Monday, August 18, 2014


Author's note: I'm currently in China for the summer. The following is a piece I wrote in August 2010 after visiting the Shanghai Exposition. It will serve as background to another visit I've just made there, and which I'll write about in the coming weeks. Again, many thanks are in order to Charles Hugh Smith for posting these pieces from the U.S.; you may recall that those two colossi, the Chinese government and Google, do not get along, which prevents me from posting in China myself.

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I couldn’t be in China during the summer of 2010 and not have every single person I met ask me, “Have you been to the Shanghai Expo?” The short answer is yes. The long answer follows.

Shanghai World Exposition 2010 is a huge and hugely promoted event surpassing every previous World’s Fair in size, with over 190 nations represented. A reported 53 million people, most of them Chinese nationals, have already attended. Judging by the endless queues, it seemed like most of them were still there the day I visited.

Alas, like many things Chinese, this Expo seems a bit hastily assembled--it’s a jumble of pavilions with no central theme or even a clear physical focal point. The site, though enclosed, is carved up by a number of standard Chinese megaboulevards, complete with traffic signals. To my astonishment, these roads actually carried appreciable bus and shuttle traffic right through the heart of the fair, depriving visitors of even this rare potential respite from Shanghai’s pedestrian-hostile streets. 

Between the resulting patchwork of pavilions are acres of sweltering blacktop that make Shanghai’s biting sun even fiercer. Rows of beleaguered saplings and occasional dabs of potted plants are the sole greenery--which makes you wonder whether the Expo’s motto, “Better City, Better Life,” isn’t  so much a nod toward green thinking as a paean to Shanghai’s acquisitive deluge of laptops, cars, and flat screen TVs. 

The design of the various national pavilions is indisputably expo-like. As architecture critic Charles Jencks noted many years ago, architects are remarkably inept at judging how non-architects will perceive their work. Hence, the architects of the Japanese pavilion surely didn’t intend visitors to equate their design with a deflated bagpipe or an inverted udder, or Spain’s with a mountain of discarded straw mattresses. 

In keeping with Expos past, the pavilion interiors, too, contained assorted oddities--a giant shoe for Italy, a huge robotic baby for Spain, and so on--though most just resembled overgrown trade show booths. 
There were also nations who hoped to make a serious statement but ended up looking silly: Great Britain’s dandelion seed-pod pavilion, for example, tried to put on organic airs by sprouting thousands upon thousands of swaying, fiber-like tubes--each, it turns out, made of petroleum-based PVC plastic.

For that matter, though, the whole business of exposition building--expending vast amounts of energy and material and, six months later, carting it all off to the rubbish heap--is in itself fundamentally un-green.
Maybe it was just my longing for a sea breeze amid the Expo’s desert of asphalt, but to my eyes, the greenest spot of all was the sparsely-attended pavilion representing Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and a host of other tiny Pacific Island nations. It was housed in a huge, low budget box of a building whose exterior consisted of alternating light and dark blue prefab panels, with a few tropical fish stenciled on one corner. 

Inside, however, was an oasis-like respite from all the posturing, marketing hype and superficial greenification: There were lovely crafts, from shoes to canoes, made by human hands from honest-to-God natural materials. Nothing in sight, other than the water bottles carried by fairgoers, had been born in a blow-molding machine. There were no ranks of giant-screen displays, no endlessly looped talking heads jabbering away, and no one trying to prove how green they were after having decimated their corner of the planet. There was no call for it.  ###

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Note: I'm currently in China for the summer, and due to the Google/Chinese government feud, I'm not able to post from here. Many thanks to Charles Hugh Smith for posting from the United States on my behalf.
It’s hard to believe now, but the phrase “Made In Japan” was once synonymous with laughably poor quality. After the devastation of World War II,  Japan’s industrial exports of the 1950s were indeed clumsily designed and poorly built. Yet within the span of a decade, a remarkable thing happened. A few Japanese products--first transistor radios, then cameras, then televisions--began to equal and finally surpass the quality of their American-made counterparts. During the 1970s, Japan’s auto industry followed suit. In a stunning turnaround, “Made In Japan” became an assurance of exceptional quality.
Not so the phrase “Made In China”. When the People’s Republic opened up to the world in 1978, China’s industrial products were pitiable, much as postwar Japan’s had been. The parallel ends there, however. Despite roaring economic gains and the passage of thirty-odd years, China’s product quality in general remains abysmal.
This state of affairs matters to the U.S., since so many Chinese-made building products are sold here. And with China vying for superpower status in the coming years, its culture of quality, such as it is, will eventually have worldwide implications.
When I  built my own home outside Shanghai, I was anxious to give China’s products a fair trial, and I pointedly chose the best  domestic brands available. For example, I installed handsome, flawlessly finished Chinese lever handle lock sets on all of the interior doors. Within six months of very light use, every single one of them had broken. Likewise, an outwardly attractive Chinese-made toilet failed to flush properly no matter how carefully it was adjusted. Top-of-the-line cabinet hardware, beautifully finished when new, quickly corroded or fell apart. After a string of such fiascos, I decided that China’s products were not yet ready for prime time, and reverted to buying imported American wares.
China’s disinterest in quality is troubling in a society that aspires to be the next major player of the 21st century, if not a reigning superpower. The problem, I think, lies in China’s headlong rush to catch up with the West. Its industries are often less concerned with nurturing reputations than simply elbowing their way to the front of the pack, using any expedient necessary.
Most Chinese manufacturers are content to simulate good quality by superficially copying reputable overseas brands (sometimes right down to approximating their names). Others ballyhoo adherence to international quality standards, but mainly, it seems, for marketing purposes. The results of such lassitude are only now coming home to Americans.
In Florida, Chinese-made drywall used in thousands of new homes has been held responsible for toxic hydrogen sulfide outgassing that caused health problems and corroded ducts, pipes, and wiring. Test results found hydrogen sulfide emissions at levels of up to 100 times that of non-Chinese drywall. A court ruling requiring the affected homes to be gutted and rebuilt will cost developers dearly.

Since recovering such damages from notoriously flighty Chinese firms is typically a fool’s errand, at some point wholesale buyers of Chinese products--at any price--will think twice before taking on this magnitude of risk. Eventually, even discount-happy American consumers may begin to have second thoughts about their Chinese-made “bargain” purchases. And while China’s indifference to quality may be our problem for now, it will be China’s problem in the long run.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

RUNNING ON EMPTY (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

(With appreciation to Charles Hugh Smith for posting from the U.S. on my behalf; I'm in China and can't post due to the PRC's  blocking of Google. Nor can I tweet from here; Twitter is blocked too. This is the downside to a nation where the trains run on time).
Last time, we looked at the coming revolution in automotive technology--the switch from internal-combustion power to hybrid power and, eventually, to straight electric vehicles. This time, we’ll take a closer look at both the pros and cons of electrics, which hold such huge promise for a cleaner, quieter, and more eco-friendly environment.
In order to appreciate how profound this change will be, though, a bit of nuts-and-bolts background is in order. One basic way of seeing how well a machine works is by looking at its thermal efficiency, which is simply the percentage of input energy that’s turned into useful work. The early steam locomotives of the 1840s--the first motive power that didn’t depend on wind, water, or muscle--were about 3 percent efficient. Over the next hundred years, technical improvements managed to nudge that figure up to about 7 percent--a big relative improvement, but none too good in absolute terms. Since a large steam locomotive of the 1940s typically burned about 65,000 pounds of coal per hour, about 60,000 pounds of that coal was effectively wasted.
In the postwar era, diesel-electric locomotives with thermal efficiencies of around 21 percent arrived on the scene, wiping the wasteful steam engine off the map for good. By comparison, most modern internal-combustion cars are around 26 percent efficient, although their friction-laden mechanical drive lines drag this already modest figure down to about 18-20 percent. In other words, sixteen gallons of your twenty-gallon gas tank goes toward generating heat and nothing else.
The electric car constitutes a quantum leap over this dismal performance. Electric motors are typically around 78 to 90 percent efficient to begin with, and the absence of a mechanical drive line means most of this power actually gets to the wheels instead of being burned up in friction. What’s more, electric cars can use regenerative braking systems that use braking energy to charge their batteries instead of burning it up in heat as today’s cars do. The electric drive system is also far simpler and, eventually at least, will be much cheaper to build than today’s enormously complex internal-combustion cars.
But the news isn’t all good. While electric vehicles themselves don’t produce emissions, as things currently stand, the electricity they use is far from emissions-free. In the U.S., about two-thirds of our electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels, which leaves a very nasty carbon footprint indeed.  The thermal efficiency of a typical coal-burning generating plant is itself less than 50 percent, and what’s more, transmitting this electricity to the user induces another loss of efficiency, typically around 7 percent. Under these circumstances, plugging in a purportedly “zero-emissions” electric car simply transfers environmental degradation from the vehicle to the generating plant--in effect, these new electric cars are actually burning coal.

The solution is to develop an infrastructure that can recharge vehicles using clean sources of electricity that are locally generated, whether by wind, water, or photovoltaic panels. This is the only way an electric car can truly meet its potential as a “zero emission vehicle”. The challenges are great, but, if history is any indication, our ingenuity is greater. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014


The story of America’s built environment over the past century is one that revolves largely around the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes, and our foreign policy. We devote forty percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots (in some cities the number is as high as sixty percent). Our traffic laws theoretically grant pedestrians the right of way--a pretty laughable concept, since it’s obvious that traffic engineers consider cars the real priority. And of course our insatiable national thirst for petroleum, which shapes so much of our foreign policy, is in large part due to our beloved automobiles.
Thankfully, if current developments are any indication, we’re finally reaching the beginning of the end of our auto-obsessed age. That’s not to say that cars are going away soon, if ever, nor even that they’ll look very different. But internally, they’re going to be as different from today’s noisy, fume spewing machines as a digital watch is from Big Ben.
Hybrid cars, which use a small, relatively efficient internal-combustion engine to generate electricity onboard, are already making major inroads against traditional gasoline engine-powered cars. Yet any vehicle that uses an internal-combustion engine--even just part of the time, as  hybrids do--will always be inefficient.  That’s why the hybrid is just a stepping stone to straight electric cars that will run on battery power alone.
Once cars go 100 percent electric, the real paradigm shift will begin. An electric-powered vehicle will be smaller on the outside, because it won’t need a bulky gasoline engine, not to mention a radiator, mechanical transmission, exhaust system, fuel tank, or differential. Once battery technology comes up to speed--and rest assured, it will--the absence of all this clunky hardware will mean that cars will be much lighter as well. These new vehicles will be the ultimate in simplicity, because power won’t be transmitted through a friction-laden drive train of pistons, cranks, and gears, but rather by electrons flowing through a piece of wire.
All this is good news for planet Earth. But if you were expecting the old guard of the American auto industry to lead this revolution, you can forget it. Just as the personal computer revolution was begun, not by corporate behemoths like IBM or Control Data, but rather by a couple of kids named Jobs and Wozniak, the automobile revolution will likewise come from some unruly fresh thinkers who are probably still shooting spitballs in a high school somewhere. Unlike the hundred-ten-year-old auto industry, they aren’t weighed down by the inertia of a huge historic investment in internal combustion technology or a lineage inextricably linked with fossil fuels.
This historic inertia is the reason once-invincible automakers like General Motors have been so humbled in the last twenty years--and deservedly so, it must be said. It was their longtime arrogance, greed, and steadfast opposition to the need for greener transportation that brought them this comeuppance.

Okay. So electric cars are inevitable. Not all the news is good, though--next time: a closer look at electrics, and why they’re “zero emissions vehicles” in name only.  

Monday, June 23, 2014


Last time, we looked at architects who--not atypically--produced some of their best work toward the end of their long careers. In architecture, at least, it seems that old age doesn’t necessarily imply an inability to grow and change. This time, we’ll look at a few architects who changed their design philosophies late in life, and found even greater success.

Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) was one of the most celebrated architects of modernism’s second generation. In his mid fifties, however, Stone became disillusioned with the movement, declaring, “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity.  It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Curiously, this period of uncertainty in Stone’s life--coming at an age when most people are mulling retirement--instead marked an upturn in his career. He was awarded a number of important commissions, landing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1958. His firm grew from twenty people to two hundred, and he remained at the height of commercial success when he died at 76.

The career of Philip Johnson (1906-2005) also peaked between his sixties and his eighties, when he was busily designing large numbers of more or less generic modernist skyscrapers. But even these late-life works were a mere prelude. Johnson, like Stone, eventually abandoned modernism and produced a number of postmodern works such as Manhattan’s infamous “Chippendale” AT&T building of 1984--proving that you could indeed teach an old architect new tricks. His longevity, more than anything else, accorded him the title dean of American architects when he died at 98. 

Two who left us too early: H. H.
Richardson, and his landmark...
With long life spans so commonplace among architects, it’s all the more tragic when brilliant talents are lost long before their time. Among these was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), the all but single-handed progenitor of the Romanesque Revival of the late nineteenth century. Richardson made his mark with Boston’s Trinity Church of 1872, and had just completed Chicago’s epoch-making Marshall Field Wholesale Store of 1885--one of the seminal works of modernism--when he died of a kidney disorder at 47. One can only imagine the face of American architecture had Richardson lived.

Boston's Trinity Church...
Another premature departure was that of Addison Mizner (1872-1933), architect of many incomparably romantic Mediterranean Revival works. Mizner’s passing at 60 coincided with the close of the golden age of Revivalist architecture, and his infallibly picturesque sensibilities remain unequaled to this day. More recent but equally tragic was the loss of Pritzker prize winner James Stirling (1926-1992), architect of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and many other distinguished structures, whose best work surely still lay ahead of him.

and Addison Mizner,
architect of lyrical
Spanish Revival work...
Thankfully, these are anomalies in a profession blessed by unusually long and active careers. The likely explanation for this longevity is that one doesn’t simply fall into an architectural career. The grueling educational process--not to mention the modesty of the monetary rewards--ensures that only the fanatically dedicated will make the sacrifices involved. Architects practice architecture because there’s really nothing else on earth they’d rather do. So, even in the absence of more tangible rewards, at least we have happiness and peace of mind. We grow old because we love what we do, and we want to keep on doing it.
such as Palm Beach's Everglades Club.

Monday, June 16, 2014


“The four stages of man,” Art Linkletter once observed, “are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.” 

While this bromide may well describe the lives of media stars and child prodigies, I’m happy to report that it seldom applies to architects. While many may grow old, few, it seems, grow irrelevant. In fact, most great architects hadn’t even hit their stride until midlife, and many kept going strong into their nineties.

Frank Lloyd Wright, still dapper at 91
Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the poster child for architectural longevity, yet there were surely times in Wright’s life when he doubted his own relevance. He’d begun his career with a bang, devising his brilliant Prairie Houses during the first decade of the 1900s, while he was still in his thirties. But by the time he completed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1923, his commissions had tapered off considerably. By normal career standards Wright, by then in his late fifties, should have been contemplating retirement. In any case, by the mid-1930s, his organic architecture was already being eclipsed by a younger generation of modernists, whose sleek International Style creations seemed even more advanced than Wright’s work had been. 

Yet it was just at this seeming twilight in his career that Wright staged a spectacular comeback. In 1937 he completed  the Edgar Kaufmann house (Fallingwater), a lyrical conception seemingly meant to outdo the International Style modernists at their own game. It was Bauhaus modernism with a heart and soul. Acclaimed worldwide, Fallingwater relaunched Wright’s career in the seventh decade of his life, unleashing a creative flurry that continued unabated until his death at 91.

Wright’s late-life renaissance isn’t at all unusual among architects, however. The first generation of International Style architects also had lengthy careers marked by equally late triumphs. After his famous stint as director of the Bauhaus, for example, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) came to the United States and, in 1945, when he was already in his sixties, founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC). It was soon to become one of the world’s most successful and respected architecture firms. Moreover, Gropius was nearly eighty when he completed New York’s Pan Am building with Pietro Belluschi (he lived to be 86). 

Le Corbusier's astonishing chapel at Ronchamp,
one of his latest and greatest works...
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) completed New York’s Seagram Building--a work often ranked among the pinnacle achievements of modern architecture--when he was in his early seventies. 

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 18887-1965) had a long and influential career, but arguably his greatest work--the lyrical chapel he designed at Ronchamp--was completed only when he was in his late sixties.  No doubt Le Corbusier, too, might have remained productive into his eighties, had he not ignored his doctor’s orders and gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, where he apparently suffered a heart attack and drowned at age 77.

---and the architect in his seventies: We wish he'd listened
to his doctor.
Curiously, while the first-generation modernists recounted above held fast to their convictions for the duration of their long and distinguished careers, some of their equally venerable successors renounced modernism in their later years--refuting the idea that old age breeds inflexibility. We’ll look at some of those long careers next time, as well as a few others that were cut tragically short.

Monday, June 9, 2014

CRACKING THE CODE (Part 3 of 3 Parts)

Last time, we looked at some building code requirements that routinely trip up do-it-yourselfers. As arcane as some of the code’s provisions might seem, practically every one of them exists to ensure health and safety, and many were gleaned from over a century of knowledge hard won from real-life incidents, many of them both tragic and unnecessary.  

Because building codes--and this includes plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire codes--are primarily concerned with health and safety, they’re by nature conservative and slow to change. There’s little incentive for the councils who collectively author the various codes to adopt new technologies that make construction cheaper, faster or more efficient, since these things aren’t directly related to safety. Hence, the code generally ignores technical innovations until there’s overwhelming pressure from the trades, the design professions, or manufacturers to incorporate them. 

It took building codes years to approve using this...
There’s no doubt that this conservatism sometimes impedes the adoption of worthwhile new products. For example, plumbing codes were slow to approve ABS plastic drain piping even though its advantages--low cost, light weight, excellent durability, and ease of assembly--clearly outweighed its shortcomings (noisiness and susceptibility to fire). In fairness, plastic plumbing also encountered some resistance from plumbers, many of whom were not keen on seeing a do-it-yourself friendly material infringe on their business. The various metallic pipe industries, who saw a fair share of their markets about to go down the drain, were not too keen on plastic either. Still, the overwhelming advantages of ABS  eventually forced the code to make room for it, and later on for other plastic plumbing materials as well.

...instead of this.
More recently, a simple plumbing device called an “air admittance  valve”, or AAV, has made it possible to greatly simplify the venting portion of drainage systems, eliminating perhaps one-third of the drain piping in a typical house. AAVs have been used in Europe since 1979, and with several million installed, they’re well proven. Yet until very recently, plumbing codes in the US continued to insist that plumbing fixtures be vented through the roof, just as they have been since Victorian times--a needless waste of expensive labor and material, and a common source of roof leaks. Only in the last few years have most plumbing codes finally approved AAVs, and even at that, a few individual state codes still stubbornly outlaw them.

On another front, building codes have shown a sometimes overzealous tendency toward protecting people from themselves, often at a significant cost to comfort and aesthetics. A clear example is found in the code’s ever more stringent requirements for residential railings. The allowable open space between rail balusters, for example, has progressively shrunken from nine inches to six inches to four inches, while the minimum height of exterior railings has recently increased from the longtime standard of 36 inches to a towering, view-obscuring 42 inches. 

Still, these are minor quibbles about a document that do-it-yourselfers ought to welcome as more help than hindrance. The building code is like a crotchety old neighbor who’s seen it all during his lifetime--his advice might grate on us now and then, but we’re still glad he’s around when we need him.