December 2nd, 2017

David Stairs

There’s a little place in the Indian city of Agra famous as a testament of a man’s love for a woman.

The world’s most famous burial site

Constructed between 1632 and 1654, the Taj Mahal, burial place of Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, is not only the most famous example of Mughal architecture, but the universal symbol of India to much of the world.

North Gate entry to the Taj gardens

By every account Mumtaz Mahal was an exceptional woman. Born Arjumand Banu Begum in 1593, “the Exalted One of the Palace” was betrothed to the young prince Prince Khurram, later known by his regal name Shah Jahan, in 1607 when only 13 years old. A woman of culture and refinement, Mumtaz was the daughter of a Persian noble in the service of the Mughul court.

Sandstone rooms for former visitors, workers, and guests surround the outside entrances

After her formal marriage at 19, Mumtaz became Jahan’s second and preferred wife, destined to bear him 14 children. It was during the birth of the last of these, while accompanying her husband on a military campaign in 1631, that Mumtaz died age 38. Her husband was so unhinged by her death that he went into seclusion for a year. At the end of his mourning he emerged visibly older, coaxed to return to the world by his 21 year-old daughter, Jahanara Begum, who assumed many of her mother’s formal duties.

The entry arch to Mumtaz’ crypt is precisely 22 steps above the garden. Calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran, larger at top to correct for distortion, run around the entryway

Shah Jahan commissioned Ustad Ahmad Lahauri to design a fitting memorial to his wife in 1632. Reportedly requiring the labor of more than 20,000 workers, the Taj Mahal departed from the Mughal style of using sandstone in favor of white marble. A special technique, pietra dura, the process of inlaying semiprecious stones— Agate, Lapis, Mother of Pearl, Onyx, Tourquoise etc., in white, translucent marble was used throughout the construction of the Taj Mahal, and is an art form still practiced in Agra today. Exquisite geometric patterning accompanied marble bas-relief floral patterns in keeping with the Muslim proscription on using images.

Pietra dura translucent tabletop

Located on the banks of the Yamuna River, surrounded by extensive formal gardens and reflecting pools, the most notable design element of the structure is not its materials, but its obsessive geometric symmetry.

Perfect alignment of Taj Mahal with its entry gate

One enters the grounds through gates from any of the four cardinal points. At a center point of the four entryways one catches a first glimpse of the Taj itself through the arch of the North Gate. Here one’s line of sight leads to Mumtaz’s burial chamber, her cenotaph centered directly under its famous “onion dome.” All surrounding buildings, gardens, and minarets are precisely symmetrically mirrored on the Taj.

Gardens are maintained year round

Shah Jahan was reportedly very involved in the mausoleum’s construction, meeting daily with his architects and making frequent and enlightened design suggestions. So complete was his obsession with symmetry that the Mahtab Bagh, or Moonlight Garden, sometimes misrepresented as an intended Black Taj, was constructed directly across the river to enhance viewing of the Taj Mahal at night.

Even the waste bins are carved from sandstone and marble

Shortly after its completion, Jahan was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor, who had murdered all his brothers, and imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life in the Agra Red Fort.

Light enters the crypt through exquisitely carved marble screens

Buried beside Mumtaz and to the west of her cenotaph by Aurangzeb, the only asymmetrical aspect of the entire complex is the location of Jahan’s tomb, a design detail that probably would have driven him to distraction. But it’s not an issue for the nearly eight million people who visit the site every year. I was fortunate enough to visit in the off-season, when the daily visitor totals can be as reasonable as 10-15,000.

Maintenance of damaged or vandalized inlaid surfaces is ongoing

In the 1990s new efforts were made to preserve the Taj, after it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983. Entry fees were increased from 10 rupees to 1000 in order to underwrite the cost of bottled water and slippers for visitors, the stone pathways being too hot for bare feet during summer months. The Government of India has also established a 4000 square-mile pollution-free zone around the site, the better to protect it from the yellowing effects of acid rain.

Feet both slippered and bare on the patterned walkways outside the Taj

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

November 17th, 2017

David Stairs

Completion of Kampala’s Northern Expressway has been plagued by delays in right-of-way acquisition

Returning to Uganda for the first time in ten years has held a few surprises. The charm of its people, and the beauty of Uganda’s countryside are unchanged, but the congestion in the capital Kampala is alarming. Partly this has to do with migration and growth. As the nation’s population increases, the sprawl of Kampala explodes.

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October 29th, 2017

David Stairs

I was recently in Prague, which in June 2017 celebrated the 75th anniversary of one of the most heroic and daring commando actions of the Second World War. On June 4, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia was attacked on his way to work when his Mercedes slowed at a bend in the road. His assailants, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were Slovakian and Czech volunteers who had been trained in Britain and parachuted into Czechoslovakia to conduct Operation Anthropiod.

SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (courtesy Wikipedia)

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October 2nd, 2017

David Stairs


The iconic images of Houston under 10 feet of water should have by now burned themselves into your brain. “How did we get to this point?” you ask. With one word: Design.

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August 13th, 2017

The third and final article in our series on the American prison system. —Ed.

Hannah Boyd

For you, DJ, the person who shared part of his life with me.

And for you, former mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard, the person who vehemently rejected the concept of prison slave labor, the implications of the 13th amendment, and the profiteering by corporations that makes everyone complicit in the practice of neo-slavery(1).

On day one of our architecture studio, we are tasked with designing a 4,000 bed jail with 27 courtrooms and administrative offices. The project had been an effort by former mayor Greg Ballard to consolidate the sprawling jail network that currently exists in Indianapolis (2). The project never came to fruition, and the new mayor, Joe Hogsett, is currently reviving the project with new ambitions (3).

The 13th Amendment

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June 23rd, 2017

This essay continues our investigation of America’s prison system, and extends D-A-P’s collaboration with Ball State architecture students into the fifth year. —Ed.

Julia Voigt

Despite jails being one of the most recognizable typologies of the built environment, the criminal justice system itself is far removed from the realm of the architectural profession. This lack of attention given to the penal system within the profession highlights a larger, societal issue at hand: that, as noted by author Michelle Alexander, “… criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone–across political, racial and class boundaries–feels free to hate” (Alexander 228).
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April 16th, 2017

David Stairs

Every once in awhile you meet a group of students that stands out. This was the case with my Junior studio a year ago. When we collaborated with the School of Businesses’ entrepreneurial contest, they were all in, and we just clicked. I knew 2017 would be my year to mentor our Graphic Design capstone project, and I wanted it to be good, so I signed up to teach the Fall senior studio leading into the winter capstone.
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February 25th, 2017

David Stairs

Image: David Stairs

I recently started reading Volker Ullrich’s biography HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939 out of a curiosity to better understand the motivations of the man often ranked as history’s most malevolent monster. Along the way I became fascinated by the parallels between Uncle Adolf and a more recent demagogue of the American ilk. These are the similarities I noted:
•Mendacious use of facts
•Scapegoating a religious group
•Extreme nationalism
•Intolerance for criticism
•Bullying as a defense tactic
•Inciting violence
•Contempt for adversaries
•Dislike for administrative work
•Prima donna tendencies
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January 13th, 2017

David Stairs

Control is the object of consolidation, what Nietsche once called the “will to power.”

Soul Searching

Consider the rise of multinational corporations. Monopoly is the capitalist ideal. Although shrouded in so-called antitrust laws preventing market domination— the idea being that competition is healthy for markets— captains of industry have always sought market dominance. For brief periods of time some capitalists, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to name two, dominated their industries and became enormously wealthy.
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November 20th, 2016

Carter Scholz

In the prehistory of personal computers, Lee Felsenstein and some others created Community Memory in Berkeley in 1974: a publicly available teletype terminal, connected to a mainframe computer via 110-baud modem. Users could post and read messages at a few different sites. Felsenstein had read Ivan Illich, and he saw this as a tool for conviviality. It was a novel vision in a time of monolithic mainframes: computers as liberating and empowering, both personally and socially.

Lee Felsenstein / Courtesy Lee
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October 22nd, 2016

David Stairs

When I think of blue and red the notion of Democrat and Republican naturally come to mind. One can find any number of red-blue maps online that attempt to represent our political differences. I even wrote about it here after the last Presidential election. Happily, there is another, earlier visual application of red and blue: the road maps of the 1930s to 1950s.

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September 19th, 2016

David Stairs

Downtown Mount Pleasant, Michigan on the morning of July 16th, 2016

Some things about the Michigan summer are a certainty: mosquitoes, humidity, and recreation vehicles. Summer’s the season when snowmobile trailers are swapped out for boat hitches, and the weekend traffic going north on Michigan’s highways likely includes people from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois headed for resort towns near Michigan’s lakes.

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August 19th, 2016

David Stairs

I’ve written the past couple of summers about Portland, Oregon and its environmentally-friendly culture. I visited my family again last month, as I normally do in July, just in time for the unveiling of a major new corporate/municipal project. On July 19th Portland launched the Biketown bicycle-share initiative. With a fleet of Dutch-designed bikes, and a system of around 100 rental stations, Portland joined the ranks of cities like New York, in pursuit of the notion of universal car-free mobility.

A Biketown bike locked outside the Niketown store on MLK Boulevard in Portland

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July 15th, 2016

David Stairs

When I first saw the house, a big old Victorian three-story I thought, “This place is great, but it’s way too big.” I’d been living abroad for a couple of years, and returning to rental space in a college town, where rentals are either of the townhouse variety, or student-destroyed older homes, had me on the real estate market. I already owned one house, but it was in another state, and this wasn’t helping my current situation.

photo: Al Wildey

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June 13th, 2016

This is the third in an annual series of essays by students of the Ball State University Architecture program. Previous works by Jesse McClain and Phil Borkowski appeared in 2014 and 2015. —Ed.

Kenna Gibson

I am from a small town 10 miles away from Muncie, Indiana. Muncie: home of Ball State University, former home of Ball Corporation, BorgWarner, Delco Remy, General Motors, A. E. Boyce Company, and Westinghouse Electric. The list of industries that have left the city is much longer than the list of those that have stayed. For my third year architecture studio, we were to connect machines with the rust belt. What we were supposed to create, probably something that would aid the citizens, neither I nor my professor, Wes Janz, really knew. Easy enough, I thought, because I live in the Rust Belt.

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May 7th, 2016

David Stairs

It’s been 10 years since this article first appeared as Bruce Mau and the Apotheosis of Data. We’re re-posting it here in our continuing celebration of D-A-P’s tenth anniversary, and because it is no less pertinent now than it was in 2006. —Ed.

Soothsaying: The New Science of Designing For Nine Billion
“The wits, therefore, of the Utopians, inured and exercised in learning, be marvelous quick in the inventions of feats helping anything to the advantage of wealth of life.” 1 —Thomas More Utopia

Foretelling the future has been professionalized. Once the domain of soothsayers, astrologists, and mountebanks, now, futurology has become the domain of designers and other improvers of humankind.

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April 7th, 2016

David Stairs

Last week I was talking with my 16-year-old about his piano lesson when I asked him whether his tutor had emailed him before rescheduling a recent lesson. “Dad,” he chuckled, “I can’t believe you said that.” Translation: no one of sound mind uses anything but text as a means of communicating these days. I reminded him that not long ago I might have wondered if his instructor had “called” him with the message, but the point was made. There isn’t a day that passes when I am not reminded of how quickly I’m obsolescing.

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March 7th, 2016

David Stairs

Design Altruism Project started ten years ago today with this post. From its humble beginnings it essayed to represent new notions of professional practice from a variety of viewpoints, both new and established. We wanted to celebrate our tenth anniversary with an uplifting story.

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