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?