Our hometown of Walpole, New Hampshire sets a high bar when it comes to Halloween. Many people decorate their houses, some of the parents dress up, and the village is swarming with elaborately-costumed kids. Typically I will don a simple costume and man our front porch with a mechanical skeleton that declares: “Do not be afraid!”  Most kids aren’t. One year we had so many trick-or-treaters that I ran out of candy, and had to replenish our bowl with treats that Mamta had gotten at other houses.  While I am meeting and greeting kids at the front door, Annette hosts our adult guests back in our kitchen, treating them to mulled wine and Hungarian goulash (ghoulash?) soup.

I could tell from the lack of build-up that Halloween was not going to amount to much here in Berlin.  A week ago I saw in our local office supply store a small display of plastic pumpkins and miscellaneous spooky trinkets.  When I returned there today to buy the one witch hat I had seen, the entire display was gone, replaced by Christmas decorations.  But it’s only Halloween!

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Swimming Lessons with Jürgen

Yesterday Mamta swam for ten minutes with her clothes on.  Her pajamas, actually.  No, she hadn’t sleep-walked to the Grunewald See.  She was at her weekly swimming lesson with Jürgen, swimming coach to the stars.

We found Jürgen’s swim class through Annette’s sister Doreen.  Two of Doreen’s children were already progressing under his tutelage.  Annette took Mamta to her first class about six weeks ago.

“Ja,” said Jürgen with unvarnished disdain after first watching Mamta swim, “she clearly hasn’t been taking lessons with Jürgen!”

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Last week during our daughters’ fall vacation, we visited the French town of Colmar with Annette’s family.  I am all for making old buildings more energy efficient, but being in Colmar reminded me that some buildings with poor energy efficiency are “good enough” as-is.

1 ColmarColmar is located in the Alsace region of France, but its culture is a mix of French and German elements. From the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, France and Germany exchanged control of the region four times. Places with names like “Kayserberg“ and “Herrlisheim-prés-Colmar“ reflect that tangled history.

Most striking to me was Colmar’s “Vieux Ville” — the historic town center.  Annette and I pay attention to buildings, and we are used to seeing a handful of artfully-restored half-timbered houses in the centers of European towns.  But Colmar has what must be hundreds of lovely tipped, sagging, bowed, and angled-but-still-standing half-timbered houses. Neither Annette nor I could recall being in a place where so many half-timbered houses have been so well preserved.

2 Colmar

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Open Built Sidewalks

Open Building is the most compelling framework for envisioning building construction that I have come across.  Ideas that were originally formulated by the Dutch architect John Habraken have been further developed by others, including Stewart Brand in the book How Buildings Learn, and Tedd Benson and his team at Bensonwood Homes.  Back in 2006 while working at Bensonwood, I wrote an article about Open Building for Fine Homebuilding Magazine.

One of the essential tenets of Open Building is that buildings should be flexible and adaptable, because their functions change over time, as do the environmental conditions in which they exist.  Buildings are seen as being made up of layers that have distinct lifespans and differing needs for access and modification.  For example, the structure of a building should be long-lasting and well-protected, and not entangled with layers such as the mechanical and electrical systems that require more frequent access, or the insulating skin that should be continuous.

Traveling around Berlin, I have been thinking about Open Building in the context of underground construction.  Continue reading