Movin' On

This blog and associated work has moved permanently to Object Guerilla dot com. Please change your bookmarks and come visit often! This page will remain up as an archive.


Hale County Revisited

After last week's discussion of some of the challenges facing Hale County, Alabama, I thought I'd follow up with some of the progress underway in Greensboro and the surrounding towns. I had the chance to revisit my former home for the first time in almost two years last week. The lady and I stayed at Spencer House with some old Rural Studio friends, and got a tour of the latest projects.

Like many small rural towns, a lot has changed and yet everything has stayed the same. Our first stop was Mac's House, the 20K I built with Penny Hagberth, Clem Blakemore, and Danny Wicke in 2010. The house was holding up well -- the siding was in great shape, the woodwork weathered but shipshape, the underside chicken netting unmolested by creatures great and small. I hadn't seen it without the various trailers removed from the yard and the grass grown back, and it was quite handsome all grown into the landscape. I was curious to see how some of the interior details were holding up, but that'll have to wait for another visit. Unfortunately, Mac wasn't around, so we took some photos, left a note, and headed north to Greensboro.
Mac's House.


Hale County and the Poverty-Industrial Complex

In the spring of 2009, I was accepted into the Rural Studio's Outreach Studio, a one-year, post-graduate program for young architects. Two teammates and I spent a year designing and building a house on a budget of $20,000, the ninth in a series of 20K Houses. This research project is ongoing, year-to-year, with different student teams, all trying to address the under-served problem of rural affordable housing. The default paradigm for that population is a trailer home -- a rapidly depreciating, off-gassing, near-impossible-to-insure albatross slung around the necks of already economically stressed people. We finished our house in June, 2010, for MacArthur Coach, a retired construction worker living on Social Security.

After my stint at the Rural Studio, I stayed in Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, for another year. I worked at a small non-profit called YouthBuild, a job-training and GED program for young adults. The students were paid a small stipend (~$80 a week) to attend 20 hours of GED classes and 12 hours of vocational instruction in carpentry. Most of them had left high school for various reasons, or were court-ordered to attend our program. They ranged in age from 16 to 24, and that $80 represented a significant part of their household income. 

Downtown Greensboro in 1941, via The Library of Congress.



A transect is defined as : 

1. (verb) to cut or divide crossways 

2. (noun) a sample strip of land used to monitor plant distribution, animal populations, etc, within a given area

In biology, a transect is a path along which one counts and records occurrences of the phenomena of study (e.g. plants). 

In 1998, conservationist and endurance junkie Michael Fay undertook the MegaTransect, an epic walk across the densely forested interior of Africa. He undertook a comprehensive recording of the uninhabited lands, eventually leveraging that information to a create a string of 13 protected national parks. The effort damn near killed him. He has now taken his National Geographic salary on up to Alaska, contemplating a similar project that will cover the temperate rainforests of Alaska and British Columbia.


Wind Wagons

Stumbling around the web this week, seeking a respite from terrorists and exploding fertilizer plants and rising floodwaters, I came across an article on Harper's about Peppard's Folly. Back in 1860, 26 year-old millwright Samuel Peppard built a prototype wind wagon. No images of his craft survive, but it was a rather narrow four-wheeled cart with a seven-foot mast and a canvas sail. He and some friends set out from Oskaloosa, Oklahoma on May 9th, making it 500 miles before a small tornado destroyed the craft just short of Denver. Eventually, Sam gave up on gold mining, served in the Union Army, got married, and settled down back in Oskaloosa.

He wasn't the only land sailor, either -- a number of others gave it a shot over the years, trying to sell their creations to the military or to investors for moving freight. I imagine it made more sense when the prairies were literally an inland, grassy sea, uncut by rails, roads, or fences. Reports from antiquity claim the Chinese had similar contraptions for crossing their vast western lands. Here in America, the utility of windwagons was somewhat limited by the prevailing winds -- west-to-east -- which were generally contrary to the desired direction of travel. 

Windwagon, via the Kansas Historical Society


Paolo Soleri

As I write this, it is a cold and rainy April in Chicago. Forty degrees, slanting drizzle, ugly wind, a winter that just won't seem to pass. Five Aprils ago, I was in Cordes Junction, Arizona, living and working at Arcosanti. It was much warmer there, dry and sun-whipped.

Arcosanti was founded by Turin-born architect and artist Paolo Soleri, who passed away on April 9th at the age of 93. I had the good fortune to meet him a few times while I was living there, though he spent most of his time in Phoenix by that point. When I lived at Arco, in 2007-08, Paolo was still president of the board of the Cosanti foundation, and drove up once a week to give lectures. 
Sketch I made of Paolo at one of his lectures, autumn, 2007.


Resilient Design

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on U.S. shores about five and a half months ago. Since, then, reams have been written about reconstruction and resilience. The discourse has, in many ways, mirrored the conversation about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The most extreme voices advocated abandoning the city altogether, given its vulnerability to future storms. Nobody is talking about deserting New York City, but the governors of both New Jersey and New York are using eminent domain and buyouts to pull private property back from fragile beach fronts. 

Sandy wasn't as powerful as Katrina, and resulted in far fewer fatalities, but since it hit a much denser population center, the low-to-mid-level catastrophe was more widespread. The New York metro area also has a lot of buried power lines, transformers, subways, tunnels, bridges, and other pressure points that can be crippled by flooding. With trains shut down and power out, the New York economy took a brutal hit as people couldn't get to work. However, all of the rebuilding activity served as a perverse salve, stimulating demand for construction and design services that have been depressed since the recession started in 2008.  

Via lineshapespace.


Henry Dreyfuss

I was first introduced to the work of Henry Dreyfuss in school, researching my thesis. In search of information on the dimensions of the human body, I was directed to The Measure of Man, Dreyfuss' 1959 book on ergonomics and human factors. The Art and Architecture library had a gorgeous, near-original manuscript with big, beautiful drawings. I recentIy bought another book of his, Designing for People. This mid-century masterwork introduced industrial design best practices to the world, one of the earliest examples of applying "design thinking" to general business and quality-of-life problems.

Born in Brooklyn in 1904, Dreyfuss apprenticed himself to the legendary Norman Bel Geddes at the tender age of 20. At the time, industrial design was not entirely recognized as a field in and of itself. Bel Geddes' studio mainly paid the bills by designing sets for theatrical productions in and around New York. Dreyfuss split off to form his own practice (still working today) in 1929.

Man at work.


Alley Walking II

Winter is dying a slow, slushy death here in Chicago, full of ugly wet snow and matte gray skies. While comparatively mild this year, winter does seem to drag on forever. It's a good time to go for a walk. 

Two recent articles ( 1, 2) brought my own fondness for walking into focus. The slow, rhythmic pace of travel allows the mind to both wander and focus. A lack of speed allows for close observation of the surroundings. Dense urban conditions allow for the majority of errands to be done on foot.

A collection of alley photos from the last week or two, mirroring a post from a year ago

Beautiful red garage, reminded me of the Rural Studio's Red Barn.


Made Now

A few weeks ago, I put up a post about Tumblr, Pinterest, and this current fetish for curation on the internet. With so much content out there, it's easy to get trapped into an endless cycle of re-posting and recycling without respecting the source.

A few days ago, I finally joined the smart-phoned ranks. Inspired by a few Tumblrs of original content that I enjoy, and the new tool at my disposal, I've hammered out a new addition to the Object Guerilla family: Made Now.

Made Now is a Tumblr of what I make, daily, in real time. The caption is the date and time. The tags explain in a few words what it is, but, in the spirit of Tumblr, it is meant to be consumed as images. 

Smartphones and technology are often blamed as carriers of distraction, destruction, and desperation. I am often one of those cranks, shouting silently at the hooded hunchers on the train -- look around you! 

I want to turn this computer in my pocket into a tool for mindfulness instead of a twittering, Facebooking tyrant. Hopefully this practice will discipline my making, focus my energy, and serve as an accessible record of my education as a craftsman, designer, and architect.

Subscribe now! Made Now.

3.5.13 / 11:51 AM. Circle cutting jig.


The 2 x 4

My work for the last few months has involved close daily encounters with standardized stud lumber. The logic of these standards -- width, depth, and length -- seems baffling on its face. A 2 x 4 is actually 1-1/2" x 3-1/2". It gets even more curious as these lumber standards interface with a whole universe of other measures -- sheet goods, nail lengths, insulation batting widths, and non-structural accessories.  Now, 2 by 4 has become a colloquialism, slipping into common speech as a stand-in for wood, regardless of size or shape. 

Europeans arriving in America faced a forest of epic proportions. It had been managed with fire and agriculture by Native Americans, but it had never been logged with steels tools and draft animals. An abundance of timber informed the the building choices of early settlers, who were coming from a lumber-scarce continent that had largely been logged over by the 1600s. The first buildings erected by settlers -- in Jamestown and New England -- replicated building methods from the Old Country. Timber frames, made of braced posts and beams, were mortised and tenoned together. The notching, pegging, and extreme weight of the members made slowed construction and required skilled labor.

Maya Lin, 2 x 4 Landscape.


Kitted Out

I've always been entranced by kits. As a kid, I had a science kit full of little vials and electronic bits, all of which were gradually swallowed by couch cushions and carpet seams. Legos, the gateway drug to my architectural lifestyle, are the apex of modular, reconfigurable toys. I also had Construx, now defunct, which used plastic bubbles and bars to make assemblages. Erector Sets, K'NEX, and Froebel Blocks are all part of the same genre, attempting to fracture the ultimate geometry of the world into a set of discrete, elemental pieces.

Now, I find myself investigating the erector sets of the adult world. A recent article on Design Observer laid out the history and rationale of my old nemesis, container architecture. The author ties it into a larger history of capsule and modular architecture, linking Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House to the modern shipping container iterations of Lo-Tek, Shigeru Ban, and MRDV. This push towards rationalization, modularity, and a set of common dimensions has created a whole class of "standard" industrial objects: shipping containers, dimensional lumber, concrete masonry units, Jersey barriers, oil drums, tires, etc. 

Kitted out. Always be knolling . . .


Chief Carpenter

500-odd years ago, Leon Alberti published On the Art of Building, a series of ten pamphlets on the then-fledgling (formal) field of architecture. Mr. Alberti was writing about design, but called it building.

As I am apt to do, I tugged on this thread a bit, and it led me down an internet rabbit hole. The etymology of architecture, and architect, derives from the Greek arkhitekton. 

Arkhi- : chief
Arch - : principal, extreme, ultra, early, primitive
Tekton - : builder, carpenter

An architect, then, is a master builder. Today, an architect is certainly a chief, a director of works, and a builder of the virtual (drawings, models, plans), but not a builder, in the physical sense. Centuries of evolutionary specialization have codified the role of the architect into a remarkably narrow scope of responsibility. 

Considering it for my first tat.


Climate Change Corps (A Modest Proposal)

On Monday, President Obama took the oath of office and delivered his second inaugural address. Many expected an optimistic, bipartisan appeal, similar to his speech in 2008. Instead, he came out of his corner swinging, directly addressing a number of progressive goals. He became the first president to mention gay Americans in an inaugural address, he defended the social safety net, and, to the surprise of many (including me) he devoted seven whole sentences to climate change. 

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."


The Culture of Curation

Apologies, all, for the long gap between posts. I was felled by illness, as folks often are this time of year. Laying in bed, coughing, got me thinking about the nature of epidemics, viruses, and the spread of ideas. 

I came by the following quote in a roundabout way -- a footnote in Matthew Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft.  Josie Appleton, in reviewing Benjamin Barber's book Consumed, writes:

"It is not so much that we have an ethic of consumption, but that – by default – it remains as one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives. There is a tangibility and satisfaction to buying – to picking out a new shirt or a new album and taking it home – that means that shopping remains for individuals a confirmation of their power to make things happen in the world.

The power of consumption has been usefully theorised by the Marxist sociologist Georg Simmel. In The Philosophy of Money, he looks at how buying an object is an act of individual subjectivity, the person stamping himself on a thing and claiming his right to its exclusive enjoyment. Simmel cited the example of a friend he knew who would buy beautiful things, not to use them, but to ‘give an active expression to his liking of the things, to let them pass through his hands and, in so doing, to set the stamp of his personality upon them’.

Shopping remains a way in which our choices have a tangible effect, in which we can make something in our lives new and different. It also becomes the primary way in which people can enjoy the creativity and efforts of others, even if this is done unconsciously, without knowing who made something or how."

Dead shopping cart, courtesy of Schmegs' photostream.


Repair & Replacement

After a long and consumptive holiday hiatus, OG is back on the soapbox.

I feel a need to offer penance after a holiday like Christmas. On this blog, and in my life, I love to go on about consumerismplanned obsolescence, and unintended consequences. But, on December 25th, these things are abandoned, shouted down by cultural fiat. 

My family has made some attempt to address the true meaning of Christmas, instituting a five-dollar limit on gifts. This is great, but it doesn't help my own craven failings . . . 

I went to the mall last week.

I'm not proud of it. But hey, I needed some things, and there were sales, and sometimes you need to try things on . . .

And so the penance. A New Year's purge has cleared closets and enriched Goodwill. Insufficiently sated, I went on a repair binge.

Damaged goods.