How do you find the time for your commitments? For yourself, family, and friends? How do the world’s busiest people handle it all? They turn to David Allen.
Freud popularised the term, “The Narcissism of Minor Differences”, to describe how adjacent villages—identical for all practical purposes—would struggle to amplify their tiniest distinctions in order to justify how much they despised one other. So you have to guess how much he would have enjoyed design mailing lists. And, Perl.
Truth is, to the untrained (un-washed, un-nuanced, un-Paul-Rand’d, and un-Helvetica’d) outsider, discourse in the design community can sometimes look a lot like a cluster of tightly-wound Freudian villages.
So, how is the role of design perceived by the people who are using the stuff you make? What role (if any) should users expect in the process of how their world is made and remade? What contexts might be useful in helping us turn all of our obsessions into useful and beautiful work?
Can an Aeron chair ever be truly ‘Black’? Will there ever be a way to get Marketing people to stop calling typefaces ‘fonts’? And, when, at last, will the international community finally speak as one regarding the overuse of Mistral and stock photos of foreshortened Asian women?
By leveraging his uniquely unqualified understanding of design, Merlin will propose some promising patterns for fording the gap between end-users and the unhappy-looking people in costly European eyeglasses who are designing their world.
Is there hope? Come to Brighton, pull up a flawlessly-executed mid-century-Modern seating affordance, and we’ll see what we can figure out together. One village to another.
Merlin Mann is best known as the creator of 43folders.com, a popular American website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.
Interview of David Allen for the Brian Carter’s Brain podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/brian-carters-brain-marketing/id991566346)
David Allen shares advice on how to finish your to-do list and clean out your inbox.
Podcast: Play in new window
When it was built in 1977, Citicorp Center (later renamed Citigroup Center, now called 601 Lexington) was, at 59 stories, the seventh-tallest building in the world. You can pick it out of the New York City skyline by its 45-degree angled top.
(Credit: Wally Gobitz)
But it’s the base of the building that really makes the tower so unique. The bottom nine of its 59 stories are stilts.
(Credit: Joel Werner)
This thing does not look sturdy. But it has to be sturdy. Otherwise they wouldn’t have built it this way.
(William J. LeMessurier. Courtesy of Bill Thoen.)
The architect of Citicorp Center was Hugh Stubbins, but most of the credit for this building is given to its chief structural engineer, William LeMessurier.
The design originated with the need to accommodate St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which occupied one corner of the building site at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue in mid-town Manhattan. (LeMessurier called the a church “a crummy old building…the lowest point in Victorian architecture.” You can be the judge.)
The condition that St. Peter’s gave to Citicorp was that they build the church a new building in the same location. Provided that corner of the lot not be touched, he company was free to build their skyscraper around the church and in the airspace above it.
LeMessurier said he got the idea for the design while sketching on a napkin at a Greek restaurant.
(Courtesy of David Billington)
Here’s what’s going on with this building:
Nine-story stilts suspend the building over St. Peter’s church. But rather than putting the stilts in the corners, they had to be at the midpoint of each side to avoid the church.
Having stilts in the middle of each side made the building less stable, so LeMessurier designed a chevron bracing structure—rows of eight-story V’s that served as the building’s skeleton.
But the chevron bracing structure made the building exceptionally light for a skyscraper, so it would sway in the wind. LeMessurier added a tuned mass damper, a 400-ton device that keeps the building stable.
It was an ingenious, cutting edge design. And everything seemed just fine—until, as LeMessurier tells it, he got a phone call.
(Courtesy of Diane Hartley)
According to LeMessurier, in 1978 he got a phone call from an undergraduate architecture student making a bold claim about LeMessurier’s building. He told LeMessurier that Citicorp Center could blow over in the wind.
The student (who has since been lost to history) was studying Citicorp Center as part of his thesis and had found that the building was particularly vulnerable to quartering winds (winds that strike the building at its corners). Normally, buildings are strongest at their corners, and it’s the perpendicular winds (winds that strike the building at its face) that cause the greatest strain. But this was not a normal building.
LeMessurier had accounted for the perpendicular winds, but not the quartering winds. He checked the math, and found that the student was right. He compared what velocity winds the building could withstand with weather data, and found that a storm strong enough to topple Citicorp Center hits New York City every 55 years.
But that’s only if the tuned mass damper, which keeps the building stable, is running. LeMessurier realized that a major storm could cause a blackout and render the tuned mass damper inoperable. Without the tuned mass damper, LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building hits New York every sixteen years.
In other words, for every year Citicorp Center was standing, there was about a 1-in-16 chance that it would collapse.
(Credit: Timothy Vogel)
LeMessurier and his team worked with the Citicorp higher-up to coordinate emergency repairs on the building. With the help of the NYPD, they worked out an evacuation plan spanning a 10 block radius. They had 2500 Red Cross volunteers on standby, and three different weather services employed 24/7 to keep an eye on potential windstorms. They welded throughout the night and quit at daybreak, just as the building occupants returned to work.
But all of this happened in secret. Even as Hurricane Ella was racing up the eastern seaboard.
(From Wikimedia Commons)
Hurricane Ella never made landfall. And so the public—including the building’s occupants—were never notified. And it just so happened that New York City newspapers were on strike at the time.
The story remained a secret until writer Joe Morgenstern overheard it being told at a party, and interviewed LeMessurier. Morgenstern broke the story in the New Yorker in 1995.
And that would have been the end of the story. But then this happened:
The BBC aired a special on the Citicorp Center crisis, and one of its viewers was Diane Hartley. It turns out that she was the student in LeMessurier’s story. She never spoke with LeMessurier; rather, she spoke with one of his junior staffers.
(Courtesy of Diane Hartley)
Hartley didn’t know that her inquiry about how the building deals with quartering winds lead to any action on LeMessurier’s part. It was only after seeing the documentary that she began to learn about the impact that her undergraduate thesis had on the fate of Manhattan.
(Diane Hartley today. Courtesy of Diane Hartley)
Reporter Joel Werner and producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Diane Hartley, and Hartley’s thesis advisor David Billington. We also spoke with Michael Vardaro, who wrote the AIA Trust’s white paper about the case, and to LeMessurier’s former staffer Joel Weinstein.
Special thanks to Alan Bellows at Damn Interesting for suggesting this as a 99pi story, and to Simil Raghavan for helping us track down archival audio of William LeMessurier.
Music: “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young”- Kid Cudi; “A Drifting Up”- Jon Hopkins; “Cobweb Collector”- Twink; “Aufbruch”; “Its Caption Was A Star”- The Octopus Project; “Panic Disorder”- Melodium; “Dome Nest”- OK Ikumi; “brass practice”- Lullatone; “Red Air”- OK Ikumi; “Grundlsee”; “Sunlight”- OK Ikumi; “Making Up Minds”; “Dome Nest”- OK Ikumi
We turn up the volume on the voices in our heads, and try to get to the bottom of what …
Stories of when things go wrong. Really wrong. When you leave the normal realm of human error, fumble, mishap, and mistake and enter the territory of really huge breakdowns. Fiascos. Things go so awry that normal social order collapses.
An updated version of a classic episode, now including one of the most popular stories we’ve ever aired… about a police officer and a squirrel.