Reply to: One less excuse

Alexandru Bolboaca rejects the notion that software hasn’t become a proper, professional engineering discipline because it’s too young:

It recently dawned on me how often I say or hear the words “our industry is young”. There’s truth in these words. . . .

And then he goes on to explain the many reasons why “too young” is a lame excuse for a lack of professionalism in software.

But I think he misses the real issue why software is mostly written by people who lack the discipline he’d like to see: It’s because software is so easy.

It’s really hard to make a bridge that won’t fall down. It’s much harder yet to make one that not only won’t fall down but is also affordable.

Relatively speaking, software is trivially easy and very cheap. Anybody can start making small programs, just like anybody can stack one rock on top of another. But scaling up from small programs to medium-sized ones is something that actually works—anybody can do it. Scaling up from stacking one rock on top of another to building a stone bridge is another thing altogether, because relatively speaking software is so easy.

I suspect that we’re about to get a test of this notion. Pretty soon now I suspect that materials science will give us some new structural materials that are cheap, extremely strong and very easy to work with. I don’t know what it’ll be—carbon fiber, nano-assembled sapphire, resin—but it’ll be cheap enough and strong enough that any yahoo will be able to put up a structure that’s as easy to build as a lean-to but as sturdy as a house.

My prediction: Once that happens, we’ll see a partial collapse of architecture as an engineering discipline. There’ll still be real architects (because the education programs are so well established), but very quickly only large or public buildings will be designed by real architects. If you can throw up a sturdy building in a few hours for a few dollars, people will totally do that, just like they’ll currently write little programs that do something they need done, even if the programs are otherwise crappy in many ways.

Rick Bell talk on Active Design

Jackie and I rode the yellow bus into campus yesterday evening and attended a reception for and talk by Rick Bell about Active Design—using architecture to encourage people to move more, to eat better, etc.

We enjoyed it, and found the ideas very interesting, even though the talk itself was only fair—a long series of slides with pictures of places that exemplified one or another aspect of what he’s talking about, arranged geographically rather than according to the principles he’s suggesting. (The talk would have been more interesting for me if it had been organized by idea, rather than by place.)

One focus throughout the talk was on staircases. Of course any multilevel public space needs to have elevators (to make the space available to people who can’t climb stairs) and perhaps other things as well—ramps, escalators, and so on. But stairs are required too (for fire safety, if nothing else) and Bell points out that staircases can be done well or badly. In a bare concrete box closed in behind fire doors, they’re pretty uninviting. Brought out front and center, they can be wonderful. They can be beautiful design elements—glass stairs can float in the space, mirrored risers can reflect the space, etc. Staircases—if they’re broad enough—can also be places where people gather in small groups to stand or sit together. He had a photo of what I guess is a famous red staircase being used that way. (The talk was for architecture students, and was full of references to famous architecture and architects that mostly meant very little to me.)

He also had some photos of places where these things had been done badly, such as a second-floor fitness center with escalators to the entrance, and no sign of where the stairs might be, even if you wanted to use them.

There’s a lot to Active Design besides staircases—walkable spaces, bicycling infrastructure, creating (often re-creating) multimodal transportation infrastructure (like having bike paths and foot paths lead to and from the bus station, and having the bus station co-located with the train station and a bicycle rental place), seasonally appropriate spaces (like skating rinks), bringing food production into the city center, etc.

I’m glad we went. I’m glad we went by bus, rather than driving.