are competent, the lack of sensitivity results in tepid mediocrity. read more »

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: Into the Woods

Part one of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.

Classicism at its horniest

Hidden among a leafy scattering of houses and trees, Forest Glen Seminary is a jumble of vernacular buildings unlike any of the temples of boxes that define Washington. Its buildings, both magnificent and ludicrous amount to a dignified campiness that defies expectations to be one of the most profoundly interesting places encircled by the Beltway. Once constituting a women’s college when that meant a two-year Mrs. degree, the buildings are once again becoming domestic space, the more private areas cut into condos and the core of the complex, rental units. Scattered around the area, turn-of-the-century houses are being renovated and new housing by the urbanist developer EYA has just been finished. Through the site’s history, radical changes have shaped its form, but none so radical as the current shift in context. read more »

planning Reno Park Project Theory Writing

Streets through time and place

murdocksignI noticed yesterday that DC has re-signed Murdock Mill Road, down off River Road in Tenleytown. It’s a nice little reminder of history  – and of natural geography – among the rationalist streets of the city plan laid down in 1897. While those straight, predictable lines make navigating the city easy, they did erase the context and history of what was Washington County. By its perseverance, this little snippet of prior use reminds residents of the pre-urban past, adding quiet character to the neighborhood.

The road itself is no larger than an alley – its form preexists both the automobile age and the dreams of a residential garden city, so there are neither sidewalks nor setbacks. It is discontinuous, with one part behind the old Sears Building and the other appearing a few blocks to the west before becoming Butterworth Street. It’s also completely secondary: Where the narrow eastern section intersects with 42nd Street, the heavy grading on the latter route  necessitates a concrete retaining wall and a stairway down from Murdock Mill Road, ten feet above. It is very dislocated; left inexplicably during the changes of urbanization, along with the Methodist Cemetery, its only active address.

The road once headed down in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue, following a creek of the same name. Before the imposition of the 1897 Permanent Highway Plan, Murdock Mill Creek began at the west of Tenleytown, and cut through a subdivision of small farms registered as part of Friendship, and finally into what is now the Dalecarlia reservoir. Now, the stream is undergrounded, emerging only from underneath 52nd Place in northern Spring Valley. Other streams have been buried; still more roads have disappeared when developers carved up the farms they existed to serve. Murdock Mill Road is only one of these many streets, some of which are still used.

1871-overlays

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