Category Archives: Architecture

Book talk for CSI Syracuse

I’ll be giving a talk on “Control Layers, Abstraction, and Utilitarian Dysfunction,” based on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression. Details follow:

Date: March 3, 2022, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM

Format: Zoom meeting / Webinar

CSI Syracuse logo

This continuing education program is FREE for CSI members, and $20 for non-members (Notice: Any money raised will go towards the Edward Goldberg Memorial Scholarship Fund). This program has AIA Continuing Education Credits PENDING (1 LU/HSW Credit).

Sponsored by the Syracuse Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)

Sign up to attend the talk here.

Information about the book is here.

Cornell: Annals of accessibility

[Updated May 5, 2022 (scroll to bottom)] Two years ago, I wrote to administrators at Cornell University, advising them that “protruding objects” designed into a food truck behind Milstein and Sibley Halls were in violation of the ADA as well as the New York State Building Code.

The United States Access Board states: “To prevent hazards to people with vision impairments, the standards limit the projection of objects into circulation paths. These requirements apply to all circulation paths and are not limited to accessible routes. Circulation paths include interior and exterior walks, paths, hallways, courtyards, elevators, platform lifts, ramps, stairways, and landings.”

The New York State Building Code requires that “At least one accessible route within the site shall be provided from public transportation stops, accessible parking, accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks to the accessible building entrance served.” Chapter 10 (Means of egress) states that “Protruding objects on circulation paths shall comply with the requirements of Sections 1003.3.1 through 1003.23.4” and Section 1003.3.3 confirms that “Objects with leading edges more than 27 inches (685 mm) and not more than 80 inches (2030 mm) above the floor shall not project horizontally more than 4 inches (102 mm) into the circulation path.” Circulation path is defined in Chapter 2 of the Code as “An exterior or interior way of passage from one place to another for pedestrians.”

Annotated photo of food truck at Cornell University showing noncompliance with ADA standards for protruding objects

This image shows the protruding objects in the circulation path by the food truck behind Sibley/Milstein Halls at Cornell (photo and annotations by J. Ochshorn)

On the two-year anniversary of my first email, I again requested that Cornell remediate this illegal and dangerous situation, embedding several annotated photographs into my Jan. 14, 2022 email that illustrate one possible method of permanently fixing this problem:

Food truck behind Sibley/Milstein Halls at Cornell University showing two protruding objects

Metal “fins” attached to the food truck behind Milstein/Sibley Halls at Cornell University could be altered to comply with ADA requirements.

Detail of metal fin at food truck behind Milstein/Sibley Halls at Cornell University showing one possible method of remediation for ADA noncompliance.

Metal “fins” on the food truck could be cut in order to comply with ADA guidelines for protruding objects.

Existing and proposed remediation of protruding objects on food truck behind Milstein/Sibley Halls at Cornell University.

“Before” and “after” images showing proposed remediation of protruding objects on food truck behind Milstein/Sibley Halls at Cornell University (photos and Photoshopping by J. Ochshorn).

[May 5, 2022 Update] Soon after my January 14, 2022, email, a moveable sign was placed under one of the noncompliant protruding fins (image below), something clearly inadequate, since the sign could be (and was) moved from its intended position. I complained about the inadequacy of this remedy.

Sign placed under noncompliant protruding object at Cornell University

Amazingly, a few months later — about 4 months after my January 2022 design suggestions and more than two years after my initial complaint — I discovered that the noncompliant metal fins had been trimmed, pretty much as I had specified in my photoshopped renderings: the newly-compliant food truck is shown below.

Noncompliant protruding object at Cornell University cut so that it no longer protrudes.

Noncompliant protruding object at Cornell University cut so that it no longer protrudes.

Launchpad book event at Cornell (Oct. 25, 2021 5pm)

The Milstein Hall “dome” or “crit room” takes the form of a whispering gallery, where sound is projected, reflected, and reinforced in a surprising and dysfunctional manner, such that the utilitarian function of the space — to hold critiques, receptions, and other events — is compromised. This lack of attention to the acoustical quality of the space reflects the architects’ evolving ideology rooted in formal expression, abstracted from most utilitarian considerations. Aside from its acoustic shortcomings, the crit room was also designed and built with only a single compliant fire exit, even though its occupancy and floor area required three such exits. (Cornell was forced to provide these missing, but required, exits by literally cutting through a reinforced concrete and glass wall that had originally been designed to separate the crit room from the adjacent auditorium.)

Thus, Milstein Hall’s crit room — its “dome” — is a perfect example of a space in which architectural utility is doubly damaged: first by utilitarian dysfunction (inadequate exits) and second, by the competition driving dysfunctional expression (resulting, here, in an acoustical travesty).

It it therefore fittingly ironic that the AAP “Launchpad” event, in which my book — Building Bad — will be one of eleven AAP faculty books being “launched,” has been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, from 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm, precisely in this dysfunctional space. Faculty presenters were asked to prepare a 5-minute Pecha Kucha-style slide show, but I was given permission to show a 5-minute music video instead, based on a song that I wrote to celebrate the publication of my book.

I announce this with great trepidation, since there is no way to know how badly the acoustic qualities of the crit room space will mangle whatever musical qualities the song possesses. I therefore recommend that you not only attend the Launchpad event if you are in the Ithaca area (after all, there will be food and drinks served in that dark and abysmal space with the plastic bubbles that has been rebranded as the “Duane and Dalia Stiller Arcade” at 5:00 pm) but that you also check out my “Ballad of Building Bad” music video with headphones or an adequate sound system.

New version of Ballad of Building Bad

In anticipation of the official U.S. release of my book, Building Bad, on Sept. 30, 2021, I made a more fully orchestrated version of my song, Ballad of Building Bad, along with a new, more elaborated, music video.

The original “live” version of the song, along with some fun facts and lyrics, can be found on this prior blog post.

Links to all my music and music videos are here.

Ballad of Building Bad

First, the book. Now the song. Worlds collide (apologies to Seinfeld).

[Sept. 17, 2021 update: I’ve made a new, more fully orchestrated version of the song!]

Ballad of Building Bad
Words and music © 2021 Jonathan Ochshorn

Verse 1
Flames shoot up from a couch by the front bay window
Toxic smoke quickly fills the room
Then works its way right up the stairs to the floor where the boys had been so
Fast asleep that they didn’t smell the noxious fume
And didn’t hear the smoke alarm with their parents out and the doors all shut tight
There is no law requiring sprinklers whose activation
Might have doused the flames and saved their lives that night
Perhaps the home builders associations that lobbied so hard to kill that legislation
    Will explain their tortured logic to Mom and Dad
    Building bad

Verse 2
Everybody’s talking about the fancy new library
Where you must climb up steps to get to these bookshelves
Asked about ADA mandates for access he says it’s customary
For disabled people not to get their books themselves
Now he’s pointing to the killer views you get looking out from those steel stairs
But when asked about excluding handicapped users
He says I won’t ruin my design just because of some strollers and some wheelchairs
This is a gift to the community and beggars can’t be choosers
    And it’s based on these watercolor drawings in my sketchpad
    Building bad

Bridge
Architects are trained to get their kicks with fashion an obsession
While utility’s constrained by politics and damaged by expression

Verse 3
There are leaks and cracks and mold but the building’s still standing
Like a party of drunken robots celebrating
Says the architect hired to promote the institute’s rebranding
He says it as a point of pride — not to be self-deprecating
I can’t hang my blackboard when these office walls are curved and slanted
Complains the famous linguist wondering why they’re convex
And why even configuring control layers correctly is something you can’t take for granted
Where the risk of failure grows and grows as forms get increasingly complex
    And fashionable dysfunction is more than just a passing fad
    Building bad

Unbeknownst to me, when I started writing this ballad, it took the form of a Shakespearian Sonnet, with these two modifications: (1) instead of three quatrains (abab, cdcd, efef) in each verse, there are two (abab, cdcd), followed, as in the Shakespearian model, by a couplet (gg); and (2) the accent in Shakespeare’s classic iambic pentameter (“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon“) is reversed, so it is more like trochaic pentameter (“Toxic smoke quickly fills the room“). And as the lines in my verses get elaborated, the meter becomes harder to detect, but it’s there!

Links to all my music and videos can be found here.

Building Bad released in UK

After what seemed like a long editorial process — copyediting, queries and responses, typesetting, layouts, proofreading corrections, final layouts, indexing, and so forth — my book has finally been officially released in the UK.

Author Jonathan Ochshorn with copy of his book, Building Bad

I display my advanced copy of Building Bad

The official release date in the U.S. is Oct. 1, 2021, but the book can be purchased from the publisher’s UK website and mailed anywhere right now! Use offer code BUILDINGBAD20 at the checkout to apply a 20% discount (and, if mailed to an address in the UK, take advantage of free postage as well). Special offer is valid until Sept. 30, 2021.

July 14, 2021, update: You can also purchase a Kindle e-book version on Amazon, and read the first three chapters for free!

Find more information about the book on my website.

Building Bad

I’ve written a book called Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression. Although the book won’t be released until June 15, 2021, the publisher, Lund Humphries, has decided to “introduce” it through various social media (Twitter, blogs, and so on). I created a short video “trailer” for that purpose which was embedded in the publisher’s blog post, but you can also view it here.

The Lund Humphries blog also features a short “reflections” piece that I wrote:

My interest in architectural utility — as it relates to both expression and what might be called “politics” — evolved over many years. In 1983, I began considering the perverse logic of competition that drives architectural fashion. Several years later, I argued that the strategic separation of architecture into its “art” and “science” components allows architects to largely abstract from technical content in the process of designing expressive buildings. While there is still some truth in that hypothesis, I began to see the split between art and science as increasingly problematic, not because it threatens some ideal of aesthetic integrity, but rather because, in its very nature, it compromises the utilitarian functionality of buildings.

By 2006, I began systematically writing about the dangers of separating architecture’s expressive and utilitarian functions within the design process, and also began to examine the two characteristics of architectural utility brought together in this book: first, that lower and upper limits on utilitarian function are established by politics and economics; and second, that utilitarian functionality is sacrificed at the altar of avant-garde architectural expression.

In Building Bad, I cite many buildings and projects as examples of utilitarian dysfunction or compromise, some close at hand (Rem Koolhaas’s architecture building and I.M. Pei’s art museum are both at Cornell University, where I have been teaching since 1988), and others farther removed in time or space, including Mies van der Rohe’s campus buildings at I.I.T. in Chicago, Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center at Ohio State University; Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T., Zaha Hadid’s Pierresvives in Montpellier, Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, and many others.

In analyzing such buildings in terms of architectural expression and utility, my goal is neither to advocate for a particular architectural style — least of all my own — nor to condemn contemporary practice on the basis of its moral shortcomings. Instead, I examine architecture from an objective standpoint, and explain what it is, not what it should be. For that reason, I make no attempt to show how architectural expression and utility might be made more useful — less dysfunctional — since such idealism runs up against the very culture within which this dysfunction is valued.

The book’s subtitle — how architectural utility is constrained by politics and damaged by expression — is therefore not intended as a call to action to promote reform. The question posed in the epilogue — ”whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science” — remains unanswered, as it must: Architecture’s dysfunction, running parallel to the dysfunction of society as a whole, constitutes an essential feature of avant-garde production, not a flaw. This dysfunction is consistent with and, in fact, thrives within the ethos of human and environmental damage that undergirds modern democratic states.

Mui Ho Fine Arts Library Code Appeal filed

Why would an architect place an occupied roof deck adjacent to smoke exhaust vents?

Animation gif by Jonathan Ochshorn illustrating potential problems with atrium smoke exhaust vents forming the northern boundary of a roof-top assembly space.

Smoke exhaust vents for the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library atrium form the northern boundary of a roof-top assembly space, as discussed in Exhibit 2 (Violation #5) of my Code Appeal. Animation and underlying photo by Jonathan Ochshorn.

For the full answer, you’ll need to read my forthcoming book, in which I explain how architectural utility is constrained by politics and damaged by expression (published by @LHArtBooks) and due in early 2021.

But the short answer is that this building—the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University—was designed from a purely aesthetic standpoint (for all the reasons that motivate artists to “defamiliarize” their work and heroically court danger by pushing the envelope in order to claim avant-garde status). This is often done under the mistaken impression that errors and omissions can be fixed later by engineering and fire safety consultants. However, it turns out that when you combine that sort of arrogance with a lack of interest in mundane concerns like life- and fire-safety—and when those dangerous attitudes are validated by your powerful client and by a code enforcement infrastructure that doesn’t have the time or expertise to ensure adequate enforcement—the violations often remain, placing students, staff, faculty, and visitors in danger.

You can read about these smoke exhaust vents and all nine alleged Code violations in my Appeal Application.

Links to all my articles and blog posts on the Fine Arts Library are here.

Palestine and academic censorship

Illustration for lecture by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: "Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been," Palmach Photographic Collection (Album of the Har’el Brigade, Fourth Battalion), probably April 1948
Lecture by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been,” Palmach Photographic Collection (Album of the Har’el Brigade, Fourth Battalion), probably April 1948

My open letter to the Dean of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning, on the subject of academic censorship and intimidation, was recently published in The Funambulist. Here’s a link.