Mar 6, 2014

Art and the movies

While movies are for the most part, a format of the arts that many people van consume, without  even giving much thought about it, it is non the less an art.

I'm not saying all movies are insightful, beautifully made, or thought provoking;  although some people may argue that even in summer block busters like 'Transformers ', you can find something to be learned. I wouldn't necessarily agree, but that's beside the point.
The thing is, that, not because an art form is easy to consume, and in fact, being consumed massibly  by almost all of the population, it means that said art form is less or more meaningful than any other (say literature, sculpture, and yes even architecture).
Often a movie needs to be either excruciatingly dark, or complex in narrative and execution, or so bland that is making a 'statement' on its blandness, in order to be considered a piece of art.
I happen to disagree.
Art is supposed to be moving, to be touching, in both positive or pleasurable ways, and in dark and uncomfortable ways. But bottom line is supposed to transmit something to the subjects observing or better yet, experiencing it.

By that very definition is why a lot of seemingly 'trivial' affairs can be referred to as 'art'.
Like some performance art acts, that is just about some guy sitting on a chair for 2 weeks. May not be for a political, religious, not even metaphorical purpose, but it's happening. And when a act of human creation, whose sole purpose is to create reaction from other human beings, does exactly that; well then it is art.

So going back to the movies, why is it so important to catalogue movies as artful or not?
What does one gain from distinguishing artful pieces?
Well, the reason I choose movies, is because as I said, is quite a universal activity, to sit down and whatch a story unfold; by its very nature, a movie requires you to be passive during its duration in order to follow its story, characters and visuals. It's (hopefully) only after you saw the movie when you start discussing it with other people, when you have seen the whole story develop. Having its subjects in such a 'passive' state, movies are the perfect "easy" (for lack of a better term) art form to consume.
That is why so many people watching the movie version of a book instead of actually reading it.

So, what better way to discuss art than with the most consumed medium in wich it is produced?

Can the movies be a parallel to all art forms?  I think so.

But to transition from the movies to architecture we have a long way to go.
Stay tuned!


Feb 17, 2014

Are small spaces easy?

Image via

Usually when you see a big house you imagine a giant budget behind it. Luxury is often associated with big size with imposing bigness.
That you look at it and go "wow this is so big there is so much space here!" But the average living space  has gotten smaller and smaller ever since the baby boom. We live in an era where efficiency is the most priced attribute.

Smart phones get slimmer and lighter in weight, they get more capacity better video and audio quality and we all favor this as the better thing.
We also now understand how much work it is to make something smaller more efficient. Designing a small space that has all the commodities that a person may need has become a race and more important every day.
Houses are particularly tricky since not many other projects have the special program that houses do. If you where to categorize and break down all the activates that you do in your home, you cook you sleep, you have friends over, you watch movies, you shower, I mean, hopefully....

Each of those things have to find a way to interact harmoniously and comfortably, and that is pretty hard to pull off, sounds easy but is not as I illustrated in this blog post related to poorly designed homes affect the life of the people living in it.
Any way so we know designing a house is not that simple, how space will interact with each other, now try imagining cramming all those activities in a smaller than normal space.
There are many tools in architectural design to ease the way into the process of designing small living places, and making them appropriate and comfortable; like diversifying the use of the same place, or gaining area by making multiple levels in a floor plan.
But the truth is, not all tricks work for all picks, and  the only way to know if a new innovative and efficient small plan design works, is by experimenting.
So to answer this post's question; no, smaller spaces are not easier to design, if anything, they present more of a challenge, but depending on who you ask, when done well, small spaces are just the best.

Feb 16, 2014

Architectural formula.

A lot of things have to be theorized, tested and figured out in order to create an architectural project, depending on scale and nature of the project in question many months can be dedicated only to the creative process even before presenting a cohesive proposal of a project to the client. The means of creation, that is what happens during the 'figuring out stuff' in a project is a creative process, but are processes harmful for the creativity?

We have to understand that ideas in our heads rarely act as a linear road. Usually it's kind of the contrary; from point A to B, to C, to A again, and now C needs reworking, and B has gone missing from the whole equation, that is why many proposals of the same project have to be made.

Different revisions of ideas generate a variety of options of a project; if the creative process was a straight line we would just have to make models, and floor plans once.

Now with time is only logical to develop a way of scheduling and handling the design process in some sort of structure; the process of designing becomes a byproduct of experience and practice, rather than vice versa.
 Now is there a point where a seasoned designer polishes his or her design process so much that it becomes a recipe?

The possibility that, creative ideas can become mechanically produced is, not only not very romantic or appealing but kind of disheartening.
Does experience gets on the way of spontaneity?
Think of the example of an architect running a business, dealing with real projects, budgets and deadlines; to optimize the way ideas  and solutions for projects are produced is key to meet the demands of a firm.

Can an architect whose job is in essence create, also become imprisoned by repetition and systematization ?

Feb 7, 2014

Speaking with buildings.

The architectural discourse that says that a building should be very versatile in its design in order to accommodate very different necessities over time, without it requiring much modification, if any, is a very useful one. I do find myself, however, not wanting buildings to lose some sort of character and defining traits (be it on the functional/space sense, or the pure looks of a building), since, when you strip away the specificities of a building in order to make it more standardized in a "one size fits all" kind of way, not only does architecture loses its symbolism and impact, but also its soul.

Soulfulness in buildings is I think an often overlooked element of design. Of course a constructions is nota conscious being so how and why would it have a soul? But we, the human being who inhabit it do have some sort of perceptive anemic and energetic state. Call it a physiological reaction, or a spiritual one, we connect and respond to spaces, our sensitivities are tapped and triggered by the stimulus in our surroundings.

So, is abandoning provocative 
and not very adaptable forms and ornaments in spaces a way to escape the inevitable reaction and association that human being give to spaces?
Not at all, inevitable means inevitable, and even not trying to say anything with a spaces says something. Much like in a conversation even silence has meaning, some times more so than words.
Intended or not a building that is speaking is one that has triggers and conveys information to its users, spaces, colors, functionality, architectural elements and styles, all of these elements speak multitudes to a person.
Even a user of the space who perceives him or herself as insensitive to architecture is acting under the spell of the building he is currently using.

People have a respectful, solemn and ominous behavior on churches. Is it culture and upbringing? May be part of it is, but a huge chunk of that behavior comes from the sheer anemic state caused by the architectural characteristics of the building itself; usually a lot of empty negative space above One's head, all visual points oriented to the altar, or preacher's spot, the different levels o heights, the tall windows hat let in filtered light. All of those components, speak in a language that has no words, but that every human being knows.

Surroundings can tap into our hard wired psyche to give specific responses, just like smiling and crying happen almost in automatic. If buildings can talk, we better make them say something good.


Jan 28, 2014

Sensibility and interventions.

Shrip Restaurant, ANAPRA, Mexico.

I tend to take many pictures that serve as example of buildings that where self made by the owner. Of course, I do try to investigate if, indeed, what I am looking at was self-built.

For what I have gathered, people who don't seek the aid of a professional to build, are people who have smaller incomes and thus a reduced quality of life in many other senses. Architecture can be quite elitist in that regard, and I find myself wondering about professionals intervening in a self build culture. 
As important it is to understand what people do and why they do it, I find that architects and designers usually turn a blind side to the non professionally done constructions. But it is a very useful resource to at least get sensible about DIY building.

 In my final year of architecture school, while doing my thesis project, (calling it a thesis is technically wrong, it was more like a 'final school project that will be evaluated in the most rigorous and painful strict fashion'; but we called it a 'thesis project' at my school just to shorten it a bit) I spent a lot of time investigating the area where my project would be in.
The area in concrete is a very interesting case study called ANAPRA, way up in the north of Mexico. I most certainty will get into detail about this area in future posts; any way, the thing is, that about 98% of the buildings in that small community where built by the locals.
Aside from some schools and small government health centers almost all was self built; from the parks to the stores, and even the street grid had been figured out (for better or worst) by the residents.

Shrip Restaurant, ANAPRA, Mexico

To try to introduce your own notions into an urban landscape that, not only is almost untouched by someone who approaches construction with an academic background, but that belongs so much to the people that inhabit it, is one of the most daunting and fascinating thins.

 During the development of my thesis project I kept referring to amazing and ambitious urban projects that concentrate on the Colombian city of Medellin:  Street integration interventions, as well as incorporating libaries and schools to the most fringe parts of the city.
I provide links that talk more in depth about this projects.

It is important to realize that non professionally done buildings can teach professionals a lot of things, we can understand urban environments and be more effective and sensitive in our projects at the same time.
DIY buildings say a lot to architects but are we interested in listening?

Jan 22, 2014

Age has Nothing to do with it.

I get the feeling that young architects get the idea (I dont know from whom or where), that they are supposed to re invent the wheel.
As if being young grants you the gift of innovation. I think youth grants you many thing in the profession of architecture (and in life in general) a fresh perspective, a fast exitable mind, a healthy body, and even in many regards the bliss of ignorance. certainly being a young professional is a gift, that should be treasured, but it doesn't assure or imposes the ability to make breakthroughs or to be the leader of your generation of designers.

Of course being an older architect doesn't grant you to be so experienced you'll make a change on your field either. The thing is, is not the age that matters in the one that does, is the doing. Getting caught up on what being a "young architect" means, distracts many people of what being just an "architect" is.
It is about doing and creating, about always learning and sharing; since architecture is a very social endevor, is not only useful, but necessary to share with all kinds of people.

The only thing that comes from a delusional young architect that believes that he or she is set out in the world to change the way we understand the discipline, is either frustration, when they fail to do it, or denial to recognize that they carry all the aspects of architecture that they thing they are opposing.
Im all for inovation, and as a young architect myself I am an idealist also, who wants to change so many thing in the field. But once in a while i try to eat a bit of humbling pie and recognize that if I may or may not contribute to the world of architecture, age had nothing to do with it.

Jan 16, 2014

Getting Dirty.

We have been lying to ourselves; architects, urbanists, designers, all pretending as though the process to conceive and create ideas and projects, is a well measured well reasoned method, that when presented with a problem, One can simply go from point A to B; from idea to solution.
The truth is there is no such thing as a road from point A to point B, not in design at least.
Sure, there are guide lines, ways to look at a certain problem and to look for a solution, but methodologies do not offer or promise solutions to a problem, they offer a tool for you to come up with the answer.

 It goes a little like this; someone asked you to build a chair; as professionals we delude ourselves thinking:
  - "I understand all the theory of chairs, and the historical context of chairs, so I shall make a chair appear from thin air -Voila! "

 When in reality the situation is more like:
  - "I understand all the theory of chairs, and the historical context of chairs, so I have a hammer to build ... a chair... and that's about it"

Conceiving an thought and working it like play-do, until you have a cohesive viable plan and then creating something based on that plan, is a messy, messy job.

I've heard the saying that goes "Inspiration must find you working" and I think it's an understatement, Inspiration would much prefer to find you getting down and dirty, with your work that is.

It is important to realize that creative processes are a more of a weaving than a straight line, you have come back from different angles many times to and revisit points you thought you already had covered. In the professional world I have seen architects ranging from the very fresh (like myself) to the very seasoned, but regardless of experience or volume of work under their belts and I've come to notice that the people who are truly brilliant at it, are the one that allow the process to take it's very swirly course; people who understand that a messy process is sometimes necessary for a spectacular result.

Jan 14, 2014

To sketch in public.

When I was in high school I often took a bus home, especially in my last year; often the bus got delayed, or if it got there in time, it was so full, the driver didn't even bother to stop and just derived by the bus stop. So, before the era of smart phones and tablets, I got used to just sit down at the bus stop and doodle to pass the time while waiting on the bus.
At first I would rarely look up from my sketch book, since I was drawing comic characters or abstract shapes (abstract shapes sound nicer than 'random swirls') .
As time when by, however, I wanted to test myself by drawing what was surrounding me, to draw "real things" just to see how good (or bad) I was at doing it.
The result; I was looking up from my sketch book all the time, and it didn't took me long to notice that people get, let's say, uncomfortable when you are looking down and up like a maniac drawing your surroundings.
Above, the view from the bus stop near my high school, the only interesting thing there to draw really was a pedestrian bridge that crossed the street.
When you are on a group of people who are drawing a specific 'something' to draw, nobody bats an eye for more than 2 seconds. But when you sit by yourself and draw something uneventful that for some reason sparks you interest, like a cool house, or a crooked street, people seem to think you are up to something.
May be it's just me being paranoid, but that's why I always felt a little self conscious pulling out a sketch book on public.
Once I got into architecture school tho, and everyone was drawing in the side walk, I was relieved. I thought "This is the way it ought to be!"
Up until I started noticing that most people who draw outside in university do it for show, and just for show, with a smug expression of "oh, why yes! I'm a true artist"
And I started to wonder
"Do I also look like I'm trying to prove the world how special I am while drawing outside?
  Do I look like a douche?"
It's not that I think too much about this sort of stuff. Who has time to worry about what people may or may not think? Certainly not me!
But just to be clear: I only draw outside when no one is around.

Yona Friedman's Mind Map


DIY building

Building something is hard work, many factors interfere; budgets, materials, design, the nature and location of the project, not to mention the multitude of specialists that intervene in making a building inhabitable, (electricians, plumbers and so on).

 Coming up with the best possible solution that takes into consideration all  this and much more is not easy, and so it's only natural that people who are not specialized in the subject would want to hire someone that does know how to manage all these components; then why are so many buildings, like houses, businesses built by the owner of said property?
Let's take the specific example of houses, since they are the most common to be built by the owners rather than commissioning a designer/architect to do it, and yet, houses are for the most part, one of the most complex projects in terms of how diverse the activities it confines in a fairly  small area; pulling off a well designed house sounds easy to most people but when things aren't thought through it is going to show, a lot.

A house floor plan it's something you can't look over. I remember when I was a kid I had this friend who had a one floor house with a beautiful garden and a pool, so naturally my friend always had her friends coming over. The house was built by one of her elder relatives, who just hired some construction workers and built as they went.
-See floor plan below-

As you can see on the floor plan, the main entrance to the house was quite away from the yard, so we had to go a long (and I mean long) way to the other side of the house to the pool, and to do that, we had to pass through every single room, be it the TV room or everybody's bedroom. As you can imagine no one could shut their doors in order to have some privacy because then the circulation was completely cut off and things like the bathroom where unreachable for some members of the house.
It wasn't their fault that a very simple design error didn't registered when they planned to build the house, clients usually know what they need, but most don't knot how to get it, and the how is the designer/architect's job.
And that's just talking about the design, managing the costs, getting in contact with the providers of materials and the construction workers is a nightmare even for professionals.

Having said all that you may think that I consider hiring an architect to do all the heavy lifting in the design and construction process is the absolutely only option for everybody; well, think again.
First, I am well aware, that most people just don't have the money to hire someone to do the heavy lifting. People who run away from mortgages and bank bills on their house are also scared to death to let someone else manage their hard earn savings for a house.
Also the fear of not communicating the architect exactly what they want out of their dream house and ending up paying for a property that's not what they needed, wanted or envisioned.

Truth be told, a lot of people who aren't professionals and still choose to DIY their projects, are for the most part, playing a gamble for the end result. It could be one that pays off or one that doesn't.
As a result of the 2008 crisis that started precisely taking its toll in the housing market, more and more people are joining the 'DIY your house' movement, whether it is buying a used house and the new owner making adjustments by himself, or building something from scratch on their own.

To me, it is very interesting to see the various results of these sort of exercises, for better or worse, a designed space is something we have to literally live with.


Jan 9, 2014

Architect's poker face

It happens.


Building laws and possibilities.

When it comes to a temporary installation, whether it is of sculptural or architectural merit, as long as it is temporary I reckon that any way of constructing the actual installation is legal.
I'm sure it being "legal" doesn't mean that getting the permits to build something in an unconventional way is all that easy, you still have to obey certain rules, like that the construction must be safe, and non toxic; but when it comes to building something to be looked at or interacted with by a short period of time, it s fair to say that anything goes.
That is not the case with say, a house. Houses have such definitive and specific norms on how they must be built, that it has gotten me thinking; when someone comes up with this new way of building, say it consists of cheaper materials but with the same durability, or a faster way of assembly, or a desired overall look on the building, if the construction process is unconventional does it mean it's inadequate? Often times the sins of a different way of building is: 1)Less people are qualified to build with said constructive method
2) The paperwork the city asks to review and approve a building doesn't match they way a building is being made.

That doesn't mean it can't be done. In a talk that Mexican Architect Javier Senosian gave in the University I attended to, he commented the resistance he encountered while presenting his unconventional constructive methods in his is organic houses. Although he remarked that more than the legal aspect, the greatest backlash was social, but that's a whole other topic.

Picture above, Senosian's "Ballena Mexicana" ("Mexican whale") a house built creating a pneumatic structure; a balloon mold of sorts, and covering it with the hard polyurethane, much like creating a model with 'Mache paper'.

It's is not impossible to introduce a new way of building houses, or any kind of building, but as creative a constructive method is, the paper work to get it approved must be just as creative.

I'll link to Youtuber Kirsten Dirksen's wonderful video "Portable home delivered as furniture, tailored as Smartphone" :
Where property owners in Spain get their pre-built home approved for use by entering the paperwork of a pool instead of that of a house. Because of the unconventional way of constructing it, their prebuilt house didn't meet the requirements of an actual home, that doesn't mean they can't work their way around the paperwork.

As they say of it's not prohibited it is permitted.


Jan 8, 2014

Dirty Doodling

I don't know if it was just my luck, but I learned early on during college that Architects seem to have developed a vendetta against sketches, I don't mean polished stylized 'pretty' sketches, I mean the spontaneous, fast, dirty sketches. The kind of doodles that come to express an idea, to represent volume, or orientation in an architectural project.

Many teachers in architecture school I encountered had a sort of allergy of a hand drawn doodle. If it wasn't a printed, scaled and computer generated it was unworthy of reviewing.
Now, I understand the importance of a well finished professional looking plan, but even in a class where the emphasis was on the development of an architectural idea and solution to a certain project, rather than concentrating on the technical execution of the plans, there still was the allergy to sketches.
Students develop this mysterious disease early on too.
Rarely would you see a student present a sketch to his or her classmates to explain an idea on a project, usually you got a set of instructions like:
-"let me build the 3D model on Sketch-up and send it to you so you look at it, and then re-send it to me, if there is something you'd like to change"
- "can't you just draw it quickly right now?"
- "nah its better if I do it on the computer so the teacher can look at it too he wouldn't want to look at a sketch any ways "

As a young architect, I really wasn't around when CAD softwares weren't an option, so I'm not sure if this is a new trend that came as a result of the availability of drawing softwares, that made hand drawn sketching seem like an unnecessary and ugly step in the creation of architectural drawings.
However, I do think that there is something special and honest about the sketch that represents the spark of an idea. It may not be pretty for a client to look at, or something you display all the time, but for a native speaker of the architectural language, Sketches should be looked as a souvenir of the creative process. As the start that snowballs into a full realized project.

Having said all that, if a teacher or boss is not particularly fond of hand drawn sketches, it would be wise not to test your luck, just in case.


Border cities: The Tug of War.

Cities that lay on the border between Mexico and the United States are home to a phenomenon that people who haven't lived in such a place as a frontier are probably unaware of.
Even the inhabitants of these particular places may not realize how the border can become this strange dimension, that's both Mexican and American, but none at the same time.

Since both countries have distinct cultural traits; different backgrounds, different languages, different socio-economic levels, hell, even a different coin; there is an inherent need for some sort of order or protocol to emerge from these geographical knots that are the "frontier cities".

When two border cities interact what results is really the merge of two countries, whether these two countries speak to one another from an urban perspective is crucial, not only for the population of both cities, but for the entire exchange of both nations.
Be it cultural or economical this exchange sis or at least is should be the whole point of the frontier cities.

Because of it is privileged location, bordering cities are naturally a place of investment, which means a lot of jobs available for the ever changing and migrant population on both sides of the border. Communication of what is happening with imported or exported goods are monitored by representatives of enterprises that also come from different backgrounds from the US and Mexico.
It should be noted as well that many citizens form a specific city often travel back en forth the two nations, going after the best deals, events or company (from family and friends) that their own city isn't providing at a particular instance.
Calling all kinds of different people to concentrate in both sides of the border, generates cultural niches within the cities. Migrants carry with them their own traditions and impact the way each city grows and looks.

Adding in the fact that the inhabitants of the neighboring city also imprint and affect the city on the other side of the frontier.
The look, function and identity of both cities then becomes the result of  a constant "Tug-of-war" game, where the players of the game are the previously mentioned factors (economics, population, culture) pulling and twisting the rope, creating a 'border culture' that is very much its own thing, very much a product of what has been acted upon it.

The question does arise; what if frontier cities such as Tijuana-San Diego , Juarez-El Paso,
Nuevo Laredo-Laredo, where to act as one?
what if the bridge doesn't necessarily needs to be just the physical arch that connects the cities and contains a customs office?
Can the totality of a city serve as a 'bridge' to another country?
Should the Urban pattern of frontier cities be designed as with the other side of the border in mind?

Until next time, keep your mugs up.