Oh Yeah, That’s The Point

by Don Friedman on March 1, 2017

Five and a half years after we switched our website to a framework* that allows easy blogging, and a year and a half after I started blogging every day**, I have finally realized what the overall theme of this blog is. There’s a thread that runs through every technical post, regardless of which one of us wrote it***: we’re surrounded by fascinating architecture, engineering, and urban planning every day but we have to look to see it.

Notice that I don’t say “great” architecture, engineering, and urban planning. Even if I were sure that I’m qualified to make that judgment, why would I? Tastes vary and my idea of a great building**** may be different from yours. But “interesting” is in the details that we’ve been discussing here: how a structure works, or was meant to work, or fails to work; why a building’s ornament looks like it does, or how it differs from the architect’s intent; why our streets look the way they do, and are located where they are; why are infrastructure works the way it does, or fails to. Tolstoy said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Great buildings are in some ways all alike – they function well, they look good, and they more or less stand up to the ravages of age – while interesting buildings are all interesting in their own way.

The picture up top shows the Flatiron building nearing completion in 1902. (I’ve used that picture before, but didn’t talk about it much.) The facade of the building is heavy stone in the American Renaissance style. It’s nice but nothing all that different from a hundred other buildings of its era designed by classically-trained architects. It’s the shape of the Flatiron that makes it special: the acute triangle plan that narrows down to a six-foot width on the north end combined with the nearly 300-foot height. That shape could not be safely built without the then-new steel skeleton frame, and the picture shows the bones beneath that stone skin.

I can’t see ever running out of interesting topics.

* WordPress.

** More or less.

*** So far, Marie, Mona, and me. I’m hoping for more participation within the office going forward.

**** I love Raymond Hood’s work:

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