Category Archives: Writings

Cornell, capitalism, and the coronavirus

Cornell claims to be following “the science” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Upon closer examination, the science turns out to consist of studying and comparing two scenarios: allowing students back on campus (where those that return will be tested, isolated, and contact-traced as needed) vs. holding all classes online. I’m not interested in scrutinizing the models used by operations research specialists at Cornell who concluded that holding in-person classes is the safer scenario. Cornell already admits that there are great uncertainties in these modeled outcomes and that, in any case, they expect a certain amount of infections and disease. What is most troubling about Cornell’s approach is not the “science” embedded in their modeling, but rather the self-serving manner in which they frame the problem in the first place.

Cornell health workers: “We stay here for you; please stay home for us.”

Confronted with a global pandemic which can best be contained and eradicated through international agreements to coordinate lockdowns, testing, contact tracing, isolation, treatment, research, and travel, Cornell instead takes the fragmented, inept, and inadequate U.S. response to the pandemic as its unexamined starting point, and never bothers to consider alternatives, or ask questions, that might point to a more effective, coordinated, and cooperative global solution.

Of course, Cornell cannot single-handedly organize a cooperative and coordinated international effort to eradicate this virus; to do so would entail abolishing or suspending the rules and ideologies governing international capitalism. Rather, Cornell is a part of the infrastructural basis that supports the capitalistic organization of human society, so that even the suggestion that it might contribute to a viable solution to this pandemic—one that challenges capital itself—is purely rhetorical. In fact, Cornell’s attitude and behavior with respect to the pandemic is remarkably similar to its attitude toward that other well-known crisis: global warming. In both cases, Cornell abstracts from the global nature of the problem, and instead looks primarily at what it can do for itself. Of course, there are researchers at Cornell who address the negative impacts of global warming on third world and impoverished populations, but such research inevitably works within the framework of global capitalism, as it must in order to attract funding.

In the case of global warming, Cornell buys into the discredited LEED rating system, damages Cayuga Lake in order to cool its own buildings while using less fossil fuel, and threatens the seismic stability of the region with its plans to essentially “hydrofrack” earth-source energy to directly heat its campus buildings. Cornell has petitioned the Public Service Commission to get more money back for its solar power and, more recently, petitioned the New York Supreme Court to overturn a tax ruling that considered its solar farm an “improvement” to the land rather than as merely personal business property. Cornell’s motivation in all such “sustainable” practices is, naturally, to compete for eco-sensitive students, faculty, and donors, but it only acts when doing so is consistent with its financial goals: each sustainable intervention needs to “pay off” or it won’t be implemented. Yet while Cornell churns out its public relations news articles and tweets, the amount of global warming gases in the atmosphere continues to rise and the planet continues to spiral into an ecological catastrophe for many of its species, including the human one.

In the case of the pandemic, Cornell similarly looks primarily at its own campus, not bothering to examine and critique the systemic and ideological basis for the inept international response. Even countries, like China, that take necessary, effective, and appropriate (or, to use the preferred adjective of liberal media like the NY Times, “draconian”) measures to eradicate the virus are still at the mercy of a competitive and uncoordinated global response that—because of the international movement of goods and people—compromises their own best efforts.

The ideological content of freedom—most often characterized as a “culture war” pitting individual liberty against governmental mandates to wear masks and maintain social distancing—is especially potent in the U.S. and goes a long way to explain why the U.S. response to the coronavirus is less effective than the response of most other capitalist nations. But the problem is not simply ideological: the reality of capitalist freedom also undermines human wellbeing. Of course, freedom has many meanings, but the most relevant here involves its relationship with property: freedom, in this context, is the opportunity—more accurately, the compulsion—to use one’s property as one wishes to advance one’s individual desires, as long as doing so does not infringe on the property rights of others. That this freedom benefits those with lots of property—that it supports and perpetuates a class society and forces those without property to sell their own labor power for some degree of subsistence—can only be disputed by charlatans and corporate sycophants.

Such freedom to use one’s property, whether to accumulate wealth or merely survive, is the sine qua non of capitalism. So what could possibly go wrong in a society where wealth, and thus the very conditions for existence, are not only privately owned but owned to a great extent by a tiny fraction of the planet’s population? For one thing, corporate and national decisions end up being made with an eye on profit: disease and death enter into such calculations as mere entries in the corporate ledger. Yet it is also clear that the ideological framing of property (the American dream, and its many variants) can prevent those people damaged by the enforcement of property rights from criticizing property itself.

Both the development of vaccines and the procurement/production of necessary medical equipment are held hostage to the needs of capital, rather than organized cooperatively (i.e., globally). And the focus on vaccine development, rather than on global eradication of the virus, is probably best understood as an open-ended multi-billion-dollar profit opportunity for both well-entrenched drug cartels and high-tech startups for whom eradication of the virus—and the international cooperation this would entail—appears as a threat to their investments. In the U.S., the federal structure consisting of largely independent states, designed to foster competition, unsurprisingly frustrates coordination and cooperation. The same competitive framework frustrates any attempt at international cooperation and coordination. Yet cooperation, rather than competition, is clearly required in order to eradicate a virus that is so easily transmitted through commerce and travel.

So, where does this leave us? Many people have written about the likelihood that the virus will more thoroughly infiltrate both the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities, especially once students arrive in large numbers from outside Tompkins County. No one knows whether the inevitable outbreaks will be controlled (limited to relatively few cases) or turn into “superspreader” events that will wreak havoc on all Cornell’s optimistic plans. No one knows whether people will suffer debilitating illnesses or death as a result. But it is likely that Cornell’s testing and screening protocols will prove inadequate, for several reasons.

First, tests for Covid-19 are simply not that useful at the early stages of infection. Even four days after infection, the rate of false negatives is as high as 40%. Second, some students may be unwilling to truthfully answer screening questions after being exposed, since doing so would place not only themselves, but all their recent contacts, into quarantine or isolation. Third, some students are simply reckless, and will not comply with guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing, especially after drinking (“What?” you respond in amazement, “students drink?”). Fourth, there will be infected people—whether staff, faculty, students, or visitors—who inevitably break through Cornell’s bubble and trigger big or small outbreaks. All this is quite frustrating, not because Cornell is necessarily acting in bad faith, but because our lives are at the mercy of corporations and nations, all competing for survival or supremacy within an unforgiving capitalist framework, and all incapable of cooperating to deal effectively with the pandemic or, for that matter, any other existential global crisis.

Links to all my Cornell-COVID articles are here.

Two new papers: “Utility’s Evil Twin” and “Sullivan’s Eagle”

Images from “Utility’s Evil Twin” (left) and “Sullivan’s Eagle” (right)

I’ve posted two new papers for your reading pleasure. “Utility’s Evil Twin: The Function of Venustas and the Fear of Reality” was first published in the Cornell Journal of Architecture: 11 (March 2020). “Sullivan’s Eagle: Form and Function Artistically Considered” was accepted for the Proceedings of the 108th Annual Meeting of the ACSA but that San Diego conference, originally scheduled for March 2020, was postponed/canceled because of the coronavirus.

Reforming Cornell’s architecture curriculum: a manifesto

Architecture students, as future professionals, need real guidance on how to make zero-carbon (aka sustainable) buildings. This needs to be implemented primarily through Environmental Systems courses, but also—importantly—through Design Studio courses. My feeling is that the current design sequence at Cornell adequately addresses virtually none of the important architectural issues discussed within the Environmental Systems/Construction/Structures sequences in a coherent and systematic manner, focusing instead on design as a means of formal expression.* This is increasingly anachronistic, as the planet spirals into some sort of climate-change catastrophe. Michael Pollen famously summarized his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One could summarize viable strategies for sustainable building design, per Joseph Lstiburek, in a similarly concise manner: “Use lots of insulation, airtight construction, controlled ventilation, and not a lot of glass.” Similarly concise words of wisdom could certainly be found for life safety, structural design, and construction. But such sage advice needs to be reinforced within all the design studios (and not just one “sustainable” or “integrative” studio). Of course, this poses a threat to the way we foster design consciousness in our students.

So be it. It’s the only way I know of to make a curriculum that takes issues of human and environmental well-being—including global warming—seriously.

* To the objection that our design studios actually deal with issues affecting human and environmental well-being, I offer this passage from Veblen: “The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men—and women perhaps even in a higher degree—abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure,—much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense.”
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1912—originally published 1899), 176–77. (Emphasis added.)

Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin

I wrote a chapter for a book edited by some of my Fulbright colleagues who were in China with me in 2016. The book is called Narrative Inquiries from Fulbright Lecturers in China: Cross-Cultural Connections in Higher Education, and my chapter, which you can read online here, is called “Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin.”

I make a map showing directions to the Tianjin Museum, the German Bakery, the Mighty Deli, and the Zhou Enlai Memorial — we ended up getting to only the Bakery and the Memorial on Sept. 25, 2016

Flexibility and its discontents

I presented a paper called “Flexibility and its discontents: Colquhoun’s critique of the Pompidou Center,” at the 107th annual meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) — the conference was called BLACK BOX: Articulating Architecture’s Core in the Post-Digital Era — at Carnegie Mellon University, March 28–30, 2019. The proceedings have not yet been published, but you can read the paper here.

Stewart Brand’s revised diagram of time-based building systems, based on Frank Duffy’s categories, but with two more S’s and some changed names (“site, structure, skin, services, space plan, and stuff”), each with its own characteristic time-frame for repair, maintenance, or replacement (image by J. Ochshorn adapted from an image by Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, p.13, which was, in turn, adapted from an image by Frank Duffy)

Egress, toilets, and carcinogens: Cornell’s transition plans during Fine Arts Library construction

[Updated below: May 2, 2017, May 10, 2017, May 22, 2017, and Jan. 19, 2018] Cornell has made transition plans [or try here (pdf) if Cornell’s link is no longer working] for the construction of a Fine Arts Library (FAL) in Rand Hall in order to accommodate the various library, wood shop, metal shop, and digital fabrication functions, currently in Rand Hall, that will be out of service during the two-year construction period. Not mentioned in these transition plans are two items that actually affect Milstein Hall: the 2nd-floor Rand Hall toilet rooms that are used by faculty and students in Milstein Hall (since no toilets were provided on the 2nd-floor Milstein Hall studio level) and a third required exit stair for Milstein Hall’s 2nd-floor level, currently in Rand Hall. I’ve asked the AAP Dean and the FAL project manager what plans are in place for temporary toilets and egress, but have not yet gotten a reply. In the meantime, I’ve published a Cornell Chronicle parody on that subject.

Parody image showing temporary toilets in Milstein Hall during the construction of the rand Hall Fine Arts Library

There are other transition issues as well. A temporary digital fabrication lab is being constructed across from my office in E. Sibley Hall. It will house, among other things, 3-D printers, at least one of which uses toxic and carcinogenic materials. The room itself appears to have no ventilation system that supplies fresh air, in apparent violation of the 2015 NY State Mechanical Code. I’ve written a series of emails to Cornell’s mechanical systems designer as well as the director of facilities for the College to try to get some answers to my questions and concerns. After three weeks of waiting and promises of a reply (“The project team, including Facilities Engineering and Environmental Health & Safety, is reviewing the information you have provided and will respond to your concerns once the review has been completed.”), I still haven’t heard anything. Here is the last email I wrote to Cornell’s mechanical designer, dated April 19, 2017:

I haven’t received a reply to my last email, dated April 10, 2017, so I’ll repeat my main questions and concerns. Since the questions are technical in nature, and since you are the responsible mechanical engineer for this project, I would appreciate a response directly from you.

The safety data sheet for the “Stratasys” printer says that it should be used “only outdoors or in a well-ventilated area,” and the 2015 NYS Mechanical Code seems to require that “Ventilation systems shall be designed to have the capacity to supply the minimum outdoor airflow rate.” Your plans for 240 E. Sibley don’t seem to have any mechanical ventilation system for outdoor air—only transfer grilles that pull in return air from the adjacent spaces.

(1) Where is the required outdoor air coming from for this room?

(2) How is your design consistent with the manufacturer’s recommendation that the printer be used “only outdoors or in a well-ventilated area”?

(3) How can you be sure that particulate matter containing toxic or carcinogenic byproducts from the printer will not be exhausted directly in front of the rear entrance to Sibley Hall and a short distance from the food truck?

The context for my concern is that the material used by the printer is both toxic and carcinogenic, and nanoparticles are created as a byproduct of the printing process, some of which are so small that they pass through HEPA filters.

The manufacturer’s safety sheet says:

This chemical is considered hazardous by the 2012 OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200)

Suspected of causing cancer
Suspected of damaging fertility of the unborn child
May cause respiratory inflammation
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure

Carcinogenicity: Classification based on data available for ingredients. Contains a known or suspected carcinogen.

Reproductive toxicity: Classification based on data available for ingredients. Contains a known or suspected reproductive toxin

SARA 311/312 Hazard Categories
Acute health hazard: YES
Chronic Health Hazard: YES

From https://www.uvm.edu/safety/shop/3d-printer-safety: Nanoparticles (ultrafine particles less than 1/10,000 of a millimeter) are one of the by-products emitted during the 3D printing process. Recent studies have shown that 3D printing using a low-temperature polylactic acid (PLA) feedstock can release 20 billion particles per minute, while a higher temperature acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) feedstock can release 200 billion.
Nanoparticles are of concern for the following reasons:
• They are very small,
• They have large surface areas, and
• Can interact with the body’s systems, including the skin, lungs, nerves and the brain.

Exposures to nanoparticles at high concentrations have been associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, strokes and asthma symptoms. While PLA feedstock is designed to be biocompatible, the thermal decomposition products of ABS feedstock have been shown to have toxic effects on lab rodents.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Links to all my writings and blog posts on the Fine Arts Library can be found here.

[UPDATE: May 2, 2017] I still haven’t heard back from “the Project Team”; meanwhile construction is underway, and one can easily see how any fresh air originating in the existing duct outside the room that manages to find its way through the grilles (at the top of the storefront partition) will be sucked directly into the existing return grille, also at the top of its wall, without providing much benefit to the occupants within the so-called “breathing zone” (Figure 1 below). In fact, it’s possible that particulate matter from the 3-D printers will find itself in a zone with no air movement at all, given the geometry of the room and the placement of grilles only at the top of the walls.

Figure 1. It’s easy to see that the placement of supply air (outside the room) along with louvers (grilles) at the top of the storefront partition and a return grille also at the top of its wall will discourage proper air circulation within the digital fabrication lab, currently under construction (photo by J. Ochshorn, May 2, 2017)

[UPDATE: May 10, 2017] I just received an email response from the AAP Dean indicating how Cornell intends to deal with Milstein Hall toilets (still trying to figure it out) and egress (temporary stair through the glass curtain wall) during the construction of a Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall:

Thank you for your question regarding the transition. Regarding egress, my understanding is that an egress stair will be provided directly from the Kwee studios by removing a glass panel and providing a temporary egress stair. I am told this will be part of the CD drawings.

Regarding the bathrooms, the project team is working with the city to determine the number of accessible and non-accessible fixtures not including Rand Hall. A solution is not yet final, but the team is aware of the issue.

[UPDATE: May 22, 2017] On May 19, 2017, I received a copy of a “health review,” concerning the Sibley Hall Digital Fabrication Lab, jointly written by Cornell’s Director of Occupational Health, Safety, Fire and Emergency Services and Cornell’s Director of Facilities Engineering. I emailed the following reply today to the AAP Director of Facilities (copied to other relevant parties):

Thanks for stopping by today and confirming that each 3D printer will now be placed in a separate “box” that filters air for nanoparticles and VOCs before returning the air to the room. This seems better than the original design in which the 3D printers were placed in the temporary digital fabrication lab (240 E. Sibley) without any specialized exhaust system. Still, even if 99.97% of nanoparticles are captured in this way, the 0.03% that escape constitute a potential release of 20,000,000,000 x 0.0003 = 6,000,000 toxic and carcinogenic particles into the breathing zone per minute. (“Recent studies have shown that 3D printing using a low-temperature polylactic acid (PLA) feedstock can release 20 billion particles per minute” – https://www.uvm.edu/safety/shop/3d-printer-safety).

Question 2 and its answer… confirm that the digital fabrication lab is not directly provided with outside air, but instead: “The Makeup Air Unit in Room 200UA delivers fresh air to the second floor. This air is then transferred into Room 240 through grilles located at the top of the glass partition wall.” Based on a conversation I had with Senior Technical Staff of the International Code Commission (ICC), transferring outside air from a corridor into the digital fabrication lab would not be compliant with the 2015 Mechanical Code. However, since the corridor seems to be now labeled as a room (“collaborative area”), it’s probably legal, but barely. The opportunistic and ad hoc manner in which such design decisions are, and have been made, does not inspire confidence.

Relatively little is known about the risks of exposure to 3D printers. A recent study says: “It is well-known that both gases and particles are emitted during thermal processing of many thermoplastic materials. However, little is known about the  types and magnitudes of emissions from desktop FFF 3D printers and how they vary according to filament material or printer characteristics. In 2013, we published the first known measurements of emissions of ultrafine particles (UFPs: particles less than 100 nm in diameter) resulting from the operation of a single make and model of commercially available desktop FFF 3D printer using both ABS and PLA filaments. These findings were crucial, as exposure to emissions from thermal decomposition of thermoplastics has been shown to have toxic effects in animals, and exposure to UFPs from other sources has been linked to a variety of adverse human health effects.” (Parham Azimi, et al., “Emissions of Ultrafine particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,” Environmental Science & Technology, at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.5b04983, emphasis added).

It saddens me that students, faculty, and administrators in AAP feel the need to introduce toxic and carcinogenic materials into the educational environment. The competition to keep pace with our peers, and to prepare our students for professional practice in architecture, has apparently reached the point where even Monty Python’s prescient “Architect’s Sketch,” featuring “rotating knives” in a corridor where “blood pours down these chutes,” seems like a quaint anachronism.

On another note, I was told by the AAP Director of Facilities that no new toilet rooms will be provided for architecture students during the time when code-mandated toilet rooms in Rand Hall become inaccessible due to construction of the Fine Arts Library. Instead, a code variance will be sought.

[UPDATE: Jan. 19, 2018] Cornell has successfully petitioned for a New York State code variance (Petition No. 2017-0515) so that they will not need to provide an adequate number of toilets during the construction of the library in Rand Hall. There is only a single (shared) toilet for men on the entire second floor of the combined E. SIbley-Milstein Hall, a floor which encompasses an area of over 30,000 square feet and contains well over 300 occupants (with a legal occupancy over 500). In addition, Mike Niechwiadowicz, Ithaca’s Director of Code Enforcement, made a determination that a third exit was not required from Milstein Hall based on the “occupancy of the L.P. Kwee Studios” on the second floor of Milstein Hall. It’s not clear whether he also considered the classroom/critique spaces on the second floor of E. Sibley Hall that exit through Milstein Hall and therefore increase the occupant load beyond what would be computed if considering only the L.P. Kwee Studios in Milstein Hall. Based on past experience, it’s unlikely that there are any calculations to support his judgment. Niechwiadowicz, you may remember, is the very same “code expert” who insisted that Milstein Hall’s crit room needed only one exit. Needless to say, his code opinion was overturned at the July 18, 2013, meeting of the NY State Capital Region Board of Review and Cornell was forced to create, at great expense, a second exit from the crit room space—by breaking through the wall separating the crit room and the auditorium.

Revisiting Form and Forces

I just presented a paper at the 2017 National Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) Conference in Oklahoma City. The paper critiques graphical statics as a contemporary pedagogical tool. You can read it here.

While in Oklahoma City, I also went to see the final game played by the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, where Russell Westbrook was honored in a pregame ceremony by Oscar Robertson. Not everyone is up to speed on NBA trivia; to learn more, read this NY Times article.

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Cornell’s 100% design development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Art’s Library have been completed. The scheme continues to have serious fire-safety deficiencies, continues to be non-compliant with the New York State Building Code, and continues to be problematic for non-Code reasons as well: it destroys a flexible “low-value” industrial-type building that was extremely useful for the department of architecture and replaces it with a spectacularly useless mausoleum for the display of books. You can read more of my articles and blog posts about this project here.

Today, one day before the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I offer two more reading options: first, a detailed analysis of the latest 100% DD drawings (and Cornell’s Code variances) and second, a Cornell Chronicle parody covering the same material.

This photo accompanies my Cornell Chronicle parody.

A Fulbright journal: Five months in Tianjin

I kept an electronic photo-journal for five months while living in Tianjin, China, as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. During my time there during the fall 2016 semester, I taught two courses in the School of Architecture at Tianjin University, and also lectured in several other cities in China. You can read my journal in one of two formats: either as a black and white paperback book (click here to order a copy), or as a full-color pdf, embedded below. It takes a short time for the pdf viewer to load; click on the “fullscreen” button in the middle of the horizontal menu bar to enlarge the content.

[March 26, 2017 update] I’ve uploaded some random videos: Scenes from China.

Steel truss design

I’ve written a paper (not yet online) [Update 5/28/17: now online here] about graphical statics. In order to demonstrate that the “form-finding” objectives of such techniques are often superficial and flawed, I needed to provide a case study of an actual structural design problem, using real materials and real design methods, that accounts for things (like the buckling of bars in compression, or shear lag and effective net area of bars in tension, or deflection issues) that graphical statics ignores. So I created an enormous spreadsheet to find the optimal (lightest) steel double-angle Pratt or Warren truss for any given span, spacing, and loading condition. The spreadsheet actually designs 105 different trusses (with aspect ratios ranging from 2:1 to 16:1; and with from 2 to 14 “panels,” as shown in Figure 1) in order to find the optimal combination of aspect ratio and panel geometry for a given span, spacing, and loads.

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Well, the spreadsheet had well over 1,000,000 cells and couldn’t be converted to an online calculator using the software I have. Therefore, I made a smaller version of the same spreadsheet — this one only designs a single truss (rather than 105 versions) and only considers whatever aspect ratio and panel geometry have been selected. However, this calculator can also be used to find the lightest truss, but only by trying out numerous geometries while keeping track of the truss weight.