Strength in Numbers

July 28, 2014 § 3 Comments

One night a few weeks ago I was trying to get home after a very late night (or early morning?) at work. I had worked so late that they closed the Squirrel Hill tunnel so I had to make a last-minute change to my usual route home. Instead of going underneath Squirrel Hill I had to go over top of it and along the way I noticed a glowing shard, a crystalline monument shining on an otherwise dark campus.

Numbers_PitHM inside

Shown here from the inside because there was too much glare from the outside

I rarely pass through this area and hadn’t noticed this bit of sculpture before so I had to put the pieces together by myself. Approaching the sculpture I noticed it was made of glass block, then that these glass blocks were filled with pop tabs.


Now puzzled, I slipped into one of the openings. Once inside, your view to the outside is completely obscured by the glass blocks, arranged in 6 overlapping “check-mark” shapes. I wandered to the center and read the inscription on the ground, which had one word that gave it all away: “Holocaust”.

A wash of realization swept over me. The “check-marks” overlapped in such a way as to make a Star of David. And the pop tabs … there must be one for each of the 6 million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. It was overwhelming; for that to be true, each block would have to have … over 6,000 tabs in each and every block. I walked around and did some counting, wondering if the numbers 7, 9, 20 or 960 have any significance in the Jewish religion, what it meant that the points of the star extended slightly outside of a circle, and eventually came to the conclusion that I just didn’t know enough about Judaism to speculate about any further symbolism. But one thing that made an impression on me, and would make an impression on anyone, is being inside, unable to see out for the tabs. Each one is insignificant on its own, easily overlooked. I wouldn’t have stopped my car on my way home after a long day at work to inspect a single pop tab, or even a pile of pop tabs. It was sheer volume that gave the pop tabs their power.

(For the curious, here are a couple of blog posts and a newspaper article I came across while trying to find out if there was any more symbolism behind the numbers. I couldn’t find any better information, so if you know don’t hold back)

You can see this design tool at work in other memorials. There’s the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston that has numbers etched into glass representing each of 6 million lives.

Image from the NEHM dot org photo gallery, click to visit

I’ve also experienced it at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C., which I’ve written about here. It’s easy to underestimate the effect until you experience it in person, but judging by the people who originally protested the memorial before having their minds changed by walking through it firsthand, those who experience it never forget it.

Image from the National Park Service website, click to visit

I myself have been trying to come up with a way of using this to raise awareness of the crisis in the VA hospitals. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the problem myself, but the short of it is that there is a huge backlog of veterans that need medical care. By some measures [link downloads PDF] Pittsburgh is among the worst at processing claims. I did some napkin-level calculations and, by assigning the worst performing hospitals a larger share of the national backlog, determined that Pittsburgh would have to process about 14,000 claims in order to be doing it’s part.

14,000 is a lot, but how do I represent that in a way that people will understand? Well, for starters, it helps that the nearby Petersen Events Center seats about 14,000, so that has helped me contextualize what a huge problem this is even when broken down from a national to a local level. Something else I’ve learned that helps me to visualize the problem is that each and every veteran has an entire legal file box devoted to their claim, sometimes more.

That’s $2,800 worth of boxes from Staples

Trying to imagine what 14,000 of these boxes would look like, their weight, the space they take up and how you would be able to arrange them, that has given me some ideas as well. I’m still struggling to get a grip on the problem, much less the solution, but I think I have identified the building blocks. I want to explore what it would be like to turn the Petersen Events Center into a claims processing center. How would it look if every seat in the Pete was filled with veterans and their claims boxes? What changes to the architecture would have to be made in order to accommodate this? I don’t have many good answers yet, but I’m hoping to look at it more in the future. In the meantime, feel free to let me know if there are any “strength in numbers” memorials that I’ve missed.

Summertime (Sadness) Bouquet 2014

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Today is the unofficial start of my summer because my stepson just left to spend the next few weeks with his real dad. So, while I adjust to my summer schedule (AKA, writing blog posts on Sundays instead of Mondays, because Monday is movie night now), here is a bouquet of ideas that I picked for you. They don’t have their own post yet.

It’s hot out, hot enough to make an architect want to quit their job and make ice cream sandwiches for a living. I bet you I could be the first one to do it, then I would be featured on NPR and become a millionaire!

Damn it. []

Lana Del Rey is the best and I feel really sorry for everyone who goes out of their way to hate on her. They’re really missing out.

LDR on the C of RS

Two weeks of cat pictures in a row! Unprecedented! I don’t mind admitting that I am pandering to the coveted cat demographic. Cats all over the place are walking across keyboards in search of my blog, or at least that’s the only explanation I have for this search term that referred someone to my site today:

[[[]]jjk”” ][[;waaa

Here is a Yelp review that someone would write if they didn’t understand how energy is lost through windows:

“I paid several THOUSAND dollars for some brand new windows and they arrived THERMALLY BROKEN. wen I called customer service they told me it was SUPPOSED TO BE THAT WAY and REFUSED to REPLACE them!!!!!!!! I will never buy a window from these people again. one star”

My friend was looking for door and window details all day and he inspired that review. He also discovered the best door finish of all time:

Summer2014_Croc Nuts

If you’re going to use Croc Nuts on your door, it’s best to locate them right under the croc knob.

If you were to take out every finish that sounds like it could be a double-entendre, you would be left with “Oak”.

New Podcast Interview

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Monday came and went without a post because I was hard at work putting together a new podcast, this one with Jen Bee. She’s a woman! I’m progressive! There are two women on it, actually, and both of them are presenting at PechaKucha vol 18, which is tonight.

It’s up over at the D:i Podcast website, just in time. Go have a listen, and come to PKN at Bricolage Theater tonight (that’s July 17) if you are able. And subscribe to the podcast already, gosh. (link opens in iTunes)

And here’s a giant terrifying cat building for no other reason other than that nobody will read a post that doesn’t have a picture attached.

Is that curved titanium at the sides? Frank Gehry, have you been moonlighting designing cathouses? Are cathouses a thing? Should I Google “cathouse” at work?


Berkshire County, MA – Mount Greylock

July 7, 2014 § 6 Comments

Hiking has quietly become a hobby of mine over the last year or so. I wouldn’t have considered myself a “hiker” before my trip to Zion and the Grand Canyon last year, and truthfully I still don’t. But my recent itinerary is beginning to look pretty hiker-ish. First there was the aforementioned trip. Then there was a moment when I decided I needed something to do that wasn’t sit in a chair. Given that I hate running, lifting weights, and other people, I picked walking. This led directly to my decision to try the entire Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, emboldened by having completed the half challenge a few years ago.


I don’t have any pictures that do the terrain justice (side note: the number of people on the Rachel Carson trail with their faces stuck in their phones was alarmingly/refreshingly low), but let’s just say that this turned out to be an overly ambitious goal. To complete the challenge you must hike all 34.7 miles of the trail in 15 hours 4 minutes, the time between sunup to sundown on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We reached the final checkpoint (at mile marker 27.7) 20 minutes too late, which meant that we wouldn’t have been able to cover the last 7 miles within the time limit. It was a bittersweet moment, not making it to the finish, but also being done walking after struggling over 27-plus miles of steep terrain. On the plus side, making it as far as I did that day makes a whole lot of other stuff seem easy, whether it’s scrambling over rocks on a Maine beach:

MG_Two Lights

… or a 3-mile hike up to the top of Monument Mountain in Massachusetts [click for larger image]:

MG_Monument Panorama

The mountain I want to talk about today, though, is one that I didn’t hike, it’s one that I drove to the top of and walked the last 10 feet.

Look, we had like 48 hours in the Berkshires, we couldn’t walk everywhere. Sacrifices had to be made. Anyway.

Mount Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts, standing at 3,491 ft above sea level. This is despite the best attempts of enormous glaciers that have been attempting to grind down this and adjacent mountains over the centuries. The mountain is made of a very hard kind of rock called schist and has been able to withstand the periodic glacial assaults and the constant battery of rain and snow carried by strong winds. This rock is exposed in streaks and patches where the ground cover can’t stay rooted.


In fact, the weather on the top of Mount Greylock is so unique that it is able to support the only sub-alpine boreal forest in Massachusetts. There are several species of plant and bird that can’t be found for miles and miles except for on top of this mountain. Now excuse me while I find my Sarah McLachlan record …

… there, go ahead and let that play under the next few paragraphs …

Micro-climates like these are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. As the world heats even by a few degrees, the already-small area that supports forests like these grows even smaller. And it’s not just sub-alpine boreal forests in Massachusetts that are in danger of shrinking into oblivion; some rain forest animals can only live in the precise climate conditions found at specific elevations within the forest. So please, if you want sub-alpine boreal forests and tree frogs to be more than just a ‘memory’, then kill yourself.

Its is the only way.


Mount Greylock has a history of inspiring people to evangelize on behalf of nature, although most of them didn’t get so dark there at the end. Henry David Thoreau, student of transcendentalism and author of Walden, describes a formative moment upon waking up after a night spent on the mountaintop, a description which is inscribed in stone along the path to the summit.


Even as Mount Greylock was inspiring the likes of Emerson and Thoreau it was being ravaged by industry. It was these grotesque patches of deforestation expanding over this majestic mountain that rallied early preservationists, who eventually succeeded in creating the Mount Greylock State Reservation in 1898, Massachusetts’ first public land in support of forest preservation.

Today, two structures cling to the top of the mountain. The first is a memorial to honor the fallen soldiers of Massachusetts and it rises above the summit in the shape of a lighthouse. The globe at the top, when lit, is visible for 70 miles.

MG_War Memorial

The second building is the Bascom Lodge, which has refreshments available for day hikers and complimentary lodging for those passing through on their trek to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. If you were to start at the Georgia end of the Appalachian Trail and work your way north, you’d be almost three-fourths of the way to the trail’s end in Maine by the time you reached the lodge at Mount Greylock.

Thanks to “Hiking and Nature with Angela” (not my wife Angela) for taking the picture I wish I had.

So if you’re on the Appalachian Trail you don’t really have a choice, you gotta go through Greylock. But it’s also nice to visit if you find yourself in the area and are looking for a scenic detour. On a clear day you can see for 90 miles, so there’s plenty to be seen [click for larger image].

MG_Summit Panorama

Better AIA Convention Keynote Speeches for Pharrell Williams

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

After a couple of consecutive years I wasn’t able to make it to the AIA Convention in Chicago this year. I had better places to be, namely, Maine. It’s a little bittersweet because Chicago is a great town and Pharrell Williams was the keynote speaker this year. I was holding out for him to speak on any of the following topics, though, so I would have ended up disappointed. Without knowing anything about what he did talk about, here are talks that probably would have been better.

Up All Night to the Sun:
The life of an architecture student, a true memoir

A Room Without a Roof:
Innovation through subtraction

Navigating the intricacies of historic facade renovations

Move That Dope:
Diversifying your service offerings through money laundering

When the Pigs Try to Get at You:
Negotiating with code officials

Can I Have it Like That?
How to manage your most demanding clients

All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom:
Are fixture counts sexist?

Up All Night to get Lucky:
The life of an architecture student, a fictional memoir

Money Maker:
The life of an architect, a fictional memoir

Shake it Fast, but Watch Yourself:
Liability concerns in seismic zones

Blurred Lines:
“My printer is doing something weird”, and other things your IT guy is tired of hearing

I Know You Don’t get a Chance to Take a Break This Often:
Strategies for stress and family management in design careers

These are still great topics for any future speakers, and I know I’d love to see them, so feel free to “borrow”.

Architectural WMDs – X-acto Knife Ballista

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Architects use a lot of tools that could be hazardous to your health if you’re not careful, ask anyone who has ever nearly lost a finger trying to cut chipboard in their 50th consecutive waking hour. An architectural weapon of mass destruction, though, isn’t made to hurt you on accident, it’s made to hurt someone else (nitpicking professor, guy still playing Cruise by Florida Georgia Line) on purpose. I give you the X-acto knife ballista:

AWMDs_Exacto ballista

You’re probably only gonna get one shot, so make it count. Happy hunting.

The author does not endorse the maiming or murder of other mammals, but really, Cruise is played out, fish are weird-lookin’ and if you can take down a bird with this thing then you’ve earned it.

Pittsburgh Photo Tour 03: The World Through My Sunroof

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

My car has a sunroof but I never was sold on the value of it. It wasn’t a selling point for me. When am I going to need to see through the roof? I don’t do much driving down the Las Vegas strip, and thus have almost no need to be able to open the roof to allow debutante passengers to stand up and drink champagne and “woo”. But then came a day on a long road trip, Angela was driving and I leaned the seat back for a nap. When I woke up I was looking through the sunroof at some little fluffy clouds.

Driving underneath them and watching them drift above me in my delirious state, that’s what sold me on sunroofs. Since then, when I’m otherwise idle at a stoplight, I’ll look through the sunroof and be amazed at how the surrounding buildings, skies and landscapes are framed through my sunroof. Sometimes I just take them in, sometimes I’ll be compelled to snap a picture of them. Here are a few. Go ahead and let that Orb track roll while you scroll through, it definitely adds to the ambiance.

Reverse Skyline

This has been shown in another one of my tours, but it deserves another look. I was really taken with this view, much to the annoyance of the driver behind me. I like how the building to the left stands stark and proud against the sky while the building to the right (Oxford Center) seems to try to fade into it.

PT03_Downtown 01

Something about the placement of the American Flag struck me as odd, on a private terrace 3 stories above the public sidewalk. I also think that a common interest I share in all these pictures is the figure-ground between the building and the sky, the way even a simple building like this makes a pleasing line against the blue.

PT03_PennFifth Church

I drive by this church every day, but looking at it not only through the sunroof but through the ripples of water from a gentle rain made it seem new, in an old-timey kind of way. This might be how someone in a carriage with primitive glass windows might have seen this church while riding by.

PT03_Downtown 02

This picture is a nice metaphor for the city of Pittsburgh, with the modern world squaring off against the old, competing but also coexisting, with “green” aspects, so long ignored in this steel town, creeping back in to dominate the composition.

That’s all I got for you today. Drive safe!


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