I’m famous!

Well, no, not really. I just managed to bamboozle my way into a Chicago-themed group exhibition at the Bridgeport Art Center with a couple of low-grade watercolor paintings I had sitting in a pile and gathering dust.

Yours truly with self-made magnificent artwork (photo by Margarita Cygielska)

Do not worry about the spoiler above – there is a lot of other art to see there until Sept. 1. It’s well worth the visit, especially every third Friday of the month, when you can also check out some of the artists’ studios in the center’s vast innards.

The problem with free

I came across an interesting essay recently that sheds a bit of light on why free/open source software hasn’t been more widely adopted in production environments. I’ve been using Inkscape, Blender and Gimp for much of my design work this semester, and I have to say Frederic Brooks nails it in his software development magnum opus, The Mythical Man-Month.

He starts off by analyzing garage-workshop software that often does things much better than suites on which hundreds of programmers sweat for years, and gives a good explanation for how that’s possible. Essentially, a program may be brilliant (and all three of the packages mentioned above do some things extremely well), but to be successful on the market it has to also be a system (in other words it has to to be able to work with other programs), and has to be a product, meaning it has to be reasonably usable by a wide range of people, not just savvy programmers. He says most of the time spent on a software package is not developing its meat-and-bones features, but actually taking them from the concept stage to being a system product. And that’s where many open source software packages fall short – they are often developed by and for programmers, who have little actual knowledge of what a professional user expects. In that respect Blender certainly is a notable exception in every regard – it is a system product of the highest caliber, but it has also been developed to a large extent by filmmakers, who are its target audience. Gimp is also a solid performer, and does the things you expect it to do very well. In general has very few shortcomings in comparison with Photoshop, the package it’s most often compared to.

Inkscape, however, is a different story altogether. It has some truly outstanding features (the tiled clone feature for one is amazing and very useful, see this post for a sample of what it can do), but it often breaks down at the day-to-day usability level. Printing and exporting in vector format is a chore for all but the simplest graphics. The program is constantly being developed, but the developers (as with most FOSS projects mostly volunteers) seem uninterested in making it a tool that professional users could apply in real production environments. Sure, you can do pretty much everything with it that you can with Illustrator and it doesn’t cost a dime, but what good is that when basic features like exporting and printing are an obstacle course? One that is possible to navigate, to be sure, but an obstacle course all the same.

That falls in neatly with Brooks’ argument – if you want Inkscape to output bitmap images (i.e. the format preferred by internet-minded types), Inkscape can’t be beat. But you better not want your final output to be vector-based, or you’re going to run into problems. Sure, on discussion boards someone will helpfully suggest that in the end all output is bitmap, since printers make dots not lines. But that misses the point that having the extra stage to go through does nothing to make your workflow smoother, and workflow is what professional software is all about. Just ask Adobe.

Inkscape is not alone in this, unfortunately. While there are more and more Blenders in the free/open source/libre software universe, it has some ways to go before it can truly stand on its own against commercial software. Having said that, I’m still wholeheartedly on its side, having put my money where my mouth is on more than one occasion. I simply think it’s worth having them around, if only as real competition to the mainstays of the industry.

WTC designer on the role of architecture

Found an interesting quote by Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the original WTC Towers in New York. Ironically, he argues against applying a monumental approach to all architecture – kind of a Bigness in reverse:

“There are a few very influential architects who sincerely believe that all buildings must be ‘strong’. The word ‘strong’ in this context seems to connote ‘powerful’— that is, each building should be a monument to the virility of our society. These architects look with derision upon attempts to build a friendly, more gentle kind of building. The basis for their belief is that our culture is derived primarily from Europe, and that most of the important traditional examples of European architecture are monumental, reflecting the need of the state, church , or the feudal families — the primary patrons of these buildings — to awe and impress the masses. This is incongruous today. Although it is inevitable for architects who admire these great monumental buildings of Europe to strive for the quality most evident in them — grandeur, the elements of mysticism and power, basic to cathedrals and palaces, are also incongruous today, because the buildings we build for our times are for a totally different purpose.

Minoru Yamasaki, from Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America by Paul Heyer

After reading this (only an online snippet, so no further context), I have more questions than answers: What’s the “totally different purpose” he saw for today’s buildings? How did he justify the monumentality of the WTC if he believed in what he said? Since apparently he was an admirer of Islamic architecture, did he think it was somehow less “strong” than the European model? I’ve ordered the book, so I’m hoping to be able to answer some of these soon.

Oil, oil, everywhere, and not a drop to drink

The BP oil disaster continues, with heartbreaking results. I lived in southern Mississippi for about a year, so this is more personal to me than to most northern boys. I just found a widget from PBS that tells you more or less how much oil has gone into the Gulf of Mexico – but it doesn’t show you the brown pelicans, sea turtles and dolphins that it has killed, not to mention the people whose livelihoods it has ruined.

I don’t even have the heart to make snide remarks about BP here – they’re a bunch of callous murderers and money-grubbing destroyers of life. Period.

Categorized as Personal

Semester wrap-up pt. 3

This is the third part of a post that starts here, and continues here.

In my “standard” tech class, we continued to develop the design of our studio projects from the fall semester. I have to say this was one of the more eye-opening experiences I’ve had at the SoA, which is lucky to still have people like Dan Wheeler around. It really changed my outlook not only on my project, which until now I saw as an exercise in complete fantasy, but also on the possibility of reaching beyond what is “buildable”. It definitely helped to have someone as experienced and incredibly motivated as Dan guiding us with these, but it also showed me that things aren’t necessarily as impossible as they seem at first.

Here’s the final project from the class:

Finally, but not by any means last, was my theory class with Annie Pedret. In her research Annie focuses on early Postmodernism, and so in general did our class. However, our own research subjects were only very loosely related to the class subject. I wrote a paper on the influence of the Modern Movement on post-WWII Polish architecture. This was a kind of a personal exploration, since my earliest personal reactions to architecture involved Polish buildings, most of which are not and probably will never be noted in an international context. I still remember rows of rhomboid-roofed pavilions on then-Marchlewskiego in Warsaw as one of the first buildings I really noticed, when I was probably no older than six or seven. I’m not sure if anybody else remembers them, but I clearly recall being fascinated by that roofline.

Another is the “new” church in Bukowina Tatrzańska by Wojciech Pietrzyk, built to resemble a shepherd’s shelter, but in a completely Modern idiom, its spacious light-filled interior still resonating with me more than thirty years after I first saw it. Seeing a picture of the interior in a 360-degree panorama today, I’m only surprised at the amount of folky detail, which completely escaped my attention back then – or maybe I should say that it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it at the time. Still it’s a gem.

The research is one of the first I’ve done that I’d love to continue. Maybe because of the personal aspect, but at least partly because the lack of source material in the US made it difficult to do an even halfway-decent job. I was incredibly surprised by the help I got from the Polish Academy of Sciences, but even the journal they sent me of their own volition (apparently the ladies who work there chipped in to buy a copy) only offered glimpses of what I was really interested in. So now I’m thinking that if I can’t find a decent job after graduation – and things aren’t looking too happy in the construction industry anywhere really – I just might go for a doctorate in Polish or Central European architecture. How would that be for a twist of fate?

Semester wrap-up pt. 2

This post starts here.

One of the more unusual classes was a tech elective with Doug Garafolo, in which we were supposed to design and build a prototype of a freely selected object that somehow related to architecture. I came up with a modular shelving unit that can in theory be expanded indefinitely – using only one panel and one connector type. Here’s the basic idea, though I admit originally I was going to go with some type of white plastic for the panels:

And a couple of views of the prototype:

I see something like this used both as a standard shelf and a room divider-slash-storage space:

Comments, good or bad, definitely welcome.

This post continues here.

Belated semester wrap-up

This post comes to you in three more-or-less easily digestible bits, or as one of my professors would put it, easy pieces (choke, sputter). Part two is here, and three here.

I had a lot to say at the end of the semester, but unfortunately I had too much to do to sit down and write it all down. Now it’s a bit late to work up the same level of sanctimonious fury over some of the less major bits. But for those who are interested, here’s a more-or-less factual run-down of my semester’s doings:

My housing studio this semester was an apartment (or more accurately a co-op) building on Division and Paulina (i.e. here). The main idea was to create a space for a community of creative types could live and work. To do this I put a series of studio spaces connected by a common terrace area at the top of the building, with each studio connected by a private staircase to one of the apartments below:

In keeping with the egalitarian concept of the building, all of the apartments have access to street frontage, each with a loggia protected from street noise and the southerly sun by wooden louvers. To get light into the long and narrow apartments, I put in light wells that also serve as individual (though not entirely “private”) terraces for the apartments. Access is from the front of the building through five staircases, each serving four apartments.

Here’s a rendering of the Division facade:

This is the layout of a single third-story apartment, with the studio space on top:

And here’s how the whole thing comes together:

All in all, this was a fantastic semester and a very interesting studio, even if I’m not entirely satisfied with the work I did.

This scandalously self-indulgent post continues here. Part 3, if you are so resilient, is here.

Leftist leanings

Thursday’s shoot-out/debate between Jeff Kipnis and our own Bob Somol brought an interesting follow-up to my rant about the superficiality of the vision of architecture advanced at UIC. Both of the supposed duelists stood on the side of architecture’s political engagement through form, rather than the “leftist” and “functional” attitude of trying to change people’s lives through the built environment. Since both they and I see a political role for architecture, I had to think why I find their attitude dissatisfying and superficial.

The easiest way to explain this is to compare these to the way various political organizations engage in politics. I think that the Kipnis/Somol is most like that of a Washington lobbyist – lots of hot air, wheeling and dealing, pressuring politicians with public relations and publicity stunts, but with the sole aim of advancing the power base of a small group of interested parties (here their brand of architect and architectural critic) to allow them to engage in more hot-air blowing and political lobbying, since that’s the only thing they’re interested in. What I envision is more of an architectural Greenpeace (though not as an institution, but an approach) – where the public fireworks are aimed at a specific social/environmental agenda and aren’t simply an end in themselves.

Despite the Kipnis/Somol rhetoric, the underlying seriousness of this attitude doesn’t mean that it has to end up with the stuffy guidelines of a New Urbanism. The idea is for the work to think more about how it affects people’s experiences, both aesthetically and functionally, instead of leaning lopsidedly only towards the visual. In the end it’s about recognizing the fact that architecture is an an art that should not be compared to sculpture, as it often is, but rather to other applied arts that have to take practical considerations into account to maintain their very identity. You can’t seriously call yourself an architect if you design only the formal fireworks of mega-scale sculptures.