Post-Apocalyptic Design

Zombies are everywhere these days.  From the Walking Dead to Zone One to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the undead have infected our popular culture like a flesh-eating virus.  In a recent interview on Studio 360, Colson Whitehead, author of Zone One, explained our fascination with zombies as having to do with an embedded fear in the human psyche that our friends, family, and neighbors really are secretly out to get us, and, as zombies, that fear comes out into the open.  Much of zombie fiction, from Zone One to Shaun of the Dead, include scenes where the protagonist has to kill their parents, which seems, to me, to be a rather ham-handed homage to Dr. Freud.  

My own fascination with zombies, and, by extension, the post-apocalyptic genre in general, has been about the design of the world after the collapse.  Many of these films and books, are, by nature, on the corny side, but the visual imagination involved is always great.  I started in elementary school with the classic of classics, Mad Max, the beginning of a trilogy starring Mel Gibson as a road warrior in Australia.  Filmed in 1979 in brilliant wide-screen, it pioneers what would become a familiar dystopian story line -- the collapse of the oil economy.  The main design innovations in that first movie are Max's sawed-off pistol shotgun (something that would also become a familiar trope in future post-apocalyptic movies) and his Ford Falcon hardtop Pursuit Special.  It had a huge engine, backed up with massive dual fuel tanks in place of a trunk and back seat.  Weapons were hidden everywhere.  In various sequels, more attention is paid to the urban design, following Max to various cities inhabited by small groups of scavengers safe-guarding precious supplies of gas and water.  

The Interceptor.


Shop Improvements

Every shop is a work in progress.  There is a constant flow of background tasks, dedicated to keeping the place clean and organized.  Dust is a hazard to breathe, and can cause fires.  Clamps, glue, drill bits, blades, hand tools -- things end up all over the place at the end of the day, making it hard to find what you need the next morning.  These improvements are a key part of the life of a workshop, as they enable one to make things faster, cleaner, and ultimately, better.  

Every shop I've ever worked in has had bursts of self-improvement from time to time.  When I made cabinets, I built some insulated doors to the bench room, to keep in the heat from the pellet stove so the concrete countertops wouldn't freeze at night.  In Alabama, I built a shed for the garden tools.  The last couple of weeks, I've been doing a lot of shop improvements at both ReBuild Foundation and the ReBuilding Exchange.  

At the ReBuild Foundation, I built a four-tier, 5' x 16' x 10' tall lumber rack for all the salvaged treasures they have down there.  It was a scrapful effort, patched together out of old 2" x 4"s, pallets, and bits of plywood.  When a piece wasn't long enough, I scabbed two together.  It felt good to be wielding a nailgun again, shooting something together. 
The lumber racket.  Ladder included, no extra charge.  


The Good Life

I recently began re-reading The Good Life, a book I had bought back in high school and never finished.  Mostly forgotten, I picked it up on a trip home and delved in.  A sort of joint autobiography/handbook by Scott and Helen Nearing, it recounts their means and methods for dropping out of society and going back to the land.  The book is really two books under one cover:  Living the Good Life, published in 1951, and Continuing the Good Life, published in 1979, four years before Scott's death at age 100.

The story begins in New York City, 1930.  The Nearings, were, at that time, 26 (Helen), and 47 (Scott).  The text refers to them, collectively, as "approaching fifty."  (I took that at face value, not realizing their age difference until I did some research online.) The age difference is not explained in the text, but Scott had a wife before Helen, Nellie, and a son, John.   Vague intimations are made about them losing their jobs because of radical politics.  Scott, a professor, was an ardent socialist and radical anti-war advocate, and lost his job due to Communist hysteria and perceived treason due to his opposition to American involvement in World War 1.  Looking to drop out of the dominant consumer-industrial culture of the time (funny, as we complain about that now, in an age of TV, the internet, and unprecedented consumer spending) and fashion a self-sufficient lifestyle for themselves, the Nearings moved to rural Vermont, buying an old farm at the foot of Stratton Mountain.  


On (Design) Failure

As a designer, I like to think I can anticipate everything.  Most architects and builders do.  It is, after all, our job to figure everything out before mortar hits brick, or rain hits roof, or ass hits seat.  However, design is not that simple.  Prototypes, drafts, and painstaking iterative improvement are an integral part of any good design process.  

My process, in particular, is based on prototyping, debugging, and then, hopefully, forward progress.  That said, sometimes things just go sideways on a fella.  Recently, I reported on a productive weekend in the shop, working on some new chairs made from an old feta cheese barrel, designed to address some of the shortcomings of my Scrap Armchairs.  One of the main problems with those chairs, the flat seat and back, would be solved with the nice, ergonomic curve of the barrel staves.  I worked out a new frame, built it, cut mortises to accept the barrel staves, and glued up the whole thing.  

What follows is a photo-illustrated journal of the complete failure of that process.  I thought it might be useful to show how something fails, why it fails, and what lessons to salvage out of the whole mess.  

Chair frames, made from reclaimed old-growth pine (maybe fir, not a wood ID expert).  Simple notched joints, glued and pegged with dowels for additional strength.  


Temporary Urbanism

It seems, warranted or no, that Occupy Wall Street's tenure at Zuccotti Park has come to an end.  While their aims were diffuse, and poorly defined, the protesters did succeed in changing the course of the national conversation about inequality in America.  Some dismissed them as a joke.  Others called them terrorists.  Debate aside, I think they served as a long-overdue counterpoint to John Boehner's job creator meme, which claims that there is an ongoing capital strike by financiers.  This rumor remains pernicious even after being repeatedly factually disemboweled.  

Politics aside, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Occupy movement is their chosen mode of protest -- claiming public space and living on it until demands, whatever they may be, are met.  This occupation strategy has at least one historic precedent in the Bonus Army, which didn't end well for either side.  The idea of a tent city, with its lending library, kitchen, and media center, got me thinking about temporary urbanism.  Tent cities have historically been associated with refugee camps or natural disasters.  Tent cities set up on purpose have usually been the seeds of a new city, built around an economic boom like a gold rush or oil discovery.  Occupy has inhabited a new philosophical space, built around a purposeful impermanence, neither building the foundations of a future community nor reacting to a physical disaster.  Rather, it is responding to a political crisis, and is built around the tenuous bonds of the internet, rooted as firmly in the ether as it is in reality.  

While the New York Occupy movement has been cut off at the knees, it continues on in many other cities, among them Boston, Denver, and L.A.  As winter descends, the inhabitation strategy looks increasingly difficult.  However, some politically motivated designers have been working on solutions to the weather.  Taking the Tiny House idea to a whole new level, these folks have created some small structures that use a combination of insulation, small volume, and heat-reflective surfaces to create spaces fueled only by body heat.  By staying on wheels and within a certain footprint, they avoid any zoning issues because they aren't classified as actual buildings.  

Sage Radachowsky's Occupy Boston shelter.  Image courtesy of RelaxShacks.  


Design Nomadics

I think I first heard of Steven Roberts in 1995, in Popular Mechanics, a magazine I loved as a kid.  For awhile, I got Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Outside every month, then stored them in chronological order in cardboard file boxes in my bedroom.  Once my family got the internet, I started to follow Steve's adventures across the country on his computerized bicycle, B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., pursuing what he christened technomadics.

Basically, he took a long-wheelbase recumbent bicycle and added solar panels, batteries, a CD player, a heads-up display, handlebar keyboard, and a system that circulated ice water through tubes embedded in his helmet.  He had been on a perpetual journey since 1983, cris-crossing North America.  To support himself, he worked as a freelance writer.  In an era before wi-fi, and even cellphones, he connected to the internet via ham radio and pay phones, clipping rubber cups to the receiver to transmit articles to his editors.  Nights, he stayed with friends, camped, or booked cheap motels.  Nowadays, you could more or less do everything he did with an iPhone; he traveled with a solid quarter-ton of equipment to achieve the same connectivity in a more primitive era.  

Roberts hacked, engineered, designed, and built the bikes from the ground up, integrating technology into a platform that afforded him ultimate freedom.  As time went on, he left the bicycles behind, and is now in the midst of a thirteen (and counting) year-long quest to build a technomadic boat.  It has gone through many iterations, from kayak to trimaran, but seems to have settled on a steel-hulled sailboat.

Steven Roberts, and B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., circa 1991.  Courtesy of his site.  


Sunday in the Shop

Sunday, I took advantage of a rare free day in the ReBuilding Exchange shop to work on a new project and photograph some old ones.  My Scrap Armchair came together pretty well, but, as usual, there are a number of problems with it.  One, I didn't get the ergonomics right, so the back is too vertical, and hits the spine at a less-than-ideal location.  Two, the maple floorboards I used for the back and seat are flat, failing to conform to the body.  Three, the frame is really bulkier than it needs to be, strength-wise.  Four, I thought I could make the exposed fasteners look attractive, but I should've used dowels, or at least plugged over them.  

As modeled by chair impresario Blake Sloane.  


The Craftsman Experience

Well, dear reader, my usual posts are kind of long, a little dense, and perhaps, dare I say, boring from time to time.  So, in the interest of both brevity and self-promotion, I am going to break the habit and bring you a short, intense burst of information about immediate news.  

Tomorrow, Friday, November 18th, from 6-9 pm, I will be steadfastly manning a folding table loaded with the fresh road sign bowls at the Instructables Show n' Tell, hosted by the Craftsman Experience Chicago.  At some point, the folks down there will be interviewing me for their web series, which will be streamed live starting at 7 pm, CST.  It's free, live, and gonna be one hell of a good time.  Come on out and join me!

Some other things that have been on my mind this week:

Fascinating perspective on the millenial generation.  

Amanda Buck makes another great graphic for GOOD.  

Sweet blog about social design practice and theory from some friends of mine in Alabama.  

Documentary about eating local from my friend Andy Grace is in the can.  

Another g(ue)orilla stalks the web, tiny-house dweller and renegade urbanist in Germany.

Someone finally calls out Phoenix, an hour south of my former home, as the world's least sustainable city, pointing out how politics, culture, architecture, land use, economics, and design intersect.  Design is a political act.  

My sister hit the streets in NYC to shut down Wall Street today.  She is a brave woman.  Listened to a disturbing podcast today that outlined how inequitable tax policy has deeply damaged America in the last thirty years.  


IKEA and the Culture of Disposability

In the October 3rd, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote a great article, entitled House Perfect: Is IKEA Comfy or Creepy?  She starts by discussing her own history, particularly the way IKEA furniture has become a rite of passage in America for a certain class of young people making their way through the machinations of adolescence, college, first jobs, and frequent moves between small apartments.  The idea that furniture is a disposable fashion accessory is a marked generational shift from our parents and grandparents, for whom furniture was a permanent fixture of the home.

Collins writes "Choosing a piece of furniture was once a serious decision, because of the expectation that it was permanent.  It is said that Americans keep sofas longer than they keep cars, and change dining-room tables about as often as they trade spouses.  IKEA has made interiors ephemeral.  Its furniture is placeholder furniture, the prelude to an always imminent upgrade.  It works until it breaks, or until its owners break up.  It carries no traces.  The ease of self-invention that IKEA enables is liberating, but it can be sad to make a life, or to dispose of it, so cheaply."



I recently came across an article in the Washington Post about the demolition of foreclosed houses in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  It is cheaper for the banks to tear down houses, at $7,500 each, then it is to take care of vacant properties that won't sell.  The accompanying pictures show backhoes clawing down the walls into neat piles of rubble.  A few photos show folks trying to salvage good material, collecting, tiles, woodwork, and scrap metal from the houses.

Back in Baltimore, my hometown, the same thing has been going on for years.  The issue of vacant row homes has been perennial, mentioned in mayoral races as far back as 1987.  Looking through the Baltimore Sun archives, the estimated number of abandoned houses varies widely, from 20-40,000.  Census data indicates that Baltimore has shed approximately 320,000 residents since a peak in 1950, an average of 5,333 people annually.  Assuming each row home housed four people, and half of the population loss was staying in row homes, that averages out to roughly 27,500 vacants -- right in the middle of the various estimates.  Over the years, programs have been initiated to try and cut down on the stock of empty homes, including loan programs, selling them at auction, and demolishing them.  

The Post article concentrates on the recent foreclosure phenomenon; Baltimore's issue is more complicated, with a much longer history.  Much of Baltimore's population decline has been classic white flight, as folks moved to the suburbs in search of better schools and jobs.  The decline and eventual failure of Bethlehem Steel, as well as a long-term decline in shipping, destroyed a lot of working-class jobs in the city.  People moved out.  Many of these issues come up in The Wire, the fascinating, novelistic HBO crime drama, set in Baltimore.  In season two, the main story line concerns trouble at the longshoreman's union, struggling for air in an era of globalized trade that requires deep-water ports.  In season four, vacant houses become burial grounds for victims of the drug war.  Throughout the series, cops, junkies, and hustlers use empty row homes to perform surveillance, shoot up, and hide drugs.

Some quality demolition a few blocks from my apartment.


LEED and the Tyranny of Statistics

Since I started this blog, not too long ago, I've been a rather compulsive checker of my page views, referring links, and other relevant numbers neatly displayed under the "stats" toolbar.  Blogger, as an interface, integrates the stats rather well, although this is a recent phenomenon.  Before the advent of Google Analytics, and, to some extent, Facebook, you would just put up a webpage and sail blindly across the seas of cyberspace without really knowing who was looking at your site unless someone actually reached out and emailed you.  Now, the internet is broken down, codifying exactly who is looking after you. 

I maintain a broad spectrum web presence:  I have an Etsy site, a Flickr page, a Facebook account, a personal website, an Instructables setup, a Ponoko storefront, an eBay account, and this very blog.  These are just my personal sites that are publicly consumable; this list doesn't take into account my private accounts at my bank, Amazon, iTunes, and so forth.  Every single one of these sites spits stats back at me in some form.  All of them track page views, as a basic metric of traffic.  Some, like Facebook and Etsy, track likes of some sort, where someone has to actively make a decision to publicly declare their affection for something.  Storefronts, like Etsy, eBay, and Ponoko, measure sales, which is a different, and perhaps weightier, form of like.  Google Analytics adds many other layers of information, like referring sites, country of origin, and time spent on the site.  Statistics like these extend far beyond the web.  Historically, people have always been keeping track of their money -- only now a statement arrives in the mail every month detailing the flow in and out, listing the purchases, and doing the math for you.  Phone bills, first landlines and now mobiles, tell you how much time you spent in conversation, which is inherently strange and immeasurable.  

The questions raised by this murky swamp of data are many, and hard to answer.  On some level, all of these accumulated likes and page views are a form of validation for ourselves, a way to reach out to the world and feel like someone is reaching back.  However, burying your head in this stream of numbers can distract you from real life, the analog things happening out in the world while you're obsessively checking page views.  The majority of the statistics don't say anything meaningful, and it gets difficult to sort out important trends from the things that merely occurred.  



In a couple weeks, on November 13th, I will be giving a class on how to make fruit bowls from old license plates.  It is planned and organized by Dabble, an internet startup located right here in Chicago,  and will be held at the ReBuilding Exchange, at the corner of Ashland and Webster.  Dabble provides a platform for experts in any field to design, pitch, and deliver a class on just about anything.  They have a full slate of lectures and demonstrations on how to brew beer, make pasta, speak in public, build your online business, and get in shape.  It is a  great idea for a start-up, connecting audiences with folks who have something to share.

In 2008, with the acquisition of my first road sign, I started experimenting with home-brew metal-bending techniques.  Sheet metal, mostly aluminum or thin-gauge steel, is typically manipulated with a brake.  However, breaks are big, heavy machines and cost quite a bit, especially box-and-pan brakes, which allow you to make more complex, 3-D shapes.  So, my first attempts revolved around drilling a series of 3/8" holes, 1" on center, then beating the signs into the desired shape with a rubber mallet.  To hold the folds, I pinned them in place with machine bolts.  I made chairs, tables, and fruit bowls this way.  However, it was a laborious process that burned through drills, bits, and my back.  Each fruit bowl, at only 10" x 15", required 62 holes.

The Nine Square Chair, my first road-sign experiment.


Lost Places

Recently, I read a fascinating article in Design Observer, by photographer Brian Ulrich.  After September 11th, capitalizing on the rare mood of national unity, President Bush urged Americans to go shopping to help boost the economy.  In the short term, our dollars would provide the overall economy, tax revenues, and GDP with a bump; however, in the long term, we were only stealing from ourselves.  The growth of the consumer economy since WWII has led to surreal outcomes: the "standard of living" keeps increasing, but real wealth, savings, and exports keep decreasing.  

Bush's mistake was calling for an era of greater consumption rather than the shared sacrifice of thrift that had characterized the home front in previous conflicts.  That consumption compounded our problems -- all that stuff Bush was urging us to go buy was made overseas, shipped here on a river of oil pumped out of countries that don't have our best interests in mind.  We ended up in debt.  Obviously, many other things contributed to that debt, but at its core, that argument -- we can spend our way out of a depression -- is a fallacy.  It's like an alcoholic saying he can drink his way out of drinking.  

Ulrich has documented this phenomenon through photographs of abandoned shopping malls, dead department stores, and isolated, vacant houses.  Each image is an eerie note, held a little too long, slowly fading into silence.  Part of the reason I found them so compelling is that they stood out in this era of "disaster porn", as the internet is flooded with haunting images of abandoned buildings in decaying cities.  Many come from the burgeoning field of urban exploration, wherein folks explore old subway tunnels and shuttered mental hospitals.  While these pictures are beautiful, they all blur together after awhile.  Ulrich has documented a specific piece of the recession, illustrating a larger point about the illusory nature of our economy.  

My own disaster porn, taken at the old abandoned chicken factory in Greensboro, AL.


Alley Walkin'

I've long been a walker, hiking all over the eastern seaboard and the Appalachian Trail as a kid.  It is a slow, exploratory, head-clearing exercise, allowing one to experience the world at a human pace and a human scale, unfiltered by car windows or unnatural speed.   

As long as I can remember walking, I can remember taking shortcuts.  It never seemed logical to me as a child to follow sidewalks if I didn't have to.  For one thing, the street I grew up on didn't have sidewalks, leaving me at the mercy of cars cutting through our neighborhood to avoid traffic elsewhere.  Walking also allows a freedom that cars can't match -- your feet can take you on the straightest urban line, exploiting the gaps and seams of public space.  

Chicago is a city of alleys, providing a service network that keeps cars off the streets and trash from accumulating in front of buildings.  Several people have commented on this since I've moved here, pointing out with pride that Chicago is so much cleaner than New York.  It also means that people leave great volumes of useable stuff out in the alleys, a boon to a practiced dumpster-diver like myself.  All of the appliances and metal trash is immediately scooped up by a competitive, hard-hustling population of scrappers, who comb the alleys with shopping carts, trucks, and bikes in search of metal they can recycle.

This past weekend, I undertook some low-level urban exploration, wandering the alleys of my neighborhood for about two hours, perusing the garbage, checking out the fantastic garage-roof decks, and collecting some pictures of the resources available.  I hope to make a regular practice of this photographic hunting, and post some of the prizes here.  

Proof, contrary to some commenting critics, that milk crates exist, free for the taking, without stealing them from behind stores.


Open Source Design

In 2008, near the end of my time at Arcosanti, I was searching the web for some directions on how to make kombucha, a fermented tea some of my roommates were making, claiming great health benefits.  One of the first links in the search engine was a site called Instructables, a place where you could put up a short, photo-illustrated journal about a project and how someone might replicate it.  I quickly forgot about fermenting tea and delved into their furniture section, which was full of innovative, home-grown chairs, tables, and shelves.  

Instructables was cooked up at Squid Labs, a think tank that spun off of the MIT Media Lab, a famous incubator of new ideas.  Eric Wilhelm and Saul Griffith developed a number of new technologies and concepts there, one of which was a free, open-source website for sharing instructions on how to do just about anything.  In 2005, Instructables went online, crowd-sourcing innovation from swarms of tech-oriented tinkerers.  Articles there are published under a Creative Commons Copyright license, which states that the content creator allows anyone to use their work for free as long as they are credited.  This idea runs counter to the whole body of copyright law, which is primarily concerned with preserving the profitability of content creators, and therefore incentivizing innovation and artistry.

I was a perfect fit for Instructables: my projects had no value to be protected under copyright or patent as they weren’t necessarily blindingly original; none of the technology or techniques used were proprietary or new; and they served me best as a tool to publicize my work.  In other words, the product itself wasn’t as inherently valuable as the idea of the product; the value lay strictly in it being consumed as information by the world.  

My first Instructable, the Flagman Table.



On Monday morning, I went to grab a cup of coffee at a little cafe by my work.  I overheard two young guys having a business meeting at a table by the window.  One, in motorcycle jacket and stylishly-slashed jeans, was pitching to the other, talking about creating a decision engine for our leisure-time activities.  The rest of their conversation drifted in and out of earshot, but I couldn't get that phrase -- decision engine -- out of my head.  I paid for my coffee, dumped in some cream, and made for the door.  As I walked back to the office, cutting down the alley, I thought over that choice of words; a techie, slang-y take on an abstract concept that also sounds fundamentally dumb.  Break it down for minute: decisions are rational thoughts that generate human actions and behavior, while engines are big, brainless brutes that generate mechanical action in support of human behavior.  So, do we really want an engine spewing out decisions like so much horsepower?

Since the mid-nineties, Americans have greedily slurped up every hop, skip, and leap forward in technology, from flat-screen TVs to broadband internet to the now-ubiquitous mobile web.  I'm speaking to you now on a platform that has revolutionized people's ability to self-publish while actually reaching an audience.  Lots of things have fallen by the wayside, from pets.com to Napster -- one might call them the inevitable casualties of forward progress.  One fundamental success of Web 2.0 and beyond has been the rise of all of these engines, generating associations by plugging your eminently trackable web behavior into algorithms.  

Amazon comes up with recommendations based on books you've bought, books you've browsed, and books other people have bought.  Netflix analyzes what you've watched, what you've rated, and what's in your queue to come up with absurdly specific categories of movies you might be interested in.  Pandora builds a library of music upon your diligence in clicking on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon.  Google has begun to filter and customize your search results based on your previous searches and cookies embedded in your browser, especially if you use Chrome.  Google Maps uses algorithms to determine the best route, based on a matrix of speed limits, lane widths, and number of traffic lights.  


The ReBuilding Life

This weekend, I found myself on the South Side of Chicago, dodging rain and doing a little construction for the Rebuild Foundation.  Saturday, I was up fairly early, digesting the headlines and trying to get in the laundry room before the rest of the building snapped up the machines.  After some breakfast and chores around the apartment, I loaded my tools into the 'rolla and wound my way to the highway.  The Dan Ryan Expressway is a miserable piece of urban engineering: it slices the city in half, and, despite seven lanes in each direction, was moving at less than twenty miles an hour on a Saturday.  During the week, it is a nightmare, beat to a standstill for about six hours a day.  As Kevin Costner once asserted, if you build it, they will come -- the worst scenario for a highway, as each expansion in lane width merely attracts more traffic and compounds the problem.

At any rate, after about forty-five minutes, I made it to the Chicago HQ of the Rebuild Foundation, started by Theaster Gates, artist, educator, and all-around renaissance man.  I couldn't figure out the gate to the place (typical), and I didn't have the phone number (also typical) of my contact there, Charlie Vinz.  So, in (typically) bewildered fashion, I wandered around the alley for a minute until Charlie appeared at the fence and let me in.  I felt an immediate, powerful sense of place -- the house was a sense memory of Greensboro, radiating the same scents, sights, and scenes as my old home.  It was deeply reminiscent of PieLab, built as it was out of old lumber and odd bits of imagination.

The Dorchester Street house of the Rebuild Foundation, with facade of salvaged wood.


The Commuting Life

I bought an bike about a month and a half ago at a little shop north of here, on Clark.  It's a late seventies or early eighties Schwinn Traveler Xtra-Lite, baby blue, with new chain, tires, grip tape, and a cranky derailleur.  I can't quite place the date because I can't find the serial number.  At any rate, it's steel, it's older than me, and I've been creaking around the city on it for a couple weeks now.  Before moving to Chicago, I had probably been on a bike three or four times in the last ten years.  Now I'm riding daily, commuting to a new (temporary) job at a little architecture studio on the west side of the Chicago River.  According to Google maps, it's a 3.7 mile haul each way.

The Blue Beast.
The first two weeks of riding, back in the heat of the summer, left me so sore I couldn't bend my knees to get things out of the fridge.  While I've done my share of manual labor over the years, and spent a lot of time on my feet, I haven't really worked aerobically in a long time.  While Chicago is blessedly free of hills, I was definitely hurting from the unfamiliar motions.  Bicycling competitively has always been a dialogue on pain -- lactic acid searing muscles on hard ascents, the burn of October air in windpipes -- but I mistakenly thought I would escape that conversation by riding slow and easing into things.  

Besides the pain, biking has given me a new perspective on the city.  Walking, you experience the city at a certain remove: traveling in a protected pedestrian zone (the sidewalk); moving at a very slow pace; and operating untethered to objects.  In a car, you experience the city in a different kind of isolation: sealed in a climate-controlled steel container, listening to your own music and conversation; viewing the outside world through windows that tightly frame your view; moving over a wide continuum of speeds, from zero to forty miles an hour; traveling in an exclusive area (the street); and experiencing propulsion untethered from physical effort.  

In motion.


Mies, More, and Me . . .

This past Saturday, I fired up the 'rolla and took a long, meandering drive through some handsome corn fields out to Plano, Illinois, to see the Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe.  One might consider it a sort of pilgrimage -- Virginia Tech's school of architecture was grounded in the Bauhaus tradition, the pioneering German modernists who found a home in Chicago after fleeing Nazi persecution.  The modernists in general, and Bauhaus in specific, have been the subject of much criticism and revisionist history.  However, for all its faults, the Farnsworth House is a master lesson in the origins of modern design, a building that dragged architecture, kicking and screaming, into the post-war era.

Farnsworth panorama.
Architecture, especially residential architecture, was once dank, dark, low-ceilinged, unsanitary, and uncomfortable.  Expensive glass and masonry structural systems kept windows small, fireplaces kept houses cold, and lack of plumbing kept them dirty.   The Farnsworth house, admittedly, was extremely expensive (~$581,000 in today's dollars), but the revolutionary use of light steel structure, huge expanses of glazing, and an open floor plan flooded the house with light and air.  Each glass window was ground flat and polished, reducing glare and distortion.  You can see through the house; from a distance, you can't tell the glass is even there, and the house disappears into pure planes of white.  Inside, the spare interior is well-appointed with only the necessities (it was designed as a weekend retreat), and the raised foundation gives you a sense of floating above the earth as you look out over the Fox River.

Perspective shot.



Today, I was picking up a specialty paper order at a warehouse on Ashland Avenue, a little ways south of the very large and very ugly Rush University Medical Center. The warehouse was sandwiched between two railroad tracks. As it happened, each was full up with a stopped train. I had to wait awhile while they found and cut the paper, so I stood in the door of the warehouse, out of the rain, and contemplated shipping containers for awhile.

Containers stuck on the tracks today.
I have long been fascinated with containers, for much the same reason I've long loved road signs -- they are mass-produced and uniform, but separate and unique, bearing the marks of their lives on trucks, trains, and boats.  Each has a graphic identity, a bold color scheme, and a patina of grime, grease, and graffiti.  They are beautiful, minimalist sculptures on their own, but attain real visual power when massed.  

These containers are extended to 53', from a standard 40'.


A Little Guerilla Philosophy . . .

As this blog gets off the ground, I want to take opportunity to explore some of the ideas that have been kicking around in the back of my head for the last few years.  Sometimes I'm so eager to get projects done that I don't take the time to formalize the thinking behind them.  I'm no professor, but I've picked up some bits and pieces over time, and it's been helpful to me to sort through my own brain by writing them down.  So, here is the first of what may be a recurring series of posts on guerilla design thinking and design/build philosophy.

My education as a designer and craftsman has followed two parallel, and equally important, tracks: the academic study of design and the practical building arts.  In my mind, they have become so intertwined as to be inseparable.  Since the creation of formal design disciplines several centuries ago, specialization has progressively split the fields into smaller and smaller subdivisions.  In medieval times, architects were usually also engineers and builders.  Today, we have a wide range of professions, each with a narrow scope, that combine to produce buildings and objects.  While this process has made our buildings, cars, and furniture much safer, stronger, and accessible, it has also created a fault line between those who design and those who make.  We tend, as a culture, to regard the former as intellectually superior and the latter as somehow mentally lacking, denying the knowledge that they have accumulated in their hands.

My first design/build project, Virginia Tech's Rammed Earth House.
I participated in my third year studio, 2004-05.


Design Nomad

A little over six weeks ago, I arrived in Chicago driving the remainder of a '98 Corolla. Hitched, improbably, to the back, was a trailer containing what little my girlfriend and I own.

God bless the 'rolla.
This is my seventh move in five years. I've studied architecture in Virginia; poured concrete in Arizona; built cabinets in Baltimore; studied more architecture in the rural south; and taught youth carpentry in Alabama. Along the way, I've designed and built houses, furniture, and landscapes.

Some of this nomadism has been motivated by my own wanderlust, and some motivated by the vagaries of the Great Recession. The economy has been down since I got out of school, and architecture, tied as it is to credit and real estate, has had a particularly hard time recovering. I've tried to see the economic uncertainty as an opportunity, exploiting the gaps in traditional design practice and going off-the-grid, into the world of guerilla design.

Chicago has been great (a little warm, even after Alabama), and I've met a lot of wonderful folks in a very short time. As I put down some roots and look around for work, I've had a chance to explore a lot of great programs, non-profits, and firms. On the thirtieth, I started volunteering at ReBuilding Exchange, an architectural salvage warehouse, jobs training program, and furniture workshop.

The ReBuilding Exchange.