Category Archives: Architecture

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.

 

NYS Code Appeal: Life safety issues at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

[Updated Nov. 26, 2020 here] Life safety issues—and not just due to the coronavirus—continue to threaten the safety of students, staff, faculty, and visitors at Cornell. I am appealing determinations by the City of Ithaca Building Division and the NYS Division of Building Standards and Codes Oversight Unit concerning the compliance of the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University with the 2015 New York State Building Code. My entire appeal application including all exhibits can be found here. Links to all my writings about the Fine Arts Library are here.

Rand, Sibley, and Milstein Halls at Cornell University
Milstein Hall, Cornell, Ithaca, July 19, 2012, Photo by Jonathan Ochshorn

Update on life- and fire-safety violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

I have identified nine serious life- and fire-safety violations in the newly-opened Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell University and am still unable to appeal the ruling of New York State’s Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC) because the DBSC has not completed their “re-opened” review of the case. Here is what I wrote to them today:

It has been three months since our last conversation in which you said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened,” that you were not “leaving any stone unturned,” and that your work was close to being done (i.e., that you would likely be finished before January 2020). I have also been told … that “there has been a request by DBSC for additional information from the consultants that provided the smoke control modeling for the project.” As I wrote in my email copied to you on Feb. 11, 2020, I believe that my complaint should be adjudicated based on whether the City of Ithaca appropriately granted a building permit, irrespective of whatever documentation may have been provided after my complaint was filed.

It has been eleven months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and nine months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have still not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints.

The Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University remains unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason, I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660). Please let me know (1) the status of my complaint, (2) when your “work” will be completed, and (3) your specific reasoning for discounting each of the nine code violations that I described in detail. Please provide answers in writing: your prior requests to “give me a call at your earliest convenience”—on Nov. 5, 2019 and Dec. 3, 2019—have proven to be unsatisfactory.

Links to all of my writings on Cornell’s Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Updated Sept. 22, 2020: I finally got the go-ahead to file an appeal. Details here.

Upskirting at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

I asked about the upskirting potential of the Fine Arts Library at Cornell University before it opened, and was told that the issue had been carefully studied and that the architects insisted that the floor grating could not be seen through. Well, reality has a nasty habit of correcting such obvious falsehoods, as you can see in this video I took of myself in February 2020.

Status report on code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

[Updated below] Having not heard back from the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes about appealing their ruling about my complaint concerning code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University, I sent this email to Brian Tollisen, Deputy Director of the New York State Division of Building Standards & Codes, on December 3, 2019:

It’s been a month since our last conversation in which you said that a “response letter” was being finished up and would be sent to me. We discussed waiting for this letter to be sent, and resolving the question of whether I had standing, before I submitted a formal appeal to the Syracuse Regional Office.

Please let me know when this response letter will be completed and whether your “legal people” have determined if I have standing to bring a complaint.

It has been eight months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and six months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints. I have shown in each of these nine instances how specific sections of the New York State Building Code have been violated. Not even one specific allegation that I have made has been challenged with a coherent counter-argument. In fact, James Harding of the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes has confirmed that my reasoning in Violation #1 (Unenclosed egress stair in the atrium) and Violation #4 (Lack of 1-hour fire-rated construction between the atrium and roof-top spaces) is correct.  

In my view, the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University is unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason,  I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660), and await your response letter in order to pursue this appeal.

[Update Dec. 4, 2019: I spoke to Brian Tollisen, at his suggestion, later on Dec. 3, 2019. He said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened” and that they were not “leaving any stone unturned.” He also said that their work was close to being done, so that I should expect to hear from them in the near future. We’ll see.]

[Update March 3, 2020 can be found here.]

[Update Sept. 22, 2020 can be found here. Code appeal submitted.

All my writings about the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library are linked from this webpage.