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.