On Monday morning, I went to grab a cup of coffee at a little cafe by my work.  I overheard two young guys having a business meeting at a table by the window.  One, in motorcycle jacket and stylishly-slashed jeans, was pitching to the other, talking about creating a decision engine for our leisure-time activities.  The rest of their conversation drifted in and out of earshot, but I couldn't get that phrase -- decision engine -- out of my head.  I paid for my coffee, dumped in some cream, and made for the door.  As I walked back to the office, cutting down the alley, I thought over that choice of words; a techie, slang-y take on an abstract concept that also sounds fundamentally dumb.  Break it down for minute: decisions are rational thoughts that generate human actions and behavior, while engines are big, brainless brutes that generate mechanical action in support of human behavior.  So, do we really want an engine spewing out decisions like so much horsepower?

Since the mid-nineties, Americans have greedily slurped up every hop, skip, and leap forward in technology, from flat-screen TVs to broadband internet to the now-ubiquitous mobile web.  I'm speaking to you now on a platform that has revolutionized people's ability to self-publish while actually reaching an audience.  Lots of things have fallen by the wayside, from pets.com to Napster -- one might call them the inevitable casualties of forward progress.  One fundamental success of Web 2.0 and beyond has been the rise of all of these engines, generating associations by plugging your eminently trackable web behavior into algorithms.  

Amazon comes up with recommendations based on books you've bought, books you've browsed, and books other people have bought.  Netflix analyzes what you've watched, what you've rated, and what's in your queue to come up with absurdly specific categories of movies you might be interested in.  Pandora builds a library of music upon your diligence in clicking on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon.  Google has begun to filter and customize your search results based on your previous searches and cookies embedded in your browser, especially if you use Chrome.  Google Maps uses algorithms to determine the best route, based on a matrix of speed limits, lane widths, and number of traffic lights.  


The ReBuilding Life

This weekend, I found myself on the South Side of Chicago, dodging rain and doing a little construction for the Rebuild Foundation.  Saturday, I was up fairly early, digesting the headlines and trying to get in the laundry room before the rest of the building snapped up the machines.  After some breakfast and chores around the apartment, I loaded my tools into the 'rolla and wound my way to the highway.  The Dan Ryan Expressway is a miserable piece of urban engineering: it slices the city in half, and, despite seven lanes in each direction, was moving at less than twenty miles an hour on a Saturday.  During the week, it is a nightmare, beat to a standstill for about six hours a day.  As Kevin Costner once asserted, if you build it, they will come -- the worst scenario for a highway, as each expansion in lane width merely attracts more traffic and compounds the problem.

At any rate, after about forty-five minutes, I made it to the Chicago HQ of the Rebuild Foundation, started by Theaster Gates, artist, educator, and all-around renaissance man.  I couldn't figure out the gate to the place (typical), and I didn't have the phone number (also typical) of my contact there, Charlie Vinz.  So, in (typically) bewildered fashion, I wandered around the alley for a minute until Charlie appeared at the fence and let me in.  I felt an immediate, powerful sense of place -- the house was a sense memory of Greensboro, radiating the same scents, sights, and scenes as my old home.  It was deeply reminiscent of PieLab, built as it was out of old lumber and odd bits of imagination.

The Dorchester Street house of the Rebuild Foundation, with facade of salvaged wood.


The Commuting Life

I bought an bike about a month and a half ago at a little shop north of here, on Clark.  It's a late seventies or early eighties Schwinn Traveler Xtra-Lite, baby blue, with new chain, tires, grip tape, and a cranky derailleur.  I can't quite place the date because I can't find the serial number.  At any rate, it's steel, it's older than me, and I've been creaking around the city on it for a couple weeks now.  Before moving to Chicago, I had probably been on a bike three or four times in the last ten years.  Now I'm riding daily, commuting to a new (temporary) job at a little architecture studio on the west side of the Chicago River.  According to Google maps, it's a 3.7 mile haul each way.

The Blue Beast.
The first two weeks of riding, back in the heat of the summer, left me so sore I couldn't bend my knees to get things out of the fridge.  While I've done my share of manual labor over the years, and spent a lot of time on my feet, I haven't really worked aerobically in a long time.  While Chicago is blessedly free of hills, I was definitely hurting from the unfamiliar motions.  Bicycling competitively has always been a dialogue on pain -- lactic acid searing muscles on hard ascents, the burn of October air in windpipes -- but I mistakenly thought I would escape that conversation by riding slow and easing into things.  

Besides the pain, biking has given me a new perspective on the city.  Walking, you experience the city at a certain remove: traveling in a protected pedestrian zone (the sidewalk); moving at a very slow pace; and operating untethered to objects.  In a car, you experience the city in a different kind of isolation: sealed in a climate-controlled steel container, listening to your own music and conversation; viewing the outside world through windows that tightly frame your view; moving over a wide continuum of speeds, from zero to forty miles an hour; traveling in an exclusive area (the street); and experiencing propulsion untethered from physical effort.  

In motion.


Mies, More, and Me . . .

This past Saturday, I fired up the 'rolla and took a long, meandering drive through some handsome corn fields out to Plano, Illinois, to see the Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe.  One might consider it a sort of pilgrimage -- Virginia Tech's school of architecture was grounded in the Bauhaus tradition, the pioneering German modernists who found a home in Chicago after fleeing Nazi persecution.  The modernists in general, and Bauhaus in specific, have been the subject of much criticism and revisionist history.  However, for all its faults, the Farnsworth House is a master lesson in the origins of modern design, a building that dragged architecture, kicking and screaming, into the post-war era.

Farnsworth panorama.
Architecture, especially residential architecture, was once dank, dark, low-ceilinged, unsanitary, and uncomfortable.  Expensive glass and masonry structural systems kept windows small, fireplaces kept houses cold, and lack of plumbing kept them dirty.   The Farnsworth house, admittedly, was extremely expensive (~$581,000 in today's dollars), but the revolutionary use of light steel structure, huge expanses of glazing, and an open floor plan flooded the house with light and air.  Each glass window was ground flat and polished, reducing glare and distortion.  You can see through the house; from a distance, you can't tell the glass is even there, and the house disappears into pure planes of white.  Inside, the spare interior is well-appointed with only the necessities (it was designed as a weekend retreat), and the raised foundation gives you a sense of floating above the earth as you look out over the Fox River.

Perspective shot.



Today, I was picking up a specialty paper order at a warehouse on Ashland Avenue, a little ways south of the very large and very ugly Rush University Medical Center. The warehouse was sandwiched between two railroad tracks. As it happened, each was full up with a stopped train. I had to wait awhile while they found and cut the paper, so I stood in the door of the warehouse, out of the rain, and contemplated shipping containers for awhile.

Containers stuck on the tracks today.
I have long been fascinated with containers, for much the same reason I've long loved road signs -- they are mass-produced and uniform, but separate and unique, bearing the marks of their lives on trucks, trains, and boats.  Each has a graphic identity, a bold color scheme, and a patina of grime, grease, and graffiti.  They are beautiful, minimalist sculptures on their own, but attain real visual power when massed.  

These containers are extended to 53', from a standard 40'.


A Little Guerilla Philosophy . . .

As this blog gets off the ground, I want to take opportunity to explore some of the ideas that have been kicking around in the back of my head for the last few years.  Sometimes I'm so eager to get projects done that I don't take the time to formalize the thinking behind them.  I'm no professor, but I've picked up some bits and pieces over time, and it's been helpful to me to sort through my own brain by writing them down.  So, here is the first of what may be a recurring series of posts on guerilla design thinking and design/build philosophy.

My education as a designer and craftsman has followed two parallel, and equally important, tracks: the academic study of design and the practical building arts.  In my mind, they have become so intertwined as to be inseparable.  Since the creation of formal design disciplines several centuries ago, specialization has progressively split the fields into smaller and smaller subdivisions.  In medieval times, architects were usually also engineers and builders.  Today, we have a wide range of professions, each with a narrow scope, that combine to produce buildings and objects.  While this process has made our buildings, cars, and furniture much safer, stronger, and accessible, it has also created a fault line between those who design and those who make.  We tend, as a culture, to regard the former as intellectually superior and the latter as somehow mentally lacking, denying the knowledge that they have accumulated in their hands.

My first design/build project, Virginia Tech's Rammed Earth House.
I participated in my third year studio, 2004-05.


Design Nomad

A little over six weeks ago, I arrived in Chicago driving the remainder of a '98 Corolla. Hitched, improbably, to the back, was a trailer containing what little my girlfriend and I own.

God bless the 'rolla.
This is my seventh move in five years. I've studied architecture in Virginia; poured concrete in Arizona; built cabinets in Baltimore; studied more architecture in the rural south; and taught youth carpentry in Alabama. Along the way, I've designed and built houses, furniture, and landscapes.

Some of this nomadism has been motivated by my own wanderlust, and some motivated by the vagaries of the Great Recession. The economy has been down since I got out of school, and architecture, tied as it is to credit and real estate, has had a particularly hard time recovering. I've tried to see the economic uncertainty as an opportunity, exploiting the gaps in traditional design practice and going off-the-grid, into the world of guerilla design.

Chicago has been great (a little warm, even after Alabama), and I've met a lot of wonderful folks in a very short time. As I put down some roots and look around for work, I've had a chance to explore a lot of great programs, non-profits, and firms. On the thirtieth, I started volunteering at ReBuilding Exchange, an architectural salvage warehouse, jobs training program, and furniture workshop.

The ReBuilding Exchange.