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Weeks 33 & 34 – Higher and Higher Technology: Those Who Live by the Sword…

May 5, 2010

Red poppies bloom among the tall grass and ruins atop the Palatine Hill in Rome

Seeking shade in the Roman Coliseum

The wild poppies are now in bloom here in Rome, and the days continue to grow longer and warmer. Sunset is now around 8:15 Pm, and a week ago Sunday was the first day I actually found myself seeking shade. Of course, I was schlepping up and down the Palatine Hill (an archaeological site in Rome – where the Roman Emperors lived, just above the Imperial Forum), and the very steep steps of the Coliseum with a 17 pound bundle of joy (my 10 month old daughter) strapped to me. Nevertheless, it marked the first day I was actually hot, and willfully seeking shade. 

Two weeks ago was Settimana di Cultura (Cultural Week) here in Italy – all the national museums and archaeological sites (e.g., the Forum, Coliseum, etc.) were free. In addition to it being unseasonably warm on Sunday, it also started to feel like summer in another way. The large crowds of tourists led by tour guides holding aloft an umbrella, or a brightly colored scarf tied to a broken car antenna, had reappeared in Rome after a winter hiatus, like the swallows returning to Capistrano. 

View of the Coliseum from the Palatine Hill

Replacing my computer's hard drive

Last week (Week 33) marked the first week since I’ve been in Rome that I haven’t put-up a new post on my blog. My apologies – I had no functional computer last week, as a virus had rendered mine essentially inoperable. After my many failed attempts to remove the virus with several of the latest and greatest virus scanning software programs, the fantastic IT staff at my firm, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH), Fed-ex’d me a new hard drive for my computer, and then by phone, talked me through the process of replacing it myself. I had to go to a local ferramente (hardware store) and buy the skinniest screwdriver I could possibly find for the operation. I felt a bit like the airline passenger who needs to land the plane in an emergency when the pilot is incapacitated, and is talked through the landing by an outwardly calm but secretly nervous and sweaty air traffic control operator. Well, the operation was a success, and the patient (my computer) appears to be doing well. Thank you Zaki, Ben, and all. 

My computer has been a lifeline for me during this year to everything back in the States – from correspondence with friends, family and colleagues to logistics like paying bills and taxes.  And I only realized how remarkably dependent I had become on this technology when something went badly wrong. 

The Markets of Trajan, Rome

All this reminds me of a series of ongoing discussions that architect Kiel Moe and I have been having throughout the course of this year here at the American Academy, about technology in buildings. Kiel teaches technology and design courses in the architecture school at Northeastern University, and I work for an engineering firm known for its in-depth understanding, analysis and design of building enclosures and structures, often at the leading edge of building technology. So the thrust of our discussions may come as a bit of a surprise, and even sound a bit of a counter-revolutionary… Inspired by the remarkable durability, reliability, and performance of the Roman buildings we’ve looked at, we’ve been discussing our ideas about “lower technology, higher performance” buildings ( to use Kiel’s phrase, and part of his working title for his forthcoming third book from Princeton Architectural Press). 

Interior view of skylight with mechanically operated fins at the new MAXXI, Rome

Kiel and I have discussed how perhaps architecture has never truly been modern. If modernity in architecture is characterized by simplification, and using contemporary technology to achieve a rational elegance of simplicity that distills architecture to its very essence, then 20th century modernism realized only the aesthetic potential of modernity, but not its technical nor construction potential. In the late 20th century, building envelope and environmental control systems became increasingly and often unnecessarily complex, and that trend continues to escalate in the 21st century. This trend of escalating complexity is not modern, as we see it – it’s more the antithesis of modern. Technically, it’s the aesthetic equivalent of Rococo or Queen Anne Victorian – aesthetically overwhelming, but too many complex and arguably superfluous parts. 

Zaha Hadid's new MAXXI (museum) in Rome

In addition to historic preservation, another aspect of my work at SGH involves investigating failures of building envelopes (e.g., walls, windows, roofing), occasionally on buildings that are only a few years old, or even brand new. This forensic work and my preservation work sound quite disparate, but they actually inform each other, as both involve critical diagnostic assessment of what is working well and proving durable, what is failing (e.g., deteriorating rapidly, or leaking), and why, and how to fix it. One thing I’ve noticed on my work on 18th and 19th century historic buildings, on 20th century modernist icons, and on contemporary new buildings is that building envelope systems have become and continue to become increasingly (and I would argue, often unnecessarily) complex, and that trend continues to escalate now in the early 21st century.

Close-up of a problematic skylight

As a profession, we continue to build walls with more and more and more layers, with each layer serving an increasingly specialized role in the buildings performance, and with increased reliance on these layers (e.g., cladding, weather-resistive barrier, air barrier, vapor retarder, thermal insulation, etc.) needing to work almost perfectly in order for the wall to perform well. It’s often unrealistic to demand or expect perfection.  The old adage that “the more working parts, the more likely something is to fail” rings as true for architecture as for anything else. Relatively recent headlines and lawsuits over architectural envelope failures, ranging from simple spec. builder houses in the southeast clad with EIFS (synthetic stucco), mold and sick buildings of all types, to lawsuits of famous architects over high-profile and highly complex building envelope designs that fail and leak almost immediately after construction emphasize  the pandemic nature of problems with building envelope and environmental control systems in architecture today. 

A typical EIFS-clad wood framed house in the Southeastern USA

Deteriorated wood product sheathing beneath a window in an EIFS-clad house

Deteriorated wood sheathing on an EIFS-clad house that was less than 4 years old

Today, many of our neighbors seek greater simplicity and reliability in their everyday lives. Even at the forefront of popular technology, we constantly demand and receive greater simplicity and fewer working parts – our old radios, VCR’s, calendars, telephones and computers are now replaced by a single iPhone that is simpler to use, and fits in our pocket. 

Another example of making an educated choice for simplicity, and even switching from high-tech to low-tech is that some of my friends and in the Boston area have switched from automobiles to bicycles for their daily commutes to work. Obviously, there are important environmental and financial considerations to their decisions, in addition to pure performance-based decisions, but financial and environmental considerations are also high on the list of most architects’ considerations in building design and construction. Among the most serious all-season bicycle commuters, many have bypassed higher-technology 10, 12 or 15 speed bikes in favor of the greater reliability, maintenance, and durability of single speed bikes. For many who have used both types of bikes (multi-speed and single speed), that extra bit of higher performance of multi-speed bikes under extreme and rarely occurring conditions (e.g., extremely steep hills) simply isn’t worth the decrease in reliability and durability, and ease of maintenance as compared to a single speed bike. 

In architecture, we have largely failed as a profession to be part of this increasingly greater trend toward simplicity and durability, and this reassessment and reclaiming of elegantly simple lower tech, higher reliability ideas and designs. In contrast to the escalating complexity of contemporary design and building practices, Kiel and I have been discussing ideas for simpler, lower-technology construction practices and methods that focus on durability, reliability, and solidarity (a unified purpose of the individual members or parts) as potentially more prudent, sound and sustainable pathways forward in the twenty-first century.

Ancient Roman construction at Ostia Antica

A masterpiece of 20th century modernism - Louis Kahn's India Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Webster permalink
    May 6, 2010 12:41 pm

    I fully support the push towards simplicity in new buildings, not only to improve reliability and durability, but also to improve the chances of deconstruction and reuse of materials at end of life. For example, simpler structural systems using comprehensible grids, common framing details, repeating member sizes, and fewer transfer beams (for example) make it that much easier for a disassembly contractor to walk into the building 100 years from now and determine what is there and how to take it apart. The simpler (i.e. cheaper) this is, the more likely it will be done, and the better the net profit from selling the components for reuse in new construction.

  2. May 13, 2010 8:28 pm

    Provocative criticism of modernism!

    “Think like a drop of water.”

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