Category Archives: Writings

Is PhotoShop still relevant in the age of AI?

I tried out Cornell’s Microsoft Copilot Enterprise, which Cornell describes as “a way to experiment with generative AI,” and was, unsurprisingly, underwhelmed. In particular, the image-generating tool was inane and pretty much useless, and the Microsoft-provided explanatory material was simply embarrassing — it promoted such a dumbing down of critique and explanation that even Edward Tufte’s classic critique of Microsoft’s PowerPoint would need some sort of afterword.

It is in this context that I wonder about the continued relevance of Adobe’s PhotoShop, which — in the age of AI — seems to take on the character of an old-school graphic device, with a direct connection to the user’s intentions and control. So, if PhotoShop is dead, I say, “long live PhotoShop”!

Having just returned from a short trip to Spain, I began editing (with PhotoShop) some iPhone images that I took in several Madrid museums — in particular, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando:

Plaster cast of statue of Laocoön and His Sons, edited with PhotoShop to include iPhone (as if one of the figures, in anguish, is taking a selfie.

Plaster cast of Laocoön and His Sons in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid: iPhone photo taken and edited with PhotoShop (adding the iPhone used by one of the sons to take a selfie) by Jonathan Ochshorn.

Jacob Lucasz. Ochtervelt's Oyster Eaters; with the 17th-century lute replaced with a Gibson les Paul Standard electric guitar.

Jacob Lucasz. Ochtervelt, Oyster Eaters; ca. 1665 at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid: the 17th-century lute has been replaced, using PhotoShop, with a Gibson Les Paul Standard electric guitar by Jonathan Ochshorn.

Selfie taken in front of Picasso's 1923 Harlequin with a Mirror, with the "harlequin" taking a selfie at the same time, courtesy of PhotoShop.

Double selfie by Jonathan Ochshorn: a selfie taken in front of Picasso’s 1923 Harlequin with a Mirror, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, with the “harlequin” taking a selfie at the same time, courtesy of PhotoShop.

Free open-access books on architecture

All three of my books are now available in free, open-access, digital versions — as well as low-cost paperback editions.

Read on the web, download free ePubs or PDFs, or buy a low-cost paperback:

The path to open-access wasn’t particularly easy. In the case of Structural Elements, I started with Elsevier (publisher of the first hardcover edition), then found a less onerous publisher (Common Ground) for a paperback second edition, and then took control myself for the third edition by self-publishing an inexpensive paperback ($19.95) and creating a free web version and PDF.

For OMA’s Milstein Hall, I had some preliminary conversations with the publisher, Routledge, but they seemed reluctant to publish a book critical of OMA without some sort of “reassurance” from OMA, which—naturally—wasn’t forthcoming. So I self-published the book ($19.95), also providing a free web version as well as free ePub and PDF versions.

My book, Building Bad, was initially published by Lund Humphries in 2021. I had some professional development funds in my Cornell account, partly from my status as professor emeritus at Cornell, and partly from my work as Speaker of the Cornell University Faculty Senate, and asked Lund Humphries if they would consider allowing me to create an open-access (free) version, with a subvention from these available funds. Apparently, they had no experience with such things, but eventually decided to place their hardcover edition “out of print,” disable their eBook edition as well, and revert all publishing rights back to me, for a modest sum of money. This allowed me to create a free web version as well as a free ePub, a free PDF, and a low-cost paperback version (only $14.95).

OMA’s Milstein Hall: A Case Study of Architectural Failure

I’ve written a new a book about architectural failure. In addition to some general observations and an occasional digression, the heart of the book is a rather detailed examination of dysfunction, inflexibility, fire hazard, nonstructural failure, and unsustainable design in Milstein Hall at Cornell University, the flagship building designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. See my website to read the 412-page book for free (on the web, or as a free pdf or ePub) or click on the “Amazon” link to buy an inexpensive paperback version ($19.95).

There are 26 chapters in the book organized into four parts—with each part corresponding to one category of architectural failure:

  • Part I (Dysfunction and Inflexibility) includes detailed discussions of function, flexibility, privacy, lighting, acoustics, circulation, orientation, and access.
  • Part II (Nonstructural Failure) offers an examination of thermal control, rainwater control, and sloppy, dysfunctional, and dangerous details in Milstein Hall.
  • Part III (Fire Hazard) discusses the many ways in which Milstein Hall contravenes normative fire safety standards.
  • Part IV (Unsustainable Design) is in equal part a critique of Milstein Hall’s sustainability and the cynical use of the LEED Reference Guide as validation for Milstein Hall’s “green” credentials.

Writing and researching my monograph, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021), provided a useful theoretical base for the present work, which is, in effect, a case study in “building bad.” The competition driving dysfunctional modes of expression and the political calculations that effectively constrain durability and safety—both of which increase the probability of building failure—are theorized in Building Bad. And this theory applies to most avant-garde architecture, including the architecture of Milstein Hall. The present book does not rehash the underlying theoretical arguments for nonstructural failure that appeared in Building Bad; instead, it examines what such failure looks like in a single building—as a case study.

Metaphors and similes in Squints on a Triple

I wrote Squints on a Triple 15 years ago, and it remains one of my favorite songs. As it turns out, it’s also a song that I will have performed three times in quasi-academic settings that are somehow connected with Cornell.

The first time was when I hosted a Cornell “Thumbnail” event in 2018 with the theme of “Taboo.” What does the song have to do with the theme, you may be wondering? Well, one of the verses has some ambiguous lyrics that could be construed as having taboo content: “She has flung in my face all the skills that I taught her / Now I’m left in disgrace; there’s a moral that’s sought here / You better be careful when playing games with your daughter.”

The second performance was a retirement event in January 2023; in this context, the song was part of a “growing old” theme — in this case, watching my daughter grow older and, for the first time, beating me in a game of Scrabble.

And now, in September 2023, I’m about to perform the same song for a third time — at a book launch event [updated Sept. 12, 2023: see this blog post] for a colleague who has published a co-edited volume about board games called Playing Place. In this context, the connection to the song’s lyrics is unambiguous; in fact, Squints on a Triple was the winner of the 2008 BoardGameGeek contest for real board games mentioned in songs.

But there is at least one more context in which this song could be performed in an academic setting, specifically, in an academic setting dealing with metaphor (and simile) — and, in particular, mixed metaphor. Even though the song is nominally about a game of Scrabble, I deliberately used inappropriate metaphors referencing all sorts of other games and ideas. A list follows, taken directly from the lyrics:

1. All of my hopes, false expectations burst like a bubble [the only simile]
 
2. Protect all your troopers from a flanking attack [war]
 
3. Don’t let the lineman in for a sack [football]
 
4. Let my constructions collapse into rubble [demolition]
 
5. On the very last play, on the very last roll [craps or other dice games]
 
6. She has flung in my face all those skills that I taught her [throwing objects]
 

7. I think she’s perhaps rolled the dice once too often [again, craps or other dice games]

Response to SARG “Reflections”

An email solicitation from a group called SARG (Spatial Analytics Research Group) ended up in my junk folder. I retrieved it on the same day of their Zoom meeting in which they asked to distinguish between architecture and building, i.e., they asked: “What is (not) architecture?” So I quickly sent off the following response:

The idea that architecture is something “added” to mere building presumes that the two terms (architecture and building) are different instances of the same class of objects, where, per Ruskin, architecture “impresses on [the form of the mere building] certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary.”

But this formulation is wrong, for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: Ruskin was thinking of literal decorative or sculptural “additions” to a structure’s masonry shell, so that the notion that such things were “otherwise unnecessary” could be sustained — the utilitarian functionality of such structures would certainly survive without such embellishment. But what of architecture without decorative embellishment? Ruskin’s argument falls apart when confronted with modernist aesthetics.

The second problem with the formulation, even abstracting from the requirement that what is added be “unnecessary,” is that manipulating formal constituent elements of buildings is ubiquitous, albeit within wide range of aesthetic formulations corresponding to the various class-based social and cultural strata within modern societies.

In other words, the distinction between building and architecture is simply the snobbery of connoisseurship, no different from the condemnation of any number of working-class preferences by elite tastemakers. Like Adorno’s condemnation of jazz.

New “Accessibility” section in Milstein Hall Critique

I’ve been working on my “Critique of Milstein Hall,” a project started in 2012, but — until now — missing the final section on “Function and Flexibility.” Well, that final section is still missing, but as I was working on it, I realized that I should really add a short section on accessibility.

So, I did.

Milstein Hall, the last building constructed for Cornell University’s architecture program, was designed by OMA, and is connected to two older campus buildings — Sibley Hall and Rand Hall. The Critique now has four sections: nonstructural failure, fire safety, accessibility, and sustainability. Function and flexibility should appear soon. Find links to all these sections on the Critique homepage here.

My Cornell “Chats in the Stacks” book talk video posted

Title: “Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression”

Cornell’s YouTube video of my April 14, 2022, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM “Chats in the Stacks” book talk (a virtual event) was posted today.

In a free, live, virtual “Chats in the Stacks” book talk, Jonathan Ochshorn discusses his latest book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021), where he examines how utilitarian function in architecture can be thwarted by political and economic forces, and undermined by artistic expression. In considering several contemporary buildings and projects, Ochshorn avoids advocating for a specific style or practice but provides an objective framework for analyzing architecture through the lens of utility.

Sponsored by the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, Cornell University, the talk is followed by a live Q&A.

Op-Ed on Bad Building in The Architect’s Newspaper

Logo for the Architect's Newspaper digital editionI wrote an op-ed that was just published in The Architect’s Newspaper with the rather unwieldy, but nevertheless accurate, title, “Bad Building: Architecture’s Aesthetics Should Support, rather than Sabotage, a Building’s Function.” The argument in the op-ed derives from my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression.

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.

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.