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.

Planetizen course based on Building Bad

I’ve created two 1-hour courses for Planetizen, a “planning-related news website and e-learning platform based in Los Angeles” (Wikipedia) — or, in their own words, “the independent voice of the planning community, free from institutional or financial interests” — based on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries 2021). The first course in this 2-part series, explaining how architectural utility is constrained by politics, can be watched or previewed at https://courses.planetizen.com/course/building-bad-part-1. The second course, on utility and architectural expression, will be available sometime next week. [Update June 22, 2023: Part 2 can be viewed or previewed here.]

Building Bad Part 1

Building Bad? Never too late to say “I told you so.”

Today in the New York Times, Lola Fadulu writes about New York City’s lawsuit pertaining to Steven Holl’s ADA-noncompliant Hunters Point library: 

A few years back, architects designed a public library in Queens that has been lauded as one of the most stunning public buildings produced in New York in a century. But it is also rife with obstacles for people with disabilities, according to city officials who are now suing the designers for the $10 million they say it will cost to fix.

At the Queens Public Library at Hunters Point, a staircase that runs from the lobby to the second floor is the only way to access three areas that have built-in desks with charging stations. A ramp that leads to the rooftop terrace, which has sweeping views of Manhattan, has a slope that is unlawful, the city argues. Bathrooms throughout the building do not have enough space for wheelchairs, the lawsuit says.

Two years ago, in July 2021, I wrote about the same library in my song, “Ballad of Building Bad.” Here’s the song, starting with the second verse:

Verse 2 (Jonathan Ochshorn, “Ballad of Building bad”)
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 so beggars can’t be choosers
And it’s based on these watercolor drawings in my sketchpad
Building bad

The song is based on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021).

Pritzker-plus tour of Cornell campus

[Updated below] I was asked by some architecture students to conduct a walking tour of the Cornell campus so, after some thought, I proposed a “Pritzker-plus” tour, taking in the six Cornell buildings designed by Pritzker laureates (i.e., Koolhaas, Pei, Stirling, Mayne, Meier, and Bunshaft) as well as some of by own favorite campus buildings (Uris Library’s A.D. White room, Thurston Hall, Duffield Hall, and Bradfield Hall). Google says this is a 2.5 mile (4 km) walk. We’re meeting at the “bubbles” in Milstein Hall’s Duane and Dalia Stiller Arcade at 10:00 AM, Friday, May 12, 2023.

Poster and map for my walking tour of Pritzker-plus buildings on Cornell’s campus: May 12, 2023.

Update (August 29, 2023): We did a second iteration of this walking tour on Monday, August 28, 2023,  at 4:45 PM. See blog post.

Jonathan Ochshorn addresses tour group inside Stirling’s Schwartz Center for the performing Arts st Cornell (photo by Max Rodencal)

 

Why not store combustible foam plastic under an exit stair?

It’s probably legal to store combustible material under an exit access stairway (i.e., an exit stair that is permitted to be unenclosed) even though it wouldn’t be allowed under an unenclosed exterior stair or an enclosed interior exit stair. But it’s probably not a good idea. I tested the combustibility of the foamed plastic used as display stands for architecture (and other) reviews and exhibits, here shown stored under the exit access stair in the domed Crit Room in Milstein Hall, Cornell’s architecture building designed by OMA. This video documents my combustibility test and explains the code issues.

 

Health, safety, and welfare: The role played by politics and architectural expression

Milstein auditorium at Cornell University

In all 50,000 square feet of Milstein Hall at Cornell University, this is the only carpeted area — at the bottom of the auditorium. Still, it’s good enough for 1 LEED point!

I spoke to the second-year Bachelor of Architecture class at Cornell University about health, safety, and welfare — things like fire safety, structure, accessibility, and sustainability — and the role played by politics and architectural expression in constraining or even damaging those utilitarian functions of buildings. The talk was based in large part on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression.

The lecture on March 13, 2023, ended up being way too long, so I delivered the final sections two days later, on March 15, 2023. I divided the Zoom lecture recordings into six parts, corresponding to the sections of the lecture, and I put them all online as separate videos (find links below).

Some light editing was in order: I removed most of my snarky remarks; eliminated copyrighted material (in particular, excerpts from Monty Python’s “Architects Sketch” had to go); corrected one or two words (e.g., “access” got changed to “axis”); and deleted as many “ums,” “rights,” and “you knows” as I could.

Health, safety, and welfare: The role played by politics and architectural expression
© 2023 Jonathan Ochshorn, Professor Emeritus, Cornell University


Part 1. Introductory comments on health, safety, and welfare

Part 2. Introductory comments on expression

Part 3. Fire safety: Politics and expression

Part 4. Structure: Politics and expression

Part 5. Accessibility: Politics and expression

Part 6: Sustainability: Politics and expression

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 live performance at retirement event

I performed four songs at a retirement event at the “Inns of Aurora” sponsored by Cornell’s Department of Architecture on January 27, 2023. This event was originally intended for the end of the spring 2022 semester (when I actually retired), but got delayed for various reasons, and then became a combined event for several other recent retirees who had not been celebrated previously because of Covid restrictions on gatherings.

In any event, my request to do a musical performance was still honored, and the resulting concert footage is embedded here. Well, not quite the original concert footage: I had earlier recorded a “practice” performance in my house which had much better audio than what was recorded at the actual event, so I synced this practice audio with the video clips of the real performance that were shot by my wife, Susan. Except that a clip for the first verse of the last song could not be found, so I lip-synced that verse at home, in front of a green screen, and simulated the performance of the first verse, which is now part of the official video.

These are unplugged — guitar-vocal versions — of four songs, three of which are about getting old (the first, “Endgame,” is an extended metaphor based on the game of chess; the second, “What’s the Point of Even Trying,” is taken from the standpoint of a child watching a parent get old; and the third, “Squints on a Triple,” is taken from the standpoint of a parent watching his child get older) with the last song, “Ballad of Building Bad,” being a critique of architecture (actually an advertisement for my book, Building Bad).

The songs that I perform live here can also be viewed in their original “music video” form (use links in the paragraph above).

Production notes:
Music written, arranged, produced, and performed by Jonathan Ochshorn (© J. Ochshorn)
Recorded with Logic Pro X software
Video edited with Final Cut Pro software
Vocals: Jonathan Ochshorn
Guitar and harmonica: Jonathan Ochshorn
Audio recorded live at home in Ithaca, NY, January 18, 2023; video of live performance shot January 27, 2023.

Use of Google Street View for architectural photography

I’m continually amazed by the availability of high-quality (if sometimes idiosyncratically framed) architectural images through Google’s street view. Finding public domain or Creative Commons images can be difficult when publishing architectural critiques and the copyrighted alternatives can be expensive — the screen captures (or screen recordings) made possible through the street view app are an under-appreciated resource!

I made this video of the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice simply by using the screen recording (Command-5) feature on my Mac. The recording itself contains the required attribution [image capture Sep 2018 © 2022 Google]; no other permissions are needed to use such material online or in print.

Always On My Mind

This cover is based on the Willie Nelson version of “Almost On My Mind,” released in 1982, ten years after the song was first released by others, including Elvis (who had the first hit with it), Brenda Lee (my personal favorite), and Gwen McCrae (who actually released the first version of the song in 1972). I’ve been recording covers of songs chronologically, starting with “Surfer Girl” from 1963 — one song chosen per calendar year — but I made an exception and recorded this 1982 version of “Always On My Mind,” even though I had already covered “Tainted Love” from the same year. The reason had something to do with a costumed Halloween wedding party to which I’ve been invited by my talented niece; since I’m going as Willie Nelson, I figured I should at least learn one of his songs* and, well, one thing led to another. I found and purchased the Willie Nelson wig and headband online for the Halloween costumed wedding party taking place next week. It also occurred to me that this song — about experiencing regret in the world of love — is, to that extent, similar to one of the first songs I ever wrote: “Almost Doesn’t Count.”

This cover of “Always On My Mind” is recorded live with piano and vocal; guitar, drums, bass, and organ are added later, along with a touch of backup vocals near the end. As usual, drums, bass, piano, and organ are all played live on my MIDI keyboard using software instruments provided in Logic Pro. The video clips were shot live (except for the close up head shots, which are lip-synced) with my iPhone and edited with Final Cut Pro.

All of my original songs and covers are linked from my music page.

* This song was not actually written by Willie Nelson, but is credited to Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James.