Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

The factory farm: conspicuous invisibility

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 31, 2011 at 7:09 am

Perhaps the most terrifying construction of our built environment is the factory farm. No other complex is so conspicuous and simultaneously so shrouded. So brutal and so unknown. Our economic system feeds it. Our government funds it. Our senators protect it.

Writer and teacher James Reeves on the most recent case:

“In Florida, a series of videos and photos recently captured the horrible things that corporate farms do to the animals we eat. Most of us are vaguely aware of the claustrophobia and brutality, the genetically deformed creatures tipped over in tiny cages; these videos simply illustrate the filth and slaughter of mechanized farming in detail. Senator Jim Norman responded to these upsetting images with a logical proposal: Ban photography on farms. Senate Bill 1246 would prohibit “entering onto a farm and making any audio record, photograph, or video record at the farm without the owner’s written consent.”

For a written portrait of the system—and a very thoughtful discussion of our doubts and questions—read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.


In Excerpts on March 31, 2011 at 7:08 am

This week’s biomimicry: a chair whose design is modeled on the cellular formation of human bone.

A TBE SHORT: Album Cartography

In Thoughts on March 28, 2011 at 7:16 am

Danish pedal-steel player Maggie Bjorklund’s latest album, Coming Home.

No surprise that a Q&A with the songwriter shows up in my Reader about an hour after this post.

Shrinking ourselves—and our animals—for space travel

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Some animals would be terrifying if they were any bigger than they are. A 7-foot praying mantis, for instance. Or a 2-ton frog. But making big animals small immediately renders them adorable. I fell in love a long time ago with the idea of a cow the size of a Scottish terrier. Or a triceratops the size of a rabbit.

Now, in the surprisingly silly world of serious science, a few researchers are exploring the idea of shrinking both humans and our livestock, not to make them cuter but for more practical applications. Donald Platt, of the Florida Institute for Technology:

If we can make livestock smaller we can take some with us and then have them available at our new home, perhaps on Mars. It may even be possible to modify ourselves and make humanity smaller. This would be very beneficial for space travel where mass and volume are limited, and a surface base on another planet where gravity is less and resources are scarce.

GOOD’s Food Hub explores this idea’s implication on food, and mentions a project by Arne Hendriks called The Incredible Shrinking Man. Part of it is a restaurant concept called The Disproportionate Restaurant.

We have already established that you would only need one coffee bean for an espresso and one chicken could feed up to a hundred people. To better understand what that means we’re planning to roast an entire ostrich carcass as if it were a chicken.

Our built environment would obviously be affected. At 50 cm (19.7 inches), existing structures would all seem like skyscrapers; distances would stretch out—walking a couple of miles would suddenly be quite formidable. The meaning of “human-scale” would change. Eventually, though we’d be limited in strength and speed, our new size would open up new ways to organize cities, perhaps building urban passageways around and through the now abandoned (or maybe retrofitted) structures. Perhaps a 30-story building would become a 90-story building, as each floor was divided into three.

If not all animals shrunk with us, and I don’t see how they could be, the natural environment would pose problems too. Coyotes, hawks, rats, stray dogs. We’d still be bigger than a praying mantis, but some of these others would become slightly harder to deal with.

As we’ll shrink, our environment and everything in it will appear a lot larger. The fear of large animals and objects is called megalophobia. Shrinking mankind could involve a growth in the number of megalophobiacs, especially in relation to other creatures.

Then there’s the issue of the brain.

And the brain would have to function at slightly under 30 grams (and not with the 1400 grams we have at present). That’s about the size of a cat brain. No need to stress the fact that we’ll need to find a solution for that one.

It’s probably important to note that while this is enjoyable to explore, I don’t support any efforts to actually genetically modify human beings; history teaches us that our idealistic, technological fixes usually backfire significantly. It is interesting to note, however, that the built environment has been retrofitted for little people before—in Ypsilanti, Michigan. During World War II.


Last image by Robert Therrien.

A TBE SHORT: Designing for ducks & pigeon amputees

In Thoughts on March 22, 2011 at 10:31 am

At lunch my friend Sean was lamenting what we’ve done to pigeons, as we watched them bob around, missing toes, slurping water from the cement. He said they were despicable. Most people agree. They are a reviled urban creature. But they are also fascinating. And yesterday I ran across a whole blog devoted to them. It even mentions the recent Radiolab episode that attempts to uncover just how they have such infallible senses of direction.

Also from the avian world, a designer recently tried to hang out with a duck—he tried a number of things; he even cooked it dinner—all with the purpose of finding ways to design that bridge the gap between species. How can we create urban environments that serve our purposes as well as those of all the creatures around us?

Essentially, how do we not destroy an animal like the pigeon but actually design for it?

History maps, happiness maps, DIY oil spill maps

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

I’ve recently stumbled onto some maps of an abnormal nature…

History Map

An apartment-finder website created a Map of Chicago History, a geographic map that instead of pinpointing restaurants and music venues marks homes of famous mobsters, sites of important but long-gone structures, and events of historical significance.

Just blocks from our apartment is the home of Jens Jensen. And a half mile east, Nelson Algren’s residence.

Happiness  Map

Self-reporting isn’t the best type of data, but The New York Times’s attempt last week to “map the nation’s well-being” is an interesting interactive thing. Discover the cartographic patterns of depression, health-insurance coverage, and satisfaction with our communities.

World Typographic Map

Typographic maps aren’t new, but this one by Chicagoan Nancy McCabe (designahoy) is simply arresting.

US Bike Route System

A group is embarking on a historic effort to create an interconnected system of bicycle corridors throughout the country. The map it’s created shows realized routes in solid lines and future routes in faint, highlighted ones.

DIY Oil Spill Maps

GOOD reports on Grassroots Mapping, a team that for about a hundred bucks can reproduce the aerial photos that normally require satellites or at least private flyovers.

“During the media blackout, when FAA regulations prevented aircraft from flying lower than 4,000 feet above sensitive areas of the [Gulf oil] spill, Warren and the Grassroots Mapping team flew balloons and kites and captured incredibly vivid images of the oil spill’s impacts. Using simple online cartographic tools, the photos can be stitched together into bigger maps, like this one of the Lake Borgne wetlands east of New Orleans captured on June 11th of last year.” [Photo: GonzoEarth.]


Opening image.

It’s all about tone

In Excerpts on March 18, 2011 at 7:00 am

Why do I want to work for somebody like Andrew Maynard?

It’s all about tone.

Here’s a newsletter I got from his architecture firm a couple months ago.

It has been almost 3 years since our last newsletter. Time flies. Yes, we have been neglecting you, but what better excuse to bring you up to date than a change of address and new contact details …..

Andrew Maynard Architects has moved. We bought a building on Brunswick Street, or more accurately the bank bought us a building and are allowing us to doss there as long as we behave. Make sure you note our new contact details. We don’t want to lose you in the move. You can download AMA’s vCard here.

This was the best part:

I am loving twitter. Its far more fun and useful that I thought it would be. If you are keen to keep track of AMA’s shenanigans then jump online and follow Andrew Maynard Architects here.

And this, which I’ve posted about before—and which I got into gb&d.

Following the terrible floods in Pakistan we proposed an emergency housing solution for flood effected called the Airdrop house. Check it out here.

I hope you have enjoyed our newsletter. We enjoy sharing our world with you. We are always looking for interesting new projects. Feel free to make contact, and please spread the word, why not spread the love and forward this newsletter onto your friends?

Peace out.

Finally: the image up top is from Andrew Maynard’s Protest Structures, a design solution to the deforestation of the Styx Forest in Tasmania.

On the fence, under the El

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 16, 2011 at 9:38 am

Blair Kamin on a proposal for Lakeview, the Chicago neighborhood, revealed last Tuesday:

“You’ve undoubtedly heard of the High Line, the much-praised Manhattan public space built atop a dormant elevated line. Well, Chicago is thinking about a low line, a pedestrian path that would be built beneath the CTA’s Brown Line elevated tracks between Southport and Paulina Avenues. It would have native landscaping and would aim to connect the Southport and Lincoln Avenue business districts.”

At first, I thought it was interesting that anyone would think that a ground-level pathway, no matter how well designed, could be as attractive as walking through Manhattan’s West Side 30 feet off the ground—the former is something Chicagoans experience on a semi-regular basis; the latter is a totally new pedestrian experience. Plus, the Brown Line isn’t an abandoned track; the roar of the train will frighten away people looking to escape the abrasive, everyday sights and sounds of the city.

But I do enjoy the tunnel-like shape created by the tracks, a highly iconic element of Chicago’s built environment. And reading more about the project on a WBEZ blog, I like the ideas of dedicated bike lines and permanent space for farmers markets, as well as the long-term plan to encourage businesses to locate closer to public transportation.

And then I stumbled upon the blog of one of the architecture firms actually doing the design work. It turns out they weren’t imagining some bucolic leisure park. They simply saw an opportunity to connect two areas of the city in a fresh and innovative way:

“While out on a photo shoot in November we had to get from the Southport Brown line station to the Paulina station on foot.  Instead of walking down to the next street we walked under the El tracks, and only after that did it occur to us that this is space we [could] use.”

Continuing, they highlight the fact that despite its placement beneath the El tracks, the walkway would be a pleasant alternative to they typical grid of sidewalk routes—a shortcut of sorts offering new vantage points.

“The proposed path would connect the once dissociated shopping streets of Lincoln and Southport Avenues, while increasing available open space to residents…and above all, [be] a space for the local community to interact away from traffic.”

Whether people would truly “interact” here, I have my doubts. But in reality, the use of public space is an end in itself, as it represents a public interacting with its city, which is the beginning of people interacting with other people. My friend Phil can talk about such interactions all day.

I do have to say, after reading about people textures, I can’t look at architectural renderings the same way. Note the butterfly and the bright colors and the basic lack of grit or grime. It’s understandable; renderings are essentially advertisements. But it’s still fantastical enough to be disconcerting in an odd way.

Time will tell the future of the potential path through Lakeview. If you live in the area or are interested in this, you can go here to subscribe to updates or lend your voice to the discussion. Also feel free to lend your thoughts here.

Manaugh’s booklist: one half of a literarchitectural conversation

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

More books.

This time, they come from Geoff Manaugh’s cache, which is worth browsing just for the opening image, a rendering of a proposal for the Stockholm Public Library. In true BLDGBLOG fashion, his interests are incredibly broad.

“In all cases, these are books about architecture, landscape, and the built environment, albeit in an extended sense, encompassing paleontology, marine biophysics, space archaeology, geopolitics, infrastructural anthropology, museology, how-to guides for architectural design, and more.”

The list seems to go on and on—he’s included more than 30 books in this one post, with a substantial description for each. Concerning those shown above, he writes:

“Three books about walls: architecture and urbanism used to separate and to neutralize the lives of a city’s human residents…”

And, paraphrasing the author of second,

“The ongoing construction boom in border walls and other peripheral fortifications is actually a panicked response to the loss of power on behalf of the nation-state, not architectural proof that the nation-state has experienced a sovereign renaissance.”

But maybe he’s missed something here. Or rather maybe I can be Manaugh back to himself: what about the architecture of the book itself? What about the mysterious, elemental attraction we have to the book as an object? What might be hidden within this layered construction, not in its words, but in the physical folds of its pages?

Brian Dettmer has one idea.

The richness and depth of the book is universally respected yet often undiscovered as the monopoly of the form and relevance of the information fades over time. The book’s intended function has decreased and the form remains linear in a non-linear world. By altering physical forms of information and shifting preconceived functions, new and unexpected roles emerge.

Here’s what he means:

The artist describes his process as a “meticulous excavation”:

In this work I begin with an existing book and seal its edges, creating an enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential. I cut into the surface of the book and dissect through it from the front. I work with knives, tweezers and surgical tools to carve one page at a time, exposing each layer while cutting around ideas and images of interest. Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed.

A book as a granite block, with a form inside, waiting to be uncovered—an odd thing to write since just this morning, I read the following:

“It looks like the words have always been here, waiting to get uncovered,” she said. “They look revealed. Like old marble sculptures—like the art was hidden inside the stone and all the sculptor did was chisel away the stuff covering it.”

Which is to say I uncovered the art hidden inside the black block of text the publisher printed on the page. We need not cut a book to find that it is rich with undiscovered truths. But that doesn’t mean it is not still a meticulous excavation.

Genuine vs. superficial

In Excerpts on March 14, 2011 at 11:27 am

I’m apparently craving a new book, despite the fact that I’m waist-deep in The Instructions. I already wrote about new books on read::zebra, but here I go again. [Note my increasing brevity.]

Book One: Fast-Forward Urbanism, by Dana Cuff & Roger Sherman

From Princeton Architectural Press:

For them, the future of the American city lies not in modernism’s large-scale master plans or new urbanism’s nostalgic community planning. Instead, they favor working with the realities of urban space, finding hidden opportunities in what already exists in our cities.

Book Two: Reveal, by Jeanne Gang

A compendium of recent work from Studio Gang Architects. My interest in this one is purely superficial. As my friend wrote to me about five seconds ago, “Don’t judge a book by its contents.”