Monday, November 10, 2008

On What Evidence?

Thinking outside the box. Win-Win. Let’s blue-sky this for a while.

The business community has a great habit of inventing catchy titles for everyday ways of being. There was already language in place for each of those three opening examples (creativity, mutual benefit, and suspending constraints), but you can’t sell self-help books that way,

In recent years, a new term has entered the architectural lexicon: evidence-based design. This, for me, is one of those ultimate WTF moments. What other kind of architecture could we possibly practice in any responsible way? But my students tell me regularly that evidence is in short supply in the profession and in their coursework. Design decisions are made on the flimsiest of suppositions — as the architect Herb McLaughlin said thirty years ago, we work structurally and mechanically down to three decimal points, but design for social outcomes by hunch.

The fact that we had to invent the term means that evidence-based design must stand outside the norm (just as creativity isn’t a regular feature of commerce, and hasn’t become any more so now that we call it thinking outside the box). Evidence exists — there is a body of research we could draw upon. But we don’t seek it.

And even more evidence is latent in all of the post-occupancy evaluation that has never been done. I was at an architectural conference at which one of the keynote speakers was the leader of a nanotechnology company, making objects measured in microns. One of the things he told us was that this technology was making sensors (for temperature, particulates, water flow, and all kinds of stuff) dirt-cheap. His challenge to us was “If you could install ten million sensors in your building, what would you measure?” To which one of the audience members, bless her heart, replied, “We already do. They’re called people. And we never collect their data.”

Evidence-based design. I mean, that’s just embarrassing. One would hope, for instance, that there’s no news flashes about evidence-based medicine. Or evidence-based plumbing. The antonyms of “evidence-based” in almost every other field would be “unemployed” or “disbarred” or “imprisoned.”

In the Wee Hours

One of the best things about teaching is that you learn things. I was at a thesis review meeting a couple of weeks back, and wrangling a bit with one of the other reviewers. He, a professional architect, kept asking the student to focus on “architectural questions,” which for him had largely to do with the quality of direct and reflected light. I, on the other hand, hoped that the student could pursue the programmatic goals of his project, which has to do with experiential learning.

The learning moment for me came when we were discussing the precedent experience that had gotten this student interested in his thesis topic. He’d spent a summer working aboard a marine research ship, both sailing and working in the labs. And he had a photograph of one of the experiments, an elaborate (and utterly homemade) set of tanks and hoses that enabled the study of mollusk behavior. And it struck me that the lead scientist, deeply trained in marine invertebrate behavior, had also had to learn to be a lab technician, building enclosures and gates and regulating salt and fresh water flows and such.

So I grabbed a whiteboard marker and wrote a diagram on the board. I don't have decent drawing software to include it, so draw this for yourselves. I'll wait.

Draw a circle with arrows going around it clockwise.
Write the words "Condition/Circumstance" at 12 o'clock.
Write the words "Interpretation/Evaluation" at 3 o'clock.
Write the words "Supposition/Question" at 6 o'clock.
Write the words "Intervention/Action" at 9 o'clock.

We can suppose this to be a cycle of inquiry through which we rotate clockwise from the top. We encounter some circumstance; we decide what it means and whether we approve; we have a new question about it; we then do something in order to test that question; and that action results in a new circumstance, which we can then investigate again.

Nothing new here. But my insight, spurred by the work of the snail behaviorist, is that the work that drives you are the ones on the right side of the cycle, and the things you do to support that work comes on the left side of the cycle. To go back to our snail study, the condition, interpretation, and question are all about snails; the work of manipulating the tank and the water and the adjacency of predatory crabs are the techniques used to ask questions and change conditions.

And in this clock diagram, I discovered much of why I disagreed with my other panelist, and why I think that the profession has so little to offer to the real issues of the world. For me (and for the student), the work on the midnight-to-6:00 side of the cycle — the things that kept us awake at night — had to do with experiential learning. How could we best support the kind of life-changing experience that my student had on that research vessel that summer? In order to investigate the architectural solutions to that question, we had to make spatial and material tests on the 6:00 to noon side of the cycle. But for my professional-designer counterpart, the whole cycle was about spatial and material conditions.

Let me return to the overall title of this blog. Hannah Arendt posited that some ways of approaching the work we do have only to do with making things — what she called homo faber, or man the maker. But her belief is that we had a further and greater calling to our work: to be social actors, to be citizens, to participate in the life of action, the vita activa.

So there’s my question for today. What keeps you up in the wee hours of the morning? What drives you to take up your work? A person who uses the right-hand side to examine people’s welfare and the left side to make spatial contributions deserves the fullness of the title “architect.” A person who stays in the world of material resolutions around the clock is a technician.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Dark Ages of Architecture

One of the worst things about being an administrator is that I don't have nearly enough time to read. I still have 93 unanswered e-mails in my inbox from Wednesday alone. But last night, I took the luxury of not turning on my computer, and instead read a book I'd bought almost two months ago.

Most of us know Jane Jacobs from her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that helped all of us understand what made good street life and why modern planning was wiping that out. But since then, she's broadened her scope from the smallest scale of civic life — the neighborhood — to larger structures of governance and culture. One of her final books before she died was 2004's Dark Age Ahead, a cautionary tale of what we might face.
A Dark Age is a culture's dead end. We in North America and Western Europe, enjoying the many benefits of a culture conventionally known as the West, customarily think of a Dark Age as happening once, long ago, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But in North America we live in a graveyard of lost aboriginal cultures, many of which were deciseively finished off by mass amnesia in which even the memory of what was lost was also lost.
...even the memory of what was lost was also lost. This opening paragraph stands as a premonition for our own culture. Jacobs argues that North American culture — not merely those "primitive" native cultures, but our own high-tech, high speed success — has changed so radically over the past couple of hundred years that we no longer recognize what was, and don't realize the depth of the changes we've accepted.
In the five chapters that follow, I single out five pillars of our culture that we depend upon to stand firm, and discuss what seem to me ominous signs of their decay. They are in process of becoming irrelevant, and so are dangerously close to the brink of lost memory and cultural uselessness. These five jeopardized pillars are:
  • community and family (the two are so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)
  • higher education
  • the effective practice of science and science-based technology (again, so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • self-policing by the learned professions. (p.24)
And as I was reading this, in the dual contexts of our current economic crises and of my school's attempts to re-frame its curricula, I started to realize why architecture is so thoroughly declining, why the profession is racing headlong into its own Dark Age. Let's take each of Jacobs' five pillars in their order.

Community and Family. I've been working with a lot of young architects over the past couple of years, people in their "internship" or pre-licensure period of their careers. Almost without exception, they talk about the ways in which they feel unsupported in their workplaces, the ways in which their supervisors are unconcerned with their intellectual growth (which, by professional standards, senior architects are obligated to foster), the way in which they are treated as labor rather than partner. This is not how a decent family or community raises its young. And it explains to some extent why the profession has declined so radically in numbers, how in America the 3,000 architects who retire or die each year are replaced by only 1,500 new architects. (It also explains more specifically how the 40% of architecture school graduates who are female becomes the 15% of new architects who are female, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects.)

Higher Education. Jacobs talks about the ways in which the cultural elements of higher education, the opportunity for deep consideration of personal, ethical and historical meaning, has been lost to a culture of credentialism. Almost every college, even the most elite, is now seen as an elaborate provider of job training. Architectural curricula have been headed that way now for a long time. Even coursework in writing and mathematics are seen as useful only inasmuch as they contribute to professional success ("you're going to have to write proposals some day"). Architectural education has lost touch with the larger culture and history that makes any profession meaningful to its society, and aims to produce either sculptors or technocrats depending on the particulars of a school's mission.

The Effective Practice of Science. Kim Tanzer, immediate past president of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, says that architecture is the only remaining non-cumulative
academic discipline. I find myself enormously frustrated when I hear design students say that people will do certain things or respond in certain ways in the places they have drawn and modeled. I find myself even more frustrated when nobody in the room says "How do you know that's what people will do? What evidence base are you drawing upon to make those claims?" There's a great deal of research on the specific ways in which people use and encounter places — not nearly enough, of course, but that's true in every field. But architecture is the only academic field I've ever encountered in which we make crucial interventions in people's lives with only the most vague handwaving about why it will have certain effects. That would be seen as criminally irresponsible if a pharmacist did it with a dozen patients; how much worse that we do it with interventions that will affect thousands.

Taxes and Governmental Powers Directly in Touch with Needs and Possibilities. The AIA, which is the governing body in charge of the profession, seems from my non-member perspective to have systematically helped to diminish the profession's possibilities. Needs assessment, programming, and post-occupancy evaluation — the actions from which the field can actually learn how to serve its public — are not part of the standard contract sequence. The profession doesn't advocate for a specific research agenda, or frankly for the value of research at all. The AIA missed the boat on sustainability, with LEED standards growing from the early-90's work of Rob Watson and the Natural Resources Defense Council into a stand-alone organization called the U.S. Green Building Council. The AIA missed the boat on the 1970s launching of environment-behavior studies, a body of knowledge toward which architectural education remains mostly hostile. It seems to be an organization in a defensive crouch, prepared to defend against turf encroachment rather than to stand up and move where it believes society needs to go.

Self-Policing by the Learned Professions. I've already written about the ways in which architecture is not founded on a core of ethical principles. So how can a profession monitor the behaviors of its members if it isn't trying to adhere to a set of principles? Doctors get disciplined when they harm patients, because one of the core principles is the remedy of suffering. Lawyers get disbarred when they act corruptly, because the principle of justice is at the heart of their work. So what is it, exactly, that might get an architect disciplined by the profession as a whole? The AIA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a meager document, focused on standard business and contractual ethics rather than anything specific having to do with the unique contributions of architecture to families, businesses, and communities.

I foresee a Dark Age of architecture... perhaps already upon us, but certainly soon to come unless we take immediate corrective action. Jacobs lays out five core areas of action; they may not be the only ones, but they seem to me to be at least places to start.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Emotional Cost of Drywall

I was just in a newly finished space a few days ago. A lecture hall designed to seat about 100 or so folks. It was just completed (smelled like paint and carpet glue...), and perfectly clean. I looked around -- fresh, bright, new carpet, 100 new comfortable chairs all around, high-tech presentation gear installed -- and I thought, "This feels like a place to wait for jury duty."

It's hard to make the economic case for good spaces. (After the past couple of weeks, it's hard to make the economic case for much of anything beyond bare survival...) But if we believe that architecture has emotional importance, that we can inspire people to learn and achieve through the richness of the place they inhabit, then we need to study carefully what makes a place emotionally resonant. It has something to do with form, but only just a little, I think. Rather, it has to do with the way in which we can lose ourselves in a place, where we're repeatedly rewarded by interesting details and information-rich materials.

I've made this case before, but I really think that we start architectural education from the wrong end. Do small, simple, real things. Detail a window opening. Work to make the floor material encounter the base of a wall in a deep and compelling way. Eventually, once you're good at that, we'll let you maybe put a room together. After a while of that, we'll let you put a suite of rooms and connecting spaces together. It would be several years before I'd let my students muck around with building massing and form. Because that's not what makes places beloved.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why Ethnography Matters

I just finished watching the Palin-Biden debate, and I understand more than ever what social class means in America. Prior to the debate, I was reading the most current issue of The New Yorker, a magazine clearly aimed at the well educated urbanite. In a piece early on about Obama campaigning in Appalachian Virginia, the writer used the word "Nascar."

Sorry, wrong answer.

It's NASCAR, all caps, an acronym standing for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. You don't get to live in America any more and not know how to spell NASCAR.

And then the debate came on, and Palin spoke the following pronunciations:

"eye-RACK" for Iraq
"eye-RAN" for Iran
"Noo-kya-lar" for nuclear

You think those are errors? You think, after eight years of reporters calling Bush out for mispronouncing "nuclear," that Palin would make the same mistake?

I feel like a conspiracy theorist pointing this out, so let me start out with some bona fides: my dad dropped out of high school in 10th grade, worked as a factory machinist for his entire life, and I have a Ph.D. I'm what Alfred Lubrano calls a "straddler," a person with a foot in both worlds and at home in neither.

So here's my thinking. Palin very clearly pronounces those words as a signal to a certain population (small town, rural, working-class, not very well educated) that she understands them, that she's not one of those fancy-pants New Yorkers or Washington Insiders that have caused so much trouble over the past decades. Biden, in control of the facts, doesn't address the emotional connection being made. He throws out numbers, he throws out truths about the misdeeds of the administration, he helps us realize the scale of the problems we face. But none of those facts will go as far as being seen as "one of us," being seen as a hockey mom who "gets" the day-to-day problems faced by good old American families.

This election is about identity. Who do you feel more comfortable with? Do you want to have a beer with Sarah, or a dinner with Biden? And ethnographers, people who can live with others extensively and understand their values, are uniquely situated to understand identity issues and how they're expressed through things like spellings and pronunciations.

George Lakoff is right. Elections are not won on facts, but on frames. It doesn't matter that much of what Palin said tonight will be revealed tomorrow to be incorrect. What matters is that she comforts people who feel left behind, who feel powerless.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Resisting Emotion

I assigned my students a project today — to develop a set of ethical principles that could drive their professional lives, and then to respond to the principles derived by their colleagues. As I transcribed that session this evening, I was more and more discouraged. A large component of their responses, probably about than a third, could only be described as "smart-ass." And one of my former students who I invited to participated said afterward (in paraphrase), "They're a lot more abusive of one another than we were."

I think there are a couple of mechanisms we use to distance ourselves from circumstances that make us uncomfortable. One is irony, the saying of things we don't mean; the other is a form of absurdism that's not so much about the object of ridicule as it is about the unimportance of pretty much anything. An example of the first is a response to the principle "We don't just go through the motions" that read "We skip a few." An example of the second is a response to the principle "Value everything" that read "even sea monkeys."

I'll admit that I'm tired (and old), but I can't help feeling some despair in the face of the ideas of professional ethics being dismissed so easily. We go for the quick joke, the sitcom one-liner. I think I can build on this, because I think these responses reflect a discomfort with their daily professional lives that I can continue to push — their comments are a veneer atop some real disillusionment over their chosen careers. But I wonder what our environments would be like if we privileged earnestness over glibness, if we rewarded silence and reverence in the face of things we don't understand rather than quick first responses.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Come on, take a walk with me darlin', tell me who do you love?

I thought some more this morning about the idea of narrative design. And it occurred to me that you have to have a peculiar, somewhat non-professional way of thinking in order to do it well. You have to think like a writer, to get inside people's way of living, to really work hard to understand what it is that they do and value and believe. And that not only is way difficult and takes a lot of time, but it actually de-emphasizes the outcomes of our work in some complicated ways. If you're going to be a good _____ (your choice -- teacher, architect, parent, anything dealing with providing for the welfare of others), then you have to love those people more than you love the thing you're making.

The building is nothing. The lives of the people who will encounter it are what matters, and the building, if it has any value at all, works in ways that benefit them. And they get to define "benefit," not you. You can help them think more deeply about the benefits they may be overlooking, you can help them prioritize from among all of the wonderful things a place might provide, but in the end, the building does not belong to you.

There's an easy proxy for this hard work, of course, and that's building for your client. But aside from the rare case of single family homes, your client merely provides the checkbook. She or he also is making something that will touch the lives of countless others. So architects may have to hold an extra serving of love to make up for the developer's balance sheet, may have to find ways to serve the larger community that don't cost extra money and thus get value-engineered out of the project.

Working this way is not lucrative. It requires a lot of non-billable hours. And it doesn't get you much attention. But on those rare occasions when you do get to sleep, you sleep well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Designing Nothing

I'm reworking Chapter 2 of Sennett's book, a chapter called The Neutral City. Before I get into this, though, I just want to say that no one should be allowed to have as many ideas in a lifetime as Sennett works through in just these 30 pages or so. My work is much more humble than his. I want to talk about the ways in which space has been privileged in design and design education.

Designers seem to have three different conceptual areas of attention, which they manage or ignore in differing proportions. These conceptual foci are surface, object, and space. You can pretty easily read which concept was most central to a designer when you encounter her or his work. For instance, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have made a career out of work in surface (a focus on what they call "the decorated shed," a building whose form is less important than the signs that the form carries). Graves' Portland Building and Holl's Simmons Hall are both fundamentally surface buildings. Lots of designers do object buildings, so it's hard to pick on anyone in particular. Let's say Gehry's Bilbao, Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum, Foster's Gherkin. And there are some designers who are fundamentally interested in issues of space: Peter Eisenman comes to mind, as does Tadao Ando and (earlier) Alvar Aalto.

This is not to say that any one of this bunch, or anyone else, is wholly focused on one of the three elements to the utter exclusion of the other two. It's just an area of particular interest.

So the attention to surface and form are clearly art impulses. The only things you can do with them is consider them, regard them. We might imagine space to be the most humane of the three, but I'll tentatively argue that it might be the most hostile. Why? Because there's an understood connection between space and habitation (at least at the scale of a building); space allows me to be in, to dwell, to move. So when space becomes the overt object of intervention and manipulation, the designer isn't just messing with my intellect; s/he's messing with my lived experience, actively disorienting me, intentionally belligerent toward my history of occupancy.

For architects who design space, the belligerence may be unintentional. They may not want me to be disaffected or confused. They may not be thinking of me at all. They may be working at a far higher conceptual plane, actively engaged in the design of volume (which is to say, the design of nothing, the design of absence). That's interesting for sculptors and glass artists, but irresponsible for environmental designers.

Here's a fourth arena of design intentions, far less well considered among architects and interior designers but thoroughly addressed in the theater: design for narrative. How can we design for experience, for sequence, for social action, for political progress, for family harmony? What kinds of spaces contain and foster curiosity, aspiration, self-esteem, resiliency? What kinds of spaces contain and foster rebellion, equity, collaboration, belonging? What does love look like, smell like, feel like, sound like in space?

There's a meager version of this that we do when we engage in basic programming. What's the stuff, what's the tasks, what's the materials, what's the sequences? That's narrative reduced to a plot sequence, the richness of literature reduced to "this guy was writing, and a crow came by and kept saying 'Nevermore,' and the guy freaked out." But it addresses none of the complexities of our inner lives, of our social lives, of our fears and aspirations. It's a reduction of humans to another material flowing through the assembly line.

Now, one might say that design for narrative is impossible, that there's no way of knowing what kinds of places will be beloved or inspiring or fearful. I don't believe that's true — but if it were true, then architecture would be of no value whatsoever.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Retreat Pt. 2 — The Clock and the Watch

On the weekends and when I'm on vacation, I make it a point to leave my watch on the dresser. I appreciate the liberation from structure, discovering at 2:15 that I haven't had lunch yet, sleeping until I wake up.

Sennett makes the differentiation, though, between two different kinds of timepieces: the clock in the public square and the private wristwatch.
The monastery was a closed world in which the hours and their parts were reckoned by listening to the bells, and this same marking of time through bells of course continued in the churches of the Renaissance cities. These ringing bells marked the ritual moments during the day, the mount of time lapsing between one sacred duty and the next. The machinery that produced little mechanical dramas when the hours struck, in Venice or other cities — such as a bell ringer popping out of a concealed compartment to pound on a drum while the church rang out its hours — reinforced the ritual of the moment. Practical time required instead reckoning how much time was passing between these little dramas. The quantification of the time in between, of time elapsing in units, was the time shown on clock faces; in this sense, secular time meant visible time without ritual. (p.178)
I've spent a fair bit of time in two small towns whose volunteer fire departments mark the noon hour by sounding the fire horn. And when I hear them, I only partly think "Oh, it's noon." More thoroughly, I think "Here I am in this place, among these people." There is a sensory specificity to the workings of community — smelling the yeast from the brewery or the brine from the marsh, feeling the damp chill of morning fog or the dry cool of desert sundown — that cannot be replaced by mechanical engineers. The 72-degree, still-air, constant humidity interior environment that HVAC technicians shoot for is an individual conceit, the making of animal comfort for each of the animals in the building. So perhaps one of the aspects of places that really mark us is not so much that we feel at home there, but rather that we feel part of a community that feels at home there.

So many of our "communal" experiences now are really individual experiences simultaneously undergone by many at once. Television is the perfect example: it may well be that 30 million people watched each episode of Seinfeld, but almost all in ones and twos. We experience traffic jams as individuals and subway crowds as individuals. No one has caused them, no one comments on them, they just are. Maybe this is why sports (especially college sports) draws such a vocal and unified response — for at least the duration of the game or the season, individuals can take on a meaningful group identity larger than their families. My Duke students used to talk about how "We" beat NC State or UConn in a basketball game, and I was always amused by the degree they took ownership over the work of a dozen mercenaries who shared almost none of their daily student-life experience. Looking back, I think they were smarter than I was — they accepted that they were part of a community that had multiple ways of expressing itself, but they were able to take joy in each of the expressions even if they individually had nothing to do with it. Just as I take pleasure in a place with a volunteer fire department that sounds the horn at noon.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Perfecting Retreat

I've been reading Richard Sennett's 1990 book The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (I'm about to assign it to a class). I'm early on, but on page 23, Sennett reminds us of the 19th Century work of one of the pioneers of sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies. Even in early-industrial Germany 125 years ago, Tonnies saw a marked difference in social life between two kinds of communities:
The vision of an interior in whose warmth people open up was enshrined in the jargon of the social sciences by Ferdinand Tonnies when he coined the opposition between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft represented to him a "face-to-face" social relationship in a place that was small and socially enclosed, while Gesellschaft was a more exposed, mute exchange. Buying a stewpot in a corner shop where you chat and bargain was an experience suffused with Gemeinschaft, whereas buying the same stewpot in a department store in silence was an operation in the domain of Gesellschaft. (p.23)
And as I was reading this, I was pondering the ability to spend so much of our lives in isolation. Certainly, shopping is increasingly isolated; not only do we not have meaningful social exchange in the aisles of our supermarket, or even at the checkstand, but we purchase more and more of our goods online (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that "e-commerce" represented about 3% of all goods and services purchased in the first quarter of 2006, up from about half a percent in 1999; the growth is pretty much linear and constant).

But aside from shopping, we've invented fascinating ways to be private in public. First the Walkman and now the iPod allow us to have our own soundtrack, and to make it clear to others that we don't care to be interrupted. We regularly see people walking together on a sidewalk but each immersed in her or his own cell phone call. The car is a sensory isolation booth, encasing us in steel and glass and again with the stereo as an auditory buffer.

At work, the interoffice phone replaced the walk down the hall, and the e-mail replaced the interoffice phone. I'm speaking to you (whoever you might be) from my keyboard in an otherwise empty house. I go to the gym in the morning, surrounded by thirty other people engaged in the same activity, all of us wordlessly staring in bovine fixation at the televisions mounted from the ceiling. (I was in a hotel a couple of years ago that had a 5" television installed under the button panel in each elevator. God forbid that I should have to ride up to the 12th floor without passive entertainment.)

Until about 1920 or so, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to a physical location and listen to people present in the same room with you. Now, we not only listen to music electronically transported across space on physical media or radio waves, we regularly listen to dead people (two of the Beatles, for instance, or all of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or Mark Sandman of Morphine — an extensive list of the dead-and-still-popular, as you might imagine). The sociologist Ray Oldenberg says that in the 1930s post-Prohibition era, 90% of all alcohol consumed in America was drunk in bars and restaurants; by 1990, it was only 30%.

We have television to bring us to a bar "where everybody knows your name," or into families where mute silence is not the norm.
I spend my days with all my friends
They're the ones on who my life depends
I'm gonna miss them when the series ends
(Steven Wilson, "Prodigal," from the 2001 Porcupine Tree album In Absentia)

And even within our homes, we increasingly have custom rooms into which we seal ourselves from one another. The historian Albert Eide Parr writes of the difference in family life when the home was both heated and lit by a single fire. Bedrooms were not places of private activity; they were cold and dark, and you did nothing but sleep there. The entire family spent the evenings together in one room, and social life was by necessity quite different. Now each child's bedroom (not to mention our own) is a fully equipped recreation and entertainment venue; as one parent said, "Now that he's got cable TV in there, he'll never come out except to use the bathroom and maybe to get something to eat."

We seem to be perfecting the notion of retreat, of escape from a world we find difficult and tense and dangerous. There was a French movement of the financial aristocracy away from urban life after a particularly corrupt monarchy in 1830s, which was called the emigration interieure — they fled the cities for their own private domains. We have our own emigration interieure, facilitated by the landscapes and toys that divide us from one another.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Ruthless Utopias

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure time for artists ev
A just machine to ma
ke big decisions
Programmed by fellows with
compassion and vision
We'll be clean when th
eir work is done
We'll be eternally free yes
and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious t
ime to be free

I guess I never thought of Donald Fagen (half of Steely Dan) and Le Corbusier in the same context before, but Fagen's 1982 song "I.G.Y." is the ironic commentary to the Plan Voisin. Wipe out the past, build the perfect new society and its forms, and we'll all have chocolate and kittens forever.

There have been no end of utopias, in literature and in architecture. And if you really stand back and think about what life would be like there, you discover just how ruthless their creators are. Everyone gets along... because everyone has the same political or religious beliefs. Everything is aligned... because there's no one in the photograph to mess it up. All signs of discord have been squashed (pleasantly, of course), all pain and suffering is banished (because we all have come from eugenically strong stock), and all decisions are wise (because we all agree on the nature of wisdom). As the Talking Heads told us twenty-five years ago, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."

Stewart Brand, in his book How Buildings Learn, makes the claim that "total design" results in buildings that are almost entirely unable to accommodate fluid uses. A place perfectly designed for X is perfectly useless for all not-X. Back in my undergrad days at Berkeley, Paul Groth used to talk about the 19th Century landscape as the "isonomic order," in which things were made to be interchangeable. The land was gridded so that one parcel was the same size as the next; building structural systems were created in uniform rectangular bays so that a piano factory might become a newspaper printing plant might become yuppie condos. Groth claims, by contrast, that the 20th Century landscape constitutes the "monomic order," or a series of objects good only for their one specific use. The Interstate Highway System, airports, Kmarts, parking lots, drive-through restaurants... all of these resist creative re-use. There aren't many kinds of clients that need 70,000 square feet of space with four truck docks and 800 parking slots; that Kroger supermarket isn't going to become a bookstore or a grade school any time soon. The "perfect fit" seals us in amber, unable to change. We learn to behave in ways that accommodate the things that we have designed.

We can't design for mannequins, all the same size/age/gender/culture/politics. People are funny and flawed and wonderful, and I don't want to live in a utopia that flattens all of that delight.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Our Diminished Vocabulary

I know you're all sick of this topic, but I'm going to do the "art" thing one more time. I just heard someone say yesterday that teaching was both an art and a science, and the light bulb went on over my head (the fact that I was interviewing someone for a job at the time went off to the side while I thought about art and science for a couple of minutes...)

Everybody, it seems, wants to describe their work as "both an art and a science." Medicine is the science of biology combined with the art of diagnosis and bedside manner; teaching is the science of pedagogy and the art of classroom interaction; politics is the science of polling and the art of connection and persuasion; blah blah blah. I think that all of these usages are just failures of vocabulary, imagining that all human endeavors have to fall in one of those two categories because there aren't any others.

Let's have a richer array of possibilities, please. Let's imagine that there are a great number of ways of interacting with the world -- science, yes of course, and art too, but also craft, design, interpretation, advocacy, and translation (at least -- probably lots of others). Just because some action relies on firm knowledge or responds to the physical world doesn't make it a science, and just because it requires discretion and judgment doesn't make it an art.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Well, I WAS on Vacation...

It's funny how life happens. I'd intended to do a ton of work last week on the manuscript, and was in fact really productive for the first half of the week. Then I just sort of quit. Part of it was cooking all day for the 4th of July community potluck (this is a town of about 500 permanent residents, and I'm going to say that there were at least 150-200 people at this thing). Part of it was emotional reactions to some work and life circumstances. Part of it was just vacation downtime.

I still feel good about being 18 pages ahead of where I was two weeks ago, but it could have been more like 50 if I'd kept it together.

I did, however, watch another movie (my second in a week, which means probably my third this year). Charlie Wilson's War was on pay-per-view, and it was fabulous! So fabulous, in fact, that we watched it twice back-to-back. I don't think I've ever done that.

So back to work. I'm leading a hiring committee this week, which is fun and nerve-racking at the same time. I just want everybody to do well... but if they all do, then I'm going to have a terrible time making a decision. I guess that's a good problem to have.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Writing Day 3

Didn't get much writing done yesterday. Cat food, cat litter, tomato cages, haircut, groceries, friend visiting in the afternoon, dinner and a movie. Sounds kind of like a vacation, doesn't it?

(The movie, by the way, was Sex and the City. My partner and I went to see it at Aimie's Dinner and a Movie in Glens Falls NY; it's a halfway decent restaurant that shows a first-run movie during dinner. So the room was completely packed, with only one empty table — and there were 39 women in the room and only 4 men. Lots of "girls' night out" tables. The movie was cute, in its way, but also frustrating. Money was always available and never discussed. Whenever anyone wanted anything, they bought it with no regard for where the money was coming from. Manhattan would indeed be a fun place if your pockets were constantly replenished...)

But today (I'm writing this at 1:00 in the afternoon) has been really productive. I've pushed forward another five pages or so, and I'm working on reasons why architecture — while it makes use of science — is not a science itself. That's a surprisingly difficult and nuanced argument to make, while the argument about art came fairly easily. So the challenge is terrifically fun.

One of the things I know about myself is that I'm pretty useless when I try to concentrate in the afternoon. I'm good from 6:00 to noon or so, and then again from 7:00 to 11:00 or so at night. But between noon and 7, all I can do is answer e-mails, browse the web, or go to meetings; I just don't focus well enough to be able to read or write seriously. So I have to manage my schedule well enough to not waste particular times of day on the things that don't fall naturally during those hours.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Writing Day 2

So yesterday I turned my attention to likely the most contentious element of my entire argument, and the one that I started this blog with three months ago — that architecture is not an art. I still feel confident about that assertion, and worked yesterday with a little bit of aesthetic theory and philosophy in order to make my terms clearer.

But one of the things that became immediately apparent, and that I remember from prior research projects, is the need for extensive library resources. When I was at Duke, I had access to over five million physical books and bound journals, and nearly 400 academic databases. The library's budget was larger than the budget for my entire college now (and also employed nearly as many staff, and occupied significantly more square footage). Now I have access to one and a half databases — the Avery Index of Art and Architecture, and a subset of ProQuest.

First off, there's something already incorrect about Avery's linkage of art and architecture, but I won't go there. The more important thought is that most disciplines rely on a restricted body of knowledge that their practitioners feel to be "at its core." And that conception of core knowledge is terrifically constraining. As we increasingly imagine scholarship to be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, we need to make connections across a broader range of disciplines, in ways that each scholar will map out for herself or himself. My first major research project resulted in a degree from a school of architecture, although my committee members were an architectural historian, an environmental psychologist, a cultural geographer, an art historian and critic, and a novelist. When the book appeared, the publisher catalogued it under Cultural Studies/Sociology, and it was nominated for a book award through the American Sociological Association. It's now been used in college classes in (at least) architecture, youth studies, anthropology and education.

This range was only possible because I was able to use the work of anthropologists, architects and architectural theorists, compositionists, consumer researchers, cultural geographers, economists, educational theorists, historians, material culture researchers, media theorists, nonfiction authors, philosophers, psychologists, public policy researchers, sociologists, women's studies researchers, and urban planners. When you study a topic, you find that lots of people have had lots of great things to say about it, and those people come from a lot of different backgrounds.

Architecture is like that. We're all surrounded all the time by the built world, so it's no surprise that good thinking about buildings comes from almost any discipline you can imagine. If we were to do a good job of educating architects, we'd ensure that their instruction reflected this breadth of knowledge.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Writing Day 1

Back when I was working on my first book, I took copious notes all day, and then came home, fired up the mighty 386 (an archaic computer, children, which ran at about 5% of the processor speed of my inexpensive MacBook), and wrote for an hour or two about what was on my mind. In the end, when it came time to write the book, I found myself lifting a lot of the analytical material directly from those immediate musings. The language was more raw and honest, it expressed the sense of surprise I still felt at the end of that day's observations, and with a little tweaking, the wordcraft was good.

I'm on vacation for a week, sitting in a little house in Middletown Springs VT and working on Nonfiction Architecture. And I've found myself back in that happy place of having usable material already created from the blogs. I finished much of the introductory chapter yesterday, and maybe 10% of it or so was recast directly from blog material. But it's not just numerical proportion that matters. Clearly, what I've been writing about in the blog are ideas that I care about, the things that will be at the center of the larger argument. So even though the words that I'm moving over are a small percentage of the total, they act as the diamonds around which I now get to build the settings. (Okay, so maybe "diamonds" sounds a little self-assured, but you get my drift...) And those settings will be primarily made up of the sequencing of ideas, and the research that supports them.

I sometimes forget how fun this is to do. As they used to say in Peace Corps recruitment ads, it's the toughest job you'll ever love.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Well, THAT Didn't Work...

As Robert Burns reminds us, the best laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley, and lea' us naught but pain and grief for promis'd joy.

My thought was that I'd knock out 15 or 20 minutes of blogging at the end of each day of my Cranbrook (Thurs-Fri-Sat) and CUR (Sun-Mon-Tue) adventures. But instead, I ended up connecting with old friends and making new ones until midnight or later every night, and getting up at 5:30 or so the next morning to prep for the day, and I didn't have 15 or 20 minutes left in me.

I think this is a good thing.

I can say that the Cranbrook conference was easily the highlight of my academic year. I was part of a remarkable team of young scholars, and facilitated a conversation in which we did the inductive work of examining our own experiences for common themes. I'll post more about some of those after a bit (sure you will, Herb...), but I wanted to say here that we worked ourselves into a position where we believed that rather than teaching a skill set, design faculty need to be fostering a mindset.

Here's another thing that arose. We had started to agree that innovation was a change that had been adopted by a community and had become the base for future work. But that retrospective attribution, the idea that we can only recognize innovation after the fact and through its acceptance, implies that innovation is not a verb. Maybe we can't meaningfully say that we “innovate,” but only that some action is later seen to have been “innovative.” And if we can’t innovate, then we can’t teach anyone else how to innovate, either.

Anyway, I'm on a writing vacation this coming week, so I think I'll be somewhat more blog-active than I was last week. See you soon.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

American Bauhaus

We started our Cranbrook afternoon with a tour of the grounds, focusing especially on the Saarinen House. It was extraordinarily detailed — leaded glass, fluted layers of plaster with pinstriped edges, handwoven rugs and upholstery, custom furniture and its marquetry, custom radio shells and steam-radiator grilles, handcast lamps. It was all lovingly restored, based on old photographs — we all had to remove our shoes and wear special little booties because the wooden floor had recently been stained and hand-waxed.

It's become a kind of religious icon, in a way that goes beyond excess to a kind of creepiness. They had the original dishes and glassware (designed by Eliel's daughter Pipsen). The curator told a story of a couple of preservationists visiting Eero's house and gasping in recognition that they'd found Eliel's original handmade bath mat. It struck me in many ways like the friendless and reclusive middle-aged man who collects and catalogs original 1950's 45 rpm records. It's nice to have a hobby, but it's not like this house was occupied by Moses...

The degree of handwork, though, was remarkable. We often think of the numerous servants employed by the well-to-do: the maids, gardeners, drivers, nannies, secretaries. But we don't nearly as often realize the larger number of craftsmen who make all of that customized stuff. And our image of design, the things we see in photographs, is deeply affected by the near-perfection afforded by dumping acres of money onto every object. I found myself deeply torn between my love of hand craft and the socialist headaches I often get when faced by so much consumed by so few.

Oh, yeah, the conference...

So last year there were 110-120 people at the conference, which was about Integrated Practice and BIM. I very much enjoyed it, because we were divided for much of the weekend into working groups of ten or so who responded to the problem posed for us. I was worried that it might be too large this year, and that working focus might be lost.

I needn't have invested any concern over that. We've got about 50 people registered. I think the reason for the small number is twofold: one is shrinking institutional budgets and the cost of jet fuel, and the other is that BIM is sexy and research is just reallyreallyhard.

The opening session had all three conference organizers — Max Underwood, James Timberlake, and Stephen Kieran — talk for ten minutes or so. The highlight for me was Kieran's differentiation between innovation and invention. "Invention is cheap. Novelty is a dime a dozen, but real innovations are hard-won. They have to perform, and they have to change the baseline for what comes after." His advice was to quit teaching studios with new problems posed, and instead have students return to the same problems and the same emerging resolutions for several semesters so that they can have some deeper understanding of the work and of their own practice. I'm all for that — I really do think that one of the traits most rewarded by current studio practice is a kind of glibness, the quick and impressive surface with little beneath it.

Kieran also said that he begins with the assumption that our actions reflect our values, so why does American studio education focus on inventive form-making? He believes that we've separated the art and the science into "looping dead ends" with no opportunity for dialogue. I still think that both art and science are unhelpful terms for design, which is its own thing.

Finally, the keynote speaker was Brent Siegel, a chemist who is now COO of Nantero, a nanotechnology firm making unimaginably small objects for use in electronics and health care. He believes that nanotechnology is going to be important for materials science, and that architecture needs to be out in front of lightweight materials, dirt-shedding surfaces, glass that changes its transparency in response to sunlight, film-thin solar collectors, and other nano-enhanced materials that have the opportunity to revolutionize the profession (and our environments).

After his talk, my question/comment from the audience was that this kind of research is seductive, both because it has the appeal of being scientific and certain but also because it talks about what designers are so easily brought back to — the object. We lose track of the outcomes, of our goals. If our goal is social justice, how can a material help us? If our goal is organizational effectiveness, how can a material help us? Lighter, cheaper, faster, that's all fine... but in the service of what? There's no glazing system anyone can build that will help us recover Detroit. I think this is a theme I'm likely to return to quite a lot this weekend. We're changing the world, and using buildings to help us do that. That's the kind of research I want to focus on.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Stay Tuned...

I hate flying. Not so much the being up in the air in an aluminum test tube, but rather the endless hanging around in unpleasant environments over which I have no control. But I'm selflessly off to several flights over the next week, first to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills MI (I tell people I'm going to Detroit, which is true as far as airports go... but Bloomfield Hills is to Detroit what Beverly Hills is to Compton) for the annual AIA/ACSA Teacher's Conference. The topic this year is on the nature of research in design education and in the profession, and I'll look forward to being part of these discussions. It's usually quite a small conference, and we break up into working groups of ten or so to respond to the problems that are framed.

Anyway, your tireless correspondent will post a conference update after each day's work so that you reap the benefits of attendance without the air travel or the $450 registration fee. You can thank me later...

On Sunday, Cranbrook will be over, and I'll be off to my second conference, the biennial meeting of the Council on Undergraduate Research. I've been part of CUR for about five years, and chair of the Social Science Division for the past three. I might blog from there as well if something seems especially pertinent.

You can sleep well, knowing that your intrepid reporter is on the case.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

EP4 -- All Brains and No Heart

So here's the paradox of the day. I've written a lot about the ways in which buildings have deep responsibilities to their clients, inhabitants and neighbors. And I've also written about the ways in which we have loads of social, economic, and material research that can help us be more fully successful in our work. So it would be easy to conclude that I'm a strict rationalist, that I'm fully invested in quantification and objectivity and emotionless evaluation.

But that's not the case. I've spent my research career trying to understand why people love some places and feel oppressed by others and are neutral toward still others. That's one of my deepest goals -- that everyday folks (not particularly architects, but the other 99.7% of the population) love the places they find themselves in, that they feel fondness and affection for their homes and streetscapes and workplaces, and feel themselves to be greater because of the everyday places in their lives.

But that goal is not an art impulse, especially not for the art of the 20th Century. Art (visual art, musical art, literary art, performance art, you name it) is now seen as an intellectual challenge, an opportunity to encounter something unsettling with which we must come to terms. And being unsettled, being challenged, is quite counter to the nature of place, which is all about the narrative emotional relationships we build with our settings. We imagine that design needs to have a "concept," a term I still remain fuzzy about but the outcomes of which I see regularly. Why do buildings need to have a concept? My clothes don't have a concept. My pool cue doesn't have a concept. My cat doesn't have a concept. And they all make me happy.

One of my greatest problems with the past century of architecture is that it's all brain and no heart, all "challenge" and no love. I mean, I've got a busy job and a 14-year-old car and gas is $4.20 a gallon. I've got enough challenges in my life without my buildings pitching in with another one. So knock it off, 'kay? Can you build me a home that will offer me comfort? Can you create a workplace that makes us more collegial? Can you create a subway station that makes my commute more pleasant? Can you build a streetscape that people want to hang out on? Those are the questions I want us to solve together, not some concept that distracts us from the real work. And oddly enough, I think there is a body of research that can help us build beloved places (rather than interesting buildings), because there are beloved places (rather than interesting buildings) in the world that we can study.

Today's quote is from the musician Brian Eno, on discovering the music of Harold Budd: "I was handed this tape by Gavin Bryars in the mid-Seventies; it struck something very personal in me. It was music that could seduce. If there's only a conceptual underpinning and no seduction, that doesn't make it for me." We imagine that reaction is unique to each of us, which absolves us of the need to take responsibility for how others encounter our designs. But although there are likely no absolutes (Chris Alexander would differ and insist strongly that there are), there are both central tendencies and understandings of culture that will help us be able to predict emotional outcomes.

One of them, by the way, is allowing people to make decisions about their places. There are a jillion stories, some true and some apocryphal, about architects returning to a house they've designed and going bat-crazy because the owner brought in some piece of furniture or a throw pillow that didn't "fit the design." Architects have often taken pretty tight control over the furnishings of their spaces -- that kind of intellectual unity photographs well, but it doesn't live comfortably, because it denies the choices of the people who live with it.

Monday, June 9, 2008


I don't have a whole lot of regard for Corbusier, but I have to give him credit for one thing — he had MASSIVE amounts of self-regard. Here's a brief passage from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton:
In September 1936, six years after the villa's official completion, Madame Savoye compressed her feelings about the performance of the flat roof into a (rain-splattered) letter: "It's raining in the hall, it's raining on the ramp, and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What's more, it's still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight." Le Corbusier promised that the problem would be fixed straightaway, then took the opportunity to remind his client of how enthusiastically his flat-roofed design had been received by architectural critics worldwide: "You should place a book on the table in the downstairs hall and ask all your visitors to inscribe their names and addresses in it. You'll see how many fine autographs you will collect." But this invitation to philography was of little comfort to the rheumatic Savoye family: "After innumerable demands on my part, you have finally admitted that this house which you built in 1929 is uninhabitable," admonished Madame Savoye in the autumn of 1937. "Your responsibility is at stake and I have no need to foot the bill. Please render it habitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action." Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the Savoye family's consequent flight from Paris saved Le Corbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely uninhabitable, if extraordinarily beautiful, machine-for-living.
There's an architect that wasn't all that worried about being sued. I wonder if he carried E&O coverage...

But, although Corbu's principles were deeply misplaced, he put them first. I find most of the architects I talk with now to be a remarkably beleaguered bunch, feeling as though they'll be hauled into a courtroom if they haven't specified exactly how many times each screw should be turned or which way the grain should run on the third stud from the left. And that's probably true. We are a litigious people, and the only way to avoid litigation is to predict and prevent every possible thing that could go awry.

Maybe. Another way to avoid litigation, though, would be to build relationships with your clients and tradespeople, and to suck up some of the cost when troubles arise (even if they're not your fault). I'm thinking about the brickworkers of my previous post... imagine what it would mean to say to your finish carpenters or masons (or their foremen) "You guys know more than I do about bricks. Make it look great" and trust that they would. Imagine getting a positive call from the job site. "Hey, Betsy, you know what would look really good here? If we used a dyed mortar, and ran two courses at the lintel that were sawtoothed horizontal at 45 degrees." And Betsy says, "That sounds great, Carl. Lay up a sample and I'll be over in a couple of hours."

Oh so naive... I'm such a child. But once in a while, I've seen those relationships work in other (equally contentious) settings. There's a high school where every kid works with his advisor, his internship supervisor, and his parent(s) to create his own curriculum for every semester. When everyone sticks to her or his own contractual limits, then everyone does exactly their part and no more, and has little regard for the ultimate outcome. But when everyone agrees on the outcome and is in constant communication, then a fluid system really can work.

It's easy to say, "Yeah, that's great, but it'll never work because _______ is such a jerk." There are two responses to that. One is to start not by assuming what their problems are, but to ask yourself "what would I have to do to start working that way?" The other is to quit working with jerks.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

EP2 — Tradesmen and Skilled Labor

I was at a conference a decade or more ago, and a major Midwestern building contractor said that his greatest fear is that he'd no longer have the labor force he needed to do his work. He predicted that he was going to lose a huge percentage of his electricians, plumbers, steelworkers and masons to retirement, and he just didn't see another generation coming up behind.

As a nation, we value the idea that we can work without physical labor. In fact, one of the best definitions I've ever heard of social class is that it's based on the size of the muscles you use to make your living. Laborers use their legs and backs; skilled tradesmen use their arms and hands; white-collar professionals use their eyes and fingers; the ruling class uses other people. Working with your body is somewhat looked down upon (at least until you need someone who knows how to do physical things -- I recently heard one contractor describing a young apprentice as "book-smart and field-stupid." That would be me...).

We've now reached a point where a majority of high school graduates at least starts college (and where a majority of the population graduates from high school). Neither of these were true before World War II. But working in the construction trades, being "a craftsman," was a respectable livelihood. And if you look at buildings prior to that era, you'll often see a remarkable articulation of materials — brick patterns, cut stone, wrought iron, carved details, custom-milled moldings and railings and ballusters. Apprentices often had to make scale models of their future work in order to gain entry to the guild, and those have become collectors' items. The final block of Boston's Newbury Street was mostly carriage houses for the mansions on Commonwealth Ave... but even those carriage houses were fabulously detailed in ways that we now rarely attempt.

What do we make of this, in our era of Simpson Straps and nailguns and engineered lumber and masonry veneers? Is it possible to make a great architecture from channel studs and drywall? Is it possible to have engaging details when working with panelized materials? And can we reclaim the skilled trades so that masons and carpenters and millworkers actually make architectural decisions? In an interview conducted by Dana Cuff, the architect Hugh Hardy talks about how much he likes working with skilled tradesmen, because they constantly develop innovations and details that make the finished experience of his buildings better. How much control can the architect surrender if s/he trusts her tradespeople to finish the job with care and craft?

EP1 — Fast Track, Slow Foods

Much of this blog has focused on issues internal to the architectural profession and to the educational thinking that supports it. But we have to be clear that architecture doesn't stand separated from the larger culture. Architects don't commission buildings, they don't zone cities, they don't develop wheat fields and scrub forests into McVillages. So the next few posts are going to focus on some of the external problems (EP's) that have hindered intelligent responses to our physical environments. All of these problems are interrelated into a kind of ecosystem of bad places, but I'm going to try to pull them apart a little bit for analytical purposes.

The first one I want to talk about is the expectation of speed. The old joke in the construction community is that you tell your clients, "You can have it quick. You can have it cheap. And you can have it good. Pick two." (For the same problem for college students, replace the three variables with "good grades, a social life, and sleep.")

We used to talk about "fast-track projects," in which the building design was still being refined at the very moment that the foundation was being excavated and poured. The design team finished the details for every building system two days before those particular tradesmen hit the site. But I don't think that there are very many fast-track projects any more, because we just don't use the term. There aren't any slow-track projects left to compare them against. Fast-track isn't an option — it's the expectation.

As with most other practices, the faster we need to go, the more we streamline and reduce and pare down to "the essentials." Which means less time for exploration, less time for research, less time for developing new and creative building details, less time to investigate a range of materials. Instead, we fall into habit and do what we've done before. We all have about half a percent of the Sweet's Catalog that's dog-eared from use, the products and practices that we know and can fall back on. (Sorry about the dog-eared reference there -- I know that nobody uses the bound-paper Sweet's anymore. Carry on.) We develop a somewhat more limited vocabulary of foundation techniques so that we have a little more flexibility to make changes on top of the slab once it's poured. We specify the stock moldings because we don't have time for the mill to make the ones we'd prefer.

There's a community afoot (mostly in Europe) calling themselves "the Slow Movement." Born in response to McDonalds' global campaign of expansion (McDonalds = fast+cheap-good), it puts forth the idea that increased speed has social costs; not only for those workers made to perform faster, but for those of us caught up in the pace of consumption as well. Things are made and consumed without care — consumption has become its own value. A quote from one of the Slow founders, Guttorm Fløistad:
The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal.
The Buddhists tell us that when we read and eat at the same time, we do neither. Now, neurologists from UCLA tell us that multitasking makes us less capable; that not only do we do none of the individual things as well (or as fast!) as if we'd done them independently, but that we build weaker neural connections, make ourselves less able to focus and concentrate. In a very real way, we're changing the nature of what it means to be human, both as individual thinkers and as members of a community. (See the July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly for an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?")

It's becoming clear to me that Nonfiction Architecture will take the form of a resistance movement, that it will have a dual focus on a way of life that we value and a disruption of practices that hinder that way of life.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sitting in Church Looking Around

Other little boys wanted to be firemen or astronauts or rock stars. But my first memory of a career preference was when I was about eleven or twelve and wanted to be a Lutheran pastor. I'm fortunate now to realize that I have the secular version of that job. I get to read and to write, and to speak in public. I get to counsel young people, and organize difficult discussions about doctrine and belief.

But aside from the fact that I really liked our pastor and our interns from seminary, I think that I was just drawn to the physical space of church. Our church was nothing special; it was a kind of rectangular ranch-style church, one story with offices on Waalkes Street and the sanctuary itself running down Summit and a gravel parking lot out back. But within the sanctuary, a different kind of feeling took hold. The high space, the three stairs to the altar, the pulpits on each side, the organ music, and the stained-glass windows all meant that this was a space that we collectively cared for. Most of our families were no great economic players — lots of folks who worked for the phone company or an insurance office or the school district — but they'd come together to build something more intentional, something more dedicated, than any of us had at home.

There was an Altar committee, ladies whose job it was to polish the brass candelabra and vases, to arrange flowers at each end of the altar, and to choose and lay out the altar cloths appropriate to the ecclesiastical calendar (pink for Advent, purple for Lent, white for Easter). The hymnals were in their racks on the rear of each pew. The acolytes entering from both sides of the altar to light the candles at the beginning of the service.

I'm reminiscing about all this because we had our commencement ceremonies a week ago today, in Boston's Old South Church. And while I was listening to Board members and honorary degree recipients speaking, I was also taken back to that time when I was sitting in church looking around.

In terms of space, the sanctuary of Old South is really no great shakes. A great big rectangle, with two galleries off to the sides at the front half. There's a big open cupola at the top, but it's square as well. What makes this place come alive, become something important, is all the stuff inside it. The carving, the massive hammer beams, the stenciled-paint patterns on the walls, the glass, the organ pipes. It's all materials and surfaces, and has very little to do with unique spatial characteristics.

Maybe I should have gone into interior design.

Anyway, it made me think again about my conviction that people appreciate familiar form with rich fill. That's exactly what Old South Church has to offer, and what makes it fabulous. And that's exactly what Bethlehem Lutheran Church offered me forty years ago.

New World Order

Back near the end of the 19thC, there was a growing desire to rationalize and systematize all kinds of processes. That desire led us to the assembly line and Taylorist studies of efficiency, and also led us to the uniform high school curriculum we still struggle against. But the underlying assumption is that there was one right way of doing things, that it could be scientifically determined, and that it would apply across circumstances. As Henry Ford himself said, "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

So a group of well-meaning folks got together and thought about how we might benefit from having better communication across nations. The telegraph was still kind of a luxury and the radio was a decade away from creation, but there was a growing awareness that the social world of the 20th century would not be as spatially limited as it had been throughout prior history. And so a new language was created, called Esperanto. It was not derived from any existing language. It made use of some of the grammatical structures of European language families, but "scientifically selected' for ease of learning. The spelling system was rationalized (no more worrying about how to pronounce words ending in "ough," for instance -- think about the difference in vowel sounds between rough and cough and through and though. Esperanto would end all of that.).

But Esperanto never really caught on. It turns out that German people like to speak German, Russians Russian, Swedes Swedish, Mexicans Spanish, and so on. Not just because it's easier not to have to learn a new language, but because language carries culture and meaning and history. There's an Italian phrase "traduttore tradittore," which means that the translator is a traitor -- changing the language inherently changes the subtleties of meaning. It's estimated that a couple of thousand people in the world are now fluent in Esperanto, which they mostly use when they go to conferences with one another. (By comparison, there are nearly a hundred thousand people who speak Navajo, a language so unfamiliar worldwide that the American military was able to use it as an unbreakable code during World War II.)

About that same time, it was thought that architecture could be equally rationalized and de-localized. Adolf Loos' famous conflation of ornament and crime was not merely an aesthetic critique nor a rant against fashion-based design that would become obsolete; it was fully immersed in its era of scientific understandings, and equally in opposition to cultural history. This way of thinking led us toward the architectural Esperanto that we know as the International Style of high Modernism.

And, as it turns out, people didn't take to that either. We seem to appreciate things that have relevance to their larger region, culture, and history. They "fit the story." We can place ourselves within them, understand them at an everyday level without careful study, make comfortable use of them.

I'd imagine that the proportion of the population who really delight in new, theoretical architecture is somewhat higher than the proportion of Esperanto speakers and somewhat lower than the number of Navajo speakers.

With apologies to Don Henley and Glenn Frey...

Esperanto, why don't you come to your senses?
You been crossin' those fences for so long now.
Oh, you're a smart one;
I know that you got your reasons.
But your cultural treasons
Have kept you outside.

Don't you diss the local language, boy,
She's got you by the numbers.
You gotta meet them where they're at to get their love.
Now it seems to me a century
Is enough to merit slumber.
But you need to prove that you can rise above.

Esperanto, oh, you ain't in nobody's favor.
You think and you labor, with no one to hear.
And progress, oh progress, well, that's just some people talkin'.
Your progress is walkin' out where no one draws near.

Friday, June 6, 2008

No New Buildings

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about studio education, and was reiterating all the stuff you're tired of here -- architecture as something other than art, the degree to which we already have research-based answers to many of the most important architectural questions, and so on. And she asked me what we'd do about teaching form. And I replied (somewhat abruptly, although she forgave me), why should we care?

So let me put out today's thought experiment: why should we ever build another new building? Ecologically, new buildings are a resource problem, even if they're more efficient than what they replace. (I don't have the data to support this, but Jeff Stein told me the other day that 60% of the energy a car will use through its entire service life is used in its manufacture and pre-sale shipping. I have to believe that buildings are somewhat similar... you'll never be able to LEED your way out of the energy spent in materials and construction.)

The national stock of buildings has some baseline level of vacancy. If you include general excess supply, buildings in transition between owners or tenants, and periodic regional development exuberance, there is always going to be some percentage of built square footage not currently inhabited. If you also include cities that have been discarded, the percentage goes way up (for instance, Detroit has gone from nearly two million residents to fewer than a million, but most of the buildings are still there). The English government has a study available that shows commercial and industrial vacancy rates between 5% and 30% in different cities. Boston's central-business-district vacancy rate last summer was about 12.5%.

So what would happen if we declared a national moratorium on new construction and just used what we had? Rehab permits would remain fully available, but new buildings (either teardowns or greenfields) would be prohibited. Here are a few things that I think would happen:
  1. Our national energy use would decrease significantly. First off, the aforementioned problems with embodied energy of materials would be avoided in large part. But we'd also recognize that our buildings would have to last longer, and we'd start to retrofit what we had rather than waiting for its tax amortization to dwindle to the point where it made financial sense to knock it down. We'd also spend less money commuting to ever-more-distant suburban retreats (or bring meaningful employers to underutilized big-box sites in the burbs).
  2. We'd have to think differently about cities. We'd recognize that we could no longer run from our perceived problems or reclaim another 150 acres of corn for a subdivision. When Oregon instituted its Urban Growth Boundaries in the 1970s, it brought about a fairly sophisticated public conversation about the nature of community, because people had to acknowledge that they lived in cities and would for the foreseeable future.
  3. We'd have to reclaim wasted places. Our uninhabited downtowns, those as large as St. Louis and as small as Bartlesville OK, would be re-colonized. (This would also allow us to think smarter about transit; what exists is usually more centralized and compact than what we've been building.)
  4. The profession of architecture would have to rethink its purpose without the crutch of sculpture to lean on. The question of form would for the most part become irrelevant; habitation, client effectiveness, and social issues would be made foremost.
  5. With one stable variable (the form of the human environment), we'd be able to come to much more solid understandings of other variables (racial discrimination, school funding, transit use, globalization, and an infinite number of other issues). The shape of the landscape would become the fixed point against which the others could be measured.
Now, I know that this isn't realistic. I know that some places that had no surplus building stock would be prohibited from economic recovery or new social services (Middletown Springs, VT, for instance, has fairly few empty houses, and Norm's gas station just burned down). We'd have to get a tribe of lawyers to figure out all the exemptions for replacing buildings destroyed by fire and weather and irreversible decay, and we'd probably start a creative new arson industry to boot. But I think that we're good at seeing the problems created by big changes in habits, and much less good at seeing the problems created by continuing to do what we've already done.

Anyway, I digress. My purpose for this blog post is one particular aspect of the thought experiment. If we built no new buildings and thus couldn't teach form, what would we teach? Would architecture, as a profession and as an academic subject, be immediately obsolete?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Learning from the Ads

In this month's ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) News, there are a couple of things of note. The first is that the opening column from ACSA president Kim Tanzer makes note of the professional constitution of Richard Rogers' firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) as an exemplar of professional culture. You can read excerpts from it at their website. But the preamble language is inspiring. "The practice of architecture is inseparable from the social and economic values of individuals who practice it and the society which sustains it." Yup.

But the other thing I noted was an ad in the back (p.35, if you want to look) for new books from the MIT Press. There are three books stacked vertically on the right side of the page that deliver three very different visions of what the profession ought to be about. It's a miracle that they haven't caught fire from being placed so close together. I'll go through them from bottom to top, because I feel like it.

David Orr, Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building. "Allows us to understand why we'll need to cleverly maneuver both the technological and the human track to have any hope of avoiding the ecological abyss we find ourselves approaching" -- Bill McKibben

Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics. "A vision of architecture that transcends concerns of form and function and finds the connections between the architect's wish to design a beautiful world and architecture's imperative to provide a better place for society."

Francois Blanciak, Siteless: 1001 Building Forms. "An attempt to free architecture from site and program constraints and to counter the profusion of ever bigger architecture books with ever smaller content."

So we have buildings as necessary responses to an ecological crisis. We have buildings embodying the tension between beauty and social responsibility. And we have not buildings but "building forms" which revel in their freedom from either place or purpose.

Y'know, if I were a better man, I'd go look for Blanciak's book. I would seek to immerse myself in his argument, to understand the nature of placelessness and uselessness as worthy pursuits. But I'd rather have strep throat again. Just the level of hubris in the blurb -- "to counter the profusion of ever bigger architecture books with ever smaller content" -- is warning enough.

And this matter of having 1001 of them... it seems oddly precise. Mathematically, it seems far more likely that there might be 1,297 interesting forms, or 833, or any other non-centennial number. I mean, I can understand having 101 Dalmatians, because it was written for eight-year-olds. But grown-ups can handle somewhat greater numerical complexity. Chris Alexander and his colleagues identified 253 patterns in A Pattern Language: 94 having to do with community, 110 having to do with buildings, and 49 having to do with details. They didn't see a need to have some pretty number that they could advertise; they named the things they believed in, and stopped when they were done. I think there's a lesson there for us all.