Michael Walch

Review – 99 Percent Invisible

Posted in General Architecture, Media Reviews by michaelwalch on 8 January, 2012

First of all, I haven’t “discovered” anything new, but – the 99% Invisible podcast was recently featured on RadioLab and I’ve become addicted to the little snippets of design-related discussion.  Roman Mars, based in San Francisco, hosts/moderates/edits the short (typically about 10 minutes) shows about every week, and airs interviews with architects, planners, artists, landscape architects, curators, and other interesting individuals about everything from large urban projects to sound design.  The show is sponsored by/aligned with the KALW, AIA-SF and the Center for Architecture and Design – all in San Francisco.  As part of a larger personal project of writing down my thoughts on books and other media I consume, I’m starting a series of reviews… There are about 50 episodes of this podcast, as of this writing, and I haven’t listened to all of them, so expect some updates to this post, and hopefully soon some additional posts reviewing and discussing other books, radio shows, and other media related to design and economics.

The 99% Invisible podcast is unusual in that it seems the audience really is design professionals.  While many media cover design-related topics and interview professionals – think of the recent slew of documentaries about the construction in Lower Manhattan – these are usually aimed at the general public and end up watered-down.  Whether those outlets should be more descriptive and technical or not is a topic for another day, but what I like about 99% is that its interviews are frank and specific in a way that often is lacking in shows for a general audience.  How many times have we watched a documentary about a famous piece of architecture, and see clear confusion between the roles of architect and engineer?  Fortunately, 99% hasn’t let me down.

At just about 10 minutes on average, some significantly less (and that includes intos, thank-yous, and the like!) 99% Invisible has some very potent moments.  While one general critique would be of the absurdly short time given to some fascinating topics, this format also forces a brilliant distillation and purity which might falter given a more unwieldy, fluffy half-hour or hour-long format.

Here are what I view as the highlights of the show thus far.  I’m working backwards from episode 44 (1/5/12) and have gotten back to episode 31 so far.  Don’t interpret an absent episode as a recommendation that you skip it… but I do have a mental list.


Episode 44 – The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – 1/5/12

This is a really famous story and poster child of failed urban renewal/slum-clearing projects.  What is refreshing in this telling of the Pruitt-Igoe tale is that through interviews with residents and historians, the building is framed properly as the manifestation of a social goal in the context of Saint Louis’s urban problems.  Some of the decisions which ultimately lead to the blight and demolition of the project could have been foreseen, others not.  While engaging the large socio-economic issues of Pruitt-Igoe, the interviews present the buildings and life in them with frank detail and nuance which prevents the project from turning into a simple icon of failure.  The Pruitt-Igoe Wikipedia page is a good start to learning more, and a documentary film is out, also called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

Episode 39X – The Biography of 100,000  – 11/18/11

I grew up in the Bay Area and lived in San Francisco for many years, so U.N. Plaza and its problems are very familiar to me.  This show is long at 31 minutes, which is refreshing as it is yet again dissecting a very complicated urban renewal scheme, and interviews Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect of the original project, as well as subsequent designers, project managers, and community members involved in the various efforts to clean the place up.  Again the interviews engage the broad issues but are very focused on the specifics of the place – in this case, the fountain located on Market Street and the local homeless and addict population using it for various biological functions.  Halprin feels like the lone defender of the design, which was part of a very large renewal effort to clean up Market Street after the construction of the BART and Muni subways.  The interviews cover a long time-span of history (the plaza was originally opened in the 70s and the podcast is essentially from 2004 with minor updates) and the only one with real continuity through the design process has been Halprin.  His defenses of the project (he basically says he was emulating Haussman’s Paris – “Have you been to Paris?”) seem incredulous compared to the other stories of how run-down the place turned out to be.

What is missing from this story is an acknowledgement of the clinically insane political environment of San Francisco.  There is a nod to this from the more recent project manager for the City – she has money available for construction to improve the place, but after multiple extensions to the deadline, no proposal can be worked out due to all the fighting.  U.N. Plaza is also only part of the blight of Mid-Market Street (from about 5th Street, in the Tenderloin, all the way to Mint Hill just past Octavia Blvd.) so some geographic context would be helpful too.  San Francisco’s homeless and drug abuse services, while laudable in their intent, also have a history of making the city a magnet for regional social problems.  This could never have been addressed in a short podcast but it would have cast Halprin’s aspirations for the place in a different light.  Staying true to his vision, problematic as it might be, through such a long, arduous process is also a formative narrative to the story of U.N. Plaza and urban renewal in San Francisco.

Episode 38 – Sound of Sport  – 10/13/11

This is one of those stories that tickles my brain.  Of course, when you watch a sporting event on TV, the cameras and microphones are nowhere near the players – the cameras are zoomed in to provide the picture, but what happens to the sound?  This episode is short but sweet, leaving us to question what is “real” or “live” on television, and whether it matters.  The use of this kind of sound design blurs the lines even further between entertainment and documentary media.

Episode 37 – The Steering Wheel  – 9/29/11

A great interface design analysis.  We consider a steering wheel to be second-nature, and its use arguably is.  However when asked to actually describe its use, we get it wrong most of the time.  Is this a problem, or actually the gold standard of interface design – intuitiveness?

Episode 35 – Elegy for WTC  – 9/1/11

It was great to hear the structural engineer grapple with his role in designing the World Trade Center Towers.  His reflective questioning of what he did, could have done, and did not do should resonate with any of us in architecture and construction.  Even more arresting though was the audio of this show – the slow, meditative sound of the towers’ frames deflecting in the wind, recorded during construction, bring to mind how incredibly strong, yet fallible, they were.

More reviews… 1/14/12:

Episode 30 – The Blue Yarn – 6/30/11

This episode is a hopeless gnarl of cliches, but at the end of the day it’s still heartwarming.  The two cliches are the Toyota production method (along with its Japanese sensei analogies), and fighting for patient-centered health care against a tidal wave of bureaucracy.  A hospital director wants to cut costs, and so the whole team goes to Toyota in Japan to apply Toyota’s concepts to their facility.  The team goes through the exercise of tracing a patient’s path through their facility, and realizes that they not only have a methodology problem, but a spatial one.  By adopting Toyota’s production line method, they reorganized both their physical space but also the way they deliver care.  Everyone wins!

If you want to see the original version of this story, check out This American Life’s show on the New United Motors – NUMMI – plant in my hometown of Fremont, California, a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors (the show was put together just before the plant closed in April of 2010).  You can listen to This American Life Episode 403: NUMMI at their website – “Act One” of the show is the story of the opening of the plant and the collaboration.

Episode 26 – Chicago’s Jailhouse Skyscraper – 5/20/11

An endlessly rich topic which could be its own series of podcasts. The main point of discussion is the design of a jail skyscraper in downtown Chicago, interviewing one of the project architects. The architect described the attempt to make a comfortable interior – we’re talking about short-stay jail cells here – in a jail through built-in furniture and floor-to-ceiling slit windows. Government and non-profit funded projects, while often so standardized that they preclude innovative design, demand a level of quality in construction often absent in private projects. In this instance, the architects created an unusual design element – very tall, narrow windows – born out of a jail construction standard. The GSA in particular is publicly upping the ante on well-designed facilities in recent years; it would be interesting to compare the experience of this firm to people working under new programs.

Could future podcasts examine the urban jail as a typology?  Many cities have tower-jails like this as part of their court complexes, including Manhattan, downtown Los Angeles, and San Francisco (just to name the ones with which I am familiar).  This could also be a deeper investigation of some of the issues brought up in episode 39 – Darth Vader Family Courthouse about a recently renovated (originally brutalist) court building in Manhattan.

Episode 22 – Free Speech Monument – 4/15/11

I basically just love this for its UC Berkeley connection.  My guess is that most UC Berkeley undergrads walk over this thing every day and don’t realize it’s there – it certainly took me a while!  But it’s a fantastic concept and its origin story is exemplary of how difficult it is to deliver a design or art project in a charged political environment.

Episode 21 – BLDGBLOG: On Sound – 4/1/11

This should have been great – designing space for sound!  It truly is an oft-overlooked aspect of spatial design.  HOWEVER, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, who is a smart guy, comes off as naive and almost whiny in his complaint that architects usually only design for sound dampening – silence.  In reality, it is a rare client indeed who wants all the noise of their neighbors (city, suburbs, etc.) in their living and working spaces, and it goes against the idea of zoning (not that that is always a bad thing) and other laws and practical concerns.  Before it sounds like I’m ranting, let me suggest that the topic was great but should have been handled differently.  Ever so briefly, a project by Joel Sanders’ firm was mentioned.  Joel Sanders does great, engaging work and I would love to know more about his project.  Please, do tell us about the unusual cases where acoustic design doesn’t tend to the usual silence and reduction of “noise,” and feel free to suggest ways we can learn from those projects for everyday spaces.  But stop complaining – for the most part architects deliver very practical functional design, because it’s desired or outright required.


Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and TWA Flight Center Photos

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 18 October, 2011

The annual Open House New York was last weekend, where public works projects, galleries, design offices, and many other interesting places in the City open their doors for special tours and events.  Of course I chose two architectural events and took lots of photos of both very inspiring buildings!

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Digesters at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, designed by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership).  See the complete flickr set.

TWA Flight Center at JFK

TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen.  See the complete flickr set.

Sonoma Guest House featured on ArchDaily

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 23 September, 2011

Assisting in detailing this guest house was the main focus of my time working with Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture (now Cooper Joseph Studio) during Summer 2008.  The house was completed in 2010, and just published on ArchDaily.  See more photos and a description at the ArchDaily post:

Small House in Olive Grove / Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture









Downtown Data – St. Louis Revived?

Posted in General Architecture, Network City by michaelwalch on 14 February, 2011

Another re-post from NY Times.  Read the article “Data Centers Offer Hope for St. Louis Office Market” about reviving downtown St. Louis through the rehab of historic warehouses and department stores as data centers.

This type of project could be the next wave to sweep American downtowns, following the rough outline of pre/early 20th century dense mixed development, through white flight/car culture, slum clearing  and the highways, and New Urbanism/lifestyle centers.  St. Louis is one example of many cities with historic building stock left vacant as manufacturing or light industrial spaces with large workforces left dense urban centers for large automated factories in the cheaper suburbs and rural parts of the country.  According to the NYT article, Unisys is looking at both the turn of the century department store building in the photo, as well as an old printing press warehouse, as sites for new data centers in St. Louis.  Both would have high ceilings, and the industrial building in particular would presumably have a structure well-suited to the data center use.  This presents some real benefits to the municipality – an occupied, modernized, and maintained building downtown, at least a handful of employees with both payroll tax and the usual shopping benefits.  These facilities also tend to consume huge amounts of energy, which can be another big source of tax revenue, but also a burden on a city’s infrastructure, let alone the obvious environmental costs of powering the “cloud.”  At a base level though, it’s one way to keep the lights on inside, even if very few people are ever “home,” in these buildings.

St. Louis has some geographic advantages as a data center site too, and each city would have to inventory these as they evaluate a data center project.  Remember when it was the hub of TWA?  It’s literally in the middle of the country.  More locally, the article mentions that they have an electric grid with excess capacity – another plus.  While a lot of data center development by companies like Unisys is located in close proximity to financial and technology firms, this article cites local government offices at the target client.

If this type of development takes off, what would its resultant network look like?

Here is the start of the US telecom network:

You can view independent networks’ maps in detail at this selection of USA Longhaul Network Maps.

Will it have any relationship to the US Interstate Highway system?

…and how will it connect to the world-wide fiber-cable network, or “TeleGeography” (map from Equinix, a major  data center developer).

Suburban by Design: The 30-year Fixed Mortgage

Posted in Economics, General Architecture by michaelwalch on 16 January, 2011

The set-street of Edward Scissor Hands.

First, a few links:

“Who Wants a 30-Year Mortgage?” an op-ed article by Bethany McLean for the NYTimes.  Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera are the authors of the book All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis which is a history of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“The Frankenstein Mortgage” NPR’s Planet Money’s January 14th podcast, where the team interviews McLean and Nocera and gives a concise history of Fannie and Freddie, from Federal agency to private company and back.

McLean and Nocera’s book is next on my reading list.  This is fascinating stuff.  In a way-oversimplified nutshell, one of the primary ways that the U.S. got out of the Great Depression, and avoided crisis after the World Wars, was through mass-produced housing.  Before the invention of Fannie and Freddie, home loans had much the same terms as, say, a car loan – you would expect to put close to 50% down, and have 10-15 years to pay the loan.  That all changed through Fannie and Freddie and the Federal Housing Authority which now guaranteed individual home loans.  What does this financial history mean to architects and urban designers?

As the guarantor of these “frankenstein” loans, the FHA exercised significant control over the design of the houses themselves.  The FHA heavily favored detached suburban houses in new developments over multiple-unit properties in an urban context.  The benign sounding policy belies some intrinsic biases, including outright racism, as well as the FHA’s political goal to produce construction jobs and clear inner city slums.  Simultaneously, a market was created for suburban housing while the previously unemployed created an industry to produce these houses.  Before government-backed housing loans, houses were generally one-off designs and often employed some level of ingenuity in sourcing building materials.  Particularly after the World Wars, an industrial approach to construction was implemented to meet the demand for the truly mass housing market created through various Federal programs.

The McLean and Nocera op-ed is a good reminder of the consistent government involvement in the housing industry in the U.S., a fact that conflicts with American’s self-sufficiency myth and is therefore convenient to forget.  As architects, we should be very interested in how the financing programs shaped American urbanism, with its strong social ramifications.  The housing built under these programs is now critiqued for being both environmentally and socially unsustainable, but real progress toward more sustainable development – to now ‘fix the suburbs’ as it is often described – will have to address these economic issues.

NYTimes Interactive Graphic: The evolution of the NASA Space Suit

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 16 January, 2011

First of all, it’s been a while since I posted.  New year, new job, new posts I will try to keep up with.

The New York Times has an excellent slide-show type graphic produced in conjunction with an interview with the Smithsonian curator responsible for the museum’s collection of NASA space suits.  The suits will be on display in a traveling exhibition called “Suited for Space” starting in March 2011.

The design of an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) or ‘space suit’ is truly a balance of human needs versus the harshest environment we know.  In the end each design also incorporates advanced engineering – polymers like kevlar and woven steel fabrics – with incredible individual talent applied to physical testing and fabrication – as evidenced in the development of the accordion-like joints and the fact that each suit was custom made by seamstresses according to hundreds of individual astronaut measurements.  The X-ray photography is a great way to reveal the many complex layers and connections needed to contain pressure, regulate temperature, and even protect against micro-meteorite collisions all while accommodating human body movements.  Many architects and designers have discussed balance between the human body and machines, but these EVA suit designs are one of the most extreme (and often elegant!) examples out there.

GSAPP Space Studio IV Student Bryna Anderson wins SHIFTBoston Competition

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 3 November, 2010

Congratulations to Bryna Anderson who won the SHIFTboston Moon Capital Competition with her proposal for a power-generating moon colony.  Bryna’s design is informed by research into solar energy generation, microwave energy transmission, artificial gravity, and Bioshpere-II-like climate constructions.

Bryna produced the project in Spring 2010 at Columbia GSAPP for Yoshiko Sato’s Space Studio IV: Lunar Habitation, for which I was a T.A.  A few students from this studio submitted for this competition, all with very sophisticated research and designs – a job well done to you all!

NYTimes Infographic – A Better Cafeteria

Posted in Economics, General Architecture by michaelwalch on 22 October, 2010

Things I love seeing and discussing:

  • Drawings
  • Infographics
  • Food choices
  • Retail design
  • Economics

The New York Times rolled them all into one very interesting Flash interaction today.  It’s just an isometric line drawing of a cafeteria and a few rollovers, but it explains some (design?) concepts of how to lay out school cafeterias and lunch lines to encourage healthier choices without being didactic.  It’s a very clear presentation of some simple but potentially very effective ideas.  Check it out.

I do have a critique of the feasibility of even these simple-seeming challenges.  Firstly, it shouldn’t be assumed that people running school cafeterias can choose what they serve to kids – despite some laudable activism from parents, teachers, and others, cafeteria menus are generally dictated by USDA guidelines and programs, which are heavily influenced by fast food and agri-business lobbyists.  Similarly, I think there are a lot of people working in schools who really care about these issues and would support this type of change, but there are powerful economic factors at play too.  Removing vending machines from schools (or even altering their selection) has repeatedly failed because the vendors – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, etc. – often give substantial donations to the cash-strapped schools in exchange for access to campus and the student body.

The strength of these ideas is their simplicity.  Changing the way food (and ‘food-like products’ to borrow from Michael Pollan) is displayed in a cafeteria is exactly analogous to every grocery store aisle in the world.  Unfortunately, the healthy meal options tend to have lower margins (less processing and packaging), and the marketing studies are never done, let alone implemented as they try to compete for prominence on the supermarket – or school cafeteria – shelf.  I love the idea that good marketing and retail design informed by common sense can finally be used to guide kids to better, instead of worse, choices.  Good luck!

Chris Downey Article in Architect’s Newspaper

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 27 September, 2010

Chris Downey reading a drawing from an embossing printer.

Chris Downey was my former boss for about two years when I was working in San Francisco.  I left in the middle of 2007 to pursue my Master of Architecture on the East Coast.  The following year, Chris lost his vision as a complication of a tumor surgery.  While those who knew him gasped in shock – a blind architect – Chris went right back to work, learning not only how to live as a productive blind person, but also practice as a blind architect.  His story is truly inspiring.

Read the article at Architect’s Newspaper.

Housing Collapse – An Aerial View

Posted in Economics, General Architecture by michaelwalch on 22 September, 2010

Firstly, to be my friend or read my blog you must listen to NPR’s Planet Money.  Last week, the Planet Money team was tracing the origins of Toxie, the ‘toxic asset’ (mortgage-backed security) that they bought a while back in order to experience first-hand the major story of the economic downturn.  Toxie is essentially a bundle of home mortgages, so while perhaps no other investor has thought to do this, the NPR team has been looking for the actual houses associated with their complex financial instrument – which brought them to Florida, where they discovered not only the houses they were looking for, but entire neighborhoods from a previous housing bubble in Florida.  Read the blog post and listen to the podcast, then compare the maps below:


Lehigh Acres, FL

This is the area mentioned in the podcast.  You can find out lots more about it at the website of Spikowski Planning Associates, who have done extensive planning for reusing the abandoned lots.  “[Lehigh Acres] was subdivided into about 135,000 lots, over 121,500 of which remain vacant.” – from Spikowski, W. M. and Stroubd, H. B. “Planning in the Wake of Florida Land Scams” available as a PDF on their website.

Salton City, CA

This was posted in the comments on the blog page, and looks to be a similar story to the Florida example.

These neighborhoods were built as land investments (from around the 1970s) so streets were built (and named) but not houses.  The land was cleared but was never built upon, and in most areas has grown back.  This is in sharp contrast to neighborhoods of foreclosed homes, where houses were built but then abandoned (or, as the podcast reports, no one ever moved in in the first place).  The question of what to do with this land is huge in every dimension – the sheer amount of vacant space within (albeit suburban/rural) cities, their value not only to the local owners and/or municipalities but to the world economy through the various financial instruments that caused their associated booms in the first place, and their environmental impact (one point emphasized in the podcast was the array of animals who had moved in to the abandoned houses).


I’m working on a comparable map insert for the more recent foreclosure crisis.  This is largely a more subtle, on-the-street issue where you see unmaintained yards and homes – it’s more abstract in an aerial view.  One place to start is the HotPads Foreclosure search map.

Cape Coral, Florida:

Check out the live map at HotPads.com

Las Vegas, Nevada:

Check out the live map at HotPads.com

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