Monthly Archives: July 2012

Porches and the Primitive Hut

Dream Time

The idea of escape to a simpler more relaxing way of living is especially appealing right now. In my case that would mean lounging on a porch — like this

elegant screened version by In Situ Studio — my head buried in a good spy novel

(photos courtesy In Situ Studio). The Roman architect Vitruvius believed that all architecture began with the primitive hut, which I think you could say is in the DNA of most great porches. Later philosophers, like the former Jesuit priest Abbe Laugier in his Essay On Architecture of 1753, adopted this idea and visualized the first buildings as simple — but classical — lean-tos made from tree trunks. You can see the

roots — literally! — of the classical pediment in that triangle of twigs at the top. The big idea was that architecture evolved as a refinement of elemental nature, meaning that the tree is simply a column in its primitive state. Or, put another way — in the beginning there was a gazebo! (Remember that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is talking about man’s natural state at this time as well.) This elemental and romantic nature-based concept remains powerful — think of Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature shack on Walden Pond or the evolution of the camping tent  — especially among architects and designers and almost

anyone looking for rest or relaxation, as this wonderful recent example designed and built by Alan Brown on the Big Island of Hawaii — out of mostly recycled materials — shows. Note to Thoreau: Why build in the cold-climate east when you can enjoy balmy evenings with scents of  plumeria and ginger on the slopes of Mauna Kea?! (Photo courtesy Alan Brown)

Moscow architects Kerimov Prishin designed their Arbor 15 project as a

performance platform containing a dining area, fireplace, and sink. Panels in the slatted front unfold to reveal that everything is on stage. Curtains at the sides

reinforce the idea that the act of dining is itself a theatrical event — which seems

very logical when you think that conversation in the dining room is the subject of so many plays and film scripts (photos courtesy the architects via designboom). It’s the outdoor dining room as dacha…Chekov, anyone?

Perhaps the most extreme form of the porch as primitive hut is a unit at the famous Swedish Treehotel (another room was mentioned in an earlier post) in

the shape of a giant nest, as shown here — or is it a condorminium…(image courtesy Treehotel).

Though most porches are attached to houses, it’s also true that many rooms can grow up to become porches; it just takes a little education and the addition of a

folding window wall or two. Which is what happens in the kitchen of Plan 48-46,

shown here. The breakfast area opens up to turn the entire space into a dining porch. Trees and triangles have come a long way since Vitruvius.

Andrew Blum’s New Book Digs Up the Internet

The Cloud is Underground (and at the Bottom of the Ocean)

Here’s an important new book for anyone who surfs the Web: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (Harper Collins, 2012) by

geographer/journalist Andrew Blum. It’s important because Andrew describes in fascinating detail the physical, earthbound structure of the Net, reminding us that though “the Cloud” may comprise the pulses of light produced by powerful lasers, the ganglion of fiber-optic cables carrying that light are crowded together in predominantly unmarked buildings, rooms, and vaults all around us, and in the ocean too. It is a “tangled web,” to be sure, with elements of secrecy, but Andrew deftly unravels the key developments, from the first non-academic hub known as MAE-East (Metropolitan Area Exchange) in Tysons Corner, Virginia near Washington, D. C. to Facebook’s huge new data center in Prineville, Oregon.

I had breakfast with Andrew recently and he told me that a high point of his journey was seeing the cables inside Fiber Vault 1 on the Equinix campus in Ashburn, Virginia. In the book he writes that this was among the biggest places “where Internet networks connect… the nexus of nexus. Hot and still. I could smell it: it smelled like dirt.” But then he realized there were many such vaults — that the Internet was there and everywhere.

He toured the London Internet Exchange where a refrigerator-sized machine with blinking lights carried 300 gigabits of data per second (300 billion!); followed a fiber-optic cable-laying crew under the streets of Manhattan; and visited places where undersea fiber-optic cables come ashore, as at Porthcurno on England’s Cornwall coast.

The book explains a complex world that is hidden in plain sight — a true parallel universe. Indeed, reading Andrew’s book is like dipping into a somewhat more technical Harry Potter sequel where you find yourself on a real Diagon Alley face to face with a Fiber Mux Magnum Machine (it changes signals for a router). Pressing “Enter” will never be the same.

An article adapted from Andrew’s book appears in Fortune, with the

addition of these fascinating maps charting the Internet highways across the globe. The one below shows average Internet speeds and an important hub like the exchange building at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan (images by

Nicolas Rapp; Data Geotel Communications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, courtesy Fortune magazine).

Francois Levy and BIM

Talk of data centers and server farms makes me think of architect Francois Levy’s cool Barn Plan 450-2, which he describes  as “an efficient modern

agrarian home.” It’s suitable for a vacation or weekend house, or as a secondary structure. Barn doors on two sides of the kitchen-living area make it possible to

turn this space into an outdoor room in good weather. There’s a loft above the bedroom. The plan is part of the Signature Studio Collection. Francois Levy teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and his new book BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design (Wiley 2012) explains how to use digital models

for the design and documentation of houses and other buildings. BIM stands for building information modeling — with tools like ArchiCAD. Using case studies, he explains how these tools make it easier to produce sustainable architecture. These may be the machines that designed the vaults that hold the cables that hold the Internet — sounds like we’re playing that memory game about packing grandmother’s trunk.

Tour de France Architecture and the Classical Home

Pass the Salt — and the Classical Ideal

One of the great pleasures of watching the Tour de France (a current nightly addiction) is seeing modern cycling in a setting of great classical architecture. The most vivid backdrop so far was last week’s ninth-stage start at the famous

late 18th century salt works at Arc-et-Senans, Besançon (photo courtesy estrepublicain.fr). This remarkable complex of buildings (the one above was a theater) arose as part of an early utopian idea for a factory town, when salt was a precious commodity as an agent for food preservation and to improve taste, and a royal monopoly. Though these three riders are understandably oblivious to the robust Doric order behind them, they are chatting, ironically, beside an early example of what scholars call “architecture parlante” or “talking architecture,”

designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and completed in 1778.  The aerial view shows the semi-circular layout and the architect’s interest in geometric order (photo courtesy salineroyale.com). In his excellent book European Architecture 1750-1890, architectural historian Barry Bergdoll explains that architecture parlante was about expressing the identity and profession of the client “through the manipulation of architectural symbolism.” Here that meant using a rustic Doric order (because Doric signified a utilitarian function at that time) and an orderly — i.e. geometric — layout with “an arc of residential and service buildings facing the salt production sheds and the director’s house along the diameter.”

Among the most expressive, or loquacious aspects of the Salt Works are the ornamental sculptures of saline water just before crystallization, as shown in this image, courtesy Miami.edu — which could also represent the occasional cramping that cyclists experience…Hydrate! Hydrate! Classical architecture has always embodied large ideas and associations — order, knowledge, Greece and Rome — so it’s easy to see how an architect like Ledoux would take imagery to an

extreme, as in his design for the keeper of a river dam’s power source as a giant sluice gate (never built; image courtesy Arch 672: Smart Surfaces Studio). It could be a progenitor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann — only River Keeper Kaufmann actually ran a department store.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, not long after the salt works and other buildings by Ledoux had been completed, and soaked up the classical vibe (if not the salt) from daily walks in Paris, as an insightful and

beautifully printed new book by historian Diana Ketcham and photographer Michael Kenna — Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (Arion Press, 2012) — demonstrates. According to Ketcham, Jefferson was most attracted to

Neoclassical buildings like the new palace for the Prince de Salm, from 1787, with its monumental portico and long rows of columns along a court of honor (photo courtesy Arion Press). Upon his return from Paris in 1796, Jefferson

redesigned Monticello, no doubt prompted by what he saw in France. Monticello’s high blocky entablature and balustrade wrapping the brick wall above the windows like a tightly cinched cummerbund may have derived from the grand double entablature at de Salm. You can see echoes of the colonnade arrangement in his much later plan for The Lawn (central quad) at the University of Virginia.

The classical portico idea remains popular to this day. A recent, much

simplified version, is  Plan 492-8, by architect-sculptor Michael Curtis (part of our Signature Studio Collection), with its pedimented front porch. Inside of course, the layout is very contemporary, with the kitchen-dining room

and master suite opening to a spacious deck. Such a design would suit a site in neighborhoods where the language of classical architecture is still spoken. And in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or Stapleton, Colorado, which are classically inspired and where garages are usually on rear alleys, the main streets would be safer for cyclists!

Clever Getaway Cabins and the New Photo Circle App

Dream Machines

It’s hot. The workload is unending. Time to escape! A bathtub-on-wheels might

be just the ticket. Who needs soap when your soul can be cleansed by the view across New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula into azure sea and sky. But the

rolling fixture is only part of the story (here it is back in place by the shower:  “Hey Honey, where did you park the tub this time?!”) It’s in a very seductive modern vacation cabin designed by innovative Auckland/Queenstown architects Crosson Clarke Carnachan (photos by Patrick Reynolds via Trendir) for the

Crosson family. Hinged wall sections drop to the ground like portcullises to form

spacious decks beside the central breezeway, which functions as an indoor-

outdoor living room facing the sea view; bunk rooms, bathroom at the side. The

decks fold back up (and shutters cover windows) to secure the house when the owners are away.

Another clever design for a seaside location by the same firm takes escape to a delightful extreme: holiday house as kinetic sculpture and vacation transport. It’s

called The Sled and, according to the architects, was designed as a “response to the ever-changing landscape that lines the beachfront in this coastal erosion zone.” It’s built on big wooden skids so a tractor can tow it to a new section of the

dune as needed. When closed up it resembles a contraption for a Star Wars film (Jabba the Hutt’s cabana, er, hut??). Then when the family arrives, the big

shutter winches open to form an awning over the two-story glass and steel doors

in the living/dining/cooking space. The sleeping loft is accessible by a ladder up the

side wall. Every inch of space is utilized for storage, seating, or other functions (photos of this house by Jackie Meiring, courtesy Crosson Clarke Carnachan).

More ideas for cabins and retreats can be found in our Micro Cottages and Tiny Houses Collection, such as Studio Tower Plan 479-6 by Peter Brachvogel

and Stella Carosso, which could be incorporated into a larger design, as shown above, when time and resources allow.

Sharing Photos in a New Way

Because this is prime camera season I thought it appropriate to mention a useful new free photo app for smartphones called Photo Circle (full disclosure: it was developed by a young cousin). It creates a private shared album for friends and

family — you simply put your phones together to create a Photo Circle and start taking pictures. The technical description is “proximity pairing of smartphones with ultra-high frequency sound waves.” You can share comments on the pictures, bring new people into your circle via email, and create as many circles as you want. My pictures are mostly of houses, needless to say…