written during an april 2008 trip to boston

Although my training is principally that of a computer scientist, I have a deep appreciation for architecture. The glory of computing is that in a short period of time and with only a limited set of resources, one can impact a very large number of people. The computer in this sense is an Idea Amplifier, a megaphone of sorts. But architecture is exciting in the opposite “time-people” slice, where a building has the opportunity to impact a large number of people over a large amount of time. While at any given point in time its impact is limited due to the size of the building (which cannot fit one million people) and the fact that it is located in a specific geographic location (and thus out of reach of people who don’t happen to be there), the building remains in a way that software does not, standing for sometimes hundreds of years. So I suspect that at some point in my life I may become quite fixated on creating buildings.

My friend Eric Silverberg and I yesterday walked through the Boston Public Library and its architecturally famous reading room. After a brief discussion on patent law inspired by browsing the year-over-year rapidly expanding volumes of the patent office (and remarking on the fact that the Patent Office in the 1800’s kept incredibly detailed records on all sorts of metrics of agricultural production and trade), we walked to the new wing of the library, built in the 1960’s. The change was visceral – the design went from open and magnificent to cluttered and claustrophobic. Eric and I paused to discuss the differences.

“Eric,” I said, looking around the new reading area, “I don’t get it – this space has all the right ingredients. Tall ceilings, smooth lines, marble and matte black. I can understand why someone would have given a thumbs up to this design. What’s not working?”

Eric pointed out that the light was not sunlight and was not sufficiently bright, but also that the stacks didn’t work visually – “it’s like they forgot that there were going to be books on the shelves!” That was a helpful epiphany; an unbacked bookshelf is going to look scattered. When designing a room consider its appearance and character when filled.

We walked to the atrium of the new wing, and could see the parallels to the classic wing: light coming form a skylight some six stories above, smooth marble paneling, and staircases going up the side. Again, all of the right ingredients for a marvelous welcome to the library. But it felt like an industrial test chamber, not a grand entrance like the old wing. I noted three key differences: the stairs were angular instead of swept in a curve (hence the industrial feel), the marble was matte instead of polished (lower cost, but less elegant, also reducing the light reflected from the skylight), and there was no artistic detailing on any features. No engraved writing or crests or anything, just a giant American flag hanging five stories up. The eye had nothing to settle on and
appreciate.

Other themes I’ve noticed from architecture: homes should have a larger number of smaller rooms. Who the hell needs a cavernous 2000 square foot “master retreat” for a bedroom? That’s just creepy and lonely. Use the extra floor space for guest bedrooms and common space. People don’t need giant bedrooms to be happy; just something that’s big enough for a comfortable bed, a small closet, and a desk. A bigger room than that doesn’t make people happier, but being able to host friends will. Bathrooms should also be small and purposeful. 95% of the time they are utility; they don’t need to be apartments unto themselves. Architects should focus more on a home for entertaining and being hospitable.

Instead of having a “McMansion” you could for the same price and with the same space build out a home with eight small bedrooms, three showers, five toilets, a great kitchen, and plenty of common space for events. And presto! you’ve set yourself up for a much more interesting and fulfilling life.

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