Sunday, April 12, 2009


If we get any choice in reincarnation, I might like to try Architecture.

There must be something very satisfying about marking your territory with a nice bridge or skyscraper rather than by just lifting your leg if you are on the reincarnation "whatever" list.
But I must say I find the idea rather daunting.
You have to get so many wildly different factors right for so many wildly different customers & users & critics.
Sun, wind, rain, corrosion, fatigue, earthquakes, fire, flood, lightning.
Now also ecology, fuel usage, electricity production, sewage recycling, self cleaning.
Not to mention tagging & terrorism.
And demolition (when is that going to start for mortal sky-scrapers?).

At the same time, architects need to watch all the human-scale stuff, like steps, access for the handicapped, acoustics, toilets, heating & ventilation, lighting, glare etc.
It's hard to know how well they do on the big stuff, except we don't get daily news reports of big buildings or bridges falling down, so I suppose they are getting it right.
But it's painfully obvious that they screw up badly on the human-level details that you or I could do ourselves "le doigt dans le nez".

Even I know that steps only work if they are within certain limits of height & spread, and above all that there are absolutely no irregularities.
So how could famous architect Santiago Calatrava design Venice's new Constitution Bridge, for 15 million Euros (budgeted 4 million) with irregular steps which cause innumerable falls & twisted ankles, if not worse?
And fail to allow for wheelchairs or pushchairs?

It isn't as though bridges had just been invented – Venice has lots of beautiful ones which have been working well for centuries, though understandably without wheelchair access.
I can only think the architect was so engrossed in the aesthetics & anti-seismics that he forgot about the steps.

He is not alone.
There are 2 similarly curved new bridges in Strasbourg with the same problem.
One is outside the (impressive & excellent) new Malraux Library which is in converted old industrial buildings.
The bridge has irregular wooden steps with no visual clue as to where their edges are, so disaster is inevitable.

The other is the now-famous Mimram footbridge which you just saw on TV with Obama & Sarkozy & Co.
Interestingly, they have tackled, & maybe solved, the problem here by adding a long shallow chamfer to the corners of the steps (see illustration).

I would never have thought of that, but it seems to work, presumably by introducing "fail-soft" into the equation.
Going down, if you get "out of step" then you can feel the error but still correct it.
Going up, you do not stub your toe on the step.
Well done!

The new Malraux Library, for all its merits, has several other obvious & dramatic architectural failures.
There is a long access ramp up to the main door, with good steps & good wheelchair access.
But chamfering off either side of this ramp is a steeper ramp.
When winter came, lots of people slipped on the steeper ramps & broke bones, so they had to rope it off hurriedly.
The reception hall, where staff meet public, is at the bottom of an attractive, 6-floor high, open-plan well.
That's it in the heading picture.
When winter came, it was, of course, freezing cold & they had to hurriedly improvise a reception hall somewhere else.
The floors in the quiet public reading rooms have been lacquered with what is presumably a tough ultra-high-gloss epoxy varnish.
This is smooth & shiny and anybody trying to walk on it in soft rubber soles produces a loud piercing squeak at every step, indeed at every twitch.
On my first visit, I had to leave early because this was causing so much disturbance.

These things don't happen because nobody knows about them.
They are all well known & obvious.
They happen because nobody bothered to check a new proposal against suitable experience databases.

In many ways, being an architect is similar to being an airline pilot.
Both are highly complex tasks with long, expensive training for carefully-selected candidates who then have complete responsibility for millions of Euros & hundreds or thousands of lives.
It would be unkind to think that airline pilots have developed better safety procedures than architects because they are usually at the sharp end of the accident.
But they have the answer.
They have co-pilots & check-lists.

Before taking off, every time without fail, just like DS & I going on holiday:
You know where we are going? – Yup
Got the right maps? – Yup
Filled the tank? – Yup
Shut all the windows? – Yup
Handbrake off? - Yup
Nothing is too silly to check – it's the silly stuff that kills you.

Surgeons are just starting to adopt the same simple "degrading" practices & are immediately avoiding a lot of silly fatal errors.
An early study showed accidental fatalities reduced by 47%.

Architects need co-architects & checklists so that before submitting any project, they humbly confirm they have really, really remembered the steps, really remembered the draughts, really remembered the paint etc etc.

Don't tell me they already do.
It's patently obvious they don't.

Parting thot: "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure." - Colin Powell

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