Monday, December 10, 2012

Cover Your Tracks

For those of us that remember Mark, one of our past designers, I think most of us remember him laboring over a rendering with a pile of colored pens by his side.  I remember him telling me a four color combination to get just the right tone for the grass on a rendering we were working on together.  We are talking about four layers of different greens in a specific order over broad areas...

Once, in our third floor’s back room when it was still used as a model making studio, Mark was working on the models of a pedestrian bridge.  If you’ve seen the model, you know it is the brightest shade of yellow-orange imaginable.  As would be expected, Mark had dozens of bottles of ink open while he was staining bass wood members in order to erect the bridge in model form.  He was using the cotton swabs to do the staining and, unfortunately dropped one loaded with ink on the newly installed carpet.  But it gets worse.

He failed to notice that he dropped it and stepped on it, impregnating the carpet even further.  And yet it gets worse.  The swab stuck to his shoe and Mark walked circles around the table in order to access and view the model from every angle.  Needless to say, when Mark finally noticed, he was upset with himself.  The ink would prove to be permanent, but what could be done?  It was a model making studio, and luckily not a very public area.

If you wait long enough, even the most embarrassing and distressful situations will blow over.  Eventually, the model table was removed and replaced with work stations that covered the stains.  I don’t know if I could find the stains if I tried now.  In time, something will always cover your tracks.

And here is a link to some video by our local TV network on the very last gingerbread display in our current office before we move.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Out Damn Spot

As a summer intern, I was helping to color some boards for a big presentation for the biggest project RLPS had ever had to that point.  The team was leaving for the airport in the next several minutes, so you can imagine the flurry of activity.  In my haste to get the boards done, I was refilling a pen with ink too close to one of the boards that was nearly completed.  I squeezed a little too hard on the refill bottle and a drop of ink rolled down the barrel of the pen and splattered on the top right hand corner of the nearly completed board.

My heart felt like it was stuck in my throat.  As my mind fast forwarded to the moments ahead, I saw my self re-coloring the board while the partners stood around me in circle yelling obscenities at me.  To my complete surprise, though, the partner I was working with tore off a piece of White Out tape and covered up the stain in one fluid motion.  After continuing to apologize, Craig assured me no one would ever notice.

Over the next fifteen-plus years, I’ve learned you are not measured by the mistakes that you make, but rather on the way you handle the situations that result from your mistakes.  When the trip to Florida was done, no one came back complaining about the spot of ink on that one presentation board.

Monday, October 22, 2012

No Parking

During a pre-bid meeting at a community outside of Philadelphia, I sat at the head of the room in front of about 20 contractors interested in bidding a new YMCA building.  In the midst of our conversations, a resident came into the room and demanded to know who parked in his spot in the lot.  Immediately, the president of Peter Becker asked all in the room who may have mistakenly parked in a reserved spot.  It was pretty obvious that it was one of the contractors because the resident indicated that the vehicle in question was a large pickup truck.

After disrupting the meeting and taking up the time of about 30 people in the room to sort out the parking mishap, the resident left the room abruptly and with no further conversation.  Although it seemed a little drastic to disrupt a meeting of this size, I understood how the resident felt, although life is full of these little inconveniences.

When the resident was out of sight, the president of the community leaned over to me and mentioned that the situation needed to be handled quickly because the resident involved was known to carry a gun.  From that point on, I never take chances parking in a reserved spot in a community, especially not at that community.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Charette of Thousands (well, Hundreds)

If you intend to demolish someone’s home, make sure they’re not in the room when you propose the idea.  That’s what I learned at one of the charette's I attended.

RLPS was asked to develop some long range planning for a Client several years ago.  This particular Client decided to open the charette process to the residents, with no restrictions.  Our contact from the Client’s office indicated that there would be about 30 people in the charette, with a gallery on one side of the action reserved for residents who could come and listen and watch.  As we began to organize ourselves prior to the designated start time, it became abundantly clear that we were going to have at least 75 people in the room, and the gallery came not to listen and watch, but to actively participate.  Not only that, but the room was so big, that residents could not hear what the other was saying. 

You can imagine that in any long range plan, there may be some buildings that occupy land that could be used more efficiently as something other than its current occupancy.  One of the designers made one such suggestion in plan, and in doing so, removed about twelve residences.  I think all twelve residents were in the supposed listening gallery.  It didn’t go so well with those residents, to say the least.  I had the distinct honor of running from resident to resident holding a microphone so that their disapproval could be heard above the general din.  With any long range master plan, the timing of the work is hard to gauge, but could be more than ten years out.  The affected residents did not quite grasp that concept.  A lot can happen in ten years; especially when you are 80 years old, if you know what I mean.

Actually, the hullabaloo worked for me, because I presented my portion of the plan next, which was much less invasive.  I prefaced my presentation with, “You may not like what I have to say, but at least I’m not knocking any of your houses down!”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Meeting the Wrecking Ball

It was the end of an era.  They tore down the Architecture building at Penn State.  It was actually an action long overdue, having been a temporary situation for several decades.  The fact that the buildings’ name was the Engineering Units (“A” through “E”) reinforced the fact that this grouping of five brick cubes were never supposed to house the Architecture and Landscape Architecture programs.

The buildings were ill suited for human occupation.  The first sense one had entering the buildings was a strange odor that I liken to a combination of pencil shavings, wet paper towels and body odor.  The scent permeated every square inch.  It was not air conditioned, but that was ok because it had huge windows to let the glare of the sun in.  The breezes, if there are any in August in State College, were conveniently blocked by the buildings surrounding it on almost all sides (you could really mess with the students in those other buildings with a laser pointer, though).  In the winter, the heating system kicked out a pleasantly cool air, so in case you fell asleep at your desk, the sound of your own chattering teeth would wake you up for class at 8 AM.

Because of the building’s condition, the administration didn’t hassle us about its condition.  Each student customized his or her own space.  Sometimes that was as simple as moving things around, but others brought in lumber to get the job done.  Late nights saw all sorts of hi-jinks, from the mundane of climbing to the roof to see the sunrise at 5 AM to lighting models on fire and dropping them three stories.  Pets were welcome, although I am sure one janitor disagreed when I saw him clean up what I only hope was a pile of dog turds in the stairway.

I know that at least one person who made the Engineering Units his actual home for a semester.  He had either lost his apartment or couldn’t afford it any longer.  He slept in the lounge on the disgusting couches next to the copier and vending machines.  He said he showered at Rec Hall, but nobody believed him.  No one ever kicked him out.  Walking by that lounge late at night, I’ve seen much more explicit activities on those couches than that.

The Engineering Units were more of a home to us for five years than anything else at Penn State.  While I am jealous of the new students coming into to a brand-spanking new building, I do feel bad that they won’t have the experience of living in the dump we all loved so.  The location of the Engineering units was ideal, but the new students will have to walk 20 minutes to grab a beer at Zeno’s Bar or pick up junk food at the Uni-Mart.  I guess that is the price you pay for having a new building.  Maybe the new students will end up being healthier at the end of five years.

Monday, September 3, 2012

It's not the Heat, It's the Humidity

There are plenty of situations that can make an architect uncomfortable.  I had one day at that tops them all for me.  RLPS had several retirement projects going in the Northeastern part of the State when I was a young intern, so I had the occasion to stop by one of them to carry out some sort of chore at the project (it seemed that we continually “adjusted” something at this project).

On the top level, there were several variations of balconies at that floor.  Some were open, others were covered with clear Plexiglas and some had a more traditional porch roof.  It seems that none of the residents liked what they had.  The residents with the roof didn’t like that their balconies were dark, the residents without any covering didn’t like that their balconies got wet, and the residents with the Plexiglas covering didn’t like that they could see debris on their roofs.

One suggestions for the dark balconies was to paint the underside white instead of the dark green of the original.  So instead of getting a painter to paint one, an intern architect was dispatched with a knife, boars of white Foam Core, a ruler, a cutting board and several tubes of Liquid Nails.  So there I was, in temperatures and humidity both in the mid-90’s, outside on a retired military officer’s porch on a ladder fitting squares of Foam Core into the coffers of the porch roof while trying to keep the sweet from burning my eyes.  I was miserable.  Having had a meeting prior to this exercise, I had been dressed in a coat and tie, not exactly appropriate for the task at hand.

After I finished inserting the panels into the coffers, I was literally drenched.  My ride (and the person that assigned this task to me) was meeting elsewhere in the building, so I just sat in the men’s room and tried to dry out, wishing I had a change of clothing.

I am told that the Liquid Nails gave way to the humidity over the summer, dropping panels on the Major’s head every so often.  Small consolation for a truly uncomfortable day.

Monday, July 2, 2012

33 Flavors of Stubborn

It never ceases to amaze me the role that food plays in our work.  Years ago we were meeting with clients to kick off a new project.  After meeting with staff, we had lunch with a representative group of residents, including the president of their resident council.

This gentleman came prepared and was obviously looked upon by the other residents as their spokesman.  He began to prioritize his major points of discussion into three categories.  First, was the need for a constant quality of food.  His major complaint was that in the last reorganization of the dining services, the group that provides the kitchen equipment provided a new ice cream freezer/dispenser that only provided room for four flavors from which to choose, instead of the six he was accustomed.  He conceded that this seemed harmless enough a decision, but he claimed that many of the residents, including himself, were quite upset.  In my head, I imagined a group of senior citizens tipping over the ice cream cart in protest, like a modern day, yet slower moving, Boston Tea Party.

But then I thought about how I like my ice cream, and while I never have 6 different flavors in my freezer at once, I do panic when we are running low.  So I can understand this gentleman’s dilemma.

Consequently, the gentlemen got so impassioned about his first point, that he had to struggle to remember the other two points, which I would have thought would have been more important than ice cream: how much is this going to cost the resident and will there be improvements done such that the residents living there now will be alive to enjoy them.  Just goes to show you that very trivial seeming decisions can affect the relationship a designer has with the residents. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Half Again As Big

Having grown up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, you would have thought I might have picked up a bit of the language.  It must be because my mother taught English that I never learned the local dialect.

We had prepared a mock up memory cabinet for our client in Easton.  It was really quite nice.  It was a mahogany stained wood cabinet and it was about four inches deep, with a half round top and a glass door.  The inside was lined in green felt.  The client liked it very much, but it wasn’t quite big enough.  The Dutchy contractor suggested that we make another, “half again as big”.

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I wrote down the phase on my pad, dictated it the minutes, and then proceeded to fax off a sketch to the wood shop to increase the dimensions.  In a couple of weeks, I came into possession of the new mock up, inspected it and then took it to the next job meeting.  The whole group looked puzzled.  I didn’t see what was wrong:  the new one looked just like the first one only it was twice as big, like they had asked.

Turns out, since I didn’t consult my English-Dutch dictionary, or my Dutch multiplication tables, I had made a mistake.  My logic had led me to believe that the first prototype was half the size it should have been – not, take one-half the size it is now and add it to the original.  In the end, the Owner took the oversized cabinet and placed it inside the front entry hall and used it for announcements – it looked great, almost as if it was planned.  In true Dutchy fashion, the lemons were made into lemonade.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An American in Paris

While in college, I was lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester.  It was one of the defining experiences of my life (I found my wife there, too).  However, at the end of my studies in Italy, I was able to backpack to several other counties on the train.  I loved Italy, but while many aspects of Italian life are “modern”, their architecture is relentlessly classical.  On the train ride it was obvious that the further north we got, the more modern the buildings were.

Paris had a scale and a blend of styles that I had not seen in months.  As a young student, I made it my mission to see as many “famous” buildings as possible with the time I had.  One stop I had to make was the American Center in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry.  At the time, Mr. Gehry had little of his public acclaim earned by his later Guggenheim commission in Bilbao, Spain.  He was; however, quite well know in architectural circles.  The American Center was his largest and most famous commission to date, and I had to see what all the fuss was about.

The building was not located anywhere near the center of the city, but on the outskirts along the river with many other modern buildings I could only assume were corporate office buildings.  The façade was not as pristine as it had been in the magazines, either.  It was dirty and several of the thin, stone veneer panels were kicked in, exposing the insulation behind.  I thought maybe that the French were none too pleased with this American presence in Paris (I will dispense with the comparisons to the much different attitude in Paris during 1944).  However, the building was anti-contextual, taking no cues from the surrounding environs.  The sweeping and curved forms related to absolutely nothing I could see from my vantage point.  I couldn’t imagine how that exterior translated into any kind of reasonable interior.

When I entered the main lobby, I found that most of the curved exteriors were part of a vast and complex atrium.  Then I noticed that there was hardly any one in there with me.  Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the main function of that building was.  I snooped around as much as I thought I could without getting cursed at in French.  The most telling investigation came when I found a bathroom.  I couldn’t open the door to the 90 degree position.  I found the obstruction to be the toilet itself.

I left feeling a bit jaded.  This exorbitantly expensive and controversial building had failed to deliver.  I’m not saying I kicked in any stone panels on the façade, but I now understand why there were so many.  A year later I learned that the Center went bankrupt and closed it doors, at least they closed them as tightly as they could given any obstructions.

Full Disclosure:  When I wrote this, the building was still standing vacant, as it did for 9 years.  Since, however, the building was rehabilitated into a center of history of cinema, with very little change to the outside.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Wine and Dine

After a very successful architectural presentation to the board of a Mennonite Facility, Gregg and I had dinner with the administrator of the facility who was our main contact.  It did not seem unusual for the other two at the table to order a glass of wine with their dinners.  I had just a ginger ale, because I don’t drink.  Where am I going with this you ask?

A few minutes into the meal, I noticed several of the board member with whom we had just met walk into the restaurant.  When I commented on the familiar faces, I saw a look of panic cross the administrator's  face.  She did not want the members of the board see that she had a glass of wine.  I am told that the reason the town where the facility resides has no pubs is that the parent Mennonite Organization owns, and renews annually, all of the liquor licenses in the borough, to ensure a dry town.

So in one of the most unusual sacrifices I’ve ever made for a client, I pulled her glass of wine in front of my spot at the table.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mom's House

Of the decisions I have made as an Architect, I think the smartest one I have ever made was to refuse to get involved with the house my parents built on their retirement lot.  My parents had owned several desolate acres in New Mexico for years, always intending to build a house when they retired.  I have only ever seen it in photographs, but it looks like the photos Viking sent back from Mars when I was a kid.

Of course when it came time to start designing their house, they started asking for free advise.  They didn’t pay for my tuition, so they couldn’t hold that over my head, but I didn’t mind until I heard a few things that sent up warning flags in my head.  First of all, I was not too familiar with the climate in which they would live.  Although they were to move to New Mexico, it was not desert.  Their property was in the foothills of the mountains.  While it still goes up to 120 degrees in the summer, nights would get rather cool.  In the winter, it can actually snow quite a lot there.  In fact they got much more snow there than we did here in Pensylvanian this year.  My step father had ideas of installing a coal burning stove and a swamp cooler in the house, neither of which I had ever seen as primary heating and cooling.  I didn’t want to be responsible for them freezing to death in their sleep.

Here was the big warning flag, though:  my step father had visions of a log cabin.  Did I mention their property, nor none in sight, had any trees what-so-ever?  The biggest vegetation there would be considered as weed-like shrubs here and cut down in short order.  No matter how hard I tried to explain to him that his idea was ridiculous and probably cost-prohibitive, he would not admit that I knew better than he did.  I saw the way things would go.

So I gently explained that it would be much easier on everyone if they would meet some local builders on their next trip out and see what they had to offer.  They knew the climate, the permitting process, as well as the local building materials.  The builder was going to build it anyway, and probably wouldn’t follow the directives from some moron from back east anyway.  So that is what they did and they currently reside in a respectable stucco house with a clay tile roof, heated by a traditional furnace.  They do have a swamp cooler instead of a traditional air conditioner and it works quite well, as I understand it, and I am still on speaking terms with my parents.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hold the Starch

What do an electric iron and a set of presentation drawings have to do with each other?  Quite a bit if those presentation drawings we mysteriously and mistakenly crumpled and tossed in the trash.  One day, before a fairly important presentation, a frantic search began for the drawings around which this presentation was going to be centered.  Finally, the renderings were discovered in a recycling receptacle, and they were not in very good condition.

Time was limited, so the possibility of rendering the drawings again was not an option.  The solution; go to Kmart, purchase an iron (with a  steamer), lay out the crumpled up renderings on the floor, and iron out the drawings like a wrinkled shirt (without the starch).  Up close, the drawings were still pretty wrinkled, but from 10 feet or more, the wrinkles were not really recognizable.  Apparently, the presentation went well enough.  It just goes to show you, presentation drawings only need to look good from presentation distance.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Just the Fax, Please.

This post seems awefully dated, simply becasue no one faxes anything anymore.  Here's a picture of one if you're under 30...

Is it possible to follow directions too closely?  Once while working as a summer student, another intern was asked by a partner to take a large traced drawing on mylar and fax it to a consultant.  The intern looked a little puzzled, so the he was told, “cut it into 8 ½ inch strips”.

The intern dutifully cut the mylar into strips, faxed it and returned the drawing mended with strips of Scotch Tape.  Confused, the partner asked what happened to the drawing.  The intern responded that he had to, in order to get the sheet through the fax machine.  When asked why he didn’t make a copy to cut THAT up and fax it, the intern responded, “I don’t know, you didn’t ask me to”.