Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seven Essential Movies

   A follow-up to the previous post regarding set design and world creation, here are seven (plus one) essential movies that showcase the power that architecture can bring to influencing the lives of people.  There's a definite theme to this list, so i've refrained from calling it a "top seven" list.  It would be far too complex of an essay to attempt to show how each film uses the built environment to drive plot or set mood, but if you happen to be looking for a good movie to watch anyway, here are a few where you could stand to pay attention to the environment.  In most of the examples, there are at least two diametrically opposed philosophies that are reflected in the architecture.

Blade Runner (1982)
   Blade Runner, the (loose) adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of a policeman specialized in hunting down rogue human-like robots known as replicants.
The dirty, crowded streets in which Decker (Harrison Ford) pursues his quarry denies the art deco utopia that the Tyrell Corporation seems to espouse.  Of course, the reason this story is such a pillar of the science fiction genre is the questions it raises about our own humanity.

Brazil (1985)
   There are similar elements to Blade Runner in Terry Gilliam's black comedy Brazil, particularly in the realm of social divide.  However, where Blade Runner waxes dramatic, Brazil dives headlong into the absurd in a mesmerizing dance (both literally and figuratively).  The central character, an exceptionally average Sam Lowry struggles to connect with the woman of his dreams while his every effort is thwarted by a totalitarian authority.

Minority Report (2002)
   Part of what draws me to include Minority Report in this list is the portrayal of "life as usual" in certain scenes, particularly near the introduction where the concept of precrime is first explained.  John Anderton, portrayed here by Tom Cruise, arrests people who are predicted to commit future crimes.  This is another Philip K. Dick adaptation, so it's unsurprising that the technological wizardry of "precognition" causes trouble for our brave protagonist.  
   Unfortunately, what could have been made for an amazing psychological thriller ends with a tedious explanation of what exactly  happened.  A third Philip K. Dick adaption, A Scanner Darkly, didn't suffer from this unnecessary exposition -- a decision which seems to have been paid for in lost box office sales.

The Matrix (1999)
   The Matrix takes Descarte's figurative deceiving demon and conjures it up materially as the machinations of a civilization of, well, machines.  The choice of which physical laws can be broken is an interesting one, but because the environment of the Matrix is entirely simulated, the impermanence of the surrounding conditions becomes an obstacle to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar as much as the pursuing Agents.  It's never more clear than after Cypher's betrayal and the subsequent brick infill of every window in a particular building.
   If you can bring yourself to watch the sequels, the video-game-esque use of doors that can lead to more than one place highlights some fun implications about the future of virtual space.

Batman (Gotham City 1940-Present)
  I've specifically avoided titling this as "Batman Begins" because the real character here is Gotham City.  Described by comic juggernaut Frank Miller as "...New York at night" ("Metropolis is New York in the daytime, Gotham City is New York at night."), the city is truly its own character.  It seems permanently poised on the edge of collapse, as much from the evil plots of supervillains as from widespread corruption and an ceaseless spree of petty criminality.

Dark City (1998)
   As the name might suggest, the city of Dark City is shrouded in a permanent night.  The twist that makes this more than a cheap visual trick is that this darkness is a nagging problem that no one seems to understand.  John Murdoch, the character who awakens in a bathtub after having apparently committed a particularly brutal murder, seems to hold no more answers than the viewing audience, and we discover the world as he does.  The world appears as a silver screen interpretation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, a metaphor made all the more poignant because the medium is itself presents a closed entity beyond which the characters simply do not exist.

Gattaca (1997)
   The idea that humanity can be "improved" runs through most of these films, and Gattaca is no exception.  In a society where social status is largely determined by the probability of an exceptional life, Vincent Freeman suffers from the disadvantage that he oughtn't be as exceptional as he is.  The struggling lower class world isn't as emphasized here as in previous films on this list, but images of Vincent staring out the atrium windows of the Gattaca launch site (actually the Marin County Civic Center) provide an inspirational backdrop that gives weight to the fear that all this might be taken away.

...honorable mention goes to
Metropolis (1927)

   I've heard excellent reviews of this film, but unfortunately i haven't yet seen it, so i can't rightly include it on this list.  Many of the themes present in the previous seven films owe their inspiration to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.  The central theme revolves around the sharp divide between a hidden working class, an increasingly distant "utopian" elite, and the need to somehow bridge the gap between these two groups.

On a personal note, i'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for being patient while F/stop Architectural was on unplanned hiatus.  During the break we hit 1,000 unique views!  Thank you so much for your support!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


As you may have noticed, i've been having trouble keeping a regular Tuesday schedule.  It's more important to me to deliver high-quality posts than to post regularly, so i've changed the sidebar to reflect the "most Tuesdays" attitude.  Facebook followers will still receive updates each time there's a new post, so hitting that "like" button is a good way to stay informed.

Today's post about Toronto will go live later tonight.
(More about movies next week)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Architecture in the Movies (LotR)

   As part of a larger theme of exploring imaginary architecture, i'd like to spend some time examining movies in which architecture plays an important role.  I'll avoid the obvious and rather boring choices of The Fountainhead or Towering Inferno, which really don't have nearly as much to do with the setting as one might be lead to believe by the premises.
   Instead, i'd like to link to a production video for the Lord of the Rings.  More about this below the video.

   It goes without saying that a good flick on the silver screen needs to have a good script and quality actors, but the extra details that go into set design and sound are the difference between "good" and "important".  It's not just that elves are slender, graceful and sing haunting melodies whereas dwarves are stocky, tough and drink heavily.  Consider the difference between Rivendell, Moria and Minas Tirith (no links, i don't have rights to film stills -- you could spend 11 hours in a lot worse ways than rewatching the trilogy).  There's an implied difference in the way each race LIVES, not just their aesthetic style.
  The real trick though, is in creating a used universe.  These sets don't define the aesthetic of the movie -- the backstory of the setting defines how the aesthetic must be.  This is the difference between Star Wars IV, V and VI and the more recent I, II, and III.  The juxtaposition of the sleek and the grungy is part of the appeal of The Matrix.  To make my point with another behind the scenes video: Joss Whedon.

  Watching these making-of films are making me nostalgic for worlds that never existed.  The sideways point i'm trying to make is that these worlds are lush with details that aren't thrown in haphazardly but are intentional and part of the larger story arc.  This is how all design should be.
   More on this during the week (or next Tuesday, as time permits).  Also, Facebook fans should stay tuned for some design work i've been tooling around with for the past few weeks!  I'm pretty excited about it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Abandonment Week (Tuesday)

Due to unforeseeable circumstances, the culmination of Abandonment Week is ironically postponed.  I hope to have it up sometime, but i can't make any promises at the present.  Hope you enjoyed the rest of the updates -- if you missed them you can see the whole set here:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Abandonment Week (Monday)

   It's almost the end of Abandonment Week, so stay tuned for tomorrow's conclusion to the series.  Today's abandoned sites of note are now-defunct United States missile bases, many of which have been sold to the public (ICBMs not included).  Some of the best pictures of these silos are located here, while there are some great conceptual renderings located at this site.  It's a bit confusing to navigate, but be sure to check out the Properties for Sale and Atlas F (remodeled) sections.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Abandonment Week (Sunday)

Ok, i know this is a link to a page of links, but you know what?  They're pretty dang amazing.  Click the link to be amazed.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Abandonment Week (Saturday)

Today's photography link comes from German photographer Alexander Rentsch.  His photography of an abandoned infant clinic in Lichtenberg (Berlin) is more than a little bit terrifying.  You can find it on the Behance network at

Friday, July 29, 2011

Abandonment Week (Friday)

   Today's video link comes from Australian television corporation SBS Dateline.  While you can watch the video embedded here on the blog, i recommend you visit the actual video on youtube for a higher resolution (link below video).

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Abandonment Week (Thursday)

Today's set of pictures on abandonment comes from megablog Twisted Sifter.  I'm hesitant to link to articles which may not be the original source, but i'm fairly confident this one is legitimate.  On that note, you might notice that i'll never repost an article in its entirety inside this blog -- i know clicking on a link can be a lot of work, but i like to think that preserving intellectual property rights is worth a bit of extra effort.  The picture above was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, however, so i'm completely fine with using it as a teaser.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Abandonment Week (Wednesday)

It's links week, which means new posts EVERY DAY THIS WEEK.  I just made up links week, that's not a real holiday.  Today's link comes from Michigan native James Griffioen, whose "feral houses" project showcases homes in various states of overgrowth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rojo Partridge Creek

   Last year the architectural firm i work for began several project for the owners of the Rojo Mexican Bistro restaurants.  Most of our work tends to be remodels of restaurants, and our first two Rojo projects were no exception.  The third, however, was a completely new freestanding structure in the Mall at Partridge Creek, which is in Clinton Township, Michigan.  Now that the project is all wrapped up, let's take a look at the design process from start to finish.
All Images Copyright by Author
   The green field there is the future site of the restaurant, along with a few more feet off to the left of the image.  The mall is set quite far back from an extremely busy road by a vast swath of parking lot.  To the credit of the original design, however, many of the businesses in the mall are oriented towards the interior pedestrian courtyard areas, which helps to mitigate the awfulness of all the surrounding asphalt.  Don't take that as an endorsement of malls, though -- i'd much rather see businesses spring up in downtown areas than on cheap plots of open land that promote sprawl and a reliance on our already excessive driving habits.
   If you happen to live in the Detroit area, you might notice that the design for this project is very similar to the Rojo in St. Clair Shores.  That restaurant was a rework of a building constructed in 1906, but the design process happened concurrently, so there are quite a few visual similarities in the exterior.

    Because i've scaled these images for the blog, the scales are no longer accurate.

   A note before you hurt your brain by looking at the following plan: plan north is true south, which is to say the plan is upside down, and the elevation above is actually the west elevation.  I would happily rotate it for you, but then the text would be wrong, and in any case it makes sense since you enter from the north west (bottom right of plan).
   As much as i look at plans, i still find it hard to really conceptualize what i'm looking at without seeing the space or at least getting some guidance, so i'll try to break this down into manageable morsels of architecture. The rightmost rectangle delineates the outdoor seating, and those dotted squares are umbrellas above.  If you visit the site you'll notice we opted for smaller umbrellas than shown, which was partly a time and cost concern, but also the smaller umbrellas fit under the foliage of the nearby trees better.
   Just to the left of the patio is a three-seasons enclosed seating area with large doors to the main interior.  This effectively creates a secondary seating area to the main dining, which is the area just right of the kitchen.  The dark black columns between the bar area and the main dining space mark the line of a visual separation between spaces.  Two steps along this line further separate the areas and place the dining lower in the restaurant.  To avoid a cave-like feeling, a large hidden skylight washes the north wall (the bottom wall) in light.
   Here's four months of construction in four pictures...

   And the final exterior on the north facade.

    The red fabric swags are a recurring theme in the Rojo spaces.  Let me tell you, it is NOT easy to get these things to hang straight.  In the unfortunately washed-out background you can make out a bit of the original mural commissioned for the restaurant.  Painted in the style of Diego Rivera, the mural depicts the farming and processing of the blue agave cactus into tequila.
    I had to search the strangest places to find these old cruisers -- Craigslist and antiques malls ended up coming through for me, though.  Although the top left bike is painted white, during certain times of day you'd swear it was teal.  The hidden skylight plays funny tricks on the brain, especially with the bright pink backdrop.
    Getting closer to completion here.  Tables and chairs are out, the health inspection passed, and the boxed up kitchenware has been trundled off to the back.  There's only one more picture to go before opening...
   My fingers were calloused beyond belief twisting up all the wire cages for these tequila bottles.  While i constructed this piece, the design (like most everything that goes through our office) belongs to my boss.  I've never been here late enough to see it lit up from below, but i imagine it's much more dramatic than this picture shows.
   That's all for this week!  Check back next Tuesday for more architecture.  If you've been to this Rojo, please comment what you thought of it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beating the Summer Heat

   Most of the U.S. is basking in yet another summer heat wave, so this week we'll take a look at some ways to stay cool and maybe even save some money.  Now, any hack writer could tell you to drink plenty of water and close your blinds on the sunny side of your house, but here at F/stop Architectural i like to think my readers are a little bit smarter than that.  Depending on your living situation, some of these suggestions might not apply to you, but hopefully they'll get you thinking.

  1.  Paint your roof white.
   I wanted to post a picture for each of these ideas, but i'm confident you can figure this one out.  If you've forgotten what color white is, glance at one of the blank areas of this blog.  Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate and current Secretary of Energy, who i mentioned previously in the post about nuclear power, said in a meeting in London a few years back that painting roofs white could save 10-15% on your air conditioning's electricity.  It also would help combat global warming, not only because of the energy savings, but because the white color reflects more solar energy back into space which would otherwise be absorbed by the earth.
   Applying this strategy commercially would also help create jobs -- an idea which New York's mayor Micheal Bloomberg hasn't overlooked.  Last year he started a program which has painted at least a million square feet of rooftop.  That's a nice round number, isn't it?  New York City has approximately 13 billion square feet of ground space, though, so a lot more could be done.  Admittedly some of that is parks and roads; the parks are fine, but all that pavement isn't helping (concrete is preferable to asphalt, though both contribute a significant toxic load on the environment).
   Painting shingles is another issue.  You can buy specially formulated roof paint which is designed to withstand the heat of a roof, but make sure you understand that after a few years the original color of your roof will begin to show through.  That's not the fault of the paint, shingles just shed, usually into your gutters, and the paint goes with it.
2.  Install a radiant barrier.
   This is more or less the flip side of jamming towels around your Saran-wrapped windows.  Radiant barriers are surfaces with very low emissivity, which is the inverse of reflectivity, at least for our purposes here.  That is, very shiny surfaces have low emissivity.  The barrier looks a lot like an over sized roll of aluminum foil, and you install it shiny side up inside your attic.
   In some climates and houses, especially humid ones, it can be important to use a perforated barrier so that humidity isn't trapped between the barrier and any insulation.  Because of this and any other potential unknowns, make sure you talk to a professional before attempting this home improvement yourself.
3.  Install a ridge vent on your roof.
   A ridge vent raises slightly the ridge line of your existing shingles and provides a flow of air from your attic to the outdoors.  The negative pressure from the hot air moving out of your house pulls in cooler air from elsewhere outside, assuming you aren't using your AC.  Make sure you've got plenty of insulation on your roof in the winter -- if it's properly installed the ridge vent shouldn't be a burden when it's cold outside.  Improper installation of roof insulation can result in costly ice dams.  Definitely consult a professional on this one, too.

4, 5, & 6.  Trees, Fans and Lights
   Ok, so maybe i'm a little bit of a hack writer, but seriously -- plant some trees on the south face of your house, use a ceiling fan, and turn off your incandescent lights.  Nice big deciduous trees block light in the summer and let it through in the winter, resulting in $100-$250 energy savings per year, in addition to looking pretty.  Ceiling fans can lower the perceived temperature as much as 9 degrees (some architects like to call this field of study psychrometrics, which i've always thought sounds made-up). LEDs give off 90% less heat, and come in better qualities of light than ever before.

More pictures next week, i promise!  Also lots of pictures go through the Facebook page, so hit that like button on the top right of the page!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Future Posts

   Earlier this week i was offered a chance to tour the new Zaha Hadid designed Edythe and Eli Broad Art Museum in downtown East Lansing, MI, which is currently under construction.  Rest assured i'll be bringing along my trusty camera and notepad (those are two separate items, it isn't a camera-pad, although that would be pretty cool), and i'll be sure to share my tour with everyone here.  Look for that mid-September.

  In other news, a good friend of mine from my days as an undergraduate has a project looking for some funding over at Kickstarter.  It's an ambitious project, so take a minute to look it over and consider backing it if it seems like a worthwhile endeavor.  Plus you get neat, unique goodies when you donate.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Three Factory Floors I'd Sleep On

After that last post i thought we might relax a little bit and look at some neat renovation projects.  This one, in downtown San Francisco, used to be the Smitty Knitting Factory.  Remodeled originally in 1998 by Abrams and Milliken, it is once again on the market.  In fact, all of these projects are currently for sale.  I've presented them with the barest minimum of commentary, so you can make up your own mind what you think of them.

75 Lansing St. Unit 3
San Francisco, CA

Vital Stats:
3 Bed
2.5 Bath
~3,100 sq. ft.

All images credit:

208 212 New St.
Philadelphia, PA

This building was once the annex to an 1850s brewery (which is itself now condominiums), and was renovated in 2001.  The price per square foot is barely a quarter that of the previous home.

Vital Stats:
? Bed
1 Bath (2 half)
5825 sq. ft.

333 W. Willis St. Unit 405
Detroit, MI

I had a hard time finding any information on if this was actually a Willys-Overland motors station.  What i do know is that Willys (that's will-is, not will-ees) opened in 1908, and this building was constructed in 1900, so it must have been something else for a decade or two before being the service station.  In any case, it's a condominium now.

Vital Stats:
2 Bed
2 Bath
1,400 sq. ft.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Intern 101

I just noticed a question i posted was featured on Intern101 a few weeks ago -- very cool.  You can check it out by glancing at the links bar to the right, under "Blogs", or by clicking this link.  It's the post titled "Lulu's Mailbag -- How do you find a mentor?"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Energy Disasters

   I want to talk about energy, the environment, fear and morality.  I'm not going to talk about global warming and whether or not it's real or caused by humans, because it doesn't matter.  What matters is that i don't want to live in a world where i can't drink the air or breathe the water.  Or something like that.  Trees are pretty neat, too.
  Because i work in architecture, energy is something i think about quite a lot.  If you take a look at this graph posted by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, it's easy to see why energy use is a major concern for architects.
   Never mind cars or manufacturing plants -- those buildings you live and work in are drawing down more energy than either of those.  Now, there are some noble endeavors taking place in the domain of reducing our energy needs, such as LEED and Green Globes.  The US Green Building Council, which oversees LEED, boasts that over 10,000 homes in the US are now LEED certified.  That's nice, but according to the American Housing Survey of the US Census there are over 128 MILLION housing units, so that doesn't make for a very good percentage.  No matter what the adoption rate of sustainable practices though, it seems unlikely that our energy demands are going to shrink.  Ever.
   Things look even bleaker in the Industrial sector as pressures mount to weaken the ability of the EPA to enforce penalties on businesses who flout the environmental restrictions on pollution.  Loosening restrictions might decrease manufacturing costs, and maybe if they're richer they'll expand and hire more, but it will definitely increase pollution.  If these businesses were capable of responsible self-regulation we wouldn't have all the restrictive, knee-jerk legislation they're complaining about in the first place, because it would never have been necessary to write.  Pollution and energy are only somewhat related, but the point is that the industrial sector isn't going to solve this problem internally.
   In the transportation sector there's a little bit of sunshine now that car companies are realizing that consumers want more fuel efficient cars, but as with housing, the percentage of efficient cars and the colossal, growing quantity of vehicles on the road trumps any gains from efficiency.  Switching to electric may provide a slight respite, but at our current rate it's about 21-58% in greenhouse gas emissions better than gasoline, as calculated by The Energy Blog.  The remaining 42-79% is coming from the power plants that provide electricity to the car...and your house.
   Compounding the problem, developing nations face an impossible choice between following sustainable practices (and being left behind the industrialized world, who polluted for decades) or callously polluting (and having sanctions imposed on them through the World Trade Organization and others).
   So if our energy demands in buildings are going to consistently increase, and the next best alternative to gasoline in cars also increases our energy demand, what about those power plants that are providing the energy?  Here's a bit of a confusing graph, but i'll do my best to simplify it.
   On the left we've got sources of energy, and on the right the sector for which the energy is used.  The numbers along the lines on the left indicate what percent of that source is being used in a particular sector -- for example, Petroleum, which accounts for 37% of all energy use in the United States, is primarily used for transportation.  To be specific, 72% of all petroleum goes to transportation uses.  This accounts for 94% of all transportation energy.  So that i can use consistent units of measurement throughout this analysis, let's convert the 94.6 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units) to terawatt-hours: 27,724 TWh.
   I want to focus on electric power and residential and commercial sectors.  The R&C energy demands are provided mostly through natural gas.  Recently we've discovered that we have an enormous amount of natural gas in the United States, so that's unlikely to change.  There are all sorts of controversial issues surrounding the safety of extracting it, but i'll leave those discussions to the experts and courts.  We're going to use a much higher f/stop for this topic so that we don't fall into the trap of missing the forest for the trees.
   Electric power, on the other hand, is provided by a number of sources, coal foremost among them.  That's not ideal, because we know that fossil fuels aren't particularly good for the environment.  People are scared of nuclear (we'll come back to this), so that leaves "Renewables", a category which includes wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric.  There is a fascinating article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi which outlines a world where energy needs are entirely met with the use of renewables, but for various reasons i find their report to be somewhat fantastical (the scale of the project, primarily).
   Nuclear power would be far easier to implement, if the political will were present.  Perhaps it's not, and this is similarly wishful thinking, but unless we harness some as-yet-undiscovered source of energy in the near future, these are the only two acceptable solutions.
   But people are afraid of nuclear energy.
   Here's why you shouldn't be.  Here's a graph to bring home the point.
   That nuclear figure includes Chernobyl and the recent Fukushima Daichi disaster.  There are one MILLION deaths per year due to the coal power industry, which includes mining and air pollution deaths.  In contrast, there are only 104 deaths per year (averaged) due to nuclear power.  Building more nuclear power plants would increase the total number of deaths per year due to nuclear power, but would drastically lower the total number of deaths per year due to energy production.  One of the ironic consequences of the Fukushima disaster is that countries which had plans to build more nuclear power plants have decided to stall construction of those facilities, which has the effect of keeping older, less safe nuclear power plants in operation.  If there's one thing i learned from SimCity, it's that it's a bad idea to run a nuclear power plant longer than its lifespan.  Incidentally, the Fukushima Daichi reactors were days from a likely shutdown (due to age) when the tsunami hit.  Thus far, there has been 1 death attributable to radiation from Fukushima.\
   Opponents of nuclear energy like to say things like "nuclear power is safe...unless there's a disaster".  Well, how many disasters until it would be comparable to coal power?  Let's measure it in units of Chernobyl disasters.  Estimates for deaths from Chernobyl range anywhere from 31 (JUST thirty-one) to 1.4 million, which is a pretty ridiculous range.  For the sake of argument, let's take the worst estimate: 1,400,000 deaths.  We would need to have a Chernobyl scale disaster every year and a half (16.8 months) just to match coal alone.  Chernobyl happened 24 years ago, to a nuclear power plant built with 1970's technology.  Do you know what else was built in 1977?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
  The Apple II.  Now look at the computer or smartphone you're using now.  We've come a long way, haven't we?
   If you still think nuclear power is unsafe -- compared to what?  Let me show you a list of things people are likely to die from: choose one.  Neither nuclear power nor radiation show up.  
   But what about nuclear waste?  That's an environmental issue too, right?  Well, no.  If there were political will to build nuclear reactors, we could invest in breeder reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor, which can use waste fuel from other nuclear reactors as fuel, and which produces waste fuel itself which is radioactive for orders of magnitude less time than current waste.
   Our fear of nuclear power is causing nearly 1.4 million deaths per year.  It's dirtying our air and acidifying our oceans.

   It's time to stop being afraid.