Sunday, August 29, 2010

"In praise of Ugly Buildings"

Jan (check her blog out, she's a really talented local photographer and throws in some of the history behind her subjects as well) commented on my last post that she can't find the love for the JFK Civic Center.  Shortly before I established this blog, I had posted an article from the Boston Globe to Facebook that gets into the topic of Brutalist architecture.  Unlike our local paper *ahem* they don't charge for archives (at least ones that are merely a year old), so I can repost the article and my comments here:

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2010/01/24/in_praise_of_ugly_buildings/?page=full
I agree. The whole Brutalist (based not on English "brutal" how we think of it, but the French term "Beton Brut" for Raw Concrete)/Modernist thing has certainly not reached romantic thought yet, but that's not to say it won't. The context that made these buildings a good idea at the time need to be understood, because we might go that way again. 
Modernism came into vogue as a backlash against the perceived excesses of the Victorian era, especially once the Depression and the World Wars hit and modern technologies changed the way we look at the world. A world focused on at first frugality and then a re-thinking based on technological innovation and forward-thinking was very happy to get rid of the Victorian/Guilded Age we romance today. 
Why focus design and thought on re-hashing ancient European architecture? Why waste money on ornamental construction? Isn't there value in Truth in Materials (if it's concrete, why make it a phony, looking like it's brick)? Isn't the ability to form that material - concrete - into all sorts of shapes interesting? Isn't using modern indoor lighting and air systems and strong structural members to create large, complex spaces with interesting artificial lighting noble? What is inherently wrong with the monumental Towers in the Park movement, over the wish to build dense and low we are returning to today, where public and private open spaces are again nearly an afterthought? Why should buildings blend into a "street as a room" instead of being monumental?
I know precisely the reasons why we don't like those concepts today, but some day, today's cheaply built prefab buildings with equally cheesy fascades, designed with the idea of romantizing the 19th century ideal of heavy and embellished construction as just one hamonizing player in a dense outdoor room will go out of style again, I'm sure. Architecture is art, and to appreciate it as an expression of the time, you need to understand why it happened.
Some day, we'll look back on these buildings as being part of the culture that brought us space-utopia things like The Jetsons and say "how quaint!"
As for Brutalism in Lowell, there are buildings on North and South campus in the style (one on Riverside just past the intersection of University comes to mind), as was typical in academia in the 60s and 70s. UMass Amherst and Dartmouth are both notorious examples of how cold and Soviet the style can feel. Lowell also had the North Canal apartments which were re-clad in "brick" fascades at some point. 
Then, of course, there's the JFK Civic Center.  JFKs fault I think is its location. It disrespects the focal point of what is supposed to be the Merrimack Street Indoor Room - The typical-of-the-genre Richardson Romanesque City Hall. It de-mapped a street and neighborhood. Like many Brutalist screw-ups, it has the theoretically useful plaza with the very moving officer statue...that nobody uses and is a decaying waste of space. 
Fox Hall on East Campus works much better with its plaza and as a focal point to the park-like assortment of dorms around it.  
There is one more I can think of: The Lowell 5 building at the head of the Merrimack Canal. Not one of my favorites, and I'd tear it down before JFK.  What used to be a spot filled with a monumental mill tower terminating the important view down the Merrimack Canal from Merrimack Street is now a nondescript concrete low-rise with an ugly parking lot. The good news is the slightly later high school addition, while destroying historic rowhouses and being pretty ugly, didn't hurt the massing in the area.

So yeah, that's my thoughts on that.  If you want an interesting book with a local focus that discusses primarily Victorian architecture, pick up Mill and Mansion by John Coolidge.  It was written in 1942 and updated fifty years later.  In addition to the nice little ego trip that a Lowellian gets from hearing a Harvard professor say he picked Lowell for his project because it is one of the best examples of 19th century industrial architecture in context in the world, he discusses why Victorian architecture should be saved - and why people didn't want to do it.  At the time of his first writing, during World War II, a generation gap was appearing around modernism, with his "younger" generation (he was born in the nineteen teens) starting to appreciate the now aging buildings, while their fathers considered most of the styles "sentimental."  Of course, I'm sure most of us agree with Coolidge that these buildings are interesting - they show concern for detail, pride of work, etc.  They don't build them like they used to, you know.

But I still agree with the Globe article:  Modernism will have its day again.

"Preservation Movement: Then and Now"

Back in May, I read on ComeToLowell that a special exhibit was running at the Boott Mill on the preservation movement, with a focus on Lowell's past successes and failures.  The second half of the exhibit was about the demolition of the Hancock house on Beacon St in Boston in the 1860s, and how that spurred interest in preservation at that time as well.  I finally made it over there today, and spent a good amount of time going over the exhibits.  From 1930s photos of the demoltion of the Saco-Lowell shops where the parking lot for the National Park Visitor's Center is today, through a model of renewal projects downtown in the 1980s, and into pictures of today's work at the Appleton Mills, there were numerous artifacts of planning projects throughout the years.

The Demolition of the Saco-Lowell shops in the 1930s.  Note that the warehouses in the center background are also now gone (two of the three last year and one years earlier, I covered this in an earlier post), the Freudenburg building on the far left has had its windows filled in (although this building is supposed to be restored in the near future), Dutton Street had not been widened yet, taking out the second set of train tracks, and in the far right background one can see the old train station and hotel where the Lord Overpass is today.

For someone like myself who was not born when a lot of the large sweeping renewal efforts from the 1930s through the 1970s happened, it was a fantastic insight into the thought processes that shaped Lowell today.  The exhibit is full of articles from The Sun and The Globe, talking about the situation in Lowell and plans for the future.  The photographs the exhibit had also include some images I had never seen, for example, this birds-eye picture of the demolition of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company ca. 1960, which gives a sense of scale for the destruction that I had never previously seen (note that the boarding houses in the lower left were gone within five years as well):





I also thought this one little photo was cute.  The Lawrence Heritage Museum has a similar one:


More after the jump.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Appleton Mill, April 2010 - August 2010. And a rant.

You know, being able to publish quickly on a blog requires not being too lazy to do it!  I have four months of photos of the construction work being done at the Appleton Mill building:

Appleton Mill, April-August 2010

As the photos show, things have been coming along nicely.  New support members are put in, many windows are in, brick is being cleaned.  In fact, a website has been launched for the project @ http://www.liveappletonmills.com/.  Interviews to live in the artist-preference building are taking place this Tuesday at Brush Art.

In addition to the coverage by the Sun the Boston Business Journal wrote about it as well, and I also found this interesting article on examiner.com.  It's from last year, but it talks about the various renewal projects going on in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.

By the numbers, the $60m Appleton Mill project will provide 130 live/work affordable units to qualified applicants -pending an interview- starting next April.  It will have features such as a roof deck, a community room with wifi, and a fitness area.  Applicants must show devotion to the arts and make between $15k as a single person and the mid-50s as a couple.  Rents start at about $400/mo.

Wait, what did I just say?  Sorry, I'm about to break with my normal tone here for a bit and please, feel free to correct me.  Maybe I'm totally off-base.

$400/mo?  Luxury apartments?  In a neighborhood full of people who pay a lot more for a lot less?  I'm not entirely following the financing here, but $45m came from MetLife, apparently offset by tax credits they'll receive.  Add in city, state, and federal assistance, and this building seems like it's totally immune from market forces on pricing whatsoever.  "Affordable" is one thing, and I certainly support subsidies for renewal projects that will benefit the community as a whole, but what they actually built here and what they're charging sounds like something else entirely.

All I can say is this project better hold itself to supporting the arts community, which has been a great asset to Lowell.  The tried-and-true gentrification technique of starting with artists to revitalize an area is a noble goal.  Certainly, the redevelopment of that eyesore neighborhood is good for everybody in Lowell, especially those of us downtown (who receive a disproportionate share of the city's interest and resources), and returning this property to the tax rolls would be nice.  However, if this project is mismanaged, if it turns out anybody meeting (or using deception to meet) the income qualifications can get in, or subletting is allowed, I can see it doing a number on demand for the lesser, but market rate, units in this area.  Disclosure:  I'm being selfish here as this directly relates to my current situation.

To go a little further off course, I feel that culture and leisure are the sign of a thriving society that can afford luxuries.  I don't agree that they can drive an economy the size of Lowell's, even though they can certainly stimulate it.  When things get tough, that stimulation effect wanes.  So, projects like this one worry me on some level.  The national economy is in the tank, people are out of work, people are stuck with underwater mortgages and/or unable to get loans or get out of debt - art is a luxury that I'm not sure as many people are buying right now as before.  Much like how people are cutting expenses on that other cornerstone of downtown Lowell's economy - going out to eat.

I feel that we can't lose sight of the ultimate goal of all these culture-based projects here in Lowell: economic stimulus.  Get people down here, create a more friendly and engaging place for people to live, and then hopefully work.  And I can see the Appleton Mill project, if it goes as it is supposed to, doing just that.  It looks like a great space that should attract a few hundred community-focused individuals.

Ultimately, we really need to do what we are continually unable to do at scale: attract jobs for our existing population and for the region.  Produce something that adds value to the larger economy.  Provide people with good paying jobs.  There are a few other projects in the area promising permanent jobs (if you look at my photos, there are a huge number of construction workers involved in this project, but they'll be gone soon enough) .  I hope those materialize sooner rather than later, because sometimes I feel our economy here is based almost entirely on good economic fortune that I'm not sure we'll have again for some time.

Drought, Summer 2010

With a few solid days of rain in the forecast, I decided it's time to catch up on some photos I've taken over the past month or so.

One of the most interesting things about living in a city with such strong ties to its waterways is watching the variations in water levels as the year progresses.  It's pretty cool to live in an urban area and still having that connection to the natural world.

Anyone in Greater Lowell is well aware that it has been a very hot and dry summer (even for a region that The Sun recently reported, is the hottest in the state [and this is only Lowell's fourth hottest summer on record), and the rivers are suffering for it.  The water bans seem to not have been that severe this year, I can only imagine due to reasonably healthy groundwater reserves from our very wet spring.

That said, the USGS data on the river levels for the Merrimack and Concord are showing extremely low levels of water.  At the moment, the Merrimack is running at 1,220 cubic feet per second, whereas the median is more than twice that.  We are currently at a flow rate in the 20th percentile.  The Concord is even worse:  30 cfs currently and a mean of 278 cfs.  27 cfs is the record low established in 1941, records beginning in 1936.

As for rainfall figures, weather.com has us at 0.87" of rain in August so far, and a monthly average of 3.26". For July, we got 1.74" and average 3.24"

This is a picture of the conditions this weekend under the Aiken Street bridge.  There was a huge collection of birds gathering on the recently-dry islands in the river.  I also managed to see a salmon, which was kinda neat.



Similarly, a few days before, the Concord at East Merrimack Street was the lowest I've ever seen it.



Back in 2006, this scene looked like this:


However, one good thing (I guess) has come of this:  There is an island off of the Concord River Greenway behind the Davidson St lot that in the spring looked like this:



Now looks like this:



So, I took advantage of this (hopefully rare) opportunity and went to the island, on foot, to take a few pictures.  I had wanted to get out here for a good while, but previous ideas all involved tight-roping that I-beam (I'm sure I'd fall in and drown) or using a boat (remembering my rough-water navigating skills in Oregon Trail, also not likely to end well).  Aside from extremely thick brush and evidence of parties, I think what is out there is the remnants of an old dam, which shows on maps back to 1850 or so.  This re-enforced concrete structure can't be that old, but I'd like to know how old it is, and when and why it was breached:



Rest of the pictures are here:

Drought, Summer 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What is the motivating factor for the next generation of software engineers?

As many of you know, history, urban studies, and all things Lowell are hobbies of mine.  By trade, I'm a software engineer.  Sure, it's a respected profession that pays fairly well, is creative, and is easy enough to find good jobs in  in the Greater Boston area.  But what got me into it?  Computer games.  And more importantly, wanting to write my own.  It occurred to me that the perfect storm of technological innovation and, perhaps more importantly, technological adolescence, that got me interested in that may no longer exist today.  The technology and the industry were so new yet becoming more accessible so quickly, it seemed like anyone could do it.  Without that motivation, what makes a teenager want to write software these days?

I'm going to go into my software development life story now.

I wrote my first computer program back in the mid-90s.  1995 or 1996.  The first program I had seen written by someone I knew was something my dad had to do for a class.  There was a calculator, a desktop skin, a few other things, all written in Visual Basic 3.  My dad is in high tech, but he is not an engineer, so I didn't exactly follow him.  As anybody who ever has written software knows, there is a certain mindset that is required to be able to turn ideas into software - I've always thought it was the people who liked word problems in math class and excelled in elementary physics.  Dad majored in English.

But there is more to why dad doesn't write code: he grew up in a time when computers were bulky machines that only universities and large companies had, often with teletype displays and punch-card inputs.  This obviously is a high-cost-of-entry situation with results of limited interest (at least to me).  By the time he was my age, his late 20s, the PC had been born, but it was expensive and limited in application.  The Wang PC he had when I was growing up couldn't even display extended ASCII art games like ZZT.  Still, not the interactive play-and-work environment we had 10 years later when I was a pre-teen.

However, by the time I was starting to think about what I really wanted to be when I grew up, things had changed.  The early 1990s had spawned lower-cost VGA-graphics based computers (Video Graphics Adapter...256 colors, 640x480 resolution) with a Windows operating system, hobbyist computer shows that were well-attended, and early home internet access over modems using local BBS's or the first few iterations of AOL.  Many of my friends had fathers in the computing industry, and had 286, 386, 486 machines that could take advantage of these things.  When we finally got our first IBM-compatible 33MHz 486 with a 100 MB disk drive and 4MB of ram (and later, a 2400 baud modem), the stage was set.  I had already heard about and played games like Wolfenstein 3D and King's Quest with friends, and I could finally play them.  Of course, I was already playing Nintendo and Super Nintendo, but this was different...probably because of the hobbyist community that was so active at the time.

Dad and I would go to the local shows and pick up some low-cost games (often demos called Shareware) on 3.5" floppies that held less than a megabyte and a half (double-sided, double density!) and maybe a peripheral or two.  There was no Best Buy yet or anything like that.  At home, I'd leave the phone dialed-in all night to AOL's download area pulling down some megabyte shareware demo of some new game - and it would take all night.  My mom never understood this stuff - the computer was something for work and games - it wasn't the communication mechanism that no longer tied up the phone line it became years later when she finally got hooked.  Dad, conversely, had a computer talk show on WCAP here in Lowell and had a column in a few papers, including The Sun called The Shareware Report.  There was a huge Shareware community at the time because there was something interesting about a lot of this software:  It was written by one or two people, often in their spare time, and it was usable and fun.  Even the professional games of the time, which were only a few magnitudes more complex at best, seem painfully simplistic by today's standards.  Wolfenstein 3D, which I previously mentioned, was associated with two software rock stars at id software:  John Carmack and John Romero.  King's Quest was tied to a husband and wife team at Sierra.  ZZT, also mentioned earlier, was done by just Tim Sweeney, who by the time of publication, was still only 21.  Superstar names existed at Nintendo, or in SimCity, or in Civilization, or in huge numbers of other games.  Granted, they weren't all engineers, but still, there was a seemingly single mind or small set of minds behind all the greatest games.

At the same time, software development was becoming more accessible.  Long gone were the punch cards and assembly-language coding.  Or maybe FORTRAN or COBOL if you were lucky.  While professionals were writing in C and academics were writing in Pascal, amateurs had Visual Basic...or at least QBasic, which was a form of BASIC that shipped with DOS and came with a game called Gorillas, complete with source code.  Visual Basic though, to a beginner, was the most exciting.

Visual Basic 3 had a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) editor to draw Windows applications as well as a very simple programming language syntax. Put a button and a text box on a window (a form in proper lingo), double-click the button, write what you want to happen when the button is pressed.  Probably make the text box say "Hello, world!"  One line of code.  While grade school had introduced us to coding without us even realizing it via logo on the Apple ][e, here was a language I could use to write toy programs in an hour or so.  With a little more reading up on the language (kids in school have time for such things), I was soon writing graphical games in a weekend that were like Whack-a-mole or Tic-Tac-Toe (a classic programming exercise).  From here, I went on to write more complex and time-consuming games that had music and savable state (file i/o) that looked like a complex version of Stratego.  I even wrote a trojan horse that would infect Windows 3.1 systems by copying itself to the A: drive and/or AUTOEXEC.BAT.  And many of these, save the trojan, I put up on AOLs Download Center, like hundreds and probably thousands of other programmers.  A few dozen people downloaded my games.

By this time, I was in high school and knew I was going to write software for a living.  I took every course on software my school had.  It was now the end of the 1990s and computer games - computer programs in general - were written by far larger teams.  A game like Quake, which I feel was on the cusp of a big transition in game complexity, had multiple engineers working on it, even more level designers, graphics people, musicians...and it just kept growing in complexity from there.  A modern computer game's development staff looks like that of a feature film.  The modern big-studio software days were here.  However, by this time, I had already had a few years, as a kid, tinkering with software in the golden years of the small studio.  It was a time when you could look at a program and say "with a reasonable amount of time and effort, I could do that too.  And it might not be quicker to download it / buy it"  Kids today don't have that luxury.  Look at my generation's Civilization II - coming out the same year as Quake (1996), admittedly far outside of my abilities to write, but at least there were simplistic editors to add your own unit types, etc - and compare that to Civilization IV, which was only ten years later as I was graduating college and my career path was set.  Writing tile-based games seems easy - writing true 3D games is hard.

It didn't matter - by this time I realized I liked writing programs, not just games.  I was ready to stop tinkering and start working full-time on software with a large team.  But games and tinkering with software in my bedroom got me interested in programming.

So, I went off to college in 2001 and we were a massive group of future engineers.  Around the same time the .com bubble burst and 9/11 contributed to an economic tailspin.  The years of graduates after mine were much smaller due to these factors, making it easy to find lower-level engineering jobs, just in time for me to graduate.  However, I wonder if what I've been babbling about here matters at all:  It's now been five years since I graduated college.  Some guy five years younger than me was too young in the early-to-mid 90s to have seen a rapidly maturing software industry.  They grew up playing games you could never conceive of designing, and many applications are prohibitively complex...and the easy ones are already done for you.

You know what though?  And this is largely why I wrote this to myself...to make myself think.  Something else has changed that hadn't entirely occurred to me: In the late 90s, people still were in the last few years of dialup.  The World Wide Web was still in its infancy.  I had a stupid little hand-coded webpage, but actually being a web developer never really was on my radar.  I took a few courses on static HTML and JavaScript in high school, some courses on ASP.NET in college.  There is still a lot of interesting and not prohibitively complex work to be done there, especially with how easy it is to use a modern language like Java to communicate with the internet.  It was way harder in my day.

As a matter of fact, Mark Zukerberg of Facebook is my age.  Actually, he's younger.  And actually, while I write back-end systems, our content has a web-based front-end.  But like I said, I'm not a web developer - I'm here because it's where the industry has gone, not because it's what I originally had in mind.

Another brave new world of software design is the mobile platforms.  I bought a book on how to program Android, but life, my job, and introspective blog postings like this one suck away my time.  Somewhere out there, kids are learning to write Hello, World! on an Android phone, and will be complaining in ten years that that field has matured beyond the point of easy entry for the future's children as well.