Category Archives: Architecture

Photo essay: Breaking the Dam


Underneath the dreamy pleasure of sunny freeze-thaw icicles trimming a snow-laden roof, there lays the nightmarish pain of ice dams and massive interior water damage.


Sharp, sparkling rows of glass stalactites may look ornate and perfect, but to be managed well, they require a firm hand. The dam must be broken.



Dam –  n. – A large reservoir of stuff trapped inside a person’s psyche: ideas, energy, and aspirations; concerns, criteria and conditions; wants, desires and passions. Normally these feed in and flow out reliably. However from time to time the floodgate gets frozen shut and a self-reinforcing build-up occurs. As the blockage persists, intervention becomes increasingly necessary.


The first rule of being an Ice Dam Master (or Mistress):  At first, you will fail.  You will not completely subdue the ice dam. You will also cause physical damage to the building and possibly to yourself as the intervener.


This does not diminish you – in fact it provides you with the starting point of your credibility. Know that the vast majority of people won’t even step up and try their hand. They’ll call you crazy, but pay them no heed. The title ‘Master’ is one that is continually earned, continually improved upon.


There is a difference between being ‘dominant’ and being ‘domineering.’   The icy core of confidence is a deep sense of humility and fearlessness. True confidence is a big part of that difference.

There is also the critical difference of having compassion and a purpose that is greater than yourself. A compassionate, purposeful focus on others makes (almost) all the difference.


As you sculpt the ice and strip away its unnecessary blockages,

know that it does those things for you, too.



Keep Going

Running Track HurdlesBlog Update: This is #8 of 27 posts, almost a third of the way through my personal challenge of revisiting all of last year’s blog posts in reverse order in a single month.

Appropriately enough, the post being revisited here is, “Close the Gap – Creative Perseverance,” which is all about producing a quantity of creative work in order to achieve that elusive thing called “quality.”

Since starting this challenge 10 days ago, I’ve been keeping some notes reflecting on the process. Here’s a cleaned up version of the notes so far :

January 6, 2015

Only a few days into this daily blog challenge and it’s… challenging.

Challenges include overcoming the pressing needs of too many urgent / semi-urgent things to do, all of which may provide the short term payback of that “getting stuff done” feeling. Must remind myself that this is a form of exercise which satisfies a less obvious need, and which may only have a harder-to-quantify longer term benefit.

Other challenges include competition from other creative pursuits. “Hey Danny, wanna come and play?”  Yes I do.  I also want to finish writing this post.

What’s encouraging is seeing how this daily regimen forces me to use an economy of means to crystallize and express ideas. More concise. More punchy.  Less complicated and overwrought. Also, improved workflow strategies.

The lesson drilled into me at architecture school continues to hold true: Constraints improve the quality of a design.

Idea-premise for a new training course on innovation and creative thinking:  “Innovation is mostly about finding the right set of constraints to apply to a given question.”

January 7- 8, 2015

One of the hardest parts of keeping a personal resolution — particularly an overly ambitious personal resolution — is figuring out what to do when the inevitable slip occurs.

Higher priorities are massively competing with this cute idea of one-post-per-day, and some of those priorities include sleep.  In one case I was too tired to start the post but then couldn’t fall asleep and so forced myself to get it done in one sitting. In another case I was too tired to do a good job finishing a post, so I went to sleep and wrapped it up the next morning.

Going into this I saw the folly of starting an editorial calendar with no initial delay, i.e. zero buffer of posts that could carry me through any 24-48 hour period. Now that I’ve experienced the result of that folly, it’s time for me to set up a better buffer of posts-in-progress.

When we declare a certain standard for ourselves and then fall short of it, we have a cognitive choice to make. On the one hand, we can call it quits and reevaluate the desirability and reasonableness of that initial standard. On the other hand, we can brush off our slip up and keep going… we can strive and we can be flexible at the same time.

Glass is hard, shiny and bright, but doesn’t do well under stress.  Nothing tall can be built solely out of brittle material.

January 10, 2015

All told, slipped back one day this past week, but now made up for it with a post over the weekend.

Keep going.

Photo essay: Clearing the ground in Shanghai

This post (#6 of 27), picks up from the previous photo essay, “In China, down by the river” and focuses on on the redevelopment of the inner city in Shanghai.

People who visit Shanghai on a regular basis say that seems like a changed place every few months. New roads, bridges and high rises billow forth and expand the outskirts of this sprawling city. Within the hemmed in lines of neighborhoods like Puxi district and Fangbang Middle Road, urban fabric is being folded, cut and stitched back together through aggressive demolition and rebuilding efforts.

a - composition -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

Riding along the streets of Shanghai you can see the tell-tale signs of inner city redevelopment:  Cinder blocks enclose city blocks. Slums are systematically sectioned off. Tangles of illegal electrical splice wires are trimmed and snipped off the main power grid. Residents passively protest their impending relocation by airing out their dirty laundry on the only available lines of communication.

b - passive protest -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

c - exposed courtyard - slice -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

d - exposed courtyard -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

Elaborate warrens of dwellings and courtyards are analyzed and scrutinized in a piecemeal fashion, dissected and rationalized into manageable segments of a three-dimensional rectangular grid .

e - fangbang electric avenue -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

f - crushed material -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

g - building play -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

In just one generation, entire neighborhoods and families are transformed. Old material is gathered up and sent away, clearing the ground for new material.

h - rovering aging material -Shanghai City Block Demolitions

i - flattened lanscape

Like scavengers, work crews arrive each day to pick through the crumbled remains. They depart each night back to their own neighborhoods, leaving behind them a crushed gravel zen landscape. They are paving the road towards a different sort of impermanence.

j -nightfall in the desert

2015 Blog Feed-forward: Building on an Elephant’s Memory

“Should old blog posts be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Should old blog posts be forgot, from days not long ago?”

For the next 31 days I’m going to flip it and reverse it, blogging backwards and revisiting all of last year’s posts.

I’m doing this for three reasons: Focused output, reflective practice and sheer experimentation.

1) Focused output

Running Track HurdlesAfter doing a 2014 blog self-assessment in the previous post, I decided that 2015 will see significantly more output in terms of number of blog entries. The intent here is quality and frequency of entries, not necessarily quantity of words or pictures. In past years I’ve set goals such as 1+ posts per week. Clearly, not aggressive enough to establish a solid habit. One year I posted 66 times, but then slipped after that. Last year saw a mere 27, which included the aforementioned self-assessment piece.

The good news is that 27 is a convenient number for a daily regimen of 31 days with weekend breaks.  Also, those previous 27 posts provide a straightforward editorial calendar to follow, making follow through more likely.

Daily challenge accepted!

2) Reflective practice

infinite-mirrorsSomeone, I forget who, once told me that I have a good memory. I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve never had my brain’s synapses directly tested to see whether they retain highly stable electrical firing patterns. I don’t know if such a test even exists (yet). What I do know is that I’m a big fan of reflective practice.

In my previous post I referenced a piece by Clay Shirky on the shutting out of distractions to be able to focus and learn. The critical importance and advantage of reflective practice is a recurring theme of this blog.

Reflective practice is how you put time on your side, a kind of compound interest for talent. It’s also one way to develop your brain to have an elephant’s memory, with higher than average long term recall. Here’s a decent post about it for people in the instructional design business.  Here is an even more rigorous piece about it by Maria Popova for people in any business. As with the Shirky, I challenge you the reader to read the Popova link without being interrupted or distracted.

For the next 27 posts (including this one), I will revisit the corresponding mirror image posting from 2014 and re-write, re-interpret, revise, extend, shorten, or in some cases simply re-post.  In fact, tomorrow will be a straight re-post (or “re-blog”).

3) Massaging the medium

66st-leap-of-faithI became a fan of Marshall McLuhan in college, while at the same time being trained by outstanding teachers at the McGill School of Architecture. Because of that, any time I’m given a medium of expression I like to explore and play with it.

The pre-dated blog entry was something I did in my early blogging days of 2007, and in many ways was a bootstrap for me to gain writing momentum. It was also a way for me to address the transient and disposable nature of a real time, date-based medium. The flipped, reversed and compressed editorial calendar of January 2015 follows in a similar spirit.

I also like chiastic structures and spoonerisms; these show up from time to time in my posts and paragraphs. That said, when I do something experimental, sometimes I’m happy with the output but other people don’t seem to like it. On the other hand, sometimes I’m not happy with the output but other people seem to like it.  Who knows what kind of internal or external feedback I’ll get from this next month.

Experimentation, reflection and focused output — the next 31 days will be a kind of turning-over-and-pressing-down-of-the-mulch of previous posts, allowing some of last year’s musings to ferment and become consolidated into my memory, from days not long ago.

Or maybe it’s just the Curious Case of the Blogging Button.

Onward with words, into 2015.

Photo essay: In China, down by the river

China is a place of visual delights and olfactory offenses.

Particularly when it comes to rivers —  murky and polluted by day, sparkling and glowing by night — the traditional Chinese penchant for over-the-top, bright colorful displays comes to play in the evening hours, washing away the grim grayish green realities of unchecked rapid industrialization.

01 - Yangtze Smogeye View

Yangtze river, smog’s eye view

Here are some views from three of the cities that I visited last month:  Shanghai, Suzhou, and Zhenyuan… each a special place, each with its own approach to lighting up the night.

Let’s start with sparkling Shanghai, looking at Pudong from the Bund side:

02 - Bund side view of Pudong over Huangpu

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

…and here’s a panorama showing the two sides of the Huangpu river facing each other. Note the dimly lit romantic Bund promenade, with the comparatively subdued (but in any other city, bright and fabulous) up-lighting on colonial era buildings.  London ain’t got nothing on this.

05 - Bund looking across both sides of the Huangpu river

These pictures are taken on an iPhone instead of a “real” camera and so the night time shots are grainy and overexposed. That said, it’s nice to be able to snap a picture in the spur of the moment in order to capture the overall atmosphere of a place. For Shanghai at night, it’s all about the city lights bouncing off plate glass, marble floors, plastic lanterns, crystal chandeliers, taxi cab doors, wine glasses, retail shop windows, and blinking roller skate wheels.  These next two pictures show the nocturnal borrowed views that show up everywhere this city, with windows framing collages of scintillation.

Chandelier Reflections Bund

Humble Bartenders Borrowed View of Pudong

All of these electric lights require lots of electricity, which in turn requires lots of coal-fired plants. The same river that sparkles at night also provides an easy avenue for a non-stop (really, non-stop… literally, all day long) parade of boats carrying loads of coal, ore, and everything else needed to keep those turbines turning and high rises rising.

07 - Pudong Looming over Huangpu

06 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade I

07 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade II

While I was there, the official smog index reached somewhere in the orange-to-red “unhealthy” zone… at times my eyes hurt when walking around outside. At least it’s better than having, say, over 16,000 dead pigs mysteriously float down the river for the better part of a month. But hey, who’s counting?

Smog Flag

In complete contrast to the flash and frenzy of Shanghai, the placid canals of Suzhou offer a more relaxed and soothing atmosphere, apropos of one of China’s most famous scholar towns.  During the day, it looks like this:

Suzhou Canal 1

Suzhou Canal 2

Suzhou Canal 3

At night, it looks like this:

Suzhou Night Canal 1

Suzhou Night Canal 2

A series of tyrannical emperors helped nurture the heritage of Suzhou by having the masses dig out the Grand Canal, one of the greatest civil engineering projects in world history. The city did very well with its canal system providing easy transport of people and products… although sometimes the visiting people decided to sack the city, here and there. In the last century, single tyrant almost wiped out Suzhou’s heritage by having the masses launch the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violently self-destructive moments in world history. All of that history and turmoil translated into a deeper meaning for this place, and a beautiful patina on its walls.

Suzhou’s stone and clay brick construction readily reveals centuries of flooding, wear, tear and war. I could stare at these buildings for hours, reading the stories imprinted onto them, noting the traces of prior occupants and different uses that accumulated over time.

Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 1 Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 2

Here’s what Pingjiang Road road looks like from water level, in the early evening. Crouching down on the river steps had a bonus effect: I could avoid the pervasive smells of nearby food vendors, their shellfish and fried tofu searing my guallo nostrils.

Crouching Canal Hidden Boatman

Onwards to Guizhou province, to the remote town of Zhenyuan,a former nexus of the southern Silk Road.  This yin-yang shaped city is home to unique blend of local and not-so-local cultures, the religiously eclectic temples of Black Dragon Cave, the crumbling edge of the Miao Southern Great Wall, and many dramatic views of the Wuyang river cutting through the limestone karst landscape.

Looking Downstream

Zhenyuan also provides a fine example of how the rest of China can live well, outside the bustling metropolises. The Wuyang river defines the life of this town, by day…

Black Dragon Cave - Riverfront View

Riverfront Bridge

…and by night:

Evening Riverside Panorama

Boats Under Bridge

“Less is more,” said Mies van der Rohe. “Could we get some more rotating colors in those LED bulbs?” said Zhenyuan.

The ridiculous amount of lighting on the riverfront of Zhenyuan Old Town – these photos barely capture the sheer luminescent fervor – creates a vibrant, welcoming and festive feeling. Music and laughter echo along the shores well into the night… and it’s not even a weekend night, just an ordinary working evening. It’s not unlike the vibe of the Christmas season (or Winter Holiday, if you prefer), except all year long and in a more casually civic spirit.

Here are some square dancers – a group of locals doing open-air aerobics in a manner that resembles a flash mob.

Zhenyuan - Evening Riverside Scene

You can find groups of people doing this everywhere in China, often under highway underpasses within the bigger cities. In Zhenyuan, the electro pop tunes of the square dancers combine with the din of street vendors and restaurants serving up shellfish and fried tofu.

What’s the price of all this?  Once again, tragedy of the commons be damned, or should I say, dammed. The flow of the Wuyang river slows to a halt in Zhenyuan, where it accumulates into a mirror-like sheen of algae, and gives off the musky scent of rotting wood planks… but I guess the downstream hydroelectric dam is better than having yet another coal plant.

stagnant river

China’s network of rivers – the winding watery dragons that give this land its powerful fertility, productivity and central control – provide views into the opportunities and challenges of its past, present and future. Where Shanghai is glitzy and glamorous, Suzhou is subdued and solemn.  As for Zhenyuan – a genuine gem of a town – I hope the ever-changing China can keep and nurture more places like it.

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