Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The casting call poster for Downfall.

Oh boy. And we thought the bad real estate news couldn't get any worse. ABC has taken it to a whole new level.

Tonight the network premiers its newest primetime game show: Downfall. Contestants compete on the roof of a 10-story building in downtown Los Angeles for up to $1 million in prizes. If they fail, those prizes are tossed from the roof to smash below:

"Fabricated facsimiles of all prizes will be placed on the largest conveyor belt ever seen on TV with a pile of cash at the end ranging from $5,000 to $1 million. In each round, players will try to answer all the questions before their prizes and cash go over the edge, off the roof, and sent crashing 100 feet to the street below."

Executive producer Scott St. John told The Hollywood Reporter: "Downfall is a new, hybrid, high-stakes field game show where fearless contestants have to fight and focus hard to keep their winnings from falling off the side of a building."

"Winnings" include people. Like your wife, who could also go over the side in a "controlled fall."

This works because stuff and people are expendable, right?

Considering our economy has taken the proverbial fall off the cliff—owing in large part to the uninformed, unregulated financial risks taken with our real estate—it seems perverse to air a show on a skyscraper that is centered around unmitigated greed and destruction. How about a game show where contestants save shit from the landfill instead?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Rise and Fall (and Rebirth) of an Architecture Firm

My latest feature, out this month in Architect, is about CSD in Baltimore. The firm closed last fall after 62 years. The question the article hopes to answer: How could one of Baltimore's oldest and largest architecture firms suddenly collapse?

Ed Hord remembers Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009, as a particularly sunny day in Baltimore. The senior principal of design firm Hord Coplan Macht (HCM) was at home when he received a phone call from Tom Spies, then the senior vice president of CSD Architects. Hord and Spies were practically neighbors—in business and in life—with offices blocks from one another and homes in the same bucolic neighborhood north of the city. HCM and CSD were not exactly competitors, but they did share a healthy rivalry; over the years, Hord and Spies had developed a kinship in the small pond that is Baltimore architecture. When Spies said he needed to talk, Hord told him to come right over.

They sat outside under a Japanese Snowbell tree as Spies unloaded his news. CSD, he explained, was in deep trouble. Hord, like most of his peers, had had no idea just how bad things were at the 62-year-old firm, one of the largest in the region. He’d had an inkling that business was down. There were significant rounds of layoffs over the previous months—all cataloged in the Baltimore Business Journal—but who hadn’t had to jettison staff to survive the downturn? HCM itself had needed to lay off good people. Then there were the rumors about revenues. “We had heard that their ratios died, but we had heard that about a lot of firms,” Hord recalls.

The rumors turned out to be true. CSD’s cash flow had atrophied, leaving a seriously unbalanced ledger sheet. Revenue projections for 2009 were anemic—just $7 million, down from $15 million the year before—while fixed overhead remained high. The company was, to quote CSD president David Dillard, about to “hear the sound of metal on metal.” That could mean only one of three things: bankruptcy, a merger or acquisition, or something else altogether.

It was this third option that Spies wanted to discuss with Hord. READ MORE HERE.

Conflict Kitchen

A new restaurant in Pittsburgh will only serve food from regions of the world that are on the outs with the U.S. The first iteration of Conflict Kitchen is Iranian, with a facade designed by Pablo Garcia and graphics created by Brett Yasko (including the wrappers, pictured below).

The menu is Kubideh:

The facade, graphics, and menu will evolve with each country. Next up: Afghanistan.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finding Language

I am reading a new book by Robert Richardson called First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Richardson culled Emerson's lectures and journals to glean his thoughts on the writing life. Emerson never wrote a specific piece about writing, but his private journals offer a thoughtful commentary.

Emerson felt strongly about word choice, believing it to be the writer's job to tether new words together in order to explain life. He bemoaned lazy language and the mindless repetition of fashionable phrases (think today of overused words like "green" "eco" "innovative"). True writers, he said, "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things."

It was this passionate search for the right language that helped Emerson coin so many popular phrases. "Hitch your wagon to a star," for example. The origin was architectural, used to describe the moon-powered tide mills that were grinding meal near his home. The phrase is abstract, but accurate, and it requires the reader to draw his own conclusions.

"In good writing every word means something. In good writing words become one with things."

Emerson's home near Concord, Mass.

The same can be said for architectural language, which is expressed in form rather than words. The vocabulary of a building is constructed, decision by decision, much the way an essay grows, first in words, then in sentences, then in paragraphs. Each builds off the other to generate the whole. If one word is out of place, if the author takes liberties and wishes to hear himself expound rather than write to the truth, the work fails. How many times has a building read as "wrong?" Something about its composition just isn't legible. And then you see the fissures. The authorial hubris that demanded that fenestration; the meek mirroring of another great work; the appropriation of tradition now out of context.

It is this last item that particularly vexed Emerson. He points to religion as an example of lazy language that leans too much on the past.

"If I were called upon to charge a minister, I would say beware of Tradition: Tradition which embarrasses life and falsifies teaching. The sermons that I hear are all dead of that ail. The preacher is betrayed by his ear. He begins to inveigh against some real evils and falls unconsciously into formulas of speech which have been said and sung in the church some ages and have lost all life. They never had any but when freshly and with special conviction applied. But you must never lose sight of the purpose of helping a particular person in every word you say."

Emerson is also very generous. He believed in the contemporary writer's capacity to create prose "freshly and with special conviction" and reminded young writers that the masters they so admire were once like them:
"Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books."
Believe in your ideas, he tells us. Give them grounding and wed them to the appropriate language. Young architects today could learn a lot from Emerson.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tomorrow Night! Design Convo

Jonathon Borofsky's Male/Female outside Penn Station.

Design Conversation #20: Public Art (part 2) happens this Wednesday evening at the Windup Space.

Panelists include:

Angela Adams, Public Art Administrator, Arlington Cultural Affairs

Cathy Byrd, Executive Director, Maryland Art Place

Jann Rosen-Queralt, Baltimore City Public Art Commission

Wednesday June 2nd 2010
The Windup Space - 12 W North Ave @ Charles Street
6:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Design Conversations are monthly events held the first Wednesday of every month at the Windup Space (12 W. North Ave.) at 6:30 pm. These events are open to the public and are loosely curated by volunteers around a series of topics related to design, art, architecture, cities, and anything else that is on your mind. Cash bar and A/V hookup available.

Design Conversations are made possible by the generous support of Baltimore Community Foundation and D:center Baltimore.

This one is being curated by Ben Stone. Questions? ben.stone@gmail.com | www.dcenterbaltimore.com