On the Spline

On the Spline Spline I recently published an academic paper answering the question: where do curves come from?

I started this research well over a decade ago when I was working everyday with 3D design software at Grimshaw architects in London. The research began when I gave an internal presentation to overcome the architects’ reticence about using 3D software to design their curved buildings (something the practice was already famous for). My quest to demystify curvilinear geometry by explaining its origins and mechanics was fascinating, but also challenging, as I don’t have a technical background in mathematics or computational geometry. I hope that this article will help designers and anyone interested in understanding the origins of our contemporary design language. Continue reading

Follow-up to Freakonomics: What about Financing?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. They keep me in touch with what’s happening in the US and UK. I recently suggested to the team at WNYC’s Freakonomics Radio that they look into Japan’s weird housing economics. They liked the idea and did some research. You can listen to the episode below.

I’m impressed by how the editors distilled this complex topic and some long interviews into an engaging 30-minute episode. The contributions of Jiro Yoshida of Penn State and Richard Koo of Noruma Research Institute lent a lot of weight to the discussion. It’s a shame they didn’t use the part of Koo’s interview where he calls Japan’s depreciating housing “the largest discrepancy in the free world.” Naturally, there is only so much they can cover in so little time…

Listeners might be left wondering what about the role of financing? Japanese people, like everywhere else, typically take out a mortgage to buy or build a new home. But when the home’s value quickly depreciates, owners still have to repay the original value of the loan. During the Great Recession, many US homeowners also found themselves in this situation – it’s called being underwater. A significant number of borrowers (particularly the un-creditworthy ones) came to the conclusion that it would be simpler to cut their losses by defaulting on their loans and handing their house keys back to the bank. The banks were left trying to recoup their losses by selling these depressed assets. Why don’t Japanese homeowners just do the same?

Well, there’s a big difference between home financing in the US and Japan. Those mortgages in the US were non-recourse loans. This means that if you don’t make your mortgage payments, the bank has no other recourse but to repossess the collateral, which means foreclosing on the home. In contrast, Japanese mortgages are recourse loans. Banks have recourse not only to take the home, but also personal assets (cash savings, cars, other property, etc) to repay the original loan amount. The Japanese homeowner doesn’t have the option to walk away from a loan they can’t repay. They’re the ones left holding the depressed asset.

Japanese businessmen – or salarymen – are famous for the incredibly long hours of work, much of it unpaid overtime. The Japanese language even has a word for death by overwork: karōshi (過労死). When I see crowds of men and women in identical suits packing themselves into commuter trains like sardines every morning, it makes me sad to think about what they will spend their lives working for. To get a mortgage in Japan requires a salaried job. Most of them will work at that job to pay off their mortgage and keep a roof over their families’ heads. By the time they finish paying it all off in 20 to 30 years, their home will be worth nothing. No wonder the Japanese are such big savers, preferring to keep their money in savings accounts, rather than reinvesting in their homes, this building upon wealth. Only their land can be resold, but prices have been dropping since the housing bubble burst in the early 1990′s.

Won’t you take a moment to pity the poor Japanese salaryman?

photo by Tokyoform

photo by Tokyoform

CNN Interview on Japanese Residential Architecture

The CNN interview I gave last week has aired as a part of a piece on Japanese residential architecture (I show up around 1:00 in). The crew got in touch after reading the ArchDaily article and they contacted the owners of some of the homes pictured to arrange access and interviews.

Sou Fujimoto was also interviewed in his House NA, so I tagged along to see it for the first time firsthand. Although I was familiar with the design concept, I came away with a deeper appreciation after talking to the client (who didn’t wish to be interviewed on camera). Of course, seeing how a home is actually lived in – as opposed to staged photographs soon after completion – is always an eye opener (curtains, space heaters, the inevitable clutter of daily life). I thought the CNN cameraman caught the house’s lived-in charm rather well.

CNN shoots Sou Fujimoto's House NA

Thanks Paula, Nicki, and the rest of the CNN crew.

Ofuro – The Wonderous Japanese Bath

Bath

A Culture of Bathing
In a land where hot water seems to bubble up from volcanic hot springs at every turn, it is little wonder that bathing is an integral part of Japanese society. When the country urbanized, the tall boiler chimneys of public bath houses (called sentos) popped-up throughout dense residential quarters of Japan’s towns and cities. Sentos offered a plentiful supply of piping hot water jetting from long banks of showers and overflowing from piping hot pools for communal luxuriating. These were also important social hubs where people from all walks meet, stripped bare of society’s trappings. As Japan became a leading technological and industrial exporter, household affluence grew and homes were built with their own baths. Today, local bathouses are a dieing institution, but the tradition lives on inside the the Japanese home – each equipped with its own miniature sento. Continue reading