Monday, January 28, 2013

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12f


I thought I'd combine these two into one installment because there's not much to say about either.

Hansom cabs, for anyone who doesn't know, are the horse-drawn carriages found almost exclusively around the southern end of Central Park. Although they will presumably take you anywhere you'd need to go, within reason, mostly they're used for seeing the park itself. Recently I thought it would be rather funny to have one of them take me to work, and just get out as if it were from a normal motorized taxi. But I sort of disagree with them.

Don't get me wrong, I sometimes try my best to imagine the city before the invention of the combustion engine. It must have been such a wildly different environment, albeit considerably stinkier. But mostly I just think people riding hansom cabs look rather silly, if not lazy. Romance I think is the one exception I'm willing to allow. To each his own, I guess; the sight and smell of a horse's back door doesn't make me feel particularly romantic.

My main objection stems from being an animal lover. I suspect the stables take very good care of the horses. But I don't think New York is a good place for even very large dogs, unless their human companions are extremely active (jogging every day active), extremely responsible, and have easy access to a park where dogs are permitted. For certain this is no place for a horse. There's no reason for it. The combustion engine has been invented and they've worked out most of the bugs, too

The worst is seeing these poor creatures standing around when it's 19°F (-7°C) outside (blanketed or not), or for that matter trotting through the city when it's 89° (32°C). Those are the real temperatures. Compare this life to the horses living on a sprawling horse farm in rural Virginia, running around eating dandelions all day. New York City law allows them to work nine hours a day, seven days a week, inhumane by just about anyone's standards. It just makes me sad.

Ironically, I don't have the same problems with horseback riding. This is more of a skill, requires a certain level of athleticism, and also allows the rider to develop a sort of relationship with the horse, if only for an hour or so. Unfortunately, you can no longer rent horses in Central Park. Since the only parks where you can are in the outer boroughs, I'll leave that mode of transportation for someone else to discuss.

Pedicabs are also propelled by animal, but the mammals are human beings. It's basically a tricycle rickshaw. These, as a friend of mine once said, are the absolute height of laziness. You can't be bothered to carry your own body down the street, so you have some poor guy do it for you (they overwhelmingly seem to be 20-something-year-old males). They should charge about one dollar per block or forty-five dollars for an hour, but you can practically walk faster than they travel a lot of time. Speed is not a selling point here. 

Aside from the fact that, unlike horses, they're doing this more or less voluntarily, one justification for hiring one is to help the person out. Likely he's doing it to get his financial footing in a new city or make a little extra money to add to that from a more conventional job. I suspect some of them may also be athletes, professional bicycle racers and so on, who do it to make some money while also training. Hire one with a nice looking butt, because that's what you'll be staring at the whole time.

©2012, Ryan Witte

12g. Bicycles, Boats, Kayaks

Monday, January 21, 2013

VillaWitte #2--Atrium

Villa Witte was a name I've long loved. I think it offers the most exquisite opportunities for creating a logo. Here is the proper front elevation, which doesn't directly face the road to the northeast, but faces north.

I originally conceived this house in shingle or wood siding, so prevalent in the northeastern United States. The first problem is that both cladding materials are insanely annoying and costly to maintain properly (cedar shingle might not be too bad). Second is that most siding now is vinyl, which is kind of gross. I'm of the opinion that a material should look like what it is and behave like what it is. But I suspect raw, uncolored vinyl would be singularly unattractive, like the color of stained teeth? Thirdly, Sketch-Up renders wood siding very badly, whereas their stone facing looks comparatively nice. Nothing wrong with stone, either, it's solid and has permanence.

You may notice right off the bat that there's no foundation or basement. I wanted to disturb the land as little as possible--as a matter of fact, the site I kind of liked appeared to be a natural clearing--so I'd rather not excavate that much. But since the site should be a hill leading down to the Hudson, there will certainly need to be some way to keep the house from sliding down into the river, probably with pylons or something like that. Finding a site with a natural bedrock outcropping and attaching the structure solidly to it would be nice, but presumably all but impossible to locate. The back of the house is designed to be cantilevered anyway, as the slope becomes steeper, while the front is right at ground level.

The front doors and the window above them are enormous sheets of bullet-proof glass. This is not because I expect the house to be in a neighborhood with a lot of gunfire (although the way things are going in this country these days, who can say?). Rather, I love the contrast between complete visual transparency and unquestionable security against even firearms. 

Initially, I had liked the idea of carving a hollow out of the glass so that the doorknob and deadbolt lock mechanisms would be totally visible, to call further attention to that duality--despite the fact that this would likely render them less secure. In the end I decided it would be much more dramatic if they were sliding doors operated by a key card, passcode, or best of all, a voice recognition system, with no doorknobs at all. On the night of a party, for instance, the voice recognition software could be programmed to open the doors for anyone on the guest list. Probably it would be wise to have them operate by some kind of hydraulic piston or something that would allow them to be opened (or closed) quickly in an emergency even when the power is out, or at least provide a crank to easily open them manually. The sidelights are structural glass, which will be explained shortly. The canopy is reinforced concrete. The rectangular frame cut out of the stonework at the upper right will be explained later on.

Here's what you see when you first walk in the door. The oval recess in the center is a pool of water, which I'll get to in a second. The stairs on the right take you down to the public rooms of the house. There was probably a mathematical way to make the geometry of this room--mostly oval in shape--much more precise. Unfortunately, it would have taken me countless hours longer to do it that way, and really I just wanted to get the atrium finished and move on to other parts of the house. So I must confess I measured out everything that was realistic to do so and then finished it mostly by eye.

When you look up, you see this. The stairs meander up through the atrium to the top. The roof is a giant skylight, fractured almost like shattered glass (the design of the skylight will require considerably more thought than it was possible to do at this stage). The whole skylight can open up from the center like a blooming flower to regulate temperature. I foresee it being controlled by a sophisticated climate control system capable of automatically opening and closing this aperture and the various windows and doors, pulling cooler air into the peripheral rooms and hot air up out of the atrium. I've never been a fan of air conditioning. The air is stale, reconstituted, and unhealthy, as are the constant drastic temperature changes when one travels from outside to inside and back again. I'd like to think that a well-thought-out computer program could operate these features in such a way that a relatively comfortable temperature could be maintained without the need for air conditioning in all but the most extreme weather conditions.

The walls of the atrium are two layers of structural glass, about a foot apart, that act as a huge tank that collects rainwater. This water will feed, at the very least, toilets and other non-consumable water use, but I see no reason at all why a purification system couldn't be added to this to accommodate all the water needs of the house, at least when rainfall is heavy. I'll return to this idea a little later, when we get up to the roof.

Where the various stair platforms meet the wall surface will be troughs for ivy and the wall will be fitted with spurs for the ivy to attach itself to the walls and climb it. The entire atrium will be a growing, living, breathing, sun-drenched entity. Since rendering something like ivy would be a disaster for Sketch-Up, I didn't bother to create them, but they're there. The troughs of soil for the ivy will be watered by "perspiring" pipes fed from the water wall. It might be prudent to give some of the glass on one side a slight mirror finish so that sun coming in from the south will be reflected across the room to shine on the ivy on the opposite side.

Although the water itself will provide some measure of concealment, both the inner and outer walls of the atrium are glass in most places. The ivy provides an added measure of privacy in a very natural way for the rooms that are more private, particularly the bedrooms on the upper stories. At the same time, questions of privacy and visibility are made very prominent here. In any place where it might be problematic, clear glass that can be frosted over at the push of a button could easily be employed.  The skylight and glass walls will bathe almost the entire interior with natural light. I'd like to think artificial lighting would almost never be needed during daylight hours. Using glass for the skylight that can be frosted over by the climate control system could help to regulate temperature, as well.

Rainstorms will be the most dramatic event in this house. There is really only one thing I don't like about a violent thunderstorm on a hot summer day, and that's being caught walking around in it when I have somewhere that I need to be. Everything else about them I think is magical. It's Mother Nature at her very best. I love watching the huge, dark storm clouds approach over the horizon, a truly breathtaking sight. I love the thunder and especially the beautiful performance of lightning strikes. The sound of the pouring rain soothes me as much as the hypnotic sound of crashing ocean waves. During a particularly intense one, I will sometimes stand outside on purpose, just to feel it coming down on me. And for some reason, being all warm and dry while nature pours her heart out on the land is a sensation I find extremely comforting.

This house opens itself up to a rainstorm. The rainwater very literally enters it and pours in, through, and back out of it. So the first thing to notice is that the skylight over the atrium opens up in just such a way that, after filling the wall tank and to a small degree before that, the rainwater pours down and fills the pool in the center of the ground floor. One issue that will need to be addressed is the water, coming from so far above, splashing out of the pool and onto the white marble floor creating a serious safety hazard. A simple solution that occurred to me was to surround the pool with planters filled with taller grasses and wildflowers that would catch the spashing water and also thereby be nourished by it. I didn't like the way this disrupted the lines of the atrium's ground floor, but some compromise could be found. Although it would be a waste of resources the rest of the time, it'd be nice to have the ability to pump water up to fall through the atrium at least when entertaining in dry weather.

One last thing to notice about the atrium, before moving on, is the coat closet, most of the time merely for the residents to store their various outerwear. But it has a Dutch door with a counter, so that when there's a party, it can very easily be used for coat check with a hired attendant. It can also serve as an alternate entrance, which I'll get to later.


©2013, Ryan Witte

Thursday, January 17, 2013

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12e


For anyone who doesn't know what this means, a livery cab is a little nicer than the basic yellow cab. It can be a short limousine, but most often it's a plain black town car. Most people who would use one are super wealthy and will have one dedicated to them for their entire stay or will call ahead to reserve one for specific trips, particularly from and to the airport. I believe they have a plaque showing their certification, but they will always have "Livery" on their license plate. Do not get into any car without the livery license plate, ever. At best it may be a gypsy cab with questionable ethics, and I won't bother to describe the worst-case scenario.

The reason I mention them here is that while a livery cab driver is waiting for their reserved customer to eat dinner at a restaurant or whatever, they may drive around looking for additional fares on the side. From what I've heard, they're technically not really supposed to do this, but I don't fault a person for doing what they can to make a little extra money. You gotta do what you gotta do, right? I assume most people who hire them for an evening expect the driver to look for other fares when they're free to do so. If you're on the street trying to hail a yellow cab, one of these drivers might pull up to ask where you need to go. If it's a short enough trip, the driver may offer to take you. You can certainly take advantage of this and pretend you're a celebrity when you get out at your destination. [For the record, actual celebrities don't hire big, obnoxious white Hummer stretch limos. They take town cars so they'll be less conspicuous.]

It's a nicer ride than a yellow cab, so expect to pay more. Ask how much it will be and agree on a price before getting in. Otherwise, the driver can charge whatever he or she wants and you're out of luck. Usually they'll ask for around double the price for a normal cab, which in my opinion is a waste of money unless you're truly desperate. Another regular yellow cab will likely come along in less than a minute, anyway.

On average, a yellow cab should be about one dollar for every two to four street blocks, and about a dollar or two for every avenue block. For instance, a ride straight downtown from 50th to 20th Street in moving traffic should cost about six to eight dollars including the tip. The livery driver will likely ask for twenty to twenty-five dollars. There's nothing wrong with haggling them down. For that trip, in my opinion, much more than fifteen dollars is not worth it, no matter how nice the car is.

©2013, Ryan Witte

12f. Hansom Cabs and Pedicabs

Monday, January 14, 2013

VillaWitte #1--Introduction

I'd like to end my recent hiatus from blog posts by discussing a hinted-at project that consumed a good amount of my time for a couple of months this summer. It's the dream house I will build when I make my first million dollars. I've made it no secret that I've not been formally trained. Architecture has merely been my almost singular love affair from the age of fourteen. I will never concede that my knowledge of the subject isn't extremely solid from one end of the spectrum to the last, however. If any university professors would like to contest that, please bring it on. But in my understanding of the subject, I've always considered it important to design buildings on paper to work out my own ideas and also to absorb the concepts of three-dimensional space-making along with my historical, theoretical, and stylistic understanding of the art form. Some of my earlier experiments on paper I would like to eventually recreate in digital form, just to have them on record, but this one was a new experience for me.

As much as architects slave themselves night and day for most of their lives and rarely attain financial success until very late in life, I'll have to say, I understand so completely why they do it. I felt it when I created my first architectural project on paper--a completely avant-garde redesign of the three-story New York townhouse where I was living at the time. The creation of an elaborate three-dimensional, hypothetically inhabitable object produces a tangible high that can't truly be explained to anyone other than an artist or a designer. There's this one moment where the design object starts to materialize in your brain, and it's the most incredible sensation. I became addicted to doing it once I started. I couldn't stop.

This time I used Google Sketch-Up. My first disclaimer is that I was teaching myself to use this software while I was creating this project. If I were to start the whole thing over again now, there are things I would do differently to make the final images a little more polished. I don't regret learning the way I did, but it is the way it is. Any subsequent projects I might do with it will be executed better, I think. I plan to do more. Sketch-Up is somewhat rudimentary software, admittedly, but until I'm commissioned to design a house for a millionaire and her family, I'm not spending $5000 on Autocad. Sketch-Up is free, thankfully.

My second disclaimer is that Sketch-Up is really good at some things, bad at others, and can't deal with other things hardly at all. For regular orthogonal geometry, it looks quite good. It has a very hard time dealing with unusual, organic geometry, especially reconciling between the junctions of conventional geometry and more unusual geometry, particularly cylinders and spheres--it's a mess in fact. Most frustrating, as a perfect example, is that the absolute, original staple of Western architecture--the basic Ionic column with entasis--would be a complete disaster if ever attempted with this software. Such as it is. There's also ways to render surfaces and sunlight really beautifully, but only if you spend $1000 for auxiliary software. Not gonna happen.

My third disclaimer is that money was no object in my conception of this. I just went completely all out with no concern for the money that might be required to build such a structure. I wanted to let my imagination run wild and satisfy it once and for all.

Fourth is that I was not accounting for people with differing mobility at all, nor was I dealing with the concepts of adaptable reuse or alternative family types (although my own family would probably be alternative), all of which I would surely address if the project weren't hypothetical. I wanted to create what is for me the ideal, incredible suburban house, incorporating all the things that I wanted to work out in my head (like sustainable technology, ecological sensitivity, and majestic architectural moments), but unfettering myself from everything that might distract me from pure design exploration.

On that note, I do have some (rather incredibly expensive) ideas for how such a structure might be engineered, mainly with enormous Y-shaped steel beams projected out from the center of the house and a lot of structural glass, but until such time as it becomes financially possible to build this, I'm not going to worry about that.

To me, one of the most important aspects of architecture is context. Designing a building is very disconnected for me without a specific site in mind to guide various aspects for how it will look and what it should be about. My site is a mostly imaginary one on the south side of a mountain overlooking the Hudson River an hour or two north of New York City (I found an exact one, but it wasn't perfect, I'll have to drive around and look when I have the money saved). In other words, along with my penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park or my crazy hip warehouse space in Brooklyn, this would be the weekend house where I'd invite my celebrity friends for the most incredible parties and holiday getaways. But how this house is arranged on the site and how it appears would very much depend upon the actual site.

I wanted the interior arrangement of spaces to guide the overall form, and then compose the elevations based on that, making the exteriors well organized but not overly stuffy. I've done other hypothetical projects--like a house in a Federalist idiom in Maryland--that presented a totally formal attitude to the surrounding neighborhood. That was not my goal here.

So, before I go into greater detail in subsequent posts, here is the first look at my weekend house. This is the view one would have from the road, designed to not piss off the neighbors--out of respect for context--but allowing hints that there is something very different about this place.

©2013, Ryan Witte